"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

Quick, lazy, online sayings that just don't cut it (book excerpt)

 The text that follows is an excerpt from my upcoming new book, The Devils In Your Details. This is from a chapter that deals with increasingly popular, but ultimately ineffectual, sayings and platitudes that we see in particular on social media.

“You’ve got this.”

            I used to say this all the time, primarily in comments on social media posts. Whenever a friend would publish a status update pertaining to a particular struggle they were going through, part of my reply would almost always contain those three words, and I wasn't the only one who had a penchant for defaulting to this platitude. In fact the usage of “you’ve got this” was so prevalent on Facebook especially that the site would instantly convert the text into a boldened deep purple after it was typed (I just checked and as of May 31, 2022 that’s still the case).

            So what’s wrong with this statement? At first glance it may seem like a genuine attempt to boost hope and confidence on the part of the person having the ordeal; it certainly often results in fervid thank yous and several prompt “likes.” However, as with so many readily available sayings that are just a few keystrokes away, its true nature tends to err on the side of shallowness. At best it’s probably a ready-made, simplistic response on your part, meant to assuage potential guilt over otherwise not displaying concern over your friend’s plight. At worst it could be an attempt to publicly choreograph strong moral character on your part to those reading your comment – including your friend – whether that’s rooted in legitimacy or not (this is often called virtue signaling).

            Regardless of whether the former example or the latter is the true impetus behind the statement – or whether it truly does stem from a feeling of genuine care – the problem with “you’ve got this” is that it’s lazy, it’s ineffectual in directly communicating emotive ideation, and sometimes it’s dishonest (whether purposefully or incidentally).

What if “you’ve got this” simply doesn’t apply to the person in question? If they have an illness for which they need medical help, then the onus is on far more than them alone to resolve that matter, and thus your platitude is a negligent generalization. If they’re dealing with a mental health issue to such an extent that they are no longer psychologically capable of taking care of themselves, then NO, they certainly haven’t “got this,” and their rehabilitation would be in the hands of professionals equipped to deal with the matter.

Perhaps it’s not yet so easy to see from these examples how quickly a complacent or disingenuous remark online can lead to a negative outcome – absolutely for you, and potentially for the person to whom you replied, depending on how seriously they assessed your comment and to what degree they took your words to heart. I’ve said these words time and again, willfully blind to the latent irresponsibility in them, and to the reasoning behind saying it. For me, it really did come from a place of genuine care and concern, but only to the extent that it didn’t occupy too much of my time and emotional energy. The fact that people have so much going on in their own lives, so much pain of their own to grapple with, that they sometimes cannot help others (and often don’t want to) beyond the utterance of a few comforting words is deeply saddening, and perfectly understandable.

It's better then to say nothing at all, or only that which is honest. It’s even better yet to display your concern and communicate your emotion through behavior and action, but short of that, any words you deliver to someone have powerful, immutable meaning with the potential to have an effect on the person who sees or hears them, and that effect won’t be contingent upon your reasoning for resorting to quick and easy prosaicisms, when you could have said something deeper, more meaningful, and – if necessary – constructively combative. Alas, the damage will already have been done.

This will prove important not only in the context of maintaining an honorable set of standards to which you hold yourself, but especially in regard to the nature of your interpersonal relationships. If you readily fall back on the easiest and most conveniently dismissive language in your social interactions, you trade honesty for passivity. You sacrifice an outward articulation of compassion for a pretense of emotional inertia.

Friendships are not easy, nor should they be. Problems that arise in the life of a friend to whom you have committed some of your life and being to must be treated conscientiously and attentively whenever possible. It may be that the best response isn’t “you’ve got this,” and 99 times out of 100 that’s probably true. If a friend made a status update about how their life is falling apart; how their car was stolen and their pet is deathly sick and they’ve got a nasty infection, then perhaps you should invest the time and language to inquire as to how they’ll resolve these problems. It might be much more useful to draw upon your own empathy to communicate to them your vicarious sadness or frustration on their behalf, or to communicate your desire to simply listen.

On the other hand, if a friend made a post about how they can’t stop popping pills, and how their friends are taking advantage of them and gossiping about them and ghosting them when it’s convenient, and how their parents aren’t sending them enough money to get by at age 25, then an entirely different response may be required. As their friend it may be best to reply with some tough love, and tell them to get their damned life together; to stop abusing medication or seek professional help; to surround themselves with people who are less dysfunctional and bring positivity into their life; to go out and earn a living for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be financially dependent well into adulthood. If this person is among your best friends, the truest of the true, for whom you’d do anything in your power to help, uplift, and empower, in this kind of situation you’ve got to engage with them in a little disputation, being forceful and assertive even if it’s exhausting or emotionally burdensome for you. Sometimes you’ve got to fight for the people you love, even if it’s a war of words alone.

