When I struggle to write, I begin to doubt my intelligence; when the writing goes well – even when a story feels complete – I question its quality because it came from me.
I doubt I’ll ever put the past behind me, not completely, or that I’ll ever be satisfied with where I am at. Given our differences and the hardwired fears that undermine us, I doubt we’ll ever come close to developing a utopian society we’d all like to live in, and more than anything, as a single man, I doubt I’ll ever meet the right woman, or if I do, I doubt it will last. I can’t imagine anyone finding my neuroses or aging wickedness tolerable.
Fortunately there is something wrong with women, so I have an ounce of hope. Every day the news reports the horror of our darkness, the gang shootings with innocent bystanders (often young girls or babies) getting hit, men killing their wives and children in murder-suicides, boys on a thrill kill, women being dragged into the bushes from the train stations in Chicago to be beaten and raped, domestic violence, pornographers reducing them to parts, treating them as lesser humans, as cattle, as objects, as servants, all for less pay. And still they tolerate men – hairy, lumpy, ape-like men.
Friends and family have often wondered why I’ve been single for so much of my life, why my relationships have always failed or why I ended them so abruptly. This is why. Irrational self-doubt courses through my veins like a deforming childhood disease I am forced to live with. Relationships, after the initial lust phase starts to dwindle, are all about getting to know the other person. Why let someone into my personal world only to let them discover those flaws I’ve worked so hard to conceal? It was easier to have one-night stands and short relationships and end them before they got too close. I finally got to a point where I just shut down, recognizing that one-night stands were nothing more than egotistical conquests to make me feel like a man. It was not a genuine life. But then I lost my drug, my drink, my vaccine for negative thinking, my way of eradicating the darkness within us, within me. I used to fool myself that these were moments of love – love the one you’re with – until morning came around and the other side of the balance scale revealed itself. Just as there is no hot without cold, no light without dark, no gluttony without hunger, where there is confidence there must be doubt, and where there is an unhealthy doubt and dissatisfaction with one’s self, there is frustration and all the troubles that steal our focus from beauty and kindness and compassion and wellness for all.
Doubting my intelligence, I was in my forties when I decided to take a series of timed IQ tests available on-line. They were challenging. I had no idea how I had done and wasn’t sure I wanted to know the results. My hand hovered over the mouse, hesitant to click on the scores. This was the precipice, to continue onward through life or roll back down the Sisyphean hill I’d been climbing. I started to pace the floors to consider the limitations of my world. What if they revealed what I’d long feared – that my intelligence was far below average, even mentally underdeveloped? I’d been writing for years but had nothing to show for it. Maybe this was why. Facing the blank page brought out the symptoms (the finished ones often did the same), and every rejection letter confirmed the disease. If the results finally authenticated my mental slowness, my life would be over. There would be no sense in attempting any further accomplishments. I’d have to consider returning to my past drug life or crawling into a bottle, as I had done in my teens. Back then they had given me the excuse I needed for being what I was. I could blame the drugs for my dimwittedness. This self-doubt, this fear that I was mentally ill, had been a storm swirling in my mind all my life.
Lately I’ve been studying Ayurveda, a nature-based philosophy out of India that focuses on balance. They’ve mapped out our different constitutions and appreciate the value of knowing our own nature. How can you be balanced if you don’t know the operating manual for your own unique body, and how it relates to and functions in correlation with the changing seasons? To some degree, or maybe a lot, we instinctively know this. We’re more likely to eat cooling foods in the summer and warmer ones in winter. If we eat seasonally, we’re giving our bodies what they were designed to receive at the proper time, sprouts and greens for a natural spring detox, fruits and greens to keep us cool in the summer, fat and heavier warming foods for the winter, an approach I’m yet to fully implement, probably because, in Ayurvedic terms, I tend to be what’s known as kapha dominant (meaning I’m not one thing but a mixed bag with certain dominant tendencies). Kaphas, I’m told, lean towards sweetness when they are balanced, but can be slow, steady learners, something I didn’t want to hear. I recognized myself in the description and immediately focused on the slow part of that equation. It was true, I can sometimes be slow to get the joke; if you read me a poem go slowly, very slowly, so I can take it in and assimilate the imagery; I have no idea when a member of the opposite sex is interested in me (I always imagine the opposite, given the revolting hairy lumpiness of the male body). It often takes me a while to settle into a new job – I suspect some employers have had second thoughts about hiring me for the first six months or so until I settled in and started to thrive (slow, but steady). I was good at math, never having to take my college final exams because I was so far ahead of the class, but only after an absolute devotion to study. It would take me a long while to get it, and only then could I solve whatever problem he threw my way (a slow but steady learner).
