I read this essay for a class presentation on Monday. It's probably worth mentioning that the class was Interdisciplinary
Studies 4200: Non-Western Spiritual Landscapes. Each member of the class threw together a presentation on spiritual exploration, from the dry and academic to the downright weird
. The other night
we had our last class and the last of these presentations at my professor's house, a full six-and-a-half hours of genuinely blissful classtime. Mostly. The highlights from Wednesday:
- The worst of them had a mentally unstable quasi-hippie playing the worst recorder medley ever in the throes of pathological liarhood and New Age spiritualist crap. Then-keep in mind we're in a professor's house-she whips out a pipe and packs it with sage and other assorted herbal goodies (hackcoughsputter), all of which were legal. Trouble is, she smokes pot out of this bowl, too. Sigh. Some people.
- The best: The shyest girl in the world also has the most beautiful voice. It's liquid music. Which is convenient, because she sang the most beautiful Billie Holiday song...You see, she couldn't get up the nerve to do it, but she wanted to so badly she could feel the notes in her chest. So she went into the bathroom to do a few of her meditations, and emerged a few minutes later. She was just standing there in the doorway, leaning against the jamb, as though she wasn't the center of attention. As though she had just stopped by. And she opened her mouth wide. My, it is lovely to swim in others' music.
Anyhow, the piece that follows was fairly well-received with the class. Keep in mind while reading it that it was meant to be read aloud to a group of people of relative familiarity to me. (And no, I detect no irony
in the fact that I've posted it here.)
I used to be Catholic. In the eyes of the Church, I suppose that I remain so. I have not participated in the conventions of Catholicism in years, except in the most perfunctory sense. And confession? I've never really confessed my sins before, and as far as confessing to a priest, I won't do it. He'd only clear my name with a god in which I don't believe. I don't think confession is a bad idea, though. In fact, I think it's a rather good one. I'm sure most of you know the cathartic effects confession can have. After some thought on the matter, I have decided to make you my captive confessors. You'll do as well as any priest, I expect. Better, in fact, because I expect no absolution from you. You are not required to forgive me for anything. You are encouraged to think of me what you will, and if after I am done you think less of me than when I began, then so be it. What I'm saying isn't being said for your sake.
This is not meant to be a Catholic sort of confession. I do not intend to sort out my sins between the venial and the mortal. Further, I do not consider what I have to confess "sin" in the sense of which you are probably thinking. When I use that word, "sin", I mean sins against myself, and not any god. Perhaps a better term might be "little death". Yes, that is what I shall call the things I have to confess. Collections of little deaths. Some clarification is in order, I suppose.
I believe in the existence of my soul. I am pretty sure I believe in the existence of yours. I believe that these souls of ours are manifest in our flesh, that they would not be souls without bodies. There is no separation between mind and body, no distinct essence at which any of you might point and say, "That. That is a soul, and that is a body." Unless you are already bored and staring off into space, you are looking at a part of my soul, and I am looking at a part of yours. It is in my eyes, my smile, my posture, and my words. Anytime you commit me to memory you tuck away a little of my soul and keep it somewhere in yours, and I do the same for you. It's how we manage to live forever. It doesn't matter if you believe this or not as long as you, in your role as my confessors, understand that I do.
I believe as well that souls need nourishing. Part of this is the chemistry of our bodies and the things we put in them to alter that chemistry, of course. Part is what we put in our minds, and there is no clear line between this chemistry, this body-food, and this mind-food. The people with whom we surround ourselves feed our minds. The things we do in order to survive, the ordinary even more so than the extraordinary, feed our minds. The choices we make as well as those we don't. Dreams-they feed our minds. The places we live, the places we go, the places we hold dear. When our souls are well fed, we thrive. We are happy, creative, productive.
It is hard to starve a soul. There is always something to feed it. Problems arise when your soul food (pun very much intended) consists of nothing but empty calories. The same things that are true of our bodies are true of our souls. There is a common sense adage from the world of computer programming that applies here: garbage in, garbage out. In the case of souls, some modification is required: garbage in results in a little death.
A little death: a hollowing, a reduction of the soul. Not the death, the Big Death, mind you, but one like it in everything but scale and the fact that no little death is inherently good. A little death is a warping of one's being, a movement from that which we should be towards that which we must never become, lest we lose all sense of just what it means to be a human animal. A violation of ideals. Each one of these little deaths maims the soul, and if you're listening to your soul closely when one happens, you might hear your soul cry out. They're different for everyone, of course, just as everyone's ideals vary somewhat. Some are damned near universal-murder comes to mind. Little deaths are something of which we are all guilty, but you should not be ashamed. Angry, perhaps, but not ashamed. Shame is hardly a productive emotion. No degree of shame will negate a little death, but enough constitutes yet another one.
A little death is forever. There is no changing that which has happened, and thus no real sense in regret. Amelioration: this is sensible. This is productive. Little deaths are tools more than anything else. The trick is to make them work.
