In 1987, psychologist Daniel Wegner conducted an experiment inspired by a quote from an 1863 travel essay by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." (One senses Dostoyevsky worried about being mauled by bears and obsessed about it, like he did most everything.)
Wegner put the quote's assumption to the test: He asked participants in the experiment to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while trying not to think of a white bear. If a white bear came to mind, they should ring a bell. Suffice to say, bells were ringing. On average, participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute. Wegner termed this phenomenon ironic process theory: deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts actually make them more likely to surface. (This effect is more pronounced in times of stress, and can cause profound anxiety.)
This phenomenon is also known as ironic rebound, which makes me think of Dennis Rodman playing basketball with Kim Jong Un.
Wegner's experiment came to mind recently as I decided to stop fixating on the president's impeachment trial. I've been following the ramp-up to this circus for months, and like a cook who's no longer hungry at dinner because he's been eating all day while preparing the meal, I'm full to bursting and want no more. Either the president will be acquitted or much less likely, convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors. History will be the judge of the sad farce our republic has become.
For as delightful as the trial is—Adam Schiff's quaint orations mixing political philosophy with sweeping declarations about Trump undermining the rule of law; senators forced to drink milk on the floor of the Senate (I'm sensing Big Dairy is behind this); Chief Justice Roberts's use of the archaic term pettifogging (not the same as frottage, unfortunately)—by Day 2 I was as tired and bored of the affair as a sleepy senator.
I made a decision to disengage. Turn my back on my duties as a citizen and not think about the political carnival for a while. I stopped updating my news feed every 10 minutes. I unsubscribed from the six daily impeachment podcasts I'd been listening to. I tuned the car radio to a classic rock station—and was reminded that Foghat was once a (revered) thing. I avoided TVs and newspapers, and politically engaged friends. I took on an attitude of Anything but Impeachment, but found that the impeachment was stalking me, like a white bear across my mental tundra. The more I tried to stop thinking about it, the more I found myself thinking about it. Every mental road led back to where I begged it not to go. Allow me to share one example from recent days.
I finally got around to reading a piece by Peter Schjeldahl from the December 23 issue of the New Yorker that a number of friends had recommended. Schjeldahl, the magazine's art critic, is dying of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. "Doing the math," he writes, "I reckon that I have smoked about a million cigarettes—and enjoyed every one of them, not that you care." The article, "77 Sunset Me," is a book-length memoir compressed down into a diamond of a few thousand words. I've always loved Schjeldahl's incisive and accessible art criticism—he's my North Star when I try to write about art—but this personal writing of his is the first that I've read. It's filled with seemingly throwaway lines—"Swatted a fly the other day and thought, Outlived you."—that are deep coming from a man facing death. Maybe everything is. Schjeldahl also drops some real knowledge here, the type of existential revelation only available to the dying.
Apropos of nothing in the piece, except trying to make sense of life so close to death, I suppose, Schjeldahl writes: "Meaning is a scrap among other scraps, though stickier. Meaning is so much better than nothing, in that it defines 'nothing' as everything that meaning is not. Meaning prevents nothing from being only nothing. The 'nothing that is not there and the nothing that is,' Wallace Stevens noticed. The same nothing, but a difference of attitude." Meaning prevents nothing from being only nothing. The emotional force of this simple statement is shattering, despite the fact that we know it's true in our heart of hearts: We make it all up as we go along and call that meaning. At first blush, this seems like a statement of profound despair, but Schjeldahl manages to turn it into a light in the darkness, a way out of despair and into a positive quality called meaning, which references a greater unnamed thing that for lack of a better phrase I'll call our shared humanity. It connects us to each other with understanding and empathy.
And then comes the ironic rebound. I read Meaning prevents nothing from being only nothing and I think of the impeachment. For I don't know how to make meaning from this scrap of nothing, this meaning-denying nothing. This political theater is a black hole that sucks in meaning, truth, and hope. Better one essay on death by the likes of Peter Schjeldahl than a thousand crummy impeachment trials.