Tragedy’s Bounty: The Revolution in Place

Saint Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez. Augustine’s view of free will and predestination would go on to have a profound impact on Christian theology.

As long as there have been men, man has felt too little joy.  That, my brothers, is our original sin.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

If you are among these lucky very, very few, [who are privileged enough to have success in life that was not your own doing, …if your town…[ isn’t] now filled with shuttered factories and no jobs, [if] you didn’t grow up in an neighborhood where it was nearly impossible to “Just say no to drugs,”…[etc. ] the ultimate implications of [biological/neurological determinism] don’t concern you.

– Robert Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will

[Studies] support the view that in some circumstances, depressed individuals are… “sadder but wiser.”  As such, depression is the pathological loss of the capacity to rationalize away reality.  

– Ibid.  

Day after day our screens and newspapers bring us news of intractable social-political conflicts, consequences of “identifications,” with nation, ethnicity, religion, with Communism or Republican extremism, with being members of a historically persecuted group, etc.  As author and trauma expert Gabor Maté pointed out in a YouTube interview (A Call for Healing), the sense of victimization that drives conflicts is direct consequence of such  identifications.  Even minority group identifications though they provide important political leverage, are vulnerable to the slide into victimhood.  Case in point is Israel, bombing Gazan civilians in retaliation for the Hamas attack Oct. 7, or, for another,  the more vindictive end of the MeToo movement.   

What this suggests to me is that for people serious about peace, the effort to drop (or relativize) one’s persistent, “background” identifications is a necessary moral act, prefatory to any sort of peace negotiations, whether interpersonal, inter-partisan, inter-religious or international.  This should not be an impossible step for the liberal mind – i.e., free-thinking, open-minded, humanitarian – to contemplate, even though there’s a distinct “catch.”  

For I include in such identifications, with automatic link to victimization, being white, liberal, a Democrat.  And I include, having just finished reading neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky’s remarkable book, Determined, the dominant Western identity based in a will that is free. As Sapolsky takes great care to show, belief in free will is a choice against all evidence that such a thing exists. But how is this identification with a group, one might ask?  No group, actually.  Believing one’s will is free is 100%  identification with one’s ego and egoic perspective; it is inherently defensive.  

One identification alone challenges egoic supremacy – and thereby relativizes all the other lesser identities.  That is identification with the One, traditionally God, the most inclusive reality. (Unfortunately, except for those with a mystical or Buddhist bent, God, too, is an egomaniac with (His) defensive insistence on monotheism, identification with “Him” just more-of-same)   


Sapolsky seems to be talking about very nearly the same thing as me when he suggests that to unreflectively inhabit “the normal,” freed from perceiving the environmental and biological determinants of behavior around (and within) you, frees one from having to realize that bad things happen as a matter of routine to most other people on the planet! And more: it frees one from the unbearable realization you are not in control, and that mainly why you cling to the illusion of having that control is fear of knowing something happened to you – you in your “luckier-than-most” circumstances – a trauma – that was out of your control.

As writers, Sapolsky and I have taken on formidable persuasive tasks  – his to get people to believe there’s no such thing as free will so that they can stop being so vengeful and punitive. Mine to persuade people (myself included) that egoic certainty is an illusion not because science proves it but because of what Sapolsky might well consider mystical mumbo-jumbo – that is, inner knowing.  Where we agree is that having to defend “the normal” basically due to fear of “letting go” holds people back from being justice-loving and peace-behaving human beings.  Fine, I say, convince people with science; it’s worth a try!

However, here’s the risk Sapolsky runs as author of a NY Times best-seller that I do not: he may convince a lot of people to agree but still they’ll have no clue how to act on the scientifically proven fact that free will is illusory.  (Other than he may persuade some people to work to change the criminal justice system.  This not a bad thing but so far, rather ineffective against popular passion for retribution. Hollywood –  mainstream liberal as it is – has  been a great proponent of “being soft on criminals” –  at least since Humphrey Bogart defended the “unlucky” Nick Romano in Knock On Any Door (1949) – but the carceral system remains intact.)

Much better if one has to come to understand how one’s own life – not just the lives of unlucky others – has been determined by biological and environmental influences entirely outside one’s control.  And to understand this not stupidly, like “You’re telling me I have to be a baby machine, right?” ( victim-think!) but from experience that taught you a reality indeed exists over which you have no control.   

