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Spooky Action At A Distance

Good Boy / Bad Boy / Lost Boy

An essay by Steven Wineman

Good Boy

When I was five years old, as my mother tucked me into bed she asked me to promise that I would always stay good and never turn bad like my older brother Jimmy. I promised — it seemed like such a no-brainer! — and she beamed and gave me a big hug and kiss. It was a pivotal moment.

I imagine that my mother was telling me to be a good boy from the day I was born. I don't remember infancy and my memories of early childhood are sketchy at best, but I do have one piece of solid evidence. When I was four my parents took me to see the Disney film of "Pinocchio." I think Jimmy must have also been there, but I don't remember. What I do remember was getting to the part about Pinocchio telling lies. When his nose started growing, I was beside myself. The longer his nose got the more frantic, the more terrified I became. I was crying inconsolably. I felt like my world was coming apart.

I don't remember anything else: whether one of my parents took me out of the theatre to calm me down; when or how I calmed down; if I saw the rest of the movie, or if we left.

So already at the age of four, I was terrified by the image of being a bad boy, made concrete not only by the film itself but by the externalization, the telltale nose. There was the internal experience of the Steven-surrogate up there on the screen, the wood carving come to life and now capable of telling the difference between truth and lies, and choosing to lie, and wanting to get away with it. I don't think I consciously told lies at that age, though of course there could be something significant that I've blocked all these years. But I surely understood the difference between "being bad" and getting away with it, and being bad and getting caught. I think that for me even the former — making a bad choice, knowing it was wrong, and not being found out — would have been really frightening. But the two together, being bad and having your badness instantly, starkly revealed, was completely overwhelming. What made it even worse was that I identified with Pinocchio, I was rooting for him and didn't believe that he really meant to be bad, that somehow a horrible thing was happening to him, this piece of wood who had not asked to be turned into a living boy.

I don't think at that stage I had any concept that there might be a difference, let alone an important difference, between doing something bad (or thoughtless, or hurtful) and being bad. Even years later, once I clearly got that concept in my head, once I could apply it skillfully and sensitively in my work with children, I don't think I got how to apply it to myself.

So where did that come from in me, by age four? Lots of messages from my mom, spoken and unspoken, about the paramount importance of conforming to her expectations of good behavior, and doing so as the price for her love and acceptance — that seems to me an inescapable inference, for all the particulars I don't remember.

We were living in New York the year I was four and had my meltdown at "Pinocchio." That was also the year when, in my mother's language, my brother Jimmy "turned bad." There were many manifestations of Jimmy's badness, so many that it might be easier to catalog the ways that he stayed good. He was brilliant and did well in school. Every now and then he had pleasant conversations with our parents. Sometimes he played with me and was nice to me. He taught me to play chess and then told our mother that I was the smartest little boy in New York. That's about what I can remember on the "good" side of the ledger.

Forty years later, the one and only time that my brother met my son, who was then three years old, Jimmy went on and on about how my son looked exactly like me when I was little (not even close to true to the best of my perception). How cute he was, how smart, how adorable. You get the idea that Jimmy was very fond of me, or at least some part of him was. And as a little boy I understood this, through and despite all of the other shit. But the other shit, Jimmy's "badness," was overwhelming. He tortured me, repeatedly pinning me on the floor and clawing my stomach (which we called "tickling") until I was hysterical, and dominating me in lots of other ways as well. There were constant struggles between Jimmy and my parents, which ended up with Mom screaming at him on a regular basis and telling him things like "you'll grow up to dig ditches," which was about the clearest designation of badness you could get in my family. (We were not raised to recognize the dignity of physical labor, to put it mildly.) In public, for example at restaurants, Jimmy would say things to strangers that would set Mom off, asking waitresses personal questions and a whole array of similar things that made Mom frantic and enraged.

And then there was the stuff he did that was just outright bizarre, even (maybe especially) in the eyes of a little brother. He had fantasy characters — "The Pookeeboo Man" and "The Klockaboong Man" are the ones I remember, but I'm pretty sure there were others. He went on and on about them, made up songs, wrote newspapers about their exploits, interjected them into conversations, probably talked to strangers about them. And underneath all that, below all the words, the screaming and the labeling, there was something inexpressibly creepy about him. All of this, to Jimmy's lasting and ruinous misfortune, got encapsulated in the description of him as having "turned bad."

