Heading towards the light 💡⚰️

What’s my secret to managing anxiety? Surround yourself with death and suffering. It puts things in perspective. Also: Bad Art Friend, the new Chappelle, Alan Watts, NBA vaccines, and more.

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What’s the best way to manage anxiety? One thing that’s worked for me: Surround yourself with death and suffering. It puts things in perspective.

When I was growing up, my mom had MS, a disease that slowly, over the course of a decade, paralyzed her until she eventually died from a stroke. If I’m being honest, I was actually pleased when my mom died. It’s not that I didn’t love her (I did). But a year earlier, she told me if she lived two more years, she wanted me to help her take her own life. So when I found out she had transitioned (the death kind, not the gender kind), I breathed a sigh of relief that I would not have to track down a Jack Kevorkian (or Tony Soprano) to end her life.  

A few years after that, my sister’s husband died in a motorcycle crash, leaving her behind to raise their six month old child on her own. I’ll never forget watching her breastfeed her infant son in the waiting room of the funeral parlor before she picked out her dead husband’s coffin. Phew, talk about gothic; it felt like a Flannery O’Connor story come to life. (Don’t worry, she and my nephew are both doing great now.)

A few years later, my father was diagnosed with bone cancer, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Apparently, there’s no real treatment when it’s in your bones. His body basically imploded and I had a ringside seat during his morphine-filled final days.

And that’s just the heaviest stuff. I’ve also endured my fair share of failures, firings, rejections, romantanglements, and other assorted bummers. 

My big takeaway from it all: The stuff we worry about on a day-to-day basis doesn’t really matter all that much and obsessing over trivialities is a waste of energy. Good questions to ask yourself when the negativity shows up: All this anxiety, is it helping? And when you’re on your death bed, will you wish you spent more time worrying about anything you’re currently worrying about? 

Thorny things give you context. You realize it’s silly to expect to drop anchor in happiness. You accept the ebb and flow of nature. Our culture’s obsession with boundless positivity starts to feel like a mask covering the inevitable truth that life is filled with suffering. That’s not news, the Buddha said it long ago. Better to surf the waves than try to fight them.

Under the floorboards

I’ve always been fascinated by Parkinson's law, the adage that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." The gist: If you say a project will take three months, it always winds up taking at least that long (and never winds up getting done faster). It’s like how closets always wind up full. When we allot space, it gets used. It feels like there’s something similar with our society’s increasing sense of depression and anxiety; our suffering is expanding to fill the time available for its contemplation.

In a way, it’s good that we’re dissatisfied. It’s what spurs us on to continue improving things. But it’s also worth noting the data shows our lives keep getting better. Despite what your timeline tells you, we are wealthier, healthier, smarter, freer, and fighting fewer wars than we ever have before. By a lot.

A good thought exercise: Imagine you had access to a time machine. Which place and which period in time would you prefer to live? The only wise answer: “No, thanks. I’m good right here.” And just pray the machine doesn’t send you to some random location/year – unless you really like poverty, the rack, and doctors who prescribe leeches. 

Meanwhile, our culture tells us to either ignore death or, with manic desperation, to strive to endlessly extend our lives. Tech billionaires aim to “cheat death” and surgeons yank back our faces. Anything that reminds us of our mortality is shoved into a corner (or a nursing home) so we don’t have to stare it in the eye.

But it’s there all along, lurking under the floorboards. Birth is a fatal disease and we’ve all been diagnosed with it. The challenge is to find a way to embrace our inevitable fate. 

Because dying is what makes life valuable. Steve Hagen, author of several books on Buddhism, writes about the beauty in death:

Pick up a flower – a beautiful, living, fresh rose. It smells wonderful. It reveals a lovely rhythm in the swirl of its petals, a rich yet dazzling color, a soft velvety texture. It moves and delights us. The problem is that the rose dies. Its petals fall; it shrivels up; it turns brown and returns to the earth.

One solution to this problem is to ignore the real rose and substitute a plastic one, one that never dies (and never lives). But is a plastic rose what we want? No, of course not. We want the real rose. We want the one that dies. We want it because it dies, because it’s fleeting, because it fades.

It’s this very quality that makes it precious. This is what we want, what each of us is: a living thing that dies. 

We are already the thing we want, a living thing that dies. The alternative is sour immortality, becoming one of those bitter vampires in What We Do in the Shadows. Or buying into a religion that offers us another level in the video game, an Easter egg that gives us eternal life in the hereafter. Anything to avoid looking into the maw, right?

Reincarnation or dirt?

