I started this series on an odd sort of personal note. I mean, the idea of a personal note is not, in and of itself, odd. The one I chose, though, is kind of strange. My goal was to figure out how to take that extremely personal moment and make it universal. The subsequent posts under the Being Me label were, therefore, an attempt to figure out how to do exactly that. I cannot finish the thought started by that story on a universal note, however.
The simple fact of the matter is, though, that I believe that the personal is universal and the universal is personal. That’s why we tell stories to each other, after all. So for the posts remaining in this I’m simply not going to try to be universal. If it ends up meaning something to you, great. If not, I hope you at least enjoy where I’m going, for whatever function of enjoyment exists in this form of storytelling.
I learned at some point that the trick to making it through was to not actually want anything. This might seem like a sort of Zen thing, I suppose. The Buddha said that the source of discontent is desire, after all. In my case, though, it wasn’t anything Zen at all.
Wanting things was an invitation to failure. If I were to say, “I want [this],” and genuinely try to get whatever that thing was there was a pretty good chance I’d fail. If I failed there was a pretty good follow-on chance that someone would make fun of me. I wanted nothing less than to be made fun of. I got that a lot, after all. The easiest solution, then, was to not want or, alternately, to only want that which I could already get.
This, interestingly, is the sort of attitude that’s pretty standard for Evangelical Christianity. I think it’s pretty standard within most religions, really. It’s an attempt to channel desire in socially acceptable directions, since human desire is the most obvious danger to strictly built human institutions. I don’t think that I necessarily took my aversion to wanting things from Christianity, however.
I’m pretty sure that, as with most things, I simply used Christianity as a justification.
It’s somewhat cliché to talk about defense mechanisms. I will do so, however, since the term already exists and as much as I’d like to reinvent the wheel just to seem clever it doesn’t seem like a particularly good use of my time or yours, dear reader. So let’s talk about defense mechanisms. I had a bunch of them running at any given point, after all.
Like most red-blooded, heterosexual males I developed an interest in the fair sex somewhere in the neighborhood of puberty. My first specific memories of discovering girls are from the sixth grade. My first assumptions that the girls I liked wanted nothing to do with me are also from the sixth grade. Interestingly, my first real memories of being ashamed of my feelings about girls come from the seventh grade, which was also when I started getting all up in the church as a coping mechanism.
I don’t say “ashamed” in the sense that liking girls was, in and of itself, shameful. If you were a boy you were supposed to like girls, after all. However, you were supposed to like girls in a chaste way that wouldn’t end until your wedding night. As such, what I learned to be ashamed of was my budding sexuality and how it made me think about girls.
I figured out how to channel that into a sort of principled lack of action. Christianity gave me the tools to do exactly that and all I had to do was extrapolate from what I’d learned about sex. The trick in dealing with any sort of sexual sin-related issues was to deny you had them, after all. If that didn’t work or sound feasible, then, the other two solutions were to admit to a lesser degree than you actually dealt with or to simply dodge the question.
Eventually the only person I really had to answer to was myself. I managed to basically convince everyone around me that I was in control of everything (and, in reality, I was about as close as a teenager could be to in control of such things, although part of that was that I allowed my own low self-regard hold a good portion of that particular line). The excuses were pretty easy, too, and all rolled up into some variation on, “I’m waiting for god’s time/god’s plan/insert cliché here.” So when I found myself confronted with some other thing I was afraid to do the logical (to my mind) response was to cast all that onto god, too. It was a ready-made omni excuse.
The other important trick was to carefully manage how I interacted with everyone else. The main method involved silence. Where silence wasn’t an option I offered as little information as possible and filled it with as many caveats as possible. The final trick was to make sure that most of my friends didn’t know each other all that well.
I also became extremely conservative in my own personal actions. I only engaged in activities where I knew I would be able to succeed. If I had to do something where I knew there was a chance of failure I played up the failure aspect and made sure everyone knew I didn’t really care about the outcome and I was trying to fail or I tried to do it in a place where no one would see me.
