A short meditation on shit

Or: have I got the guts to let go of toxic crap?

Words & images © Paul Ransom

It began with a bad case of constipation. I thought it might have been the potato and leek soup setting like cement in my bowel. Turns out not.

Fast forward a fortnight and I found myself in hospital with suspected acute appendicitis. A CT scan later revealed a perforated appendix. I spent that night trying to sleep in a corridor, all the while attached to a drip. In the morning I was told that my case was highly unusual and I was rolled up to a ward, where I was to be kept under observation.

After four days of such monitoring – with numerous tests, much belly examining and countless questions – I was sent home. My appendix, as far as anyone could tell, was not about to explode and pour forth its collected poisons. The operation could wait. In the meantime, a colonoscopy has been planned and everything else is on hold.

As I write, I have a bomb in my body. I feel its hard node. Little grenade of pus and shit. I think too of colonoscopies and what that might mean. And then I try not to think about it.

But this is not the point of my shitty story. Aside from any fears around ruptures, gruesome procedures and doomful diagnoses, the big take-out from this unexpected faecal adventure arrived one night while I was pacing laps around the ward.

TRIGGER WARNING: Hardcore materialists may wish to stop reading, as I am about to veer into territory you will likely find fanciful and ridiculous.

Like many of you I have a long established practise of self-questioning; an inner therapy process that drills into and teases apart my various patterns and mythologies. Over time this has become a refined, targeted and fearless technique. Though it operates with compassion, it brooks no denial. Its eye is all-seeing. It even holds itself to account. In short, everything can be questioned, including the questions.

At 55, I have learnt to trust this process. It has an impressive record. Indeed, you would not be reading this if it didn’t work.

Thus, as I circled the stark, antiseptic ugliness of Ward 6W, I got to thinking in cinemascope. Here I was in the midst of my first real health drama, my first time in hospital since a broken arm in 1978. And what had triggered it? Shit. Or rather, the retention of such. Holding on to that which I would be better off letting go.

Then there was the perforated appendix. The surgeons had told me that the toxic mass was rock solid – not amenable to easy laparoscopic draining – and that my body had successfully ‘contained’ it. Again, poison retained. A hub of venom held tightly in place. Right there inside me, in dangerous proximity.

The penny dropped like the sound of a bell. I have goose bumps now writing about it. What is this shit? I asked myself, and the answer was immediate and obvious.

This shit is what I still allow, what I still turn a blind eye to, what I still think is somehow worth putting up with in pursuit of supposedly worthwhile objectives.

None of which was new to me as I circled the ward. I have been here before. Many times. Allowing predators and vampires into my orbit, tolerating their manipulation and disrespect. Fuming while they dumbed down my ideas to fit their beige-tinted marketing dogma. Being tempted to swallow it all down by the lures of money and so-called achievement. Not wanting to disappoint people. Trying to counteract lifelong narratives of self-doubt with conclusive, externally measurable proof.

The irony here is that I had previously published a book that addressed these very issues; and that book – The Pointless Revolution1 – had emerged from a decade-long process. Call it a mid-life crisis. Yet here I was…back where I was. Not in meltdown; but smelling the same old shit. Like an addict. Pinging on the poo vibes. Repeating old patterns. Only now I was in hospital and facing at least two surgical procedures, together with a raft of incipient uncertainties for the fear centres in my brain to get busy fretting over. (When you have live ordnance in your body the threat signals are loud, clear and constant.)

Perhaps even more strange is that this shit storm is happening at a time in my life when I’ve never been happier, never been more at home in my skin, at peace with myself. Indeed, my much-vaunted ‘pointlessly revolutionary’ process has enabled me to find happiness, as opposed to a condition of merely not being unhappy. The last four years have been the time of my life; this in spite of being declared legally blind in 2017.

Yet why, when my radar started twitching about a certain work opportunity, (moreover, a certain individual), did I not change course? Was it just the very attractive day rate?

My guess is many of you will have been here, done that. We all find reasons, excuses, to go against our better judgement and/or sublimate our instincts to more rationalised imperatives. I can handle it. Just for a while. Etcetera.

What’s more, we live against a background of socio-cultural messaging that posits meaning, merit and self-worth in the external. In socially visible markers. Wealth, status, must-haves. As men, we are told to be tough. Invulnerable. To be the hero or fuck off to Loserville. Even when we have sound intellectual defences against this shit, we still soak in it.

To be fair, this is not an evil conspiracy or the product of nasty right wing capitalists. Competition, territoriality and a love of hierarchies are part of our evolutionary endowment. They are an adaptation that has helped our species to organise its individual and collective activity to such an extent that we now dominate the biosphere. (Dangerously so, it now transpires – but we weren’t to know that 200 000 years ago.)

