Bill Marsh's piece "Never Mind" appears in Issue No. 58: What Remains
For me the saddest thing about my brother’s Step Nine apology was that he never made it to Step Ten. He may have longed for what the program promised—a life lived “to good purpose under all conditions”—but if he ever made strides in that direction I never saw signs of it. I suppose he may have lied about it the way he lied about most everything in the months before he ditched those pesky Steps altogether and plunged headfirst into permanent liquid darkness. In late February, the tree under which we scattered his ashes casts a long, broad shadow. I step into the shady expanse, shield myself from a too-warm sun. I’m looking for answers and insight, a path to forgiveness, but all I feel is the fake sentimentality of my private performance. We are bound, my brother and I, in our elemental self-deceptions.
When I say the “saddest thing” about my brother’s phoned-in apology, I mean the cruelest and silliest, the iciest and most embarrassing. He’d since completed his fearless inventory, then his fearless list of the people he’d harmed along the way. But when it was my turn for amends, I heard caution and trepidation in his voice as he recalled the “instance” on which he’d chosen to reflect. “There will be those who ought to be dealt with just as soon as we become reasonably confident,” he may have read in the AA handbook one sober morning. Then he thought of his younger brother among all those listed others. But why that instance? Why that harm when he had so many (some more serious) to choose from?
Scrolling through the Twelve Steps now, I know for sure what I suspected then—that he never stood a chance, never had it in him, my older brother the boozing recluse, my big brother the scrappy avenger who, when we were kids, loved to make an example of my junior sensibilities and weepy gullibility. He’s dead and scattered at the base of an oak tree, but these dueling emotions—bitterness/sadness, desperation/resentment, anger/helplessness—are the life’s work he never finished, now handed down to me. Growing up, I thought we were arch-opposites, worlds apart in our plans and purposes, but now I’m reasonably confident we stand together, my brother and I, “under all conditions,” aligned in a fundamental misalignment.
How did this happen? Or rather, this ought to be dealt with, here and now. If forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past, then I’m ready to give up. Or am I stuck in the tree’s shadow forever?
In life I try to stay positive, but my thoughts often skew negative, and not just on the subject of dead brothers. This attitudinal bias is totally normal, according to Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and other books on the neuropsychology of human contentment. We all come hardwired with a “hair-trigger readiness to go negative,” as Hanson writes in Hardwiring Happiness. The human propensity for negativity, a kind of neurological template for die-hard vigilance, favored the evolutionary success rates of those constantly “on the lookout for potential dangers or losses.” That’s why so many of us love horror movies, why we slow down for freeway pileups, why “news programs typically start their shows with the latest murder or disaster,” notes Hanson.
Most of the good news, on the other hand, slips by unnoticed because we’re too caught up in our habitual problem-solving, too busy scanning the horizon for signs of trouble. The good we do notice rarely sinks in since, as Hanson explains, we don’t pause or tarry, we don’t hold on to the good long enough—with “long enough” depending on the person and the experience but roughly speaking “the longer the better” or “at least a few seconds.”
For at least a few seconds, therefore, I’d like to curb my primal pessimism and reflect on some of the good things I learned from my brother. If neurons that fire together wire together (Hanson quoting psychologist Donald Hebb), then from day one my brother’s neurons wired and fired on the razor’s edge of high adventure. Among other things, he taught me how to strike a match, how to hop a fence, how to hook a worm and gut bluegills, how to scale the narrow gap between garages, how to ring doorbells and run away, how to launch an Estes rocket, how to patch a tire, how to pack snowballs good and tight, how to build a crystal radio and rig a preamp, how to build a cannon out of old tin cans, how to blow up frogs with firecrackers, how to slingshot water balloons over the neighbor’s roof, how to ride a motorbike, how to forge Dad’s signature, how to tap a keg, how to buy beer with his expired ID, how to act sober when I’m really drunk, how to drive drunk like I’m really sober, and so much more.
