The Shroud of Fatalism
So, you have a great day at school. Your teachers laugh at your jokes. You get a 95 on your math exam. You talk to one of your teachers during lunch. They tell you are a remarkable young man. You leave the school at three and walk home. You’re in high gear. The world is your oyster.
Then you walk through the front door of your home. Your mother is screaming at your father. You duck as a frying pan comes flying across the kitchen. She’s yelling at your dad, “you took Janet to the drive in, didn’t you? I saw the popcorn in the back seat of the car. You’ve been sleeping with her again.” Janet was my red-headed Brenda Star look-alike aunt, my mother’s sister-in-law.
That was the daily routine: Great day at school. The Inferno at home. Kids, of course, learn to make connections, as irrational as they may be. When they are nurtured in one place and are dragged into the emotional muck in another, they begin to believe that, not only are there no guarantees in life, but that life cannot be trusted to offer any permanent security. They will always ask themselves, “when is the other shoe going to fall off?” And they view happiness as an occasional blip on the machine of life, more often than not, set on disappointment.For those of us who could never trust our families to be the sources of our emotional security, intimate relationships often become marginalized by our fears that the person we love will abandon us or find some reason to end the relationship. If that doesn’t happen, we often create an event that will force a breakup. Or we choose people who aren’t a threat to us, making it easier to call the relationship off on any provocation.Children of roller-coaster families can obviously go in many directions. For years, my direction was to believe that happiness was less real than tragedy or failure. I believed that if success existed, it became earned through pain and hard work, an in-your-face trophy that said to the world, “see, I was able to conquer failure. Now, beat that.” I do not believe I was alone in that attitude.
In elementary school and all through my college days, I was drawn to my Roman Catholic faith like a magnet. It was a Church that gave me some kind of solace I did not have at home. However, I remember being surrounded with suffering icons that had a powerful draw in my life: the stations of the cross, crucifixes, holy cards of saints in martyred ecstasy, the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary—all the images that made me believe that suffering was inevitable, that the joys of Christmas and Easter were just brief interludes before and after Lent.
In college, I had planned to become a Trappist monk. The quiet, isolated, interior life of the cloistered monks became, for me, the escape route from a world that I could not trust to make me happy.
I gave up the idea of being a monk when I started dating a woman I had gone out with in high school. She represented everything my mother wasn’t—educated, intelligent, quiet, introspective, classy, and secure. Of course, she became my trophy, my conquest, my symbol of success.
It seems almost paradoxical that I would put my hopes in that relationship when I was hard-wired to believe that nothing good lasts for very long. However, I was determined to conquer my own fatalism, annihilate it by creating a manufactured world of the ideal wife, two kids, a house in the suburbs, the “whole catastrophe,” in the words of Kazantzakis.
For a very long time, fatalism had me in its tentacles. I gave myself two early choices to avoid it. I could withdraw into a cloistered monastery. Or I could escape into the American default mode—marriage and the family. My own scorched authenticity, of course, got lost in all of this. I literally had no clue who I was.
After my divorce, other relationships followed. But the pattern of my fatalism continued. I had one grand passion throughout all of these intimate relationships. And then, I went for the jugular after feeling slighted one night. I didn’t need any other excuse. I came down on the relationship like a guillotine. It was over. Case closed.
Here I am twenty-six years sober, single, retired, on Social Security, and, in my golden years, a freelance writer. Except for a few bouts of fear, I am happier than I have ever been. I write every day. I go out with friends. I talk about my feelings. I am transparent. And I no longer have a need to manufacture worlds to hide into, for the worlds I choose—writing, friends, family—are all inside extensions of who I really am (that, of course, does not mean to say I don’t struggle inside of those three worlds).
The shroud of fatalism has generally been removed from my life. I attribute most of that to my willingness to surrender to my own authenticity. I have no reason to live in the dark world of cynicism when I can actually tell others what I’m feeling or what’s going on in my life. I write about things that matter to all the sides of me—moral, ethical, literary, political. I also make a constant effort to call my friends, to be there when they are in need, to hang out with people who have no grand narratives for their lives and who are honest about their emotions.
In the end, for me, it is all about honesty, engagement, and connections with others and with myself. My dark, fatalistic side may rear its ugly head, every so often, but my chronic default mode these days continues to be on the optimistic side. And that is, indeed, a very good thing.