Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Divided Self

[Francis Bacon, by Lucian Freud]

I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.

--Ovid, The Metamorphosis (qtd. Jonathan Haidt)

About two months ago, my girlfriend and I broke up and I picked up smoking after five years.

I must have forgotten how long life actually is. Because I believed I would never pick up another cigarette again. During my five year stint of no drugs, no alcohol, and no cigarettes, I also practiced meditation daily and didn't eat meat. And I exercised six days a week.

There was a beautiful discipline to my life. My body was trim, my mind was clear, my goals were within reach.

I look back at the era of my rigid self-control and wonder. I wonder if I was happier living in a healthy body. I wonder if I truly appreciated my health.

I remember the lifestyle demanded an inordinate amount of work and conscious effort to maintain. But there was also an energy that helped me along, a natural stimulant my body must have been producing to keep me so focused.

And now?

Now I'm chain-smoking, staying up late, and eating poorly. I'm also less concerned about having the occasional drink or the occasional joint. What happened? Where did I stumble and fall?

It seems I covered the territory of the sober, the nicotine-free, and salubrious, and now I'm flirting with the other side. Maybe life is better--or easier--caffeine-addled, ignorant, and undisciplined.

Things must have not been so wonderful before; otherwise I never would have forsaken my wholesome lifestyle. There must have been some boredom or irritation with that life to dissuade me . . .

In my current wasteland of petty vices, I find no shortage of problems. But that also seems to be the advantage. My physical concerns take up so much of my attention that I have little time to ruminate on emotional setbacks.

This question of the divided self has been revolving in my mind. Only because the division is so painfully obvious when you want to quit smoking.

Last night, I laid in bed, after having my last cigarette of the day.

"That's it. You're done. You-are-done. No more smoking!"

And it made perfect sense at the time because my lungs practically felt like I was experiencing the onset of some mild form of emphysema; short, shallow breaths, the body convulses with cold-like symptoms.

I got out of bed and put the Nicorette gum I'd bought two weeks ago on the dresser drawer. This pantomime of quitting, these small, ineffectual acts--I'm familiar with. I've thrown away a dozen ashtrays and several full packs of cigarettes before pathetically searching the garbage to recover them.

Morning came, and of course I remembered last night's ordeal, wanting desperately to quit. The gravitas! The suffering! I recalled it but I walked past it as one walks past a store window on their way to work.

How could it be happening again? I'm lighting a cigarette, I'm inhaling, I'm even enjoying the damn thing in a sick sort of way.

But my mind--changed. It must have. It changed over night. Because in the morning, I didn't feel the same emotion, the same devotion to quitting, the same visceral disgust.

Instead, in that languid mood of not caring, I drifted to the garage, the place where I go every morning to smoke a cigarette.

It makes me curious that we have these unconscious desires which are essentially controlling us. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt compares the self to a rider on the back of an elephant. He writes:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. Im holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesnt have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, Im no match for him.

But the power to change your life is real.
I know it's real because I've changed my life before. I used to be a drug addict.

But life is long and nothing stays forever. We may think we will never waver, that we will stay married until death, that we'll never go back to smoking or overeating or compulsive shopping.

But we do. To waver is only human. And these decisions to quit, to change, to reform, to improve, I want to embrace them--and more than that--I want to seriously carry them out and change my life.

But it is perhaps wiser to have the knowledge that someday, no matter what changes I do happen to make, I'll have to start at the beginning again.

My Response to a Reader's Comments (about this essay)



Cathy Cullis said...

A thought-provoking essay, although I have never smoked I can relate to the addiction and control 'play'. We try so hard to control our lives and do deals with ourselves, I feel. Because this 'failure' and 'winning' is all done within the self the games can go on and on, without realising how much energy we are giving to this instead of something else. Thank you.

Kelvin Oliver said...

I'm not sure how to make sense of this when I say that I think I am divided into two personalities or something! However, I can see my true self when I am being tested and have to make choices in situations where they ask good ethics. Change is good, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to continue to the same routine. although something will occur and cause use to loose our balance.

JM said...

I can relate. I gave up smoking for lent(although I'm not catholic or particularly religious) just to prove that I had will power. I took it back up two days after Easter. I found that I enjoy it too much. And therein lies the key, I think. I enjoyed the challenge of quitting also, and once I proved that I could, the enjoyment faded. I now enjoy smoking. Our will is successful when we will what we want, and not what we should want.
I'm enjoying your blog. Found you on twitter.

carlomarx said...

a sweet peek into your psyche, my friend. the personal to the universal, as all the best writing is. not that it would help, but i've always looked at "quitting" something as a trap. better, perhaps, to "stop". maybe it's just semantics, but quitting sort of infers that you plan to begin again and it's kind of a defeated term. stopping, is more focused and provokes a different and more solid response inside the nervous system. there isn't the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, like there is with "quitting".

either way, you are who you are and it's nice to see who you are. look forward to more essays...

