One is gone, one never was, and one is facing extinction.
I had a boss who told me, “Alistair you are a true Sophist.” This was something of a left-handed compliment. As an ad copywriter my ability to argue any side of a point convincingly serves me well. Indeed, I am so skilled in this I can convince a person that is right he is wrong, even though, in his heart of hearts he knows he is right and understands also that I know he’s right. The power to communicate is also the power to deceive. When truth itself becomes slippery one can lose one’s moral center.
In an important sense, we believe today that he who brays loudest is right. On the net everything is true and all information, regardless of source, has the same weight. Evidence supporting any point, no matter how ludicrous, is readily available; our ability to fashion, present and defend a case is weakening like an abandoned muscle. Intellectual slovenliness, a despicable quality, is rampant while intellectual discipline is nearly unknown. This is a terrible problem because we race to truth most quickly when keen, well-tuned minds pursue it, placing intellectual honesty above domination.
People interested in finding the truth are rare. Those who do must rely upon their own minds, which, ironically, are perfectly configured to stand in their way. Frankly, the most difficult part of the process is not learning new things; it is unlearning old ones. We all carry around an astounding amount of baggage that actively interferes with our quest for truth. Relentless labor gets us closer until we realize that the best we can ever hope for is reaching our own personal truth, what we understand to be real after we have stripped away all ignorance.
If you meet someone who actively practices intellectual discipline and refuses to lapse into slovenly habits – a person that speaks and acts in good faith – you have met an individual worth emulating. If you meet someone who claims certain knowledge of universal truth, ask him to describe what it feels like to ride a unicorn.
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When my daughter was young – say 12 – she was going through a rough patch with her friends involving bad-mouthing and backstabbing. I told her, “Honey, people will always talk about you and 95% of what they say will be wrong. You may as well get used it.”
In the rooms they repeat this gem, “What people think of me is none of my business.” Both statements speak to what I call, “benign disinterest in the opinion of others, pro and con.” Indeed, if your self-esteem rises and falls in direct relation to the value applied by others, seasickness is in your future. We all know that true self-esteem comes from within and is blissfully unaware of audience reaction.
This would not be a significant concept if it were not so incredibly hard to achieve. The idea is particularly relevant for those of us residing in any extreme demographic, regardless if it’s admired or loathed by society. For example, envy causes us to secretly despise the beautiful while fear causes us to despise the unattractive. In general, we like people that fall neatly into our own bracket and look upon outliers with suspicion.
Relevance is even greater if you’ve been tarred with the brush of mental illness. For one, the smear is never coming off; you will always be “a few bricks shy of a load” in the eyes of observers. So pretending you’re not “an alien” isn’t a real option. You’ve had experiences completely outside the understanding of most people – this is very scary. (Just like married people often avoid divorced people, they seem to fear it’s contagious.)
But, as a recovered person, you function normally – just like a real person! – even though your emotional range is far greater and more profound than theirs, and that is thoroughly intimidating. (People, even nice people, are not at their best when intimidated – you’ve worked hard to achieve “normality” but they may be invested in minimizing your accomplishment.)
You have broken through the mirror and become an “aristocrat of the soul” – you will be viewed with a combination of revulsion and envy. You went to the summit of Everest, and lived – they’ve never made it out of the foothills, and never will. But you are not going to be pulled down and changed by the weirdness of their reactions to you, on the contrary, you are simply going to open up and let them into your world, a world they would never get to see if you hadn’t gone there.
They say that – when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well, when the going gets tough for Bipolar Bears; Bipolar Bears get going too…right out of town. Of course, flight – in whatever form – provides only short-term comfort since the problem you avoid today is the problem that will perpetually reappear until you confront it.
Manic Depression has given me more gifts than I can count, but perhaps the most significant is – the gift of desperation.
When you live in comfort, the seductive allure of escape is everywhere. If all you hold dear is taken away, even your faith in your own sanity, escape becomes increasingly difficult until at last it is impossible. At that moment one experiences a kind of blinding clarity – something perfect and exquisite, terrible and joyful in its beauty. Absolute zero.
