We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them. —Carl Jung
The morning I first saw my ego, my great protector—in the pre-dawn darkness of a dingy hotel room, my wife sleeping with her back to me, our newborn son snurgling in a Pack ‘n’ Play wedged between our bed and the wall, his older brother drooling on a pillow in the adjacent bed—I had no idea what to call it. I remember thinking of it, in the moment, as “a prison of my own making.” It would be years before I’d see that the ego is less like a prison cell and more like a panic room. Not a barred jail. A safe harbor.
But on that first morning, all I saw was a prison.
I’ve never written about that first morning in its entirety, with all the details put back in it. Not for my readers. Not even for myself. Sure, I’ve mentioned parts of it in a couple of books, but those were the useful parts. Not the indescribable parts. Not the parts too wonderful for words. How do you write about the day your life—your sense of self, your capacity for love, your calling—changed on a dime? It’s daunting to write of something that can only be diminished in the telling of it.
Here, for the first time, I will be undaunted.
It’s Father’s Day morning 2008. I’m thirty-one years old. I’ve got a wife, two boys, a mortgage, a Ph.D., a burgeoning practice as a psychologist, and an intractable case of clinical depression.
I come to consciousness slowly, first wondering whether or not I might have drunk too much the night before at my sister-in-law’s wedding reception. A quick scan of my senses suggests I’m a little hung over, but only a little. You drink differently when you know two little boys will be waking you up at the crack of dawn. Inexplicably, on this morning, I’ve beat them to the punch. Or, perhaps, not inexplicably.
The next thing I notice is that I’m furious.
This, in and of itself, is not particularly unusual. In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time a little furious and a little bit of time a lot of furious. I’ve also spent those years trying to rid myself of the anger. My motivations for this self-improvement are myriad.
For instance, I’m trying to be a good husband. My wife didn’t marry an angry guy. She married a relatively happy guy who could be a little neurotic but mostly adored her, and it seems like a terribly unfair bait-and-switch to have become this depressed and angry husband of hers.
Also, I’m trying to be a good father, and I can see how my anger is wounding my boys, like that Mother’s Day morning when Aidan pulled a potted plant off of his dresser onto new white carpet. Who puts white carpet in a toddler’s bedroom? In my anger, I don’t slow down to ask such questions. The ego never interrogates itself.
Not to mention, I’m trying to be a good Christian, and Christians don’t get angry, they get saved—mostly, it seems, by being nice. The Jesus I was taught about in Sunday school is endlessly patient and forgiving. They didn’t tell us the stories inconvenient to this image. The one where he calls the Pharisees “a brood of vipers.” The one where he calls his right-hand-man “Satan.” The one where he tells a woman with a sick kid to buzz off over and over again, because he’s trying to get a little rest. I know those stories now, but the roots of Sunday School Jesus run deep.
And underneath it all, unconsciously, I’m trying to be a good boy. It’s my lifetime project actually. To be a good boy. To please people. And to receive the kind of love in return which will finally make me feel at home. The equation makes some sense, I guess—make people happy and they’ll make you happy in return. Never mind that it has never worked for more than a day or two. That, I tell myself, is other peoples’ fault—the people I get angry at—and I just keep working the equation, trying to solve for the answer I want.
Just a little bit of happiness. Just a little bit of home.
So, in my quest to solve the equation, I’ve spent recent years reading countless self-help books in a plethora of categories: spiritual formation, personal transformation, relationships and communication, happiness and health, mindfulness and meditation. Great books. Helpful books. At least for a week or so. Until a kid spills potting soil all over his bedroom floor. Then it’s back to square one.
I have enough awareness to see the books aren’t working, so, on the eve of 2008, I make a New Year’s Resolution—I’m going to stop reading books and start practicing the things about which I’ve already read. Mindfulness. Meditation. Contemplative prayer. I’m actually going to go on the inward journey, rather than merely learning about it over and over again.
When January arrives, I begin. Each morning, when I wake, instead of starting my day right away, I breathe for a while. On the exercise bike at the gym, instead of reading, I reflect. When I pray, instead of asking for things, I start listening for things. I cheat on my no-books policy, just a little, and I allow myself one author. His name is Henri Nouwen. He becomes my guide into the human heart. He points me in the direction of my soul.
In May 2008, I arrive home from the gym one morning. My wife asks me how my workout went. I give her an answer she couldn’t see coming.
“I realized this morning that, my whole life, when I’ve imagined standing before God, he’s always pointing a finger at me and saying, ‘Kelly, you can do better, I’m disappointed in you.’ But that’s not the voice of God. That’s the voice of my shame, and I’ve been calling it God. I’ve never actually heard the voice of God. I’m going to start listening for the voice of God within me, the voice that calls me beloved.”
My wife looks at me like I’m crazy, and I am, if you define crazy as untethered from reality, which I am. I’m untethered from the reality I was given. I’m trying to listen my way into a new reality.
However, on the day of my sister-in-law’s wedding, on Marine Base Quantico in Virginia, I still haven’t heard that new voice. I’m suspended between realities. And I’m trying to be a great husband and father, supporting my wife while she participates in the bridal party by caring for the boys mostly on my own. Marine bases are short on toddler-friendly fare and I’ve grown short on patience, keeping my calm by focusing on that light at the end of the tunnel—the end of the evening reception, when I’ll finally get a little help with the boys and a little bit of attention from my wife.
