Our Ailing Ecology Anthropomorphised

Part One: Terminal

Nicolas D. Sampson

(UK)

The rain hasn’t stopped for years. The continents are fractured, the beachfronts gone. Island nations have perished and the coastlines are lined with treetops, rooftops and former ski-slopes. Flotsam is a commodity, in some places a luxury, and the world’s highlands, now the world’s only islands, are the last refuge. 

My breathing intensifies. 

It’s a bad dream.

Open my eyes, and the light rushes in. The pistachio walls smother me with their sickly hue. 

I grab a glass of water from the nightstand, spilling half of it on the sheets.

The lights are blinding. Why don’t they have dimmers in this place? My head hurts. 

The TV is on, the sound barely audible. A Seinfeld rerun. ‘The Marine Biologist’ episode.

Water everywhere. 

I make a note to ask the nurse to refill the jug.

*****

The other day I watched In the Heart of the Sea, a film by Ron Howard about the Essex, a 19th-century whaler from Nantucket that went missing after its encounter with a marine leviathan in the remote Pacific. 

I wanted to like this film because I’d loved the book on which it was based, but I was left wanting. It didn’t deliver. 

The film’s only highlight: it pointed out how the Essex was the basis for Moby-Dick, Melville’s timeless morality fable about a beast that rises from the depths of the ocean to turn us into beasts in turn. 

Any documentary could have made the point just as easily, and in half the time, and much better.

So what went wrong with the adaptation? How can a director of Howard’s clout miss the mark so spectacularly?

I’m doing it again: obsessing over trivia. 

Pause! Breathe! Settle down! Stop wasting energy!

How many times must I remind myself?

Then again, obsessing over the stuff that interests me helps me escape the storm inside my head. 

I wipe my face, shut my eyes. Snap them open again, unwilling to slide back inside.

Dark, uneventful sleep: I long for it. The pills don’t help, the medication won’t work – if anything, it makes things worse. 

A few hours of genuine unconsciousness would do it. Ease the strain, give me a break. 

Or I could try going to a different place inside my head. Somewhere spellbinding and distracting. Revisit the past at will, for example, play everything out the way I’d like it, the way I wanted my life to turn out. 

The problem is I know how that process goes. Each time I make the effort, I lose focus. My mind crashes, and it’s back to ground zero. 

In life we are bounced around to an extreme measure, acted on by external agencies. 

If only I had control over my visions. 

Dreams! Dreams are the gateway to magic. A way out of the wasteland.

All I have to do is navigate them.

Then again, handle with care. Dreams are water. They nourish you and keep you alive, sometimes against terrifying odds, but lose control of them and they drown you, leaving you with nothing.

*****

Hell is malfunction. 

If they say otherwise, they’re lying.

They lie all the time, shaking their heads, envisioning supernatural demons and tar, prongs and restless spirits, which we can escape, they claim, by following the divine rules. They never lose an opportunity to remind me how well versed they are. I need to get with the program, they insist, while there’s time.

They refuse to acknowledge that our greatest trials are here, now. Life’s rewards come only after thankless, grueling effort. One strives and persists without end to keep things together. The slightest oversight or a stroke of bad luck and things fall apart. Taking bad advice, putting faith in obsolete ideas, letting the wrong people help us – it’s as fickle as that. Look around, I say, and they refuse, but I insist. Hell is among us, can’t you see? It’s everywhere, starting with the things we allow into our lives without scrutiny. The merchants of salvation and their soul-consuming dogmas, for example; see how they run amok, their every move designed to give the doctrines an advantage. They frighten people, seize control, and get us to do things in the name of noble causes gone astray. As simple as that. Hell on earth! Tickets to paradise are on constant sale – a backdoor solution – for the acquiescent. The world is overrun with peddlers of redemption, weekly donations, lifelong devotion, spiritual abuse. A scheme to screw people’s thumbs together and convince them it’s for the best, in the name of prayer. ‘Do as we say or be damned for all time!’ The greatest racket in the history of civilization.