The “catch,” mentioned earlier:  for us lucky ones to have that experience is a journey through pain. That’s why, in part my persuasive  “strategy” if it can be called that is to have people notice it’s not just pain we avoid in clinging to the normal, but joy as well.  Strangely enough, following Nietsche here, though joy – except maybe the joy of shopping – is suspect in the normal free will-based thoughtworld of the lucky, it is central to the determinism of the highest and most inclusive reality (God-the-non-monotheist).

Stranger still that I, a self-admitted melancholic, am talking about joy!  Why?  Because, as a depressive, I “suffer the pathological loss of the capacity to rationalize away reality!” That is, I cannot  successfully rationalize away determined reality (although I could once).  My experience taught me that the reality outside my control is precisely about “joy!”  Being depressed (joyless), I have to put forth daily effort in my writing to connect myself creatively to that reality for a few moments.  It’s worth it. It allows me awareness of the treasure buried down there under the myth of the normal – below the reality in which I’m depressed!  I’ve found there’s a strange necessary sharing of substance between the experience of unwanted, not-under-my-control reality – usually experienced as pain – and  this “peak experience” of native joy.  

The realization that this exalted feeling is humanly obtainable indicates a universally available way out of lesser identification with neoliberal totality.


For a time, and for some of us back in the previous century, hippie counterculture, influenced by the experience of hallucinogenic mind expansion,  offered an alternative identification.  Orin and I are reading a book by Jonathan Lethem, The Feral Detective, that takes readers to remnants of west coast hippie culture existing in the Mojave desert. The glimpse is fascinating, for we know the motives – actually sane –  that drove some people to seek an alternative off-the-grid lifestyle.  However, Lethem’s hippie remnants are not working a subsistence, communal,  or CSA farm some place, but living like non-urban homeless people; they seem mad as hatters.  Closer to Manson Family or Lord of the Flies, possibly, than to other intentional communities one might compare them with.  

“To be in it but not of it” is the conventionally offered “solution” to living with integrity in a toxic, predatory culture – rather than the false belief it can be escaped.   Easy to say!  To be, within the awesomely frightening mess neoliberalism has made for ordinary humans,  both  social ( not an island) and whole (independently thinking/feeling) beings – indeed requires being not of it.  Whether or not we will risk our wholeness while staying in place – I argue –  is the defining struggle for the New Age/anthropocenic era, but few take it on; most remain “in it and of it.”  

Prophets, mystics and poets point us to that larger identification, showing it to be a humanly attainable creative task.  But wholeness depends also upon not identifying with one’s luck, even though  liberal society makes this so easy  (easy that is for candidates for “the circle of the lucky”). Rather,  identity must be equally with one’s tragedy in which one was truly victim, lying, I venture to claim,  in everyone.  Although cast out from the myth of the normal (repressed)  – the tragedy isn’t really a secret;  the effort to keep it so, in compliance with the ego,  boomerangs into neuroses, that private little world that keeps me a slave, obediently serving the neoliberal totality.  So, yes, exile of the tragic from “the normal” serves a purpose:  knowing one’s life is determined, as Sapolsky calls it – out of my control, as I call it – allows in the banned others, a  bottom-up insurgency against neoliberal totality.  The victim, buried down below layers of the accustomed self, is also redeemer.

Thanks to new understandings of mind, and to integration between eastern spirituality and western psychology, we know trauma – the tragic –  that which threatens to overturn all meaning – really does so!  By means of the bottom-up process of integration,  identity can  be placed not in dominant liberal reality but with that largest and most inclusive reality.  While still living within the bonds tying us to  this world, with its top-down power arrangements, the changed identification makes one alien to it, inherently resistant to it, not “of it.”  The struggle may be thought of as restoring an indigenous consciousness such as a westerner can achieve, without self-exile.    


Up until the time Orin and I got bitten by the entrepreneurship bug, if there was a life path I was pursuing, it was my attempt to follow the poorly articulated map laid out by my artist father and literature-loving mother. It was an effort, always, to find something I was missing which I believed I found when mental breakdown (January 1994),  with its absolute loss of control,  transformed into “breakthrough,”   into depth, meaning, new energy and inspiration at mid-life.

