It’s raining on a Friday night in San Francisco and you’re partying in a plush five-story townhouse on Market Street, up there in the swank homes at the top of the Castro district. You snort a couple rails of crystal because it’s Friday and these are your friends; twenty minutes later, you chase the crystal with a few rails of coke and you’re flying now, you can feel your brain sizzling like the fried egg in that ancient anti-drug commercial, fully aware that this is your brain on drugs. You hop on your bike and go riding off by yourself into the dark, into the rain, looking to race the devil down the hill. You run every red light, shooting through four lanes of traffic, slicing past cars, inches from rain-slicked buses and erratic box trucks and all that typical city street life that’s pushing along on a weekend night, the young and the old barely paying attention to the road for various reasons as you momentarily place your life in their hands. Through their blaring horns you blur past on your bike, defenseless, counting on your drug-fueled cunning to ensure that you barely avoid that trip to the emergency room or wind up in a meat locker down at the morgue, and you are okay with this; if anything, this is what you want — this feeling that you’re flying along the edge — because this is when you feel you are untouchable and everything is okay; you can handle anything that comes at you. You are in total control as you slide through chaos.
From what I’ve learned recently, what I just described is a textbook example of self-destructive behavior. Only thing is, for most of my life I would’ve laughed off such a diagnosis. Because I did that. That was me on that bike. I thought it was fun.
I’m not quick to resort to labels. The world would be better off with fewer diagnoses and conditions. But in this instance, the term serves as a warning, like a light on your dashboard calling attention to the fact that you’re almost out of gas. What I’ve been reading on the subject of self-destructiveness tends to be starkly worrisome because of how well it describes my behavior. I quickly saw that if I didn’t confront the streak of carelessness that runs down the center of my soul, eventually I’d finish the job I started so very long ago.
Kurt Cobain. Now there’s a poster boy for self-destruction. He made it all the way to the end of the line and snuffed his fire out with one final self-defeating act. Boom. We like to watch self-destructive people like him. The same impulse we have to rubberneck a car accident makes us turn our attention to watch the terrific flameouts of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan. But to be the one living that way, rewarded for acting against your self-interest until the stakes reach a point you can no longer stomach it — that’s no way to live. If you read Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, it’s all there — the struggle to be happy, the unfulfilled desire to be part of it all, the unrelenting gnaw, the physical manifestations of anxiety, the stomach burn. As fun as it may be to watch, it’s a hell of a way to live.
The reason I took that suicidal drug-fueled bike ride was a woman. That makes it sound like it was her fault. It wasn’t. She rejected me without so much as an explanation, and it made me feel crazy out of control. I never saw it coming. When I got the news I was broken, hurt, and confused. Recently, when another woman rejected me, it was a great shock just like the last time — once again, I never saw it coming. My reaction: I need to feel some sense of control over all the chaos. Of course, you don’t always have to do enough drugs to kill an amateur. You can always repress your feelings, instead.
A long time ago, I learned to control my temper. The worst aspect of being a passionate person is how intensely you feel things. Anger was the first emotion I learned to squelch. Neither time was I angry at the woman who rejected me. Nope. Why? She has her own story to live out. Instead, I wanted to feel untouchable. I needed to feel like I had some control over the pain and chaos and confusion. I needed to be alone the only way I knew how.
Just before I hopped on my bike, ready to go bomb the steepest LA hills I could find, I saw it. I shy away from language like an epiphany, but I saw — as clear as my reflection in a storefront window — my life has been shaped by this pattern. And it’s not helping fuck all. Control is not the answer. In fact, it’s my problem.
I once kicked it around Europe with a friend. Every day on buses and trains, I read the Tao Te Ching. My friend got sick twice on our trip, which meant a lot of waiting in bathrooms and in drug stores where little English was available, and I read that same little black pocket-sized book. I read it over and over again. And the lesson that stuck deepest in my mind was that life is wet, that water is strong, and death is dry but anything rigid will break against the softness of water. I learned to trust it.