Nonetheless, much of it feels toxic to me. Alpha bullies make my skin scrawl. Their reductive success mantras strike me as empty. I don’t want a big house, let alone need one. Nor am I desirous of tacky stars on footpaths, and I do not seek a shelf of dusty trophies. Maybe I am a wimp, a shrinking violet, a flat out failure. Perhaps I am afraid of success. So what. From the ‘happy place’ I have lately found, none of that crap matters.

Except now I have a hard fist of poison in my body and in a few weeks someone will shove a tube up my arse and find who knows what.

So am I saying that a willingness to court more toxicity, to consume just that little bit more of the world’s junk food, caused the constipation, the appendicitis? Not necessarily. But physical manifestation and psycho-emotional state have surely aligned this time.

  • I do not take an ideological position here, neither ascribing everything to the purely physical/mechanical, nor insisting that every sore toe is a sign of deep spiritual malady. My sense is that ‘mind & body’ work together in these matters, with physical states affecting psycho-emotional states and vice versa, and to varying degrees in each instance.

Predictably, my hospital sojourn has triggered a root and branch review. However calm and rational I might sound it has clearly been a shock. A disruptive moment and call-to-action. When we are confronted with our own fragility, when plain sailing runs into choppy seas, things shift. Thus, in ways both subtle and obvious, I am not the Paul I was last month. Still recognisable. But altered.

In essence, if only briefly, I went to a place of helplessness. I had begun the day on my feet. I had walked calmly into Emergency. The day ended with me wired to a machine, (that did indeed go ping), trying to find sleep on a narrow bed in a corridor, with nurses waking me regularly to check blood pressure and heart rate. The next morning began with a brusque sounding surgeon telling me things my fatigued brain could not quite configure.

Stripping out surplus drama, a loss of agency and a heavy dose of radical uncertainty,2 however momentary, will do that for you. That is, if you are not in denial or pretending to be superhuman.

Up in the ward, still somewhat spun out, I allowed myself to feel vulnerable. Some will decry this as weakness, as unmanly, but I have long understood that to embrace one’s vulnerability with clear sight takes a particular kind of strength.

And so, pacing laps, I took a good hard look at my own shit. You bet it stank. But it was a stench I permitted. Almost courted.

Turning my ‘therapy gaze’ to the toilet bowl of self I knew right away what the best path forward was. I have known it for a while. Indeed, I have been actively pushing the toxins – people, pursuits, habits, narratives, etc – out of my system for years. Now for the big shit.     

I won’t bore you with the details; rather, I will speak to the challenge many of us confront. How do we balance what we know (feel, sense) to be our truth, our authentic voice and desires, with the continual press of the wider world?

As members of a social-hierarchical species, we are bound to fix our identities and objectives in relation to the tribe. The self is triangulated with the other. I navigate the darkness by the light of your star.

Yet too often I have sailed my ship, ladened with absurdly hoarded poo, towards the reef of sirens. Their song was so beguiling. Surely they wouldn’t smash me to smithereens.

At home now, a few days out from Ward 6W, it is time for a course of enlightened self-interest. For a ruthless cull. I realise people will judge and complain. Some will not understand. Others will try to fix me. Their ‘advice’ will be well-meaning but, frankly, close to useless.

Similarly, I do not expect plaudits. Neither will I claim superior wisdom. There is a hard finger of swollen poison in my body that reminds me. Each time it sends a little spike of pain up into my chest I am confirmed.

I say all this, so easy…but what’s next is to pull the trigger. I do not know what colonoscopies and appendectomies have in store for me, but I do know that – finally – I am done with tolerating the shit of the world.

Though there is much I cannot control, and there is no full-proof vaccination against trouble and vexation, I can choose what I consume, and I am confident my shit radar is accurate enough for me to act decisively on its blips.

I do not expect, nor desire, a life without challenge, but I am clear enough now to know the locus of my greater happiness and to identify sources of unnecessary shit.

I look forward my next dump with a growing sense of lightness and liberation. The sound of flushing will be music to my ears.

PS: In saying all this, I acknowledge that much of the above reflects an enormous historic, economic and social privilege. I still get to choose. Throughout human history, and still now, countless billions had (and have) no such luxury. I have not had to endure aerial bombardment, bubonic plague, grinding poverty, slavery or amputation without anaesthetic. I give thanks for this, and for the largesse of the Australian fiscal/social state. If the last three and half weeks have represented the most uncomfortable physical health episode of my life, how exceedingly fortunate I am. In this spirit, I bless this shit.     

1: The Pointless Revolution (2019, Everytime Press) is available in hard & soft copy form right here.     

2: Radical uncertainty is a term I first encountered in a book by former Bank of England chief Mervyn King. There is much we know that is uncertain, and then there are forms of uncertainty that we have not even factored into our existing risk metrics. In other words, genuine unforeseens. Huge fucking curve balls.

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