Monday, February 11, 2019

More On EB

Still working our way through E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat. In particularly, we just finished his 1939 piece, “First World War.” In it, White reviews his own journal, the diary he kept in his teenage years. He notes, “The entries [in the journal] are disappointingly lacking solid facts. Much of the stuff is sickening to read, but I have a strong stomach and deep regard for the young man that was I. Everyone, I believe, has this tolerance and respect if he is worth anything, and much of life is unconsciously an attempt to preserve and perpetuate this youth, this strange laudable young man.”

From this starting point, White goes on to read compellingly of youth, and war, and loss. But it is the line I’ve quoted above that bothers me. You see, I too kept journals when I was young. I recorded an enormous amount of my daily life in a succession of spiral notebooks, one after another. And I took them with me through thick and thin, from town to town, house to house, job to job. They were quite a little library before it was done.

But then, just before we moved to New Mexico, I confronted them. I was spending virtually the whole of my time preparing for the move, and getting ready to take care of my parents. I was tired, and angry, and kind of resentful (because Martha was still working, I was the one who did most of the labor to get us in motion. I wasn’t angry at her, but circumstances seemed villainous to me), and I was quite depressed. And then, there were those notebooks, many of which I could no longer read. My handwriting is atrocious. Even I have trouble making sense of it. I’ve wondered sometimes if I actually don’t have something wrong with me, some neurological difficulty, which makes it hard for me to wield the pencil. But, whatever.

Anyway, there they were, a record of all my doings …demanding that I move them one more time, now across two thousand some odd miles of American countryside.

And I looked at them, and suddenly I was full of fury, and I threw them into a box, and took it to the recycle center. I suppose they were pulped and sent away to a new life as paper towels or toilet tissue.

I sort of regret doing it. But not much. And, I guess, I can’t really say I share with E.B. White the “deep regard” for the young man I was. Maybe, indeed, I’m angry at him. Enraged, even! For all the things he could have done, but didn’t.

It is, of course, self-pitying on my part. It is, of course, a sign of weakness in me. But, alas, I am not EB nor was meant to be (insert reference to ragged claws here). I have neither his capacity for mercy upon himself, nor the strength to confront (as he does) the boy I was. Nor, for that matter, do I have the awful power required to consider the man I did not become. That is hardest of all.

So, yes, I have neither EB’s literary talent nor his fearsome toughness, his ability to consider without flinching what was once and what never came of it.

Still…

Maybe…maybe…

Could it be that…even though I am a lesser man (not to mention a far less competent writer) could there still not be something virtuous in my action? In my disposal of my notebooks? The flushing of my memories? The act of a mere mortal, but maybe also healthy for all of that?

To wit, is there not something good in the loss of it? In the abandonment of the regretted past?

That, then, baptized, washed away of remorse if not exactly of sin…you may begin once more…this time in benign amnesia…or even…or even…

Something akin…

To hope.

Monday, February 04, 2019

EB and Me

Martha and I have the habit of reading aloud in the morning. We meet on the couch (in front of the fire on cold days), have coffee, silently share the funnies in the paper, then proceed to some book or another that we’ve picked for the moment, and I read to her for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.

For a long time, it was P.G. Wodehouse. We must have gone through all the Bertie and Jeeves short stories by now. We’re not as fond of his other stuff, like the Blandings Castle tales or Psmith. So, mostly we stick to Bertie and Jeeves. Though, recently, since we’ve sort of run out of the short stories, so we’ve moved back to E.B. White, another of our favorites.

Right now, we’re deep into One Man’s Meat, his collection of essays about life on “a Maine coast salt water farm.” It is, of course, astonishing stuff, and I’m convinced that White is one of the greatest writers in the English language.

There is, however, a downside to reading him, at least if you’re a writer, and one who aims at writing short, personal essays, as I do. To wit, first and foremost, it is depressing to realize you’ll never be that good. Ever. No matter how hard you try or how long you struggle. It’s like being a reasonably gifted athlete, proud of your standings and muscle and lung power on the track, only to have Jim Thorp or some other superhuman lope on past you without so much as breaking a sweat. Disheartening, you see.