There is a particular event I remember from our year in New York. We lived in the Bronx and were doing something in Manhattan — I think all four of us, though I don't have a clear image of my father being there; but my mother didn't drive and I don't have any memory of us going anywhere by subway or bus as a family, so Dad must have been along. It was cold. We were on the sidewalk. I have no idea why we had come into Manhattan, but there we were on a busy street with yet another Jimmy-crisis going on. Mom frantic, Dad at the end of his rope, Jimmy egging them on with a distorted grin on his face, and me standing there, being little and quiet and in some exquisitely intricate way taking it all in and zoning it all out at the same time. Finally they threatened to put him on a bus and send him home alone, and I don't know what Jimmy said or did but it must have been bad because they did in fact put him on the bus.

I have a visual image of Jimmy stepping up onto the bus and the door closing behind him. He was eight or by then maybe nine years old, still a little boy who had lived all his life in Detroit until this one year in New York City, being sent to navigate the long trip to our home in the Bronx, alone. He was my utter and complete nemesis in life, the person in the world I already most wanted not to be like in every imaginable way, and it was a relief to have him sent away, a vindication and an affirmation of my goodness in the family. And yet, for all of that, something sank inside me to see the bus door close behind him, I worried and feared for him, and there was a clandestine sadness in me for which I had no words.

So by the time I was five and all too enthusiastically acceded to Mom's exhortation to stay good and never turn bad like Jimmy, in many ways I was agreeing to something that was already a done deal. I had no intention of doing anything that would make me like Jimmy, turn me into a creepy guy and get me yelled at all the time. But what my mother said that night as she put me to bed, and my response to her, set it in stone: my contractual obligation, to Mom and to myself, to be a good boy forever. To have something fundamental in me that would never change. To know that this fundamental thing in me, this goodness, was in fact a choice — it was fundamental but not actually inherent in me as a person. My goodness was constantly negotiable, it bore and required constant scrutiny and vigilance, and it was deeply precarious because I had the option to be bad like Jimmy. Which had to mean that there was also something bad in me, that somewhere inside me was something I could choose to be that was not a good boy.

I worked exceedingly hard to stay good, all the way through childhood and adolescence. The truth is that I still do, at age 64. My mother, while she was alive, likewise worked hard to reinforce the message and to remind me of the consequences of being bad. She screamed at my brother, she screamed at my father, for all of their many transgressions, the endless ways that they did not meet her needs. Meanwhile, I was small and quiet; I conformed to her expectations, or at minimum, as I got older, found ways to get around them without rocking her boat. I was her darling boy.

I have vivid memories of times as a child when I would get angry at my mother. I don't remember what she did that pissed me off, but I remember feelings so intense that I would vow to myself never speak to her again. This would last maybe ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Then it was gone, and I'd go on with my life as if it had never happened. I was on a high-tension leash, and I knew it.

Years later, when I was home for a short visit with my parents (my visits were never more than short), I did actually tell Mom that I was angry at her. It was summer, and my parents lived in a complex with a pool. One afternoon I went to the pool, and at some point Mom joined me. I was stretched out on a cheap deck chair with horizontal plastic slats. I had my towel rolled up and was using it as a pillow. When my mother got there, she pointed out that the slats would leave marks on my back. I told her I wasn't worried about it. But, she said, wouldn't I be more comfortable if I spread my towel out over the chair? I said that I was using the towel for my head and I was fine as I was. She wouldn't let it go. Why was I being so unreasonable? Did I want to have marks on my back? It seemed to me that at age thirty-something I had reached full blown adulthood and was capable of making this kind of decision for myself, but I'm sure I didn't put it like that to my mother. I tried to fend her off with terse, low-key responses that I was okay or that if the chair left marks they would go away quickly. She asked me to do it for her. I quietly declined. I was seething and I kept it contained as best I could. Eventually, with a flourish of resignation, Mom relented.

