Written by Jill Morrison On
It’s been a while since I've written, and it is for two reasons that I can tell.
One-writing is hard. I have always found writing difficult. That line that writing is staring at a blank screen until drops of blood form on your forehead has always felt very true to me. It has always felt satisfying once something I’ve written is done, but getting to that place has always felt like a tooooon of heavy lifting for me, and at times I shy away from the lifting.
The second reason I took a break from my writing is that I got lost. I got lost in what and who I was writing for. Recently I heard an idea on writing attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. “Write for only one person,” they said. “And let that one person be you.” As soon as I heard this I knew two things. One, they were dead on. Two, I was dead lost. Not that I didn’t believe in the things I had written when I had written them; I did and I still do. But I realized that I had been writing to try to please or affect other people I had in mind, and when I did this I lost me. Not only did my writing suffer, my want to write suffered as well. Maybe we change the old adage a bit. Instead of write what you know. Write what you want.
I can’t help but feel a pull to make this into a deeper metaphor, (and there is one,) of the power of knowing what we deeply want. But I don’t want to. I’d rather stare out the window of the hotel lobby I’m in right now, and trust that for now this is enough.
Write, create, for one person. And let that person be you.
See you soon-
The other day I heard someone ask their sidekick friend, in that way where they already know the answer to their own question, “What’s the definition of insanity, dude?” Before his friend could reply, he answered his own question, “It’s doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result!”
Many of us have heard this line numerous times. And any quote that usually gets attributed to Einstein, we’re not going to question. But, as soon as this guy finished his teachable moment, I found myself annoyed.
A pet peeve of mine is ideas that are like Hall and Oates tunes: the reality that they are known by the masses gets confused with them actually being of substance and legit. “Private Eyes” is a god-awful song, and Guy’s idea of what it means to do something over and over is dead wrong. Why? Because this false definition of insanity robs us of the only true way we learn: repetitive experiences over time. And when we preach that repetitive experiences are insane, we start measuring ourselves by the opposite; speed. How fast can you get “there?”
The idea that life is being continually sped up is not new. Just doing a Google search for “life hacks” yields endless results on how to do things quicker and easier, with all of it aimed at lessening our frustration. Which is fine. But, when the message is a kind of war on things that take time or that cause frustration, we are leaving out the main ingredients to how the body learns, not to mention the creative process. Be it a business, a child, your free throw, or a sonnet, time and frustration are non-negotiables. And there are examples everywhere of products that suffer when those two things get left out. Take writing. Today instead of people putting in the time to truly develop a thought, more and more articles have becomes nothing more than bullet points; authors avoiding the frustration of the work needed to craft a flowing beginning middle and end, and instead subbing it for idea 1, 2 and 3. Why is this happening?
Here are my 2 reasons: (see what I did there?)
REASON 1: STUDIES
An insult gaining ground more and more is the idea that there are those that are anti-science. Just writing this sentence makes me want to jerk my head around to see if anyone is mocking me. So, of course, I love science. We live longer and healthier because of science. But it was also science that supported eugenics. And it was science and “testing” that James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA, used to support his racism. So science can come to wrong conclusions just as anti-science can. But when we make science the authority we can no longer question, we revere the studies it produces. Without realizing it, asking what the “studies say” is an attempt at a life hack that doesn’t work. Stopping at the study stops us from thinking, either in the micro, macro or both. And it is our thinking and experiencing over time that leads to our wisdom. A patient of mine wanted to know if the science was true: could walking and listening to calming music give him the same effects of anti-depressants? Try it for 6 months, I told him. The science means nothing to us. What your body needs is the wisdom of whether or not this idea could be helpful. That wisdom can only come from experience over a long period of time. Studies stop us from thinking experientially, and logging those long experiences. In essence I was asking my patient to do something over and over, and see if over time it did indeed produce a different result.
REASON 2: MONTAGES
This is a tough one for me to write because I’m guilty; I loooooooove a good montage. If you don’t get the torment in Rocky’s soul as No Easy Way Out plays while we see flashes of his life as lover and fighter while he contemplates whether or not to fight this killer-Russian!…there’s something wrong with you. Montages tap into that adrenal part of us that loves to be inspired while the rational/hipster part of our brain says “I can’t believe you are falling for this.” But it is too late, the montage got us!
Montages give us the false belief that anything worth doing should be done once, and that one time should feel amazing. Even mistakes are a good time in a montage. I know the last time all my friends and I got together to save the community center, and I was using the paint roller to paint the wall and I didn’t notice the doorway OR my friend standing in said doorway and so I paint rolled right over his face…it was a gas.
