“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” -e. e. cummings
I had posted this on my bathroom mirror once. It seemed like the kind of thing that needed to be remembered daily. Why? Because the assembly line-like forces of American consumer culture are amplified, I believe, by the rapid Pavlovian social reward-and-punishment machine of social media, and, in America, what was once called “the middle class” is not really a thing anymore. Most people feel squeezed, and therefore, the pressures to do what “sells,” or to make yourself really desirable on paper, might be greater than ever. The human heart and soul are in danger. People are soul starved. They don’t know what to call it. They look for rapid relief.
I once imagined, years ago, before my private practice, while I was in the middle of some big writing project, something kind of funny. I thought, Hm, life is kind of like a video game where you get plunked into the game with a soul. And an angel should whisper in your ear right at the outset that this thing, your soul, could get ripped from you at every turn. I mean it, kid. Every. Goddamn. Turn. The object of the game is to see if you’re still holding onto it by the end of the obstacle course. You’ll have to keep it safe, at times secret, but always known and felt. You may feel like you have no choice but to do things that offend it deeply. Have faith that there is always another way and you’ll be able to hold out just long enough. If you keep doing the things that offend or hurt this thing, your soul, it might wander away from you and never come back. Ooh, I see you’ve selected the American level of the game. Whew, good luck!
I am stubborn enough to believe that the human heart and soul are worth saving, and that there is a way forward that honors heart and soul, for each and every person, even here in America where soul starvation seems so rampant. Even though the forces that contribute to soul starvation seem to be ramping up, paradoxically, it also feels like there is less to lose now than ever, especially for anyone on the artist’s path. You might as well go out on that limb and try. You might as well take that big risk. If you fail, then you’ll know where that particular story goes, and then you can pick up a new story thread, very probably with newfound wisdom under your belt.
I have avoided speaking or writing about this so far in my profession, because it still seems so taboo, but mortality awareness can help with this. Even Steve Jobs thought so:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve yet encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything– all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. -Steve Jobs
The taboo around discussing death that still exists in our culture (paralleling, almost, the Victorian taboo around discussing sex) seems to feed into the vast confusion and soul starvation that American people so commonly feel. We are bombarded from all angles by images of others seeming to have it all so very “together,” and we are comparing that with our own pained, fragile, imperfect internal worlds, and there might as well be a vast conspiracy to never discuss some of the most basic facts of life, namely, that it ends. And that, when it does, we will be our own judges. As difficult and scary as it is, I believe it is incredibly useful to contemplate that. Our lives are precious. Why is it so easy to forget? Devotional practices and daily reminders seem incredibly useful, whatever shape or form those take.
I’ll finish with one more (important) e. e. cummings quote:
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.