So, confessors, I think you have an idea of what I would like to say. But, for the sake of clarity, I'll say it in twenty-five words or less: you are about to hear my big little deaths, the collections of a good person who has done some bad things that need setting straight. One more thing before we move on to the relevant parts:
While I have taken the Catholic sacrament of confession as the inspiration for this confession of mine, this is not a Catholic ritual by any means. Obviously. There is no screen here separating our faces. I considered the possibility of doing this sans clothing, as it seems appropriate that if I am going to attempt here to bare my soul, warts and all, I should bare my skin as well (virtually wart-free, by the way). You may be relieved or disappointed: I will not be gettin' nekkid, as they say around here, because of the implications it might have for our noble instructor, for myself, and for the students in this class who might be offended by me in all my glory. I'm far too modest for that sort of thing anyway. Another difference I find crucial to what's going on here is that you will not be offering me absolution, and neither will the Father, the Son, and/or the Holy Ghost. There will be no Hail Mary after this performance, no Our Father, and no Apostolic Creed. I am my only source of absolution. I am the only one who can take the little deaths and refashion them into lessons, run them through my soul again, and hope for better.
Now, the hard part: the little deaths themselves.
The first: alcohol. I think it's a contributing factor in many of my problems, to a degree that I'm almost unwilling to admit to myself. Every time I pour a drink these days, it is a little death. You heard it here first: I have a drinking problem. When I drink, I drink to get drunk. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, so long as it is occasional. At our age, every weekend might be acceptable. Every day is not. I cannot have just one drink, just two drinks, just three drinks. When I sit down to have a drink, I am looking for oblivion, and I find it every time. I actively seek to silence the voice of my soul crying for nourishment. I choose to drown it. I am an utterly different person when I'm drunk these days, different from the person I am when I'm sober and different from the person I used to be when I got drunk. I suspect that the problem started before I was born. Just one of my grandparents managed to make it through life without developing alcoholism. Of their children, the only ones who do not have a drinking problem to some degree are my mother and father. They say these things sometimes skip a generation. I had probably been drunk five times before I came to be educated at this hallowed institution. I managed to somehow make it through my first two semesters here without becoming a lush, but halfway through spring semester last year, I suppose I was well on my way. Most of my friends--no, let's say acquaintances, and you'll see why in a moment or two--most of my acquaintances were Olympic-caliber drinkers. Social outings were not social outings without some form of alcohol. I suppose that I developed an idea somewhere in that subconscious muck of mine that I could not have a redeeming and enjoyable experience without drinking. I ceased to have friends; I had drinking buddies. The summer came around, the problem got worse. Fall: yet worse. Winter: damned near rock bottom. In the middle of spring semester this year I found myself drinking almost every day-each drink, each sip: a little death. Alcohol is very fattening-it's empty calories. Junk food for the soul.
I sometimes say with pride in my voice and my eyes that I have scores of acquaintances, but very few close friends. I think that is part of it, this little death by alcohol. Perhaps I am frightened of the kind of intimacy that comes with friendship, the kind of honesty that I cannot afford as I am now. No one wants to look closely at the ugliness of someone slowly drinking himself to psychic death, cordoning off the world one day at a time.
Another part might be my utter dissatisfaction with school. There's nothing like a case of beer to put the paper I haven't written and don't want to write at the back of my mind. What disgusts me about this is that it's so very fucking easy. There's no effort involved. That's right: you, too, can become an alcoholic by drinking a hell of a lot to avoid thinking through the hard parts of your life. It's typical of so much of what's wrong with our culture: the convenience and the ephemerality of the solution.
Little death number 2: I have a great many acquaintances, but few close friends. It's not for lack of social skills (although in my most preposterously drunken moments, that is rather a problem). I am a likable enough person, I'm intelligent, and I recognize qualities in the people I encounter every day that I like. It's not for lack of good people in this town, although I had myself convinced of that in the months during which I had made up my mind to transfer to a different school. Rather, I think it's a combination of factors. First, I'm not a very good friend. To those of you in this room to whom I refer, I apologize. I am very lazy these days with regard to the people in my life. I make little effort to seek the people that matter to me and to build those acquaintanceships into something greater. I say I will call and I don't. A little death. I say I will be there and I am not. A little death. I am not learning anything about the people I do know. So many of them are terribly interesting, and I cannot seem to muster a single good half of a conversation when it really matters. Another little death.
The third little death involves sexuality. I'm sure all of you are now terribly interested.
I am not a very physically affectionate person. I hug in greetings and goodbyes, yes, but in many cases it's a matter of convention-it's what's proper in certain situations. Those of you who know me might have some sense of this. I do not readily lend myself to platonic physical contact. The kind of affection I confer on the people with whom I am...shall we say...involved is something I consider a privilege, and rightly so, I think. Ideally, no one receives that kind of attention from me except for those with whom I share something unique, something greater than what your average sort of friendship provides: the union of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual: a sum of those facets of a bond that is somehow greater than its parts. But this is not an ideal world, by any measure, and neither am I the embodiment of my own ideals. I violate that ideal myself, and confer that unique affection on people who have not earned it. Not frequently, but too often. When I do, I immediately hate myself for it-the act feels horribly, horribly empty. It is horribly empty. So why the hell do I do it? A couple of reasons come to mind. One: I've been drinking. A powerful contributing factor, to be sure. Two: I feel I need some sort of affirmation of my worth as a person. Three: I am a human being, and my inherent desire to procreate sometimes outpaces my moral judgment. Morality always catches up, thank god.