But it festered in me. When I went back to my parents' apartment, took a shower, got dressed for dinner, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and my stomach was in an uproar. This little incident recapitulated so much in my relationship with my mother which, by then, I was all too aware of and which made me furious. On her side, the driving need to control, her unwillingness to see me as my own person, to respect me as an adult who was in charge of my own life. Deeper than all of that, it echoed so much of my childhood, of how she had placed me as a child in the role of attending to her, of meeting her needs. And on my side — my fucking quiet! My perpetual dancing around my anger at her, expressing it through distance and withdrawal, but never directly; my having lived in fear of her reaction to any genuine expression of feelings that would cross the brittle threshold of what she could tolerate. I had lived with this fear all my life. It was part of the bargain, my contract to be a good boy.

For reasons I can't really reconstruct, that evening I stepped across the line. We were driving to a restaurant. I was at the wheel, my mother was with me in the front seat; my father sat in back. In a quiet voice, as calmly as I could, I said something like, "Mom, I want to let you know that I'm angry about what happened at the pool." She bristled. I could feel her entire body go taut. I could hear the tension, the desperation vibrating in her voice. She asked me what I was talking about. I said that she had kept telling me to spread out my towel after I made it clear I didn't want to. She fired off a string of questions: Had I been angry about this all afternoon? (Yes.) I was angry because she wanted me to be comfortable? (That's not how I would put it.) Then how would I put it? (That she wouldn't take no for an answer.) And that was such a terrible thing that I would be angry about it all afternoon and bring it up now on our way to dinner?

With each successive volley, my mother got harsher, louder, more brittle. Within minutes she was screaming at me . This was what I had feared all my life but, as far as I can remember, she had never actually done to me before that evening. If I worked at it I could probably approximate some of the words that she was yelling, but by that stage her words were truly beside the point. The point was that this was the very thing I had worked so hard for so long to prevent. The point was that this incident confirmed everything I had always known was true about my mother and the vigilance I needed to maintain with her. The point was that my mother could not tolerate the true expression on my feelings. The point was that along the margins of being good, only inches away, lay the uncharted vortex of the bad boy.

Bad Boy

Several months ago I started meditating. I read Jon Kabat-Zinn's wonderful book Full Catastrophe Living, which describes a program of mindful breathing and yoga for managing stress and pain, and for living a better life. I had tried meditating before, liked it quite a bit, but had never settled into a daily practice. This time I did.

One of the reasons that Kabat-Zinn's approach worked for me was that there didn't seem to be any wrong way to do it. The core of the practice is to sit for 30-45 minutes every day and focus awareness on your breathing, the rise and fall of your belly. There is no mantra, no words at all — so there's no issue with getting the words wrong. There is of course an issue with having extraneous thoughts that distract you away from awareness of your breathing. But Kabat-Zinn says this is normal, it happens to everyone. As soon as you become aware of distracting thoughts, you gently bring your attention back to your breath, to your belly. No scolding, no big deal. If you find that your thoughts take you away from your breathing a hundred times in a sitting, then a hundred times you gently bring your attention back to your breath.

This no-fault quality to the practice spoke directly to the internalized imperative I still carry to get things right and do well so I can be good. Here was an opportunity for me not only to let go of some of the large volume of stress that I carry, but also to step outside of the good-boy dynamic that has been the source of so much of my stress.

At least that's what I told myself. And I should say, to qualify what comes next, that there was a fair amount of truth to this. But the idea that meditation would enable me to easily step outside of being good, outside of a compulsion to do it right, turned out to be wishful. I found, not surprisingly, that some mornings I could focus on my breathing more easily and more consistently than others. There have been times when the experience of being with my breathing and with the sensations in my belly has been powerful beyond words. There are other mornings when I get distracted to varying degrees. And on those mornings, not surprisingly, I get frustrated with myself and feel that I'm not doing it right, Jon Kabat-Zinn's kindness and acceptance notwithstanding.

Okay, so what would Kabat-Zinn say to do about that? He would say to focus my awareness on my feelings of frustration. Your feelings, he says, are your feelings; and the deal with mindfulness is that you can attend to anything and everything you experience. Fair enough, and that's what I've done. So I have ended up meditating quite a bit on the good boy in me.

I've discovered some interesting things. There's an insatiable, addictive quality to my drive to do well. As a path to being good, getting something right can never be more than a temporary fix that only sustains me for so long. Then there's something else I need to get right — or else. That threat always hangs over me: deviate from the path, do badly, get it wrong, and whatever has held me up all my life will come crashing down.

