November 30, 2008

Road Work Ahead

Two or three times a year I get the random urge to clear out a closet, or crack open a box of artifacts from a distant chapter of my life. This almost always results in a surreal mishmash of conflicting emotions, not least of all because I always somehow manage to unearth things I haven't looked at in decades.

Tonight I came across a notebook containing a short and matter-of-fact account of a few weeks of my life when I was 16 or 17, around the time when two major corrective jaw surgeries had their drastic, almost tectonic impact on my life.

By all rights, this thing should've been buried in a long-forgotten box, which would itself be tucked away in some remote corner of the basement, perhaps under other boxes of memorabilia that I can't bear to think about. And yet, there it was, sitting on a shelf in the office closet of a house I've only lived in for a little over three years, right on top of an old binder containing negatives for photographs I took in college. (Included in this collection, it turns out, is the best photograph I've ever taken: a striking black and white image of the second of my two beloved childhood cats.)

I'm hardly the first one to comment on the strange sense of emotional cleansing that can come from sorting through ancient mementos, but that the experience is not unique does not diminish the effect it can have on me. I pick and choose what to keep and what to discard, and I wish I could do the same with the junk that takes up space in my head. I fantasize about reinventing myself so fundamentally that I'd be wholly unrecognizable to anyone who's ever met me. This train of thought is a tricky one to ride, because its natural destination seems to be despair: the realization that who I really am bears very little resemblance to what the outside world sees.

This is something that's always gnawed at me: the immeasurable psychic distance between every living thing, the idea that nobody can ever truly know anyone else. Now, I know I'm pretty far from breaking new philosophical ground here. From Sartre to Robert Anton Wilson to Miller's Crossing, the subjective nature of reality and the psychological pain that accompanies it have been explored and detailed by sharper minds than mine. But I've too often allowed myself to be derailed from this train of thought, from examination of these issues, by the derisive sneers of the insensitive and small-minded. So much of the time, any attempt to discuss these facets of the human experience results in adverse reactions that range from naked hypocritical dismissal (e.g., "you're just being negative," which I've only ever heard from those poor souls who have been cursed with a crippling lack of empathy) to misplaced competitive aggression (e.g., "so what makes you any better," which misses the point so completely as to seem willfully ignorant) to specious platitudinous rubbish (e.g., "people are people").

One of my major problems is that I let myself get hung up on this particular point. I see that no matter how clearly I try to articulate a thought, present an argument, or discuss a topic, the odds are exceptionally good that what I've said will be tortured out of context, twisted out of shape, or treated as evidence that I'm simply bat-shit crazy by at least one person. If I'm honest with myself, I realize that there's really not much difference between one person reacting this way, and everyone reacting this way, in terms of the paralyzing effect it tends to have on me. It's an example of the "all or nothing" perceptual filter trap that I fall into far too frequently. I take great pleasure in even a fleeting opportunity to discuss just about any topic with people who will give and take with thoughtfulness and creativity, and it makes no difference whether we agree or disagree. But often it seems like all it takes to make the whole exercise seem pointless and empty is one mean-spirited or apathetic prick appearing on the scene to scrawl "u r teh st00p1d" on a wall with a crayon.

The truth is that I, and I alone, have allowed that sense of pointlessness, and the rising tide of hopelessness that quickly follows, to stunt my emotional, intellectual, and creative growth for far too long. It's pervaded virtually every aspect of my life, from relationships with friends and family to my plans for the future. Tonight, however, what's most on my mind is how it affects my writing, because that's what I'd like most to focus on in the months and years ahead.

I can beat myself up for the wasted time. Lord knows I'm an expert at that particular form of self-torture. Tonight, however, as I prepare to go to bed at a ridiculously late hour, I'm trying to put head to pillow with a positive spin on the whole trip. I'm not going to whip up another iteration of that classic glistening web of mindlessly solipsistic "you create your own reality" bullshit and pretend that the ugliness in the world disappears when I close my eyes to it; but I am going to try very hard not to give myself permission to dive head-first into the nearest abyss because of it.

Frankly, I don't know if I'm capable of this particular feat. It reminds me of what Colin Wilson referred to as the "Ultimate Yes" response to every life's looming silent question. (Thomas Carlyle referred to it as the "Everlasting Yea.") The gist is that you recognize that the world is dreadfully imperfect, perhaps even plainly horrific, but decide to stick around and do your best anyway. Sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — this seems to me like sitting through 90 minutes of rotten movie in the hopes that the final half hour will knock my socks off. (It would strain this ham-fisted metaphor to the breaking point to suggest that I wield the power of a Director over my own "film," but I wouldn't claim that my life is a strictly deterministic puppeteer's performance, either.)

I don't quite know yet how I'm going to get my heart and head pointed in the right direction for prolonged periods. But I'm going to try.

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