Tag Archives: neurosis

I’m reading Augustine’s Confessions again. He is terribly hard on himself for things that most of us would dismiss without a second thought: we’d say either “Oh, that wasn’t so bad,” or “You didn’t know any better,” or “You were just trying to test your boundaries,” or “You were still finding yourself,” or “You were only 16″.

Do we tend to go easy on stuff like that because we are permissive, or because we have a better understanding of psychology than he did?

Is he hard on himself because he’s a fanatic, or because he understands sin better than we do?

Is he especially neurotic, or are we especially degenerate?

There are a lot of very screwed up gay Catholics out there. By “screwed up” I mean isolated, neurotic, guilt-ridden, anxious, depressed, tormented, narcissistic, and self-pitying.

It’s impossible to say whether this is the effect of a regime of imposed celibacy. Because what we’re seeing is not just a generation of people who have grown up under a regime of imposed celibacy. We’re seeing a generation of people who have grown up under a regime of imposed celibacy and imposed silence.

Of the two, I very much suspect that silence is more destructive. Celibacy can ennoble. Silence can kill. Let’s make things easier for the next generation, and see how they turn out.

“True friendship,” says C. S. Lewis, “is the least jealous of loves.” We in the SSA crowd, or anyway the neurotic crowd, or maybe just the human crowd, hear that and cringe, because so many of us are such amateurs at friendship, amateurs in every sense: we dabble in it, we’re fascinated by it to the point of obsession, and our talent for it is decidedly imperfect.

True friendship? Most of us have scraps of it, but our actual friendships seem to exist on the perpetual verge of collapse, held together by duct tape and desperate good intentions; and jealousy intrudes, painfully, over and over. How well we know the signs of its approach, and how powerless we feel to stop it!

Like any amateur, I sometimes watch the experts — are there friendship experts? — to see how it’s done.

I noticed that my friends A and B had a tendency to express their fondness for each other via insults. “Ah ha!” said my crafty little lizard brain. “This is what friends do! I, too, will insult A, and let’s see whether we become better friends because of it.”

So I tried it out, but something went wrong. When I insulted A, he looked faintly hurt, and instead of responding with an insult of his own (as I had seen him do to B), he laughed uncomfortably and said, “Ah, yeah, you’re probably right.”

Waitwaitwait, cancel, retreat, abort! That isn’t what I meant at all. But this is what comes of being crafy, especially of being crafty where friendship is concerned: your friends get hurt and you look mean.

I understood belatedly what A and B’s insults had meant. It wasn’t that they had made a conscious decision to express friendship via insults, nor was it that insults are the universal language of male friendship. This was just the particular shape their friendship had developed, slowly and organically, over the years of its evolution.

And my appropriation of their particular brand of camaraderie suddenly looked grotesque and desperate, because, unfortunately, it was.

I was driving to work and this particular scene came back to me — you know that horrible splurch you get when you suddenly remember something grotesque and desperate that you’ve done?1 — but, thankfully, I also remembered that bit from Lewis’ Four Loves:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.2

I’ve seen this in the way only J. will shout when only M. makes a particularly asinine point, or only L. will cackle when only C. is crass in his exactly C.-like flavor of crassness. It’s also evident in the way, if M. and I find ourselves in a room without the accustomed presence of J., we suddenly won’t know what to say to each other: J. turns out to have been a bridge between us, a way for us to enjoy each other. Lacking him, we have to find other ways.

But the other part of that picture is a part we can’t see: ourselves. Cue Walker Percy:

Why is it that in your entire lifetime you will never be able to size yourself up as you can size up somebody else — or size up Saturn — in a ten-second look?”3

We don’t know our own part in the peculiar lattice of relations that exists between us and our friends, but make no mistake — we do have such a part. Whatever my opinion of myself, I am irreplaceable to them as each of them is to me. My own face will suddenly take on an expression that is characteristically Steve, and my friends will notice, but I won’t have the faintest idea about it; if I did, that would spoil it.