Not knowing my true nature, I’d always focused on the slow, a natural slowness that contributed to my self-doubt – it seemed obvious I wasn’t always as good or as mentally quick as those types who were natural leaders. I made the mistake of comparing myself to them – everyone wanted to be like them – instead of just being fine with what I was. Being a sweet kid, something that almost feels shameful to admit to, was also something that had to be obliterated, sweetness often being misinterpreted as vulnerable, not considered a good quality for a man.
Problems at home didn’t help, with my father passing along some of the emotional abuse he’d inherited from his mother, especially his anger, especially when my mother wasn’t around.
I escaped my father’s world through drugs and blamed everything on them. If asked a question in school, I could answer, how the hell should I know and laugh. Christ, man, can’t you see, I’m on drugs? I don’t know anything. I’m too lost and damaged to function in a civilized society, an excuse I see in every stoner out there using drugs as a crutch to overcome the feelings of not fitting in, of not being good enough.
It’s a feeling you never really lose, especially after altering your mind to escape that reality. I was in gym class playing shortstop and can still see the baseball moving in slow motion towards my ungloved hand. I couldn’t move. I was high on some kind of animal tranquilizer and followed the ball through the air all the way into my bare hand. I threw the ball on the ground and walked off the field. I once went blind while driving down the highway, my body saturated with whatever drug I had consumed. My passengers guided me to a parking lot and took over the wheel. They drove to a field in the country where I waited for my sight to return. The cicadas were putting on a symphony; it sounded as if all the stars in the sky were sizzling like sparklers before they fizzled out. I saw faces melting and walls dissolving; I saw green lighting flashing through a black canvas sky while wishing I would die. I felt body parts go numb, and days later, continued to touch them to see if they could still be felt. I dry heaved, I had chronic bronchitis, I think I had anxiety but I was too high to ever know, my insides were as dank and raw as a back alley dive bar, which is where my mind settled for years. That was my prom, my high school experience, overdosing on chemicals and somehow surviving without medical intervention. You don’t come out of that past with confidence, nor do you easily forgive yourself, even though it feels like a past life it was so long ago.
So as my hand hovered over the mouse, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get myself to cancel the test or shut off the computer. If the test results proved my mental slowness, why bother trying to date intelligent women or meet or even hold onto any intelligent friends. If I’d had any inkling that my score would at least be average my anxiety would have been over. This was ridiculous, I thought. Why punish myself with the results when I could continue on as if I might not be a mental moron? I could try to bury those fears and live in denial and sally forth the best I could as a potentially capable person who might one day actually produce something of value. I could live that lie. Not knowing would prevent me from deteriorating into the depths of despair. But, of course, I couldn’t walk away. I had to know and clicked on the results and prayed – I, disbeliever of religions or any sentient higher being actively involved in our daily lives – prayed for average results. Just be average, I pleaded; I can live with that. When the scores were tallied and came back high, I didn’t care. This didn’t excite me or make me feel proud. Instead, for a brief moment, I was immensely relieved that I wasn’t well below average. That was all that mattered. But the relief lasted only briefly because, like a Woody Allen character, it didn’t take long for the flood of doubts to return – maybe the tests were flawed, maybe they were invalid, maybe it was all a set up for morons like me to get fooled into thinking we were more than we were. It’s hard to change the thought patterns when they’ve been so ingrained, so ground in as to become a part of one’s personality, especially when you know you don’t quite fit into the world that demands we all be the same to ensure our security. We should all learn at the same pace, be quick-witted, be leaders, be a man; we should all be Christians or Muslims or Democrats or Republicans, then the world would be a better place; we should have tattoos or piercings or wear the proper clothing if we want to fit in with the right crowd. If we all thought the same and shared the same beliefs, had the same sexual preferences, the same skin color, the same level of education, the same wealth, the right hairstyle, we could finally live in peace.