Now, I feel like a cowboy on a cruise ship. It’s like people told me, “Maybe a cruise would help. Get to know your emotions. Get in touch with your feelings.” But, seriously, all I keep thinking is: what the hell is a cowboy doing on a cruise ship? Fuck all these emotions. Life is so much easier without them.
Keeping my cool had always come easy for me. You could say I got real lucky. I was always emotionally unavailable. As a teen, that worked well. I was aloof. In my twenties, it was a highly desirable trait. Why? Well, because we’re all fucking crazy. We love who and what we can’t have. We want what’s unattainable. An emotionally unavailable person is the ultimate “want what you can’t have” situation. In fact, being emotionally closed-off was so successful for me, as far as romancing women goes, that I really had no reason to ever make myself available. (Other than it feels like you’re living your life wrapped in a full-body condom. And by the time you’re in your thirties, you want to feel life, love, something other than control.)
It’s always been like this. All of my heroes were emotionally unavailable: Steve McQueen, Kurt Cobain, Humphrey Bogart. I was drawn to them. Growing up, Casablanca was my favorite movie. I got that film in ways a young boy shouldn’t. I related to Humphrey Bogart. I knew I was broken like him. Interestingly, what I always missed was that Bogey’s character, Rick Blaine, walked the path to redemption for a person with a self-destructive personality.
At the climax, just before he’s about to deceive everyone with his greedy plan to run off with Ilsa — the woman he loves and can’t stop loving — he surprises them all instead by giving her up. His sacrifice saves him. It’s complicated, but by giving up a life with the woman he loves, Rick defeats his fear, overcomes his pain, heals his heart, and returns to life. How do we know this? When we hear Rick say to Louis, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Leaving out the homoerotic subtext, this closing line proves that the man who earlier declared, “I stick my neck out for nobody” is now, at least, ready for a friendship.
When you make sacrifices you trade material objects for spiritual gains. Most importantly, what you’re really doing is giving up your need for control. You’re letting go and accepting. The bravery required to sacrifice whatever matters most to you forces you to confront your need for control. And you’re better for it.
I find my life has a very darkly funny sense of humor. The woman who rejected me is also the person who gave me the best advice to get over her — remember the Tao. Taking her words to heart, I broke open my copy of the Tao Te Ching, the one I’d traveled with. Scads of old receipts and tickets I’d used as bookmarks slid out and fell into my lap. I tucked them away with other mementos and began to read the book. That’s how I stopped fighting for my need to control everything I touch.
The book reminded me: if you hold open your hand you can cup water in your palm, but if you close your grip, afraid that you need to control the water, if you squeeze tight your hand, you will lose it all.
The real trick I’m trying to learn: how do you stay here — in this Eternal Now — in this moment? Staying present feels more difficult than riding a greased pig. It feels like everything is designed to throw you out of the moment.
To be present is not just your train of thought, not just your awareness of this constant parade of sensations; it’s also all your feelings and emotions, too. You have to sorta squeeze them all into this conscious moment. That ain’t easy.
To paraphrase the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: when you’re eating an orange, eat the orange. Place your focus on peeling, biting, tasting and savoring that orange. One segment at a time. Such is life.
That’s the thing, that’s what’s hardest to remember, yet it’s also the simplest:
Leave the horizon where it is. You’ll get there when you get there.
If you focus on your self, as our culture suggests you do, it’s really easy to slip right off the back of that greased pig we call the present. Confronted with so many emotional triggers on all of our social media platforms, we’ve greatly expanded the opportunities to take an emotional hit. And they can sometimes feel like a barrage. In response, you often fall back into the unresolved past of memories and regrets, or you might try to leap into the near-future of better tomorrows, but this can be doubly dangerous when you’re self-destructive. In this, our era of the #selfie, it’s even more important that you keep it simple — I’m eating the orange. I don’t need to be in control of an orange. I don’t need to be in control of anything.
From a lifetime shaped by subconscious fears and feelings of worthlessness, as strange as it sounds, I was finally free of my fear and self-loathing when I focused on how I ate an orange — one segment at a time.