This is a note to myself, for the help of myself. Perhaps onlookers will find some good in it too.
The writing is in response to The Week’s review of Allen v. Farrow, HBO’s series documenting the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen and his, then 7-year-old daughter. This isn’t, perhaps, news. Neither is it revelational. Instead, it reminds me how intertwined good is with bad. “How easy it would be,” I think, “to become prey in a world constantly incentivizing growth and sensational imagery.” I must remind myself to seek the river beyond the mirage.
Perhaps I was a pessimistic child, a sad-boy teen. And perhaps my mother was too much my friend and not enough my mother. I say this to preface what I said: in this memory, my mother and I posited premature death — as we often did — and I responded with words to the effect of, “So what?” I was eighteen then; I’d driven race-cars; I’d enjoyed world travel and feast; and most recently, I’d had sex. In my mind, I’d already experienced the lofty peaks promised by a Good Life.
My parents surpassed their middling birthright. The single-bathroom homes of their childhood were dwarfed by eight-bathroom monstrosities for their retirement. They had made it, and they brought me with them. I had made it by association. And now, at the end of a finite world, I asked, “What’s left for me?” And at death I scoffed, “So what? You’re too late. I’ve already lived.”
My mother soon died. She died as all good people die, with God on her lips: “God is good. God is good. Don’t forget, God is good.” She said it from her ICU bed, said it just to my sister and me after our father cleared the room for goodbyes. Both of us awestruck and paralyzed, I spoke for my sister. Speechless, I defaulted to my awkward, “Alrighty, then,” and that-was-that. Alrighty, then. And we left, and the nurses resumed their nursing, and my father returned, and in the morning of the next day we learned of her death the previous night. I continued asking myself, “So what? What’s left for me?”
To honor my mother, I humored the church, as I’d humored the Christian religion my entire life. My great grandmother blessed my birth with a monogramed bible, feeling I’d be a minister one day. In their minds it had to be so. My birth was six weeks premature and began with total brain failure: a stroke. “He’ll never walk,” said the obstetrician. “Perhaps he’ll never talk, and will surely suffer from stunted growth.” But in a statistically unfavorable — miraculous — result, I escaped all these fates, and the grueling moments of my infancy were discarded alongside every-other irrelevant memory — how quickly the body forgets pain after assuming comfort.
Pain returns, however. In college, I honored my mother and humored the church. I kept scoffing at life, “So what?,” in the wake of all prosperity. I feared I was becoming Pierre, from the cautionary tale, Pierre Who Didn’t Care. Pierre didn’t care, and responded to all life-events with equal apathy, “I don’t care.” Then the day came when a lion threatened to eat the child, and Pierre responded, “I don’t care,” and so he was eaten. And in the belly of the lion he realized he cared very much, and he was cured of his apathy and ultimate dissatisfaction. And I wondered, not caring, when life’s lion would arrive to devour me.
At college my peers were in parallel, struggling to buttress joy with achievement. And so it was the church who promised us peace, and love, and joy, and all the real feelings we craved but failed to satisfy. We were promised success, and eternal treasure, and salvation from hell, but us chapel-pews were drunk on the prospect of being saved and were never privy to the process. Concurrently, and especially as the church continued to preach and failed to teach, we pew-boys and prospective acolytes were doping ourselves with sex, or vocation, or popularity, or faith, forever outsourcing love and joy to all the things we did and believed, and never finding any definitive source.
If my life resembles an average life, then perhaps you’ll see in me some of yourself. The church left my questions unanswered. “What’s left for me?” I pursued relationships; I sought love. I pursued achievement; I sought worth. I pursued philosophy; I pursued drugs; I pursued help; I pursued psychiatrists, and therapists, and treatment centers; I sought joy; I sought understanding. I sought peace and some answer to my restlessness and suffering. I had reached the height of physical splendor far sooner than modern life anticipates, and it left me in crisis from the very beginning, as if I was born apathetic to the world, but not apathetic — I could not keep myself still. Instead, I was solving for stillness.
I sought. I did not have. And anything to be sought cannot totally be had, not permanently. Because to earn anything proves it was once not had, and this proves the possibility of not having it again. And so long as this possibility exists, the seeking persists. For the seeking to possess becomes the seeking not to lose.
I sought love in my relationships; I did not have love. I sought joy in my work; I did not have joy. I sought answers from my church; I did not have answers. This is why spiritual teachers, religious texts, and self-help bloggers echo the same words, “Go within yourself; be still and know that I am God; you are enough.” We are born with everything we require. The love we will eventually find was always available to us, awaiting our realization.