We’d all feel comfortable knowing all the people around us think and act like we do.
To be unique, to be an individual, to be yourself, is something we pretend to celebrate. Only we don’t. Most of the time we look down upon what is different and fear the unpredictable. Not a day goes by where someone on TV or radio or in a job memo or through a simple look, isn’t promoting a message of what kind of person we should be. Listen to sports shows, and they are rampant with that phrase, be a man, with all of its implications, and the internet and social media practically exist to chastise the politically incorrect or anyone who doesn’t fit into the desired group.
If I’d understood and accepted my nature, slow but steady, and that had been supported, maybe doubt wouldn’t have attached itself like an out-of-control virus; maybe a healthy balance of doubt could have been established instead. I trust some of my doubt. I’ve known too many writers who believed everything they created was wonderful. No matter how often they were shown by classmates or in a writer’s group what was working and what wasn’t, they never changed. Their work was always the same; they believed it to be flawless, because doubt was an enemy to their vision. But how can there be improvement without question or doubt, if we’re blind to our flaws?
Or if we’re blind to an appreciation of our differences? Being surrounded by an infinite variety of plants, animals, and people, by what is different, you’d think accepting variety would come naturally, but it’s well known we have a natural fear of the unknown; and an inclination for homogeneity – and it is natural – to gravitate to the comfort and safety of the like-minded, inadvertently encouraging the snuffing out of the individual, burying our true natures under mountains of societal debris, to be something we were never meant to be by trying to fit in, which leads, I suspect, to much of the daily ugliness reported by the news.
Watching the events unfold in Egypt, what is lost becomes apparent – that balance between the two sides, unable to celebrate common ground because large groups of people have joined one side or the other, instead of recognizing how much of themselves is spread out over both views. So they fight for homogeneity. America seems lost, as well, republicans and democrats squaring off into ceaseless stagnation, a standoff to get one’s way, everyone joining a side and hating the other even though there is plenty of common ground, with all of this happening at a time when we have who could be the perfect president, a man focused primarily on balance – a mixture of black and white – that personality that wants to please both sides, only to cause both to be angry. He’s too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, meaning he’s probably doing something right. He doesn’t fit perfectly into the mold either side wants, because no one does. That would be impossible, so we feed our anger, our hatred, and kill time until he is gone; we focus on trivial matters, while all of us live together under a time of unprecedented environmental decline. Someday, when nature has its full say, political differences won’t matter at all.
Maybe we’re just too stuck in our homogenous ways to see it, like the Egyptians, bogged down with hatred and violence toward the other, unaware of how close they could be to creating a beautiful balance. We wonder which direction they will take, when perhaps they shouldn’t take any. What if they sat down and found joy in their differences, accepted that nobody could have their way, that compromise was necessary to find that balance where all personality types could thrive and live peacefully together? Maybe it’s easier to see from the outside looking in. Maybe we all need to step back and take another look, and consider balance as the only long-term solution, for them and for us all, instead of trying to stuff everyone into the same tent, the same religion, the same diet, the same philosophy or politics. A utopian society becomes impossible if it is designed on sameness. It can only be created by accepting what is different.
I’d like to believe it could happen, but I have my doubts.
(I also have my doubts that anyone has read this long diatribe all the way to the end)
“To be unique, to be an individual, to be yourself, is something we pretend to celebrate. Only we don’t. Most of the time we look down upon what is different and fear the unpredictable. ”
i rejoice in being different, though it took me a very long time to realize that most people are going to judge you/anyone no matter what you do, so why pretend.. just be yourself!
i admire your courage to present this to everyone, and you say, ‘this is who i am, this is me…’ bravo.. of everyone i know, maybe three have had that courage!
just smile and tell everyone that you’re an artist, and they’ll shrug and say, ‘that explains it..’