The fourth and most egregious confession is an admission of naked dishonesty. I do not mean that I habitually lie to others; I mean that I habitually lie to myself. The capacity of the mind to convince itself that it is not thinking or feeling what it is, in fact, thinking or feeling never ceases to amaze me. I so consistently fail to consider the potential or inevitable consequences of my actions that there is really no question as to whether or not I am an adult. I am not. I have given over to habit so many aspects of my life, ceased to insist on self-honesty with such frequency, that I approach a state of automaton-like despair at my seeming lack of control. A big little death.
Enough, already! you say. This is not meant to be an orgy of self-hatred! Get to the bloody point! No one is perfect; we could have told you that when you started and saved us hour-seeming minutes angst-ridden bullshit!
Fair enough. The point: The question is one of absolution.
What do I do with these little deaths? How do I refashion them into meaning, joy, and redemption? The answer, I think, lies in the rebirth of my ideals, the reclamation of the person I once was. I must change, and I must change now.
Patterns of behavior must be changed. I've been bitching a lot in my journal this semester that there doesn't seem to be anything that I can do to find direction, and I'm sure Jay is losing hair at an accelerated rate because of it. I am tired of being disgusted with myself as well. Here's what's changing:
First, I am finishing my undergraduate degree here. Jay has said that he thinks I'm placing too great a value on places unseen and the promise they hold, and he is right. Ever since I conceived of leaving this town, I have been floating in limbo, waiting to run off someplace new and exciting and reinvent myself as the person I would like to be. That is wishful thinking, and viciously unfair both to my future and present selves. It's that sort of thinking that has aided my degradation. If I cannot approach my ideals in thought and action here, there is no reason to think I will be able to do so anywhere else.
Second: I must take pains to be brutally honest with myself. I must stop averting my eyes from the inconsistencies in my behavior and face the damned things before they drag me down further. This does not mean I expect myself to be henceforth perfect; barring an angelic messenger from Allah himself informing me that I am, my only hope is to approach perfection in my ideals. I must examine every aspect of my life, from the food I eat and the clothes I wear to the things I think and the way in which I think them, and compare those aspects to my ideals. Where there is inconsistency, change must be made. I must examine my ideals in order to discover whether they're even worth having. That, of course, is dangerous business. I could end up with the sort of existential anxiety and uncertainty that one normally finds only in the novels of Camus and Sartre, but I think it's a necessary risk. An example: I am against the existence of Wal-Mart, and yet I still find myself there on occasion for the very reasons that I hate the idea of Wal-Mart: convenience. I know that as a patron I'm contributing to the horrible things Wal-Mart does to people all over the world, and yet somehow I manage to quell my conscience and cough up the money. This is just one of those many things that are going to have to stop. It's a little death feeding on apathy. I do not expect myself to change overnight. I do expect myself to change.
I notice that I'm being rather fuzzy in my response to very specific things. Fear not, gentle confessors, for I have plans.
Something must be done about my drinking. I don't think that my problem has escalated to a matter necessitating total abstinence; rather, I think it is a matter of altering my drinking habits to reflect a healthy respect for the benefits and detriments of alcohol. There are a few measures I'm now working into my life that I hope will end this problem before I become my grandfather. I am allowing myself to drink no more than three days a week. This doesn't mean I'm going to get stumbling-around-breaking-stuff drunk three times a week. I can have a beer after work if I want, but that one beer counts as a day's worth of drinking. Furthermore, I will not drink to intoxication two days in a row. For me, that constitutes an unacceptable pattern. Getting drunk every night is a very effective way of forgetting that there are other ways to have fun. I am no longer going to drink to intoxication by myself. I will allow one or two beers consumed in quiet contemplation on my back porch. In addition to curbing my drinking and removing alcohol from the integral role in my life I have given it, I hope to rediscover the aesthetic value of good spirits, and to hold that aesthetic quality in greater esteem than the intoxicating value. I hope to have no need to urgently address the role of alcohol in my life in two months.
Enough of that.
With regard to the people in my life: I must learn of them, from them. I must teach them of myself, and teach them good things. I must seek them, and remain open to being sought. Go on long walks. Talk 'til dawn. Take some fucking risks and introduce myself to the ones that intrigue me.
I think I'll close with a few signs of life, a bit of hope. This semester I started writing for myself again after a staggeringly long dormant period, and what I'm writing is good. I'm still capable of turning the little deaths around; any of you who are familiar with events in recent memory that could have been worse know that. I cry at appropriate places in life. I find joy in many of the things I always have, and while that joy may at present flicker, it shows no signs of sputtering out. I smile at the sun when it comes out. I still care, a lot.
I suppose this means I'm done with my little confession. Writing this and reading this are two very different things, and I can't say how I'll feel as I say these words aloud. What I can say is thank you for paying attention, or at least appearing to do so. I presume at this writing that you've all been exemplary confessors, and so, I hope, have I.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost