Archive for June, 2008

I Love You

June 9, 2008

Love & Ego

            I don’t really believe in love, not in the romantic sense.  I used to be a big sloppy romantic, fully believed love was a magical force, thought I had a soul mate, that our souls would be intertwined in the clouds, loved all people, thought I was way awesomer than the cynics who just hadn’t experienced real love like I had.  Especially in high school, holy moly.  I read back over the whiny, dramatic 20 page love letters I wrote to my girlfriend when she lived in France and I’m like, merde. 

            Love has always been a pretty abstract notion and kind of evolved as I grew up and different hormones took hold, and different needs asserted themselves.  I think the way we experience love is through the humble fulfillment by others of our most basic needs, which are well defined by Maslow’s Heirarchy – food, warmth, safety, etc. and later sex (or procreation).  But the older we get, the more we become a product of our environment, and these needs become disguised by conditioned thought processes, which our ego creates as a way of dealing with society’s constant demand for us to justify ourselves.  For example, when I go in to buy a new suit and the salesman says “special occasion?” my response would not typically be “nope, I’m trying to have sex and not die,” and that probably wouldn’t even occur to me although it would be the ultimate truth.  I need the suit to look nice for work, so I can pay my bills and provide for my family, so I can eat food and drink water, and be worthy of having sex with. 

            So far in my own head, I haven’t found a single thought, feeling or need that I couldn’t reduce to those two primal motivations – survival and procreation…. ego & sex.  Even love.  It took me a long time to begin to concede this to myself, because I feel like it makes real unselfish love unachievable.  It is impossible to give pure love because I’ll always feel or understand some selfish motivation. 

            I had a discussion several weeks ago with friends where I claimed that while John McCain was laying on a urine soaked cot with a broken back for 6 years at the Hanoi Hilton, he probably had some time to think in between beatings.  And it had to have occurred to him that if he made it out alive he would have one hell of a story to tell.  In fact, it had to have occurred to him that he could build a political career on his military record and sacrifice.  In a way I was testing a theory, because I was already pretty sure what their reaction would be, and indeed it did strike a little indignation in my friends.  It may have struck the same note in me were I not the one making the argument, because the first impression is that I am accusing the great John McCain of orchestrating his military record with a political future as the goal, and then pimping his POW story for sympathy votes.  But the flaw is, you have to assume that to understand that you might benefit in some way, negates the selflessness of the act.  But those thoughts are a part of the natural psychological structure of all people of relative mental health, aren’t they?  To set a frame for this discussion, I am referring only to people of normal mental health.

            If I run into a burning building to rescue babies, there is a part of me that already knows I’ll be called a hero.  If I write this essay, I maybe feel like it could be a contribution, but there is also the part of me that wants people to read this and think I am smart.  Not that these things would be my prime motivation, but that side of me always has input.  It’s my ego and it’s impossible for me to escape from.  It’s the human manifestation of survival instinct. 

            There is a sports radio DJ in Dallas named Gordon Keith who is greatness, and he always talks about how people, especially childhood through college people, live life in their heads like they are the star of their own movie.  That has always rung true to me, and it’s a helpful analogy for understanding my own psyche.  From the time we are old enough to understand language, our reality is conditioned by traditional storytelling.  For the 20th Century human, this phenomenon has been amplified by the invention of movies.  I’ve been a moviegoer since I was an infant, I can relate events in my life to movie scenes, I create my own storyline, rock a soundtrack to it sometimes, I’ve even presented movie lines as my own thoughts.  Think about just the way that you see things, and how a camera’s lens is designed to mimic that.  Look at something and wobble your head side to side for a shaky cam effect.  Now put some music to it.  I cannot count how many times I have, for example, sat on a train watching a girl or the scenery with my ipod on, and feeling like Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise or some other story I’ve romantically connected my reality to. 

            This is why that guy in the 70’s said “the Beatles wrote the soundtrack to our lives.”  This is why we can’t all just get along.  Every one is busy writing their tragedies (thanks Imogen) and victories, so we have to have an antagonist and if there is none, we create one.  This is the reason we have war.  The evolution of this behavior probably came about from a combination of survival instincts and sheer boredom, and out of this behavior, probably evolved religion.  That’s just my opinion.

           Pre-movie humans of course lived their lives as if they were a character in a book, or the stories they were told, and so on.  It’s part of human nature to dramatize our experiences.  Think of a drama queen that you know, and think of a time that their behavior looked completely foolish to you.  I was at a great party in Houston once with Candice, when a person she knows who is a noted drama queen walked up looking panicked and said, “Is there a hospital in Lewisville?!??” then hustled off before we could say “uhhhh.”  She obviously didn’t need an answer, she just wanted to be sure we knew that she had something important enough going on to warrant a hospital’s involvement. 

            You know someone like this.  Now confess that you have behaved in exactly the same way in your life, likely not to the same degree or with the same frequency, but you sir/madam, have been a drama queen. 