Some of this “good” skews negative, I admit, because like my brother I come equipped with hot wiring. Here I am, checking the sky for storm clouds as if my brother, now nothing but rain-soaked earth, were still a force to be reckoned with. Death inspires this kind of cautious pause, a few moments of vigilant hesitation. In the gaps between seconds, I’m trying hard to rig a new, more positive Buddha brain, but the old one keeps getting in the way.
To beat negativity bias, according to Hanson, you have to “rest your mind” on the good and leave it there, letting the brain (almost literally) get used to what this feels like. Mindfulness meditation helps in this regard by fine-tuning and softening our neural pathways. Through focused training in self-awareness, one moves from rote conditioning to a more creative use of mind. My brother’s meditation phase didn’t last too long; he never landed in the happy realm of creative use. Once, during a rare visit to his remote, rock-studded homestead north of Reno, he pointed to the spot on his white leather sectional where he liked to sit—a worn, faded declivity, still fuzzy with the fine brown hairs of Bella, the Boxer mix he’d adopted then chased away. He said he was making good progress, going deeper every day, and I tried really hard to believe him—because that’s another thing I’d learned from my brother: how to doubt his every word.
I suppose I could have settled in, adjusted the bias meter, and rested there, for a few seconds at least, scanning for wisps of truth in another blunt lie. How did I know he was lying? Because brothers like us always go negative. We learn to spot the danger signs of our shared conditions. We’ve been raised on the same inventory, the same bloody news. That was our problem then and still is now. We don’t hold on long enough.
Rain falls through the night and all morning. Now the sky is electric blue, the sun’s angle mid-March acute. I’m seeking an appropriate weather, the right moment to venture out and try again, but two years in a safe, shady comfort beats the blazing unknown any day.
One big difference between us remains: at times the mind is all chatter and hum, all appetite and churning out words to savor and feed upon. Other times, in death especially, the mind settles into stillness as words bubble up elsewhere and burst open, a slow saturation, a shady meadow after hours of gentle rain. The dead can drift away and rest easy, but for the living inaction is not an option, even in the grip of an acute and lasting acceptance. We may need to respond, strongly at times.
This mental chatter reminds me, too, that when the mind talks, the body knows it’s just idle gossip of one form or another: thoughts old and new, stored memories, fixed plans, hopes, and expectations, all floating on a sea of shaky feelings. In How to Meditate, Pema Chödrön advises the novice meditator to take all this in stride, to let the mind carry on while the body does the work of knowing. Meditation practice cultivates friendly attention to the mind’s rote operations and rewards with a sense of “deep satisfaction” in a realm of “dynamic flow.” All happiness, “all feeling of being alive and engaged in the world,” Chödrön observes, happens here in conscious communion with “the fluid, changing flow of things.” As a check on negativity, meditation rewires the “five-minute fundamentalist” inside us who tends to fix and freeze the world (other people, situations, ourselves) in accordance with long-held beliefs and hardened ideas.
On the cushion I’ve come up with a formula: writing + meditation = antidote to all my early training in hypervigilant risk assessment. Words in certain sequences feed the body’s active interest in resurfacing after years of immersive negativity. It seems unfair, somehow, that I have to do this work alone while you, my brother, wander off, eternally absent and unmoved. I feel like a child again in pointing out this injustice. But never lost on me is the wicked obviousness that you have no “changing flow” to fall back on. All feeling of “being alive” now defaults to my feeling, my project to dismantle our shared fundamentalism and find a deeper satisfaction.
Grief can assume different forms: anger, tears, silence, prayer, meditation, song, dance. For some, grief will want to be written, but these are seriously flawed conditions when words bubble up in a mind operating in the broad shadow of another. I place my faith in the antidote, in the body that knows when the mind gives up all knowing.
But you already know this. You know Step Three calls for action to “cut away” at self-will, to surrender oneself freely to a higher purpose or power. How else set the stage for the “vigorous and painstaking effort” of Step Four, our searching and fearless moral inventory. The basic problem, the manual tells us, is desire—an “imperious urge” to hoard things like money, sex, booze, control, fame, youth, long life. There can be no peace for the human being so embattled in lack and want (“unhappiness follows”), so let’s tune in to the liabilities, the “how, when, and where” of our “emotional deformities.”
