Thursday, August 9, 2012

Taming the Beast Within: My Misspent Youth

Win Blevins.  Stone Song: A Novel About the Life of Crazy Horse.  New York: Forge, 1995.  ISBN: 0812533690.

The story of His Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko) is fascinating, and Blevins is a very good storyteller.  I recommend this book without reservation as one of the most thoughtful, interesting accounts of the old American West that I have read.  Like many good novels, it also offers a great window into the human soul, a window through which I would like to look at my own soul for a minute here.

Blevins does a very good job of portraying the Sioux religion: he is accurate, thorough without being overbearing, and compelling ("almost thou persuadest me to become a Lakota").  The Sioux believe that every human being is born with a special character (unique to them) that it is their personal duty to cultivate.  For Crazy Horse, this character takes the form of a spirit animal dwelling inside him: a hawk, whom he refers to simply as Hawk.  Hawk guides him toward the crucial decisions he must make in life, helping him cope with difficult circumstances and emotions. 

As a young man, Crazy Horse's most pressing task is becoming familiar with Hawk and the other, larger spiritual powers at work in the world: he does this by going out alone into the wilderness, where he fasts, prays, and meditates.  For a long time, he does this with no issue: he feels ashamed, rejected by the universe, worthless.  Then, when he is about to give up and return to his village empty-handed, he receives a waking vision that shows him his place in the world (a Rider with a Hawk going to war alone).  The rest of the book tells how he uses this vision as a tool for understanding and overcoming the challenges that life brings him.

I really like thinking of the individual human psyche as an animal.  We are all animals, in my view, and growing up is about coming to terms with that reality -- hopefully in a way that enriches us as individuals and communities.  In this essay, I want to talk about my personal experience growing up and dealing with the beast within (i.e. with my character, my habits and thoughts, my soul).  I am going to try to be very honest and straightforward, but this is a tough subject, so I apologize in advance if I appear unclear or untruthful.  One very important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that my journey is not someone else's journey.  I cannot talk about someone else the same way I talk about myself.  I do not know others the way I know myself.  I do not judge them the way I judge myself.  I do not expect from them the same things I expect from myself.  In other words, what follows is about me, not you (no matter who you are).  Another thing to remember is that our memories are constantly changing: the more we look at the past, the more it changes.  If you do not like the way I remember myself today, hang on: you may like my memories better tomorrow.

Adolescence is a hard time: it is difficult being trapped between childhood -- with the freedom to learn and explore infinitely without much fear (if you have a good childhood as I did) -- and adulthood, with its larger responsibilities and dangers.  It strikes me, as I look back at my own experience, that I tried really hard to reject my spirit animal.  I did not want to grow up, mostly because this seemed to involve me falling into patterns of behavior that I could not avoid that were extremely evil.  When my inner Hawk began to wake up, I was not always happy with it.  I did not make it a personal guide for dealing effectively with moral crises.  There were times when I hated it and even tried to destroy it.  How did this happen?  How did I change from a happy kid into a brooding teenager?  How did I go from being relatively happy (as it seems now) to being depressed, scared, and paranoid?  Well, the matter is really complicated (resisting any easy understanding), but I think it began with sex. 

I remember when I first learned what sexual intercourse was: I was about eleven years old, and I thought that it was about the grossest thing imaginable.  People "urinate" into each other: how disgusting!  But this also made it paradoxically intriguing (like any weird fact about life).  My mom had the right response to my shock -- she said something like, "Oh, it's actually quite nice: don't give up on it just yet."  About the same time, I started having unexpected, unwanted thoughts about women.  I would be reading or playing the recorder or doing some routine task and BAM! the thought of some woman I had seen would appear in my mind's eye unbidden, unlooked for, and strangely attractive (at first, they were always older women: teachers, newly-weds in our church congregation).  Also, I would wake up every morning with a boner: my dad had already warned me about this, and to do him credit he never said anything about its being any kind of sin.  It was just another weird fact of life, something that adults had to deal with.  So far, so good.  But unfortunately, my parents were not the only people I turned to for help with sex (or life in general).

At the same time of my life, right on the threshold of puberty, I heard the call that drove young Crazy Horse into the wilderness to look for a vision.  For me, answering that call meant reading a lot of Mormon scripture (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Bible, which I read many times in the King James Version), praying intensely, fasting, and looking for God in the world around me and inside me.  As a result of all this activity, I had a very intense religious experience (akin to the vision of Rider and Hawk that Crazy Horse received).  I was converted to Mormonism -- really converted, wholly convinced.  I went up to the pulpit several times as a youth with no prompting and bore my own testimony (no rote memorization required) that God had spoken to me.  As I look back, it seems to me that the reading, praying, fasting, meditating, and testifying were all important things: they represented a positive attempt on my part to contact and connect with the adult personality waking up inside me.  I was reaching out in a peaceful, nurturing way to my spirit animal, offering Hawk my arm and inviting her to tell me her secrets, secrets that I really needed if I was going to survive the process of growing up.  And then to my delight, she came and perched on my arm.  But success is never simple: every victory comes with a problematic aftermath.