            The movie is my ego, trying to keep me alive by giving my character dramatic purpose.  My goal is to be the director instead of an audience member. 

            I can’t scrap my ego altogether, it is here to stay.  I can, however, learn to recognize its face, and then I can start to recognize the same behaviors in the people around me, that I have already identified in myself as ego. Then, with practice, I can do this more and more until its control over my consciousness dissolves.  If I am oblivious to my ego, it has control over me and my motivations, but if I can be aware of it, like a witness sitting at the back of my head watching what is going on at the front, it dissolves, it ceases to be me because I have identified it and its purpose, almost like a body part, like how my liver is there for metabolization, and I can think of it in that context. 

            In this state of mind, I am a much more capable giver.

            In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is offered a metaphorical choice: Eat this cookie and you’ll continue down the same path, knowing the same things, but eat THIS cookie and the world will be revealed as you did not know it existed.  Ok there’s a little drug symbolism there, but it is also meant as a symbol of the choice people make to acknowledge reality and reason in their thoughts, no matter how painful or confusing.  The same metaphor and philosophy is in The Matrix.  Take the blue pill and you will carry on with life as before, take the red pill, and you will be unplugged from the machine that has been feeding you false sensory information your entire life (the ego, and it’s willingness to trick the mind).  You’ll see how deep the rabbit hole goes.  I mention these examples only to say that this philosophy in it’s different forms is ubiquitous in human culture.

            Aristotle called this “the examined life” and Oprah’s guru Eckhart Tolle calls it being “present,” the stillness behind your thoughts.  The inner dialogue, not your feelings.  If you are asking yourself “what inner dialogue?”  It’s that one.  And once you really identify and separate the inner dialogue, then you have to train yourself to be honest with it. 

            Part of that honesty is also admitting you are as big an idiot as anyone or bigger, which is both liberating and terrifying.  This began in me as tremendous feelings of inadequacy and lack of self confidence.  My mom was brilliant, beautiful and a minor local radio celebrity when I was growing up, and my sister was beautiful and a straight A student, while I was getting my ass kicked on the playground, scaring girls and failing Art.  The cool things that other people accomplished seemed only available to me as ideas of myself that were pretty much unattainable because I am so hapless in my daily life, and no one cared enough to stick a microphone in front of me or present me with an award.  I have since learned that this is a form of persecution mania that much of the world experiences, especially today because of the huge role of media in the hourly life of the modern human, and the counter-realistic fantasy world it creates. 

            I still feel just as hapless, the difference is that now I know that you are hapless too.  Once you really understand that everyone is going through basically the same experience, just in different phases at different times from each other – that it is the HUMAN condition – everything changes and the reality you had been living in vanishes.  You might first feel a little depressed as you begin to identify with the bums and the dregs, and then you realize that the corollary is true, that the top tiers of society are the same, and were just as likely to be the bums.  Everyone you ever had on a pedestal is a whimpering, pants pooping, wallet losing dork, just like you.  We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.  Bob Dylan would say, “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”.

            Tolle’s book A New Earth is part of Oprah’s book club, which makes my ego whisper in my ear that I’m gay.  It’s been written off as a cult & new age philosophy but it isn’t, and in fact it’s not even new age.  It’s similar to Gnosticism.  Bertrand Russell wrote about it in the 30’s in The Conquest of Happiness, the idea that we must let go of the dogma and influences of our environment and peers that have comforted and controlled us since birth, to discover what truly makes us happy, rather than what our loved ones, concerned with our well-being, have surmised should make us happy.  Freud created psychoanalysis.  Shakespeare, Socrates, Epictetus, just to name only a fraction of the thinkers and writers on this idea.  The Socratic Method is modeled after your inner dialogue. These days it is becoming something like a new religion, rooted in psychology rather than superstition, and using reason to attempt to define the connection we all feel.  We are to break the shackles of our conditioned thought processes, the “blueprint for dysfunction that every human being carries within: the ego” – to live in reality and by laws of intellectual honesty, to the betterment of all (Tolle, New Earth Pg. 13).  This is the true meaning of the expression “Know Thyself,” because the selfish impulse is ever-present and always trying to take over the wheel.

            And so I’m pretty convinced that most people have already had, or are on the road to having this experience at some point in their lives.  I have heard it called an awakening, but that seems a little patronizing to me.  Really it’s more of a change in consciousness, and I think it is part of the natural progression of the human experience, just not everyone is there at the same time, and some never make it.  When I read people’s accounts of their transformations, they always appear similar, and the shift is usually traceable to a singular event in their lives.  In Greek Classical literature it was called Anagnorisis and Peripeteia; Anagnorisis being the moment when the hero gains a sudden awareness of the way things really are, and Peripeteia being his resulting radical transformation of perspective. 

