OF HUMAN FREEDOM: AUTHENTIC SELF, PURPOSE, AND FAITH
“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.”
~W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
Spiritual experiences, or epiphanies if you will, tend to spark thoughts of joyful, enlightening moments. Particularly after one has already passed through their own personal Dark Night of the Soul.
And often they are.
But experience has taught me that they can also involve crawling back through the jagged shards of broken glass of an excruciating emotional memory. Sometimes, it seems, we need to relive Hell to stay motivated or to learn new lessons.
Today was such a day for me. A spiritual conversation with fellow sufferers triggered me to remember how deeply buried and powerfully enslaved my authentic, core self was for the first 43 years of my life.
A very wise man has taught me to look at childhood as the boot camp that readies a person for life. If one learns poor coping skills, once the “live fire” of life starts coming at a person, they are probably going to struggle mightily. And there is a good chance they will become self-destructive and hurt others.
Many facets of my experience (up until my head and heart were re-educated) bear this out.
At an early age, I was taught via understood expectations that my purpose in life was to achieve and succeed. At any and all cost to myself. This was the condition for the receipt of counterfeit love.
Consequently, I unwittingly made a Faustian bargain -trading my soul for the ultimate that I could achieve in the two arenas in which I excelled: academics and Scouting.
Starting in elementary school, I obsessively devoted every ounce of my being that wasn’t needed for survival and for maintaining an illusion (and self-delusion) of “normalcy” to school and to Scouts.
I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I was like Phillip in Maughum’s Of Human Bondage -obsessively pursuing Mildred, a woman unwilling to, or incapable of, loving him back.
My parents even had a copy of it on their bookshelf. An avid reader, I was drawn to it when I was 11 or so. I knew something was very wrong and that I was entangled in some sort of bondage, but it was only a vague notion, as I had never experienced freedom.
Reading Maughum’s book was fascinating, as it is a masterful novel. But it disappointed me immensely at the same time, as I had hoped it would somehow enlighten me about, and open a doorway to freedom from, my situation.
I got my Eagle Scout award at age 14, the soonest one can get it. In 1985 I was Valedictorian of my High School class. Both were Pyrrhic victories, as they drained nearly everything from me and left me feeling hollow and purposeless. I was exhausted and asking myself, “Who am I and now what?”
For the next 25 years I obsessively pursued one Mildred after another. Someone or something that wouldn’t or couldn’t love me back. Or satisfy my nearly overwhelming spiritual hunger. I “fed” my soul alcohol, drugs, food restriction, sex, porn, over-exercise, relationships, rage, shoplifting, wild spending, and even political activism.
Yet the more (with emphasis always on more) I fed it, the more my soul shriveled and deteriorated. It became increasingly atrophied and I became increasingly comfortable with my wraith-like existence where all that really mattered was getting a moment of Mildred’s attention, even if she was degrading or using me. Or moving on to the next Mildred who would consume me and facilitate my self-destruction.
Finally, in 2010, exhaustion and desperation drove me to my knees. My pursuits of Mildreds stopped providing any semblance of sustenance to my soul I and barely had the will to keep going.
Marty Mann captured the essence of my condition with these words on page 226 of the 2nd Edition of the AA Big Book:
“All I had left was an iron determination to live my own life in spite of the alien world—and here I was, an inwardly frightened, outwardly defiant [man], who desperately needed a prop to keep going.”
It’s taken years of therapy, work in the spiritual fellowship of AA, and faith in the Higher Power of my understanding, but these days, much of the time, I am experiencing freedom from bondage.
Having found my authentic self, a sense of purpose relating to something much larger than me, and my faith, I finally let Mildred go, just as Phillip did when she came to him for treatment for Syphilis at the end of the novel.
I do have to remain vigilant and diligent though. Because there are still times when she knocks on my door and I am tempted to let her in. But I know what suffering would ensue. I even got a little dose of it today.