Another way of saying this is that I can never be good enough. Underneath that simple sentence there is all kinds of anxiety, which I feel in the pit of my stomach almost every morning as I focus on my breathing; and an unspeakable sadness; and a yearning for acceptance — from someone who loves me, and from myself; and anger, sometimes raging anger for the acceptance that was not given to me, and for what was taken away when my mother's love was conditioned on my choosing to stay good.

So I have found all these strands, which feel like fragments of self, and I breathe with them, try to hold them with gentleness and care. In the process I try to start practicing self-acceptance by holding rather than resisting these awful feelings.

Then underneath all of that I started feeling or sensing another, unruly voice — an entirely different collection of stirrings and yearnings and grievances: the bad boy. Bad Steven. The part of me that had to be down there, somewhere deep inside me, all my life. The part or parts I've been contractually obligated since age five to keep under wraps, to silence, to oppose, to vilify, to not know, to deny and in the same instant to choose against.

I started to have a sense of a voice from deep inside, the bad boy who seemed to be saying — I am the one who has never had a voice. The contradiction of a contradiction. Some part of me down there who has been chained, crouching in a dark corner all his life. Seething with rage. Someone I could not let myself know. Someone who does not know himself.

I felt these stirrings, these inklings and intimations, and I started trying to breathe with these frightening feelings as well. As I did I realized that the seeming distinction between the good boy and the bad boy was breaking down. That characterization of the bad boy as represented by "an entirely different collection of stirrings and yearnings and grievances" was too easy. I started to understand, or at least believe, that the good boy and bad boy were two sides of the same coin. One could not exist without the other. And both suffered from the same dis-ease. Neither knew true acceptance. One was close to my surface, the other buried far below, but both were yearning for the same things. To be able to let go, finally and decisively, of this terrible self-vigilance I've carried all my life. To be seen and accepted and loved for who they truly are. For who I truly am.

There have been many times in my life when I have done things you could call "bad" or rebellious or, at minimum, less than entirely good. But in my own head, how ever I make sense of my own experience, I have found ways to finesse these choices, to incorporate my choices into a story of myself as being good.

Let's start with my behavior toward my mother. As I veered down the slippery slope of adolescence, I started pulling away from Mom. I wanted autonomy; she wanted me to still be her little boy. Naturally it was way more complicated than that, but the point is not so much why I pulled away as how I did it: quietly. No scenes, no shouting, no big power struggles. I kept getting A's in school. I didn't make any trouble at home. I simply got progressively more remote from my mother emotionally. I somehow intuited a way to withdraw from her without violating my good boy code. There was one time when I was in eleventh grade and I did something more explicit. I have no idea what it was, but I vividly remember Mom's response: "You're being like Jimmy." It was worse than being slapped in the face. The rules were very clear; they were carved into my bones.

Other ways that I could rebel and still be a good boy: Politically, I was (and am) a lefty radical. In the sixties I went to antiwar rallies; I was a leader of a small uprising at my high school having to do with racism in the Detroit public school system; at college I occupied the President's office and was arrested with hundreds of other students at Columbia University in 1968. But all of this was in the name of good causes, and done with integrity and out of conscience. Nothing bad about it, regardless of the opinions of school administrators. Besides, I had my parents' support.

Here's one that was a little dicier. When I was eighteen I was counselor at a summer camp. There was a walk-in cooler. I liked to stay up late and was in the habit of making myself a midnight peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Toward the end of the summer there were problems with staff taking food from the cooler that was needed for meals, and the camp director put a padlock on the cooler door. It seriously pissed me off. One night I was hanging out with one of the other counselors, a young woman named Barbara who I liked a lot. I was kvetching about the cooler being locked, how ridiculous it was and how much I wanted a PB&J. At some point we started talking about sawing off the lock. At first I thought it was just talk, but then she said that she would really do it. I was thrilled and scared. We were the last ones up. We found a hacksaw, and Barbara did in fact saw off the lock. Laughing, I watched her do it. Then I walked into the cooler and made my sandwich.

