Towards the end of my tenure in California, there began to be a lack of water, which was something I had never seen before. Shower restrictions, and time limits for running water came into effect. Watering your plants, or washing your driveway or car became taboo as fees for extra water use began to skyrocket. Plans to drain the delta, send water down to Los Angeles began to roll around, as trucks began hauling recycled water in their bed to use for various resources. It was a sheer state of chaos, and then I left.
Every few calls home I would hear about the heat, and the dryness overcoming what seemed like the world. Then the water began to sprinkle in (El Nino, as it was called). I visited home in December of 2017 to a flood. The plains of Sacramento held water up to the side of the roads, and what was minor rivers ran with intensity that I had never seen. Naturally, I left again a few weeks after, but returned home in April of 2017 to see something I had never imagined. Everything was green, vibrant, healthy, and alive. The beauty that seemed so intertwined with the state was back, and actually better than I ever saw before the drought.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this a lot more than I should be. It seems that my home state could never had grown, could never had reached such a state of beauty had the hell of a drought, and the scorn of a flood not been inflicted upon it. My fellow states people had to endure years of what seemed like a physical representation of a biblical curse, only to be rewarded with the equivalent of an paradisal oasis.
I have the two words, paradisal oasis, scratched up into my calendar as a reminder for myself. I’m in a drought right now, and I know that the next step is even worse, is even a deeper descend into hell, but after, after I burn a few layers of dead wood off of me, then I can reach that oasis.
I use the term ‘dead wood’ to describe the parts of our being that have been constructed in a manner that lends nothing to our daily productivity, fulfillment, or competence. All of the psychological barriers that we put up in defense of the stressful moments we faced in life, all of the walls we put we to ‘defend ourselves’ but instead only block us in, not others out. All of the habits we have developed to ease our minds and body into a comfortable grave at the end of our lives. All of this is dead wood, and we don’t even know it. Dr. Jordan B Peterson says that up to 95% of us could be dead wood, and we wouldn’t even know it! Therefore, shaving, or burning, it off is a necessity.
In highschool, I had no sense of morality, no understanding of the vicious battle that is fought inside of us. After high school, as my descend into hell became evident, my behavior altered in a way that slowly became startling to me, until the point where I was terrified to look myself in the mirror, or feared what would occur if I allowed myself 5 minutes of alone time, uninterrupted by the impulses of an outside world. I found this self so repulsive, so hideous, that I locked it away in the depths of my soul, convincing everyone, but mostly myself, that he was gone. I began to wear sweaters, and say nice things. I gave up on meat, then foods that hurt the environment, then any behaviors I had that had a negative effect on anyone. I played jump rope with this line of morality, as if I was digging new dungeons to store all of the parts of myself that I didn't like.
And then hell comes back up to reality. With this, I do not mean some sort of metaphor, of some overarching analogy of the social construct of those at the bottom. I mean a literal definition of hell, in the non-religious sense. When you reach it, or when you see someone currently in hell, you know it. You can’t look at them, and if you do, a feeling of shame and guilt overwhelms you. The same way that all life is a form of suffering is an everlasting truth that we can deny, but not hide from, so is the realization that hell, along with heaven, as a place that we can go to. Everytime the self that I created, this person who was meant to please the world and be loved by all, was shaded, or left out, or told that they are evil, I found myself in a minor form of hell, staring at all of the characteristics that I had vanquished from myself.
Everytime I felt my world crumble, and the foundations that I built my reality on shake, I could feel the deadwood I encapsulated myself in slowly fall off. When this occurred, and when I was sent down to stare face to face with the me that was so scary when I was younger, I was meeting what Carl Jung calls my shadow. And it is only now, in the middle of my latest descend into the belly of the beast, that I have realized that I can no longer lock away this part of me. That this idea that I am a holy and good person, without any speck of hatred or evil floating around was a lie, which explains that stark and overwhelming psychological reaction that would take place when the world would tell me that I am not a very good person.
Maybe there is no such thing as good people, just those either strong enough to incorporate, and control their shadow, or those weak enough to pretend they don’t have one, and there is no good in the weak. “No one deserves to be praised for kindness if he does not have the strength to be bad; every other form of kindness is most often merely laziness or lack of willpower…. Weak people cannot be sincere” - François de La Rochefoucauld.