The reception ends and we return to the hotel room, do all the bedtime things, and have just gotten the boys to sleep, when my wife’s phone buzzes. It’s her siblings—the party is just getting started at her sister’s house and they want her to be a part of it. I can’t blame them for wanting her there with them. After all, I married her because I wanted her there with me. And there’s the rub, of course. I believe I’ve earned her presence—that’s what the equation says should happen—and she’s screwing up the formula once again.
She leaves to celebrate with her family and, by the time she returns, I’m sound asleep, nursing a silent fury that will function like an internal alarm clock.
So, I’m not hungover when I awake, but I am angry. It’s Father’s Day morning after all, the one day every year I’m supposed to get what I want. And I do not want this tiny hotel room, or this lumpy pillow, or this saggy mattress, or the chore of children and packing and driving, or the loneliness at the center of me into which I resist falling with my equation and my good behavior and my anger.
Nevertheless, I have a new habit now. I don’t get up. I breathe. I move inward. I listen. I recall the words of Nouwen that I read the day before.
To pray is to listen to that voice of love. That is what obedience is all about. The word ‘obedience’ comes from the Latin word ob-audire, which means to listen with great attentiveness. Without listening, we become ‘deaf’ to the voice of love…Listening to the voice of love requires that we direct our minds and hearts toward that voice with all our attention. How can we do that? The most fruitful way—in my experience—is to take a simple prayer, a sentence or a word, and slowly repeat it.
I look at the clock. It’s 4:35am. I’ve got plenty of time to repeat a simple prayer. I choose a passage from 1 Kings 19, about Elijah hearing the voice of God: “And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” I begin repeating it over and over again. Silently. Slowly. I don’t know how long this goes on. All I know is, in the midst of it, something mysterious happens.
This is where words become too small for the story.
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Here' the follow up on section 2 from my last comment. You may see this first so I'll reiterate that I'm in editor mode and being thoughtful in my critiques, not mean:
Thoughts on section 2:
…”a lot of furious”…is that grammatically correct? Could you not just say “a lot furious”? or is that also wrong? Feels better when I use the latter.
So you “wake up”, feel furious, explain the history and mentality behind that furiousness and your no books but that one policy and stuff then it seems like all of a sudden in May 2008 you arrive home. What happened to waking up on Father’s Day being furious? Feels like it was forgotten or dropped amid the conversation. Father’s Day is in June, but you are in May the month before. Feels disjointed chronologically. Maybe put in some wording like, “…only weeks prior to this furious feeling I came home from the gym to say, ….” Something to feel less jumpy on the timeline. Also, your wife would have “looked at me” instead of “looks at me”. The present tense on your flashback adds to the disjointed chronology. Unless the flashback is a longer story I wouldn’t go changing tenses like that as you are trying to keep readers with you on that Furious Feeling Father’s Day Morning. Mayb even consider referencing back to the present moment of that Father's Day morning you are in a few extra times. Yes you mention it and bring us back in the last couple paragraphs but in the middle it still feels lost to me. I like and want that back story, it just doesn't read like a "back" story but more like a story in the present. Which makes sense in your own head as you lived it and can reflect on it and relive it like it is present tense again. I cannot relive your flashback with you unless it is a solid half page of stuff. One or two paragraphs for me as the reader is still gonna have to be past tense and I may need a reminder of the present that I'm still supposed to be in. I notice that you quote books and scriptures to yourself in you mind fairly easily. I don't do that. I have a few good portions of quotes and scriptures in my head, maybe enough info to look them up or search them out but not the full thing in my head. Your memory is fantastic. I get lost in the longitude of your memory with my own shorter reading memory. Not sure if I'm just a weak minded kind of person or more of a status quo type of person. You may need to consider pacing the memory requirements of readers who might not stay with you over a whole page describing one morning but referencing books, multiple chronological events, and others stuff relevant to it.
Okay, so I'm late getting to this but hey, I'm here. Also REMEMBER, I'm in editor mode. No harsh feelings here, just cold hard grammar nazi and creative writing critiques going on. I love this stuff, I enjoy it. I also love the content. No real issues with the base story itself. Just remember, I'm not being mean, I think I'm helping with my words and they come from a place of kindness, even if critical in nature. Plus I only have so much space before things get crowded. So for that I'm splitting up my comments. Below is my comments on section 1:
“I first saw my ego, my great protector” … I get it, but I kind of don’t get it. What do you mean by “saw” it? How did you come up with the personification of your ego. Is that a typical philosophical thing or is it how you visualize it? I know you are looking to explain the protector part but maybe explain why you use the language of “saw” instead of realized or understood or imagined or something like that. I see the beauty of the world. I see myself in the mirror and then when I close my eyes I can visualize that same beauty, that same reflection and I can even animate it and make it an internal reflection of myself. I can interact with it, talk to it and it almost feels separate from me. (Some might consider this a little crazy) but it fits the Hollywood dynamic of self-reflection. Perhaps others don’t see things internally, but they might be able to hear them. All things to consider when approaching people who are not visually stimulated and artistically inclined to animate their imagination like you.