It’s not just religion. Frauds promise salvation in all walks of life, demanding faith and obedience for the chance to catch a break. Politicians fish for votes that enable them to make things ‘great’ again. Economists promise affluence and prosperity. Employers carrot-and-stick their staff toward promotion and higher wages. Parents have all the answers their children need, or so they claim. Children return the favor when they’re older (and their parents old). The wheel turns. We repeat yesterday’s errors with impunity, coming up with the next best thing, imposing ourselves on each other in ever sophisticated ways. The human spirit suffers in the name of deliverance, and the world goes round in circles, deliverance never attained.

Our tribal nature contributes to the stalemate. We remain stagnant because we’re insecure about where we stand. Suspicious of others, we draw lines, observing our faith-dogma-creed at the expense of those who are different, making the world hell for them. We offer them a way out of their predicament, if only they drop their beliefs and embrace what we embrace. Our debates turn into combat. Every move we make is a trial designed to test or punish. Fail to step up, and we suffer hell, sometimes in the hands of others, sometimes by our own initiative. 

The trials never end. Malfunction is everywhere, not letting us rest.

*****

If everything’s water, water becomes invisible.

I stare out the window. Glimmers of light. Houses, boats, bonfires, I can’t tell. The rain has stopped for now, but the stream has grown beyond measure.

I mustn’t lose hope. We may yet survive. The tides might swallow everything, but we will float to the top. Flow is something we’re accustomed to, more than we give ourselves credit for. Our civilization is course incarnate, a stream of consciousness we’ve put together over the millennia, down which we venture in search of the promised land.

*****

Hell is forcing people to become like us. As if there were only one way to live.

It’s also obeying doctrine without thinking. When we do someone’s bidding in the name of a noble cause that fails to deliver the goods, and which keeps asking for more sacrifice, pain and suffering, demanding we devote ourselves to it wholeheartedly – that’s hell.

Hell, when you think about it, is the fear of being alone. We want others to join us down our path. We can’t handle the possibility that they might choose a different route, another way of doing things. We’ll do whatever it takes to not end up by ourselves.

The same holds for doing the wrong thing: we fear the possibility. And will do anything to be in the right. We put more effort in what we do, eager to make things work. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes, other times we force the issue. Strength in numbers, in mass, in approval. Square pegs, round holes. Get things done and worry about the consequences later. Do whatever it takes and seek justification in the wider field. If others do like we do, we can’t be that wrong. In fact, we’re not wrong at all. Our critics are.

So we recruit others, desperate to feel good about our choices, our values, and the company we keep.

And when things don’t go our way – because life is complicated – we get aggravated, and our frustration leads to malfunction. 

Which leads to disappointment, breakdown, failure.

Which are manifestations of hell.

Hell, in the end, is the little things that go wrong. The regrets, the doubts, the failures, the tragedies that keep us up at night. And the lies we tell ourselves to sleep better.

*****

It takes effort to control what goes on inside my head. Random bits of information wreak havoc. Chaos and tangents corrupt the course. The visions need guidance, body-mind-soul. 

Dreams, I’ve come to realize, are a superpower. They allow a person to process information and even replay past events, which augments our understanding of them and informs our next move. 

They also let us make stuff up. The more imaginative and playful we become, the more options we have.

But dreams are volatile. They implode at the rate we generate them. They take place behind a glass surface, obeying their own laws. The world suffers because we’ve yet to master the craft of trance. The lofty visionary loses control and wanders off, again and again, suffering damage.

Think without thinking. Sleep without sleeping.

I remind myself to stare at my hands. They hold the answer.

The practice is tested, old as the wisdom of the ages. The answer is in your hands. I hope to grasp it one day. Sooner rather than later. Extend my sleep cycles in such a way that it lets me process the information that flows through my organism. Everything that comes to me in the form of a vision – a potential release, all of it. Even nightmares. 

Nightmares, wretched as they are, have their use. 

*****

Give me a lucid nightmare over a pinball dream anytime. 

Some dreams are sneaky and ostensible. They make promises they fail to deliver. 