But there is another problem here which, I think, is more subtle but just as dangerous. Because he is so good, you find yourself trying to write like him, rather than like yourself. And you can’t do a personal essay in someone else’s voice.

In fact, I was looking back at my own last entries in this blog, the ones on individuality. They aren’t terrible, but they aren’t my best, either. In fact, there’s a distressing note of pomposity in them.

And I can’t help but think that’s because of good old E.B. Not that he is pompous. Anything but! However, when I’m unconsciously trying to write like him, I fail …and lacking his poetry, I get something else. I get pretension. I sound like a freshman writer looking for someplace, any place, to stick in that six syllable word he learned last Tuesday.

Which, of course, brings up the question of how to deal with it. I’m not sure. I’m certainly not going to stop reading him. So that’s not an option. And because he does influence you on a subconscious level, it is hard to guard against his influence. You don’t even know you’re imitating him (however badly) until you’ve done it.

So, there’s the thing: how do you avoid being contaminated by genius?

Maybe the answer is the question. That is, maybe the benefit is the struggle itself. The exercise for the reader (or rather the writer) is to acknowledge what is happening, re-read the entry, and edit like a bandit. Steal what is good, yes, but also, more importantly, pare away what is not you. And by this hard discipline, strengthen one’s self.

Or to put it all another way…to quote another clever bastard…to thine own self be true.

Even if, particularly if, you’re not quite sure who that is.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Illness of I

I’ve been thinking about the last few times I’ve written for this blog. I mean, the entries where I worried about how the psychiatric profession might be anti-individualist—and, indeed, might even define the self as madness.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more uncomfortable I’ve become with that thesis. I wonder if it isn’t kind of a straw man argument. I mean, I don’t know that many psychotherapists to start with, and of these I’ve only known a few …alright, three…who could be really called fans of mass conformity. There was “Dr. Churl,” who I mentioned before. Then, there was a therapist I had (very briefly) who feared that maybe my interest in writing and video were misplaced. Though, honestly, I don’t know whether that was so much a comment on my individuality as a comment on my talent, or complete lack there-of.

And there was a fellow I met at a party some years ago. He was a psychiatrist, an M.D., and not merely (as he was quick to assure you) a psychologist or therapist. Anyway, he found out I was writing about the UNIX operating system for various magazines (this was the 1990s), and then he became really quite abusive. I was, he said, clearly an advocate “for some bizarre, non-standard equipment,” meaning, not Microsoft. Though, of course, this was back in the bad old days of the operating system wars, and you could expect that sort of thing on a regular basis from all sorts of people.

(Oh, and by the way, that was one of my rare triumphs. I gave as good as I got in that particular argument. Indeed, I told him exactly where to get off, and what he could do at the toll booth when he got there. The fact that I was also right, and that UNIX and UNIX-like systems are still going strong after all these years, also adds a certain pleasure to the memory.)

But, well, other than that, and maybe a couple more here and there, that’s about it. Psychotherapists and their kin don’t seem to be any more anti-individualist than any other professionals, and certainly a good deal less than some.

So, why my insistence on writing about the issue? I suppose there are three reasons. First, I genuinely am concerned about the power of the psychological sciences if they are employed in the wrong way—as they were in the Soviet mental “hospitals” in the bad old days of the Cold War. And, frankly, I’m not sure that something like that couldn’t happen again, particularly as it seems Liberal Democracy gets a little more shaky every day, and mind control gets a little more possible by the hour.

And, second, I suppose Dr. Churl left a real welt on me. I’m still working him out. Maybe these entries are a way of doing that—a sort of self-analysis to deal with the analyst.

And, third and finally, maybe I was just looking for a topic that would let me use one word in particular.  To be precise, Drapetomania.

