270. incipient

denethorIt’s about time for this monthly check-in with the blog. It has been over a month since the last one, after all.

The combination of working full-time plus the wind-up to the end of this semester has been kicking my ass recently. Perhaps it’s the research methods class I’m taking, or enduring a contentious and divisive election for almost two years, but I’m feeling pretty run-down.

What I have been planning to write about is the increasingly clearer picture of one of the dominant psychological constructs in my mind.

Let’s call him “Talos.”

He started out as a sort of mental protector figure—an internal proxy father in place of the one I didn’t entirely trust or feel safe around. He was a distant man (who himself had had a distant and sometimes physically abusive father) who tended to work a lot. He tried to do things with us: take us to parks, teach us to ride bikes. But it was clear he didn’t really know how to do any of the “traditional” things one expects from a father.

As we got older, the desire to connect with my sisters and me manifested in various ways (such as going to baseball games with my younger sister, or going to concerts with me), but so did his critical voice. While his intent was probably to help us by pointing out our mistakes, he had a way of turning compliments or feedback into backhanded insults.

Following one of my piano recitals as a teenager (which I thought went pretty well), we were driving home afterwards and after a moment of silence between us, he mentioned how some of my ornamentation had been slightly off.

In college, following the performance of one of my songs in a colleague’s recital, he said later that he thought a song I’d written previously had sounded more “true” to my style.

This was the state of things growing up. Some of that came from their theology, such as where Paul writes in Romans that “everyone among you [is] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).

Praising or encouraging us would’ve given us big heads, I guess.

A few weeks ago I was catching up on the WTF with Marc Maron Podcast, and Julia Sweeney was on. At one point they talked about growing up with an alcoholic parent:

MARC MARON: See, I’m projecting because what I was gonna say is that the children of alcoholics either become alcoholics and drug addicts, or control freaks.
JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, really.
MM: Well, yeah.
JS: I wonder if I’m a control freak.
MM: You don’t feel like one… Usually it’s because you’re in this position with a grown person that’s completely out of control all the time, and you’re constantly—you can’t do anything about this primary situation in your life, so when you get out of that you’re like, “I’m gonna keep it tight.” You know what I mean? There’s a reaction.

And that got me thinking about growing up in a rigidly-controlled religious household where one never felt entirely secure. Some flip out once they leave home and become totally debauched.

Others become control freaks.

Guess which direction I went.

For me, the gradual appearance and rise of Talos began as an internalization of those parental admonishments. After all, to a child, the sun rises and sets with their parents. It’s biologically wired into us to unconditionally accept what our parents tell us. Skepticism carried no survival benefits.

It started as anticipation of disapproval—of observing, learning to predict what behavior would result in a spanking, or a lecture, or a threat of burning eternally in hell.

As I got older though, Talos grew in size and scale. He was the internal eye, standing over my shoulder to criticize everything I did. And nothing was ever good enough. I’d practice piano for 3-4 hours a day to get one section of a piece just-right. I’d edit and rewrite papers until they felt perfect.

He also commented on the world around me, evaluating passing glances or turns of phrase.

“They know what a horrible person you are.”

“Nobody here likes you.”

“What a miserable disappointment.”

“You’ll never be good enough.”

This goes beyond stunted self-esteem.

It was crippled self-worth.

I was trying to come up with a face this week to put with Talos, and John Noble’s Denethor from The Lord of the Rings films came to mind. There’s this scene in particular:

It was a self-protective impulse turned inwards on itself, like a black hole. And once I became aware of my sexuality, that mechanism went into overdrive, controlling every thought and mannerism lest anything give me away to my parents, who were big fans of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

I’ve also been considering how this has impacted my romantic life, and my attitude towards myself and my demisexuality.

Specifically, is this sexuality an inborn trait, or is it the result of this darkly controlling inner force that looms over everything?

Regarding my orientation, of only being sexually attracted to men I have a close connection with, that has always been there. The more I got to know someone, the more attractive he got.

But would I feel more comfortable being more sexually and romantically open if Talos’ shadow wasn’t everywhere? Would I feel less pressure to find romance?

Who knows. But no wonder I stopped smiling around age eight.

But even non-sexually/romantically, would I feel less anxious in social settings if Talos weren’t threatening me not to fail, to say the wrong thing, to not let everyone know how stupid I am?

Though I’m now an atheist, the pressure to be perfect is no less overwhelming. I’m constantly analyzing social situations, draining my mental CPU.

The curious thing is that I became my own jailer.

So how then to unlock my own cell?