Unless, of course, we play them well – then we get somewhere. But even then, it’s tricky and dangerous.

Nightmares, at least, show their true colors.

Embrace the nightmares, I tell myself. Make the best of them. 

(The insight comes and goes.)

*****

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming an artist. My goal was to paint landscapes and battles, showcasing the world’s spectacle. I had no interest in torpid love scenes and portraits, vanity or utopias. What fascinated me was drama.

Seize control of the dream when you’re inside. Stay lucid and mindful of where you are and what you can achieve.

*****

Revisiting the past can be wonderful, when done in the right way and with the right mindset. 

The problem is, I’m having a hard time separating then from now, here from there. Memories bleed into the present, and so does wishful thinking. 

My hands, smooth and steady, are like a young painter’s hands – so clear in my dream, as they were once upon a time in real life.

I’m certain of one thing: I’m in a good place when my hands look young.

The insight comes and goes.

*****

A scratching noise at the window draws my attention. A thrush has landed on the ledge. It pivots, bows, cheeps, takes off with a flutter. A musical note is left dangling where it stood. 

The room feels brighter. More cheerful. 

Like an afterthought, the cloud cover breaks and the rain ceases, and people step out of their shelters, looking up in awe. Silver linings, grateful faces. The people embrace each other, welcoming the passing of the storm with a song.

Will the scene hold?

*****

Hell is being stuck, unable to find a way out.

Caught in a vice, we scream and thrash and pray with impunity, expecting relief, hoping for the best, for a way out.

It’s a setup, of course. Our hope builds up for a reason: to get crushed.

Consider a flood. However disastrous the fallout, the rain stops sooner or later. The worst has passed, a thin ray of sun pierces the clouds, the blue sky returns, the birds sing again. People step out of their shelters to smile and rebuild. Plans are made, hopes are raised, but the clouds gather once more. The wind picks up, the sky darkens, and a hailstorm carpets the blooms. Life is hammered, pounded, smashed, leveled, again and again. And one loses faith, all purpose and meaning obliterated. 

I’ve experienced it many times: my expectations raised only to be shattered. 

For instance, I thought I’d been cured (that’s what they said). 

Yet here I am, in relapse, hoping against all hope.

Then again, hope is everything. What else have I got? The merchants sell their fake maps and snake oil using their fancy, empty words, banking on despair, eager to make me forget that the antidote to hell is something we all possess:

Dreams.

Dreams are the answer, and worth every setback and complication. When stuck in the doldrums, all I have is my imagination. 

*****

My head itches and my eyes hurt. My eyelids are heavy, clamped down, keeping the light out (or maybe they prevent the light within from escaping). My body feels raw, strained from the radiation and pills. 

Will it ever stop?

*****

The lights are out. 

It’s an opportunity to leave behind the day’s clamor and relax. 

If only my body lets me.

All day long, my capillaries have been screaming. My eyes sting, my bones are sore, and I feel like throwing up.

Deep inhalations help. Slower, deliberate breathing that smooths everything out. The pain recedes, and sometimes vanishes. 

Precious, blessed moments.

The mattress feels more agreeable. Not as hard, and almost friendly. I’ve stumbled on a good position again. 

How long will it last this time?

The moon is out. A silver band of light catches the nightstand, activating the water in the jug. Next to it, a magazine is spread open. I don’t remember reading it. 

I stare at my hands. They’re wrinkled and shaking. The pain is back. Strained, frayed, my capillaries struggle, every heartbeat a wirebrush down the hosepipes.

I want to get up and walk it off, but I’m tucked in like a newborn. I can’t yank the sheets loose, and the bed railing is raised, which makes the ones in charge of my wellbeing sleep better at night. Walking is dangerous, they claim. I could twist an ankle or shatter a hip. Ha! Nothing wrong with that, I say, but they disagree. They have a code to uphold, parroting their theories over and over, but they don’t know jack. It would be easier for me if they made a mistake. Quicker that way. Suffering in bed (how do they not get this?) increases my suffering. 