What is that? Well, before the Civil War in this country, when slavery was legal, slave owners looked for ways to justify their exploitation of others’ sweat and toil. One way of doing that was to define slaves as being intellectually ill-suited for freedom…indeed, to be naturally inclined to servility. And so, ergo, obviously, if an [Insert N-word Here] longed for freedom, well, then, that [Insert N-word] here must be insane.

So, one prominent physician, Samuel A. Cartwright, obligingly provided a diagnosis and a word for the disease of liberty, “Drapetomania,” from the Greek drapétēs, meaning “runaway,” and manía, of obvious meaning. He even offered a treatment or two. They involved the whip, the chain, the strategic mutilation…toes, for instance.

And so, my friends, hence my fears…for as I look out upon the world as it is today, where the power imbalance between the great and the potent and the rest of us grows ever more uneven, and vast corporations demand more and more of their employees in return for less and less…

I fear…

How easy it would be for some future Dr. Cartwright or TED-talking Management Guru or obscenely powerful CEO to decide…

That our freedom, our liberty, our individuality …was quite simply, quite literally …

Insane.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Great American Individual

I was just re-reading my own writing, specifically the recent posting about individualism in America. It struck me that I might be vulnerable to criticism with that piece—more so, that is, than usual—because I seem to indicate that America has a problem with individualism, at least in terms of writing and self-expression.

Yet, isn’t America the quintessence of individualism? Isn’t our culture the one which, more than any other, grants every citizen the option to make or remake their selves as they see fit? Choose the career, the life you like, the person you wish to marry…and, with luck and with pluck, and much hard work, you may succeed. Or you may not. But either way it is up to you.

It is, I think, very much at the heart of American identity, of our shared and not always conscious conception of ourselves. I also think it is true, or pretty much so. We really do give people the right to make or break themselves in whatever manner they see fit.

Certainly, that’s a great deal more the case here than in much of the rest of the world, even today, even in this twenty-first century. In many places still, people are born into an identity, which they cannot change. (I remember seeing a scene in the movie Gods And Monsters, which was a sort of fictionalized biography of James Whale, the director of the 1931 movie version of Frankenstein. At one point, the aged Whale [as played by Ian McKellen] has a memory of his youth. In the scene, a flashback, Whale as a young boy in an English Midlands farming family is busily sketching in a notebook. His mother rebukes him. “Don’t get above yourself,” she says. “Leave drawing to the artists.” It never once occurs to her that he might be one.)

So, yes, we are a nation of individualists.

And yet…and yet…

I can never escape the feeling that there is a difference between being an individualist and being an individual. That is, you can “stand on your own two feet,” and “stand your ground,” or whatever you want to call it…and still be exactly like the person next to you, who is also standing on their own two feet and standing their ground, a .38 Special in one hand and a copy of Atlas Shrugged in the other.

And I’ve a feeling that society wouldn’t be so eager to grant you the right to be an individualist if you were also a bit odd…if, for example, you were standing-your-ground while holding not a gun but an unpopular opinion.

In fact, come right down to it, I sort of think we’re allowed to be individuals so long as we are the kind of individuals that the larger culture demands we be. We are part, to quote an advertisement for Dr. Pepper that I saw long ago in the 1970s, “of an original crowd.” (What a lovely contradiction in terms that is.)

Specifically, I think we are allowed to be (or try to be) an individual who is a success in business or the professions. Not too successful, of course. And not in any way challenging to the system as a whole. But, a success…with a house in the ‘burbs and an IRA, and a long standing membership in the Church of Our Choice (even if we don’t go very often, and so long as it isn’t the wrong Choice), and children in a Good School, and with a Good Future (to be just like we are). Or, maybe, just to make the image a little more modern, we’ll also offer the option of a condo in the city and being an atheist or agnostic, so long as it is the right sort of atheism or agnosticism, nothing, that is, which might be too distressing to the minds of the many and the pure.