That’s how it works. We are not only for ourselves. The list of things I know about myself is not the same as the list of things my friends know about me. I am not even the best lover of myself, since I can never see in myself that very Steveness that is exactly what my friends love about me. I will never be able to see it. But I know it is there, because there are those that love me; so I don’t have to worry about it terribly much.

In other words, I have only to be myself; which (and this is the part they never tell you) I can only do when I am paying attention to the peculiarly lovable selves of everybody else.

1 This often happens while I’m driving.4 If you ever see me suddenly wince in traffic, that’s probably why.
2 From The Four Loves. Context is here.
3 This is from Percy’s Lost In the Cosmos, also known as The Best Book For Weirdos To Read To Feel Less Like Weirdos. The context is here.
4 Which is one reason why I sometimes listen to Savant and/or Skrillex when I’m driving. Did you know, if you turn the dubstep up loud enough, you can’t think of anything at all?

My friend J. once told me that he liked Dostoevsky, but didn’t find him realistic. He cited the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov and Razumikhin are approaching the house of the investigator Porfiry Petrovich, and poor Rask. is agonizing over how to behave in front of Porfiry:

“I shall have to pull a long face with him too,” he thought, with a beating heart, and he turned white, “and do it naturally, too. But the most natural thing would be to do nothing at all. Carefully do nothing at all! No, carefully would not be natural again…. Oh, well, we shall see how it turns out…. We shall see… directly.”

He quickly decides to cover up his guilt by appearing extra gregarious, so he begins to make fun of Razumikhin for being interested in Dunya:

“You are like a summer rose. And if only you knew how it suits you; a Romeo over six foot high! And how you’ve washed to-day—you cleaned your nails, I declare. Eh? That’s something unheard of! Why, I do believe you’ve got pomatum on your hair! Bend down.” …

Raskolnikov laughed as though he could not restrain himself. So laughing, they entered Porfiry Petrovitch’s flat. This is what Raskolnikov wanted: from within they could be heard laughing as they came in, still guffawing in the passage. [emphasis added]

To me, this kind of thing is what makes Dostoevsky a genius: his characters always have several motivations for everything they do, and neither they nor we (nor, maybe, Dostoevsky!) are sure what all of those motivations are; and all this passes in a split second, during a momentary pause in the conversation. Raskolnikov’s internal monologue has been my own, any number of times, before walking into an alarming social situation.

But, if I was understanding J. correctly, this was exactly what didn’t resonate with his own experience. He felt that real people aren’t that fraught, that complicated.

But some people are. Dostoevsky evidently was, and I certainly am. That’s not a boast. Simplicity of mind and heart is something I both admire and envy, and I’d much prefer to be thinking only one thing at any given time, to know why I’m doing what I’m doing when I do it, to operate on only one level at a time.

In geek speak, I’d much prefer a processor that wasn’t multi-threaded.

I think that there’s even something of sanctity in being able to live with this kind of simplicity. St. Thérèse’s Mother Superior told her: “The closer you come to god, the more simple you become.”1 And then there is the Zen principle of Doing One Thing At a Time, which some (I’ve heard) practice with such rigor that they won’t even read while they’re pooping.2

Not that it’s praiseworthy, or blameworthy, to be born with any particular mental disposition: I don’t think I earned my own multithreadedness any more than J. earned his comparitive singlethreadedness.3 But everyone starts at a different path on the road to virtue. One man is born with more courage, another with more prudence, and all are charged with the task of supplementing their lacks.

And then simplicity of mind is not quite the same thing as simplicity of heart. I hear that Aquinas, however many volumes of philosophy he produced, however fine his distinctions and subtle his syllogisms, still, when he confessed his sins, confessed them with the simplicity of a child of six.

This is why we Catholics don’t have to accuse philosophers of thinking too much, or mendicants of thinking too little — or, for that matter, Pope Benedict of having been too fancy or Pope Francis of being too minimalist. Many gifts, but one spirit. Many parts, but one body.

Or again, if each of us is a different kind of machine, our job is to keep that machine running as well as it can. The surprising thing is how well we can understand each other after all, and learn from each other, and be friends with each other.

