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Worth the Fighting For

March 26 2015

The world is a beautiful place and worth the fighting for, I only wish I didn't have to leave it. - For Whom the Bell Tolls

The above quote is not a cry for help. I just find it beautiful, and it is a great place to start from. I'm about to write about some topics (mental issues, God, life) that I'm hesitant to talk about, because for many people I know, they might seem like an admission of guilt, or they're just worries about non-practical things and a bunch of hot air. They might even be things which will limit my future options. But they are, ultimately, things I believe and want to keep believing, so I'm going to write them down. Sometimes writing things down is cathartic because thoughts which were only previously in your head are now made concrete and you can't go back from them.

These are just the thoughts of an honest person trying to work their way through life. Please read accordingly.

From time to time, things happen in your life which make you take a step back and reconsider it all. What I mean by this, is there are a lot of things that happen from day to day and you don't think anything of them: they fit perfectly within your already existing view of the world and so they don't challenge you. But sometimes, whether by sheer luck or something more (if you believe in that), you run into situations, people, or times which do make you reconsider things. When this happens it is almost always painful, or at least this is my experience.

I very vividly remember one of those moments in my life. It happened about five or six years ago. For those of you who don't know (is anyone reading this, anyway?), I have obsessive compulsive disorder. Some of you will read this and a lot of stuff will make perfect sense about me, but others of you will be surprised by this. Through constant support and encouragement by my friends and family and those who love me, today I am pretty much okay. OCD doesn't stop me from doing much. That isn't how it always was, though.

The thing about OCD and other forms of mental disorders or illness is they often hit in early adulthood. This was certainly the case for me. I've always been a bit of a perfectionist, and I was told that when I was practically a baby, I sat at this one bookshelf for hours and rearranged the books until they were just right, pulled them all off and tried again out of frustration. I remember when I was ten or eleven, I got into turning light switches on and off a set number of times. I'd check and and recheck, and check again doors to make sure that they were really locked so that nobody could come in the middle of the night and hurt me and my family. These kinds of things ultimately went away in my teenage years (I actually think whatever comfort I got from church at that time helped), but they were early warning signs.

In the summer of 2008, when I was 22, I thought my life was really about to start. I was just about to graduate from college, I had moved into a house with a couple buddies (one of which I am still very good friends with), and I had started to actually sit down and work on some stuff which I had been dreaming about for a few years. It was at this time that the OCD hit, and it hit hard. Really hard. Things didn't seem right or clean. I would do things over and over until they were "correct", and it was rarely good enough. It is difficult to explain the amount of stress and mental pain this caused. OCD can manifest itself in a lot of ways, whether by things you mentally obsess about or by actual compulsions which you feel required to do. It was the closest thing to hell I can imagine or ever want to imagine.

Have you ever seen The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio? It is about Howard Hughes. Hughes was absolutely brilliant. He was born in Houston, lost both of his parents before he was twenty, then took his dad's oil drill fortune to Los Angeles where he very nearly wasted every cent of it trying to make the perfect motion picture, Hell's Angels. It was a masterpiece. He went on to make many other blockbusters and challenged industry censors which took issue with the provocative ways he was showing actresses (whom he often dated). He also designed his own airplane (which the Japanese may have used as the basis for their primary fighter plane in World War 2), set world records, and even got into the airline industry. He did all of this before he was forty. The great tragedy of Hughes, though, was that he had OCD. Back then nobody knew what it was. He just seemed like a crazy eccentric person. It got worse and worse and he ultimately died alone, drug-addicted, and in pain. I mention him because there is a scene in the movie where DiCaprio is looking at some blueprints for a plane his company is designing, walks away, then says, "Show me the blueprints". He then repeats this phrase over and over and over. I'm no Howard Hughes, if you hadn't noticed, but my friends and I used to laugh about the scene because it seemed like the kind of stuff I might do. There are other scenes depicting his OCD in the movie that I can relate to even more strongly, but I won't go there.

Enough Howard Hughes. My very last day of school I got into a car wreck. Truthfully, I'm lucky that I didn't die (a few more feet down the driver's side and it would have been much, much worse), and only received a concussion. Later on people have told me that the car wreck caused my OCD to flare up, but I remember clearly that very day, while I was going back and forth doing unnecessary things, thinking that my OCD would kill me. Thankfully it did not. This was, however, the beginning of some kind of end. Things got so bad that I had to leave my roommates and move back with my parents. My roommates took this as something that I held against them personally, did not understand, and were very angry and upset. This is not their fault, as they didn't understand my disorder (I didn't really, either). The night that I told them I was moving back home, the conversation did not go well, and I remember sitting in my mom's car, crying as hard as I have at any point in my life. I did not understand why this was happening.

Back at home, things didn't really get better. The OCD lead to a deep depression. I would sit in a recliner in my dad's room for hour upon hour watching stupid shows on the Discovery Channel, sleeping as much as I could to make it all go away, which of course, it did not. I tried to bargain with God. I seriously prayed that somehow I could go back in time before all of this had happened so I could be happy and do things right. The world does not work like that. I wanted to die. I never would have been able to kill myself, as I think that takes some kind of courage (wrong and misguided courage) to do. But I'd imagine hanging myself and making it all go away. Aside from the fear, I think the only thing that stopped me was the thought of those I'd leave behind, especially my youngest brother Jackson. He was only two, we were very close, and I knew if I did that it would be something he would never understand and have a hard time recovering from.

At the time it was very hard to see how I could ever be happy again. Tomorrow wasn't going to be better. Next week wasn't going to be better. Hell, a year later didn't seem like it would change things. One of the few things that gave me comfort during this time was the thought that, yeah, I was miserable at 22, but what about 10 years later? What could change in 10 years? A lot could change. Did I really want to give up on life when there was so much time for things to be okay? I didn't. I stayed in the game.

Finally, we get to that life-changing moment I mentioned at the beginning. It was one of those miserable days at my parents house. I believe I was the only person home. I walked into the living room, and for the very first time in my life, I felt completely alone in the universe. I didn't believe anyone could possibly understand what I was thinking, and whatever thoughts I had previously had about God, either he wasn't there or didn't care about me. I was alone.

Prior to this point, from about thirteen (when my friend invited me on a ski trip) to then, I had been pretty heavily involved in church. It is a Baptist church, fairly conservative and evangelical. I really believed it. I'd carry a Bible around in school, speak out in class on issues, etc. Sometimes I look back on it and am pretty embarrassed, because, while I meant well, I was an obnoxious, naive teenager. But I really believed it and I really cared. I can probably recall Bible stories, passages, and verses better than a lot of church-going Christians I know today. That's not bragging, it's just a fact. I believed God was real, and I believed that if you did right, if you prayed, that he could actually act in your and other people's lives. I'd pray for signs about things, and because of my latent, unrealized OCD, probably gave a lot more meaning to coincidence than I should have (though, there are some things I will always wonder about). Some of my actions were a bit delusional, for those of you whom were affected by them during that time, I apologize. To be clear, I'm not saying my beliefs were what the church taught or would teach today. They were, however, what I believed and I lived accordingly.

After the moment in my parent's living room, however, the process towards my unbelief in God was kick started. I started reading a fair amount of literature on atheism (which I had been afraid to challenge myself with as a Christian before), thought they made a lot of really great points (I still think that Christian apologetics literature, which I had been very fond of, is unintentionally dishonest and misleading) and slowly accepted that I was alone. This was pretty terrifying. Accepting this meant not only a disbelief in God, it meant, for me, a disbelief in things happening for a reason, and it meant a disbelief in some kind of afterlife. I was actually going to die one day, and that's that. To me, non-existence is more terrifying than hell. I like life. I don't want it all to just end. But if that's how things are, what can you do?

Those that knew me may have no idea that I was going through this. I kept attending church and Bible study pretty regularly. I didn't attend because I believed it, I attended because I still loved the people there and I liked the community. That's one thing I've realized over the years of being out of the church - human beings need to socialize. They need to be part of a group, they need to feel like they are a part of some community and something bigger than themselves. But that's all it was. I bit my tongue more times than you can imagine when people said things I didn't agree with (and I will to this day, hurting friendships over petty issues isn't worth it). I listened to more sermons and songs that I wanted no part of than I care to count. But I still loved and do love the people there.

Finally, I moved on. I moved out of my parent's house, stopped attending church. Because of my OCD and enabled by my work arrangements, I would literally not step out of my apartment for weeks at at time. It is a lot easier than you think. I stopped seeing people, including my family. I had a lot of weird tics, I didn't like to say certain words or letters, for fear of them being ruined to me. Actually, that's what they whole period was about. I knew from my previous struggles with OCD, that incidents (very small things) had happened which I would immediately regret, ruminate about, and I'd think about for weeks on end, with great pain. Things which I had previously loved would get associated with negative thoughts and I would hate them. The way I fought that was to just not do things I loved. If I didn't do them, if I didn't do anything, they couldn't get hurt, they would be safe, I couldn't get hurt, I would be safe. It isn't much of a way to live, but it worked for me, at the time.