Mark Kerstetter said...

"You have to be strong, because you'll start from zero - over and over again." -Lou Reed (singer, drug addict, survivor)

"Salubrious" is one of those words that doesn't sound like what it means. It sounds slippery and elusive. But maybe that's what it's like trying to be healthy. While reading your post I thought about what people sometimes say when you get a new car: "put a scratch on it now." It helps, I think, not to be too on edge about seeking health (like getting your exercise while doing something you enjoy, eating healthy food that tasts good, etc).

That said, those cigarettes will kill ya.

MekQuarrie said...

A lovely piece of prose. For me, the sheer art was in how well you protected yourself from revealing any emotion to us. I re-read the text and had no feel for whether you were angry or sad inside. Everything was about how your physical self reacted.
Challenging, but made me think about how we present purely emotional things as dispassionate activity. (Ovid would have disagreed surely.)
I shall read this again right now... :-)

Camelride10000 said...

you're so lucky to be able to smoke like that. for my part I just can't. I've tried hard, many times, but i have failed miserably. smoking makes me hill and gets me zits on my face which I can't stand. how I envy you. I guess the elephant I'm riding is a weak one...

Grace said...

Well, that was an amazing part of yourself you are sharing. Thanks. Maybe look at what the smoking and adverse behaviors fill up for you. Do you need that part of you filled so you don't have to face it, fix it, change it, emote it? Then make the choice of which place you want to be - smoking and filling up the space, or healing the space by choosing the healthy path. Telling you not to smoke when that's not what you want won't work. It's your choice (regardless of what society and healthcare puts upon you). Have to find your own truth and center, focus, and desire or you will constantly waffle back and forth dragging your body and soul with you. Good luck.

Lethe said...

Thank you everyone for your abundant and thoughtful responses to my essay, "The Divided Self". Truly, it is the energy of the commenters as well as the readers, that encourages me to keep writing and keep exploring new topics.

Cathy: I love the conception of "games with the self". So long as we are divided we will be playing games. I don't like it when other people play games with me; so I don't see why I would like it when I play games with myself.

Kelvin: Not all of us will see ourselves as divided as I am expressing here in this instance of my life. I have been more whole, and less whole, at different times. Any addiction however has the power to divide a person.

JM: Yes, you hit on the main truth: "Our will is successful when we will what we want, and not what we should want." Only if we want to change will we be able to. Then the question becomes, how bad do we want to change?

CarloMarx: Thank you. Yes, that is the goal with all of my writing: moving from the personal to the universal. This is a principle I am always working with. For fiction, I am less skilled at drawing out the universal.

Mark: Love the Lou Reed quote. And I've scratched my car one too many times.

MekQuarrie: Thanks for giving so much attention to the piece. I've been told that before about my writing; how I withhold emotion. Sometimes I find that objectifying oneself is difficult if you place too much emotion into the analysis/discussion. I am a journalist of the soul. But emotion has its place in these essays, and I will be more conscious of my emotions and how they seep into the text, or don't, the next essay.

CamelRide: I think we're all prone to some sort of addictive behaviors; but smoking obviously only a certain percentage of people. It is a disgusting habit and for some, hard to even imagine.

Grace: I see what you're saying about "filling up a space". And smoking or any negative behavior does just that. It keeps us from paying attention to our depths, our deep emotions. It keeps us on the surface.

Thanks again everyone. I look forward to your comments on the next essay.

joseexist said...

Thought provoking indeed! I empathized with you all the way thru it. It brought up things I've needed to contimplate for years. I survived my drug addictions. I survived my alcoholism. I survived my divorce. Now I have you to thank for an epiphany. I thought my marrage would last forever and that focus was the main cause of a lot of my anger and pain. Your quill has brushed away a pile of dust I had let languish with the dust bunnies of my past. You have created a fan today. Thank you!
Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! Great writing!

Gretta said...

It is human nature to trade one worry for another; in your case, the physical for the emotional. Perhaps it is part of the human condition that we need to put things in our path to anxt over; perhaps it is the conquering of these things that gives man his greatest joy. Self regard comes from accomplishing hard things. Perhaps we have to create things in our life to prove over and over again that we are strong and worthwhile. The fact that you have conquered things in your past must give your self that knowledge that you are strong, worthwhile and o.k. You will prove this to yourself once again when you give up smoking, and then you will be on to something else to prove this again and again.

Lucy Fur Leaps said...

A wonderful, human piece of writing.
IMHO lifes journey is not linear, its cyclical- but hopefully each time we start again with a bit more knowledge, more wisdom, another piece of the puzzle, with more love and compassion for ourselves.
Be kind to yourself x

teresasilverthorn said...

Excellent...I like the way you think

Marcy said...

15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to dothis I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22For in my inner being I delight in Gods law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to Godthrough Jesus Christ our Lord!

