Zugzwang is a German word which is used in the game of chess. It describes a position where both players are in a technical draw at the given move, but the player to move first will weaken their position. There are probably countless positions like this, but the most common is two kings in opposition, each with a pawn they're defending. Kings can, of course, not touch one another (the player to have his/her king move forward and "touch" the other kind would put him/herself in check). The kings form a wall of three squares that can't be penetrated by the other king.
But of course, if it's your move, and your best move is to move your king, or your pawns are also opposing each other and can't move, the only thing you can do is move backwards, and that lets the other player advance.
I don't know exactly why I opened up with this. I mean, part of me knows, but part of me thinks it's terribly evasive way to talk about the feelings I'm having. A very old relative of mine is currently sick with pneumonia and likely to die in the next few weeks. I think that the impending death has made me think a lot about our place on this Earth, and what the purpose of our lives is. Where I think this horribly dry, intellectual, emotionally-evasive anecdote fits in is that I'm stripped bare and feeling really depressed. It's hard for me to grasp at the feeling of forward motion that I think usually propels most of us through daily life. It feels like nothing's especially wrong-- like I'm in a kind of stasis, or draw-- but that anything I do could lead to disaster. It's an irrational thought, but it's how I feel.
As if to make this situation worse, I've started in on some assigned reading for the upcoming graduate courses I'm taking for my Masters of Teaching. We've been assigned The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It's a book that lots of people have recommended to me over the years, and it's proving in many ways to be a good book, but it's not an easy book to feel if your emotional footing is compromised. I'm writing this from Rachel's parents house, and I don't have the book handy, so I won't quote directly, but there's a passage in it about the false generosity of people who have been given advantages and give those advantages back to the community in some way. There's another passage I read, which struck me hard, which was talking about land reform, and how many that want land reform at the time Paulo Freire was writing wanted it not to live in some kind of idealized equality or community but in order to get their own piece of being bosses over other people. And both of these passages strike me as being true, and at the same time depressing. I kind of think Freire must have been very smart, and also very, very mentally ill. And I think this quality is often the quality of lots of good people: it's said that Martin Luther King, for instance, suffered deeply from depression his whole life, so much so that at the age of 13 he jumped out his bedroom window and tried to kill himself. I think Freire is striking at a very depressing thought about human nature, which is that we try to make things better in some way, and a new form of change happens, and there's forever a new process going on around us where we improve something but the balance of good and evil catches up to us. Freire adds to this the deus ex machina Marxism, where someone else might add a different god-in-the-machine. But the bigger point is that it strikes at this kind of stasis, or balance, which is hard to emotionally untangle. I feel like the questions that this book asks are valid, at some level, but I also think that a functional person has to move away from such big questions and just try to capture one piece of something and live. And I wonder how anyone could possibly view the world in such a broad way and function, longterm.
At points in his long discussion, you come to the place where you feel like your sense of causation is challenged. Again, I can't quote, but just pulling from feelings I got reading the text, it felt to me like if what he was saying about human nature was carried to its logical conclusion, it would undermine our sense of being moral or immoral creatures at all. After all, who can't trace backwards from their actions and find other causes outside of themselves that have brought them to where they are? Can you really think of any bad thing or good thing you've ever done that isn't in some sense outside of yourself?
I wrote about my Aunt (really a great aunt-- my grandmother's older sister) before. She's always been one of my most pleasant relatives to be around. She never says an ill word about anyone. She's full of energy and zest, and even after she got into her nineties, and started to go downhill, you could take her for a much younger woman. At just shy of 97, her imminent passing should not be upsetting to me. She, for one, has chosen it. She's had pneumonia a couple times in the past year, and having struggled against it, decided that now is her time, and that she'll go with the flow. She's remarkably optimistic, feeling, as she said to relatives of mine who visited her, that she's had a long and productive life, has shared love with many people, and is totally comfortable with it's closing. As a typical add-on, she told my sister, "I'm pretty sure that Obama guy is a Muslim," and then added, in Aunt R. style, "But Muslims are people too." It's that weird place I've gone before with her in conversations, where she says something inexpressibly racist or awful (In the last piece I had been ruminating on my thoughts about how she said that her old neighborhood in Philly was "all just blacks now" and how conflicted I felt about that as well) but follows it up with a sign of exactly who I normally think of her being: sweet to the bone.
I'm going to miss Aunt R.. She was the only relative I had who did any appreciable amount of walking (which is perhaps why she lived to be 97-- five miles a day into her eighties, before balance issues started to slow here down). A characteristic move on her part would be to show up to your birthday and give you an unsigned, unsealed card ("Oh, Jimmy, take this. I didn't sign it. These Hallmark cards are so expensive! Give it to someone else!" and then launch into a story of how one of her children was doing, or what the mailman said today when she talked to him, or how the priest had something good to say at Mass). Aunt R. always struck me as an unusually strong female model, and I feel lucky to have had such a person in my life. Other than in her very old age, when she became increasingly likely to spurt out unusually racist things, I don't think she's ever said a bad thing about anyone in my presence.