In other words, “you’ve got this” just isn’t gonna cut it.

Exercise your demons (the power of vice compels you) - excerpt from The Devils In Your Details

From The Devils In Your Details:

When it comes to how people view and deal with substances or activities often regarded as vices, one of the worst offenders is the overindulgent consumer. He’s usually the victim of his own inability to exercise good judgment, discipline, or moderation. There was one in particular who stood out to me. To protect his privacy, here we’ll call him Glenn Corbin. He had two distinct – and ultimately debilitating – vices that I knew of: drinking and gambling. For each of these, he indulged in something very specific. He loved red wine, and the cheap stuff in particular – seriously, he’d guzzle down bottles of that shoddy Australian wine you could get for six bucks or so. (If you can’t figure out the brand, a quick search engine query should clear that right up for you.) If he didn’t finish the entire bottle in one night, he’d wake up the next morning and spill the rest out in the sink, swearing in stark contradiction to his addictive habit that he’d never touch alcohol again.

      There are many stories to be told about Glenn’s bargain bin wine escapades, some that I witnessed directly, and others that were relayed to me by mutual acquaintances; some that were equal parts hilarious and saddening, others that were serious and devastating. Because this book isn’t titled The Intoxicated Misadventures of Glenn from New Jersey, I’ll trim the stories down to a few short narratives.

      The more amusing one I’d like to share actually happened during the brief period in which he lived in Chicago, and was later relayed to me by my roommate in the Windy City years later. The first thing you have to understand is that the neighborhood he lived in was on the South Side, in an area beset with poverty and gang violence. In other words, it wasn’t exactly safe to walk around in at three o’clock in the morning. Nevertheless, at that late hour, Glenn decided it was a good idea to take his chances on street blocks known for shootouts and drive-bys in order to have a wine-addled stroll to the local park. He did this while actually carrying a glass full of wine, which he was eagerly sipping from as he strode down the dimly-lit sidewalk, his other hand casually placed in the pocket of his jeans.

      I know the details of this because a mutual friend of Glenn’s and my future roommate’s – we’ll call him Stewart – happened to be driving home when he spotted this odd event. Though Stewart offered to drive Glenn back home, Glenn adamantly refused, and seemingly blind to the other man’s disbelief, proceeded to approach two vehicles in which several gang members were making some sort of drug exchange. Ignoring Stewart’s hastening calls for him to get in the car, Glenn began to lecture these young gentlemen on their lifestyle choices, pointing his finger and nonchalantly chastising them in between swigs of wine. I was told the gangsters were so shocked by the calmness and audacity of this random, skinny older white man that their mouths hung open for a few moments, at a loss for words. Before long, however, they proceeded to curse at him and make threats on his life. Suddenly, as if sense had finally come to him, he took a look around, assessed the situation, and meekly shuffled off to continue his walk. To me, this story is so unheard of and funny that it seems like a scene that fell out of some offbeat comedy movie, but in reality, Glenn was very fortunate to have walked away from this situation with his life – and physical wellbeing – intact.

      The next incident fits firmly in the ‘saddening’ category, and happened during a visit to my future roommate’s mother’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Let’s call that future roommate Jeff for the sake of brevity. Jeff’s mother had a couple of guests over – old friends of the family. I don’t know why Glenn had accompanied Jeff to the city that day, but I do know that Glenn was in a very, very bad place in his life. An older woman who he had considered to be like a mother to him had recently died, and he was carrying her ashes around in an urn (more on this later). Aside from said urn, in his other hand was a recently purchased bottle of wine – yes, still of the cheapo variety. I don’t know what was going through Jeff’s head at the time, but he ought to have sized up both of these items, as well as Glenn’s agitated and melancholy demeanor, and realized this was a recipe for disaster.

      A couple of hours into this visit, Glenn had likely polished off close to half the bottle, and was becoming increasingly loud, rude, and testy as Jeff struggled to maintain a conversation with his family friends. I’m sure the situation was awkward by that point, but it became downright unpleasant as Glenn continued to raise his voice to the point where it was an uphill battle to even get a word in edgewise.