Thank you – very nicely said, and now you know a 4th 🙂
It’s taken me a long time to figure that out as well. Writers can be hesitant to use the “artist” label, at least until they’ve been published, something I’ve struggled with. I hope to remedy that soon.
I read all the way to the end:) I agree with Playamart. An artist has a varied and atypical “norm”:)
Thanks – it takes a commitment to get all the way to that ending, so it is much appreciated 🙂 I love the art of writing, but have been hesitant to use the word artist for myself, even though I have felt it applied. Now if we could only get everyone to realize they are a unique artist in some way.
Hi, I have to say that is one hell of a blog. But don’t underestimate men, and certainly not women. I have had some horrible experiences at the hands of both the sexs. But it was the individual acting not the gender. As for the writing; well you know my point of view on that 😉 x
Thanks, I agree, it’s not always a gender issue, but we men are stuck with hairy lumpiness…:)
Haaaa! Not these days.. Although I personally think its far more masculine.
Props to you, James for delving into complex, multi-layered issues on a brutally personal level.That said, you might consider helping less hairy, estrogen-based artists with fleeting attention spans by gracing us with more paragraph breaks : ) Seriously though, this piece was so fearless and so well done. Congrats!
Thanks Judy, your comments are very much appreciated. And sorry about the long-winded paragraphs – sometimes when I write I can’t stop; I could probably use a good editor..thanks for sticking it out to the end, I suspect few did 🙂
It was my pleasure to read this, James. Whoever didn’t finish missed out on a great deal of insight. Would much rather see someone who actually writes well and long, rather than someone who only thinks about writing. Happy long weekend! Judy : )
Thanks Judy, hope you’re enjoying your weekend…:)
Ditto and you’re welcome : )
What a great post Jim! It’s harrowing facing up to our demons regardless of our age or where we are in life; your honesty is refreshing. I wonder if a lot of times we get “stuck” or complacent in life not only because of past trauma, experiences that wounded us and shame (as you pointed out), but also because of conflicting ideas of grandeur and/or an alternative reality that do not jive with the one we’re in . I find this is especially true when talking about the example of Egypt. Many Egyptians continue to hold fast to the whole “Don’t question/f**k with us because we are a great civilization and built the pyramids 7,000 ago” diatribe without being able to a) account for other positive/great things that have happened since then, and b) address the social reality of a country that is deeply divided by way of class, economics and social views. In short, there are many people who refuse to accept the reality of the situation and throw all notions of finding balance/a middle ground to the wayside.
When it comes to writing and struggles with that medium, maybe a read of Hillary Rettig’s ‘The 7 Secrets of the Prolific’ (there’s an affordable e-version) could be a catalyst on your journey? A friend of mine recommended it to me several months ago and, I have to say, it blew me away.
Thank you, great comments/thoughts. I know from your blog that you have some direct experience with the Egyptian situation, and I think you are absolutely right. Putting these issues behind me is more than just getting over past trauma, but subtle memes that are carried along that become a present reality. Your description of Egypt reminds me of the US meme of, “we’re number one,” when we’re not even close in most categories. Since we don’t have such violent conflicts (well, other than the daily shootings, rapes, etc.) we can pretend we don’t have the exact same issues, a lack of balance.
Thanks for the reference, I’ll check it out. I wrote this post, in part, because I feel as if I’m on the edge of putting the writing doubts behind me. In other words, I finally had the confidence to write about my doubts, if that makes any sense. I’ve had a lot of significant breakthroughs lately and hope I’m on the edge of breaking free, but I’ll continue to look for all the inspiration and help I can get.
I hope a sense of balance over perfectionism brings you a happier life.
Thanks, I hope I didn’t paint such a bleak picture of a sad life, but you are right, perfectionism is a big part of the issue.