When I was young, I fantasized about having a twin, someone who would think like me, like what I liked, understand me through and through. That was because I was a narcissist.4 By this time, I’ve had enough of myself to last a lifetime.

I like myself fine, but I’d rather spend time with people who are not me. Thank God there are so many of them!

1 I couldn’t actually find this quotation anywhere, but I did find it paraphrased in a bunch of places. Anyway, if she didn’t say it, somebody did.
2 My knowledge of Zen Buddhism, or any kind of Buddhism, is almost nonexistent, and the parts that aren’t nonexistent come through a thick filter of Americanism, so it’s anyone’s guess whether this is really a Zen thing. Still, I think it’s a good principle.
3 Nor, for the record (hi, J.!), do I really believe that anyone is actually totally, purely singlethreaded. My point is only that the level of threadedness varies a surprising amount from person to person.
4 This may well be a presumptuous use of the past tense.

It’s 2003, and I am afloat emotionally and spiritually and socially and nearly every other way a 20-year-old can be afloat. The administration keeps talking about community, like it has for the last three years: building it, taking part in it, respecting it, supporting it; but I don’t know what community is, don’t even know that I don’t know what it is. I feel like I’m alone on a sinking ship.

I think some kind of class spirit is supposed to have gelled by now, but it hasn’t. A couple of people have noticed the way I glom onto the new freshman class every year. I hear, secondhand, that they think I’m purposely aloof from my own class. Really I’m just looking for a second chance.

This year one of the incoming freshmen is Sal. He hasn’t been there long before he has pulled together a small cadre of freshman guys, through sheer force of levity. I don’t know how he does it or how he got what he has or why I get to be on the inside, but I do, because Sal is my friend. I am the stray electron to his free radical.

We are drinking cheap wine in somebody’s dorm room. Privately, I am elated and terrified: elated because here we are, a bunch of young guys, drinking and making dirty jokes, just like you are supposed to do; terrified because at any second I may be found out. What, exactly, will be found out? I don’t yet know how to ask myself this question.

I laugh a laugh that is not quite mine and wait for just the right moment to pronounce the casual-sounding sentence that I have spent the last five minutes constructing, hoping desperately that nobody knows me well enough to hear all the false notes. And wishing desperately that somebody did.

While everyone else is blowing off steam, I’m building it up, because this kind of performance is hard to sustain. Finally everyone is gone but me and Sal. I burst into tears and explain incoherently that it’s all fake, that I just wanted to be normal, that I don’t know how to do any of this, that none of it comes naturally. Above all I accuse myself of what I consider the worst of sins: being a fraud.

Sorry, Sal, I don’t remember what you said to comfort me, because I couldn’t hear anything except what was in my own head. Anyway it’s not always important what friends say with words. I remember that we were sitting on the floor and you touched my ankle kindly, which meant a lot, and that when I stumbled out of the room, trailing a good six inches of snot from my nose, the look on your face didn’t show anything but warm concern. That meant a lot, too.

It’s a decade later. I have been learning how not to take seriously the kind of nonsensical, spontaneous self-accusations that my mind still throws at me from time to time. When they pop up like moles I whack ‘em down again, with my well-practiced hammer, or just watch them sail by.1 As a result, they have been popping up less and less, and making less noise when they do.

I am learning that the thing I called conscience was mainly neurotic guilt, and that my actual conscience is a lot quieter and more easily ignored; that neither the best things about me nor the worst things are what I would have expected.

I am better at friendship now, good at it in fact, if friendship is something you can be good at. A lot changes in ten years. I know that being inauthentic isn’t the worst sin, and that being completely authentic all the time is something only gods and beasts can do.

My therapist puts the cap on all this for me when she gives me a safeguard against that tension and guilt, a way to acquit myself of the constant suspicion of falseness. “You can’t be false,” she said, “if you are taking delight in the person you’re with.”

