Saturday, 22 July 2017

On choices, Christianity and Chester Bennington

I

Chester Bennington died yesterday. He was the frontman for Linkin Park, which was a big part of my life as a teenager. The Meteora album was in my portable CD player when it stopped working.

II

Linkin Park wasn't a refuge for me. There was nothing about my life that needed the kind of self-reflection the metal genre seems to offer kids. I spent most of my time outside having fun sneaking around my neighbourhood or building ridiculous huts out of plywood and incompetence. I grew up in a transitional era when computer games were pathetic but immensely creative and nowhere as fun as shooting joey guns and exploding fireworks.

That was the world of my Linkin Park discovery. Actually, it was my neighbour Mark who introduced me. His mother bought the Hybrid Theory album and they both had excellent taste in music so I knew it would be good. I used to wander over to his place to listen to it while we played Halo. I think for about a week over the school holidays, we cranked that CD loud. And then one day Mark said, "Nah, not Lick My Park again, let's listen to Queen." I'm not sure how long it took me to buy my own copy of Hybrid Theory, but I eventually did. It wasn't my first CD, that award goes to The Corrs (yes, I know...)

It's hard to put a finger on exactly why I listened to Linkin Park. Maybe it was rebellious, but I don't think so. My departure from religion was actually very structured. I picked up a book by New Zealand journalist Ian Wishart called The Divinity Code and started reading. On the second page, he introduced the four writers called the "new atheists." Rather than let him explain what those people wrote, I read the four books first and returned to his critique afterwards.

So Linkin Park wasn't some sort of devil worship gateway music. Rock music is a kind of channelled aggression mostly lacking in the rest of my life. In some way, it's cathartic for teenagers. And I was already deconstructing my religious upbringing anyway.

III

But I'm writing this because Chester killed himself. He wasn't caught in a car accident and his heart didn't suddenly give out. He tied one end of some sort of rope to a tall, sturdy object and fashioned a tight knot closing a loop around his neck. I hear Chester struggled with drugs and alcohol and I know he was abused as a child, although I don't want to hear the details and won't be searching them out. Something about his struggle was too great a burden, and so he chose to finish it.

I remember in my mid-teens telling my mother I'd thought about suicide. Even now I don't think that confession was true. Sure, I probably "thought about it" but it wasn't a contemplation - there's a difference. My teen years introduced the normal adolescent skin problems which I found tough to deal with. I realise now most of them could have been averted if I knew to change my pillowcase every night (you spend about eight hours each day rubbing your damn face on a single piece of cloth, so of course there'll be issues). I naturally had ups and downs with self-esteem. I could get a bit, well, melodramatic. Bear in mind I still believed in magic as a Christian. So perhaps I was just hoping the Big Guy upstairs would hear my despair. My mother took the skin issues seriously, but she had no idea how to fix them. Propitiations were probably all my immature mind had left to do.

Chester's life was nothing like mine. Fighting others is far simpler than fighting yourself. The mind is an abusive boyfriend that will do ANYTHING to avoid change. It will even destroy itself to cancel the effort. Perhaps this was Chester's central issue, I have no idea. But if nothing external could help him, then the enemy was internal. Everyone knows what kind of adversary the self can be. Maybe you aren't fighting it today, but you will eventually. So you should learn now, while there's still time, how to defend against your self's attempts to defend itself.

Yesterday one of my Christian friends said Chester set a bad example for his fans by killing himself. I realise Chester isn't doing much of anything right now, but that wasn't the point. Linkin Park's music was introspective and castigating, not of others, but of the band's personal struggles. The lyrics were their experiences and we were simply the third parties. The songs didn't belong to us. It was their trial.

My friend's point was that it's all well Linkin Park expressed those trials in musical form, trying work things out and recover - whatever recovery looks like - but when Chester hanged himself he showed his fans how the recovery couldn't be done. That no matter how tightly he bandaged his demons, experiences and fears, his inimical self was victorious anyway. That's not a good message.

IV

And I agree, to a certain extent. But religion is clouding my friend's judgement. You see, to him, there's something special about life. Most Christians don't quite know what exactly this "specialness" is, but they have a gene-deep certainty that it's there. Apparently, only God is capable of giving life, so He's the one who gets to retract it. So to take your own life is a sin because it's not yours to take away. This is perfectly reasonable thinking - for a slave.

The thing about being a slave is you don't know you're a slave. We're told the fences are there to protect us from the outside threats. Strongmen are at the top because no one knows what to do next. God is needed otherwise we wouldn't know right from wrong. The manacles on our wrists and markings on our shoulders display group identity, not ownership. In fact, those aren't shackles at all, says the new master, they're...something else.

But a freed slave only changes his master. The fresh restraints are sold to him in the exuberance of transitional freedom as the semiotics of emancipation, not of new slavery. The slave believes and uses the names for the restraints uttered by his new master who calls them by any name except limitation.

This is why you should never wear a sign or speak a slogan you didn't invent, it is only another manacle. Christians are still using other people's words to describe themselves. They speak about mercy, grace, righteousness, resurrection, etc. The proclamation is simple: my life would not be complete without this belief system. I was one way before, and now I am different. But only slaves look for someone else to free them, for a saviour. They never observe how simple it is to free yourself. What keeps a slave in line is the false assumption that on the other side of the fence lies danger and fear. Where did the slave hear this? Was it from his master?

