Sunday, May 15, 2016

Dear Dan Haren

I read this article about you yesterday and for some reason woke up this morning with it on my mind. I had this post all written out in my head while I was lying there in the pre-coffee hours but wonder if I'll be able to put it into writing now that I've migrated to the couch, where I will be watching baseball in a few minutes while the winds of March blow outside on this May day. This post really isn't to you or about you, but I feel it could help the reader if I wrote it as if I were speaking to a real person. Or maybe it just helps me write it.

I guess the article resonated with me because I know what it's like to deal with anxiety. Anxiety makes me procrastinate to the point where sometimes I don't do things that must be done at all. I won't take drugs for it because I know that drugs don't fix the root of the problem, which is the way we live our lives in American society, and society seems so unwilling to change its unsustainable lifestyle that we will surely meet our destruction before we deal with our country's worsening mental health epidemic.

I work in an uncelebrated and oft criticized field that doesn't get the spotlight of sports, though what we do is more important than what you did for a living, given that we are helping people who suffer from war and oppression. The only time we get the spotlight is when there is a foreign aid corruption scandal. Then it's usually said that all NGOs have too much overhead, as if us human rights workers are supposed to work for free and not earn a living. We tend to live in big cities where the organizations are located and where the cost of living should be criminal, so we're usually living paycheck to paycheck and sometimes deciding which bill to pay late each month, at least until we have put in enough years for our 3% cost of living raises to add up to something useful. Most of you MLB ballplayers have no concept of what that is like, or you forget. You yourself put so much pressure on yourself because you thought quitting and losing out on another $15 million put your family at risk. That is offensive to those who work their asses off in industries that are not valued as sports are in this country. As a society, our values are warped. But I get that you guys work your asses off, too, and you felt like you earned it. For your industry, you did.

I quit once. I had the same thoughts as you did. I had quit in my head many times and then one day when the the stress of barely scraping by had finally gotten to me, I took my last paycheck and went to live in the cheapest European country I could find - Bulgaria - for a few months just to get away from it all. I think the suffering of people had overtaken my unconscious mind. I thought I would get some writing done, maybe publish a book, come back with a fresh perspective, but I came back and had trouble finding a job because in my field, it's not necessarily about talent. It's about who you know, like it is in many other industries. I had yet to learn that so I kept applying for jobs without using the connections I had made. Then one day, out of the blue, when depression had set up permanent residence in my psyche, one of those connections offered me a job, and I started on a journey that opened my eyes to the real world in a way I could never have known sitting behind a desk in our nation's capital. Your wife told you to "use perspective" and "there is more to life than baseball." Boy, is she right.

I spent a year over the course of two years living in Beirut. I felt like I was living in the center of the news. You see, those people live every day with the stress of the threat of destruction. People my age had grown up with the bullets and bombs of the world consuming all that was good in their lives. People refer to it as the "Lebanese Civil War," but it was a World War fought in a tiny country between various Lebanese militias, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis, the Russians, and us Americans.

While you and I were playing baseball and softball at age 14, my friend was driving a makeshift ambulance with a group of his friends to help those blown up by car bombs or airstrikes. Some of my first memories of the world outside the United States were about news of hostages and the bombings of our embassy and the Marine barracks. But those things happened so far away from my Ohio suburban home that it was as if they weren't real. They weren't real until I went there two decades later, and I saw the vestiges of war, bombed out buildings, bullet holes, and the psychological scars of a society that had experienced the apocalypse.

The fifteen year war ended in 1990, but it wasn't truly over. There were more bombs and assassinations and the militias still rule today. Sometimes it takes a year for them to put together a government. They haven't had a president for - what is it, three years now? They ran out of landfill room, so trash has been piling up for a year and counting. Israel periodically comes and bombs them. Hezbollah is the most powerful political party. One fifth of the country are refugees from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq.  ISIS keeps trying to come in. The Syrians are attempting to wipe themselves out next door, a war that sometimes spills over the officially defined borders into Lebanese territory. They aren't even allowed to attend their league's soccer games for fear of militia violence, so they can only watch on TV. Imagine playing to empty ballparks every single day. These are the realities of life in Lebanon and too many other places on this planet. But people keep pushing on.

Here in America, we have no concept of war. As most WWII vets have passed, few of us has suffered war on American soil, which is a reason 9/11 was overwhelmingly traumatic for many people. We glorify our soldiers, unaware of the reality of what military life entails or what it means to "defend the country" or why we are even fighting the wars in the first place. Most Americans don't serve, so they are ripe targets for military propaganda. Hell, many MLB ballplayers won't even serve their country by playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Patriotism is waving a flag, clapping for troops, and saying a pledge of allegiance that was originally created as a marketing gimmick. The reality is that most soldiers aren't heroes, the wars are unjust, the DOD spends billions on propaganda that is working, and military life is often mundane. So you aren't alone in lack of perspective. It's practically the American Way.