That cuts right through the Gordian knot of self-absorption. I don’t have to monitor myself, to “watch over my own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute”.2 I just have to focus on the people I’m with, and be glad to be with them. Less of me, more of them.

That’s not so hard.

1 Sail by, like moles. This metaphor may have gotten away from me.
2 What were you thinking, Dostoevsky? The quote’s from Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s just terrible advice, at least for anybody who’s already prone to living in their own head. The Russians, you can’t trust ‘em.

Back when I was in college and as crazy as a bedbug — a bedbug on a steady diet of caffeine, nicotine, and Nietzsche — I decided I was the phoniest bastard in the history of the universe and I wasn’t going to stand it anymore.

I lie constantly, I told myself, and not only in words: I lie with my face, my tone of voice, my gestures, and even the way I walk. That raised eyebrow? It was calculated to make you think I’m sophisticated. The way I laughed? Designed to make you think I’m boisterous and cynical.

So to remedy the situation I wrote down on my fingers — one per finger — all the ways I could think of that I lied. That way, every time I saw my hands, I would be reminded to CUT IT OUT.

Please, you don’t need to tell me how insane this is. You have to understand, I was doing the best I could, 19 years old and so full of neurosis you could probably see it swirling around when you looked in my eyes.

My friend M. saw my fingers all marked after dinner and asked what that was all about. “It’s to remind me of all the ways I lie,” I said, solemnly, careful to hold my eyebrows still, keep my voice flat, and not move my mouth in an insincere way. “Oh my God,” she muttered, amazed and disgusted. I brushed her off (she didn’t understand) and went off to wander back to the dorm, practicing authenticity with every step.

It is not hard to understand why, during this time, I found social contact even more difficult than usual. It was a beautiful double bind I had put myself in: I was desperate to fit in, but fitting in seemed to require consciously adapting things that were foreign to me — or that most foreign, artificial thing of all, the thing all the Normals recommended, called Being Yourself.

Looking back, I get to laugh, maybe shudder a little at how close I might have come to actual psychosis, and thank God I’m not there anymore. I don’t remember how long it took me to give up the project. I do remember the feeling of my own limbs and facial muscles settling around me like lead, the strange mummy-like feeling of trying to control every inch of my body every minute.

I thought that if I just cut off all the artificial parts, the Real Me (which must be buried underneath) would emerge. I was trying to cast off every mask, but the more I held still to let my own face surface, the less it felt like I had a face at all.

There was no eureka moment when I realized what I had got wrong, but I was thinking about all this yesterday on the way home from work, probably because I’m hosting a poker game tonight. I know how I’ll be at the game: probably drink and swear a little more than usual, probably act a little more arrogant than I feel, probably use some turns of phrase that aren’t strictly natural to me.

But I won’t feel bad about it. Because I’ve discovered that this is how it is with people, maybe especially men. This is how we work. A stag party has as rigorous a code of etiquette as a black tie dinner. The rules aren’t written down anywhere, but they function the same way etiquette always functions: they provide a field in which to speak, to interact, to dance the intricate dance of human contact.1

A field, actually, in which relationship is possible. If etiquette is a mask, it is a mask that allows us to reveal our truest selves — but prudently, slowly, a little bit at a time, in a human way. How many people do you know who sit around the dinner table and reveal deep truths about their souls? Do you really want to live inside a Russian novel all the time — or is a little small talk okay now and then?

Buckle down, I’d tell my 19-year-old self, and learn the rules. Swallow your pride, forget yourself a little, and play the game. You want radical honesty and authenticity? Then walk around naked. Or you could just choose an outfit that expresses who you want to be, not who you are — we don’t find ourselves, Fr. T once told me, we build ourselves — and wait until the man grows to fit the clothes.

It might happen sooner than you think.

1 Not that I’d say these things to my poker buddies, or anyway not in the middle of a game. F★ck no. Who’s big blind?

St. Dominic Savio and I have a complicated relationship. I learned about him from Z., a luminous, vivacious, and wounded woman with a mystical bent who was my fourth-grade teacher (in a sort of a homeschool co-op thing) and my confirmation sponsor. My older brother Caleb tells me I was so taken with St. Dominic that, whenever I was doing something he didn’t like, all had to say was “You know, I bet DOMINIC SAVIO would let me have the last of the potato chips” and I’d get all shamefaced and hand them over.