Speaking strictly from a historical perspective, Christianity is a slave religion. It was built by peasants frustrated at the corrupt priestly caste in first century Judea. The priests were supposed to defend and help the peasant caste, but they aligned themselves instead with Rome's power. In early Judea, the peasants were always going to find a messiah. It was just a matter of time. And what better way to galvanise a desperate caste so fearful of the fence than for that saviour to also be a God?

V

My friend made the central mistake of all slaves. He gave a specific power to Chester to send some ethereal "message" and cause teenagers to act in a particular direction. This specific power is the first one removed by any master (and readily given up as too burdensome by every slave). It is the power of agency. Whatever your reaction to Chester's death, saying it sends a bad message is founded on the assumption that other people have the authority to set standards. Which is why the reflex is to complain about the actions of a singer, not assert the insignificance of those actions.

This is the same problem with those hoping to ban Photoshopping in magazines. This obsessive worry about what's in an ad is completely predicated on the assumption that the ad, the media, has all the power to decide what's desirable. And therefore, of course, it does. But the important point is not that you believe this to be true, the point is that you want this to be true. You want it to be true that advertising sets the standard of beauty because in the insane calculus of your psychology you have a better chance of changing ads than you have of changing yourself.

Christians can't comprehend suicide because no slave knows what it's like to have power. I was told once that being blind doesn't mean a person sees black all the time. It's more like seeing out of your elbow. This is what Christians don't understand. Before you were born, there was only nothingness. And you will return to nothingness once this brief spark sputters for the last time. It will not be a continuous, never-ending stretch of days being dead. It will be as if you have never existed. Death is like seeing out your elbow.

And for someone like Chester to enact the ultimate power over the one thing he truly had control should not be seen as abhorrent. Neither should it be seen as good. Suicide is painful for those left on this crusty planet. But it's not for them! If you organise your life around what other people feel, you'll never be happy and neither will they. Letting externalities guide your life is the definition of slavery, which is precisely why Christians use this argument.

My reading of the Stoics is that life is the toughest thing any of us will ever do. And attempting to apprehend and grapple with your own limitation and vulnerability to reduce the amount of suffering for you and others is the only job you have while this spark is burning. It's difficult, but you still have to do it anyway. The most frightening thing about existential power is how easy it is to hand it over to any master offering fresh fences.

VI

In Breaking Bad, Walter White chooses not to get chemotherapy to treat his cancer, which might look like agency, but it is not. He rationalises his decision by saying:

"All right, I've got the Talking Pillow now. Okay? We all, in this room, we love each other. We want what's best for each other, and I know that. I am very thankful for that. 
"But what I want. What I want, what I need, is a choice. Sometimes, I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life, it just seems I never you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer all I have left is how I choose to approach this."

And he sounds in charge. He sounds like he knows what he's doing. But it is a mistake. His thoughts are wrong in the only way that matters: pro status quo. Walter complains about never having made a decision in his life. Up until now, his life has coasted along. Go to school. Get a degree. Find a job. Get married. Pay your taxes. Buy a house. His life is like a cart on tracks. Now the Talking Pillow gives him one final decision in his miserable life. But this is all a lie.

Walter is trapped in the thinking of a slave. He looks into his past and sees nothing but an uninterrupted line of compelled decisions. He sees the servitude, but he doesn't comprehend its grip. Walter confuses his correct decisions - from the perspective of the system - with a lack of existential power. This is the trap. He doesn't see how every second of every day he was actually in control. Nothing stopped him from getting up, right now, and flying to Fiji. At no point was he ever robbed of agency.

But because he made the choices the system wanted him to make, his life was harmonious and everything seemed to line up. He studied and got a job. He talked to a girl and got married. He paid his taxes and the IRS didn't blow off his door hinges. At every step, Walter was in control. Yet here he sits complaining of a life as a crippled slave. No Walter, you are lying to yourself.

When he takes control over his life, the path set up by the system begins to fork. This wasn't the first crossroads he'd seen, but it is the only one he's ever really looked at. So he turns left and climbs over that fence. It is at that moment Walter discovers something real about existential power. Slaves live behind that fence with plug-and-play livelihoods painted by choices made in the required direction. But when you decide to apprehend life, when you climb over the fence, the system cannot protect you any longer.

And that's the thing about existential power. Choices made from the moment you realise you have it might lead to incredible riches and wonderment - or everyone around you could die. This is what it means to no longer be a slave. You are at the mercy of the nature of reality. There is nothing more empowering than this. But if the result of emancipation could be the collapse of everything, then is it any wonder why enlightenment is in such short supply?

Walter picked his life. You may not think you picked yours, you may think you were forced into it and inescapably tied to it, but I know that every moment is a choice, right up to and including blowing your brains out. Saying, "I had no choice," is itself a choice. Your choices may be stupid, but they're still choices. And as all choices in life are ultimately binary, you really have no one else to blame for them but yourself. Flipping a coin should win you happiness 50% of the time. If you're running less than that...well, consider getting a coin.

Walter and Chester both knew something about the world Christians can never know. Sometimes the task of embracing the consequences of choices might lead to a decision that the burden is simply too great. Going once more into that forbidding land outside the fence is simply not worth the effort this time. It is then that the freed slave still has the blessing of falling to his knees and embracing the full meaning of agency with one final choice. To secure existential power and snuff out the spark.

I get that it's easier to be a slave, and far less suffering will come with that choice. But I am asking you, at what cost?

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