“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Waking Up a Competely Different Person: From “Dr. McAdams' Method"

            “I left Dr. McAdams’ office last night in a state of shock. He’d been doing that thing he does so well, where he takes what you’ve just said to him and teases it apart, making you see the way you see the world as if it were through the lens of your own clinging desperation to find only what you already know is there, suggesting that while you’re always relieved to have your worst fears validated because it frees you to keep stumbling along the path of least resistance, your self-fulfilling assumptions simultaneously keep you locked into all the habits that you might be better off breaking, the habits that make you the most unhappy.
            “To the good doctor, though, you can tell it’s all a matter of word play. The meanings he underlines in his repetitions have no weight, no visceral impact. To him, they’re so many dry formulations he would have you rummage through, as if they had no emotional salience, no human value.  He’d been repeating and highlighting and reframing as questions, as he normally does, for nearly the full hour when I suddenly began to feel like a being without substance, an infinite regress of borders to a blank surface. I would have felt nauseated, but I had no stomach, no organs at all—or rather, the organs in my body were no longer identified with me, because there was no me, only that endlessly receding surface.
            “At the end of the session, we enacted a proper parting, the good doctor and I, but it wasn’t me speaking so much as the script performing itself, and I left the office to walk to my car, but it was as if I were watching a movie of what I should have been experiencing, camera mounted on my shoulders, feet moving one after the other of their own volition. I was two-thirds of the way home when the panic hit, and that was what finally brought me back to myself. I was afraid of disintegrating and being lost to some void forever—but being afraid meant that there was something to be afraid for, the same something that was just then occupied with being afraid. I shinnied down the rope of my fear back into my body.
            “This morning I woke up fantasizing about what it would be like waking up a completely different person, not in some total sense that leaves you with no memory of who you’ve been, but with the conviction that from now on you’re going to do whatever works best for you, that you’re going to live in whatever way best suits your desires and need for fulfillment. That feeling of disintegration had been so terrifying—because what the hell am I, what is anyone, if not a collection of beliefs, assumptions, habits of seeing and feeling and acting? If a Dr. McAdams can come along and start fiddling around in your mind with abandon, then what’s keeping us in place? What’s keeping us, well, us?
            “The light of day dissolved the terror. The implication of that terror, however, was stark. All my life, I’ve been trying to honor one or another memory of myself, as if who I was in the past were some distant but still extant consciousness, someone I love who can love me back, someone with hopes and dreams and aspirations for his future, my future, me. Too often I’ve honored my earlier self by continuing along a path that has led to suffering—because I didn’t want all that I’d already suffered to be for nothing.
            “Waking up a completely different person would mean turning your back on your past self. Oh, but it seems like such a betrayal. Those aren’t just bad habits and faulty assumptions you’re abusing with such delicacy, Dr. McAdams; I’ve invested them with so much… feeling: pain, anticipation, fear, hope, loyalty. So much energy. So much of me. You can’t leave your habits of mind behind without leaving behind a piece of yourself. But another way to phrase that same idea is that to escape your troubles you must first become a new person, one who wouldn’t have those particular troubles.
            “My devotion to my past selves has been perpetuating my misery—I want to wake up a completely different person. I want to cut my losses on all those investments of energy, walk away from what I loved if what I loved caused only misery. I want to wake up one day, tomorrow, as someone who takes stock of his desires and passions, who looks around at all his resources and assets, dispassionately weighs all the opportunities that have been staring him in the face right up until that morning, and who pursues those desires and passions without looking back—past selves and past lives be damned.
            “Can I wake up that person tomorrow?”
            Christie closes Todd’s notebook and returns it to the drawer beside their bed without making a sound, and without even the subtlest registering of the emotions threatening to engulf her—the shame of invading his privacy, the anxious grasping after his meanings. Might she be one of the loves of his past self, whom pursuing has caused such misery? Scrawled in violent strokes across the bottom of the page: “Slay the dragons of your past selves.” And then, more pacifically: “or be thankful to whoever slays them for you, no matter how much you may hate her for inflicting the pain.” Her?
            She slides the drawer closed, stands, and smooths away the traces of her sitting from the comforter. At least, she makes the effort to think, Todd and I are both disturbed. The problem with Dr. McAdams’ method is that it works. Christie has been paranoid for the past two weeks, experiencing the changes in herself, imagining clandestine meetings between “the good doctor” and her husband where they laugh heartily at how effective the training regime they’ve devised for her has proved to be.
            But Todd feels it too, this disturbing sense of lost agency. Only for him it doesn’t manifest as suspicion, neither of her nor of Dr. McAdams. For him, it manifests as guilt. Of course that’s exactly how Todd would experience it, Todd with his fathomless loyalty, his fierce devotion, Todd whom she imagines sometimes as a member of an embattled prehistoric tribe, perfectly adapted to serve in a tight-knit unit of warriors, self-sacrificing, dependable, aware at every moment that the death of a comrade would be the death of himself.
            Now he seems to have determined that this loyalty is the source of his troubles, that his leave-no-man-behind mentality is preventing him from leaving behind men—or women—who need leaving. Leaving the bedroom, Christie tries to reassure herself that this loyalty is so close to the core of her husband’s identity that he couldn’t change it with any amount of determined “word play.” But she’s never really even thought of the trait as loyalty until now. All the childhood friends he keeps in touch with, all the trouble he’s followed them into in the past, the ex he insists on maintaining a friendship with—a source of endless disputes between them—Christie has always just thought Todd was sentimental.
            The notebook was supposed to be something he wrote random ideas down in, stuff for work, to-do lists. She had no idea he could even write like that. He’s a professional, not a philosophical, writer, for Christ’s sake. Now she wonders what else he’s written and not shared with her. Who is this guy? Maybe his loyalty really is at the core of his being, inescapable, but who knows what he’s capable of with that fucking brain of his? If he wakes up tomorrow a completely different person, where does that leave me?

Also read: Someone's Trying to Tell You Something

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