So that’s why Dominic Savio is my confirmation name. I confess to having a sort of grudge against him now, something I’ve never quite dealt with. The grudge is because he was such a good boy, and so was I. The problem is that my goodness at the time was more neurotic than genuine, more out of fear than out of love; or so it seems to me now. Was it really? Can you be a good boy without being a prissy one? Does all goodness begin in a kind of hypocrisy?

Whenever I compare my adolescence with those of others — great way to send myself into an emotional tailspin, NOT RECOMMENDED — I’m always struck by how much more drinking, pot-smoking, vandalism, fighting, and general screwing around everybody else seems to have done. It’s not that my adolescence wasn’t filled with vice; it’s just that my vices seem to have been so much less badass than they should have been.1

Dominic Savio didn’t hold with poop jokes or dick jokes — two things that, from time immemorial, young men have used as the basis, or at least the beginning, of friendship. So I can’t help blaming St. Dominic for my own prudishness at that age. If I had been less devoted to him, would I have been less standoffish and therefore less lonely? If I had been less conscientious, would I also be less neurotic? Was St. Dominic really as prudish as I was, or was that his biographers fell prey to the tendency towards idealisation that obscures the humanity of so many of the saints?

Or was it only that I couldn’t distinguish between prudishness and chastity, scrupulosity and virtue? A difficult distinction for any 10-year-old (or 28-year-old) to grasp, especially a 10-year-old who was already eager for his elders to think he was perfect.

I have a friend, C., who seems to have nothing wrong with him at all. He’s not neurotic in any way I can see, he doesn’t cut people down, he doesn’t talk with casual (or any) filthiness. He goes to Mass every day, spends time in prayer every evening, gets up early without complaining, and consistently puts his friends’ and family’s well-being before his own — but does it so you wouldn’t notice, as if it’s just what anyone would expect.

Can you believe that I have it in me to look down on him? Because, I tell myself, his interior life lacks complexity and intensity. Because he’s not tormented and conflicted and INTERESTING like I am. Because he doesn’t seem to be prey to the perpetual whisperings of the Accuser, like I am. How do I know all these things? Because I have perfect insight into the state of his mind, heart, and soul at all times.

Ha ha, just kidding! I don’t actually know jack sh★t about any of those things, because I have exactly zero access to his interior life. They might all be true. Or none of them might be true. Not my business.

My business is to somehow discover C.’s trick of purity without prudishness, friendship without obsession, integrity without scrupulosity, charity without bombast. In a word, my business is to become more like Christ, and to be patient with myself until I get there.

1 And I’m always surprised when people say that they regret this kind of thing. I always think, “Regret? But you were SO COOL!” I know, the grass is always greener.

I’m grateful for the recent influx of traffic, from Matt Fradd’s site and others. At the same time I’m a little concerned that people seeing my blog for the first time are not seeing me at my best: folks, I swear, three months ago I was not a complete neurotic mess. Neither I nor even Father T. know exactly what is going on here, or why this present darkness is so extreme and so long-lived. But stet. Seems like people who are complete neurotic messes themselves like reading about other people who are complete neurotic messes.

I comfort myself by thinking that, since the Lord has been letting this all rise to the surface in a way it hasn’t for a decade, maybe He wants to deal with it in a deeper way than ever before. So, forward!

You can see by the (in)frequency of my posts lately that this “sorting out my life” business is not without its difficulties. I can’t seem to pull my jumble of thoughts together for a coherent post, so here are some things that are going on, and maybe you will see why I am a little jumbled.