So we’ve arrived at the denouement, and the climax of our failed suicides, or medications, or desires. And we’re ever-wiser for it. We’ve felt love in the dopiness of a high, or in the drunkenness of revelry, or in the achievement of a goal, or in the prestige of society and communal significance; and we’ve arrived at the purpose of life, deciding it’s got to do with this love we’ve felt; and yet, we’re simultaneously decided to refuse anymore heartache because this painful suffering will surely haunt us until it is resolved. We’ve concluded that the end of every outward path is a regrettable ending. Regrettable because for so long we’ve relied on these paths to nourish us, and for so long they have nourished us. And then on the day of their termination, these paths abruptly cease, and we’re abandoned by them and left forever hungry.
Isn’t it true? Can’t we foretell this end prior to its ending? My path towards sex was fiery and energizing until the climax of its end, at which point I was exhausted and scarred by lust. And my work path was rich with promise and significance until the day it was sold, or acquired, or bankrupt, or retired and I was finished. And my church was inspiring and comforting until the day my pastor retired and my small-group disbanded, and I was left aware of my nudeness without them. It has me asking myself, “How many meals must I eat, how many paths must I take before realizing, upon arriving, upon completing the meal, I will grow hungry again?”
Just this morning, just before beginning this note to myself, I’m reading the news, The Week Magazine, the worldly headlines and sensations, and among all the heartache, I’m struck most by the publication’s acclaim of HBO’s docuseries, Allen v. Farrow. Finally, they quote, “Is Woody Allen’s career toast?” Allen was accused of sexually assaulting his seven-year-old daughter, of which, of course, was inconsequential to his career. Now Allen’s 85, and a substantial vat of video evidence and journalism is proving his culpability and exposing an irrefutable truth that he did molest his daughter. And it’s easy to applaud the production for this damning evidence, just as it’s a relief to think some justice was achieved. But it’s hard to celebrate the good when its source is the same source of the bad.
I consider how ironic it is for HBO to condemn a sex abuser when so many of their productions romanticize sex, and require sex as the sugar for their recipe. Just from memory I recall my favorite HBO show: the first season of true detective, beginning with the death of a teenage girl, left for vultures, head-dressed and tied nude as the catalyst for the plot; and I think most recently of Euphoria, and the cinematic tales of overdose and pedophilia, suffering and delusion, a tragic high-school coming-of-age. I consider the sexual imagery of these shows: old men flirting, raping, murdering young girls, on loop, lust burned into my screen; the plots are all the same, splintered into dramas, actions, and romances.
Then I consider the many girls and boys on TikTok and Snapchat, dancing, singing, monetizing their lives for public attention. I turn to Netflix and my family is watching simulated sex over a home-cooked meal. They say it’s not bad because the accents are proper, and the dress is classical. They say it’s just Bridgerton; everyone is watching it. And the featured apps in my phone are a constant tug between mindfulness/productivity and social-media/dating. Not for one day in the past two years of Apple’s new App Store has Tinder not been a featured app, and yet not for one press-release in the past two years has Apple not rhetorically valued the ideals of digital well-being and mindfulness. It has me asking, “Which is it? If pedophilia and sexual impropriety is so wrong, why do we continue making these themes the foundation of our entertainment, our media, and our lives?”
In the end, the answer is both; the answer is always both. The good is a product of the bad, and vice versa. So I say, as a note to myself, “Be wary of sex” — this is the note’s hook. Of course, sex is not the problem. Be wary not just of sex, but more figuratively, be wary of all the paths sex represents. Gratifying my senses with succulent foods and feelings is not itself dangerous, but endangers me when I seek these pleasures to remedy my dissatisfaction in life.
The true warning is simple. The true warning tells us to keep living our lives. Keep doing good; keep being good. Keep correcting injustices, keep celebrating the condemnation of evils. And the true warning is simple: be wary when we require damnation to feel peace; be wary when we depend on justification; be wary when we depend on people loving us, when we seek external love; be wary when our livelihoods require our approval, or have the ability to disappoint. The true warning is simple; it nags us, “Not-so-fast, dear boy. It looks like somebody is looking for more. It looks like somebody has come to the end of their destination, unsatisfied. Not-so-fast, dear boy. There’s no where left to go.”
“So what?,” asks the dear boy. So sit. So meditate. So be still. So realize joy and peace are not possessions, and conversely, are never lost. No matter the path we take, the path will always end, and in the end, the path cannot be the source of satisfaction when only we remain. We must be that source for ourselves. So may we find God however is suitable to us, and may we make quick work of our mistakes so we are certain only God remains. May we sex our way to sadness sooner rather than later. May we drown ourselves in riches sooner rather than later. May we fame our way to solitude sooner rather than later, so sooner rather than later we are left with just our naked selves asking, “So what? What’s left for me?” May this question aid our arrival and quench our desires.