198. Le Jugement

Le_JugementThis was a card that came up yesterday, reversed, in the ninth position on the Celtic cross spread. It reminds me just how steeped the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is in Judeo-Christian mythology.

The imagery evokes the Resurrection before the Last Judgement from 1 Corinthians: “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

In Pamela Coleman Smith’s artwork, the archangel Gabriel awakens the dead with a trumpet blast, who gesture reverently and welcomingly with open arms. The figures below are grey and ashen, while everything above bursts with color.

the magicianThe banner on the trumpet is likely the Saint George’s Cross, which could be a reference to overcoming the dragon (Revelation 12:8). There’s also a connection in the red and white to the Magician’s clothing. The ocean swelling in the background could be a reference to the sea giving up its dead (Revelation 20:13), but there’s also the connection to the river that seems to flow throughout the Major Arcana cards, starting with the Empress. It mirrors the swelling waves in the foreground of the Fool, the river flowing through Death, and the water in Temperance, The Star, and The Moon. One could say that there’s also a connection to the High Priestess, with her blue robes flowing like water.

Grey is a masculine color in Tarot. The Emperor’s throne, the Hierophant’s church and Justice’s temple; the Chariot, the Hermit, the overcast sky in Death; the Devil’s wings, and the towers in The Tower card and The Moon are all grey (and, dare I say, phallic). The pillars in the High Priestess are black and grey.

The trumpet here has particular meaning for me, as my father is a professional trumpeter.

Some keywords that Waite associated with this card in its upright position are Judgement, Rebirth, Inner Calling, and Absolution. Reversed, it can suggest self-doubt and self-judgement.

Reversed, the Judgement card suggests that you may be indulging yourself in doubt and self-judgement. Your deliberation is causing you to miss the new opportunities that await. A certain amount of momentum has accumulated behind what you have achieved, which could propel you further. If actions are taken now, such momentum will not be lost. Therefore now is not the time for being cautious or introverted, rather it is time to move onwards with confidence and pride.

Additionally, this card suggests that you may be overly hard or critical of yourself and not allowing yourself to truly learn from your mistakes. You may have made some mistakes in the past but see these as learning experiences rather than failures or faults. (BiddyTarot.com)

When I laid out this card, it was in the ninth position in the Celtic cross spread, which indicates any hopes and/or fears of the Querent. One of the major reasons I really haven’t gone out or made any progress with the workshop of my one-act opera is this sea of self-doubt that I’ve been awash in the last couple of weeks. So many things life recently haven’t been working. Job interviews I’ve gone on have proven to be disappointments (the last one didn’t even give a reason: just “applicant was not chosen”); the guys I’ve seen on dates haven’t panned out; my grad school applications… well, that whole thing was rushed and poorly done to begin with.

Tarot scholar Tara Miller writes that “Judgment represents the House of Gabriel, the knowing that Judgment Day can come at any moment; live your life to the fullest, as the trumpet of Gabriel is at hand.” (Wikipedia)

It wasn’t until I renounced my Christian faith that I realized how truly precious and rare life is. As a Christian, I was taught from day one that life is a gift from God. To squander it by pursuing our own wants, desires, and pleasure is arrogance, and a sin. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

What I was most angry about after becoming an atheist was not that I’d been fooled or that I’d believed lies my whole life. It was that I’d lost so much time and experience. Instead of learning about Creationism, I could’ve been discovering the wonders of science and our world. I could’ve been discovering who I am, what I care about, what my values as a human being are. I could’ve been exploring my sexuality as a gay man, making mistakes early in life (when you’re supposed to make them), all on the way to finding a partner—and more importantly, a groundedness in who I am as a person. My parents and teachers were wrong: our rock is not Christ. We have to become our own rocks that can weather the storms and arrows of life.

So if life is so short, why do I keep allowing these petty, negative scripts to dominate mine?

Why do I superimpose an inner monologue on everyone, assuming they’re thinking how unattractive, unoriginal, neurotic, unfit, unsuitable, incomplete, and poorly trained I am?

This is why I often stay at home—because, no matter how irrational I know it is, my lizard brain interprets every stray glance or comment as betraying what people really think of me. And the thoughts cascade into self-doubt, self-hate, and self-judgement.

Of course they rejected your grad school applications. You’re a poor excuse for a competent adult and musician.

Of course no one wants to date you. You’re complicated, selfish, difficult to live with, and you don’t enjoy going out to gay bars.

