Sunday, September 19, 2021

Turning Points

“In the military, to deliberately inflict injury upon oneself so as to avoid service is called malingering. It's a court-martial offense that is punishable, in some armies, by death.

The habits and addictions of the amateur are conscious or unconscious self-inflicted wounds. Their payoff is incapacity. When we take our M1903 Springfield and blow a hole in our foot, we no longer have to face the real fight of our lives, which is to become who we are and to realize our destiny and our calling.”

-Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro


“Sobriety wasn't supposed to be like this. I thought when I finally quit drinking for good, the universe would open its treasure chest for me. That only seemed fair, right? I would sacrifice the greatest, most important relationship of my existence – here I am, universe, sinking a knife into my true love's chest for you – and I would be rewarded with mountains of shimmering, clinking gold to grab by the fistful. I would be kicking down doors again. In badass superhero mode.

Instead, I woke up at 5 am each day, chest hammering with anxiety, and crawled into the closet for a few hours to shut out unpleasant voices. When will I screw this up again? What failures lurk beyond these four walls? I trudged through the day with shoulders slumped, every color flipped to gray scale. I spent evenings on my bed, arm draped over my face. Hangover posture. I didn't like the lights on. I didn't even like TV. It was almost as if, in the absence of drinking blackouts, I was forced to create my own.”

-Sarah Hepola, Blackout


About a week ago, on impulse, I threw my copy of Turning Pro in a bike bag just before I set out to ride. Ten miles in, when I stopped to drink water on a park bench, I pulled out the book for company.

I'd read it once before, years ago, but this time I was reading it sober. And maybe that's why I was so surprised to realize that most of the book is about addiction. Chemical dependencies, sure, and also addictions to failure, fighting, sex, the internet – all the ways you can let time slip through your fingers while avoiding the life you supposedly want.

At some point I had to stop and wonder: What was I thinking when I read it the first time? I couldn't remember, but the question nagged as the theme of addiction came up again and again. Had I really missed the point so badly? Did I really keep drinking while Pressfield warned against all kinds of addiction?

Well, yeah. I did that a lot. I read books on alcoholism and sobriety and mental discipline. I took little steps that I hoped would turn into magic bullets. Like for instance, after I read Roy Baumeister's book on willpower, I started to buy lots of gum. Baumeister's book referenced studies that showed sugar could help you stick to decisions. So I figured, what the hell? I'd chew tons of gum for the glucose and to keep my mouth too busy to drink.

It didn't work, obviously, but my heart was in the right place. Sometimes. Other times it was absolutely not, and all I wanted was a big bottle of Dark Eyes to get me through a long weekend.

In Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Kierkegaard spends an almost pathological amount of time trying to catalog every possible kind of “double-mindedness” he can think of. For Kierkegaard, the only thing truly worth desiring is The Good, but setting your heart in a single direction is not as easy as it sounds.

For example: Let's say you desire The Good because you figure it will help you avoid getting in trouble. “Not so fast!” says Kierkegaard. “That's double-mindedness. Sure you want The Good, but you're also scared of punishment.”

Okay, then. So say, instead, you desire The Good because of the benefits it brings to your life? “Nope,” says our favorite Dane. “You're not focused on The Good. You also want that reward.”

(If Kierkegaard just left it at that he could make his same basic point in a much shorter book. But Søren being Søren, he just can't help but go through every single example of double-mindedness he can possibly think of. This is one of those things I find extremely endearing about him as a person, even when his work gets tedious to read.)

Although Pressfield takes a lighter touch, large sections of his book are a similar kind of cataloging. If Pressfield's idea of “turning pro” is analogous to Kierkegaard's “purity of heart,” then “Resistance” is Pressfield's equivalent to “double-mindedness.”

Resistance, in Pressfield's cosmology, is the force that tries to stop us from doing the creative work we were put here to do. It is tenacious and deadly, and while it can manifest in obvious ways (like drinking yourself into a stupor), it can also be subtle.

And so Pressfield spends several chapters describing how those subtle manifestations can appear. Maybe you distract yourself with travel, or sex, or trashy TV. Maybe your career's the distraction – you might throw yourself into a day job designing sneakers, but know in your heart that you really just want to paint.

I thought about this while I read Turning Pro. And then, when I finished, I read Blackout, Sarah Hepola's funny and moving account of her own struggle with alcoholism. What surprised me most was how familiar it felt. Some recovery memoirs tell tales vastly estranged from my own experiences, but Hepola's hit much closer to home. We had similar childhoods, similar friends, similar experiences in the working world (although mine on a much smaller scale – while Hepola was moving to New York to work for a nationally-renowned publication, I was churning out copy for plumbers and HVAC repairmen).

In the book, Hepola gets sober only to realize that it hasn't fixed everything. Maybe it hasn't fixed anything. She writes about the fear that follows those moments with the loss of her anchor. What now? How? What if I screw it all up again? Is sobriety still worthwhile if it doesn't get you the things that you want? Is it an end to itself, or were you chasing something else all along?

If the past is the best predictor of the future, alcoholics have good reason for concern. How many times did I “quit” just to pick up again later? How many bottles poured down how many sinks, each one supposedly the last?

And yet something still drives you forward. From one mistake to the next and the next until finally, hopefully, you stop. What is it that at last makes the difference? The answer is rarely so clear. Here's how Hepola describes it:

“Quitting is often an accumulation. Not caused by a single act but a thousand. Drops fill the bucket, until one day the bucket tips.”

What are those drops? Pain. Shame. Remorse. All pointing the way back to the path. As Pressfield explains, “Why is shame good? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will. Epiphanies hurt. There's no glory to them. They only make good stories at AA meetings or late at night among other foot soldiers in the trenches. These soldiers know. Each has his own story, of that ghastly, hideous, excruciating moment when it all turned around for him.”

“The eager traveler who travels lightly does not … learn to know [the path] as well as a wayfarer with a heavy burden,” Kierkegaard writes. “The one who merely strives to get on does not learn to know the way as well as the remorseful man. The eager traveler hurries forward to the new, to the novel, and, indeed, away from experience. But the remorseful one, who comes behind, laboriously gathers it up.”

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...