Sunday, December 31, 2006

Self Dissolution

This is a long, meandering post, but it does have a unifying theme. Stick with me...

A Day Trip to the Small Town
Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They're all that's left you
-- Simon & Garfunkel, "Bookends"

I took off work Friday to make a trip to my hometown to tie up an old loose end. My aunt had sold her old house and needed to have it emptied out by the end of the month. She had inherited the house from her mother, who passed away in May of 2004. Because I spent a lot of time there growing up, there were some things of mine that were still there. Since I thought that he might have some items to claim, I talked my brother into taking the day off and coming along with me. He brought his father-in-law, too.

This trip came with a good size amount of anxiety because it meant being able to overcome emotional cutoff. This was the same aunt with whom I had avoided contact for almost a year and a half and whose Thanksgiving invitation I had trouble replying to. If I was to make it through this encounter, I would have to hold onto myself.

We met my aunt at her new house because she had already boxed up the items and moved them. For the most part, she was civil. I just wanted to get the items and get out of there, not wanting to spend too much time dwelling on what was there. For the most part, I succeeded.

However, she started going through some other items in the garage that weren't ours and started talking about them. One of the things was a collection of photographs from a family reunion held over 20 years ago, mostly relatives whose names we heard our grandmother mention but never really associated with. It wouldn't have been so bad had she not pointed out all the relatives she didn't think much of (read: either they were gay or didn't get along with her when she was young).

She also said she had found an envelop in my stuff that was labeled "(aunt's name deleted) attack file" and said that it contained lots of things that weren't very nice. I don't recall having put together something like that together, but it was quite possible. I was angry at both her and my father (her brother) during my high school years, for reasons both valid and foolish. Rather than denying the matter or getting defensive, I caged my inner reptile and said simply, "I was very angry person in my teens. I'm sorry," and left it at that. I'm not going to beat myself up over feelings I had over 20 years ago.

Letting Go of Location
Coming up close
Everything sounds like welcome home
Come home and oh, by the way
Don't you know that I could make a dream that's barely half-awake come true
-- 'Til Tuesday, "Coming Up Close", Welcome Home

After we left her house, my brother said he wanted to grab something to eat at the diner downtown, which is the closest thing that the town had to a signature restaurant. The father-in-law talked about an analogous place he likes to go in upstate New York, as he sipped his first glass of Big Red, a cream soda drink that's was a popular beverage when we were growing up. It's the only eatery I've seen that has the beverage on the fountain.

Once we had finished eating, my brother drove us around town. We tried to remember what things were like when we were growing up. We commented on stores that had changed names or been replaced by others.

We looked with wonderment at the growth in campus size of the parochial school we had attended for the first eight grades. Lots adjacent to the school property had been purchased and the houses thereupon demolished to make room for additional parking. An adjacent street had been closed and overtaken by building expansion.

We drove to a neighborhood where we lived when we were very young. Many of the houses had been remodeled since we moved away back late 1978, so it was hard for us to pinpoint who had lived in which houses. Our own house had its split rail fence replaced with a more contemporary privacy fence. At the nearby park, the softball diamond had been modernized, complete with warning track and electronic scoreboard.

As we wandered through the place we once called home, I thought about the changes that had gone through my life. At one time, this town was the center of my universe. Any extended time away from it brought about anxiety.

At the age of 10, I went to a summer camp not 20 miles away for 5 days, and I remember getting embarrassingly homesick. Even in my undergrad years, I would make a lot of trips home because the school I was going to was only a couple hours away. It wasn't until I worked a summer in Germany in the summer of 1990 that I began to lose the strong emotional connection with home.

During the impromptu tour of our old environs, I wondered silently how I held so tightly onto this place at all.

Breaking ties with a hometown is one thing, losing attachment with a region is another. When I left graduate school in the winter of 1995, I took a job in a neighboring state, but still within reasonable driving distance of home. Because my wife wanted to be closer to family, we moved back to our home state in the summer of 2000, settling down in a larger metropolitan area. At the time, I was excited because I loved the place. I never would have entertained moving to a larger city or the coasts.

Within the past two years, I have been undergoing a very slow transformation that has nothing to do with my marriage. It is an emotional delinkage from the Midwest itself.

I think it started as I started to look for jobs in 2005. With the skills I had, there were a lot more openings in places far away, usually on the coasts. That realization brought into stark relief the brain drain problem I read about in the news.