They disagree. Their goal, their mission, they declare, is to manage pain and minimize risk. Forget what I think or feel. My wishes are irrelevant. I’m to remain in bed for my own good.

I’ve resigned myself to their resignation, their desperately narrow take on the bigger picture. I can’t fight my body as well as them. I can fix neither myself nor their false presumptions. 

So here we are. It is. I am. In a bind that won’t let up. 

*****

I’ve lived long enough to be grateful for the opportunity to be alive and make something of my time. Looking back, it feels almost unreal yet inevitable: how I grew up, dreamed big, and worked toward my goals. I built an enterprise, made money, married, divorced, had kids, married again… split up… made new friends along the way while ditching the toxic members of my circle, making good progress along the way. Yes, I changed over time, and so did my priorities. My need for financial autonomy rose. I sold my enterprise for a ton of money, and it felt more right than wrong. Selling at the right time is a virtue. 

I wrote my memoirs after that. And resumed painting. Back to my roots, and it was wonderful, exactly what I needed at the time – a time in my life when nothing made sense, and which turned out to be most gratifying in hindsight. Especially the painting part. It soothed me, each canvas a universe unto itself. 

Enamored of life anew, I reconnected with my ghosted friends and family members. It was my way to make amends – mostly with myself – but I soon realized that people don’t change. My instinct had been valid all along. They were toxic and dangerous, so I ditched them again, this time for good. Life’s too short. The people who know your buttons and who are reckless with your trust, they deserve the pit. It’s hard enough to get things done on a good day without having to worry about getting stabbed in the back, tripped up on your way somewhere, or jabbed with untraceable amounts of poison every day.

Experience leads to wisdom and resolve. I realize this now, finally.

 

Over time, I also realized that experience breeds isolation. The more we know, the farther apart we are set from others. A world of insight stands between our relations and us.  

Clear your surroundings. Be among people who genuinely love you and whom you love in turn, and whose love doesn’t drag you to the bottom. 

The rest can do what they want, as long as they have nothing to do with us.

*****

The room feels cold. The pistachio walls have a leftover toothpaste look. A cheap print of a glass bowl of apples and oranges used to hang across the bed, but I had them replace it with the painting of an island in a storm. I created that image when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. 

It looks wonderful in its black frame. 

They don’t agree, of course. It will only aggravate me, they claim, but that’s exactly what they’d think, being aggravators themselves.

Still, they’ve indulged me. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I heard one of them mutter to the others.

*****

Clinging to bittersweet signs of life, rogue bites of animation – getting thinner, skinnier, see-through, I adapt to the challenges. 

I must. 

Pressure is a privilege. 

A tennis player said that once. 

Embrace the pressure along with the suffering, I remind myself. They make things happen, if you let them

*****

I can’t help but wonder how life shifts over the years. My youth feels alien in hindsight. So much has changed.

In the beginning, like everyone else, I had wild expectations. My sense of invulnerability helped me explode unto the scene and make things happen. 

Such is the power of youth: unstoppable like a torrent.

But, over time, I learned that the tide could sink ships with the same ease that it lifted them. Staying afloat required effort, plus the right constitution. 

Look around:

The Nantucket whalers commanded the seas until the monsters of the deep, out in the Pacific and somewhere inside their heads, came for them. They were undone in the wake of vanity, in the doldrums of hope and ambition.

There’s a garbage patch in the Pacific the size of a large European country. It contains an estimated 1.8 trillion plastic pieces.

Our seas are a microcosm of the world we create for ourselves.

No wonder the hospitals are filled with people like me. The world has fallen prey to the sickness we generate and the mentality that powers it. 

*****

We could make things easier for those who fall by the wayside. With a little tailored attention, patients like me would suffer only just enough to fall in love with life all over again and make the most of whatever little time is left to them. 

Instead, we’re bled dry of our resources, both material and financial, psychological and mental, before we’re crossed off the list.

As for the survivors: scarred for life. The grinder of medicine is no joke.

This is where we are. Our dreams have led us here. High technology combined with progress-gone-rampant have drowned the world in waste and poison, physical and abstract. Our intentions may be good, but what about results? Outcome, after all, is everything. 