We can’t help that we grew up on montages. And I’m not going to blame the montage, a thing that gave me so much joy as kid, (okay fine and it still does.) But many seem to be concerned that their life is not a rockin’ frolickin’ montage. And because montages have getting good at something and feeling good sharing the same air, we have a lot of bummed out confused people who OD’d on vitamin M.
There is one thing that by their very nature life hacks and montages cannot contain: Quantity. Quantity itself is a quality, and it is a quality that is the missing ingredient in so many of the things that we want and that matter to us. Ted Williams was known to spend countless hours everyday working to perfect his swing. A brilliant guitarist I know played scales every night in his room growing up until his fingers bled; I’m sure we all have many other examples. These guys were doing something repetitively expecting a different result; they were expecting to get better. I don’t think either of these guys were insane. I’m all for finding quicker ways to do things, but it should not be the enemy of quantity. And it certainly shouldn’t stop us from doing something over and over and expecting a different result.
Because doing something over and over is not the definition of insanity. It’s the description of pursuing mastery.
In part one of MDMATDOTSOWWCLFC (how’s that! for an acronym), I ended with the idea that the X-Men myth asks us to mine our insides. However, going inside, introspection, is something we tend to avoid because of how painful it can be. Like that part of the basement where we throw all our crap and the more it becomes overrun the more we stay away; the same goes for our emotional insides. We stay away from ourselves because we fear what we may find, and the more we avoid it, the more the prophecy becomes fulfilled. There is a lot in us to be wary of. Introspection can feel like a fruitless endeavor when we actually find exactly what we were afraid of, darkness. Yet, there is another modern day myth, which shows us that even our darkest parts can have great value. This Myth on darkness is The Dark Knight - Batman.
The Batman myth is a fascinating one because though he is known as a “good guy,” there is very little inside Batman that feels good. As with the X-Men myth, Batman’s origin story takes place during his childhood where, as a young boy, he witnesses the double murder of his mother and father. A trauma of this magnitude almost without exception will affect someone neurobiologically, not to mention psychologically for the rest of his or her life. Bruce Wayne is no different. In just about every telling of the Batman myth, he is orphaned, alone, rageful, vengeful, and relentless in his pursuits. He is someone who has great darkness inside, the likes of which will never go away. In many versions of the Batman myth, the younger version of Bruce Wayne tries desperately to deny his darkness, or maybe better put, his true self. Yet the more he denies how much pain he actually holds inside and the specificity of that pain, the more he suffers. (Like a cancer that goes ignored, not only does it fester, it spreads.) However, eventually Bruce Wayne embodies the “X-Men” message: The realization that with enough courageous work and submission to his true self, his most painful parts inside are what can make him so significant. The moment he realizes and commits to this path, Bruce Wayne is now becoming Batman.
It is right about now when I hear some ask “Yeah…but is Batman happy?” If Batman is smart he gave up on happiness a long time ago. And what we learn from the Batman myth is that we should too. When we focus on happiness, we become like a cat trying to catch a laser pointer; not only is it exhausting, it’s a lot of wasted calories. The best thing children of trauma (or just about anyone for that matter) can do is to give up, and by giving up we now have the room to put our focus onto something else. The Batman myth gives the example of a man who holds incredible darkness and rage inside. Yet, through a long introspective and physical journey, he figures out a way to give him self the best shot at something more important than happiness; A Good Life. Happiness is fleeting and nebulous. But A Good Life gives us roots, grounds us, gives us contentment and satisfaction, and we don’t have to cut off all of our bad stuff to get it, in fact quite the opposite. The Batman myth cares about happiness about as much as gravity cares about your religious background. But it does care about A Good Life, which is made up of worthiness, and ultimately meaning. Batman is that little boy making sure that no one good ever has to suffer in the way he has suffered, while anyone bad should know suffering in the way that he does. This is a life full of meaning, and a life that is “good,” born out of utter trauma and despair. Happiness never crosses his mind.
The X-Men set the example that the parts of us that feel mutated and shameful are in fact the places to begin. And Batman lets us know those places have immense power, and that powerfully painful feelings can still lead to A Good Life and a life of meaning. The final choice then, as always, is up to us. Are we going to access our powers and, if we do, use them for good or evil?
noun: double steal; plural noun: double steals
1.a play in which two base runners each steal a base.
