Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everybody Hurts... Sometimes.

You wouldn't think a game of bocce is the sort of thing anyone would end up sobbing about. It's an Italian game though, and along with things like laughing, playing accordion, making love and drinking wine, Italians are known for emotional volatility. Who knows but that they might get really burbly about a bocce game... which is exactly what I did two summers ago at my ten year high school reunion.

Most of the old crowd had congregated on my folk's acreage in Waxhaw and had been enjoying a great time of fun, feasting and balding, pudgy old friends. There I was, in the middle of all this frivolity, walking away from a game of bocce with dead silence turning into snuffles turning into sobs.

Oh, how I hate sobs. They make me feel stupid because once they start, no matter how calm and rational I feel like I'm being in my head, I am incapable of producing anything other than snot. I blame the bowling ball - it was the bowling ball that started it. My parents live on an old highway, which to lazy rednecks is the equivalent of "Extra-Special-Redneck-Dumping-Zone". These beautifully misguided people throw all manner of hoo-haws out the windows of their jacked-up trucks, but the craziest thing ever was a big old yellow, marbled bowling ball.

I was doing most of the organizing for this event, which meant, basically, that I was doing a lot of dishes; but I looked out the window and saw that most of the guys were playing bocce so I decided to go join them. There weren't enough balls to go around, but most of them were just walking around yakking. I didn't know this. I thought they were sharing balls and all playing, so I grabbed the bowling ball and tried to join in.

My older brother - who takes sports of any kind fairly seriously - was not impressed that I was rolling this over-sized ball into the mix, messing up his game. We brother-battled for a bit, but when it became obvious that he was going to win in the stubborn department, I did that thing where I go all cold and turtle-y inside, so I turned without saying a thing and walked away. I started to cry, which made me mad because I didn't know why in bahootsie I would be - which frustrated me so that I started to cry even more. At which point my brother ran me down, being all sympathetic, and that really busted open the floodgates of crybabyness. It was infuriating.

Gradually I was able to talk again, and with my brother's help I realized that in that moment with the bowling ball and all my old friends, I had emoti-warped back to the seventh grade, when I got dumped for the first time and started to stuff it deep and walk the path that would lead to all this sobbery.

Maybe it would be better to say I got dumped on, because seventh grade was a seriously conflicted time for everybody; I just felt like I had taken on the role of corporate whipping boy, having returned to my jungle home from traipsing around Canada and the U.S. to a world in the throes of a transition I could not share. Most of my friends were starting to change, as pooberty had brought hair in odd places and a predisposition to do whatever they were not told to do. I, on the other hand, was stuck. I was what you'd call a late bloomer. A really late bloomer. I know everybody gets slapped around during the whole pooberty thing, but I'd bet a good box of lively fishing crickets that the people who suffer the most are the slow-blooming boys.

Suddenly all their friends are different people. They don't care about the same stuff. They look, talk and act differently and they... that is, we... are left standing there saying, "um... hey... ah, remember me? Still me, here. Still the guy you've been friends with your whole life."

That's just the problem. I was still the same person, and they were not.

It is easy to understand this, now; that they were also confused and conflicted so they weren't particularly available to hold my hand and be all sensitive about it. I had the benefit of a pretty long-term, tight-knit group, but history can only carry you up to a point. There were major differences between us all, and it would have been unnatural for them to stick around in my world just to make me feel better. So I got dumped. And dumped on. They were rough on me in the way that they were rough on each other, and when they saw how poorly I responded, they pulled away and let me alone, which was even worse.

Thus began my five-year stint in Josh-Stinkyland. When you live on a lake in a tropical climate, there are a lot of opportunities to take your shirt off and reveal your blossoming "secondary male sexual characteristics". I had none, and in the lose-lose situation of high school identity-forging, I felt that leaving my shirt on just made my baby-smooth skin even more glaringly obvious. So there were constant reminders that I was different.

I got depressed a lot. I developed a mindset in which I would create elaborate fantasy worlds where I was the sexy beast or the bullet-ridden Sackett brother who just kept shooting. What I did not do was talk about it. Instead, I internalized my anger and blamed myself, seeking to justify how everyone else was treating me. It couldn't just be some unfortunate biological happenstancing, I figured... there had to be something really wrong with me.

As a result of this bit of delusion, I hid who I was and what I was suffering - apparently rather well. People thought of me as funny, creative, virtuous and smart. I was a little out of it, socially, but I think they gave me some extra pity-credit, empathizing with how it might feel to be the perpetual ninety pound wuss. I'm sure they felt for me, but because I couldn't talk about it, neither could they. On I went in my little cocoon, pretending everything was OK and then slinking off to the uppermost branches of a tree to sway around, fifty to a hundred feet in the air, feeling sorry for myself and pondering how bad they'd all feel if I were to slip.

