After a very long time, I had the opportunity to talk to my oldest son the other day. I say ‘talk to’ because I hardly let him get in a word edgewise. When I realized how much I was hogging the conversation I started to apologize by telling him how rare it has become for me to have someone to talk to, and that was when he told me how much he has in fact missed listening to me. Since we were also discussing his becoming my roommate, I was glad to hear him say that. But his statement planted a thought in my head that didn’t come to the fore until I watched Tavis Smiley’s interview with Mickey Rourke tonight.
Mr. Rourke’s description of the childhood demons that plagued him almost to the point of self-destruction caused me to reflect on my own. Both of us were affected by childhoods filled with violence and pain, and both of us chose to develop a ‘hard’ persona to protect us from that pain while attempting to prove that we were a match for the evils that we perceived the world to have set against us. The difference between us lies only in the manner in which we chose to present our ‘hardness’ to the world. His choice was the persona of the man who could not be touched through a shield of violence. My choice was the persona of the man who could not be touched through a shield of mental perfection.
I’ve always been so determined to prove that I was too ‘smart’ to be affected on any deep level by the chaos and pain of our lives. I did this by attempting to appear to have an answer to everyone’s problem, and of course, an appropriate sermon to go along with my advise. This had both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, maintaining this persona required me to learn quite a lot about the human condition, and also how to communicate my ideas effectively. On the negative side, this persona made conversing with me a real ‘downer’ for some, and made me appear as an arrogant ass to others.
The problem was that perfecting this persona had become the very basis for any sense of pride that I had. I simply never believed that I could ever truly be respected without it. But the harder I worked at it the more difficult the task became, and I seemed to be moving farther and farther away from the respect I wanted. In a very real sense, my ego had become like the planet held up by the shoulders of Atlas, which only grew heavier the harder I strained to hold it up. Eventually it became more than I could bear and I had a mental breakdown as a result. The irony of it all is that as I slid down into addiction and despair, I became in reality both unreachable and untouchable to those around me.
I have to admit that I found comfort for a while in being thought of as ‘crazy’ by other people. After all, who would expect a crazy person to have all the answers? But at the same time it really irked me to be judged ‘chemically imbalanced’ by doctors and ‘unemployable’ by the government. Especially when my mental state seemed to me the logical result of being a sane person living in an insane world. But over time I have come to realize that ‘sane’ is a relative term, and that no one is completely sane when compared to some perfectionist ideal. I’ve also come to see that the disappointment that I saw in peoples eyes when I was really screwing up wasn’t because I had been revealed as imperfect after all – everyone already knew I was human, but because it looked like I had given up on striving for perfection – what actually made me special to them in the first place.
It’s now been over two weeks since I started writing this article. Something about the subject matter, in combination with other events in my life, made it too difficult to continue until tonight. What got me going again was seeing Mickey Rourke on Charley Rose last night and helping my oldest son move in with me earlier today. As far as the Rourke interview last night is concerned, I was again struck by the amazing combination of strength and vulnerability that exudes from the man. How can I not feel compassion for a man whose ‘shield’ has failed him at least as badly as my own has failed me? But at the same time, how can I not have hope for myself when I see how possible it is for one to survive the failure and come out better for it?
I don’t know if the people who have been disappointed by my failures feel so because I had given them hope and then dashed it, or because I was no longer amusing them by acting like some Don Quixote character battling against impossible odds. And I guess it’s that not knowing that fuels my fear of being a further disappointment or an even bigger fool. But I know that the bottom line that I must stick with is the fact that I do what I do for myself and that it’s my own respect that I must earn. Pain is, after all, an unavoidable consequence of being alive, and genuine pride can only come from self-respect.
I want ice water.