Though ESPN really wanted us to buy into the idea that chicks dig the long ball, I am much more partial to triples hit down the line, and base runners taunting pitchers as they dance off the bag. That’s why I love the double steal. Two runners exploding towards the next base simultaneously the moment the pitcher goes home. The catcher then must make a decision. Since he can only throw to one base, he must decide which runner he will attempt to throw out. I’m pretty sure we can all solve this problem in less time than it would take a 95mph fastball to go 60feet 6 inches. The catcher goes for the lead runner. Why? Because the lead runner is closer to scoring and therefore is the bigger problem at the time. So whether he realizes it or not, the catcher is sending a message: I am focusing on you, and therefore right now you are my biggest problem.
The catcher’s dilemma is our dilemma; life can be relentless. And when it is, we too must decide which base we are going to throw to. The decision not only effects our well being, but just like the catcher, it makes a statement to the world in terms of which problems we deem most important.
“I’m glad I made it here today, I was almost arrested,” is how Karen, a smart and sensitive author and mother began our session. From a long list of ways I could imagine Karen starting off a session, this would not be one of them. I didn’t say anything but just cocked my head in that way dogs do when they hear a sound that confuses them.
“I went to the climate march today,” Karen explained, helping to fill me in. Before I had a chance to comment, she continued.
“I know you’re probably like, ‘oh god the climate march’, but I’m glad I went, it was fun.” From the way Karen told her story, I could tell the experience was much more something to be interested in than worried about.
“Arrested?” was all I had to say.
“Oh, so the group I was with was going to shut down the street, and so it was known that the police were going to start arresting people if we did this. I was seriously considering it, and then I thought, I can’t get arrested, I have to go to therapy!” Karen laughed, noticing the sentence she just made.
I laughed with her. “Well I’m glad you didn’t get arrested,” I told her. “But for maybe a different reason then you realize.”
“Because I’m a mother?” she asked.
“ That’s a good one. It’s tough to be a mother from jail. But it really has less to do with the march, and everything to do with you.” Now it was Karen doing the half-cocked-confused-dog move.
“You made a choice.” I said. “And that choice is a major statement. A statement I’m proud of.”
And I was proud. It is easy to march, to make a statement that things in the world need to change, and then to go home and feel we’ve done our part. Yet introspection, acknowledging where we fall short is much more painful and therefore much more difficult. It also, if done en masse, would bring about much more change than any march or protest could. If tomorrow every free citizen of the world decided “the biggest problem is me, and I need to start battling this problem now,” the majority of the world’s army’s and policemen would be out of a job.
Battling ourselves has a tough time competing with battling society. Battling society is way sexier, and therefore tends to win out more. But real change happens in the world, and in ourselves when we go inside instead of out. Bob Dylan was good when he sang “YOU masters of war…,” but grew to prophet status when he said “it’s alright ma, I’M only bleeding.”
Can we do both? Sure. But even if we are never faced with choosing as concretely as Karen was, we still need to know, when it comes down to ourselves or the world, which base are we throwing to?
Myth has always served as a vehicle through which aspects of the human experience have been expressed or explained. Sometimes, though perhaps less often, myth has been used as a way to express a way of not just understanding, but improving how we live our lives.
In his book “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus does just this. The story of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill everyday, only to have it roll right back down, is a metaphor for the absurdity of life, according to Camus. He furthers his interpretation by stating that there is a need for meaning in even the seemingly mundane. So, Camus uses this mythology to explain we must find meaning in order to make life endurable.
Today there is a modern day mythology: Superheroes. Just like Greek myths, they too can help to illuminate the human experience in terms of insight and action. I can’t think of a better place to begin than with the myth of the “The X-Men”.
“The X-Men” is the story of “mutants”; humans born with a gene mutation that gives each individual mutant some unique power or gift. Part of the X-men myth is the origin story of many of these mutants. We first come to know some of these mutants as children and they are considered anything but special. On the contrary, many of them are outcasts and/or introverts. They are aware that something inside them is different, wrong and odd. They do everything they can to hide this part of themselves. This mutated piece of them outcasts them from others, and therefore their belief is that it is of no use.
However an older mutant comes along, a professor, who has the wisdom to teach these children not just who they are inside, but also that their insides do not need to be a life sentence of being alone and misunderstood. This mutated part of them that they hate could actually end up being their biggest asset. Yet, it can only happen if they agree to start down the road of forging a relationship with this mutated, painful piece of themselves. If they can bare the pain of this part of them that has felt wrong, shameful and useless for so long, they can emerge as the person they were meant to be; more powerful, more fully realized, more evolved.
