Another tough blog post. For almost the first time I’ve had to think about how much to reveal and how much to keep quiet about. That kind of flies in the face of why I write, and this is an important issue, but I feel particularly vulnerable.
I’ve blogged a fair bit about the “experiment” that Tracy and I went through this last 16 months, and it would be easy for readers to assume that with this knowledge I’ve changed how I do my life. I haven’t, and it’s taking it’s toll.
The projects I’ve started are big ones and have others depending on me, and yet I’m running out of life energy to wrap it all up. I’ve been banging my head against a seemingly endless succession of rusty, crappy, greasy, and filthy pieces of junk, and what seemed so simple has taken on enormous proportions.
There’s a warning here, one that needs to be taken very seriously. I came into this world inordinately sensitive, emerging into a typical 1960s blue collar home. Growing up in that context was a tough experience for me, and did it’s share of damage. Not because my family was so much worse than others – although living with an alcoholic parent has well known risks and consequences – but because the common paradigm was rigid and one-dimensional.
Accordingly, I came into adulthood with a lot of deficits as well as strengths, but I knew I had lost something very important, and spent many years trying to find what I had lost. In my journey back to myself, I found the depth and sensitivity that I had lost in that “pragmatic” working-class home. It was a long and difficult journey with great rewards.
But there was a significant cost in that journey, beyond the difficulty of the work itself.
One of the values I inherited with this background was a deep need for efficacy. You see something that needs doing and you do it. You don’t ask someone else, you don’t hire someone else; you learn to deal with it yourself. Accordingly, I developed a great host of practical skills. I literally can fix almost anything. I also learned that when it gets tough you hunker down, push through, and don’t give up. Suck it up, princess, and carry on.
All these values are required in the blue-collar worker, and require an inordinate amount of self-denial and disassociation; what you feel is utterly irrelevant to getting the job done.
I used to be good at this. My first career was as an electronics tech, and although my gut told me it was a lousy way to spend a life, I did what I was taught to do and carried on. For 7 years. Eventually I listened to an inner call and switched to another profession. But each career that followed was in so many ways like the former, because the ideology I inherited didn’t change
But while I was career searching, I was also on the spiritual path I mentioned earlier – discovering myself, reconnecting with my soul. What I didn’t count on would be that reconnection would be so antithetical to those early, pragmatic masculine values, beliefs based primarily on fear and lack.
When Tracy pressured me to change careers last year, I went for what I knew I could make money from the get-go, without having to convince someone to hire me, etc. I knew I could fix anything, so why not set up a shop and restore old VWs? So I did.
It was difficult, it was stressful, but I made money. I knew it would be something not particularly appealing, but the making of money was paramount, and I’ve also felt a certain amount of pride in being able to transform a useless piece of junk into a useable machine again. We’ve saved untold tens of thousands of dollars in vehicles because I’ve been able to do my own repairs and keep old cars going. I also have a fondness for old vehicles.
So I couldn’t believe the pain that functioning as a mechanic and vehicle restorer would end up causing me. Month after month of labouring at something fairly meaningless and empty dragged me further and further down. I was appalled at my response, shamed even: I had a job to do and just get the hell on with it. And yet as each week passed I became more depressed and unmanned. And the weaker I felt, the more desperate I became to prove that I could do it. For God’s sake, I told myself, I’ve been repairing stuff since I was a kid.
But no matter how much I rationalised, no matter how much I pushed, I just kept feeling more miserable. That sensitivity I had spent so much time and effort nourishing in myself, had utterly undermined my capacity for just sucking it up and carrying on. I was going the wrong direction in my life, and a core part of me was dying because of it.
I feel like two people – the pragmatic labourer doing the work that needs to be done, and the emotional feeling part of me, that some days just wants me to throw myself in front of a bus. The conflict between what I have learned and how I measure my masculinity, and my emotional and spiritual experience is absolute. I need, want to do this work, but my spirit is failing. I can give in to the pain and lose my self respect, or keep going until I collapse.
I suspect that’s a needless dichotomy, but when things get this tough, it can be very hard to see options. It’s gotten so bad that even doing a couple hour’s of work leaves me so overwhelmed that I can’t even sleep. For a man who’s greatest value is efficacy, it’s the worst of impotency.
Part of me says that this whole thing is ridiculous; nothing is worth this stress – however it is caused – and to just stop and take a break. But my ego revolts so strongly at this because I’ve always done what I said I would do, and to stop is ultimately to surrender. The interesting question is, to surrender to what? Myself?
The traditional part of me replies “to weakness”. Toughness as a measure of masculine strength is something I laugh at, and yet there is a part of me that obviously still clings very deeply to that ethos.
Of course Tracy is worried and wants to support me, but that just adds to the shame. The last thing an emasculated man needs is a woman who empathises with him. I already feel guilty about not selling the boat (although I suspect it was this state of mind that made it so difficult; it was the last vestige of an old identity and way of life that was deeply important to me).
Where I go from here, I’m not sure. It kind of feels like careening downhill without any brakes, and there’s a cliff at the end of the road. Meanwhile, the work isn’t done and the pressure remains.
I’m reminder of that old Taoist saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I’ve taken this at face value, meaning that although you change, the context of your life may not. You laboured before, you’ll labour after.
I have a different view now. While it is true that the world does not change because you do, that does not mean you can keep doing what you have done. Do we think that Taoist saying would apply to the soldier accustomed to murder, pillage and rape?
I think the truth is that when you seek enlightenment, the ease of ignorance and complicity will be lost to you, and you will be unable to fulfill the largely passive social role you were programmed for. Doors might open but they are unseen ones, while external options may become more limited.