I have a couple thoughts about this. First of all, why do I regard someone who says things that would normally make my hair stand on end with such love? Try as I might to separate myself from those feelings, I do feel that way. Is that wrong? Like, don't so many bad things happen in the world because people who are kind to dogs or children or mailmen exert their power over other people in the world so as to make bad things go down? Also, following from my doubts about our own cause-and-effect morality, do I really know that there's anything better about me anyway for not thinking the things that my Aunt R. thinks? After all, I was lucky enough to have grown up in a time when thoughts about race had (started to. . . ) change. I was shocked when our first black neighbors moved in on the block to hear some people I'd know in our row my whole life express anxieties or crude jokes about the change ("It's getting dark around here," said one and didn't seem to notice that my face dropped as soon as the words came out of his mouth). Obviously fighting racism is good, but where do we draw the line between good and evil? I find myself especially with older people resigning myself to the idea that "that's just how that person is" and moving on. Does anything honorable or good within me really have good roots? Or are we just floating like dust particles, bouncing off of each other like cause and effect, spiraling around and making no real effect in the world? What is our responsibility, our power to act, and what are the things that act upon us?
Even in clearcut situations of morality, I wonder about causation in the other direction. Not only do I wonder what causes us to be good or bad, but how do the good things we do ultimately form the future? For instance, if you've read this blog at all, you've grasped upon the fact that a driving passion for me is getting us away from cars (or at least from cars-first) because I see so many ways in which this could change the resources we have to combat poverty, to prevent disease, to protect the natural world, and create wealth. But even though I'm certain that making the changes I propose will bring more good into the world per unit of bad, I'm never really sure in the long run how that's going to change things in total. If we save a lot of resources by biking or taking transit more, will we just spend those resources on growth somewhere else? In some ways this is good-- maybe people who are not well off will be taken care of with dignity, or maybe we'll have more fulfilled lives. In some ways it just opens up a new ball of anxiety for us to contemplate how different challenges will appear after we've solved this one. Will our more efficient use of resources allow us to grow the population to ever-expanding numbers? Will focusing our growth inward in places that use less transportation or land resources nonetheless cause us challenges in feeding all the new people or building all the new buildings that will accompany that change? What happens if our driving simply stays steady, but we grow biking or transit alongside it? Again, maybe it's odd for me to write a semi-eulogistic piece about a much loved relative and dive back and forth from abstract concepts like these from where I was a paragraph before, talking about deeper emotional memories. But I think one of the things that is challenging me about the concept of death right now is what our legacy is in the world. I think my Aunt R. always symbolized to me the fact that people could quietly age with dignity and honor, without fear, and with very gradual decay of their functions. And this is exactly what she's doing. But another thing that maybe I've seized upon from time to time to make myself feel more at peace with mortality is the idea that we have an opportunity to build a world for others who will live beyond us. What if we're not doing that well enough?
I think, What kind of person thinks about "the world" when there's something so personal in front of them? But then, I think for me, I think of this kind of similarly perhaps to how some people think of having a relationship with God. It's a feeling that there's something bigger and more important than yourself that will live on. And I think I find it very challenging at this time of loss to think about how unsteady I am in my faith that that "bigger than myself" is okay.
I've found myself crying from time to time over the past few days-- there we go again with the teetering back and forth from dry intellectual blah blah blah to more personal and emotional subjects. I think a thing I've been struggling with is how we grow into our lives, and how much changes around us. While I've been up here in Rhode Island, several relatives have died, only one of which I've really been able to go grieve. I think the changing landscape of my own family and my inability to balance the needs that come with those changes has made me wonder how this is going to play out in my own life too. I find myself thinking about Rachel and whether she might someday lose me, or whether I'll lose her, and I'm not sure which I find worse. I think about the tremendous weight of pain that comes with such a loss, and I'm transformed beyond my usual stoicism to my deepest bedrock feelings of loss. What if, even in creating joy around us, we set people up for the ultimate pain of not having that joy anymore?
I've felt my feelings improve a great deal over the past several days, but I'm still feeling the weight of age. I'm relatively young-- 30-- but not as young as I was. In a past period of my life, I was extremely inclined to see good and evil in black and white terms, and the more than I've necessarily grown to see the complications, the more I've also felt uneasy with where that leads me. It's like Zugzwang, and I hope that it's not my move. Am I going to grow older, layered with cynicism, making deeper and deeper compromises with my values until I can't recognize myself anymore? Was it wrong to think that there was anything idealistic or good about taking a pure road in the first place? A kind of false generosity? What are our true natures as human beings, and what is our ultimate purpose? The good thing about feeling laid bare by sadness is that it tends to sweeten that part of me that focuses on small, immediate things. I listen better in conversations. I take note of things I need to do for people directly around me. I often am very present in a way that makes life enriched. But of course, I worry that as I get smacked into these types of moods, that I'm also abandoning some part of myself that strives for more.
In any case, I didn't write any of this to drag other people into the mood I've been in. I certainly hope that I haven't spread the existential doubt like some kind of virus. But I think I needed to put my feelings down to paper, and this seemed like the appropriate place.