Most people pray to make the world better.

Others force the issue, pushing hard for what they deem best. 

Some do both, and some believe that the only thing that matters in life is the belief that one acts in everyone’s best interest.

It would be convenient if good intentions alone were good enough.

*****

Thomas More knew all about utopias and their insular structure. How difficult they are to implement. Their concept more akin to satire than reform, they’re great in theory but short on positive outcomes.

To function, we need results, and results come with dreams that are put to good use.

Maybe it’s just us, the way we’re wired, unable to break free from the instincts that pit primate against primate, interest against function. Our state of affairs is messy. We do our business all over the place and toss our refuse at each other and call it civilization (ha!) because we also make art and peace, love and amends, pretending our wars will never resume and that our strife is temporary. We do justice and our part, replacing what we destroyed. We’re unique among life on earth, math-driven and heaven-bound, but for the love of all things extraordinary we’re unable (unwilling?) to stop flinging excrement at each other and rendering the world a cosmic cesspool.

So here I am, floating in the middle of our healthcare system’s garbage patch, looking for a way out of this mess. Just another object used, worn down, and debased, on my way out. 

*****

I had a fulfilling life, but it took me time to realize. I wasted too many years trying to fill the void left by those who had a knack for making life difficult for me, who weren’t there when I needed them. My disappointment led to anger and bitterness, which led to a poor mindset. Distracted, I paid attention to what had been withheld from me, letting their selfish choices consume me.

When I started painting, for example, a number of people reached out to me, all serious and stern, urging me to stop running away from life and get a real job. Quit chasing the dream and be a realist. Do myself a favor and lay down a solid foundation before pursuing more exotic interests.

They thought they were doing me a favor, and I can see how their candor had (some) merit. I’ve always appreciated forthrightness. Spelling things out at the onset saves trouble down the line. 

The problem was that they didn’t believe in me. Their intervention wasn’t about honesty. It was about bad faith.

If they truly had my best interests at heart, they would have given me their pep talk with a twist: ‘be mindful, careful, have a failsafe,’ etc. yes – but they’d have also asked me about the art. Why I wanted to pursue painting… What I wanted to achieve through it… How it served me and what it offered me. Where I wanted to take my craft. How I envisioned myself in ten years…

Without questions like these, their advice was meaningless, and nothing short of rhetoric. It was just a projection of their biases, an attempt to steer me inside a world that suited their expectations, my qualities be damned.

People do it all the time: we sabotage one another without leaving a trace. We feed on one another’s aspirations, all in the name of doing good and being of so-called assistance.

To add insult to injury, some of them were supportive, but only to the point where I agreed with their input. Everything had to be done their way. When I challenged them on a few key points, they refused to roll with it. ‘I’m not discussing it. I’ve spoken my piece. Either heed my advice or go your own way.’ 

That kind of support.

I spent five years trying to break through, hustling my way into local galleries, but mostly into festivals and street markets. It was a time of self-discovery but also self-doubt. The possibility of failure lingered. I shut myself off, every smidgeon of energy spent on my effort to make it. 

During that time a rich uncle passed away, leaving the family a chunk of his assets, including his majority stake in a sports equipment company he’d founded. Some of the people in my circle had been involved in its operations for years and weren’t eager to see the rest of us on the board. They wanted full control, and everything had to be done their way. Changing the company structure was out of the question. They wanted to run the show as they’d always done. 

And if we still wanted to be involved, they devised a plan for us to loan the company money in exchange for options and repayments that would be ‘worth our while’, but which wouldn’t disturb the corporate balance.

‘Strong business for strong bonds’, was their motto. 

In other words, they would protect everyone’s interests as they saw fit, according to their standards, and without much thought about what everyone’s interests were.