Long-story short, that went on for a couple of years, but within the last year, things have started to change. The steps were very gradual. I just started doing things, one after another, that I hadn't done before. And you know what? The world didn't end. I'm fine. This has given me the confidence to keep going and to continually improve. Now it is week after week that something new is happening, I'm feeling like my old self, or better, before it all happened. My fears, which trapped me, were completely unfounded. It was all bark and no bite.

During the bad times and during my recovery, I never recovered my belief in God. That loss, which terrified me at first, just stopped being something I thought about. This hasn't really affected my behavior. I never had the urge to get wild and go party and drink a lot (the latter is stupid no matter what you believe), I haven't had a lot of wild sex, I don't misuse people because I can get away with it. I just live. And really, I still believe and follow that line of Jesus: "love your neighbor as yourself". I might believe that even more because if your neighbor is all you have, if your neighborhood is all you have, well, then you'd better take damn good care of them and it. I love people because I want to be loved in return. It is the only true way to live.

Frankly, I'm a much better person than I was before. I genuinely care about people and not what I can get out of them. I'm much less judgmental and accept people's failings, because I hope they will accept mine. One of my friends, who has had a parallel path through belief, is in a similar spot. He was a bad person when he was a Christian. He really was. He suppressed a lot of things, was confused, in his own words was "out of control". But now he was one of my favorite people in the world, and someone I am grateful to have a has a friend. Maybe it is just growing up and a part of maturing. Actually, I've noticed pretty much all of my friends I grew up with in the church are a lot more mellow and much cooler people a decade later. I'm not saying that nonbelief is better than belief or anything else, I just want to challenge the belief that sometimes exists within the church that nonbelievers somehow somewhere have some moral failings or lack love. It is bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.

Recently, though, I had another one of those moments which makes you take a step back and reconsider things. Someone I knew has been dealing with some really painful stuff, and I've been trying to help them, as much as I can. I'm horrible at it. In this complete feeling of helplessness, I've been finding myself praying. It's a little embarrassing to do it, really, because I have very good reasons to believe that nobody is listening. If you ever want to have doubts about god (if you don't have reason enough in your own life), go read some articles on Wikipedia about serial killers and their victims. I know that is very macabre and extreme, and I do not recommend it unless you are certain you can handle it, because it is horrific and it could ruin your mental state. But that's life. That stuff actually happens. When you think about the terror, fear, and loneliness that those people must have felt in their last moments, it is incredibly, incredibly hard to imagine that if there is a god that he cares and is watching out or anything like that. Why a god would let that happen is incomprehensible to me.

Yes, That is an extreme. Must people don't experience anything like that. But we do experience things which make us have great doubt. I have great doubt. I'm not certain there is a god, and I think there's a lot of things that suggest there is not, but I still want there to be one or something like it. I want to believe the idea that our lives are not just a series of random chances. I want to believe that good people win and maybe something is helping them do that. I want to believe this is not all there is. But I doubt.

Yet I still find myself praying. Some people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic would be ashamed to say this. I'm not, just as I'm not ashamed to say that I am not a Christian in any traditional sense. I don't have a problem with prayer. Maybe just saying things or thinking things through is therapeutic. Maybe something really is listening and might help you out. What have you got to lose? I don't know. All I know is that I care about this person and I feel helpless.

I said I was bad at this stuff, and I am. Earlier this week I said the wrong things (trying to help) and I may never hear from them again. At first this made me really sad, and then I got unreasonably angry that I was being pushed away for caring. But last night I came to some strange kind of peace about it all (the kind of peace where your eyes get a little moist and you are just thankful to be alive and to have experienced what you have). I realized that if there is a god or something like it, then everything is going to work itself out in the end and things will be just fine. If there isn't and it is all just random chance, well, this is just how things are. It was random chance that led things to this point, it was random chance that led them away, and random chance will lead in another direction. There's just no point in worrying about it. Sometimes you can't do anything. That's okay.

That, more than anything else is what I needed to write down. I believe it now, but I need to believe it later, too.

Oh, this goes for death, too. I've long been scared of dying - while I was religious and since. Usually I don't think about it, but sometimes it comes back. The other day I woke up with the random thought "I'm going to die". That thought pressed down on me pretty hard. One day this will all be gone. Like I said, I don't want to not exist. I like living, I love living. But what can you do? If there is something more, it is going to be okay (I have zero interesting getting into whether you will or won't go to hell for nonbelief, if there is a god that does this to honest and loving people, I have no interest; this is not courage or arrogance, it is just how I feel). On the other hand, if there's nothing more after this, then you can't do anything. Why worry about it?

