Learning as We Go

When I mentioned yesterday that I’d been doing affair piece of thinking recently about the tricky ground of enjoying problematic bits of artistic/cultural expression, it actually wasn’t because I’m a particularly huge fan of Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, or Taylor Swift. Yes, I have a single or two in the iTunes library, but that’s about as far as it goes. The timeliness of yesterday’s VMAs provided an irresistible springboard to broach the subject in a post, but that was an after-the-fact exploration of the topic, not the inspiration for this line of internal study.

One piece that has the topic on my mind is that I purchased Roxane Gay’s book of essays Bad Feminist, and am eagerly waiting for the day I clear my reading decks enough to start seeing an absorbing what she has to say about these matters.

Henry_Rollins_TA_2More pressingly, I’ve been trying to figure out since last Thursday what to say about Henry Rollins.

Rollins writes a regular blog for the LA Weekly, and last Thursday, he wrote a provocatively titled essay* where he expressed his anger and confusion about Robin Williams’ suicide. The post is actually a fascinating exercise in internal contradiction, because Rollins acknowledges the impossibility of understanding another person’s pain in the grips of depression — speaking explicitly of friends and roommates who have struggled with the same, but also, to my perception, with a strong undercurrent of Rollins having had his own personal experiences with depression. And yet, for all that evident level of understanding — and even for the explicit admission that “I get it, but maybe I don’t,” Rollin’s essay lands on this position:

I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? . . . I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life.

[. . . ] Almost 40,000 people a year kill themselves in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In my opinion, that is 40,000 people who blew it.

Now, whatever my level of benign mostly-indifference is for Miley, Nicki and Taylor, I am unabashedly a fan of Henry Rollins — especially his spoken-word performances. (Stand-up? Storytelling? I never quite know what to call it.) In all my years in Philly, the only time I ever went down to Atlantic City was one night when Mr. Mezzo and I got tickets to see a Rollins spoken-word show there.**

Yet, however much I enjoy his spoken-word stuff, the level of impatience and humorously channeled rage those spoken-word pieces often reveal have always had me wondering about the level of Rollins’ impatience with human fallibility and weakness. I know “weakness” is such a charged word, but that’s really how it always played to my system.

Rollins would speak with such disdain about the mental/ethical weaknesses of prejudice, and would talk in such detail about the ind of discipline he used in his own life — the whole ascetic “straight-edge” thing, eschewing drugs and alcohol, dedicated to weights and fitness, and minimizing his possessions. I enjoyed going to his shows and listening to the recordings, but I always assumed if I were ever to meet Rollins, he’d have little but disdain for my life, with my weight, my occasional drinking, and my addictions to shopping and hoarding and physical possessions.

So I was disappointed to see last Thursday’s column, but I won’t say I was especially surprised. With the sorts of bright-line divisions I imagined him drawing between “strength” and “weakness,” I could imagine how his thought process would have led him to classifying suicide as an act of weakness. (Just so we’re clear: not at all a perspective I agree with. But I could halfway imagine the thought chain that took him there.)

Thus began a more intense meditation on “being a fan of problematic things.” For there I was, caught between the place of deeply — DEEPLY — disagreeing with Rollins’ essay, and yet knowing the equally deep affection I have for his past work.

And then things took a turn.*** Saturday morning, I got word that a brief apology had been posted on Rollins’ own website:

The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.

That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.

I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not.

In this post, Rollins promised a longer follow-up essay in the LA Weekly today. In it, he does a damn solid apology. Doesn’t take the “that’s not what I intended!”  road, or any of the derailment bingo plays that so often crop up in these hard conversations.

After reading carefully and responding as best I could, it was obvious that I had some work to do in order to educate myself further on this very complex and painful issue. I am quite thick-headed, but not so much that things don’t occasionally permeate.

In the piece, I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me. [. . .]

I understand it is my task to learn about this. It might take a while, but I will get on it. It is my belief about an ingrained sense of duty that will make this challenging, but I am always up for improvement.

What I most appreciated here — especially in the light of the ways I am in ongoing study of my own limitations (limitations of perspective, of compassion, of blind privilege…) — is Rollins’ acknowledgement that he has a lot to learn, and that he’s still struggling with his conflicting feelings about this issue. He doesn’t offer defensive justifications, but he doesn’t pretend to have it all magically worked out in the distance between Thursday and Monday.

Instead, there’s self-reflection, self-awareness, an owning of the rigid beliefs that led to the initial conclusions. And a commitment to continued learning, continued study, continued growth.

I’m up for that.

* Call me censor, call me chicken-shit, but here’s where I draw my own small moral line in the sand. I’ll include the accurate title in the hyperlink, and you can go read the essay for yourself, but I am not reproducing that particular sentiment here in my own digital living room.

** Train down, played the slots enough to pay for dinner, watched the show, then took the train back home. Do we know how to party, or do we know how to party?

*** Every now and then, my limited capacity to only do one post a day actually helps rather than hinders.


Image credit: Jonathan Klinger, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Rollins_TA_2.jpg )

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