The X-Men origin myth can help to explain what therapy, especially with men and children of trauma, can be: the development of one’s “mutant gene”. Simply put, the part of us that is creative, has intuition, makes people laugh, or has that eureka moment in the middle of the night, is also the part of us that we try to get rid of because it feels pain and therefore “feels” too much. So instead of molding this valuable part of us, we try to get rid of it. But all this does, at best, is make us “normal”; which is… well… boring.
Valuable lessons can be taken from the X-Men myth. First, if there is something that feels odd or out of place in us (mutated), rather than try to kill it off it is best to mine it for all its worth. In other words, though it may seem counterintuitive, we become more powerful when we go into the most painful parts of ourselves as opposed to running away.
Second, the X-Men myth demonstrates a crucial universal truth: It is through our relationships with others that we fully and truly get to know and better ourselves. Leaning on someone to develop who we are is not weakness. It is, in fact, the opposite. To become better than what we are now, we need the aid of someone who already knows the value of insightful connection.
Before I finish, let’s make sure that you know that I know that none of this is easy. The X-Men myth also shows that dealing with what we’ve got inside can be wildly difficult. It asks that we put ourselves in a vulnerable place, and though this vulnerability is essential, that doesn’t make it any less painful. When we begin an internal journey what we find is often scary because it may not feel like the stuff of heroes, but rather of darkness. Which brings me to the next subject of this topic. If anyone can show us the value of darkness, it’s the Dark Knight. Stay tuned for Part 2.
When I was in college I discovered and fell in love with Lenny Bruce. He was brave, he was lightning quick, he was so unabashedly himself. If Muhammed Ali had been a Jewish comedian…you get the idea. One of the pillars of Lenny’s ideas was that it was the suppression of a word that gave it it’s power and viciousness. That, by making a word so taboo and so terrible, it shouldn’t even be allowed to touch your lips; you are giving that word the immense power to hurt, and to scar. Lenny turned it on its head and preached that we should love the word, embrace the word, roll around in the word like a pig in shit, and then the power and vicousness of that word would disappear. Whether he realized it or not, Lenny was being a bit of a Buddhist advocating that a little bit of the disease can often be the cure. The idea is exactly the same when we stay away from pain -ultimately the pain of failure, never wanting to get anywhere near it because the potential for us to touch our failure is too much. What if we did the oppsosite? Failed, failed HARD, and then dared to pay attention. I’ll explain, or as Uncle Lenny would say, “dig what I mean…”
Coincidientally, speaking of Lenny Bruce, a patient of mine was interested in doing stand up. A sensitive kid who at times thought about suicide, he grew up often feeling alone in his feelings. However watching comedians like Richard Pryor made him feel connected to something, and actually helped to calm the anxiety he felt being young, male and sensitive.
“I want to start doing standup” he told me. “But I am so scared, I know I’m going to be awful.”
“Why are you going to be terrible?” I asked him.
“I’ve only done it maybe a few times, and it means SO much to me. I want to be good at it so so badly. If I actually get up to do it, I’m going to suck.” Made sense to me. Even if we go back to the gospel of Lenny, and realize that “people don’t understand the difference between a big piece of art with a little shit in the middle, and big piece of shit with a little art in the middle,” it sounded like my patient would be lucky even for the latter. And it is scary and serious business to fail in public, volunarily or otherwise.
“I want you to go do stand up,” I told him. “And I don’t want you to be good…in fact I want you to be terrible.” He looked at me, waiting, like there was more.
“Is this some reverse psychology thing where you tell me to be bad so I end up actually going and being good?”
“Oh no, not at all” I said. “Give me a little more credit than that … you’re going to be bad … and I want you to be.”
He seemed as if he didn’t know whether to be angry or confused. “It’s not an insult, you’re going to be bad because you’ve barely done it before. If you got up there and somehow white-knuckled your way through being good, you would have no idea as to why or how. You’d have no idea what it was that you did that made you a decent comedian, you’d just know that somehow it went well. We want more than that, we don’t want luck and fooling everyone, including ourselves, that we know what we’re doing when we don’t. We want to always be going for mastery, even if it is in small doses. If you can go be terrible, and then BARE EXAMINING WHY, you begin the process of mastery; learning what works, what doesn’t work and why. I don’t want you to get lucky when you build the house and it happens to stay up, I want us to know why it stands, and what we did to make it happen.”
We sat for a moment like we were both listening to the paint on the walls.
“This sounds painful,” he said. “Scary.”
“It is, yeah.”
He took off his glasses and pressed the space between his eyes, looking up at me. “ I could just kill myself,” he said like it was an inside joke between the two of us.
“I think you just made the whole point,” I told him.
“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”