Monday, March 18, 2013

Of Slackers, Control Freaks and Love

(Above: Kevin the Slacker / Kevin the Control Freak)


I was a slacker.

I could not hold down a day job.  I was constitutionally unable to work in any field other than bringing words to life - drama, theater, show biz.  Try to make a living at that, as a 20-year-old in St. Louis - I dare you.  I was an atheist, but I had a vocation, and I knew it.  I had a call that I had to answer, even if no one was on the other line when I picked up the phone.

And I filled in the best I could.  I did quite well performing singing telegrams - over 2,000 of them in a five-year period.  I supported myself for short periods in various ways - as a stand up comic, a magician, a drama teacher.  At one point, I toured to military bases in Korea, Japan and Australia with a show I wrote and produced.  I worked for a year or two as the Fool at the Royal Dumpe in St. Louis.  I sold inflatable entertainment items to colleges across the U.S. - sumo wresting suits, inflatable obstacle courses, etc.  I delivered flyers door-to-door while listening to cassette recordings of stage plays on my Walmkman.

One year things were so bad that I had to count the pennies in the penny jar my grandma had given me.  Seventeen dollars in pennies, money that I used to buy food the week my cash ran out.  This was at a time when I was living in a house where the rain would literally pour through the roof, but since I couldn't afford to pay the rent, the landlord wouldn't fix it.  He eventually evicted me.  I found a dryer place.


Ten years later, I was a control freak.

I spent every waking hour working for my business, Upstage Productions.  When I wasn't touring with shows, I was in the office writing, selling, rehearsing, directing.  I would almost never see my family.  My wife, who married me when I was a slacker, couldn't believe the transformation.  And she didn't completely like it, for I had gone too far in the opposite direction.

What happened?

I had found a way to make a living at something I loved.  Murder Mystery Dinner Theater shows gave me the opportunity to write and perform in productions that were funny, that involved improvisation and acting, and that paid very well - and it was an opportunity that seemed hand-crafted for me and my unusual mixture of talent and temperament.  Frustrated as I had been all those years of having such dearth prospects, I threw myself into murder mysteries with gusto, to the detriment of the rest of my life.

But what was the rest of my life?

The rest of my life was then and has since been the great mystery of libido - by which I mean not merely sexual energy, but "liking", "desire", "interest" - indeed "love".  Jung used the word more in this sense, and it is in this sense I use it - a term that includes sexual desire, but that is more than just sexual desire.  It is the motivation that provokes our interest in something else, the urge to get out of bed in the morning for a particular thing or person we seek.  Eros is perhaps a better term for libido, but Eros has a more specific sexual connotation, as well as a more expansive spiritual connotation - and libido can be content with worldly things, while Eros is never quite so content. I suspect many people struggle with libido and their struggles mirror mine, though mine have been particularly dramatic, in a life devoted to drama.


What do I mean by all this psycho-sexual gobbledygook?

First, libido is scary.  God calls us to serve Him by serving our neighbor, by engaging in our states in life, by working through the imperfect place he's put us in.  But doing this requires an abandonment to His will - actually more of an affirmation of His will - which means a renunciation, a sacrifice, a loss of control over our own little patterns and schemes.  And so, out of fear, we either draw back and become slackers or go hyper and become control freaks.

Let me give you some examples of the problems of libido (the problems of love), all taken from real experiences, names changed to protect the innocent.

  • At one time I employed the Sclubb Brothers, as I call them, to act in our touring Theater of the Word shows.  The Sclubb Brothers were a pair of 20-something slackers who had no interest in evangelizing through drama, but who thought smoking pot and staring into space was a hell of a lot of fun.  Getting rid of the Schlubb Brothers and hiring actors who actually cared about Christ and His Church was the best thing I ever did.
  • Pornography and masturbation are the stop-gaps for men who have trouble channeling their libidos.  It seems like the perfect solution - handle your sexual urges while keeping a handle (literally) on your sexual urges - fulfilling them after a fashion while making sure they don't draw you out of yourself; for the essence of sex (as I've elsewhere written) "is to be drawn out of oneself, and into another; it's a kind of death to self for the sake of the other, and the new life that such sacrifice brings with it."  And that's pretty darn scary and challenging, a lot more scary and challenging than the "imaginary harem" of porn and onanism.  (For more on this, see the C. S. Lewis quote below).
  • The most passive-aggressive thing a student or a friend can do is to withdraw interest.  Students who sit there brain-dead and answer any question with "I dunno" are impossible to reach, no matter how many tricks you as a teacher have in your bag.  Tap dance on your head, if you can, you won't reach the deliberately disengaged student, the student who hoards his or her libido and won't invest it in anything.  And worse than this is when a friend withdraws all libido from an existing friendship, while denying that any such thing is going on, and all the time the air is slowly seeping from the tires.  In either case, your hands are tied. 
  • Similarly, adult life (maturity) is about finding the thing you love, seeing that loving it will be fruitful, investing your libido in it (or in him or her), and yet practicing proper Stewardship of Love so that you don't get taken advantage of or waste the libido you're investing.
  • Many other defenses against the challenge of libido (the challenge of love) present themselves in people - a cultivated cynicism which keeps us safe from the pain we cynically disdain; aiming low and settling for jobs or people that are well within our grasp and who offer no threat of real excitement; a shield of ignorance or belligerence when faced with art or literature or philosophy, which is simply a refusal to allow a spiritual insight or a reasoned argument to reach us and change us (see almost everywhere on the internet, and most recently the combox here).