Mostly I isolated myself. I then tried to convince myself that I really wanted to live that way. In truth, I kind of did. I’m pretty sure that I chose that route precisely because I enjoy being left to my own devices. There is a bridge too far for such things, however, and I regularly spent my time on the other side of the next bridge over. I intentionally stunted my own social and emotional growth in an attempt to make sure I’d never, ever find myself in a vulnerable spot. Being socially and emotionally stunted, however, was a good way of making sure that I was genuinely ill-equipped for those moments I most feared. It also meant that when a minor example of such a moment presented itself I blew it completely and totally out of proportion in my own mind and just made things so, so much worse.
Weirdly, though, most of the time the people around me didn’t even know what had happened.
This might seem like a lot of work. This was a lot of work. So it’s important to ask what, precisely, the end goal was.
In broad terms, my goal was to not get hurt. I knew that if I said something or did something there was always a risk of being made fun of. Being made fun of, meanwhile, was intolerably painful. Similarly, a relationship that added value but suddenly ended would invite all kinds of pain. I solved the problem of potential future embarrassment or emotional pain by making sure that I never had to experience any embarrassment or emotional pain. Then I retroactively looked for ways to justify my behaviors.
For a long time I had the Fat Kid excuse. Having the Fat Kid excuse, especially in junior high and high school, was a perfect reason. It was my baseline, “Well, nobody would want me, anyway, so why should I try?” justification. In 2004 I took that excuse away by losing 110 pounds. Nobody treated me like the Fat Kid anymore. Nobody who hadn’t known me before believed me when I told them I’d been the Fat Kid (and this was before Facebook + smartphone = instant proof).
No longer being the Fat Kid didn’t actually change anything, though. That’s why when I tried to talk about Christianity and leaving Christianity behind I had a hard time honestly saying, “Christianity did this to me,” or, “Christianity did that,” or even, “Ever since I left things have been so much better because I’m no longer [this way].”
That’s also why the story with which I lead off this series kicked me so hard in the gut. All of the sudden I realized, “I’m doing this thing. I do not know why I’m doing this thing. I’d better figure out what’s happening.”
For a long time I’ve felt that I’m doing something wrong and that something has to give. I didn’t feel like someone else was telling me I was doing something wrong. I felt like there was something inherently flawed in the way I perceived myself and interacted with the world and I was getting in my own way on that life-long quest for happiness and contentment.
It’s funny. Even though I said that I don’t really see an obvious universal angle to my personal story I immediately understood what Ta-Nehisi Coates was talking about when discussing why he doesn’t carry a gun:
This is not mere cant. It is not enough to have a gun, anymore than it's enough to have a baby. It's a responsibility. I would have to orient myself to that fact. I'd have to be trained and I would have to, with some regularity, keep up my shooting skills. I would have to think about the weight I carried on my hip and think about how people might respond to me should they happen to notice. I would have to think about the cops and how I would interact with them, should we come into contact. I'd have to think about my own anger issues and remember that I can never be an position where I have a rage black-out. (Via Fred)
I’ve been friends with gun people. I’ve put many rounds through guns in my life. I’m comfortable with guns, comfortable with the idea of guns. I would never, ever choose to carry a gun. I would never, ever choose to own a gun.
It’s a realization that I had several years ago when talking to a gun-owning friend of mine about guns and the mentality that goes into being the sort of person who carries a concealed weapon. His attitude was that a gun is a tool and something that you should have just in case something happens that requires a gun. My immediate reaction was to point out that I have never, in my life, been in a situation where I felt I needed a gun. My parents had never in their lives been in a situation where they needed a gun (I also later asked my dad about it and he confirmed that, no, he’d never felt the need to have a gun).
Even though I didn’t have Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words I implicitly understood his idea. Responsibly carrying a gun requires you to become the sort of person who carries a gun and thinks about carrying a gun and is aware of the fact that you’re carrying a gun. I am a responsible person. I am not, however, a gun person. The difference there boils down to that question of whether you’d like to live your entire life armed or not.
The problem is that I have been living my entire life armed. At some point I crawled up into my own little world and tried to make sure nobody else managed to get in there with me or, even worse, pull me back out.
For me, then, the question is, “How do I stop being that person?”