In the highly praised 2017 Norwegian movie The Worst Person in the World which we watched recently at home the turning point for protagonist Julie is her grief over the death of her former boyfriend.  He’s an “older man” who truly sees her and loves her and is clearly father substitute for her pathetically bad Dad.  Finally, she is able to drop the disabling uncertainty over “is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” and pursue her art (photography).  

My turning point, also involving grief,  was very different and did not lead to such a neat ending.  When I discovered by means of intensive psychotherapy feelings that had been locked in my body since infancy –  the grief of being unmothered – the meaning became more profound than anything I could have thought of looking for, including finding satisfying work.   Based upon the truth of my neglected feelings, the normal I had known was all wrong.  That is, if what was supposed to be was the love and physical caring every cell in my pre-verbal infant body craved,  and that was withheld, the problem pointed beyond my personal mother to a larger truth. Even a good mother cannot be “good” in a toxically insane culture.

Thus when we started our coffeeshop business upon a vision, it  made sense for Orin and me, old hippies that we are, to call ourselves “doubly mad,” a term gleaned from a Robert Bly poem, to distinguish us from the neoliberal, “singly-mad”norm with which we do not identify.  We’ve found knowing we’re fools for acting on a vision is good “medicine;” a helpful reminder giving us staying power for being in it but not of it.

In turn, using the lens of this different “revolutionary” perspective, I came to see beyond my father’s  view of art and “the artist.”  Having found by personal experience that creative expression links the artist to the Unconscious I saw that genius  is distributed equally among  all human beings! To take that connection for granted, as my father did, exclusivizes  the power inherent in ecstatic calling. Today, more democratically,  anybody can be an artist as long as they get their MFA:  the exclusiveness is still in place, still hierarchical, the revolutionary potential of art successfully diverted.  For how can you be crazy with your MFA brand in hand paid for by one’s self-sacrificing parents? The revolutionary meaning, (that is, make something beautiful like its your prayer for deliverance from a broken, either-you’re-a winner-or-a-loser toxically cruel “normal”) is lost.  Or so it seems to me.


These days, if I ask an acquaintance“How’re you doing?” invariably the answer I get back  is “Oh, hangin’ in there.” In fact, I give that answer fairly often myself!  Implied is, I’ll keep hanging in with things as they are even though they’re awful, keeping to myself a huge backlist of victim complaints  – unless asked!  Neoliberal reality turns people into victims whether we will or no! What do actions look like when not coming from victimhood?  Modestly, I offer up our Cafe – soon to be ours no longer! – as example. Nostalgic hippie appeal aside, our Cafe was/is revolutionary, ahead of its time.  No consequence of egoic free will, but created in obedience to a vision of what humanly feels better.  This is why we say, often, the Cafe, its decentralized vibe, rooted in the local, restoring face-to-face and in-person relatedness, is what should not be in neoliberal reality.  That is, grounded here in Utica, it points to the other reality, the larger identification, heaven and earth meeting.

The pandemic provided a glimpse of what increasingly is our future – the non-negotiable demand  to “recreate” locally, to depend more for basic needs upon local agriculture, healers, plant medicines, etc., than on corporate chains and experts,  to become wiser instead of smarter – to return to the lifestyle of “enough.” We (society) should have chosen it long ago if we were to honor relationships with all creatures and the earth – but – clearly – people are not ready.  

For twenty-one years, my identification has been with the Cafe – not because I’m co-owner but because it exemplifies the only world, paraphrasing Thoreau,  I would willingly join.  I tell my friends it is the one place on earth where I feel entirely at home. That is, not in my personal home do I feel this way, but in this place that identifies with the most inclusive reality.  Today because it has become unmanageable for us, and for the sake of our daughter, who has worked there since she was 18,  and wants out, Orin and I are forced to attempt the sale of our business.   I’m sure this ongoing identity crisis drives this piece of writing.  At the moment, the only conclusion I can muster is this: due to factors in the determined, biological reality of aging we must relinquish the Cafe.  Luckily, another aspect of determined reality was opened to us several decades ago:  that inward process of healing and wisdom-growing, bodied forth in creative work,  that has no end except death.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: