When I was a boy, an older bully and a younger bully's assistant began to pelt me with gravel. I first walked away, trying to keep my composure. But as the pain and indignity of the gravel bore in upon me, I suddenly burst into tears. I reached down into the gravel and ineffectively heaved a fistful back. Then I merely cried.
So many times now, the gravel-hurling challenges in my life are within. I don't mean anyting metaphysical like "I make my own reality". I mean instead that I see the way that poor habits and choices lead to poor results.
It's not enough for me to see that excessive fat and calories lead to my being overweight. I have to see further than that. I have to not only spot the issue, but also to act upon the issue. But it's not just "count the calories" or "chastise myself that I eat".
On some level, I have to believe that there is a point to the process. I took a psychology test once in college, as a guinea pig. It was an easy test--you got more candy bars if you were patient enough to let a light ascend to the high point range than if you hit the light with more frequency. On some level, the examination was about long-term thinking.
To overcome that "pelting within", I think you have to believe that you can live your life as if it has a point. Cecil Rose was one of the folks who belonged to the Oxford Group. This was a Christian group which tried, among many varied projects, to address the issue of practical change and societal transformation. Their language depended on a way of looking at the world that is not everyone's way of looking at the world. They used a fair bit of "God talk" that not everyone feels comfortable using.
Their notions are not really "old-fashioned", though. Many of them pop up, with transformed language, in the twelve step programs. The first step in a twelve step program is to understand that one has a problem. The second step is to accept that there is a "higher power" to help solve that problem. This idea is akin to the earlier expressions in the Oxford Group.
Cecil Rose phrased the necessary transformation like so: "Life to the full’ must mean a life set free from the haunting sense of failure, victorious over temptation, released from fears, with a new mastery over moods, impulses, and habits, a clear purpose, and a power which makes possible the effective use of the whole personality".
Rose proceeds to express his view in terms of an explicitly Christian conversion. The twelve step programs use a more loosely-based sense of "higher power", compatible with monotheism, but also compatible with a host of other religious and irreligious views.
I tend to think a lot about the language of faith. I long ago became convinced that a mode of being which can "save" can exist in either the person of faith or the atheist. I'm not saying that all belief systems are equivalent. I think there are "truer" beliefs and "less true" beliefs. But I do know that despair is a killer whether one professes belief or one professes uncertainty or the void.
But even if not everybody can accept Rose's view of a specifically Christian conversion (not that there is anything wrong with such a conversion at all, but I am not a tractarian often, and particularly not tonight), the idea that one can actually live a full life and harness a power over oneself is really empowering. Indeed, even in the 12 step programs, with their specific "higher power" concept as "step two", the use of the group or the individual as the focus of the "higher power" idea is not unknown. I choose not to confront the theological questions tonight, because my own answers are at best only passably interesting and at worst completely unilluminating.
I do not think that one can stop the metaphoric things in life from hurling gravel at one just by pretending the gravel does not sting. There are reasons why I overeat, practicing a poor remedy to a problem at hand. When I see that this is a poor remedy, then finding a better remedy is the issue.
I think that one first step is self-acceptance. One thing that I think one has to realize is that change can be obscured by sheer self-loathing. I find that everytime I have ever done any worthwhile thing, I've rechanneled the fear and loathing I brought to the project into the project itself. I learn from single-minded people how to think single-mindedly. It's a funny thing, but beating oneself up about doing something doesn't get the something done.
I am pleased about myself that I don't really mind being overweight too much in and of itself. I just dislike being in less than perfect physical health. If I accepted that it is not some "cosmic struggle" to lose weight in life, but instead just part of something in which I need to surrender to a better way of doing things, I think I'd be one step further along.
Lately my vice is small chocolates at work. I have one, and then another, and then another. But what stress could I instead be exercising out in some more useful way? That answer, and not ripping my shirt over eaten chocolate, must be the way out.
I believe strongly in "good" and "evil". But I think that the terms tend to get "suburbanized" to a great extent. I think that too many people place themselves in the hell of petty failings, until they develop real failings through living in fear of little hells. Despite all those puritan diaries and the charming work of Mr. Lewis, I do not think Mr. Screwtape is much bothered with tiffs over tea.
I think that the over-arching thing is not that people are perfectible, because absent some intervention on some other plane not pertinent here, I don't believe they are. The over-arching thing is whether folks can lead meaningful lives. I think that anger and frustration and fear and lost dignity are weapons in the search for a meaningful life. But they act in that way only if one is willing to jettison them and accept that life can be lived as if it has meaning.
It's become the vogue to mistake self-indulgence for self-realization. But I find that every worthwhile thing I've ever done was done while I was nearly oblivious to myself. I don't mean self-neglect, though this can be a vice of mine. I mean if one can focus on a goal, even a trivial goal, it seems to help. One's life becomes identification of a series of small but worthwhile goals, and insignificant but livable states of being.
At some point, a friendship or a love is a surrender to one's regard for another.
A career is a surrender of one's time to skills acquisition. A relaxation is a surrender to the sense that one is imperfect but it is all right. Grace is not a sword, nor a shield, but something that descends on one when one would otherwise be lowest, and permits one to live as if one's life mattered.
An old Black Oak Arkansas song goes: "Driving fast on gravel roads shakes a new truck to pieces. Life is like that gravel road--the shaking always increases". You don't win the Tour de France through physical immortality. You win it by pedaling, even though it strains and blisters and hurts. But I have to imagine that the feel of the street ribboning under you is worth a thousand days of leg strain.
But it's so easy to be pitiless with oneself. It's so easy to bury oneself in gravel, the way that the Inca king was supposedly buried in gold. But sometimes you have to let the stones go by the wayside. Sometimes you have to shake free and breathe.
Tonight I'm thinking of the rocks in my path, and of the way I'd rather not get hung up in my past failures, but instead surrender to the reality that I need to live as if my life has meaning, and begin steering around the rocks ahead.