This process is forever daunting. The mind lags under the weight of thoughts old and new, but once we recognize that these thoughts are empty, the mind will no longer have the power to deceive us.
When my brother called, he wanted to focus less on the lie he’d told many years ago than on the tight controls he’d placed on the truth ever since. To me this seemed appropriate and, given our history, vaguely promising. After all, the founding incident had lost its charge and taken on the milky hue of a faded Polaroid—minor in hindsight, but still suggestive, to the grown-up fundamentalist, of a significant, lasting liability. For years he’d denied it, but now we could agree on the basic how/when/where: a book of matches and a leaf pile, two boys (one five, the other eight years old) under the back porch taking turns at the striking edge. When the flames started climbing, he hopped the fence and ran away, leaving me to take the blame for our shared emotional deformity.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he admitted forty-some years later, adding obliquely, “You’ve always been right and I was wrong.”
Childhood development experts are quick to point out how much strength it takes to tell a good lie. As kids we develop the muscles early, honing them over time in a bid (broadly speaking) to benefit self at the expense of duped others. The “cognitive demands” of a successful lie can be steep, as Victoria Talwar, Sarah-Jane Renaud, and Lauryn Conway write in the Journal of Moral Education. The child must be able “not only to produce a convincing false statement” but also “to support it throughout subsequent statements, exhibiting strength in a skill known as semantic leakage control.” The lie he’d told was unfortunate, but my brother had called that day to apologize for decades of airtight semantic cover-up, for his unflagging narrative consistency through years of stanched leakage.
“Thanks for saying that,” I stammered noncommittally, embarrassed for his sake but my palms sweaty, my nerves on fire.
Then he got ruffled when I changed the subject and brought up the positive, a few good deeds he’d done for me along the way. I guess the handbook had said nothing about this kind of apology pushback, about fielding an impromptu response to his carefully phrased confession. Yes, he wanted to “look squarely” (as instructed) at the unhappiness he’d caused in himself and others, but it wasn’t for me to placate or ease his burden, let alone counter with my own half-assed nod to peripheral happiness.
It’s my job to discover these liabilities, he seemed to be saying, his voice a hushed rumble as he pivoted back to semantic control.
“Anyway, ancient history,” I offered before hanging up, but we both knew that was a lie.
In a city on lockdown, the streets don’t feel as contagious as the news makes them out to be. I take a walk under high-noon sunshine and smile from a distance at passing dog-walkers, neighbors grilling defiantly on front porches, a young couple returned with bagged groceries and four bottles of wine in a cardboard holster. Nobody knows what we’re really up against, how bad this might get, but we all seem connected somehow in our survivalist efforts to square off against real danger and loss.
Strange times, everyone keeps saying, but the self-isolation and social distancing would have come naturally to you, as they do to me, reaffirming a primal urgency to retreat and hunker down. To put the self itself on lockdown. To embrace the prospect of fatal contagion as a check on habitual mundane dread. The fear flowing through me (but not you) these days feels live-wire hot, but under the circumstances all this negativity bias makes terrifically good sense. Nothing like a global pandemic to keep the mind sharply focused on what matters: food, shelter, soap, family, friends, health care, a living wage, our vulnerability as human beings to both visible and invisible threats, plus the simple fact that no one’s immune, that life, with its long-game illusions, just got a lot riskier, for some a lot shorter, both more and less precious for those who know nothing, meaning most of us.
On the cushion, I’m troubled by a problem with time. There seems to be both too much of it and not nearly enough to go around. Outside on the news people collapse without warning in ER waiting rooms; prisons and factories spin out of control with lethal outbreaks. But in here everything happens so slowly on the steep curve of future uncertainty. The governor says several weeks but “nothing’s written in stone.” Meanwhile the past that got us here has no bearing on the strenuous in-breath, no hold on the quivering out. There’s a problem, too, with the privilege of private refuge, riding out this stormy weather from the relative safety of my paid-up bunker. In meditation, I can “get dirty” with these conflicting emotions and, as Pema Chödrön advises, “hold the experience.” In this holding (a “brave act of becoming”) the heart warms to myself and other human beings. There’s no running from the contradictions, but I can sit with what arises. This, according to Chödrön, is the “total nonstruggle” that meditation teaches.
