Fear and Bandages

I’m about to yammer on for a bit. There will be no tl;dr summary. Buckle in:

Speaking my mind, particularly in mixed company, has never been my strong suit. In person, I mean. I can hide behind text and say withering things with the best of them when online, but out there in meatspace, eye-to-eye, my internal censor is one very active little dude. I’m sure that’s a common phenomenon.

I do this sometimes out of concern for others’ feelings, sometimes to avoid conflict, often out of shyness, and often because no matter how hard I try not to, I start advertising myself in the conversation. That last is a part of my personality I’d like to drag into an alleyway and take a hammer to. Call it my inner Shadoe Stevens[1].

Awhile back I wrote a post on the nature of intelligence and the admittedly first-world problem of not being as smart as I used to think I was. I (Neil deGrasse Tyson, actually) contrasted true smarts with mere fact collection and regurgitation, usually done to either impress people or shut them down.

Then I did another one on Tim Kreider’s open letter to the Tea Party, in which he frankly laid out both the similarities between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and the nature of their mutual antipathy.

Those things didn’t seem at all connected to me until I came across a MetaFilter post (yes, MeFi again, shaddup) about Charlie Kaufman’s recent lecture at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (PDF link). A touch long, but the first six pages are where the real meat is, and I’ll chunk out some quotes below.

It’s ostensibly a speech about screenwriting, but it really isn’t that at all. It’s a speech about fear and emptiness and uncertainty and selling yourself and being honest and kind. It’s about what separates us and prevents us from opening up to one another. All of which is at the core of good writing, mind, because writing is either about life or else it’s lies and masturbation. Which is to say, advertising.

I’ll try to restrain myself with the quotes, but it won’t be easy:

Here’s a recent quote that I found: ‘We do not talk, we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.’ That was actually written in 1945 by Henry Miller and I think it’s timely…. People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that – at the very least – this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, ‘What can we do to get people to buy more of these?’

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this.

Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

That’s pretty much the nut of it, and that’s when I made the connection at an embarrassingly late age: Served up at the root of all of this—the self-advertising, the spittle-flecked political division, the moralizing, all of it—is an American-sized portion of fear and emptiness. It’s a costume to conceal weakness: I am brave and I have a sword and you are either a knight or a dragon and I just dare you to be a dragon.

I’m not sneering. I’m as susceptible as the next guy. I embraced political drama too and only abandoned it after cable news turned it into a living reductio ad absurdum (the Latin is to impress you). In my short time among them, I positively goddamn wallowed in the Tim LaHaye-esque demonic conspiracy dramas and revenge porn so adored by the evangelical community. I get it, because it’s my malady too. I must make you love me or else take you to school:

It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.

I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.

I’m going to find a way to paraphrase that and turn it into a goddamn tattoo.

I have for years heard an inner voice urging me to open my heart wider[2], and it’s mostly gone unheeded, because of fear and being completely uncertain about how to start. One doesn’t just start a conversation with “I’m absolutely fucking terrified”.

But one can start an essay that way, and so I’m here and I’ll just go ahead and kick it off. Things I’m afraid of, in no particular order:

  • That I am not the good man everyone believes me to be

  • That I will fail my family

  • That I will screw up my kids

  • That I won’t leave a legacy, that I will die with the memories of those who have known me

  • That I will never get good at making things with my hands, or even find an act of creation I can stick with

  • That I will never get out of my own head, or find quiet there

  • Of people, mostly that they will hurt me

  • Of embarrassing myself

  • That I will be found out

  • That I am not much of a man

  • That I will never find a way to set aside my pettiness and judgment

  • That I am weak and will always be thus

  • That I will never do anything worth a damn with myself

Why the list? Because I think I’m finally getting to the point where my exhaustion with painting over that wound is outweighing the fear. At the ripe old age of almost-thirty-seven, I might actually be growing up. And I’d rather we talked about stuff.

Also, five bucks says most of you share in at least one of those, and I’d like to explore that. I’d like you to be able to talk to me, or someone, about it. To wit:

What I’m trying to express – what I’d like to express – is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play.

We don’t have to be. We can say who we are, we can assert our right to existence, we can say to the bullies and conmen, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking – really thinking – about who we are, and we’ll express ourselves and other people won’t feel so alone.

That’s at least a big chunk of what I want this place to be. Also doo-doo jokes and pictures of Christina Hendricks.

I dunno. I don’t have any more answers than Charlie Kaufman. I have all of his uncertainty. Perhaps counterintuitively, I find that uncertainty encouraging. The road forward is usually rocky, in my experience. Solid, even ground means you’re walking in a circle.

Seriously, go read the first half-dozen pages of that speech, even if you’re not a writer. Then write down your own fears. Then set the paper on fire. Then laugh and make something.

  1. I kid. I love Shadoe Stevens and was delighted to hear his voice once again when Craig Ferguson took over The Late Late Show. Stevens is a hugely underrated comedic talent, and every time I hear his voice it’s suddenly 1987 and I’m home sick from school and watching game shows. Circle gets the square.  ↩

  2. Not the “shoot the president to impress Jodie Foster” kind of voice. This isn’t to be taken literally, kids.  ↩