I got our dog back when my ex-husband, John, died in January. John caught a viral infection of the heart and was recovering when he developed sepsis and passed. It was excruciating to all of us to lose him. Our divorce was final two weeks before he landed in ICU, which was a blessing considering that his hospital bill was over $900,000, and the hospital did not take his insurance. But while this divorce decree, piece of paper, cut the financial ties between us, it did nothing to cut the emotional ones. I had never stopped loving John; I just couldn’t live with him. He was the most brilliant person I ever knew, but his expansiveness made me feel as though we were walking on a narrow, rocky trail, about to plummet over the side to certain death, and I didn’t know what to do to save myself. So I left.
This was not a quick decision. We had been working through issues for years. He would not hear what I was saying or, perhaps, just couldn’t change. And he might say that he wanted the divorce as much as I did if he were still alive. But he never stopped being one of the most loving people I have ever met. And the divorce really hurt him. And I have been wrestling the universe in a never-ending battle late at night and early in the morning, because I can’t forgive myself for causing him this pain. And this is compounded by survivor’s guilt that comes from life insurance.
And so I got our dog, Panda Bear, back when John died. A crumby exchange, but I am glad to have her. And my new favorite activity has been to walk her late at night. When nobody is out. And to cry. To pretend that Panda and I are alone and at the end of the world, a post-apocalyptic world where somehow Spotify still works. I’ve had this fantasy before, when I used to drive alone from Alabama to Telluride on abandoned stretches of desert road with my windows down, the smell of oil burning off of my old Honda Civic. On the road to nowhere. This need to be alone in the wilderness, like an injured wild animal that leaves everyone behind and digs a hole for itself in which to die. The pain that drives you out and away from everyone and everything you know and love.
It conjures up the romance of Walt Whitman, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. But it’s not the same. It sounds glamorous, but it has nothing to do with life. Rather, it’s about taking to the wilderness like one takes to her bed. Because what Whitman and Emerson were about was feeling at one with the universe, not wanting it to annihilate you. Not looking at Jesus on the cross at Easter and wishing that that could be done to you, that you, too, could be shredded and mutilated.
Nevertheless, there is something delicious about self-hatred, refusing to forgive ourselves. It is dark and twisty. It gets wasted while it listens to Neil Young on repeat and just feels the ever-living shit out of everything day after day after day. It hates everything and everyone. And it feels good somehow. Really good. To feel this epic, nihilistic rage at oneself.
Why does it feel good, this separation from others? Because it’s actually not about denying yourself anything, even though we feel like guilt is somehow a virtue. It’s actually about indulging yourself. Self-hatred, guilt and shame are not humility; they are straight up pride; they mean you’re special.
First, you are special because you are the most terrible person on the face of the earth and suffer more than everyone else from your loathsomeness and pain. Second, your guilt flows from the idea that you are more in control of the bad things that happen than the universe is. And this feeling of specialness is the sweet, creamy nectar of the ego. We love to swim in this shit. At least, I do.
It’s not our fault. Self-hatred, guilt and shame are in many ways preached as virtues to us in the twisted version of Christianity with which many of us grew up. Especially to little girls who are always told to be nice, that their value comes from being nice. Implicit in this is that others are more valuable than you—love others, not yourself, to be good. This is, of course, not what Jesus was saying. Jesus was saying to get your mind off of yourself to be happy, not to obsess about yourself and how terrible you are compared to everyone else. Christianity really f*cked up the martyr thing. Jesus Dude became a martyr so we could drop this bullshit. He came to set the captives free, not to help us build new jails.So the irony, if you see it now, is that in trying to be self-less, camping on our guilt for our wrongdoings to others, we are actually taking self-obsession to a new level. It’s the opposite of humility.
Humility tells us that we fail and make mistakes and act like assholes because we are human not because we are bad. Humility tells us that our failings are the same as others’ failings; our pain is the same as others’ pain. We are not the first to do these terrible things; we are not the last to do these terrible things. We are not experiencing pain that has not been felt by a million before us. We are not special. We are one with humanity pushing forward on this road of ever groaning labor, pain-filled, hideous and beautiful all at once. Humility tell us that there is something greater than us that has us in the palm of its hand, some awesome creative force that works with intricate perfection and love beyond our comprehension. We are not in charge.
Can you see the difference here? Between self-loathing and humility?
Self-loathing and guilt lock the doors; humility sets us free.
I give up. I accept life on life’s terms. This is my path. And everything’s not about me.
I will never forget being in Rehab (see more here) when I was lamenting my health issues, my pain, and my fabulous ex-marine, group-therapy counselor (he looked and acted just like Lou Gossett, Jr from “An Officer and a Gentleman”) grabbed my arm, leaned in, looked me in the eyes, and said, “it’s not personal; it’s life.”
That’s exactly it. It’s not about me. Humility.
It’s not surprising that humility is the first step of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, where a favorite saying is, “I don’t think less of myself; I just think about myself less.”
So my answer to today’s self-obsession is to write this post for everyone out there who is like me. You don’t have to be held captive to your past mistakes, whether you hurt someone by being unkind or you committed murder.
You are not special. You are not the first. And you are not the last. And you are not the worst.
You are one of many. Many who dream and achieve and laugh and fear and fail and hurt. A piece of the universe, here at its behest. With a purpose.
And the purpose is not self-annihilation.
It’s to learn how to forgive yourself.
Until next time, joy and laughter to you. And triple sinks.
MatthewApril 15, 2018 at 7:20 pm
Great job here, Ash. Powerful and powerfully-written
AshleyApril 15, 2018 at 10:00 pm
Thanks, Matthew. It was the quite the wrestling match. I would love to put your poem on here, too, speaking of powerful writing.
Mary TveitApril 16, 2018 at 8:33 pm
Ashley your strength and humility are awe-inspiring. Thank you for sharing your journey so we can all learn from your sage words. I’ve been thinking about you lots late and the hell that you’ve gone through as of late. As always, mad love and respect. xoxoxxoxo
AshleyApril 16, 2018 at 10:17 pm
Thanks, jirl. Can’t take credit for the insights I get on the bathroom floor, but I love sharing them, because it’s hard stuff these days for so many people I know. An octagenarian told my friend that it gets better once you’re in your 60’s, that’s the 40’s and 50’s suck. Sweet! We’ll have our hippie farm commune by then!!
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