The little boy in me fears punishment, so I have been very good.
Like an obedient robot — one who tightly follows an outwardly imposed order but who has no will of his own — I have followed a rigid path which I saw as good. I have followed my programming, even after my programmer was dead. And I still fear the dark desires of my heart which might lead to corruption or sin.
I was expected to be perfect. I believed I should be — and could be — perfect. I felt shame when I deviated from my script in any way. I felt happy only when I could point to my apparent perfection and say, “Please tell me what a good boy I am!”
I thought everyone who was decent was doing the same thing. Those who weren’t following the same perfect path — or desperately trying to — were bad people. I associated everything good as being of the mind and spirit. The physical desires of the body were bad. Those were the things that took people into sin. My childhood programming and my religious teaching agreed.
The flesh was evil. I had to resist it.
The inner conflict of my life has been between the “good” part of me striving to be without fault and the “bad” part of me which wanted to feed my sinful desires.
It was only a little more than a week ago when a friend gave me a copy of “Narcissus and Goldmund,” a German novel from the early 20th century by Hermann Hesse. It unexpectedly captivated me, because it turned out to be an allegory about the internal struggle with which I had wrestled all my life.
The two primary characters live in a monastery in medieval Germany. Narcissus is a young teacher at the monastery’s school and Goldmund is a boy just a few years younger who has been brought to the school — essentially dumped — by his father. Both of them expect to remain part of the monastery for life and to serve God. They become dear friends, but it’s soon evident that they have inner drives that are polar opposites.
Hesse uses these two characters to compare the ways of the mind and spirit to the ways of the flesh. Narcissus lives completely in his head and spirit. Goldmund lives in his emotions and desires. We watch each of them live the life which that orientation brings.
As with some of Hesse’s other books — “Steppenwolf,” in particular — it’s about the struggle of each character to find himself. Although this isn’t laid out neatly at the end, I think it suggests the philosophical process of thesis (Narcissus) and antithesis (Goldmund) being resolved in synthesis — which is left for the reader to work out on his own.
Although both characters wanted to serve God, Goldmund accidentally discovers the delights of sex and the other lusts of the flesh. He proceeds to live his life as a wanderer, while Narcissus remains at the monastery for life.
I lived my life completely as Narcissus until I was about 30. All I was interested in was work and achievement and doing good things. I wanted to make my mark in the world and I didn’t care how hard I had to work to do it. In my late 20s, I was working between 100 and 110 hours a week during the stressful couple of years before my newspaper company failed.
But I didn’t mind the work. I had no use for pleasure. It was only through hard work and achievement that I could prove how good I was. And if I kept myself completely occupied with work, I didn’t even have to deal with anything which could have tempted me to be sinful or even frivolous.
How far did I go to avoid normal desires or even experimentation with the desires that I thought could lead me astray? Here’s an example.
When I was in college, I dated a beautiful nursing student who was a few years younger than I was. I had met her because she worked at a Christian bookstore and I asked her out after seeing her there a few times. I was smitten with her.
She was a “good church girl” from a strongly religious family, but she was also very sexual. I felt so strongly that I couldn’t allow sex to happen between us — because it wouldn’t be right — that I stopped it the couple of times when it almost went that far. She was willing and I strongly wanted her, but I had my standards. After a few months of dating, she broke up with me over the issue. At the time, I just assumed she was a “bad girl” and I had to be a “good boy.”
Most temptations which appealed to others never appealed to me. I rationally thought — both then and now — that drinking alcohol and behaving like a drunken fool was ridiculous and dangerous. I never had any inclination to “party” as so many of my contemporaries did.
For me, the temptation I resisted most strongly was sex. I always said that if I were going to allow myself one vice in this world, it would be sex, so I lived much of my early life in fear of getting too close to girls and then women. And then I realized that I felt just as strongly about anything that could be seen as frivolous or wasteful. I was the walking embodiment of the Protestant Work Ethic.
I worked all the time. I enjoyed my work. I was proud of myself for being “good” — and it never occurred to me at the time that my pride was a more dangerous sin than the things which I kept myself from.
After my newspaper company failed — for reasons I’ve covered before and linked to above — I became depressed. I had done everything right. I had worked hard. I had been the perfect boy. But it wasn’t good enough to stop me from failing. It wasn’t good enough to make my life feel as though it had meaning.
That was the period during which I discovered my unexplored need to make art. I started developing emotions that I had hidden in order to be severe with myself. If I had allowed myself to feel my emotions before then, I don’t think I could have acted the part of the perfect little boy in an adult body.
I learned to be lazy. I learned to wander. I learned to be some of the things which I had never allowed myself to be. I maintained my basic values. I was still “good” by my standards. But I could no longer be the perfect monk in the monastery who denied himself all pleasures.
And I have been desperately trying to work out a balance between those parts of myself — the head-based and rules-based thinker on the one hand and the gut-based man who pursues the pleasures of being alive on the other.
It was during that depression and understanding of my need to make art that I first discovered how much beauty meant to me. Beauty and nature and feelings had mostly been second thoughts to me until then. I’ve spent the time since then making up for it.
In some respects, I spent the first 30 years of my life as the head-based and rules-based thinker and then spent the years after that trying — very haltingly — to learn what I had never learned about enjoying life. It’s only been in about the last 18 months that I consciously understood that and started trying to integrate the two.
Even though I don’t live my entire life in my head anymore, it’s still hard for me to allow myself to enjoy life. It’s hard for me to believe that I’m not somehow going to be in trouble for not working hard enough and for taking too much pleasure in frivolous things. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely leave that behind.
I’ve talked in the past about my strange relationship with food. I use food to fill emotional holes. I also understand now that it was the only safe way — relatively safe, at least — to allow myself to follow the desires of my flesh without allowing myself to descend into things I saw as sinful. My eating might pack fat onto my body. It might threaten my future health. But at least it didn’t seem sinful.
I will never again return to being the person I was early in life. I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to work those ridiculous hours. I want to enjoy this world and not worry about what other people think of me. Like the wanderer Goldmund, I have to follow something which is very different from the images of perfection and success which were so important to me before my crisis at 30.
This human life is complicated and difficult. Of course, it doesn’t have to be complicated if you ignore the reality of what you need. It can be very simple. Nobody has to know there’s anything wrong on the inside. Nobody has to know that you’re completely cut off from the parts of you that really matter.
Those are the ways I lived when I was young. Everything was simple. Nobody knew the conflicts inside. I wasn’t even aware of how painfully I had cut myself off from who I really was. But if you do that, you will either destroy yourself — in one of several different ways — or else you will eventually have a breakdown that will allow everyone to know just how wrong things with you really are.
But it’s usually too late to fix your life by then.
I wish I could relive my life. I wish I could have explored things that I would have been terrified to explore back then. I wish I could have learned about beauty and art and happiness long before I did. I wish I could have explored how much love I had to give.
It might be too late to integrate all of those in the ways I want to and need to. I don’t know anymore. I’m scared about that and I still deal with shame about not pursuing the “impressive” life which I once did pursue. Maybe nobody who I would want will ever want me because of that.
There’s so much I would do differently.
I know that living life as a head-based Narcissus leaves a person cut off from who we are. I also know that completely following a life of the flesh as Goldmund did is a wasted life, even if he eventually made some great art.
Somehow, we have to integrate these two seemingly contradictory parts of ourselves. Maybe other people find it easy. I can’t say for sure. I do know that reading the novels of Hesse make it clear that this German writer found the dichotomy just as scary as I have.
I don’t want to be Narcissus. I don’t want to be Goldmund. I just want to be the man I was created to be — and that includes the parts of me which are mind, spirit and flesh.