Brief Life Update
It’s been over a month since I posted. I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about it, but the hits keep coming in 2022. Just like they have in the previous two years. In my head I’ve referred to this decade as the Shrieking Twenties. Of course, the world is on fire, with things seeming to get worse every day. There’s not much I can do about that except numbly watch along. But things have been difficult on a smaller scale for me as well. On January 28th my cat Darien was diagnosed with cancer – a growth the size of a large marble appeared on his jaw overnight. Within three weeks the growth was the size and density of a ping pong ball and I had to let him go after almost exactly 3 years together. I let myself have a good sulk for a few weeks, scaling back on creative activity and interaction with the world.
I’d just completed my Sacred Screwtape reading through Fear on chapter 2 when all this happened. Fear was everywhere around me. Fear and guilt. Did I somehow bring on Darien’s cancer by loving his brother Aleister a little bit more? Did I summon the possibility by getting mad at him for wetting the bed and wishing I didn’t have him in a moment of irritation? Of course, I don’t rationally believe those things. But somehow the thought that I had nothing to do with it, and that bad things just happen that I have no control over, is even more terrible than the idea I had brought it all on myself.
But my self-imposed slump has gone from reasonable grieving to self-indulgence. It’s time to move on. Much like how I drank a lot at the beginning of the pandemic, telling myself that it was a rough time and I deserved it, the excuse outlasted the justification. It’s time to figure out how to live my life again.
What better way to begin than by re-doing a Lectio Divina reading (I did one a month ago and never typed it up) from Chapter 2 to help inform how I should move forward? Surely the text will call me to do something uncomfortable but necessary. In January, the text called me to reply to all the Christmas cards I received, even ones that I had planned on ignoring for various personal reasons. Ultimately I think that was the right choice. Let’s hope that our Affectionate Uncle Screwtape has some words of wisdom again.
Choosing the Passage
I wrote a little Python script that takes an arbitrary block of text and returns a random sentence (defined by a string of text ending in a period) from that text. I did this because running my finger over the page with my eyes closed biases toward sentences in the middle of a page, and biases against the beginning or end of a chapter. Since this is an exercise in finding meaning and introspecting based on seemingly arbitrary text, I decided that it shouldn’t matter whether I pick the passage organically or if I have the computer do it. So I found a PDF of The Screwtape Letters that I’m using for text generation purposes. If you’re interested in using this code yourself, let me know and I’ll pop it up online somewhere. It’s very simple, but I know not everyone codes, so I’d be happy to share it around.
“If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore harder to tempt.”
1.What is the text literally saying? What is happening in the narrative?
Screwtape is explaining to Wormwood that it’s humanity’s nature to be fascinated with the new, but after several repetitions, when novelty begins to settle into routine, it’s an opportunity for the clever demon to strike. The dryness of solidifying good habits and the boredom and reality that sets in when a new convert gets to know his fellow parishioners can be weaponized. However, if the demon allows his patient to grow and change, persisting through this dry spell and into a deeper form of engagement with his new habit|religion|paradigm, then he can learn to recognize the signs of boredom and restlessness, and work his way through them without being swayed by fickle emotion as readily. It’s harder to lure someone astray when they’ve tasted success and built up coping mechanisms to get through the slog that accompanies any worthwhile endeavor.
2. What images, metaphors, stories, or motifs stick out at you?
Maybe it’s just because it warmed up considerably today, and I could use a glass of water, but the mention of dryness here brings to mind wanderers in the desert. Lost. Parched.
I’m skeptical of things that tout being “less dependent on emotion” as a good thing these days. Maybe it’s because I watch too many cult documentaries and listen to Amanda Montell and Janja Lalich talk about thought terminating cliches and the ways that cults control you by subtly encouraging you to ignore the klaxon in your gut crying DANGER. But I know that’s not what Screwtape is talking about here. The emotions that I’m referring to would raise the flag at Screwtape as much as they would at Keith Raniere. Screwtape is talking about the fickleness of attention when prodded at by frustration or a sense of false superiority to ones peers. But the phrasing here sets my teeth on edge. “Less dependent on emotion.” As if emotions are subservient to logic. As if our bodies are subservient to our minds. Lewis probably did think this – it’s a common enough refrain in post-Enlightenment Western culture, but it’s a thought pattern that can be used to blind you to danger and make you ignore reason. Real reason, I mean, not the faux intellectual “logic” you’ll find all over the Intellectual Dark Web. It’s a dated sentiment, that we shouldn’t let our emotions factor into our lives. One that gets my gut klaxons ringing.
Tempt is such an interesting word. I think of demons, sure. But I also think of cake. Of that one more shot of whiskey you know you shouldn’t take. Of an electric blanket on grey sky mornings when you have actual work to do. Lewis provides a seductive image of willpower here. Through enough discipline and learning to weather the dry spells, temptations of all sorts hold less sway over you. However, current research on the effectiveness of willpower would say otherwise. It’s still a powerful and enduring cultural myth anyway. Like that of the supremacy of logic and the mind.
3. What episodes or anecdotes from your own life appear when contemplating #2?
I am perpetually thirsty. It’s something my sister and I inherited from my dad. The idea of being parched and lost fills me with dread. It’s part of why I’ve never really liked beach vacations. I associate sand with dry with thirst. I’ve always been more of a city explorer than a beach lounger. I know part of the Lectio Divina is to just let my brain go where it wants and draw these associations, but this observation feels a little silly. I think that’s important to call out here because I knew going in that this Sacred Reading experiment wouldn’t always be straightforward or even successful. It feels appropriate to point out when I’m questioning the process so that I can come back later and either laugh with my past self about how silly some things seem, or to recognize patterns that I couldn’t see in the moment. I’ll take either outcome as a win.