Life itself becomes binary – one must choose between struggle and death. If one chooses struggle – and sadly, so many don’t – one must face the truth, however terrifying and distasteful. The resultant education can be overwhelming, the work required may seem impossible, but one soldiers on anyway. You just don’t give up.
I did not experience this epiphany until I was well into my 30s, but at least I did experience it, and in doing so, began the journey of finding my true self. The archaic way to say it would be that I became a man, but I prefer to think of it as becoming a three-dimensional human being; fully aware of my power and my responsibility.
I came to understand something I have believed ever since; ultimately, the only thing of consequence one has is one’s character.
Most of us engage in a rather juvenile fantasy that goes, “If I paint by the numbers and keep my nose clean things will work out well for me.” We desperately want to believe in a rational, merit-based world, all the while admitting secretly that life metes out misery at random – at least, according to some concept of justice incomprehensible to us – and seems to be as predictable and responsive to bribery as lightning. As a friend of mine likes to say, “What are you pretending not to know?”
Those of us who have crossed that invisible line and wandered the crooked streets of Cookoopantsatopolis can no long pretend not to know that – at any given moment – it is entirely possible that things will go terribly wrong. For us, the knowledge, and the fear, are always in the foreground and shall remain there until confronted eye to eye.
This, of course, is the greatest fear of them all – because any foe with the power to turn your life completely inside out is a foe worthy of your respect. However, just because it has killed before does not mean it is going to kill you. You can live in fear or you can face the music and dance.
I was forced to have a shootout at the I’m Not Okay corral and I’m so glad; since that time nothing has had the power to frighten me. It happened when I was writing my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving. Every spare minute for an entire year I threw myself back into the one place on earth I was most afraid to go, the memory of my most recent manic episode.
In doing so I was not merely reviewing horribly painful memories, I was running the risk of sparking another episode. I understood this well, but likewise I understood that I simply had to do it if I was to have any chance at all of getting through it, and starting down the road to recovery.
Like the fellows in this cartoon – (one of my best, and most popular) – I knew there was a chance I would not make it. For the first time I had to be fearless, I had to have faith in myself in a life-or-death situation. Importantly, I understood that the wisdom and bravery of this labor in no way guaranteed it would work, and if it failed, I would be dealing with the consequences on my own.
There is purity and beauty to meeting, at last, the adversary you’ve been avoiding all your life, the demon you’ve been pretending not to know.
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When I begin counting my blessings I quickly run out of fingers and toes. Of course, there are the obvious ones – Manic Depression and Alcoholism – both of which have given me more than I could ever repay. But those afflictions are commonplace.
I also have a rare blessing, an unsolicited gift bestowed upon me by a higher authority. It is: I know exactly why I exist and what I am on earth to do. The point of me, the purpose, is clear. I am here to turn my bizarre life experience into balm for fellow travelers. However, I know that one is not afforded the luxury of choosing who one helps, and offering assistance to the ill is somewhat more difficult than one might imagine.
Every now and again it is imperative that I return to the concept that – Doing the right thing is its own reward. Once more I defer to the wisdom of Taz Mopula who said, “If you do the right thing because it is also yields the sweetest practical resolution, you’re already morally bankrupt.” In the damp basements my fellow dipsomaniacs often agonize over how to determine “the next right thing” – I find this disingenuous and somewhat amusing since the next right thing is usually easy to identify – it is almost always the choice that is harder, less appealing, and nets you little, if any, visible reward.
If you do the right thing in hopes of increasing the value of your stock in the eyes of others, you’re doomed. If you do the right thing with the expectation of reward, you’re doomed. I am so lucky that I started down this road involuntarily; otherwise I would never have chosen it. I began writing INVISIBLE DRIVING to save my own life, only later did it even dawn on me that it could benefit others. By then it was too late, I had my work order in hand – I knew what I had to do.
Of course, I had no idea at the time how much punishment I would receive for doing the right thing, but when you’ve spent season after season trudging the landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch, the concept of punishment really loses its meaning.