The next morning at breakfast, the camp director asked me if I knew anything about the lock. I said yes, Barbara had sawed it off. I felt pretty weird about it in the moment and I cringe a little even now, but there it was: the moment of the finesse. I watched, but she did the sawing. When confronted I told a version of the truth. I somehow tiptoed my way through that rebellious moment and managed to stay on the good boy side of the ledger, at least in my own mind and gut.

There have been lots of other examples over the years — political protest, conflicts with authorities at work, use of hallucinogens as a young adult — that have conformed to the same pattern. I could push things to a point, but that point was sharply defined. I might think of it as integrity, or as having clear values, or I might be driven by fear; but there have always been lines I would not let myself cross. A few years ago I crystallized this in a description of myself as an "obedient rebel."

The only problem with that description, and with the narrative underlying it, is that it isn't entirely true. It's not entirely false either, and there have in fact been large swaths of my emotional and psychological experience that have been organized around lines not to be crossed and finding ways to oppose authority and stay good.

But as I have been trying to make sense of the "bad boy" lurking somewhere in my interior, I've found myself meandering through random memories, and I have had to acknowledge moments when my behavior has, very simply and very clearly, been bad. Times when I yelled at kids I was working with, and would justify it based on some kind of psycho-nonsense, but in fact I was just abusing power and treating them in hurtful ways. Times when I have behaved very badly in intimate relationships. Times I behaved badly as a parent. When I look back at these incidents now — not isolated incidents, either, but entire patterns of behavior — I don't see any finessing, any mitigation, anything that I can fold into the story that I contain a "Bad Steven" whose voice has never seen the light of day. Once I was with friends in a campground, and we got drunk and made a ruckus in the middle of the night, probably disturbing half the campground. That doesn't make me a horrible person, but I don't know what you would call it if not bad behavior.

I have also had ugly, nasty thoughts — about myself, about others. I've had racist thoughts. I've had sexist fantasies.

How could that entire array of behavior and thoughts possibly fit with the story of myself as someone who has always managed to finesse a way to be "good"? What can it possibly mean to contend that "Bad Steven" has never had a voice?

This trail of trying to make sense of my constructed identity, how I have selectively included or ignored pieces and patterns of experience in order to perceive myself as "being good," has led me to a simple truth. What my mother considered "bad" is something else entirely. The same goes for what she considered "good." This takes me back to something I've already said, a basic understanding that I have been able to apply to others but not to myself: doing things well or correctly, conforming to a parent's expectations for good behavior, does not make you a good person. Nor does making mistakes or behaving badly make you a bad person.

So: what is it that lurks deep inside of me, if not a "bad boy"? What is it in me that has been crushed and chained and rendered voiceless? What is it that I have lost in my lifelong quest to be good?

Lost Boy

There have been pivotal moments in my life when I was completely lost.

Starting college was one of them. I was seventeen and had been yearning for this. If you had asked me during my last year of high school whether I was ready to leave home, I'd have said — way beyond ready. But I only knew half of that equation. I was all too aware of what I was getting away from, and had no idea what I was walking into. Then I did walk into it, on the Upper West Side of gritty, hyper-congested Manhattan, stuck in a cinderblock dorm suite with three guys I had nothing in common with, fixated on a young woman in Michigan I'd unreciprocally fallen in love with over the summer, taking classes that fell way short of my idealized expectations, working hard anyway to get A's, hanging out with a small group of guys I didn't click with, finding myself ill equipped to meet girls at Barnard across the street from Columbia. Underneath all of these particulars there was, for me, a sense of being out of place, of having no place that was right — not back at home with my family; not at school in New York; not in my own body, or my thoughts, or my feelings, or my spirit; nowhere.

Three years later, before the start of my senior year, I dropped out of college to take my first adult job as a child care worker at a residential treatment center near Boston. This was in fact a wonderful moment of finding myself. But after a year and a half at that job, for a variety of what then seemed to be good reasons, I decided to take some time off. I was planning to go back to school the following fall, and I wanted to have a stretch when I was neither working nor in school. I had some savings. I lined up a place to stay at a kind of hippie farmhouse in New Hampshire. I was working on a novel. It seemed like having a chance to be free.