Or, to put it all another way, we are the rugged and self-sufficient individuals…that the Power Elite wants us to be…

…the individualist who is un-troubling, and undemanding, and causes no worries to the great and the powerful. And who believes that if he fails, that it is his own fault, and not that the System is stacked against him. And who, out of his shame and guilt, will never ask that the rich, in however small a fashion, share their wealth with others…

We are, in other words, the perfect caste. Our own Gods and Monsters…

The evil mother in our heads telling us, now and forever, and with such certainty…

Not to get above ourselves.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The War Against I

The other day I ran into a friend at the gym. We greeted each other with some surprise (neither of us knew the other was a member) and then chatted before returning to the various instruments of torture with which we hope to regain something like youth and health.

In the conversation, he told me that he had begun reading my most recent book, Padre. It’s the one I wrote about my parents and their passing. Then, he said an interesting thing. “You write like you talk,” he said. “Reading the book is like hanging out with you.”

I think he meant it as a compliment. I’ll take it as one, anyway. But, why I mention this (besides my own egotism) is that I’ve heard something quite different more than once. I have spent much of my life fighting tooth and nail to write as I do…or, indeed, even just to employ the first person pronoun.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been rebuked for it. I once had someone count up the number of times I used “I” or “me” in a text that was about one of my own experiences, and then she presented the total to me as though it were evidence of a complete moral failing. I had the impression that she would preferred it if I had written about myself entirely in third person. (“And then Michael Jay Tucker considered the oncoming car. Would he jump to the left or the right? Or would he perhaps run straight into the grill as a gesture of defiance? Michael Jay Tucker considered his options…”)

But it isn’t just “I” and “me” that offends people. It is the sheer sound of my voice that annoys them. For example, I once did a book on Seward Collins, a literary figure of the 1930s who hasn’t been much explored but who should be better known. He was an early lover of Dorothy Parker, and later a self-described fascist.

My book did get fairly good reviews in Academe, on those rare occasions that it was actually reviewed. Though, not everyone agreed. For example, there was an academic I encountered on the web and with whom corresponded. She had written a couple of books on similar topics. I tried to read them. Frankly, they were so larded up with postmodern jargon that they were almost indecipherable.

Anyway, we exchanged emails a couple of times, and she asked me to post glowing reviews of her books to Amazon and some of the academic networks. Because I thought we’d have sort of quid-pro-quo thing in operation, and that she’d post similar reviews of my book, I did.

So, I sent her a copy of my own book on Collins…and she wrote back, horrified, that she couldn’t possibly review it. Oh, the facts and conclusions were fine…but the tone…the tone! “You write like you talk!” she said, utterly aghast.

Needless to say, I removed all my glowing recommendations from Amazon and elsewhere as fast as my little fingers could hit the delete key.

Though, to be fair, it wasn’t just the odd academic who hated the fact that I sound “just like I talk.” I gave a copy of the book to a friend. Actually, I thought he was one of my best friends. Later, I found out I was probably wrong. Anyway, I gave him the book. He read it, or said he read it, though he resolutely avoided discussing the book whenever we met. Finally, I encountered him in a parking lot one day and bluntly asked him what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, uncomfortably, “I can hear your voice in it.”

It was said in the tone of a man who is struggling to find something neutral to say, like someone asked to comment on the baby’s most recent BM. That’s not so bad, is it? Well, yes. But then again, no.

Still, I suppose that wasn’t exactly an objection to my voice, merely to the book as a whole. Which, I guess, is a step up. After a fashion.

But getting back to my point, I have consistently encountered objections to any form of unique voice in writing—mine, or anyone else’s—pretty much everywhere I’ve gone in the world of text. And, I suppose, maybe, I guess… I can understand it in the case of mainstream journalism (not New Journalism, which is really Creative Nonfiction) because in mainstream reporting, you are not the subject of your story. You’re writing about something else. Your purpose is purely to convey information. So, maybe…

However, I’m less sympathetic to such claims when it comes to academic work, at least in the liberal arts, because I think they’re basically fraudulent. I think that what the academic is attempting to do with “academic style” is feign the objectivity, detachment, and “evidence based” conclusions of writing in the STEM professions. And, frankly, a paper about what this or that author really meant with this poem or that novel is not like a paper on the production of muons or the extinction of synapsids. The level of certainty is simply not there.