The job I wound up taking was a small startup company. They had some interesting product ideas, and I thought this might be a way to help counteract my home state's reputation of non-innovation. After a year of going through ups and downs with the company, I'm at a point where I can say at least I tried. Given the development of a couple weeks ago, I don't see this company getting off the ground.

The downside is that I don't see much else going on in this town. The one company that I thought might be a hot job lead is keeping me in limbo. And another startup in town that I know would pay well is an ongoing train wreck. All of the sudden, those far away places, which I wouldn't have entertained as much as a year ago, are starting to look really attractive both from the compensatory and professional growth angles. As 2007 rings in, I will be expanding my job search scope nationwide.

Understanding My Old Self
I don't know what I'm searching for
I never have opened the door,
Tomorrow might find me at last,
Turning my back on the past,
But, time will tell, of stars that fell,
A million years ago.
Memories can never take you back, home, sweet home.
You can never go home anymore.

All my life I never really knew me till today,
Now I know why, I'm just another step along the way.
-- The Moody Blues, "You Can Never Go Home", Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The trip back home had some significance with respect to my therapy work. A few weeks ago, my therapist asked me to start examining the question of what would make me happy. She suggested that I think back in time to remember my childhood ambitions.

So, I went back in time and recalled my first serious thoughts about the future. They occurred sometime in late 1979. At the time, I had a job as a newspaper carrier for the town's evening daily. I started reading the newspaper, developing an awareness of world events. For those who recall that era, the U.S.'s zeitgeist was at a low. I locked into that emotional climate, and I began to worry about my own future. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to. Although I didn't have words to describe it at the time, I had developed a major case of ontological anxiety.

My parents didn't do much to help that worldview because in the late summer of 1981, they separated, with my mother moving away. I was on the brink of entering 7th grade, and I did not take it well. With our mother gone, I took over the role of ersatz parent to my younger brother, so I wound up having to grow up really fast.

The stresses of uncertainty at all levels caused me to take on the mindset of a deprivation thinker. Here is how Robert A. Glover describes this line of thinking in No More Mr. Nice Guy:
Not having their needs adequately met in childhood created a belief for Nice Guys that there wasn't enough of what they needed to go around. This deprivation experience become the lens through which they viewed the world.

This paradigm of scarcity and deprivation makes Nice Guys manipulative and controlling. It causes them to believe they better hang on to what they've got and not take too many chances. It leads them to resent other people who seem to have what they lack.

Because of their deprivation thinking, Nice Guys think small. They don't believe they deserve to have good things. They find all kinds of ways to make sure their view of the world is never challenged. The settle for scraps and think that it is all they deserve. They create all kinds of rationalizations to explain why they will never have what they really desire. (Glover, pp. 157 - 158)

Those paragraphs explain a lot of my behavior between high school and the present. With the notable exception of the phone sex calls, I didn't like splurging on things for myself. Although I typically didn't put a lot of energy into acquiring new things, I did hold onto things... mostly books, photos, and items that reminded me of things that had happened in my life. In my mind, they became an integral part of my identity. I think the anxiety I have exhibited over parting with these things is that I fear that I will lose a part of myself and forget about it.

This penchant for accumulation caused my wife to hurl the epithet of "pack rat" in my direction many a time throughout our relationship. If I needed a reminder of how far back this tendency went, I only needed to look in the boxes I carted back home with me on Friday. As I looked over the books, magazines, posters, music, photos, and mementos, I began to wonder to myself why I held onto all of this stuff in the first place.

Moving back to a couple weeks ago, after discussing the deprivation thinking with my therapist, she hit me with a question that shook me up. The question was: "If I were to walk through your house, what would be there to make me think of you." I thought hard about that one. I said that there really wouldn't be much, save for family photographs on the wall.

The house itself was selected by my wife. Same goes for the furniture and the colors of the paint on the walls. The kids' toys have become a major element of the landscape. Aside from clothes and a few computer and self help books that are near bedside, my possessions are stored in boxes, totes, and shelves out in the garage. But even in the garage, the vast majority of space is occupied by things my wife desired and purchased. The computer I use to post to this blog is tucked away neatly in an armoire that she chose.

A few days later, I stumbled upon a posting at a weblog titled Mind Blowing Insanity which included a passage that echoes my own experiences, modulo some changes in pronoun gender:
Our relationship was a strange one. I am the type of person who wants to make everyone's life better, usually at the expense of myself. I'm not saying that I'm a martyr, I just always put myself last. I then came to realize after all of these years that I had no friends of my own and nothing that I could really call "mine", because I had spent our entire life together being around "his" friends and doing "his" things.