So, I've said a lot, but if you've come this far maybe you're willing to come a little further. I'd like to say a few more things about how I see life and my thoughts the point of it all, something that is both very naive and arrogant to share with others. But...what the hell.

What is the point of it all? Are we here by chance or is there something more? Does it matter?

Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that we are all a special snowflake. Hollywood, has, in turn, strongly reacted against that idea. In Fight Club, one of my favorite movies, Brad Pitt's character (or is it Ed Norton's character?), in all his 0% body fat gives one of the most depressing yet inspiring monologues in cinema:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No great purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war...our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock starts. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

Another point in the movie has Pitt saying "you're not special". You are not a special snowflake. Okay, it is true, you are not a special snowflake in Hollywood's overly romantic, everything will be perfect sense of the term. But you are more like a snowflake than you can know.

The odds of you being here are small. When I say small, I mean incredibly, incredibly minuscule. The odds against the universe exploding, all the right elements coming together, the Earth being suitable for life, all that jazz is impressive in and of itself (and still makes me consider god, despite arguments made to the contrary). But then there is you. 20,000 years ago one of your ancestors may have just avoided dying due to some wild animal. Five hundred years ago, an ancestor of yours lived through childhood, in spite of very high infant mortality rates. Other ancestors avoided starvation or disease. And then there's your grandparents, who just happened to make eye contact that day and the rest is history.

You shouldn't be here. But you are. There is not a single person in the world, nor has there ever been or will there ever be, that has the exact same genetic characteristics as you (no, not even twins). There's not a single person the world who has your temperament, or who has experienced what you have. You are unique. You are a special snowflake.

What does this mean? Well, it means you have something special to say to the world. Your ideas, the way you think about things, nobody else has them. If you do not share them with the world then it will forever be a smaller place. Your life is a story, the most important story, because it is yours and yours only. Nobody else can tell it. So tell it. Make it a damn good story, the kind of story that people will talk about well after you are gone. You don't have to be famous or historic, you just need to make it all count. Make your family, friends, your kids, your grand kids, and whoever else hears about you just shake their head and laugh at some of the things you did. I never knew my grandfather, Fred Fisher. He was murdered before I was born. But still, I feel like I know him. I know him just from the character of my mom, who has been a rock in my life. But I also have heard some stories. Yesterday my mom was telling me that one of his tics was to sit there and silently twirl his mustache when he was not happy about something. I couldn't help but to laugh. Oh, Fred.

Here's the thing about life and living. Yeah, it it sucks that we are going to die. Yeah, we are very small in the grand scale of everything, are fundamentally limited, and all have of weaknesses of our own. But that's what makes being a human being great. Go look at something older and much bigger than you. This seems like the appropriate place for a joke about a number of things, but I won't. No, really, go look at the stars or mountains or a number of other things. Yeah, they exist for millions, or billions of years, they have more power and strength than you can ever even imagine. Wouldn't you want to be like them? You shouldn't, as they are dead. They tell no stories. Everything that happens to them just happens. They have no agency of their own.

But you, in spite of your weaknesses, or maybe because of them, you do get to tell a story, you do get to chose your course of action. And those times you fight really hard for something and you come up just short or you achieve it, you can and should boast about it. Be proud about it. You fight in spite of how small you are. It is the bravest thing you can do. Maybe the universe is a dark, cold place. If it is (or even if there is something more), your way of fighting against it and all the bad shit that happens in the world is to keep kicking, keep loving, keep hoping. Stars, in spite of their strength, never get to boast. We admire things like that, but we don't really love them. What do we love? The people who do great things in spite of their own frailties. Those people are our favorite stories.

So write a damn good story.

I started this with a sentence by Ernest Hemingway. I know some people get terribly bored by his writing, some of the ideas in his writing are disappointingly off-color, and he had a complex relationship with women. Thing is, Hemingway really knew how to live and because of that he wrote some of the most beautiful stuff I've ever read. I mean, this was a guy who accidentally shot himself in his own legs while fishing with a machine gun. Oh, Ernest.

In Midnight in Paris, he is played by Corey Stoll (whom you might have seen without a wig in House of Cards). Hemingway was a caricature of a human being in real life, but the movie turns it up even more. He's just a larger than life character that spits out the most grandiose but earnest statements that you aren't sure he really believes. I love him for it. I'm going to leave you with one of his monologues which I think captures a lot of what I'm trying to say and is really powerful by itself. Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I have an eight-page exam due tomorrow.

I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte, who's truly brave, it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until it returns as it does to all men. And then you must make really good love again. Think about it.