The beginning of this week was tough, tough, tough, as I came crashing up against those kinds of D-E-E-P issues that most of us spend a A LOT of energy trying to avoid and evade. So, when they do surface — almost always against our will — it can feel like a disemboweling, as though our innards are being turned inside out. By Tuesday, just two days into the week, I already felt like Michelangelo’s terrifying vision of St Bartholomew, left holding my own flayed skin.
"How on earth am I going to write a blog on joy?" I found myself thinking, as I pounded up and down the hills near my house trying to assuage what felt like an anxiety so ancient it seemed excavated from my ancestors.
Then, as often happens so perversely in my odd mind, a curious snippet of verse tickertaped across my brain:
Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
That’s how I felt. I had struck out. There was no joy in Mudville, and I wondered if there ever would be again.
But as the week progressed, and I began to pull myself up by my ontological bootstraps, things slowly started to shift. As they always do, if we can just hang in there.
That’s when the title for this week’s blog came to me.
My dad was the second most popular lecturer in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. He was smart, funny, beautifully spoken, totally real, and he had that incredibly mellifluous voice. Who wouldn’t want to hear him speak?!
One of his most popular lectures was called The Villains Still Pursue Me, in which he talked about his career and the very juicy role that villains play in drama. My dad believed, "The villain is a very necessary part of the plot of any drama, because drama is the story of conflict — the conflict between good and evil. And it is true of any drama. The villain keeps up the suspense, and is a much more interesting character to play than the hero, because the hero, you know, is just so damn. . .good. He just goes right down the straight and narrow path. While the villain has to be kind of devious all the time. He’s hiding behind a million faces all the time, never to let you know whether he is good or bad. And he needn’t be a drab or unattractive character, by a long shot."
How true! Those villains of our lives certainly seem to have job security: Hiding behind a million faces, many of them deviously and seductively proclaiming themselves good, or at the very least comfortable, necessary or familiar, they gradually come to seem part of the fabric of our lives, woven into our everyday existence, until we accept them like a scar or a limp that we barely notice. They crop up in ways that never demand their eradication — judgment, drama, anger, deprecation or derision of self or others — often even seducing us with their excitement. We root for them, just as we often find ourselves rooting for the villains in movies. Gossip, for example. Who hasn’t succumbed to the siren call of a good snippet of gossip once in a while? And thus they find a low-grade groove in our lives, where they lie in wait for the right opportunity, like terrorist cells quietly plotting attacks, while waiting for exactly the right moment to strike.
Over the years, countless Vincent Price fans have come up to me with gleeful grins saying, “You know, your dad scared me to death when I was a kid!” Their paradoxical joy in being terrified has always struck me! But gradually I have come to understand that one of the reasons my dad has remained so beloved is because his inherent niceness shone through whatever role he played. At the end of the day, he made evil not only less scary but even a bit laughable, and certainly always fun -- no matter how many heads he lopped off, people he scalded in wax, or wives he murdered.
One of my great a-ha moments of this week was my recognition that the villains that still pursue me, the ones that have been the hardest to kill off — in particular my oldest nemesis, Self Loathing — are the ones that have seduced me into accepting their necessity in my life in much the same way my dad won over his fans. They make their evil seem good, attractive, sometimes even fun.
Surely beating myself up or imagining myself unlovable must be a kind of spiritual humility. The good. Not wanting to ask for too much or show up flawed and therefore hiding my shame from others as a means of protecting them. The attractive. And judging others, because judgment is second nature to those of us who judge ourselves. The fun.
What triggers our villains becoming Incredible Hulks and utterly disrupting our lives with their huge, green, menacing presences is usually some old unconscious narrative that sings itself below the surface like a lyric from a song you hated from 1973, but still can’t quite get out of your head.
I won’t lie. The narrative that surfaced for me this week — that old old place of deep self loathing that I couch in false humility, constantly sought-after but impossible perfectionism, and the hiding of the loner who never really wants to be seen — it wasn’t fun. NOT FUN AT ALL. But sitting with it, witnessing it, feeling it in all its terror and aching pain, well, I had to do it.
This practice of joy has been a lifesaver, gradually providing an antidote to the workaholism that was eroding my existence, wearing me down to a nub. But what was behind that workaholism? Well, the self loathing, of course. The never being good enough. The trying to prove myself worthy. To whom? To the memories of some people who are long gone? No. To the inner villains who have found a soft place to land in my soul. To the villains that still pursue me.
In his lecture, my dad went on to say, "Acting is make believe. And it’s a twofold make believe. I must make myself believe I am the character I am portraying. And if I can make myself believe it, then I can make you believe it! And so it is a double act of make believe."
Living with our villains is indeed a twofold make believe. They make us believe that they are part of us, who we really are. And we, in turn, make ourselves and others believe their lies. Gradually, gradually, we forget that we have another choice.