(Ironically, this is particularly true of postmodernists, who so often cling desperately to certitude, even while they claim that an objective evaluation of the universe is not possible. I understand the arguments, but I do not envy those who make them. Their position is too vulnerable even to their own self-reflection.)

And when I encounter opposition to a “personal voice” in fiction, poetry, or personal essay I am genuinely appalled. Surely, in these, the most individual of arts, the individual would be valued most of all. Yet, it is not so. Instead, you hear far too often a call for some kind of dis-individualization …for the fiction or the poem which is “not self-indulgent,” for the essay that contains no sign of the first person singular, for absence of the dreaded self.

Somehow we have come to an odd place in our intellectual development as a society. Somehow, the individual, the ego, the self…these are catered to in the popular culture. Indeed, to be selfish is presented as a virtue (think of Ayn Rand), and, more importantly, as a marketing strategy (“expensive, yes, but you’re worth it”).

However, to be self-ish is not necessarily to be individualistic. You can be a pig, and yet be identical to all the other squealing furies in the pen.

Thus, somehow, we honor the ego, even narcissism, in the market…but in self-expression, the self is suspect.

What concerns me most of all, though, is that I think this dis-individualization of the individual appears even in our conception of mental health. I’ve already mentioned in a recent posting, I think, the therapist I had once who defined my pleasure in writing, and writing in my own voice, as evidence of a disturbing neurosis.

And, of course, in the greater scheme of things, there have always been people, even psychologists, who have said that the use of “I” and “me” in writing is the dead give away of a morbid narcissist. I gather that one’s been debunked a bit, but, more recently I have run across studies which claim people suffering from Depression are more likely to use the first person singular in their writing.

Not to say a word against this research or the researchers, but I am concerned. I could see the less tolerant among us (and there are so many such) seizing upon such papers to support a profoundly dangerous thesis—to wit that selfhood is itself menacing, questionable, to be treated medically, and, in time, repressed as thoroughly as smallpox and plague.

And thus we would enter an age as fruitless as can be imagined. The day of the un-person. The era of the empty suit…

Never once self-indulgent.

As uniform and soulless as the termite.

And just as much without joy.

Monday, January 07, 2019

The Therapist Who Wasn’t

This is the story of Dr. Churl.

I have already confessed that I have some small mental issues… specifically, I have persistent depressive disorder (PDD), which is sort of like Depression’s little brother. I have, naturally, sought to treat the condition medically. Usually this means chemicals. That is, I take anti-Depressant medications.

Occasionally, though, I have also sought what is known as Talk Therapy, that’s where you go and meet face to face with a doctor or other specialist and chat with them about what you feel and why. For me, this has been at least as effective as medications, though not always, and sometimes my therapists have been good, sometimes quite bad.

However, among the therapists I’ve had who were not good, one stands out. Strangely, I can’t recall his name. I have the odd habit of not being able to recall the names of people who have offended me or even actively harmed me. For some reason, their names fade away. Maybe it is the secret tool of my vindictive id—the denial of the very existence of my enemies, to consign them to limbo.

Anyway, his name was something like Churl. That wasn’t actually it, of course. But there was a C and an H involved somewhere along the line. So, Churl will do for the moment.

I got his name off a list of providers that my insurance company had given me. I called each therapist on the list, one after another, working my way from A down. Some of the doctors didn’t call back. One, a somewhat stridently ideological individual, did not want to deal with a “male.”

After getting through the Bs, I came to the Cs, and Dr. Churl. He agreed to see me. We made an appointment and a week or so later I found myself at his office.