What I became, instead, was uprooted. I didn't fit in at the farm, to say the least. It was January and cold. I slept most of the day, wrote at night, and the writing was not particularly fruitful. I felt more isolated at a place where I couldn't relate to the others than if I had been living alone. I had no connections to anyone within a radius of sixty miles. I had a casual lover in Boston, not a serious relationship, and how ever we did define it, it was falling apart. After a couple of months I went back to Boston, rented a room in a rooming house, spent some time playing out the last stages of my crumbling involvement with my lover. I had no other meaningful friendships in Boston, no meaningful focus to my days. I was waiting for a next stage of my life that was still months away. I remember walking out on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge over the Charles River at night, looking at the lights of the city and the huge Citgo sign looming over Kenmore Square, feeling utterly disconnected.

Fast forward another four years, to the fall of 1975. Four friends and I bought land in central Maine, built a house, and were going to start a community. We had spent much of the previous year in Boston planning this — hours of late night discussions, week after week. But once we were actually in Maine, in the space of a few months we disintegrated as a group. One of the "friends" was a woman I loved; we'd been in a real, previously solid, two-year relationship. That came apart as well. There were many awful scenes I could recount — discrete moments of conflict, of painful cross purposes and inability to cope with each others' needs. But one may be enough to capture the dispirit of that period of time for me.

I was trying to build a door frame. Out of the five of us, there were only two who came into this house building project with a reasonable set of carpentry skills, and I was not one of them. Over the course of that fall I learned to use a saw and a hammer, and there were a few fairly simple tasks — cutting a straight line, putting down floorboards, nailing wallboards — that I got pretty good at. Even with the things I managed to do, I always felt out of my element. But putting up a door frame was beyond my skill set. Still, it needed to be done; we were racing the onset of winter; I hadn't started out knowing how to put down floorboards either; I was getting told by the others that I was capable of more carpentry than I thought; and I was trying to believe it. So one of the guys with skills told me how to do the task, and I gave it a try. And failed miserably. The truth was that I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. Then I asked for help and got some kind of annoyed response.

At a certain point I flung down my tools, stalked away, and wound up sitting in the bed of our pickup truck. I leaned against the back of the cab, wrapped my arms around my knees, closed my eyes, and sank into a swirl of awful thoughts and feelings. I was in an irrational state. I was angry at everyone, including myself. I felt helpless and totally inept. I was letting the others down and letting myself down — first by failing to construct the door frame, and then by walking away, letting myself be overwhelmed by my feelings, sitting and sulking when we desperately needed everyone to be contributing. I watched myself sitting there, some part of me aware of how counterproductive I was being, and I could not move. I was in a state of emotional paralysis.

There have been numbers of other situations later in life when I have been swept into this same kind of vortex — at key points in a series of intimate relationships, none of which I was ultimately able to sustain; periodically over many years as a parent.

You could say that these have been episodes of depression, and of course that's true. But even in better times of my life, when I have had a sense of place, friends, intimacy, good work — I have carried, underneath those more placid surfaces, a deeper sense of unease, of not truly fitting with my surroundings, of social discomfort, of holding myself apart, of not being right with myself.

This turns out not to be a story about good and bad, after all, but about confusion and loss of critical parts of my self, loss of my potential as a person in the world. My mother told me, and I agreed, not to turn bad, and I believed that there were things deep inside me that I could not allow to see the light of day. I believed, desperately, as the condition for my survival as a person who could be loved and valued, and as the condition for my own self-regard, that I needed to be vigilant and keep myself very tightly wrapped, to guard against every possible mistake and do everything as right as I could; and anything veering off that path was assumed to be "bad" by default.

What I lost was my capacity to be spontaneous, and the understanding that spontaneity does not make you a bad person. I lost the joy of making mistakes and learning from them, and the simple understanding that mistakes don't make you a bad person. I lost my capacity for joy itself. I lost my ability to embrace the messiness of life (intuiting this, my son went through a phase where he would leave me little notes saying "Spills are good"). I lost my wholeness and became divided against and within myself. And underneath these words that make sense and sound right, I can't know what I lost because it has been sealed off so tightly. I don't even know if "sealed off" is right, because it implies that these parts of me may not be irrevocably lost, that they are still inside in some kind of locked psychic chamber, and what is locked could potentially be unlocked, even this late in life — particularly this late in life, since that's where I am. As opposed to simply gone.

