For a long moment, I stared at the face in the picture, almost as though I didn’t know who he was. I’d found a pack of photos — old-fashioned prints from a drug store — that an old girlfriend had taken of me about 15 years ago.
Oddly, I can’t even remember the woman’s name, but I felt a sudden rush of empathy for my old self — as the face brought back to me where I was in life at that time and what I still had to go through.
I was terribly unhappy at the time. I knew something had gone horribly wrong in my life — going all the way back to childhood — but I had no idea what it was. I was emotionally drifting and desperate for answers.
I had gone through a “friendly divorce” about three years prior to this, but I didn’t know where I needed to go in life. All of the things which had once mattered to me had turned to sand. I was drifting and looking for a way to find meaning again.
I don’t recognize this person. I don’t recognize his goals. I don’t recognize his values. It’s not that I was a horrible person or anything like that, but I simply hadn’t gone deep enough to understand — or even seek — much of what I know to be important today.
In a way, I look back at this face and think I was still a child, at least by the standards of my current emotional and psychological development.
Who in the world was this guy?
I was a political consultant. I made a lot of money. I dated attractive and interesting women, but nobody held my attention for long. I no longer knew what I was looking for. In retrospect, I’d say I was confused, although I’m sure I would have told you I had it all together.
This particular girlfriend — it bugs me that I don’t recall her name — was a model, although she was certainly nobody you would have heard of. Most of what she had done was local print advertising. As she approached 30, she knew her shelf life for modeling would be over soon, so she was trying to move into managing models.
She was convinced she could give me a career in modeling. She took some pictures just to show me. I wasn’t convinced, but she had a professional shoot another batch of pictures later. (I don’t know what happened to those.) She unexpectedly got some life-threatening illness soon thereafter and I lost touch with her before long.
But who is this guy? What was I thinking? What was I feeling?
I’d say I was lonely, but not really from lack of someone to spend time with. I was lonely because I didn’t know myself well enough yet to share it with someone else in the ways I can now. I had never even heard of narcissistic personality disorder, so I didn’t yet have a name for the nightmare which had been my childhood with my abusive father. I had so much yet to learn — especially about how close I came to becoming like him.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the questions we ask ourselves and why those questions make a difference in who we become. (More about that later.) I’m not sure I was consciously asking myself the right questions yet.
This was around the period when I started realizing I had to get out of politics. I hadn’t yet come to the conclusion that the entire political system was immoral, but I had at least come to the conclusion that it wasn’t salvageable. I came to the pragmatic conclusion first and the philosophical conviction would later follow. (Here’s an interview in which I discussed that.)
If I could go back and talk to myself on the day these photos were taken, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to explain the immense turmoil that was to come in my life as I tried to break out of the unethical political work and find emotional values that worked in the here and now. I don’t think I could have dealt with knowing of the pain that would come from finding love and then losing it two different times. I don’t think I could have dealt with knowing just how low my life had to get before I could start rebuilding it again.
If you had met me on this day, you would have thought I had it all together. I was affluent and confident. I had a beautiful woman who adored me. I had the things that the world tends to find important.
But I hadn’t found the depth — psychologically, emotionally and spiritually — that I’ve found in the years since then. I was grasping for a place to stand. And I had no idea how hard it was going to be.
I’m not yet where I want to be today. I’m not as financially successful as I was then. I don’t have the love I long for. I don’t have the family I so desperately need. I don’t yet have the creative achievements I want.
But I’ve already come through a horrible period of growth. I survived the process of understanding where I came from and what had been done to me. I survived giving up my lucrative career and I survived going through a period of poverty I’d never known. I’ve even survived the painful loneliness of wanting love I can’t have.
I’m closer now than I’ve ever been to what I need to be. I’m closer to being the sort of man who will be a good husband and a good father. I’m closer than ever to being able to do the creative work I always knew I wanted to do.
I don’t know exactly who this guy in the pictures really is. I don’t know him anymore. I feel empathy for where he was — and I am grateful to have survived all that he had to go through to get me where I needed to be.
Now I just need to get back down to the weight I was then. I’m working on that part.