It was a nasty little place in a shared office complex in an upscale neighborhood. When I say it was little, I mean little. It had just barely enough room for two chairs and his desk. What made it feel all the more tight was that he was a big man, and he thus loomed over you as he squatted in his chair across the room.

We began. I tried to get to the point. This meant that I needed to talk about the unpleasant feelings I‘d been having, particularly those of my being without worth, and that meant in turn my crying.

I looked up and realized that he was staring down at with a look of, well, disgust. What I’d thought was honesty about my emotions, he felt to be unmanly. In his eyes, I realized, I was nothing but a wimp. A weakling. A man who had never been shown how to be a man, or else had ignored the lesson. And, bluntly, he then told me so.

This was, of course, exactly what he should not have said to me because a part of my problem was that I didn’t feel I had lived up to the role assigned to me by society…at least as society was when I was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What I needed was someone to tell me I had actually done rather well. I’d been a decent father and husband, and, if I hadn’t made a fortune, I’d been passible in the money department. And as for working hard and being stoic, those I had down pat.

But he did not say these things. He did not reassure me. He was, instead, a constant reminder of my failings.

What was worse was that he decided that my parents were the problem. They had…he decided… been unfeeling and cold. And, so, he went on, all my problems spun out of that relationship. He had me reading Alice Miller’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child, which is an important book, maybe even a classic…but it had nothing to do with my situation. My parents were unfailingly kind. Though he wouldn’t hear a word of that.

Finally, and logically (if incorrectly), he decided I suffered from grandiosity, another symptom of the Millerian child. I believed (he said) that I could do things which I actually couldn’t (“delusions of adequacy”), and then suffered from the agonies of the damned when I realized my true and many limitations.

And what grandiose goals had I set for myself? Well, for one thing, to make a living as a professional writer…clearly, he said, I didn’t have the talent. I should abandon that futile dream. The fact that I was a professional writer at the time—specifically, a journalist—was beside the point. He had made his judgement. The facts were not to get in the way.

As I say, I stayed with him far longer than I should have. I should have abandoned him as a tragic waste of human life, not to mention a threat to my mental health, after the first session. But, I didn’t. He was a therapist, by God. And a doctor. I assumed he knew what he was doing. I thought he might be able to help.

I’m not quite sure what made me realize that he wasn’t doing me any good. I think I just woke up one day and understood that he was dangerous to me. So, I canceled my next appointment, and when he phoned to ask why, I made up some story about going back to graduate school, and never saw him again.

In retrospect, I suspect the real problem was not my mental illness, but his. I think he was some sort of narcissist. I think his purpose in my “therapy” was to denigrate me, to prove his own superiority, and to demonstrate his ability to dominate others. In other words, he was a bully, and the worst thing about it all is that I let him bully me, because I thought he was helping me. He definitely wasn’t.

An aside, in the few months I knew him, I never once saw him laugh or smile. He never reacted well to one of my jokes, even to be polite. I later read that this is a sign of a bad therapist. Had I but known…

Anyway, time went on. I profited a couple of ways from my experience with him. For one thing, I learned to be more selective in my next choice of a therapist. For another, I used him as inspiration. I do very short, limited animation videos as a hobby, and he provided excellent subject matter for one of them. It even got me an award from a little video contest I entered.

But I did worry, and I still worry, about the harm he may have done to his patients. I mean, I’m only mildly neurotic, and he still managed to do me some real injury. What, I wondered, did he do to others…to those more vulnerable than I was?

And besides, I did want a little revenge.

So, I tried to track him down. I envisioned confronting him…maybe even bring his case to the attention of the authorities.

But…that was when I discovered I couldn’t recall his first name, and I was only about 75% sure of his last. And, more, by this time we had moved to New Mexico, where I was caring for my parents. That meant I couldn’t simply drive over to his office and seek him out, or at least note down the name on his door. (Even if I could recall his exact address, which I couldn’t.)

I turned to the web…did some searches…working with various versions of his name, or as much of it as I could recall…and found nothing.

Finally, I gave up. It seemed the universe did not intend me to find my therapeutic tormentor.