Why bother going anywhere when you’ll just feel like an outsider? No one understands you. Other people know instinctively how to interact with other humans. You? You’re broken, damaged, and worthless.

And so I shut down, retreat and hide myself away. I let my potential stagnate rather than risk having to confront these messages.

The inherent meaning in the Judgement card is transition, one of awakening from death to “new life.” But I need to face the illumination my subconscious is shining on these issues.

61. desideratum

Soooo… Easter.

Tweeted a bit about this on Sunday morning. It was strange, driving around and seeing everyone going to church, and knowing that a year ago I was one of those people. And frankly, it was a little lonely. There’s comfort in being a part of a group, in marking the passage of time in ritual, and in such a manifest way and explicit terms.

Jesus is alive

Satan is defeated

I spent the first part of the morning watching the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera with my friend Emily at her place. And the strange thing is that it felt just like any other day. It wasn’t until later, when I was driving back to my place to get ready for a 10am meeting with my Former Fundementalists group that I really noticed the church-goers; the couples holding hands on their way to church; the little girls in their pink and white dresses; the families piling out of mini-vans like clowns packed into a Yugo.

Last week, a blogger I follow posted an entry that consisted of a note card with the following quote from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (trans. Samuel Shirley): “The things whose goodness derives only from authority and tradition, or from their symbolic representation of some good, cannot perfect our intellect; they are mere shadows, and cannot be counted as actions that are… the offspring and fruit of intellect and sound mind. ”

Basically, this is how I feel about religion right now. After lunch on Easter, both my mom and dad and brother-in-law ganged up on me to try to poke holes in my fledgling belief system and save my soul from damnation—which, if you know me, is about the least effective way to try to get through to me. It only resorts in me reverting to lizard behavior and digging myself further into whatever defenses.

Here’s the facts, as I know them: My gut tells me that there’s a God, and that Jesus was a real person and who he claimed to be. I feel uneasy when saying anything else, and I’ve learned to listen to that inner compass. However, I simply don’t buy Christianity as it’s wrapped and sold these days; believe in the tenability of evolution as the origin for the human species; am still not sure whether the whole resurrection thing happened; and would be far more likely to side with a more ancient and non-western sect of Christianity (e.g., Eastern Orthodox) than with Evangelicalism and its dogmatic fetishism. I still consider myself a skeptic (with secular humanist leanings), don’t believe the Bible to be the inerrant “word of God” (any more than any other book is “inspired”), and, as Augustine presumably advised (I’m still looking for a direct citation for where that idea comes from), favor science over religion where the facts seem clear:

When they [scholars] are able, from reliable evidence (erax documentum), to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt. (Book I, Chapter 21)

Augustine wrote that in 402 AD, and it’s a much more generous stance than what we hear today from the Church, which is often Bible-thumping dogmatic dismissal of scientific evidence. We have the faculties of logic and reason: why should we turn off that critical thinking part of the mind when it comes to religion that we apply to every other field of human learning and research? When the facts seem to say that the earth is older than 10,000 years, based on both physical geological and cosmological data, who do we side with? Science? Or a book written two thousand years ago by a bronze-age people with rudimentary scientific knowledge of the universe (who, I might add, weren’t even attempting to write a scientific treatise in the first place, and were basing their creation account around contemporary Near East etiological myths)? I believe that we can glean truths from any human writing when we properly use the aforementioned logic and reason, and that the physical universe is just as much revelation as anything else.

Basically what Augustine is saying in his treatise on Genesis is that science and religion don’t necessarily have to conflict; that one informs and shapes the other; and I’ve always felt that. It’s the dissonance that comes from the conservative right saying that science is anathema that has bothered me, and it’s that that I’m distancing myself from, not necessarily God. (That said, however, I also must admit that from a scientific perspective, the earth, our solar system and the universe behave exactly as they would if there weren’t a God. It seems to largely run and correct itself.) For example, on a personal level, that’s the conclusion that I came to in wrestling over whether homosexuality was a sin or not: that this is my experience; that I’ve always been attracted to men (as supposed to being abused or something); that the mounting psychological and psychiatric data suggests that it’s a normal expression of human sexuality; that trying to alter an individual’s orientation is dangerous and unnecessary; and that the religious right’s opposition and scrambling to throw up objections to homosexuality comes from a patriarchal panic over their threatened status quo and losing what power they still have over the culture at large.

But more than anything, I believe that God would want me to get out and enjoy life, not worry about whether I’m living in “his perfect will” or whatever it is that the kids are saying nowadays. Be good to people, play fair, and leave the world better than you found it. That’s my religion.