I’m sharing this with you because I think you’d understand. You’d relate, at least, to the brute force of intense conscious presence rubbing up against our shared addiction to compulsive thinking. We talked about it that morning when we took a slow jog through the desert, up a craggy slope toward Pyramid Lake then back down on a two-lane blacktop still cool from the night’s icy temperatures. You’d been off the sauce for months, you said, meaning, I’ve since learned, you’d cleaned up for a week or two in advance of my arrival.
As the rising sun warmed our backs, we took turns assembling pet platitudes into what felt like the rudiments of a common practice. We discussed that feeling of freedom that comes from letting go of self-identification with one’s personal history and life-situation. I’d recently finished grad school, so I’m sure I took the high road by situating the conditioned mind not just in personal experience but in a vast collective mindset whose nuances seemed to bore you as my sentences, breathy and urgent, unwound in the warming desert air. You had lots to say about energy vortices and a pending worldwide transformation of human consciousness, the evidence for which you’d gleaned from those glossy paperbacks you kept on a low shelf. You offered to share them, and while you were showering I leafed through one or two, but the self-identified PhD in me just couldn’t get past the cotton-candy covers and sophomoric prose.
Just couldn’t let go of all that high-powered thinking, in other words. My body may have known better, but my mind had all the answers. It’s a dreadful affliction, the polar opposite of total nonstruggle. The wise seem to make this point over and over: to be identified with your mind is to be trapped in time. We like to think life and death are our only problems, but at the end of this never-ending day there’s only one problem: the time-bound mind itself.
In Pali, the word for forgiveness (khama) also means the earth.
Because the earth has a lock on total nonstruggle.
Because a human being who forgives is earthlike—nonreactive and unperturbed, unburdened of the weight of resentment.
Today the wind blows strong outside my window. Here in the Midwest we’re on high alert for tornadoes while hotspot cities brace for the next big surge, for vital news on PPE and respirators. Earth may be cool and untroubled, but the sky and the air we breathe feels angry, hell-bent on vengeance, maybe desperate for amends. I read somewhere that a good apology, like Janus of Roman mythology, is two-faced—backward-facing remorse (I was wrong for what I did), forward-facing forbearance (I will do better in the future). A virus is mechanical, not alive, and certainly not vengeful, but down on the cushion with my dirty emotions I’m convinced that what the earth will need when this is over is a big heartfelt apology, a brave act of communal becoming on the heels of our collective responsibility.
With my brother it was never a question of forgiveness, in either direction. When he was alive the gesture would have seemed excessive, irrelevant. Now that he’s dead it feels too easy, disingenuous, but also (now) all too necessary. Forgiveness by definition rewires the aggrieved in relation to the wrong done and the one who did it. If handled well, both sides may enjoy long-lasting health benefits and other net positives whereas lingering resentments and a clogged forgiveness network can lead to mental, physical, spiritual, and relational health issues. To forgive is to relinquish false pride, to acknowledge one’s own mistakes, to give up the grudges and any plans for retaliation. Where there’s no forgiveness one has to wonder: Was the apology flawed? Would acceptance come across as a sign of weakness? Or do I fear giving up old grudges because there’s power to be had on this (self-righteous) side of the moral inventory?
For years I could be certain my brother existed elsewhere—many miles away behind mountains of mixed emotions, a fully separate self bundled up in his own private memories, plans, expectations, hopes, and fears. My running sense of him living alone over there, quietly suffering, made it easier for me to live free and clear over here, feeling safe and superior in my self-serving estrangement. I know I was wrong for using that distance to safeguard a favored image of self. For that I would apologize, if I could, but the phrasing would be difficult, the semantics leaky. I tried the other day, standing in the tree’s shadow, but in the end I felt silly uttering empty words to a cold, indifferent earth.