In my case, however, I would call myself a martyr. By trying to keep my wife happy and trying to avoid the appearance of needing things, I created an existence that is not only minimalist but also solitary. Aside from blog contacts, my social interactions are limited to her friends.

This crowding out effect carries over into the bedroom. When sex happens, it is on my wife's terms, and the focus is on her pleasure. My pleasure is secondary, and she actively resists my requests for reciprocity.

It's as if there is no room for me in my own life, period.

Letting Go of the Old Self

I acknowledge that I am guilty for having cultivated this kind of relationship. The question is, can I find room for myself and stay within the confines of this marriage. At this hour, I believe that the answer is "no". Shortly before Christmas, I asked my wife two questions:

  1. Are you truly happy with the way things are?

  2. Can you think of anything that makes you unhappy?

She paused for a moment, and said that she was happy, but qualified that statement by saying she tried to look at the positive things. Given that things work out pretty well in her favor, she probably is fairly happy. That happiness is subsidized through both through my time and money that I earn.

In order for me to take shape and start doing things to make my own self happy, it would require the redirection of resources, something I don't think she will be willing to cede. There are two reasons.

The first is the way she responded to my attempt to communicate with her on the money issue. She responded by deflecting the blame in my direction.

Second, during our marriage counseling she said that she might be willing to give me one night a month where I could set aside for doing things on my own. This is in comparison with the several nights a week where she gets out of the house on her own.

The sheer inequity of the current arrangement leaves me with less chips with which to bargain, so she is likely to cry foul because she will perceive the tradeoff as lopsided against her.

I am left believing that the only route to growth is to move on. Going this route will be anxiety laden, uncertain, and perilous. In essence, it is everything I've tried to dodge in almost 38 years of existence.

It will require me to lay out a vision for where I am headed because to leave this marriage without a plan would be as foolish as stepping into the vacuum of the cosmos without a spacesuit.

But most of all, it will require me to change. Not only do I face the chance of marital dissolution. I certainly face the prospect of self-dissolution. The final chapter of Passionate Marriage seemed way "out there" when I first read it, and I wondered why Schnarch included it at all. However, as the thoughts on my current place in life began to gel the last couple of weeks, I reread the parts about self-dissolution. I've quoted the relevant portions here:
Spiritual awakening is often assumed to involve transcending all desire -- but some desires set us free: desire for wisdom, compassion, justice, honesty, generosity, for greater capacity to love and understand life. Our desire for these qualities drives us to expand our capacities for both the self-direction and communion that ultimately leads to self transcendence and spirituality. This is why (Jesuit monk Sebastian) Moore argues that spiritual enlightenment is marked by the ability to desire more fully rather than the absence of desire.


Sebastian Moore says that desire out of fullness is, in essence, a "death wish": life crises like falling in love, undergoing conversion, or suffering bereavement present the painful and bewildering demand that the "you" whose desire brought this about must die. Boundary experiences arise from confronting the limits to what you can attain as the person you are currently. To fulfill your desires, you have to change in ways that make the fulfillment possible. This means the smaller "you" dies as a fuller "you," a more unique "you," is born. We desire our self to death in the most positive sense.

We can consider this paradox from another perspective: throughout this book (and especially Chapter 12) we have explored the need to hold onto yourself. But holding onto yourself and becoming more differentiated eventually leads to the loss of the self you've been holding onto.


Herein lies an important point that is sometimes hard to grasp: many people who seek self-transcendence don't want to give anything up, and they want the path safe and clearly mapped. However, our unwillingness to give up what no longer fits (i.e., self-dissolution) blocks us from self-transcendence. And once you recognize yourself, as (Ken) Wilber does, as the manifestation of Spirit seeking its own fulfillment, then your refusal to grow is not just a personal shortcoming but also a thwarting of Spirit. This is where sin fits in, according to Sebastian Moore.

Sin isn't about unconfined desire -- it's our refusal to desire and grow, our refusal to believe in ourselves, and our willingness to live below our potential. Sin is our "not wanting to want." Moore suggests that the answer to sin is not self-denial but allowing ourselves to desire more fully. (Schnarch, pp. 396 - 400)

The path of deprivational thinking is what hampers my personal growth. I need to start acting as if I am worth more than how I allow myself to be treated. I need to let go of who I've been and give myself permission to desire more from my life. This is the fruit of my crucible, and it is my resolution for the New Year.
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