At any rate, this all ties into one overarching theme - we are called to respond to God's love and His gift of life with our own love - via libido, Eros, interest, gratitude, etc.  

And this is the central challenge of life.


Footnote: C. S. Lewis has written the most insightful two paragraphs on masturbation that I've ever read.  

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete and correct his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back; sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover; no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth.
And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. The true exercise of imagination in my view, is (a) to help us understand other people, (b) to respond to, and, some of us, to produce art. But it also has a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions, etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world – e.g., picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which is bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

I'm not too fond of Charles Williams, but Lewis' description makes me want to read that book.


Benjamin. said...

Yes, I am skeptical about Williams. I read he was once involved with occult practices. But I think he eventually left them. Tolkien seems to have had some respect for Williams' theology, though it is clear he didn't like his writing one bit.

Any how, some fellow named "Malcolm" something has some videos out on each of The Inklings. If you do a video search you can probably find them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything Lewis and you write about this subject, but there is a nagging issue that I've not figured out.

Nearly all men, including the priests that I know of (I actually talk to them about this in the confessional), have some issue with this. However, we can all agree that it is a grave sin, and that becomes more and more apparent the older we get.

The problem is, what do we teach our teenage boys about this? I was taught by nuns who succeeded in convincing me that boys engaged in masturbation are committing mortal sin, and go to hell if they don't get to the confessional first. This belief seriously affected my young life, and made me literally hate myself, to the point that I thought suicide was the only option, and I nearly carried that out. It was a terrible and unnecessary experience for a young man to go through. I confided this to my old man, leaving out the suicide part, and he just laughed, saying, "Sometimes son, you can't take it so hard. God does forgive, you know." Then I realized that he had gone through the same thing.

I didn't want any of this to happen to my children, so I've told them not to overdo it, and never to use pornography as an "aid," since that leads to the "infinite harem" that Lewis talks about, and hampers future possible relationships. The act itself is deleterious enough, but normal for most teenagers. Now, I couch the word "normal" for them, in the sense that it means "bound to happen, not desirable, and to be avoided when possible." But I've also told them not to run to the confessional every time it occurs. Perhaps I'm wrong in this, but I nearly took my life over it, and I won't put my kids through that.

(The anonymous poster that occasionally has a flare up disagreement with you that's usually based on something silly, as your son recently pointed out.)

Kevin O'Brien said...

I think this is where pastoral application of theology comes into play. Since most teen boys commit the act due to force of habit, stress and raging hormones, it could hardly be a mortal sin under those conditions. The Catechism calls it "grave matter for sin", but adds, "To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability." In other words, for teen boys it's hard to imagine masturbation as a mortal sin.

Kevin O'Brien said...

And for readers not familiar with the terminology, the Church teaches that for a sin to be mortal it must consist of grave matter (which the Church says masturbation is) and also be done with full knowledge that the act is seriously wrong and with full consent of the will. Acts of grave matter done without full knowledge and consent are not culpable mortally. I know of no teen boy, apart perhaps from saintly youth such as Dominic Savio, who would have the maturity to do this act with full knowledge and consent of the will.

Kevin O'Brien said...

And I'm sure Fr. Marty Moleski, SJ would agree with me. If he's out there reading and wants to chime in, he's welcome to!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the nuances here--it's really helpful. I have two little boys (so far) and am already wondering how to impart this Church teaching to them without scarring them!

I just want to say that I don't think the avoidance of pornography is really a protection against the "imaginary harem." (Though it is an important protection against a debilitating addiction.) Until I converted about a year ago I thought masturbation was normal and healthy (this was one of the teachings I resisted right up to the last minute). I (almost) never used pornography, but I still had quite the impressive, exotic "harem," as it were, built up through the abuse of my imagination. Painful now to remember how blasé I was about it, thinking I could just partition those thoughts off from the rest of my life. Now I can see clearly the real-world consequences of this behavior in my marriage.


Joey Higgins said...

Great post. I've been the slacker and partial control freak, but never really thought about it in the context you put it in. I think it's similar to "doing enough of the right things" that I have been contemplating.