It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”
I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.
The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.
Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.
Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.
“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.
As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.
In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.
Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.
Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.
What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.
Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.
She was the object of somebody’s desire,
Like the faint shadow of a morning deer
Seen through the dead brush,
Fog lifting into its own absence,
Background to the primal hunt,
A new man frozen by impulse,
She, pretending confidence
In a shoulder’s shrug, brown focused eyes.
The Braggart, the Victim, the Innocent
It is not difficult to spot someone with a big ego. Aside from the fact that they are often hiding their insecurities, they tend to let you know, up front, that they are authorities about everything—-kids, relationships, mortgages, the best deals, doctors, schools, books, current events, relatives, religion, social media, even sex.
As an adult, however, I found that egotists come in many, many shades. Or they express their egos in different ways.
She was silent today, another dry event,
Trying to train herself into the habit
Of not thinking about him,
But feeling the cool memory
That lingered in between
The cars she passed on the Interstate,
Driving to the summer cottage
On a winter weekend,
To sit quietly inside his absence,
Opening empty cupboards,
Breaking frozen branches,
Scouring the floor with her iPhone light
To find the small notes he left her
During the week, his monk’s notices
Of celibate days not working for him
But promising to let go
If she would make her truce
To surrender quietly to his words
Until, according to the contract,
He would leave her small blank pages,
“My robin’s wounds,” he texted her.
He was blind, his eyes suffocated
In his grief, imagining,
His body’s stark opposition to
The innocent flow
Of children in bow ties
And full pink skirts,
Or an aging oak’s
Craggy shreds of skin
Once seen by the
Boy he used to be,
Eyes wide open,
An orgy of sun
His pupils knew
Could not absorb.
But now, in old age,
His eyes cannot remember
What they saw yesterday,
Austere, naked emptiness,
Burglarized by time,
Bargaining with his body
To hear more than
He could endure
As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).
Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.
And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.
In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others
So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.
Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.
That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.
On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.
Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”
Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.
Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.
At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.
The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.
The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.
Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John
Mark would have loved Sarah
When it was time,
But he waited too long
For a shower and a shave,
Basking in another
About an altar
Decked in wet white roses
And every-shy lilies-of-the-valley.
Feelings of Worthlessness
I’ve been in a 12-step recovery program for many, many years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people describe themselves, in one way or another, as a “piece of shit.”
Much of this self-degradation comes from the guilt we feel over our behavior when we were actively using: infidelity, disappearances, credit card debt, emotional/verbal/physical abuse, stealing, or, one of my favorites—emotional withdrawal.
Recovery, for many of us, involves taking responsibility for those actions and behaviors. Over time, through meetings, doing the steps, and being emotionally transparent, we learn a better way of living.
We stop having secret lives. We learn to be honest. We start owning up to our faults. And some of us learn to be more humble, especially if we hid behind our arrogance in order to protect ourselves during our drinking days (As someone in the rooms so poignantly said about himself, “I tried to be one step ahead of everybody else so I wouldn’t be hurt”).
But what about those of us in the recovery rooms who have a difficult time believing that we are worth anything? Continue reading
You said you loved me once.
I believe you in the morning,
Then let the day saunter into night,
Incredulous that your welcoming arms
Could drop so firmly in the suffocating dusk,
Like all petalled flowers, too tired
To explain to an uncaring sky.
But I hold on, like any glazed fool,
Devoid of absolute hope,
Which keeps me hostage
To my own sultry interests.