      What happened next was as random as it was – surely – embarrassing, and Jeff never explained what triggered it, but it was certain to make Glenn an unforgettable figure, forever affixed to the memories of these people, like a wad of gum nestled deep down to the roots of your hair. Perhaps it was the urn and the ashes therein of this beloved older woman that had prompted it, or maybe the alcohol had triggered a flood of emotion in him that he could no longer hold back. Whatever the cause had been, he suddenly picked up his phone and decided to call his mother, a woman who had psychologically abused him and thereafter disowned him, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. For some reason, something in his intoxicated mind told him it would be socially appropriate to place this call while he was a guest in the home of his friend’s mother, in front of company he had just made the acquaintance of.

      What transpired next was nothing short of making a scene in every sense of the word. Glenn had scarcely begun the drunken conversation before he had devolved into a sobbing mess, screaming and cursing and berating her for never having loved him, for never being there. Everyone else present must have been as silent as a tomb, their plans of coffee and mild conversation unceremoniously thrown out the window into a dumpster, which was then set on fire.

      As Glenn was now engaging in histrionics to the level that he was physically pounding his chest with his hand and likely treating even the neighbors to his own personal Jerry Springer experience, Jeff must have finally had the presence of mind to try and handle the situation. His thoughts must have been something akin to “oh fuck, this is actually happening in real life right now,” though I was told his words were kinder and more sympathetic. And I support that sort of response. The situation might be objectively humorous in retrospect, but the truth is that this man’s emotional pain and mental health issues were something to be looked at through a lense of compassion and understanding. As such, Jeff convinced Glenn to get out and get some air, and afterward he was able to sober up and, I’m assuming, find some way to apologize for his behavior.

      The final wine story, and one of the last I heard about Glenn before we fell out of contact, was the most distressing to me, because it highlighted his addiction issues in a profound and entirely unfunny manner. After having had a bit too much merlot, Glenn stumbled back into his rental car and proceeded to turn onto New Jersey’s highly busy, highly chaotic Route 23. In the wrong lane. I fortunately was not present when this occurred, and I don’t know what must have gone through his mind as he realized he was driving headlong into oncoming traffic, but I know it’s an absolute wonder he wasn’t killed. I don’t believe in angels – guardian or otherwise – but it really does beg the question of whether he had some protective spirit in his presence that night. From what I remember being told, the car slammed into the divider and was obviously totalled, and Glenn sustained serious back injuries, but he was alive. He ended up having to have a rod inserted into his back and will have lifelong chronic pain because of his choice to drink and drive, something for which there is no excuse, and for which he should thank the universe or whatever deity he holds dear that he didn’t harm or kill anyone else.

      But I mentioned two addictions, right? Well, it just so happens that hours before that crash, he had been just one state over in his usual place of choice for getting inebriated: a casino. There was one in particular he would frequent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, falling hook, line, and sinker for its membership scam designed to separate him from his money. I accompanied him a couple of times to this place – after all, I had just turned 21 and it was my first time actually being able to go to a casino and gamble. Now, I’ve never really been interested much in it, but I thought I’d like to try my hand at it and see if I win anything (for the record, I won about $80 at the slot machines on one occasion, and came out even on the other – but of course, I very easily had the power to take my modest win and get up and walk away).

      So during each of these visits, it was just the two of us – well, three if you count the old woman’s ashes in the urn, because of course he had to bring it with him. I had known the woman back when she was still alive, and here I’ll call her Zel, because she looked like the spitting image of Zelda Rubinstein. If you’re not familiar with the actress, she played the eccentric medium in Poltergeist who helped the family get in touch with their daughter on the ‘other side.’ He liked to think of Zel’s remains as his “good luck charm.” I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was as he sat at the slot machine next to mine, swaying from intoxication and rubbing the urn, saying, “Come on Zel, help me win big!” Of course, at a machine across from ours was a gentleman who was possibly even more drunk, who was trying to convince a very harrassed looking old Asian woman that if you simply rub the slot machine the right way, you’re more likely to win. So, you know, the bar – no pun intended – was pretty low to begin with.

      Anyway, I quickly assessed that his penchant for gambling was a real issue; a full-fledged addiction that might have been even stronger than his constant need for booze. I couldn’t understand why he was working so hard for his money as a budding real estate agent back in Jersey, only to piss it all away at casinos in PA – to say nothing of the sheer amount of gas he used up in any given week during that interstate travel. But at that point I simply didn’t understand addiction, and there are still components of it to this day that I’m trying to comprehend. I’m big on empathy, so it’s a goal of mine to form a better picture of how it works, and perhaps by the time I’ve finished this chapter I’ll have that deeper understanding by doing what I think I do best: processing my thoughts, emotions, and memories through the power of the written word.