There is so much of this story that is beyond words. How do you describe the parts of yourself, the capacities and potentials that you have guarded against for over sixty years?

Life being stubbornly three dimensional, I'm sure that the full breadth and depth of my experience does not reduce what I have described here. Could it possibly be that I have never been spontaneous over the entire span of my life? That there have never been times when I have felt right with myself, or deeply connected to others, or at one with places of beauty and meaning? Have never experienced the fullness of joy? No, that could not possibly be.

What I've been describing have been patterns, themes, recurring tendencies, driving forces that defined and scarred large swaths of my self and my experience in the world, but surely do not define all of who I am.

Unfinished Story

As I have been writing this essay, I've been aware that it lacks a proper ending. By "proper" I guess I mean something tidy and satisfying; something like, 'It has only been in the process of telling this story I have come to realize that nothing inside me has actually been lost; that these are parts of me that inhere; that it makes no sense to believe any of the capacities you were born with can possibly be lost. Of course my capacities for spontaneity and joy are potentially retrievable, every last one of them. And the very process of telling the story, of bearing witness to these losses has brought me closer to retrieving them.'

Well. That's an ending I'm not able to write. Nor do I have a tragic ending, a pronouncement that, through closer examination, or some sort of revelation, I have reached a place of excruciating clarity that these lost capacities are, simply and finally, gone, and what's left is only a hole.

The practice I'm engaged in, of sitting quietly with myself every morning and attending to my breathing, suggests something different from either of the above. The best way to achieve results, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, is to not try to achieve any results at all. Strangely enough, this makes perfect sense to me. So I don't sit in the morning and go searching for something that's not there; I don't try to retrieve a little boy who isn't so worried about being good, isn't afraid of his own impulses or of making the occasional mess. I try to open myself to feeling what is there, and breathe with it, and hold it. This is, on its own terms, a process of calming down, of making peace with my body, with my history and my spirit; of understanding at the deepest possible level that all of the various parts of me, whatever is there, reside in the same single body, are nourished by the same breath. Whatever comes of that, in terms of rediscovering or unlocking "sealed off" parts of myself — or whatever doesn't come — will or won't come, in its own time, of its own accord.

There is a dance here between grief and hope. The grief is certain, as sure as my breath itself. Regardless of what does or does not get unlocked, the imprint on my life up to now of trying so hard to be good and fighting off those parts of me so confusedly and wrongly regarded as bad — these losses have happened over a period of six decades and are not to be undone.

The hope is that accepting and holding my fractured self exactly as I am will lead to some kind of transcendence.

Fricken Sheep

An old Dilbert comic strip sits on my refrigerator. Dilbert and Wally, both engineers, are at a conference table. Dilbert, wearing his own distinctive glasses and flipped up tie, is in the body of a sheep, and he says, "Before we start the meeting, I should explain how I turned into a sheep." To which Wally — not the world's most sensitive guy — responds, "Why do people think their problems are interesting to other people?" Prompting Dilbert to wail, "I'M A FRICKEN SHEEP!!!"

So: why would people have any interest in my idiosyncratic problems to do with identity and loss of self? (Apart from the fact that there are a fair number of non-Wallys who do generically find other people's problems interesting.)

I think that being open to someone else's pain is also a way of opening yourself to your own, even if the particulars don't match up point for point. Of course there are unique aspects to my story — that is unavoidably true for all of us. But struggles for wholeness, and themes that revolve around opposing or fearing or censoring or outright hating parts of ourselves, are hardly unique to me. People who have issues with their physical appearance, or have internalized perceptions of themselves as not smart enough, or not funny enough, or not serious enough, or have issues with their sexuality, or their sexual orientation, or have internalized negative stereotypes or views of themselves based on their gender or race or class, or have dissociated entire parts of themselves due to trauma: these things abound in our society, in our world. Each story is unique, and each tugs on a common thread.

My strong suspicion is that if Wally were willing to do some serious self-reflection, he would find a part of his humanity that has been distorted or diminished; some part of himself that has been lost. So many of us are fricken sheep, one way or another. Telling each other our stories, and being open to hearing them, is surely one of the important steps we can take in the direction of reclaiming wholeness.

© Steven Wineman 2013