When they realized I was sticking to my painting career, they called it apathy and whimsy. They disapproved of my attitude and resented how I kept my distance. The loan I had given them – my investment in their vision – was apparently too small for their liking, and to make matters worse I was pushing for more transparency throughout the entire process, which irked them. My approach was deemed counterproductive, then a nuisance, then a problem. They treated me like a maverick, choosing to ignore all my requests and concerns. It did not occur to them to see things from my point of view. If it didn’t suit their way of doing things, it was deemed hostile. They made demands and issued ultimatums, and when they didn’t get their way, they made sure ‘I got what I deserved’: isolation. 

The aim was to give me a bad name, and it worked. Many of the people I knew got weird around me, making life awkward or unpleasant. Things got difficult, so I sought refuge in the art crowd, among the world’s cyclops and sirens, picking up a vice or two along the way. I smoked too many cigarettes and drank booze by the crate, and that, they say, is what made me sick after all these years. 

They’re wrong. No doubt these habits have gotten a piece of me, but what struck me something deadly, number one, had everything to do with the poison we pump into the world. Most of it comes in the form of pollutants that find their way inside us, day in, day out, while the rest of it – number two – is psychological, and as dangerous as our material failures, if not deadlier. The realization, for example, that many of the people we know, some of whom we trust, are a selfish bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be better than everyone else, but who in reality are exactly like those they criticize: entitled, arrogant, and abusive of their power. They take things for granted, misappropriate resources, money and funds, and look to come out scot-free, blaming everything and everyone but themselves. Hiding behind their authority, seizing control of jointly held assets, taking decisions without consulting those affected, exploiting the rulebook to deal with those who challenge them, especially when things don’t turn out well. They don’t have the decency to defer to other points of view when their plans don’t work out. They deflect responsibility and pretend to be above all standards, acting in a manner they’d never tolerate from others, screaming false equivalents and rationalizing their actions, doubling down on their choices – why? – to mask their insecurity. It’s all about their precious selves, first and foremost. They claim to look after others’ best interests but never listen to what anyone has to say, not really, and make life-changing decisions at will, locking out whoever challenges them, demanding that everyone toe the line or pipe down. In the name of procedure, policy, and expedience. In boards and committees across the world.

In our case, it was narcissism-cum-borderline-sociopathy, masked in business attire and mock-ethics. A predatory way of life turned into a self-righteous doctrine that thrived on tribute and deference. My so-called relations – some of them former idols of mine – chewed that bone to a pulp. They championed a ‘dutiful worldview’ and a ‘commitment to something more than oneself’ that translated into something callous. They expected you to check in with them, and took offense when you didn’t, but they never took time to find out how you were faring, what the trouble might be in your life. They never expressed an interest in your vision or goals. Asking after your welfare or what had informed your life choices was an alien idea to them. They just got upset when you weren’t around, eager to accuse you of bailing on them – it was all about them! First the judgment, then everything else, all of it hinged on one premise: hold on to power till the stars drop out of the sky. 

I let them know what I thought of their setup: Disgusting! Its application: Ridiculous! Their framework was exclusionary, disempowering, and doomed to fail after a generation, at best.

They took offense at my candor (I’d been pushing the limit, to be fair) and came back swinging. The accusations were thrown out in the open. Antisocial, irresponsible, self-righteous, and a bad seed – that’s what I was, and it was time I’d learned my lesson. They offered to service my loan, alongside all our involvements, at 8% of the real value, calling it a fair price, shaking their heads in disbelief when I shook mine. How ungrateful of me! Without them the enterprise would have been worthless, they said, and I’d be getting nothing at all. 8% was a generous gift, a blessing and privilege. Didn’t I see that? How greedy was I? 

It was their way of putting me in my place. Either fall in line, end of discussion, or go whistle, they said.

 

Click here for Part Two

 

Nicolas D. Sampson

is the

Books Editor for Panorama.

Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer, and the author of the poetry collection Όμορφη η Υφήλιος (Beautiful, Our World In the Sun) by Armos Books. He wrote and co-produced Behind the Mirror (winner Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival); and was an executive producer on Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (winner Best Arts or Music Documentary) and Hope Gap. His short stories and novellas have been published in literary journals such as The Scofield, American Writers Review, LIT Magazine, and The Hong Kong Review, among others.

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