If he’s a ghost, the haunting is neurological—two minds wired as one, one body alive and knowing, the other free of time and its bundled complications. The burden feels hot and heavy, as if my dying to the past is not living in the present but taking up space in the gap between life and death.
By the age of five, the child is already filled with fear and sorrow. As adults, we can learn to listen to and understand that suffering through meditation. Sitting and breathing, you go home and touch the five-year-old child still inside, perhaps looking at a photo of yourself at that age. Next, imagine the person you perceive as causing your suffering as a five-year-old child. Think of a parent or an older sibling. We forget they too were once little children filled with fear and sorrow.
The inner child is not just a “silly cliché,” Rick Hanson writes in Just One Thing, but a “large-scale system” embedded in the brain, “at the core” of who we are as human beings. Also at the core are learned habits of dissemblance and dishonesty, with some evidence suggesting a link between early lie-telling behavior and higher-order executive functioning. At the age of three most children will not only lie to conceal transgressions but regulate facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors in order to appear honest, as Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee report in Child Development. At seven, the young liar deploys more sophisticated semantic controls, uttering “false information that differs from reality” while inhibiting thoughts and statements contrary to the lie. Thus, to tell a good lie requires a flexible approach to lived experience. I may know that what I did differs from what I say I did, but in memory I manage the leakage by holding fast to “conflicting alternatives.”
The first lie I remember telling was probably not my first, and certainly not my worst, but decades later I remember it clearly for the power I felt, as a five-year-old child, duping my mother with such deliberately false-true information. The truth involved a snowball and a broken window, but to hear me tell it you’d think that snow had a mind of its own. My small body leaned into the lie with a decidedly innocent, go-figure nonverbal attitude. As an adult I know my mother wasn’t duped so much as playing along, exhibiting, perhaps, what behavioral psychologists refer to as Nelsonian bias—turning a blind eye to the lie in order to avoid negative feelings (interpersonal betrayal) and preserve the parent-child relationship.
When I go home and touch that lying five-year-old, I know this is where it all started: my early fascination with words and power, with narrative chicanery, with malleable utterances designed to turn reality on its head to my personal advantage. The mind speaks of it abstractly here and now, but my body still remembers the truth-bending relief I felt having escaped my transgression, leaving the “false” (as sketchy information, as nonverbal performance) in the hands of another, namely my mother. Lying becomes one of the strategic ways a little boy can “render his mother powerless,” bell hooks writes in All About Love. For young boys, “the earliest experience of power over others comes from the thrill of lying to more powerful adults and getting away with it.”
Truth, like a tree, from the Indo-European root meaning firm, solid, steadfast. But boys like us were raised to believe that to be honest is to be weak and soft. A good lie, by contrast, assures executive function of the highest order and supreme positionality in relation to hoodwinked others. Clearly this won’t do—not if the goal is a life lived to good purpose under all conditions. Rewriting the masculinity script means, among other things, rewiring that leaky boy-man for post-thrill honesty, for a life of humility (Step 7) untroubled by conflicting alternatives.
Clear skies, but now a persistent, bristling cold, as if the weather, stuck between seasons, can’t make up its mind. Meanwhile the joke online about soft, unreliable time—days blurred together in the absence of regimen, school, and work schedules—falls flat against daily totals, confirmed cases, the dead piling up in mobile morgues. Today is Friday, April 10, but what does that mean? Calendar as guiding framework collapses under the weight of peak numbers. Time happens in the next refreshed bar graph.
For some, these blurry, pliable days force a stunning paradox, a back-to-basics conundrum that here I am toying with as I plan my next trip to the grocery store. The puzzle is Buddha brainy: to be secure means to isolate and fortify the "I," but it is just the feeling of being an isolated "I" which makes me feel lonely and afraid. Part of me wants desperately to be out there with people, really and truly connected (like before?), on a crowded train or bus backed up against someone’s overstuffed backpack. But the hypervigilant ego-self, in its effort to self-objectify—to make myself real and keep it that way—fears even an instant of unmasked contact the way a lizard dreads the shock of shadow on a rock bathed in afternoon sunlight.