Due to The Roommate Situation, I’m still in a state of rootlessness. I bounce around between my sister’s house (an hour from work), my brother’s house (45 minutes from work), and the old place, where I stay a couple of nights a week. I still think that seeing those guys is good for me, or at least that cutting them out of my life isn’t good for me (or them); it’s just tricky to balance that fact with the anxiety it usually causes me to be there. The situation may resolve itself by the end of July, so please pray that I will get some peace in that department. I know y’all do anyway. Thank you.

I had a particularly nice visit with the roommates last Wednesday. I came back from Kung Fu expecting a quiet night and found out there were going to be three people coming over. I managed to avoid freaking out about that (“Just keep me under your protection,” I prayed, and He did) and had a nice time. The part of the night I keep coming back to — this will tell you something about my current state of mind — is the moment when we were hunched over someone’s phone to watch a video, and my roommate S. rested his arm on my shoulder while he watched. Such a tiny gesture, and for him it was casual, but to me its very casualness meant acceptance — that my place in the group was taken for granted. I’m embarrassed that this was such a big deal for me, but there it is.

The meds are still working, but towards the end of vacation I had a freakout/breakdown that I’m still bouncing back from. I’m still sorting out in my own mind what the meds mean. Taking pills for being sad necessarily puts sadness in a different light. Previously, I had always been in the habit of spiritualizing my depression, anxiety, social issues, and the rest of it: these things must mean I’m not a holy enough person yet. Now my tendency is the opposite: seeing the whole thing as a purely psychological and even physical issue. I think the reality lies somewhere inbetween; in some sense, these things are a real part of my personality and a real part of my cross. My paradigms are still reassembling themselves.

Monday I meet with my new therapist. I’ve seen her once before, just an introductory interview, but that hour gave me a lot of hope for what we might be able to do together. I can’t wait.

I’ve been reading Images of Hope, by Fr. William Lynch, SJ, on the recommendation of a reader/commenter whose name escapes me — but thank you, dear
commenter, because oh my gawrsh, this book is just really good.

So much of the reading that I’ve done on psychological and spiritual issues seems to be a constant rehashing of the same old things. That’s fine, because I need to be reminded of the same truths over and over again. But this book has some very helpful ideas that are completely new to me, and he describes things so lucidly that I just feel understood.

Let’s see if I can find a couple of excerpts…should be as easy as hunting down the marginalia that look like this: “★!!!” Oh, here’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot:

We can be so preoccupied with the past that we break down the edges and identities of each thing in contemporary reality and make it all look like the past…The present is not the past. That sentence could not be clearer on the surface or more obscure in its depths. If it were truly grasped, and grasped affectively, there would be no mental illness among adults. But the past keeps running in upon us, obscuring and even obliterating the freshness and newness of everything we do.

Ever since reading that, I’ve been saying to myself at odd moments: “This is now. This is not then.” It helps me see that, on the outside, my life is pretty much anything anybody could want: the loneliness, the self-judgment, are all products of the past. The present, taken on its own terms, is pretty awesome.

Welp, I am off to see Brave with a friend from my support group — I lurve Pixar, and I think this is going to be great. Then I am spending the evening with The Roommates. Fighting my way through my groundless fears that they don’t actually want me there. How many times and in how many ways do people have to tell me that they like me before I believe it?

Anyway. It has been gorgeous motorcycle weather. So there’s that.

I: ENOUGH PEANUTS

[Nota bene: This story is in four parts, and parts I-III are pretty grim, but there's a happy ending. Also, there is a lot of smoking and no small amount of tears.]

I’m making Friday night plans with my brother Caleb. He’s saying we could stay in and watch a movie, or go out and get some drinks. “Or,” he says, “if you want to — and if you don’t want to, that’s fine — some of the guys are getting together to play basketball. We could do that.”

Do I like basketball? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell whether you like something when the thought of it makes your stomach twist into knots. Some people would say that makes it easy to tell, right? But I make things complicated. Maybe, I think, it’s like someone who is allergic to peanuts, but actually loves peanuts, only he doesn’t realize it because every time he eats them, they make him wish he was dead. Maybe if I just eat enough peanuts, I’ll teach myself not to be allergic to them.

But maybe tonight, dealing with panic is a little bit much, so I say, Let’s stay in. I hang up; but I start to think about it, and think about it, and think and think andthinkandthink until I call Caleb back on my way home from work.

“Hey, so, um. I’m thinking, yeah, let’s go ahead and play basketball instead.” I’m trying not to hyperventilate.

“…Really?”

“Yeah, I want to,” I lie.

“Because, you know, I really don’t care. I really don’t.” He doesn’t.

“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I mean, I should. I’m a little terrified. But I want to because I’m a little terrified.”

Caleb pauses, triangulating my neuroses. “You know,” he says, “you’re going to have plenty of chances in life to be terrified. You don’t really have to look for them.”

“Hm,” I say.

“So, Let’s stay in.”

“Um,” I say. “Okay.”

“You can eat here. We’re having enchiladas. Unless,” he says, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.”

II: BETTER THAN BASKETBALL

I know I’ve told that story about Caleb before, but it’s been on my mind because of something my friend L. said last weekend, when I visited DC for a mutual friend’s wedding. I was hoping the trip would be a way to get away, to give me some breathing room from my Terrible Situation.

Oh, the Terrible Situation, I can tell you about that now. It goes like this: after a year of living alone, I moved into a house with two other guys last February. Things started out beautifully. Somebody to come home to! Someone to eat with! Someone to chat with at odd moments! Someone who’ll bring their friends around — more people to meet, more people to know!

All this was true, and all this was good. I became surprisingly fond of both of them in a very short time, S. in particular. Then fondness turned to admiration. For me, it’s a short step from admiration to envy, and from envy to neediness, and jealousy, and all the rest of it. There’s a certain kind of admiration that makes me reassess myself, and the everything I used to consider good about myself, to frame my entire life in what-if terms: would I be more like him if I hadn’t been so scared, or so wounded, or so lame…Those of you who have been there can connect the dots; the mind has mountains.

And then when their college friends visited, which they seemed to do in a steady stream — seeing them interact with each other, watching their comfort and hilarity, would drive the knife home. This is what you want, says the old ἐχθρός, and this is what you will never have. Manifestly untrue, as Sal gently pointed out to me later in an email, but somehow I couldn’t call the right memories to mind, couldn’t think of a time when I had ever been at ease with anyone.

I set myself the impossible task of being as comfortable with them as they were with each other — I’d will myself into it — despite the fact that they’d spent every day together for four years, and when I failed I blamed myself, called myself socially inept, a hopeless loner. I knew it was crazy, and I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it I was in the deepest funk I had seen in a decade.

I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t want this to happen. So I did all the right things. I talked to Father T., opened up to friends, wept and prayed and wept some more, read and meditated about the peace that comes from absolute trust in God. My friends couldn’t see why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just leave.

But they didn’t understand! This was my way out from loneliness, and more than that, a way to get good at what I had always wanted to be good at: being comfortable in the company of other men. It was a second chance at I’d missed, or thought I’d missed, over and over again, all through homeschool and high school and college.

This was better than basketball.

It would get better, I kept saying. And it did. But every time it did, something would happen: some party where I felt left out, some imagined slight in conversation that snowballed into a full-blown self-pity session, some night when I would be bone-tired but couldn’t fall asleep because I envied the sounds of cheerful conversation downstairs — and I’d be right back where I started. But I couldn’t leave! That would be admitting defeat, that would be throwing away this beautiful opportunity that had dropped into my lap. I should be able to deal with this.

Give me more time, and I will get it right.

[ Cliffhanger!!! Continued tomorrow. ]

A reader sent me part of this quotation from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Since it’s better than anything I’m likely to come up with tonight, I’ll pass it along. It’s been too long since I’ve read that book.

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are “rich” in this sense to enter the Kingdom.

It is very different for the nasty people — the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following — or else despair. They are the lost sheep; He came specially to find them. They are (in one very real and terrible sense) the “poor”: He blessed them. They are the “awful set” He goes about with — and of course the Pharisees say still, as they said from the first, “If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.”

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last).