I know, I know... I was quite the drama, er, "prince". But it was a shattering time for me, and melodrama was how I coped. The problem with that is that I was doing exactly the opposite of what I needed to do in order to get what I craved the most: a feeling that I mattered and was loved, even though I was different. There are a lot of people with problems way bigger than just looking young and feeling younger, but that's no consolation in the self-absorption of perennial pre-pubescence.

This may just be me projecting my issues, but I've since come to think that just about all my friends were feeling something of the same. For different reasons, yes, but the effect of isolation and loneliness was just as debilitating. We were hiding our pain and our issues because we all thought that everybody else was doing great (or at least better). We thought that if we presented a happy enough, talented enough, put-together enough version of ourselves to the world, people would assume we were doing as well as they, and they'd like us and we would matter. This tended to backfire, because whenever we got the affirmation, we'd just assume it was because of the product-of-self we had manufactured, packaged and marketed to our peers and we'd fall back into the pattern of trying to earn significance and love.

The most tragic part of all this was that we didn't really need the affirmation, we needed each other. We needed an honest, open sharing of who we really were so that community could develop. I don't mean that we all needed to air all our dirty laundry all the time - we just needed to be able to feel that we could, and maybe the only way that would happen is if someone would have just taken the steps to hang up some brown or yellow-streaked bloomers.

A young student once went to his Rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I love you." The Rabbi replied, "No you don't - you don't even know what love is." The young man was hurt and, indignant, he replied, "How can you say that? I've just told you I love you?" The Rabbi looked at him kindly and said, "My son, my son. Do you even know what hurts me? You cannot say you love me until you know what hurts me".

So I guess this is me, sharing what hurts me. Because this is the sort of pain that hurts you until you share it free. This is the sort of pain that follows you and sucks you into this lame cycle of "Love me - leave me - love me - leave me" that will taint every relationship you have until you smoke it out of its hole and pop its dang-fool head off. It is the sort of pain that had followed me right down to where I was sitting this past week in this counselor's office, blubbering (once again) about how painful all this late-puberty stuff was (I'm surprised he doesn't charge me more for all the snot-rags I use up).

You know what he told me? He told me that this is all normal, and that it was, in fact a majorly painful time for me. He told me that I can know with my brainstuff all about how I was just at a different lifestage than other folks so it was inevitable that we'd lose connection; but that none of that could change the fact that it did hurt like the bejeebers, and I had to let that go. In the midst of all that blubbering, a lot of my bizarre and self-diminishing behaviors started to line up and make sense.

A. Like, how I have developed this crippling fear that, creatively, I'm a one-trick pony whose trick has been done and if I really put myself out there and take the risk of a new trick, people are going to get annoyed and start beating this dead horse. I've played it safe because the risk of failing and losing the love and significance was too great.

B. Or how I never really learned to have open, healthy friendships with women. Women are exceptionally easy to deal with for the loner who lives in a fantasy world. They become a little more complex when you have to try to start seeing them as human beings of a variety that in some very fundamental ways is not at all like you!

C. Or why I have always tended to idolize strong, athletic men with really snazzy secondary sex characteristics, and no matter what they said or did I'd always feel like they weren't really my friends because they were real men and I was just a boy-man, if that.

D. Or why I tended to find physically tough women so attractive, because I thought (with the perverse illogic of the hurting) that they could bear my pain for me.

E. Or why I was always so passive-aggressive and needy in college, where I was actually finally going through full-fledged puberty but still hiding all that turmoil and conflict from people whom I figured would never understand, empathize, or love me through it - and how that kept me from developing very many real, significant friendships.

F. Or why, when we started this school year with a teachers-and-students weekend mountain retreat, I spent a lot of time feeling self-conscious around all the big, broad-shouldered young rock-hurling males. I graduated high school twelve years ago, and I still worry about this - as if the kids I'm there to teach aren't the ones going through all the knee-knocking self-doubt.

In my head, I know this is all silly. It takes all kinds of attributes to make a man, and perhaps one of the most straightforward to attain is a stronger, more robust body. There are things like character and integrity and kindness and humility which are a lot harder becuase you actually have to work for them in ways more complicated than moving around heavy stuff. There are also a lot of fellas out there who are less sure of themselves than I, less athletic, less strong, and less attractive and manly than I by the ridiculous, perverse standards of masculinity set by this delusional culture. Fact is, I'm not too bad on the soccer field, I performed exceptionally well in my ten summers of manual labor, and I have a bit of a pretty-boy visage (which I maintain with a rigorous regimen of face exercises).

But, you know what? I'm tired of spending so much time flaunting my assets as a way to hide from my hurt and convince you I'm worth your time. This is not helping. I just keep blundering on, driven by pain and fear and guilt. I lob Josh-Grenades at the world and then run for it, and it is not only keeping me from actually accomplishing much of anything, creatively speaking, it is also making me live a diminished, less-than-abundant life.