Someone recently asked me, “Do you believe in reincarnation or do you think we all just turn into dirt?” Best I can tell: We die, get buried, disintegrate, and eventually turn into dirt. It’s just a matter of time. Then, the worms start crawling through us, animals come by and take a dump on us, and the clouds dump rain on us too. And then something starts stirring inside our – I don’t even know what to call it, molecules? DNA? Dirt consciousness? But some power within us gets activated and tells us to move toward the light. Because that’s what all life seeks – to move towards the light. The turtles know to go perch on a sunny rock. The baby bird knows to poke its beak through the shell of its egg. Something in our souls tells us to go there.

And then, in our new vessel, we poke our head above the surface and, look at that, we’re a blade of grass. And that blade of grass grows and gets eaten by a cow; and that cow gets eaten by a kid who likes hamburgers; and now our life force is inside this burger chomping kid! So do I believe in reincarnation or do I think we all just turn into dirt? Yes, all of the above. We turn into dirt and that is how we begin the process of being reborn. (You wanted to be Cleopatra or Napoleon? Eh, that’s just ego. Just like fear.)

I think a lot about the light.

Maybe it’s because I’m a comedian: We know its time to get offstage when we see a light above the audience. No one else can see it, but we know. The light means it’s time to wrap it up.

Similarly, when people have near death experiences, they always talk about going towards the light.

And then there’s that blade of grass emerging from the dirt so it can head towards the light.

And then imagine what it was like when you were a fetus. You spent months in the womb, in total darkness, and then one day you felt yourself being pulled toward something. An invisible force told you it was time to go. And that’s when you too saw a light, a glimpse of the other side. Because if babies could describe being born, wouldn’t it sound exactly like adults describing what it’s like to die? They consistently explain dying as “combining the sensation of floating and moving through a tunnel towards light.” Perhaps dying is just being born.

Eventually, we all get the light. And then it’s time to leave the stage we’re on and enter a new one. Either way, we’re where we’re supposed to be.

So yeah, that’s my secret to managing anxiety. That and psychedelics. Those help too.


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Quickies

🌀 How come you never see female magicians? My best guess: It's because women aren't dorks and losers.

🌀 Crazy how many roles flight attendants have: “Welcome aboard. I’ll be your server, security guard, janitor, paramedic, bartender, and perfume salesman.”

🌀 I wish there was a German word for wishing there was a German word for something. #wortwunschdeutschding

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Bad Art Friend and new Chappelle

Re: Bad Art Friend and the new Chappelle special, um, do I have to? It feels like a homework assignment where we all have to comment on the exact same things everyone else is discussing on social media.

But fine, my takeaway from Bad Art Friend is if you want to make good art stay away from the "community" of workshops/classes/BS that surrounds it and just DO THE THING…

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More on Bad Art Friend and the new Chappelle in the full version of this Rubesletter. Paying subscribers can click here to read. If you’re not on the paid plan yet, click here to sign up. If you’re broke and just need it bad, shoot me an email and I’ll probably hook you up.


5-spotted

1️⃣ Alan Watts on the psychedelic experience and integration:

If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.

2️⃣ Should You Care About Unvaccinated N.B.A. Players? Talks about the sanded-down social justice gestures we tend to get from athletes.

But once the games started up again after a brief stoppage, the messaging around police violence and racism felt workshopped, sanded-down and ultimately gestural. The point seemed more to be that these very famous people and this very public league were using their platforms, but once you got beyond the sloganeering and the civil rights montages, there wasn’t much the platform actually said or did. All this almost felt like an apology for the fact that during the most significant civil rights moment of these young players’ lives, the league was forcing its players to live in a bubble. The actual message of last summer could be found in the streets of America, and it needed no amplification from N.B.A. players at Disney World.

Btw, here’s my idea on the NBA/vaccines: Get an epidemiologist to pretend he's a basketball expert and have him explain why players should refuse to shoot three pointers and then film NBA players' reactions.

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There’s more (Verlyn Klinkenborg on writing, Orson Welles on looking successful, etc.) in the full version of this Rubesletter. Paying subscribers can click here to read. If you’re not on the paid plan yet, click here to sign up.

FYI I’ll be performing in Buffalo/New England upcoming. Come on out…

Oct 22-23 - Buffalo - Rob’s Comedy Playhouse
Nov 5 - Boston - Zone 3
Nov 6 - Boston - The Hideout
Dec 1 - Manchester, NH - Ruby Room Comedy
Dec 2 - Portland, ME - Portland Comedy Co-Op

Thanks for reading.

-Matt

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About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing, if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture, if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS, if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff, then subscribe.

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