           People live life as the sum total of their conditioned thought processes – I feel scared, therefore danger is everywhere; I want sex all the time, I must be a pervert;  people don’t treat me with the same importance I see others treated, I must be worth less than they are.  Until one day something gives them a peek behind the curtain – an insightful article, a personal realization, a song, a conversation.  They begin to hear through the static to the primal scream that is audible just behind our thoughts and, armed with this knowledge, they begin to see through not just their own behavior, but the behaviors of everyone else as well, and from then on they walk around like Roddy Piper in They Live after he finds the sunglasses. 

            A side effect of this realization is the ability to forgive everyone for everything, because no one feels comfortable disliking themselves.           

            This essay is not to say that all is vanity, and that personal gain is the only underlying motivation.  But if I am to do anything out of real love, then I have to first identify my own stake in it, my own urge to gain from it, and attempt to transcend that at least by acknowledging it.  Otherwise it’s just a card trick my brain is playing on me, and I am training myself to be intellectually dishonest.   I can sit here telling myself, “I love my wife so much!” and that feels real to me, and I feel good about myself and I know that I want happiness for her and how I would be tortured if something happened to her, etc. etc., and to me that feels like I am giving love.  But what does Candice feel when I feel that?  Does my abstract thought translate to love that she can feel?  Of course not.  Therefore, what I am feeling is not love.  It is a thought, it’s only perceptible to me and it only matters to me. If I tell myself that I love my fellow man, and then blow off dividing my recycling, or throw my wrapper on the ground for someone else to deal with, well then I don’t really do I?  Really what I’m feeling could just be called affection.

            Tom Wilkinson has this great line in Last Kiss, he says: “Stop talking about love. Every a-hole in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. It still doesn’t mean anything. What you feel only matters to you. It’s what you do to the people you say you love, that’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.”  I always see this quote in Facebook profiles, it probably sums up love for a lot of people.  Love = Labor. 

            My ego tries to tell me I am showing love by merely feeling it.  It is a trick that is mostly transparent to others, but not to me.  I feel like a good person, I feel love for everyone I meet, I want good things for people, I have good will towards men, women, children and animals.  That’s all great for me, but what about you?  If I can’t make a conscious effort to physically put goodness into the world around me, then I’ve proven only that I love myself.  In fact, that attitude in me makes things worse for you, because if you aren’t in my monkeysphere, you don’t really exist.  I have missed the trashcan with my wadded paper, walked on by and thought to myself, “Someone else will pick that up for me, I can’t be bothered to bend over.”  This is only a minor infraction to be sure, but I’m certain if I had kept a list I’d have hundreds of the same type instances on it, each time no doubt someone having to pick up my slack.  Not proud to admit it, maybe I don’t realize it when I do it.  I think that is the point of making an effort to be “present.”  Were I present, my inner dialogue might have gone like this:

Casey: “Someone else will pick that up for me, and I can’t be bothered to bend over.”

Me: “Really dude?”

Casey: “Well what?  I bought a candle from that charity at work, I’m still a good person?”

Me: “What difference does that make?” 

Casey: “Maybe.”

Me: “Do you love your fellow man?”

Casey: “Of course!”

Me: “But you can’t be bothered to bend over?”

Casey: “Good point, I’ll pick it up”

            People tend to give themselves a pass for various reasons.  Like a get out of jail free card.  Beyond myself, I notice a good example of this in some people who consider themselves religious.  Their mere attendance at church exempts them from good behavior in their daily lives, because they have already assigned themselves a virtuousness that they haven’t really earned yet.  It isn’t necessarily a conscious decision.  At Church they feel great about who they are and when they get home they are gossiping, cheating, lying, placing themselves at the center of the solar system, sabotaging people to get what they want, but not realizing they are doing it.  Even feeling righteous.  It isn’t that people are evil, I’m not sure I even believe in evil in that simplified sense.  It’s that we know not what we do.  And even if we do know on some level, our ego is busy disguising or justifying it to us.   

            I’ve heard it said that you have to train and exercise your love like it’s a muscle, by making good habits.  You’ve got to build your love muscle (that’s what she said).  Let people in front of you in traffic.  Pick up trash.  Compliment your friends to other people while they aren’t around.  Compliment random people every single day.  Resist laughing at racist jokes.  Make decisions that will benefit others.  The next time anyone asks you for a bite of your breakfast taco, give them half of it.  If someone is cold, give them your shirt, even if it means you’ll now be cold.  But act like you are toasty.  And get out of there before they can thank you.  Not all the time, just try to remember.  Goodness multiplies, people get the idea and there is a better chance that they’ll pay it forward I think.  Some day it comes back to you or the ones you love.  Then in just a few short weeks, utopia.  

            I need a lot of work at love.  I am trying to be a better person and be more self-aware.  Anyone else out there had/having the same experiences?  These things square with my sense of reason, so I feel like it’s the truth, but I don’t want to give the impression that I think I know anything.  What do you think about it?

John McCain loves you

I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.”

~ Bertrand Russell