I pulled off a board when I realized that being a vegetarian wasn’t close to my heart anymore. I was woefully unaware that this was the board that I was standing on, which, when gone, plunged me down into heat so hot that I feel every other board burning. It is only in the furnace of self reflection that I realize I have been living a facade of lies. I was so painfully stunned when I saw that capacity for evil that laid inside of me, that I jumped to the other end of the spectrum and did everything I could to never allow that part of me to see light again. I see now that I didn’t become a vegetarian, or a peace advocate, or leave to go ‘save the world’ because I was driven by a holy realm inside of me. No, I did all of these because I was too scared of who I may actually be, and I needed to convince myself that I was a good person.
So like the authors of “The Tools” have been telling us to do for years, I have learned to love this pain, or the middle ground of what I like to call a minor hell. A minor hell is when your faced with information that contradicts a part of you, and you realize that something needs to die. It is when others treat us in a way different than our self expectancy, and we need to re-evaluate, or when we find the things that we are aiming at don’t fill our souls anymore. As opposed to a major hell, which is a place we go to when our world feels as though it is over. When a loved one dies, or our spouse of 20 years shares the reality of an affair, or any other moment that plunges us to the depths in a way unimaginable.
When we look around and all we see is fire and pain, there are usually only two options. We can allow ourselves to die, or at least allow the self that we knew to die, and undergo a voluntary rebirth. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, we emerge new, born again in a way that we could never had imagined beforehand, in the same way that the residents of my home town could have never imagined the oasis that would follow. Or, we could stay in hell, and fight the pain every step of the way, either dying (literally), or allowing ourselves to live a life that may be more painful than death itself. When we understand that despite all of the pain that these moments bring, there is knowledge, growth, and choice in them, we then understand why “The Tools” authors tell us to seek out pain in the world.
This seeking becomes a craving, as we develop a sick joy for the adverse situation, the failures, the truth that lies in the taunts. We burn off all of our dead wood, and instead encapsulate us in a lack of fear, shame, or denial of the evil that lies inside of us. We accept that their is a part of us inside that connects with some of the darkest moments in history, and we become a good person despite it, not in fear of it. (Fun side note: In his Maps of Meaning course at the University of Toronto, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson breaks down the moral wall between normal people and the Nazi Regime, showing how a Nazi camp guard was more similar to us as we would like to think. The goal is to get his students to understand that there is a shadow inside of us, and that if put in the same situation, there is a good probability that we would have done the same things that camp guards did. Once we understand that, then we can work to control it, and behave differently if ever faced with the opportunity.)
While the foundation of my sense of self seems to be falling apart by the minute, and the world seems to be caving in, I have developed an odd fascination and enjoyment of this minor hell. Like a reflection circle, the more I burn off, and better I become. Soon, all of the minor hell's I face in life will become like speed bumps, taken in stride, and the major hell's I inevitably encounter will never be enough to keep me there forever. When we begin to see these moments of pain and exile as learning opportunities, or detours, instead of dead ends, we begin to lose the emotional attachment that comes with rejection, failure, or anything else we feared. Malcolm X, who rose from prison to civil rights leader stated, “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time” (regardless of your feeling of his views and the way he went about them, we must acknowledge the wisdom in his words).
I wrote this as a self reflection letter to myself, as a message to remember to not let this hell ruin my world. I wrote this as a reminder that I must go through a life changing drought, and then a drowning flood before I can ever reach my oasis (and that I may even have to go through them many times). I wrote this as a retelling of the truth I accept that tells me that in order to reach enlightenment, or order to grow, we must first shrink. Lastly, I wrote this as an understanding, and a piece of advice to myself to not let these moments, and not to let the words of others impact how you see yourself.
Because, soon, after enough growth, we begin to lose worry of others opinions of us, and the words used like knives to penetrate our hearts have no effect.
“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, or he would not have mentioned these alone.’” -Epictetus
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” -Marcus Aurelius
“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” -Marcus Aurelius