Now Playing

Gary Kamiya Has the Secret to Happiness

Cancer. Fires. Trump. How our executive editor finds solace through it all.

 

This October 11, around 5:30 in the afternoon, I was looking out my window to the west as the sun descended toward the high-rises on Russian Hill when a strangely familiar feeling of dread hit me. I’d had that sensation only once before in my life. It was at a party in 1989. I had been feeling a malaise for a few months, a nagging sense that my body was off in some deep, nameless way. I was standing by the drink table when suddenly a voice inside my head said, very clearly, There is something terribly wrong with you. You have to do something. The next week I signed up for health insurance at Kaiser, even though I was a struggling freelance writer and couldn’t really afford it. I saw a doctor who misdiagnosed me as having ulcers. Months later, I received a new diagnosis: stage 3 colorectal cancer. I was 36 years old. My oncologist gave me a 50-50 chance to survive; my surgeon bumped those odds up to 85-15 if I did chemo and radiation. The dice ended up rolling my way.

Twenty-eight years later, cancer-free and reasonably healthy, I felt that prickly sense of dread come over me again as I looked out the window. But the feeling had nothing to do with my health. It had to do with the world. The fires in the North Bay were raging, San Francisco was covered with ashes, and the sun, seen through a filthy gray mist, was a strangely focused, unnatural, end-of-the-world orange-red. Rationally, I knew that climate change was wreaking havoc on the planet, that extreme weather was partly responsible for the wildfires that had blanketed the Bay Area in ashes and the devastating hurricanes that had recently torn through Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. But on this particular afternoon, that abstract knowledge of a distant calamity became urgent, and the urgency was tinged with fear. There is something very wrong with the world, that familiar voice said. We have to do something. This time, however, there was much less I could do. I couldn’t buy health insurance for the earth. There was no planetary equivalent to the surgery, radiation, and chemo that saved my life, and even if there had been, I could do very little to make those things happen. I was just left with a feeling of impending doom, and a question as old as humanity: How do you go on living when everything is going to hell?

 

In 2017, a lot of us in the Bay Area found ourselves asking that question. The Trump presidency; terrorist attacks in Europe; nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea; a potential meltdown in the Middle East; a parade of catastrophic storms; mass shootings in Las Vegas, Texas, and even a UPS parking lot here in San Francisco; the devastating North Bay and Southern California fires—it was truly an annus horribilis.

As dozens of testimonials demonstrate, Bay Areans have dealt with this train wreck of a year in a variety of ways. Some have gotten involved in politics. Some have sought out friends and family. Some have found peace in nature. Some have sought inner harmony through meditation, art, religion, or exercise. Some have engaged to tune out the news and unplug from social media. Some have sought the perspective of history. And some have begun drinking more, using more drugs, arguing more, or simply blotting out the pain with denial.

A whole lot of this angst, of course, was caused by Donald Trump. According to an American Psychological Association survey, stress went up in the United States during the months before and after the 2016 election for the first time in 10 years. Of Democrats, 72 percent said the election was the source of their stress. The percentage of people reporting stress symptoms like depression, headaches, and anxiety clocked in at 80 percent. A controversy even broke out over whether Trump-related stress should be called a “disorder” or simply a “reaction.” This national freak-out (actually, half-national: For obvious reasons, far fewer Republicans lost it) was the rare example of a political event whose impact on the nation’s collective mental health was comparable to that of a personal crisis, such as a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or a serious illness.

Which takes us back to the voice that suddenly resonated in my head as I stared at the lurid red sun that afternoon in October. You couldn’t get much more personal than that experience: a sudden, piercing sense that the planet had the equivalent of a malignant and invasive tumor. For me, the election of Donald Trump did not trigger in charity or pursued meaningful collaborative projects. Some have tried quite the same sense of immediate existential dread as that darkness-at-noon moment, but it was dreadful enough. And Trump combined with climate change—with some psychotic mass murders and other things stirred in—was a cocktail shaken by Satan himself.

And yet for some reason I have managed to get through the last year more or less emotionally intact. I didn’t spend any more time in nature than normal, didn’t start meditating, didn’t unplug from social media (though I wasn’t all that plugged in to begin with), didn’t seek professional help, didn’t join activist groups. Nor, as far as I know, did I get into more arguments, sleep more, or increase my intake of alcohol or cannabis. I did acquire some heroin in the course of reporting a story about San Francisco’s injection drug epidemic, but I didn’t use it. (Yet.)

I don’t say this with pride, or to put myself forward as some sort of role model. If I am an example of anything, it is more Mad magazine’s oblivious, permanently grinning Alfred E. Neuman than the enlightened and compassionate Buddha. As environmentalists have long known, it is extremely difficult for human beings to take future problems seriously, and equally hard for them to deal with problems of a scale as vast as the global consequences of climate change. This probably starts with a biological aversion to thinking about death. Even during the year I was getting chemo and didn’t know if I would live or die, I didn’t spend much time contemplating my own demise. The same goes for the days in October when that dirty, Dickensian fog choking San Francisco offered a vivid premonition of the earth’s apocalyptic future. After the fires died down and the smoke went away, I mostly stopped worrying about that coming catastrophe.