I'm also thinking that maybe I'm at a point where if I'm going to ask you to sit through these incredibly long blog posts, then at least I ought to tell you what I'm compensating for.

So now you know. You know I'm not writing out of strength, but out of the cringing weakness of a blubberer who'll cry at the drop of a bowling ball. You know that the only reason why I jab at you and your foibles with my pen is because I just want you to like me, and I'm a just little bit afraid that if I can't stay ahead of you, you're liable to assume I'm the slow guy who has fallen behind. Then maybe you'll drop me, and I'll have to go back to seventh grade again.

I can't dwell on that anymore, though. I am almost thirty. I have a son to man up, and the trees around here are much to sticky or poky or pointy or brittle to climb regularly. Instead, I think I'll just relax down here between these roots and wait for you to come by, sit down, and tell me what hurts you. Let the love and crying begin.

---

If you made it all the way through this entire post, consider yourself a wonderful (bored) person. Please reward yourself with a stickless, dehydrated frozen popsickle.

Oh, and watch the music video for REM's song, Everybody Hurts. It basically says what I just did, only more beautifully and in only five minutes and thirty-nine seconds.

9 comments:

  1. I sometimes find fears and failures of the past wrangling up to the surface to cripple me emotionally as well. I used to see these as weakness but one day Frederick Buechner helped me see them as something else, something for my good instead.

    You should, or most likely already have, check out the entry for December 12 in Listening to Your Life. Here he writes:

    "It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years that God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought back to life by and healed by all these years later."

    So I say hooray for late puberty! It is making you the man you are today.

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  2. well the good thing is that I am a fast reader...

    other than the interruptions of a baby boy, a recently awakened wife..and my kid's doting grandmother (all in the same room trying their best to vie for my sole attention)

    ..so i'd rather read than rely on a 5min 39sec video/audio verson telling me that im supposed to be hurting right now.

    well written, again. The great news is that your whole life everyone has told you how great it will be when you are 40 and you have the face of a wee cherub angel...well my brother you are almost there...almost to the pinnacle of life's "promised land", where everyone shakes your youthful tightskinned hand and tells you how jealous they are that you still have your youth. Pretty much you are almost 40, and when everyone else is going through midlife crisis and doing all kinds of wierd things...you will be the talk of the town...of course when everyone is settling into the relaxed retirement years of their 60's, you will be purchasing sports cars and really expensive paintbrushes!

    anyway, well written. Glad I didnt come off as a total goat, 'cause sometimes i do goat things;)..otherwise i may have had to write a few stories about how my younger brother always used to hide in the bathroom during sunday morning chores and spent time hiding in the rafters of our shed while i worked on saturdays...wouldnt want to have to go into how that has affected me long term and robbed me of my desire to be a contributing member of the work force community. :) haha.

    love you brother!

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  3. Thanks for sharing...

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  4. I wish I'd been a better friend to you during those years Josh - I could have a used one myself. Well, I guess I still can.

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  5. Thanks for posting about this, Josh. It takes a heck of a lot of guts to go this deep. Sometimes I'm a bit blown away by how much pain our tiny little community contained, but I guess it's actually typical of most human communities.
    Sorry - I don't mean to pontificate.
    I hear you.

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing of yourself. You inspire me to write, to get my own head unjumbled. I think maybe I need your help and advice.

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  7. I'm probably sounding like a broken record, but... this is so beautiful. Your courage gives me enough courage to take one more step in dealing with all my junk. (Maybe I shouldn't call it junk. Maybe that contributes to my poor self-worth.) This is HARD work, and you're doing it well. And for what it's worth, I think of my tears as hard-won proof of moving forward. I certainly feel more free once I've cried than I do when I'm fighting to find feelings at all.

    Some days, I can't figure out what hurts me, let alone share it. It goes so deep, and so far into the past. And the things that hurt me are at least as terrifying for people who didn't live it as they are for me. Yesterday a friend told me one of the things that makes it so hard for other people to hear my story is that there is no solid ground to stand on. I lived in a world that didn't function with the same rules as this one. No rules, really, except that regardless of what I did or didn't do, I'd be punished, and brutally. I'm supposed to be working toward accepting the statement, "It wasn't my fault because they took away my free choice." I have a really hard time seeing the relationship between those two clauses, and while I have no problem believing they took away my free choice, I have a big problem believing it wasn't my fault. So right now, I'm exploring the memories that come floating up when I try to tell myself it wasn't my fault (and I'm very, very surprised by how much they hurt, because I thought I'd dealt with them and was finished with them), trying to find and confront the lies I believed 23 years ago.

    And, since I'm reading again and again the ways you have bared your soul and shown the world your pain, I want to reciprocate that level of trust, though I am afraid. So if you want to, you're welcome to read some of my stuff: http://muchafraidgraceglory.blogspot.com/

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