I wonder what happened to him. The most obvious, if least satisfying answer is that he just retired and is somewhere even now in comfortable circumstances, making life miserable for someone near and dear to him. Or, more interesting if less probable, he finally went too far…some patient committed suicide, or (better) turned on him. And, now he has lost his license, can no longer practice, and sits out the remainder of his life in bitterness and rebuke.

But, well…

I am a story-teller by inclination, and I can’t help myself.  I’ve worked up two more stories for him…those are complete fictions, based on neither evidence nor reasoning. They are simply tales, myths, but with a certain charm for all that…

In the first story, it turns out that he has genuinely vanished. He knew that eventually his patients would discover his actual nature…would realize that he had hurt rather than helped them…and so, fled before their anticipated fury. And, as a final triumph, an exquisite last act of gaslighting, he covered all his tracks and traces. Not even his birth certificate remains. Thus, his sadism…for how can he be guilty if you doubt he really existed?

Impressive and perhaps chilling…the stuff of horror movies… (what happens when one of his former patients encounters him by accident? As I say, the stuff of stage and screen.)

Now, the second story

In it, karma is the prime mover, and the central character…

In this other tale, what happens to the good doctor is akin to my own suppression of his memory…that just as I cannot fully recall his name, so too the universe has perceived his cruelty, and sought out a fitting reward.

To wit, how better to injure a narcissist than to condemn him to obscurity?

And so, the reason I cannot find him is that he, now, begins …

His slow, deliberate, and total erasure. So that, in the end, all he did, and all he might have done… all the cures he did not administer, all the psychic injuries he caused…nothing will remain.

And he will vanish…or, rather, blur into nothingness, like a watercolor in a cold winter rain…

The reds and blues and yellows washing to gray, to earth…

To absolute…to deadly…and fatal…

Oblivion.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Sadness, Repentance… Useless

The other day, I was in a rather grim spot, emotionally, and I found myself going over my various failures and transgressions — my, for lack of a better word, sins.

As I say, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was, indeed, one of my little side trips into the persistent depressive disorder (PDD) that I mentioned a while back. But, I thought it might be useful to examine those incidents in which I had hurt others, and then, perhaps, learn from that history, so that I wouldn’t do such things again. Go ye forth and sin no more, and all that.

Honestly, my confessions weren’t too exciting. My sins are real enough, but rather colorless. I have not killed anyone. I haven’t bullied or tormented anybody. I have remained faithful to my wife. I don’t think I was abusive to my son. At least I don’t remember hitting him or screaming at him or a regular basis. Though, God knows I was tempted.

Even so, I do feel that there are things I’ve done that I should be ashamed of. And I did feel shame. I found myself thinking, almost compulsively, about the things I’d done wrong — things which, on a rational level, were rather petty. Yet, for me, they seemed overwhelming. And I must confess that I began to wonder about my own value to anyone.

And then, I had a curious insight.

To wit, self-reproach—at least when it reaches a certain, melodramatic level—is strangely akin to self-love. Or self-pity. You are, in a funny way, evading responsibility. You find yourself saying something like “how could you…God, or Circumstance, or Fate, or Society, or Mom and Dad, or Whoever…have allowed me to be so flawed that I did such awful things?” Or, to put it another way, how could heaven and earth allow me to suffer with the knowledge of my sin?

And thus, the focus of the story ceases to be on the victim… of whoever you have harmed…but yourself. And there is something horribly narcissistic in that.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Regret, shame, repentance…these things are good, when they have some positive result, that is, if they drive you …drive me…to atone, or not to hurt others again in the same way…

But if they do not, I fear they have no benign effect. I fear, in fact, that they actually compound the problem. After all, if you have already decided that “Oh Lord, I am not worthy,” there is nothing to be done…no reason to work and sweat and sacrifice to seek redemption.

And thus how comfortable…how serene!…it is to remain exactly where you are… armored with your guilt, defended by your shame.