Friday, December 26, 2003

I was just beginning to feel a little over-insulated when I realized it was a transient thing.

People tend to build up shelters of security around them largely based on false and questionable ideas. We imagine the sun will rise tomorrow because, so far as we’ve seen, it always has. We assume that the people we usually talk to are our friends, based less on fidelity than familiarity. And we imagine that the lives we live will continue on uninterrupted somehow simply because we’re used to them having done so. We continue to exist largely because we’re accustomed to existing and changing the fact would upset our sense of order and require that we acclimate to something new.

I have become increasingly aware of my own false security as late. Though it has distressed me at times, I’m slowly becoming accustomed to even a lack of custom. Human adaptability is less adaptability, after all, than a genetic impulse to declare anything we do sanctified by tradition. If we’ve done something a certain way even only once, then that’s the way we do the thing ever after, particularly if we got a desired result from the method. No manner of proof can convince us that a method isn’t working anymore if we’re used to believing that the method works. We imagine that the fault lies not in the method, but in the individuals or circumstance the method is being applied to.

In my own life, the method has been unclear. My method I mean; my direction. My temperament is naturally idealistic, and though I’m ashamed to say it, moralistic. Born in another family, I could have easily ended up a minister, or a public school teacher, or heaven forbid, a psychologist. A century ago, in a middle- to upper-class family, I might have easily found myself a higher up in some respectable ladies organization. I might have been a temperance lady, or worse a prohibitionist, or saving bums with the Salvation Army.

Merton wrote that what all men seek is their own salvation and the salvation of those around them. And that urge was among the first urges I remember clearly experiencing. I remember even as a small child having nightmares in which I had to sacrifice myself for my loved ones. I would weep for the loss of life, which I naturally loved, but I wanted to serve the people I loved, and redeem them. Among my first crises of conscience was the realization that there were some people in the world I wouldn’t happily die for; and then, later, the realization that perhaps I would hesitate to die for any person, no matter how beloved.

Part of my American Protestant heritage was a lack of ethical direction. I might have been a Salvation Army lady in another life, but I never would have been a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I was not raised with religion, but with the sense of religion. I was never catechized, though I was raised with catchphrases about “me and Jesus,” “personal relationships with Christ,” and “getting saved.” In all that, I was left to flounder about what life really meant, who I was and what I was here for. I had the occasional Protestant sermon about Jesus loving me, but Protestantism came across with all of the appeal of a K-Mart. It was serviceable and convenient, but somehow disfiguringly bourgeois and ultimately expendable..

Instead, I chose to chase after what I perceived to be the great ideals. Before I ever uttered a prayer to Christ, I had self-consciously appealed to Zeus, to Artemis and Athena. Before I ever heard that Christ was the only door to heaven, I had learned to mumble about all religions being about the same thing and serving the same psychological purpose. Being the naturally religiously inclined child that I was, denied any formal religious training, I tried my hand at all of the secular gods. I embraced anarchy and libertinism. Alternately, I considered even communism because I thought it meant the saving of all men. I would have gladly become a neo-pagan had neo-pagans looked less silly; I would have been an atheist had atheists been less offensive to my taste.

American Protestantism is about sensualism, and so I was about sensualism too. If it felt good, I wanted it. If it looked good, I wanted it more. And if at the end of the day I could give myself a pat on the back for being a nice kid, I considered myself okay. I could deny myself a sensual pleasure if I thought doing so would bring me a higher pleasure; so, I never ended up a drug addict, even if it was a temptation, because I knew that drug addiction was ultimately displeasurable. I could suffer endless insult and degradation if it meant I could consider myself a humanitarian at the end of the day. But all of my gods were made of tin, and by the time I was fourteen I recognized it enough to have given myself permanent health problems from stress and bad living.

I consider it a wonder that I made it through my adolescence. I lacked close, healthy relationships with anyone. I lacked any religious expression and was tortured by the impulse for it. I was, as all teenagers are, obsessed with myself and terrified that other people would find out how young and unconfident I really was underneath my bad attitude. I had no conception of how other people viewed me, except I imagined that it was poorly. I had no conception of self except a stunted instinct for self-preservation which battled incessantly against and with my mounting self-loathing.

At the end of it all, I emerged approximately as well-adjusted as Gollum. I don’t know how I made it through at all, except that I know that I didn’t deserve to. Starting college meant the forging of a new life, tainted by the old one. And I was quick to keep up most of my old awful reactions to things. I maintained my bad attitude, expected to make no new real friends, figured I’d learn very little important information, and secretly hoped I’d die somehow before I had to suffer through another massive shift in life; the last one, the way I figured it, would be growing up and having to be an adult. It meant joining the bourgeois world and succumbing to the values which, though I espoused them myself and hung myself by them, I intuitively understand were poison and death.

Over the course of the past year, I had begun to ascribe to that system more than I consciously realized. I had begun to congratulate myself on social mobility. I had begun to accept American axioms like debt is life, and experience is all that matters, and that the business of life is business. I was preparing myself to get very, very practical. And I could imagine my future self. I would be moderately successful in terms of finance and social standing. I would be respectable, though not so rich as to arouse my own sense of shame, and not so poor as to prevent my doing the things I wanted to do. I would give money to charity to maintain my own egotistical need to understand myself as a humanitarian, keeping a much larger portion for myself, understanding that a little selfishness is normal, human and very practical. I would have a comfortable life that many people would envy.

But recently it’s all been falling apart. The comfortable social relationships I’ve built have been deteriorating. Small betrayals from old friends, and the ulterior motives of new ones, ruined my vision of a comfortable social future. Realizations of my own ambition ruined my vision of myself as someone who was largely ethically sound, or even advanced. For the first time in my life, I found myself guarding my pocketbook, and the realization of it was almost as shocking as the realization that perhaps I wouldn’t gladly march off to my death for someone I loved.

I have uncovered how false my ideas are. It’s come to me with all the force of someone who, considering themselves a meticulous housekeeper, has just moved their refrigerator for the first time and found the piles of dust, refuse and mouse droppings that have gathered underneath for decades. But I am unclear, so far, as to how to clean up the mess I’ve made of myself and my life; how to dislodge myself from my bourgeois rut, while keeping myself firmly planted on earth, with no utopian fantasies.