      Glenn’s abysmally poor decision-making that day, which led to his near-death experience, was the coalescence of two vices that had long since taken root in his life, and which now ruled his mind and body, so that his every waking thought was filtered through the rippled, distorted myopia of drinking and gambling, like looking through the bottom of a glass containing the last dregs of whiskey.

      If I hadn’t understood the danger of overindulgence up to that point, seeing or hearing about these incidents, whether firsthand or second, certainly unfurled a length of bright yellow caution tape in my mind’s eye. I came to understand that moderation can sometimes be the letdown that takes the wind out of your sails, and excess can be the spark that lights your fire and makes your weekend legendary. But unchecked and reckless excess, with neither rational thinking nor consequence assessment involved, is something I stand firmly against. It can ravage mental and physical health and destroy lives, and I’m not just talking about drinking – whatever vice you prefer, even if it’s gambling or sex – if no restraint is ever exercised, no personal accountability ever taken, your hands don’t belong at the proverbial steering wheel, because clearly, you don’t know how to handle it.

      So when I talk about exercising your demons, what in the hell am I really saying? So, there’s a very well known story arc from the late 70s in Marvel Comics’ Iron Man called “Demon in a Bottle.” That’s partly how I came up with the mantra. In it, Tony Stark is guilt-ridden after his armor malfunctions and kills a foreign ambassador. He begins drinking. And drinking. And drinking. The story deals with his subsequent alcohol addiction, which was something profoundly different for comics to tackle in that time period, and for which critics deemed the arc “the quintessential Iron Man story.” Bob Layton, who co-wrote the saga, remarked that it was decided alcohol would be the bad guy. “Instead of Doctor Doom or somebody like that,” he said, “it was the bottle. That was our villain of the month."

      Here's the thing about demons: they can be compellingly attractive for their darkness, yet utterly dangerous if approached without boundaries. What do we do when we exercise? We seek to reap benefits and rewards, primarily the betterment of the body, but also psychological satisfaction. I’ve always firmly believed that it’s just as important for the mind and the spirit to occasionally indulge in things a bit to the extreme, yet never to the extent that you’re no longer in control. Sometimes the massive dopamine hits you get from a strong drink, or great sex, or that extra snack, is worth the hangover, or the post-coital tiredness, or the calorie gain you’ll have to deal with afterward. Yet diving headlong and blindly into these things with neither boundaries nor personal responsibility is a nightmare waiting to happen. As such, a clear difference must be delineated between the two.

      I believe it was summed up best by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of The Satanic Bible. In it, he established the mantra of “indulgence, not compulsion.” He wrote the following on the subject: “People often mistake compulsion for indulgence, but there is a world of difference between the two. A compulsion is never created by indulging, but by not being able to indulge. By making something taboo, it only serves to intensify the desire. Everyone likes to do the things they have been told not to. ‘Forbidden fruits are the sweetest.’

      “Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary defines indulgence thusly: ‘To give oneself up to; not to restrain or oppose; to give free course to; to gratify by compliance; to yield to.’ The dictionary definition of compulsion is: ‘The act of compelling or driving by force, physical or moral; constraint of the will; (compulsory, obligatory).’ In other words, indulgence implies choice, whereas compulsion indicates the lack of choice.”

      I’d say that it’s strongly implicit in matters of addiction that lack of choice is often a core component, wouldn’t you?

      I will always support the exercising of demons, as by contrast, whenever society has attempted to exorcise demons, whether we’re talking about Prohibition or handing out prison sentences for youth who had an ounce of marijuana in their pocket, the end result is that people are generally left the worse for wear because of it. We choose our demons, certainly, but that freedom of choice is a small but key part in the underpinnings of democracy, and when we attempt to brandish the crucifix of law, legislating our morality so we can feel better and delude ourselves into thinking we’re pristine and perfect, those demons don’t go away. They simply flee to the cracks and crevices and backalleys of society, where they manifest in black markets, gangs, and vehicles destroyed and a life almost obliterated, because one man overcompensated when he picked up the wine bottle, and afterward made a terrible mistake.

      Life is not a single path made to be quickly marched through with destination always in mind, but rather, a labyrinth made for wandering and detour, so that one might indulge in its pleasures and be spiritually and psychologically – if sometimes not always physically – the better for it. Sometimes consorting with demons is the best way to bask in that moment of paradise. As Epicurus so famously put it, “Stranger, here you do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”