I must keep reminding myself that “sacred” is in the doing, not something that is conferred by authority to a text, practice, or person.
As far as thought terminating cliches, and the way that cults abuse language to try to undermine your natural responses, I don’t have any firsthand experience. But I’ve always been fascinated by cults and high control groups. I know way more about Scientology than any non-Scientologist should.
I was always a little bit of an outcast as a kid. Making conversation with people is easy enough when I feel motivated to do so, but as a surly child with unmanaged mood and attention disorders, I rarely felt it was worth putting in the effort. I had few friends, but the ones I did have were precious to me. Many days I was proud of my outsider status, feeling haughty and superior to the girls who spent their allowances and time on limited edition makeup and pre-ripped up clothes that cost more than a video game console. There were some days, though, that I longed for group acceptance, and felt bad that the tight kinship I had with my fellow weirdos wasn’t always enough.
In middle school, one of my tight friends started dragging me to her youth group. The unconditional acceptance of the crowd, especially when I revealed myself as unbaptized and uninitiated to the wonders and mysteries of the gospel, was intoxicating. I learned in those moments that I am susceptible to love bombing. I continued to go to youth group with my friend on and off for years, soaking in the oxytocin you get from that kind of group participation, especially with the singing (although I would have preferred an old fashioned hymn than the hip youth pastor with the acoustic guitar, but hey, group singing is just a weakness of mine. Then, as now, I’d take what I could get). My breaking point was when the youth pastor gave a talk on recruitment one day. He told us that we should look for the kids on the playground who always seemed sad. Who no one talked to. Who ate their lunches alone. He called them “fringe kids.” These lonely kids were ripe for the picking, and we should actively look for them and lure them in.
I realized that’s what I was. A fringe kid they’d reeled in. Not long after, I remember being with my friend in the youth pastor’s office. We were talking about something or other and he mentioned nurturing our inner children. I said I didn’t have an inner child (remember, I was a baby goth with a sleep disorder. I was dark. It was an affront to my ego to think I housed anything as ridiculous as an inner child). The pastor asked how I would run into the arms of Jesus like a little babe if I didn’t have any inner child. I shrugged and said that my inner kiddo drank hemlock. I do not remember returning to youth group after that
All of this is to say that I know perfectly well that I’m capable of being sucked into a cult. There’s nothing special that exempts me from it, and the people who end up in cults are not idiots. That’s why I’m so fascinated. There but for the grace of (God|The Universe|The Butterfly Effect) go I.
Lastly, the image of cake and temptation is sitting with me as I read over the text snippet again. I am fat. Plain and simple. I’ve always been somewhat overweight, but in college and afterwards I got proper fat. I am comfortable with this, and honestly since the pandemic began I started taking my personal training sessions more seriously and I’m probably in the best health I’ve been since high school. But between the weight I’ve already gained, several of the medications I’m on, and good ol’ genetics, I am likely to remain fat for the rest of my life. I’ve made peace with that. I don’t think of food as a temptation, or sinful, but it is hard to avoid that kind of talk, especially when everyone around you feels they have unlimited license to comment on your food choices once you hit a certain level of fat.
I started taking amphetamines for ADHD in early 2021. One of the unfortunate side effects was I lost my appetite for nearly a year. It’s still not fully back, but I do get the occasional pang. When I got my first hunger pang this year in January I almost cried in the McDonald’s drive thru, realizing that I’d been scared that my hunger might never return. When I would explain this affliction to others, especially women, the response was almost universally “Ooh, wouldn’t that be handy,” or “I should go on whatever you’re taking,” as if losing access to a critical bodily warning sign was somehow virtuous or exciting. Removing hunger removed the temptation to sin, and made me appear a saint when I said no to chips or candy or cake because I simply wasn’t hungry. I didn’t know how to explain to people that this was dangerous and disruptive to my life. I sometimes went days without eating, forgetting that I needed to, and would nearly pass out at the gym because I was so depleted. Or the world would seem as if it was ending, and all I wanted to do was cry. It turned out my blood sugar was low and I just needed a sandwich, but my body refused to pass along the message.
With the return of my hunger drive, I’ve been able to be tempted by foods again. It’s a blessing. A mercy. I still get weirdly emotional when I notice my stomach growling. It means my digestive system is talking to me again. It means that my body and mind are back on the same page. We want to live.
Well, this little free write on a single sentence kind of got away from me. I guess I had more feelings about today’s reading than I thought I would.
4. What is the text calling you to do?
There are a lot of threads here. I think the most obvious call to action comes simply from step #1 of today’s reading. I think I need to buckle down and follow through on the projects I set out for myself. This blog, getting through things at work, my other writing, even meetings with friends. It’s been easy to let everything slide during this grieving period for my cat. I know that sounds silly, but for the last 2 years my cats are the only other living beings I’ve seen every single day. Often the only other creatures I’d see in an entire week. It’s hard to overstate how much Darien’s cancer devastated me.
But it’s time to move on. While emotions are a useful guidepost to be consulted in tandem with thoughts and logic, in this case they are overwhelming me and steering me from the path of the person I want to be.
I think I need to commit to re-establishing routines that have been very productive for me in the past. Over the next couple weeks I need to double down on straightening out my sleep schedule, eating regularly and at predictable times, setting dedicated writing time, and getting some regular zoom meetings with friends back on the calendar that I neglected in favor of my pity party. Going to try to make it a priority to check back in at this blog and let the void know how I’m doing with my routines
I can’t imagine anyone read through all of this. If you did, thank you so much. I’ll be back tomorrow with another blackout/erasure poem, this time from chapter 2. I know I said chapter 2 wasn’t speaking to me, but after taking a month off I looked again, and something finally clicked. Let’s try not to let another month go by without a post, yeah? Feel free to poke me in the comments to keep me accountable.