Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/04/2009

“As Maine goes, so goes the nation…” Elections, Epilepsy, and castrated sheep

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The wether maine

Maine. The onetime conventional wisdom in American politics is not (and never was) true. The last time Maine’s voting was a “bellwether” for the nation was1932, and it was not consistent even before then. “Bellwether” is not really an honored position. As a youngster in Western Nebraska, I had the “educational” experience of accompanying a sheep drive (moving thousands of sheep from one pasture to another—dusty, smelly, hot, unpleasant in the extreme). At the head of the drive was a large (male) sheep—the bellwether. He wore a bell which the other sheep (female) could follow—as stupid sheep do—and he was castrated (no hanky-panky allowed!). He was the wether

Epilepsy is (a) an illness related to physical disturbances, (b) a condition related to physical disturbances, (c) a mental disturbance related to lack of mental capacity, (d) a handicap related to psychological and/or social aspects, (e) an identity related to being an epileptic, and (f) a punishment.*

 In this instance, Maine is hardly the bellwether. Thirty states have constitutionally repudiated the right of persons of the same gender to marry. California has done so electorally. Maine is simply following along stupidly with the other sheep. The castrated one is in the rear, not the lead. As he should be. What good is a castrated sheep? Maine may be a wether, but they are not wearing a bell (how’s that for mixing a metaphor up inside itself?).

According to Lena Raty et al, epilepsy patients are likely to “. . .feel particularly vulnerable as epilepsy is an ‘invisible’ condition, which relates to psychological distress. . .a negative conception of self, interpersonal difficulties, and a negative attitude toward the condition.” * The distress many epileptics feel (even those of us whose seizures are private affairs, not the “great sickness” or grand mal events most people think of as epilepsy) comes, at least in my experience,  from  a sense that  our condition is “. . .(d) a handicap related to psychological and/or social aspects. . . [and often] (f) a punishment.” * This distress comes not from the epileptic’s sense of herself, but from the sense of isolation she feels whenever people around her discover her condition.

The American-born Canadian poet A.F. Moritz reflects that,

. . . . Isolation and communion can be viewed in two ways. The first has to do with the private self. For each person, some isolation and some communion are necessary. . . .In this perspective, “isolation”. . .should perhaps be replaced with “solitude”. . . .The second way. . .is social. Do we have satisfying access to our society or are we cut off from it, rebuffed and frustrated by it? Does it allow us to have. . .a worthy place within it, or does it repel any decisive influence from individual persons, such that we feel ignored, even tyrannized over?

The society I know seems to be determined to “cut off…[rebuff] and [frustrate]” those who, like epileptics and LGBT persons, do not meet pre-determined qualifications to which one is not privy until one has failed the qualifying test. No one says to us in pre-school or kindergarten or primary school, “If you are epileptic or gay, you cannot fully participate in society, so don’t be those things.” One is what one is and, after one comes to awareness of the facts of one’s life, one is told one has not met the “agreement to preordained structures and behaviors that are non-negotiable.” **

(In case I have thoroughly confused issues here and made nonsense out of my writing—how surprising would that be?—I must clarify. I am not equating epileptics and LGBT persons. The simple fact is that I am both epileptic and gay, and I see many parallels in my social experience between the two realities.)

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All We, Like Sheep, have gone...

Moritz’s article is about poetry—about the place of poetry in society (and I am doing violence to his article here). But his real argument regards the necessity of including all members of our society in our society, and poetry as a means of including all members of our society in a creative process that can “turn isolation into solitude.”  When we participate in this transformation, make it “the basis of social life,” he says, “we are poets.” Through poetry, we are able to “exercise our own productive powers and to make them effective in the public realm.”

Both epileptics and GLBT persons are prevented from exercising “our own productive powers and mak[ing] them effective in the public realm.”

For all of the progress made in rights for LBGT persons, we have now to internalize one more legal rejection, one more electoral process denying us “a worthy place within [society]” so that we will necessarily have to work through “feel[ing] ignored, even tyrannized over.”

Raty et al describe the effects of being denied “a worthy place within” society:

From a social psychological point of view, stigma and shame are related, and shame becomes a central possibility when being stigmatized. Shame may be seen as. . . emotions and feelings that arise through seeing oneself negatively, if even only slightly negatively, through the eyes of others. . .*

The LGBT communit(ies) in America have, since 1969, confronted the “negative[ity] through the eyes of others,” and have seen the end to much of the stigma that, in Moritz’s words, “destroys the child and brings on the adult’s hopelessness and bitter expectations.” But the vote in Maine is an indication that “…the constant, depressing erosion that the social context exerts” has not ended. Our communit(ies) once again, this morning, must confront “emotions and feelings that arise through seeing [ourselves] negatively, if even only slightly negatively, through the eyes of others. . .”

I have no idea where to go with this writing, this thinking out loud and attempting to respond to two remarkable pieces of writing I stumbled upon recently. Sometimes, I am overcome with self-pity for my living in two (or more) communities that do not yet have full “satisfying access to our society.” On good days, when I feel in “solitude” rather than “isolation,” I can begin to understand that my grief at “feel[ing] ignored, even tyrannized over” arises from “seeing [my]self negatively, if even only slightly negatively, through the eyes of others.” And on those good days I can understand the starkly realistic hope in the close of Moritz’s article:

The grieving for humankind comes from listening, and receiving a linkage. From this in turn springs a creative response, love for men and women, grief for their pain, and a clear-sighted analysis of its cause: their failure of vision, and the resulting self-belittlement, a hopeless view of existence, and weakness that prevents them from breaking their isolation. So we are led to an understanding of Wordsworth’s powerful phrase. “What man has made of man” is, at bottom, an unfortunate being who is self-shut-out from the vision of enjoyment and from friendship with the elements. This is a worse problem than war, than injustice and brutality, than harmful and insulting imbalances of wealth, because it is the basis and cause of all of them.

* Raty, Lena K.A., Gerry Larsson, Bengt Starrin, and Bodil M. Wilde Larsson. “Epilepsy patients’ conceptions of epilepsy as a phenomenon.” Journal of Neuroscience Nursing 41.4 (August 2009):  201-210. 
** Moritz, A.F. “What Man Has Made of Man.” Poetry.  195.2 (Nov 2009): 149-160.

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