In the story of Crazy Horse, the vision of Rider is a curse until young Crazy Horse goes to his father (the village medicine man) and confesses it as part of a special iniatiation ceremony.  Crazy Horse is initially on bad terms with his father, so he avoids speaking of his vision (and must wear shabby clothes to avoid angering the higher powers that the Sioux recognize behind lightning, thunder, and sudden turns of fortune -- powers that my background would lead me to name God).  Another medicine man from nearby notices Crazy Horse's unkempt attire, reads its significance correctly, and tells the young Lakota that he must confess to his father.  But no one forces him.  No one makes the decision for him: in the end, he goes to his father on his own, receives purification, and becomes integrated into the tribe as an adult.  But this process takes a long time, during which Crazy Horse wanders in the wilderness while his father remains available but aloof (respecting his son's privacy).  Here my story diverges from that of Crazy Horse.  After my epiphany, I wanted to talk.  I wanted to confess to a medicine man, have my dream interpreted, and improve my connection with Hawk.  But my Mormon priesthood leaders were not like the Lakota medicine men who helped Crazy Horse.  While I do not doubt that their intentions were just as good, they did not respect my privacy -- Hawk's privacy -- and I was too naive to defend myself -- to defend Hawk -- from their pointed inquiries about the state of my being, about the welfare of my soul.

I came back from the wilderness far too early.  I came back and walked directly into priesthood classes where my well-meaning leaders told me (1) that masturbation was a sin comparable to murder; (2) that women who didn't wear enough clothing were walking pornography; (3) that I could not participate or integrate with my community as long as I was sexually active (in any way) outside the boundaries of a heterosexual marriage; (4) that the only course for setting myself free from a lifetime of terrible depravity was confessing every sexual misstep I might make to my bishop.  I internalized this message with all the fervor of a medieval Catholic saint, and the results were not pretty.  (1) I became obsessed with making my boners go away, and I felt very bad (sometimes even physically ill) every time random thoughts of women invaded my mind.  (2)  I lost my ability to communicate freely with nubile women and girls my own age.  Since they were sexy and I couldn't have any sexy thoughts (let alone actions) outside of marriage, why bother talking to them?  The risk was greater than the reward (from my naive perspective).  Sometimes, I judged them when they wore clothing that I found provocative (though I am happy to say that I never let this attitude get out of hand: I always recognized that the fundamental moral problem was weakness in myself, not some gigantic flaw pervading almost the entire female gender living outside the burkha).  (3)  I worried all the time about my worthiness to participate in Mormon ceremonies (which I really loved: I relished getting to church early each Sunday to prepare sacrament; I loved saying the prayers; I loved passing the bread and water around the congregation; I loved attending the temple to do baptisms and confirmations).  It tore me up inside to think that something so wonderful might be taken away from me merely because I couldn't make a boner go away in time (e.g. before I had a bad thought or got too sexually excited).  It made me angry, at myself (for being so weak!) and the world (for being so mean!).  (4)  I became a regular visitor in my bishop's office, where I was constantly begging for forgiveness -- more and more wretchedly, as it became ever clearer to me that the only way to make the boners go away for good was to castrate myself (a solution to which I gave more than passing thought, though thankfully I never actually tried it).

Because I followed the well-meaning counsel of my Mormon leaders, the delicious taste of heaven that my religious conversion had brought quickly became as bitter as hell.  Hawk shredded my arm with her talons, gouged my face with her beak, and flew away screaming where I could not follow.  After she left, I would sit up late at night or rise early in the morning, sobbing -- longing for the peace, the happiness, the openness, the safety that I felt before sex came and destroyed everything good in my world.  In my head, I was wearing the rags that Crazy Horse wore.  I hated myself.  I despised my weakness -- my inability to follow simple instructions from God, who reached out to me through my priesthood leaders (generously, continuously, even though I kept letting him down over and over again).  I was the lowest form of life imaginable, worse than the most noxious animal anywhere: animals fulfilled the measure of their creation, whereas I couldn't follow simple instructions from a loving God who just wanted me to avoid things that were bad for me anyway.  Many times, more than I can count, I really wanted to die.  It was awful.

For many years, I lived in a kind of perpetual dark night of the soul: I would be happy momentarily, engaged in some worthwhile pursuit (like gardening or studying or working out), and then I would remember that Hawk was gone, that she was never coming back, that I had driven her away with my sinfulness.  And I would get angry -- at myself (at Hawk), at the world, at people who looked at me askance (or wore bikinis, or did anything to remind me of the gaping wound I carried around inside).  But the overarching emotion that defined my experience was despair, the black hopelessness that comes from being in a caught in a problem to which there is no solution.  The Pretty Reckless have a song that expresses my emotion(s) very well:

Lay my head, under the water  
Lay my head, under the sea  
Excuse me sir, am I your daughter?  
Won't you take me back, take me back and see? 
There's not a time, for being younger 
And all my friends, are enemies  
And if I cried unto my mother 
No she wasn't there, she wasn't there for me 

Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 

Broken lines, across my mirror  
Show my face, all red and bruised  
And though I screamed and I screamed, well no one came running  
No I wasn't saved, I wasn't safe from you 

Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down 
Don't let the water drag you down  

Don't let me drown, don't let me drown in the waves, 
Oh I could be found, I could be what you had saved 
Saved, saved, saved!
Lay my head, under the water 
Aloud I pray, for calmer seas 
And when I wake from this dream, with chains all around me  
No, I've never been, I've never been free 
No, I've never been, I've never been free 
No, I've never been, I've never been free

It was remarkably like drowning all the time, loaded with chains that wouldn't come off, and other people just didn't understand: my parents didn't understand (though they really tried, I think), my church leaders didn't understand, and I was too ashamed and insecure to reach out to anyone else.  I should emphasize that it didn't overwhelm me utterly, at least not every moment: I enjoyed some very good times as an adolescent, times I remember fondly to this day -- but this mess was always in the back of it, like a monster lurking inside me, waiting for a lull in the action to emerge and eviscerate me.  Hawk felt betrayed, and she really took it out on me (over and over again: I sometimes wondered if we would ever be friends again, the way we were before sex came into the picture).

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