Trump has been harder to deal with, not because he’s more important than the planet (although he thinks he is) but because he’s inescapable. The carcinoma of climate change is invisible, and its worst consequences are in the future, but Trump is as present and noxious as a cloud of hungry mosquitoes, or Roy Moore at a middle school picnic. I have been forced to engage with his singularly unpleasant existence much more frequently and more intensely than I have with the fact of climate change. The main coping mechanism I’ve adopted is to try to keep him in historical perspective. As H.L. Mencken sort of put it (his actual quote was slightly different), no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. That was in 1926. This gives me some solace, although keeping Trump in perspective often requires considerably more arduous feats of mental gymnastics. The process reminds me of the scene in This Is Spinal Tap when the band members are contemplating Elvis Presley’s grave and Nigel Tufnel says, “It really puts perspective on things,” to which David St. Hubbins replies, “Too much—there’s too much fucking perspective.”

 

Younger people, who have not seen the dark side of life as often, take politics harder. I was actually more traumatized by politics during the Reagan years, when I was in my 20s. Then too, I dealt with the situation in total ostrich fashion: I simply turned off the TV whenever he came on. After being a journalist for more than 30 years, I’m too addicted to the news now to even want to turn it off (and I find that keeping my eye on Trump & Co.’s grotesque misdeeds, painful as it can be, is psychically necessary), but I still avoid having to actually look at the Orange One on TV. And the fact that social media has always given me the creeps has helped keep his secondhand polluted waters out of my soul kitchen.

I’m aware that I can afford to be only sporadically politically engaged because I’m privileged. Not only was I born straight and male and middle-class at a time when my cohort was inheriting the greatest surplus of wealth in the history of humanity, but I was born with a relatively full tank of serotonin, and that accident of genetics makes it easier for me to speed away from our national toxic waste dump. Human beings may be political animals, as Aristotle wrote, but they’re a lot of other kinds of animal, too, and if you can morph from herd animal to loner, from dog to cat, you stand a lot better chance of enduring the times when your herd kind of, well, loses it.

But I’m not tormented by the knowledge of privilege. To feel constantly guilty over your status in life is to allow politics to take over your soul. The mantra “The personal is political” is actually one of the more pernicious ideas to come out of the ’60s. Those societies in which everything is political, like the Communist ones anatomized by writers like Milan Kundera and Czeslaw Milosz, strike me as claustrophobic and dystopian.

Of course, there’s a legitimate argument that the threat to democracy and our values posed by Trump—or the far more consequential threat that climate change poses to the world—is so dire that we have no time left to cultivate our own gardens: We must utterly commit ourselves to the struggle (or, since this is 2017 California, the Resistance). Besides going on the Women’s March and taking the occasional potshot at Trump in print, I haven’t acted in accordance with that argument, but I could be wrong. I recently watched a homemade video of the catastrophic tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. As sirens wail and loudspeakers warn people to go to higher ground, the camera captures a number of people who are ambling along, looking at the river, in no hurry at all to escape. Within 15 minutes, the entire area where they were standing has disappeared and been replaced by a seething hell of raging waters, floating vehicles, and wooden fragments of demolished houses. I have no idea what happened to those people. I’m acting as if Trump is just a really bad storm, not an existential threat to our existence. Am I right or wrong? Unlike the fates of those poor people in the video, we may not know the answer to that question for decades.

In any case, that’s the way I’ve constructed my lifeboat. But what works for me is not a prescription for others. In the end, how we endure bad years like the present one has to do with the way we react to stress. And there are as many effective ways to do that as there are people. The word stress as we now understand it was coined in 1936 by the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, who defined it as the body’s adaptive response to any demand for change. Selye speculated that severe, prolonged stress responses might lead to disease, a hypothesis that has been vindicated.

But crucially, Selye also argued that stress can be positive. Because the term has such negative associations, this is not widely recognized. Positive stress, which he called eustress, stimulates creativity and flexibility, enhancing an individual’s ability to maintain his or her inner equilibrium while navigating a changing world. A life devoid of eustress is unchallenging, monotonous, and ultimately dysfunctional; one filled with too much stress leads to breakdowns. The ideal is a balance in which the individual is subjected to enough stress to grow and evolve, but not so much that the burden becomes intolerable.

Objectively, stress is neutral—it’s neither good nor bad, simply something that changes the environment of an organism. This means that any kind of stress can become eustress if those experiencing it are able to integrate it into their lives. As an extreme example, some secret agents have been able to endure torture because they were able to see even this most harrowing of ordeals as a challenge, one in which they were still in control. That is obviously a degree of mental self-discipline that few can aspire to or attain. But we all face our own mortality, we all face other challenges, and we all have the capacity to find the positive in challenging circumstances.

Seen in this light, the various coping mechanisms I and so many other people have employed during this past year—a year that “demanded change” more than any in recent memory—are at once ways to preserve our inner equilibrium, to keep our souls balanced, and to find the positive in a dark situation, to turn stress into eustress. Whatever the coping methods—whether one puts a given situation in historical context, engages in healthy and creative activities, fights back politically, finds sanctuary in loved ones, or practices a certain amount of salutary denial—the important thing is to preserve the best and deepest part of ourselves.

And to live well is also the best way to protect one’s life from the ravages of the world. Happiness, wherever you find it, in whatever form it comes, is a better buffer against traumatic change than any mental construction or philosophy. I have survived this year for all the reasons mentioned above, but most of all by doing simple things that bring me pleasure: hanging out with my kids, walking down the beach with my dog, writing while wired on my morning latte, riding my bike, laughing with friends, having an after-work martini while listening to a 1963 Joe Henderson album, looking out my window at the sun—no longer a fiery red— setting behind Russian Hill. The work continues, the fight continues, but these are the things we’re fighting for. And they are also our best weapons.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at letterssf@sanfranmag.com
Email Gary Kamiya at gkamiya@modernluxury.com
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag