Tag Archives: Walker Percy

The weirdest part of the Journey Into Manhood weekend was the week after it was over.

After three days surrounded by men who understood me, supported me, had been where I had been and further, were free with hugs, and didn’t look at me funny after they had seen me all curled up and sobby, mainly because they had just got done being all curled up and sobby — I faced the problem of reentry.

walker-percy-reentry-diagram

They warned us about it as they sent us off on Sunday, said to look out because we had probably “loosened some stuff up” and so we shouldn’t be surprised if a few things kept on flowing for the next few days or weeks. Flowing, like ooze from a wound, or like the woman in Luke with the flow of blood.

It could have been, but probably wasn’t, the power of suggestion that had me suddenly and repeatedly leaving my desk, all that week, to go wail or cackle or shiver somewhere private.

It felt like an emotional hemorrhage, years of stored-up elation and horror and apprehension and grief just gushing out of some hole I didn’t know I had. There was no content or context or pattern or reason, and no way to predict when the next one was coming.

hyperbole-and-a-half-happy-to-death

From “Depression Part Two” at HyperboleAndAHalf.

Except “hemorrhage” isn’t right, because it was good. The flowing-out of these emotions felt like the flowing-in of cool, clean water.

My poor, British-descended, congenitally undemonstrative roommate was baffled. He watched me howling on the couch, in the fetal position, for no reason at all, an hour after I had been literally bouncing up and down with manic joy. When the attack was over, he explained that he would’ve given me a hug, but he thought that might’ve made me cry harder.

“Okay,” I said between sniffles, “Thanks. But next time, giving me a hug would be a good idea. If you want to.”

It subsided, thank goodness. After that, there were a few months of feeling off-kilter, like I had spent a long while at a nudist colony and still felt weird about wearing clothes. Eventually things went back to normal, and if I got the Bends, at least I recovered.

Except not really. Because you don’t go having transformative experiences and then keep on going the way you were going. It’s like something that (ahem) a certain family member, who is older and wiser now, said about coming down from a great trip: you might’ve thought you achieved Enlightenment while you were as high as a Georgia pine, but unless that experience is transferrable to the rest of your life, it might as well not have happened at all. Satori that bears no fruit is no satori.

But things don’t change all at once, either. It’s like human life: the beginning is the attention-getter, but the real magic is what happens in the nine months afterwards. Not to mention the three score and ten years after that.

“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?

Gosh, William Lynch just gets better and better:

The sick [i.e. the mentally ill] deeply fear that they are not human. They interpret an endless variety of problems and distresses as nonhuman.

I remember I used to feel that it would be a relief to have the kind of problems that “normal” people had: in high school, worrying about girls; in college, about grades; later, about money. These things seemed to me standard problems, problems you could talk about. And it’s true — I heard people talking about them all the time.

But I was consumed with things that I couldn’t talk about — things that, it seemed to me, it was shameful even to feel, because they were not within the range of the normal, the human.

This is why, when I find myself stuck in a traffic jam, I sometimes can’t stop grinning: how enjoyable it is to be having a normal human problem! I imagine it’s how someone from Haiti might feel when he has to buy creamy peanut butter because THEY’RE OUT OF CHUNKY.

When people are mentally ill they excommunicate themselves or are excommunicated by human society…let us imagine the mentally ill as living the life of excommunicates from our humanity, from the human race.

For many men with SSA, this feeling is manifested specifically as a (real or perceived) excommunication from the world of his fellow men, rather than from humanity at large. If the mentally ill person feels that he is outside of the realm of the human, the man with SSA often feels that he is outside the realm of the masculine: that there is an essential difference between him and other men.

I say “an essential difference” because it doesn’t feel like something that can be overcome: the very fact of having to overcome it in the first place seems to place one outside of the realm of the masculine. So, seen in those terms, it’s an insoluble problem. One feels that, even if he somehow attains the masculinity he thinks he lacks, he’ll still be forever marked — because he didn’t have it from the beginning.

(As if anybody is born knowing how to be a man!)

I remember the look on my friend M.’s face when, from the middle of my own personal Golgotha, I explained this to him for the first time — I used the phrase “insurmountable chasm” (who doesn’t get histrionic when they’re in the Pit?) to describe the distance I sometimes felt between me and other men. And, wow, I could tell he got it because of — God bless him for his empathy — the way the blood drained from his face. He hadn’t really understood, before.

For the sake of the sick, therefore, we must be concerned to enlarge the concept of the human so that it can include everything in them.

Walker Percy, somewhere in Lost In the Cosmos, has the image of a man riding a subway, feeling lost and isolated and alienated. But luckily, he is reading a novel about a man who feels lost, isolated, and alienated. Since the man in the novel feels as he does, the feelings become endurable — because they are something human after all.

What to take from all of this? Our job as Christians, it seems to me, is to “enlarge the concept of the human” to include those struggling with SSA. This is done, not by pretending that SSA is not a problem, but by acknowledging that it is a human problem — which means something that can be talked about, sympathized with, understood.

More specifically, this means — for both the sick and the well — acknowledging that the feelings of inferiority suffered by men with SSA exist precisely because they are men. Every man wants to be a man, wants to love and be loved by other men, sometimes feels inadequate as a man.

For the man with SSA, this desire takes on an extra intensity. But the important thing to remember is that the desire arises, not despite his manhood, but because of it.

What a weight off: my beloved motorcycle is no longer sitting on the street getting rained on, but is safe in a friend’s barn. Just in time for the snowstorm that’s still raging outside.

It took me two hours to drive the thirty miles home, fifteen miles an hour on the highway, basking in the green and orange flashes from snow-weighted branches drooping onto power lines, laughing when the streetlights went out. It was like a miniature apocalypse. Who doesn’t love a good apocalypse?

I enjoy being snowbound for the same reason I enjoy traffic jams and power outages. Priorities are suddenly different: having limited options makes leisure possible. We think having options makes us free, but it just makes us confused. I can do anything I want to? I think I’ll watch TV.

But if I can do only one thing — say, sit in traffic smoking cigarettes and getting a warm glow of schadenfreude from watching everyone else get irritated — I am free to enjoy every second.

Happy blizzard, New Englanders. May your lives come to a beautiful halt.

How do you talk to strangers? What are the rules? Nobody knows. I’m usually happy when a stranger speaks to me, and some strangers are happy when I speak to them, but everybody’s worried: will he think I’m weird? When I say Good morning, do I mumble or enunciate? How big is too big to smile at someone you don’t know?

The other day at the gym I kept catching the eye of a fellow swimmer, a man about my age, both in the pool and in the locker room. I didn’t mean to keep looking his way; you want to be careful about making eye contact in a locker room (although eye-to-eye contact can be safer than eye-to-elsewhere). When he was leaving, he caught my eye again, smiled, and waved. Relief: he didn’t think I was weird, just friendly.

Well, we were both dudes, and both swimming, why not? That’s enough common ground for a wave.

I overheard a conversation once between two (presumably straight) guys about gaydar and how it might work. One said to the other: if you catch another guy’s eyes and he looks just a little too long — you can tell. Ridiculous, or true? Maybe a little true. Most men do avoid each others’ eyes. Is that because they don’t want anybody thinking they’re gay, or for some other reason?

I’ve been getting to know the guys who live next door. The first time we spoke was when I was doing some work on my motorcycle. I think I wrote about this: we ended up killing a fifth of Maker’s between the three of us. Since then we chat occasionally, usually in the hall on the way to our respective apartments; last Sunday I stopped by for brunch; this evening I invited them to watch the game at my place on Sunday.

I know this is nonsense, but I sometimes feel like their amiability isn’t genuine — that they’re too normal, not to mention too good-looking, to really want to spend time with me. The feeling says a lot more about me than it does about them. I used to feel that way even about my friends. I remember that When Sal agreed to go on a road trip after my junior year, I wondered (and, poor guy, I even asked) if he was just being kind to the poor nerd. That was easier for me to believe than that he liked road trips and liked me.

We neurotics — or is that everybody? — go around building things up in our minds, constructing whole narratives out of stray glances and tones of voice, never suspecting that everyone else is every bit as simple and crafty and naive and guileful, as we are. Children afraid of our own shadows.

This excellent article by Michael Baruzzini, titled Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Spirit.

Excerpt:

“Affection is made concrete with actions. Handshakes between colleagues, hugs and kisses between friends not only display, but actually create or make real the respect and affection between people. The true value of a family dinner lies at this level: we are a family because we eat together; we eat together because we are a family. It is in this act that our being as a family is made real, not fantasy. To take what may be the most powerful example, marital love is incarnated in the marital act. The coy euphemism ‘making love’ has more truth to it than we may realize.”

Caleb and I both have terrible senses of direction. We were driving together once, trying to find our friend J’s house. I knew where it was, or thought I knew, but we ended up on the opposite side of town, a good twenty minutes from where we were supposed to be. The worst part was that we had just left a house where J’s brother was working, which I knew, but I hadn’t asked directions, because — well, because I already knew!

When Caleb realized where we were, he exploded: “This is just like you!

That may have hurt a little bit, but more than that, it surprised me. It’s hard to think of yourself as being just like anything, because we see ourselves from the inside, and from the inside I don’t look like a coherent whole at all.1 I see the decisions I make from day to day, but seeing patterns is harder, or maybe impossible.

Walker Percy2 gets it:

One of the peculiar ironies of being a human self in the Cosmos: A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself, live in the Century of the Self, and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.3

Well, this is one thing that friends are for. Friends see into the heart of you, see what you are, in a way that you never can. They know you; they name you.4

But there’s all the difference in the world between a name and a label. A name is the secret of who you are, the one thing that sums you up: it is your Word, the way the Son is the Word of the Father. A name is rich and full. A label flattens, simplifies, steamrolls.

Elsewhere, Percy says of a certain woman — I don’t have my copy of The Thanatos Syndrome handy, so I’m paraphrasing — “She had given up on the mystery of herself, she had taken another woman’s advice: be bold, be assertive.”

Although this probably applies to everybody, I think it especially applies to men with SSA. Growing up with SSA means, for many people, never knowing exactly what you are. Not fitting in — not only in the sense of being bullied or rejected, but not being able to identify with any group, not feeling at home anywhere. Feeling yourself to be not a man, maybe, but certainly not a woman, and androgynous least of all.

I wonder — I am about to speak out of ignorance but also sincerity, and I ask your forgiveness in advance if I offend — I wonder if this is what makes some men with SSA take on a gay identity, and take it on so deeply that they are swallowed whole, so that their own old friends stop recognizing them.

Taking on a pre-defined identity — something already warm, already ready to slip into — would be a relief for anybody. No longer having to work out, in fear and trembling, what I am, but having it all pre-fabricated, complete with taste and style and a welcoming community.

But it doesn’t solve the question of Selfhood. It only postpones.

This is one reason that, despite my sensitivity and musicality and slightness of build and tenderness of heart,5 I don’t know if I could ever be comfortable describing myself as gay. It’s not a bad word, but it is a label, not a name.

Oh, but as usual, George MacDonald says the whole thing better than I ever could.

1 Makes me think of a horoscope from The Onion: “Don’t worry: You’re more than just a collection of annoying, loosely bundled neuroses. There are some tightly wound and dangerous psychoses in there, too.”
2 I love Walker Percy, I lurve him. I would marry Walker Percy. If he weren’t married, male, old, and dead.
3 From the introduction to Lost in the Cosmos.
4 I am thinking of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, where “naming” someone is the opposite of “X-ing” them. To name someone is to fill the vacuum of their selfhood with love and intimate knowledge.To X is the opposite of that.
5 Although please bear in mind that I am also extremely badass.