The hero worship is, as you are well aware, not confined to the military. Our obsession with sports figures and celebrities is unhealthy at best. We expect you to be machines. You aren't human. We don't know you personally and it is rare to have any interaction with you at all, so what we see on the field or in the newspaper is all we have to go on. I am one who probably called you a whiner for not accepting the trade to the Marlins, and I apologize for that. I'm really trying to be nicer on social media. The climate is just so toxic that it is hard sometimes, as it gets into your unconscious and you don't even realize your tone is too sharp or too bitter. Then there's all the social polarization and the intentional wedge driving by politicians, and people fall in line with the propaganda, and it is just impossible to filter out all that negativity. It's like virtual liver cirrhosis - the poison has overwhelmed and destroyed our filtering system.

But anxiety is a real thing, and you can "have perspective" rationally while your insides are torn up. Those who have never experienced it or have never had a panic attack just don't get it. It's not something you can control, and it can happen to you even if you're sitting on your couch doing nothing. I've read a great deal about psychology, some on my own and some for university work. While studying in Europe, I took a course that focused on the psychology of adolescents who grew up in traumatic circumstances, largely revolving around World War II. We went to Terezenstadt near Prague, which was considered a "model" concentration camp by the Nazis who showed it off to international groups like the Red Cross to show they treated their prisoners "well." You should have seen some of the artwork drawn by the children they had on display. The human mind is a fragile thing, and for all our conscious thoughts, there are unconscious influences.

But you don't have to experience something as horrific as a concentration camp for your mind to mess you up. Sigmund Freud did groundbreaking work in the field of psychoanalysis, even though he was wrong on some things. Carl Jung was his student and became his equal. They both studied the unconscious mind and discovered that a lot of our conscious problems stem from an inability to reconcile them with our unconscious. Science is showing that anxiety stems from the unconscious mind and that until we are able to have more balance in our lives and resolve the conflict between the conscious and unconscious, we will continue to suffer from it, and no amount of talk about perspective will fix that. But we must strive for that balance.

I don't know if you have seen a therapist but s/he'd probably tell you something that happened in your youth is responsible for the anxiety. I think about this a lot and think of the family turmoil in my development years and am pretty sure my anxiety is rooted in that, and despite the fact that I was the best student in my class growing up and the best athlete, I never feel adequate enough in my professional life. I think my experiences in Lebanon helped me to bring some of the unconscious concerns to my consciousness, and I've learned to take control of some of that anxiety. But I could never go on TV, even though I have the expertise to talk about certain issues, and I have a hard time participating in meetings or talking on the phone unless I have spent hours preparing for it. I feel uncomfortable in social situations, which just gets worse as I get older. I used to post to this blog every day, but then the internet got mean and I lost my desire to write. I moved to short memory Twitter and racked up a decent number of followers, but like you I found the environment difficult. Sometimes I'll call someone out on Twitter for being a total garbage human being, then won't check my mentions for days for fear of the reply. I usually apologize if I am in the wrong, but that's not enough for some people. We shouldn't - we can't - let people get away with being awful people. We can't let rotten individuals throw our country in the trash. As Dr. King said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

I liked the LA Times article, because it didn't try to glorify you, or pity you, or make us feel any sort of manufactured emotion. It was just a normal human story, and the writer didn't Hollywood it. (Kind of ironic, given the paper.) I think writers often start off with good intentions but get lost in the pressure to reach readers or get stuck on the rules of journalism school textbooks. I'm sure the pressure of deadlines hurts the work, too. There is pressure in every job and to be honest, sportswriters probably receive more negative criticism than struggling ballplayers because they are more accessible in the Internet Age and they tend to be viewed as mouthpieces for the teams they cover, as if they are the ones making the decisions. Some of the criticism is warranted as they spew cliches and avoid controversial topics for fear of losing access, but a lot of negativity comes from people who can barely put together a coherent sentence but feel their "opinions" are of the same value as anyone else's. That probably stems from our culture of giving everyone a participation trophy so no one's feelings are hurt and the emphasis on standardized tests in our schools that inhibits the development of critical thinking skills. We should fix that, too.

I think more of us are becoming aware of the toxins in our society, and I hope we can find the political will to change the situation before it consumes us. What we see on Twitter is a microcosm for greater societal problems. The poisonous discourse has grown to a level that is threatening to destroy this country, as mass shootings become normalized, violence plagues our political gatherings, and a demagogue rises to power on the backs of bigotry and hatred. I can actually imagine the things people said to you, because I see the vitriol every day. These are probably unconscious feelings of inadequacy manifesting themselves in the form of what can only be called "meanness." We shouldn't accept that.

So here I am, several baseball games from when I began this post, and I'm still not entirely sure why the article was on my mind this morning. The point is perspective, I think. It seems you've found it. Plenty of things to do in life. Choose to do good and some of that anxiety will be relieved. I wish I had more to offer you, some advice, an opportunity, anything, really. I'm still trying to figure things out for myself, still wondering why so many people are awful, why meanness is acceptable, why our country seems unwilling to do anything about its problems except make them worse. Good luck to you.

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