Dear Reader, This past week we've been working with the power of optimism. Now I want to move us into thinking about and working with the power of honesty.
Admit Your Shit
Please excuse my French. I know the title of this section has an earthy tang, and there was a time when such terms offended my own delicate sensibility—but I had to get over it. Because, you see, I love my mother.
My mother swears—not all the time, not at work—but with her family she uses the phrases she requires to drive home her points. Liberally. For much of my life, I passionately wished that I could halt the colorful flow of my mother’s mouth. Somewhere along the line I developed a desire for our family to be classy—and my mother’s swearing, along with her habit of lighting her Menthol Ligget Lights directly in the gas flames of our kitchen stove assaulted and undermined the aristocratic aspirations I cherished for the Elliott clan.
Out of love for my mother, I came to forgive her—and my father, and my brother, and all the rest of our relatives—to dooming us to less-than-lordly status. I tolerated her linguistic stylings. Yet it wasn’t until one revelatory day that I came to actually embrace and celebrate them.
I called my mother crying, bemoaning the hard fact that I had just been done wrong yet again, by another boyfriend. Why? I wanted to know. Why had this happened? What had I done?
The Colorful Truth
“Carolyn,” my mother said, speaking slowly so I would understand, “he’s an asshole.”
I stopped crying for a moment. I had really heard her. The words brought about a kind of open spaciousness and clarity. It began to dawn on me: that young man had treated me poorly not because I deserved it, not because there was anything wrong with me, but because he was – ontologically speaking—an asshole—meaning that he would have treated me that way no matter how beautiful or fun or cool I was—none of my part even mattered, because the way he acted was just his method of operation: assholery. For him to have behaved otherwise would have violated his very nature.
Since attaining this liberating insight from the sage woman who birthed me, I’ve developed an increasing fondness for telling it like it is, a fondness which means I have worse and worse foul mouth, and a more and more awesome life.
By referring to my erstwhile boyfriend as an asshole, my mother did me the service of waking me out of a delusion within which I’d been suffering. The nature of my delusion? That my boyfriend was not an asshole and therefore his actions were some kind of reflection upon my merit and worth. When in the grips of this delusion, I wanted to defend him, idolize him, romanticize him.
The Pain of Delusion
For months I had rationalized his behavior and had stayed in denial about how bad things were because my mind had its laser-focus grip on the notion that that relationship was a solution to something. This meant my mind was fully loathe to let that “solution” go, to see that it was doing me more harm than the perceived problem I had intended it to fix: namely, me and my feelings about life.
For months the dude treated me badly and for months I didn’t wish to allow that he was, indeed, an asshole. I preferred to torture myself, because to recognize the bare facts of the situation would have meant having to let go of my solution, you see.
Letting go of one of my pretend solutions is always incredibly hard because there’s a part of me that resolutely will not trust that a real solution can be found—a solution that would address the actual underlying problem: my distorted negative perception of myself and of the world.
Ditch Your Kitsch
The author Milan Kundera, in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being writes about the phenomenon of kitsch, a mode of art in the Soviet Union which was all sweet and saccharine.
Kundera defined kitsch as the denial of shit, and said it was an aesthetic mode which was false because it refused to acknowledge an essential dimension of human experience and to deal with it. The Soviet Union needed kitsch, of course, because it was clinging to a very untenable solution to its problems—Stalinism.
What I don’t realize when I’m in the midst of my clinging to a delusional solution is that I am busily perpetrating my own version of kitsch. I make my life into a glossy work of very bad art. It looks good on the surface—hey, check me out, I’m normal! I’ve got a boyfriend! See? Smile! – but it lacks depth, and if you look at it for more than a second you feel annoyed.
When I’m doing this, I’m acting in what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call “bad faith”—pretending as if I have no choice, as if the only solution is the one I’m currently clinging to. I can end my reign of kitschy terror by ceasing to claim that my false solution has any merit to it at all, by no longer rationalizing my use of it. In other words, I have to admit that it’s shit.