But we do. For right there in the darkness that lurks below the surface, the darkness that simultaneously scares and seduces us, we often find our answers. Rolling around in the terrifying muck and mire of our histories, we often become desperate enough to listen, to pray, to ask for help — in short, to see beyond the seductive narratives we have come to think of as our own. There, in our deepest darknesses, we find our way back into the light. And, when that light comes on, we will find we have eradicated one more way we were afraid of truly being alive.
When I was a little girl, my mother was the disciplinarian, the voice of right and wrong, the one who — for my own good — introduced me to shame and self-loathing. Did she do this because she was a bad mother, a terrible person? No. In fact, she did it out of a kind of love. She did it because she knew what it was to feel horrible about herself, and she hoped I could avoid her fate. But her own unconscious narratives won the day, and they have lived on in me.
My mother’s punishment was always a taking away, a quiet and often inexplicable eradication of joy, a lessening, a diminishment, silence. My villains use my mother’s voice — moralistic, fearful, cold.
The only time I ever remember my dad punishing me was when I was about seven years old. It was at my mother’s behest. With my dad gone all the time, my mom was probably tired of having to always be the bad cop, and so she told my dad that he had to spank me. I have no recollection of what I did, but the prospect of my dad spanking me — and I don’t recall ever being spanked, so it must have been pretty bad — sent me tearing up the stairs in an effort to get away from him. Up I ran, my heart beating out of my chest.
I thought I had a pretty good chance to get away. We lived in a 9,000 square foot house, so I figured that, because I was about seven and into sports, while he was in his late fifties and not prone to exert himself in any way athletically, I could just run and run and run until he gave up. What I didn’t recognize with my seven-year-old logic was that six foot four inches, most of which were legs, will outrace a kid any day. By the time we got to the long upstairs hall, he was gaining on me. I remember looking back and seeing the looming figure coming after me and thinking, “So, this is what my friends are talkng about when they say my dad is scary.” Because I, not having seen one of his horror movies, never understood how this bright, sunny, loving human being I called my dad could ever scare anyone.
About three quarters of the way down the immense staircase that circles our massive entrance hall, my dad caught up with me. But when he grabbed me to turn me over his knee, I could see that he was barely suppressing laughter. I cannot even begin to describe the relief I felt at that moment. The scary man pursuing me was still my dad, my ever-loving dad.
Nonetheless, he gave me a perfunctory spanking. Then he did something for which I will always be grateful. He sat me down on the stair next to him and we had a long, kind conversation about why I should never do whatever it was I had done again. What I remember most was that he made me feel like his ally, that in choosing not to do whatever it was I had been doing, he and I could be once again united in love. And we were. We walked back to my mom hand in hand, where she — relieved of the duty of being our family cop, could release her own moral compulsions that plagued her. We reuinited as a family, in Love.
This week, I had the choice to remain in dialogue with the villains I inherited from my mother or to choose, as I have been doing these past months, to partner with my dad through this gift he has given me — my daily practice of joy.
A practice is only as good as its efficacy in our darkest moments. So, even as the self loathing threatened to annihilate me, I knew enough to head outside and be in nature. To look around me at the yellow wildflowers blooming everywhere, the thunderheads in the distance, and one sleepless night, the lightning over the mountains as I paced back and forth on the paths near my house in an effort to calm myself. (And where did that love of nature that soothes me so come from? From my mom. From my ever-loving mom.) As the week progressed, I began to see how this daily practice of joy has begun to heal my old stories. And by Friday, miraculously I even felt grateful for the opportunity this week brought me to replace more of my life-limiting narratives with love-giving ones. Just like my dad brought us back toghether as a family in love after turning me over his knee.
Much as we hope to avoid them, we come to realize that every journey into the darkness, each encounter with our inner villains is an opportunity to grow in grace, to come alive, to shift out of fear and into love, to heal with gratitude.
As we dismantle our old nemeses, we come to realize that they were, as my dad reminds us, all make believe anyway. With each dismantling, we begin to choose a different practice, a different story, and a different self — we rediscover our original identities.
Although the joy I feel this weekend seems more poignant, beautiful and meaningful for having come through a tough stretch, I also recognize that, without my descent into that darkness where I wrestled with my better angels, I would not be here this morning in the immense gratitude I feel. Living in gratitude and joy means appreciating it all -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- for what it is, an opportunity to reconnect with what matters.
Exhuming some old villains this week was not at on my agenda. But I feel oddly like my dad's fans right now. I have a bit of a gleeful grin on my face, for I have been scared to death and I survived. Leaving the dark of my theatre that seems to be perpetually running some very old and scary movies, I find myself blinking to readjust to the light of my everyday world. And I feel the joy of having emerged mixed with the odd frisson of battle with my demons.
Caroline Myss tells us that, when we invite spiritual practice into our lives, we can expect four things: Separation, Dark Night of the Soul, Light, and Appreciation. This morning, as I write from a place of immense appreciation, I couldn't agree with her words more: "Guidance is always there, just not in the form of your expectation. Appreciating life becomes your spiritual practice."
Who would have thought a story about my dad spanking me would become one of my most beloved memories? Well, anyone who knows that fear can morph into love with the blink of an eye, because no matter the villains that pursue us, Love will always win the day!