A colleague online calls it a “viral pandemic,” and I’m struck by the double meaning: not just widespread infection but the disease itself, the pandemic, going viral like an image or video or any bit of rapidly circulated info. Widely shared and radically “popular” but in this case nobody wants it, even as some refuse to accept it. Doubters and flouters strolling by in the streets are walking examples of human clickbait, advertising the allure of an impossible outside. Through the window I watch them, envying their jaunt and open-air freedom. I may feel the seduction, the powerful draw, but I do my best to ignore it. I solve the riddle by choosing security.
I now have time to ponder, but the results, dear brother, are mixed at best. Life will never be the same, everyone keeps saying, but then I wonder, the same as what? The same for whom? From my vantage a million miles away, the new self you pined for, out from under the bottle, looked to me like yet another addiction, twelve steps to ego-fixation as a substitute for other faulty conditions. Those books you read once then stowed on a low shelf told me everything I needed to know about the fear and loneliness parked inside your fortified "I."
When you died I saw it as proof to support my theory. Even more, I figured I had all I needed to shore up my rarified sense of self in stark contrast to your foolish escape from lived reality. Love or hate, near or far, I couldn’t make up my mind and didn’t have to because you made it up for us. Now it’s my job to take inventory, to log the liabilities while resisting the “imperious urge” to hoard them at my own expense. It’s a total struggle, a mind clearly overthinking itself. Days flow together like one long day, but this doesn’t stop me from living more days.
To reach the ninth step and give up. Inevitable? Convenient? His plan all along?
All I know is it couldn’t have been otherwise. At the memorial, talking with friends and family, I comforted myself with brainy statements about predictability and probability, the path he’d chosen for himself, his refusal to accept help, and thus the intentional, quasisuicidal nature of his slow descent and eventual self-destruction. Like everyone I’d hoped for better, but the fundamentalist in me had no illusions about how it would end.
“He never got past the drive for one better,” his sponsor reported.
Meaning one drunk better than the last, the ultimate high reminiscent of long-ago highs—at college parties and football games, in the woods on weekend camping trips, with friends or girlfriends or all alone, then absolutely alone but anti-isolationist in his abstract striving for intimate connection, a self desperate to make himself real, finally and truly, by turning consciousness in on itself to consume itself, to drink away pain and fear, finding comfort and safety in the poison disguised as antidote, and maybe some peace in that final program, a way to survive endless lockdown.
But life is never that easy, I would say to him now. Life is never safe because life is change and endless movement. Nature has a viral way of sharing this news with us daily. At odds with flux and uncertainty, the fortified "I" tries to make sense of experience by attempting to fix it. But only a fool goes to war with an invisible moving target. The result is constant turmoil, thought and action spinning in circles, going nowhere faster and faster. Wise is the one who gives up this game, who lets the riddle solve itself, who makes sense out of change by plunging into it and moving with it, by joining the dance.
The truth is I’ll never know what game he died playing. What put him there on the receiving end of all those fateful party invitations. The last thing my brother taught me: self-erasure can be messy and brutal, drenched in ambiguity and guilty second-guessing, like a bad lie dismantling itself. But here’s the good news: when time stops for one, the next moment comes, for the other, as a release from the past, from past grievances and half-baked apologies, from leakage control, slippery denials, and self-protective hardwiring.
Under these conditions, why worry old grudges when we all breathe the same air and dread the same noxious atmosphere. To live in the realm of dynamic flow, fully alive and engaged in this world, can be to retire from struggle, to relax the grip and die with each moment to all hopes and expectations. That’s why grieving can take the form of meditation, and why sitting here alone in my room quietly breathing suddenly feels like I’m not so alone, like I’m not really breathing, for a few seconds at least like I’m holding on.
Bill Marsh is a college professor and weekend beekeeper based in Chicago. His essays have appeared recently in Bayou Magazine, Briar Cliff Review, Copper Nickel, Lunch Ticket, and Mud Season Review. He's been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in 2019 for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction.
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