If it’s any consolation, I am in general an extremely fast learner with huge, fast bandwidth. I am bullish, overbearing, domineering, insensitive, weak, neurotic, obsessive, militaristic, frightened, and judgmental of everyone, especially myself. And the “D” key on my keyboard sticks. The more important “key” here is to have compassion for yourself, and celebrate the things that make you different. Also appreciate and explore your other facets, don’t pigeonhole yourself – speaking as a Jungian. Here I am being domineering. I’m sorry to be giving unsolicited advice. You don’t need it.
Ha, in ayurvedic terms, I think you’re probably a Pitta type…:)
What a rich post. Impressive content.
I am very careful with the phrase “coursing through my veins”…. a bit overused.
You may disagree.
“But then I lost my drug, my drink, my vaccine for negative”
What do you think about dropping one of these guys? The repetition of “my” makes for wonderful style. But
No doubt I could use an editor. You’re probably right about “veins,” but I like my mys…:) Thanks for reading.
I, too, read all the way to the end. And what stood out for me was your question asking how we can improve if we don’t question, or if we’re blind to our faults. What caught me in this is the need for balance, because seeing our faults too clearly can be disabling; the opposite end of the arc. I think I shall adopt the ‘slow and steady’ pace to pull myself back along that arc, from the disabling ‘too clearly’ seen faults, to a healthier mid point. Thanks for giving me several things to ponder.
Thanks Lisa, I appreciate your comments. and you’re right, it all comes down to balance.
I’m pretty sure the pressure to ‘fit in’ can be one of the most damaging things ever. I remember being trundled off to see a psychiatrist once on the suspicion that I was manic-depressive. After talking to the woman for an hour, she laughed at me and said that she’d be struck off the medical register if she diagnosed me as manic-depressive. ‘You just have what we call the artistic temperament.’
The human experience, in all its myriad expressions. I am me, who does things in a way that makes sense to me, and you are you, who adds to my experience by showing me the way you do things. You’re right – it’s all about balance. Similarities expressed through our differences.
Wonderful blog post, I’m glad I found you.
Thanks Kate, and well said. I suspect, in Ayurvedic terms, you’re a vata type – often the more obvious artistic types 🙂 Glad I found you, too.
Oh, great post! I spent a lot of time in recovery groups in the 90s watching people define themselves by the past and being unable to build the compassion-to-self and sense of proportion (I am 1/7 billionth of the problem – by being 1/millionth of the solution, I am making a really cracking start on helping) to gain EASE (as in the opposite of dis-ease.)
Learning to enjoy my corner through art,Daoism and gardening and living with an artist with bi-polar, but the most magnificent sense of humour, has really changed me, lots of that core belief work seems to have fallen into place – ha! plenty to still do 😉
Yesterday I went on a coach trip to a fibre arts venue and a total stranger tried to attach herself to me to go round the exhibition on the basis of us both having fibromyalgia and I could chart my progress by the way I was able to calmly explain why that wouldn’t work for me and stick to looking after myself. Oh my! How unwomanly and how deeply un-British! But the lack of anxiety and self loathing for daring to separate myself from an energy vampire (she wanted me to know how much worse her fibro was – she walks with a stick, I use a rollator!) lets me know that all that self-trust work has paid off. Insert cartoon of me victory rolling in my wheelie!!!)
I agree with your observation in a comment above that writing this marks the leaving behind of those doubts, you are an interesting, authentic and skilled writer, and owning that is a sign of ease and worth celebrating before the next growth opportunity (aka challenge!) arrives 🙂
Thanks Singingbird, your comments are very much appreciated, and good idea, our victories should be celebrated 🙂
Well, I haven’t read this until now – but I read it and enjoyed your words until the end. You are very, very good with words. feelings. Having us understand.
This term it’s time for your article again with my students. I might use some other writings from you too if i may? Happy Holidays to you and thank you for being there.
Thanks, Leya. I’ve been slacking off lately, not writing as much for this blog as I used to, but feel free to use my writings as you wish. I’m overdue on adding something new. Thanks for commenting.
Happy Holidays to you too. I’m currently buried in snow 🙂