The above are awesome verses (Romans 7) about this ambivalence in our human form, spirit versus flesh...

this, that and the other.... said...

very well written prose.....

for the most part, I think we all battle two sides, some more than others...

my philosophy is moderation..... I am happier there in moderation.....

thanks for sharing

G. said...

The internal clashes between desire and rationale can truly become numbing.

I really do wonder, when we achieve Self Discipline to conquer fears and bad habits, are they truly gone, or simply tamed for the time being? Another scrimmage in the minds battlefield I suppose.

Wonderful post.

Lethe said...

Gretta: So good to hear from you!

Lucy Fur Leaps: Circular indeed. I want things to be linear. But I realize that linearity is only a fiction I create in my mind.

TeresasSilverthorn: Thank you.

Marcy: Im not religious but Im glad you found some private meaning in my essay.

this that and the other: Moderation is always the answer. The route to get there is never simple.

G.: Essentially I think that was my question. Do we ever tame "the self"? And I think we drop some habits and pick up new ones. Thats how things are. Never stable.

Thanks again everyone for the excellent and heartfelt response!

Brizee said...

I have to agree with the idea that a challenge which we are striving to achieve has power over any addiction or bad habit. It is perhaps possible to perform tasks of endurance with complete ease, from my own life, as early as i can remember i have been driven by challenges, hundreds of them daily as vague and as detailed as imaginable from getting myself too school to completing a question, each felt rewarding to me, even in later life if it was simply the challenge of reaching the end of a lesson where i didnt feel the questions challenged me.

From later in my school life i obtained the will to go to university which i intend to this summer, provided the grades agree. However i recently left school and for the first few days i really felt an environment where i had no challenges left. I could get up when i liked and spend my day doing anything or nothing. I couldnt stand it, this daily lack of substance left me feeling like i was going insane, just sitting in my chair until it was time to go to sleep then getting up and sitting in my chair again. As the days passed i snapped out of this routine of nothing and found challenges in every day life that provided meaning for my existence and pulled me back, even as simple as getting up at an early time to listen to a radio show i enjoy.

Ironically i feel this benefited me , through this need for something ive found myself living my life now more than observing it however thats for another topic.

Sarah said...

I was a 25 year old with a serious drinking problem. Quit for 1 year, 5 months and 10 days. And then I just released the white knuckle grip on controlling myself; from not participating. I call myself "eve allowed to eat the apple." And Im not religious either. quite the opposite.

Im now a 27 year old who can casually drink and has found the "click" to stop drinking that I didnt have before. I too, started smoking. First time in my life.

I gave up eating meat, dairy, white flour, sugar... and yes, I felt better while doing it. But its not sustainable. And I gave myself an ulcer trying to control it all. Literally... ER and all.

The bottom line has got to be everything in moderation.

I really enjoyed this post. Feels good to feel "got."

Engel Kobres said...

Enjoyed this. Goanna go have a cigarette now! :) Thought provoking. Very Buddhist.

srik ps said...

Your story is eerily similar to mine. I was leading a completely stressful life - a LOT of drinking, smoking, zero exercise, eating crap. And then, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I instantly changed, did a complete 180 didnt touch a single beer or a cigarette or a slice of pizza. All I ate were cupfuls of cheerios, protein etc. No more than one slice of bread per day. I exercised 2 hours daily. In 3 months I dropped 55 lbs, and my doctor said my blood sugar was back to normal and I wouldnt need medication to control it anymore. He even wanted to do a case study on how I did that.

And then - I graduated, got my PhD. A month later, it started with one beer. and now a year later, I am pretty much an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. No more exercise and lots of crappy food. I gained back all the weight. I cough, freak out for a while, throw my cigarettes out. and then go search for them in the garbage. I use my asthma inhaler and then go and smoke. I dont even know why I do this. The entire duality of my personality has me beat.

When I was taking care of myself - i was a LOT calmer, reading philosophy, whatnot. BUT I was nowhere as creative as i am now. Iam a musician (stereotypes woohoo), and I find myself writing more often when I am drunk and disoriented and so on.

Now which life do I choose? I guess it all comes down to balance - but HOW? balance seems forced. balance seems complacent. or is it? It seems so to me - the other desperate life is much more interesting - but it just might kill me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts - a friend suggested your blog to me. If you find balance, tell us how.

Lethe said...

srik ps-- You can find my response here.

One Womans Thoughts said...

Your words hit in the gut, about the ying and yang of us human creatures. A devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.
Discipline can be healty, rewarding,empowering, tranquil, while indulgence can be intense, deep and creative. Both enlightening who we are.
I am like the tide, continually changing, rising and falling according to the rotations of the earth, the placement of the planets, the winds, people and places in my life, and the desire of which direction to turn myself.
Bravo on your piece. I shall return to lurk in other posts.

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