Admitting the presence of shit in my life has the tremendously frightening and useful effect of freeing space for the awesoming process to begin. As long as I stay in the realm of kitsch, as long as I cling to my shit while calling it gold, there’s no room for the awesome to grow.
Shit as Wondrous Fertilizer
This isn’t to say that all shit must be absent from your life in order for the awesoming to start. It just means that as much shit as possible must be admitted, and clearly seen for what it is. Shit, once discovered in its real and undenied glory, is actually excellent ground in which the roses of awesome may grow.
For example, I struggled for a long time to admit to myself that my initial choice of career path – university English professor – was actually shit.
I began noticing early on in my graduate school career that I thought an alarmingly high number of my professors were pompous ego monstrosities, that the academic journal articles I was supposed to be reading and admiring looked like sophistic exercises in rigorously avoiding truth, and that my peers in the program used their mighty intellects to systematically quash all errant interferences of joy and love in their lives and mine.
Despite these disturbing observations, I pressed ahead, submitting papers to academic conferences that I dreaded attending, trying to contort my writing into a shape that would be acceptable to the establishment.
Why was I doing this? Because I had hypnotized myself into believing that academia, though sucky and abusive to my spirit, was the only place that would welcome my high-octane intellect—so I needed to endure the pain of jumping through all the hoops laid before me and groveling for all the shreds of approval I might be able to eke out. This philosophy, the dear reader might notice, bore strong resemblances to my pattern of thought about my romantic relationships.
Yet on the day I finally admitted to myself that an academic career, for all the prestige and respectability it afforded, was actually a shit solution to the problem of being me, I did not immediately leave graduate school.
The Value of Remaining in One's Shit
I instead began the process of letting that shit become fertile ground for awesomeness. I decided to stay in the doctoral program, on my own terms. I let go of the idea of ever getting hired as a professor, so I stopped worrying about whether or not my dissertation would be viable on the academic market and let go of my relationship with a dissertation advisor who was very concerned that it should be so.
Since I realized that my choice to let my freak flag fly in my dissertation meant that my last year in graduate school might be my last opportunity to ever teach at a university, I decided to go all-out and teach my Reading Poetry courses in the weird, experimental way that I felt would best serve me and my students—rather than in the conventional way that I knew would get me the most approval from the professors above me.
As a result of admitting my shit and turning it into fertilizer, I was able to write my dissertation and teach my classes on poetic inquiry, the very process of awesoming on which this blog is based.
My classes gave me an opportunity to see that the far-out ideas which worked so well to awesome my life also worked for my students.
Some students wrote to me thanking me for completely changing their perspective on their lives and their dreams, for giving them a course which respected them as genius souls, opened them up to the poetry all around them and in them, and helped them to awaken creatively. When I told these students I was on my way out of the university and that I had no idea what I would do next, they begged me not to stop teaching.
It was only through this feedback from my students that I realized that I indeed needed to keep teaching— as a self-help author and life coach. In the eyes of my grad school friends, the profession of “self-help author” ranks in prestige and respectability just a few notches below crack-addicted street prostitute, so I knew I was on to something good.
If I had left graduate school the first day I admitted that yes—indeed, it was shit that I was smelling— I may have eventually discovered my true calling as a street prostitute– er, I mean, self-help author—but I’m so grateful that I stayed right in the midst of my shit. Because it’s blossomed up into such an amazing garden.
All of this is to say—just because you realize that you’re clinging to a false solution—mine was the notion of becoming a university professor—doesn’t mean that you must immediately dismantle the framework of your whole life, even if that life has been built upon a shit premise.
In fact, the scary—and false—idea that owning up to the truth of your situation would demand that you immediately and decisively change everything about it might prevent you from ever confronting that truth. So take heart—the very edifice you’ve built as a false solution to the difficult problem of existence may turn out to be an excellent ground upon which to commence allowing an authentic solution to emerge. You can risk admitting your shit.