In my efforts to gain sobriety I concluded that if I could figure out what my life’s purpose was, I could stop drinking for good. I was a rudderless ship on the sea of life! As coincidence would have it, at about the same time I had this epiphany one of my councilors introduced me to Existentialism. I didn’t exactly know what it was but I knew it had to do with philosophy and that it was DEEP! Plus with such a fancy name it had to be my golden ticket to finding my purpose. I immediately devoured several books on the subject. Today I can’t tell you what most of those books were or what their message was. Most of what I read and listened to was very academic. One concept in a book that did resonate with me was the concept of “cognitive dissonance”. The capacity to have two seemingly apposing views within yourself and be ok with it. On one hand we like to believe that we always act with our best intentions and that we are in fact…Good. However, under the right circumstances, we can act with bad intentions to achieve a needed goal. Instead of viewing everything in black and white, we can often view things in a gray spectrum. To be able to function in life with opposing views in our head is a sign of advanced intelligence. Its one of things that separates us from other animals.
A silly example I saw in a post recently went something like this: “In the morning I am encouraging my friends to be positive and let anger and resentment go. Be kind to others as you don’t know what battles they are fighting. Also me, on the way to work I am flying the finger and calling the guy in front of me an asshole for not using his turn signal.” Both acts are perfectly acceptable in my book. A more serious example may be “I would never ever steal. This is a moral I will never break.” Your wife and children are on the brink of starving to death. You have no money and a loaf of bread at a shop is ripe for the taking. Would you steal it? Probably. Very few things are black and white.
I naturally started to think about what “gray” events occurred in my past. What examples in my life have revealed opposing sides? What I came up with were not examples of Good and Evil. Maybe I was not ready to go there. But I did think of some stories that are pretty amusing.
I grew up in a small farming town. For the most part people worked hard, helped each other, and lead a wholesome life. It was a good place to grow up. The schools were small, everyone knew each, and church and sports were a big part of the community. Their was even a church based baseball league.
Football was a big part of my and my friend’s lives. After practice we would spend our time doing homework, going to our part time jobs, or just hang out. On weekends we would gather and drink beer by a bon fire. We weren’t saints, we did get into trouble from time to time but nothing serious. For the most part, we were good kids. We would never intentionally hurt anyone, physically or mentally.
On game day it all changed. About an hour before kickoff we would start to focus our rage. We were going to slaughter the other team. By the time we hit the field we were in frenzy. We were hard hitters. And we were good. We all wanted to be seen as unstoppable animals. I wanted to run over people and I wanted people to fear me.
This was a self induced transformation. And every year we got better at it. By the time we were seniors we were the best team in our division. After we finished pummeling our opponents, we shook hands, walked off the field to our girlfriends, and spent the night by the fire, beer in hand, telling tall tales of the game. The following days we moved on with church, school, work, and generally being a good people…until the next game.
After high school I got the opportunity to play football in college. Not just any college. A military college. This was taking being badass to a whole new level for me. Not only was I playing college football, but I was playing with guys who were training to be killers. The baddest of the bad. I felt like had arrived. People were going to be triple intimidated by me. You know…when I wasn’t tutoring other students or cheering them up with my unique brand of humor.
After training camp every year freshman went through an initiation ceremony. The whole team gathered in a large room. Each freshman, in turn, would stand in front of the entire team where they would be assigned a nickname that would be used throughout their entire four years with the team. Almost all of the nicknames were based on appearance or outstanding athletic ability or deficiency of ability. One large guy received the nickname “House”. He was really big. Another guy was called “Mr. Ed” because he had large teeth that looked like a horse’s set of teeth. A really fast guy might be called “white lightning”.
I couldn’t wait to get up there. What were they going to call me? Surely something like “Bruiser” because I hit hard. Or maybe “Dynamite” because I was an explosive runner. When it was my turn I had a huge smile on my face. Ear to ear. My chest puffed out to exaggerate my manliness. I couldn’t wait to receive the gift that I would be called for the next four years.
“Keebler!” someone shouted pointing at me in excitement. This was joined with great cheers. “He looks like a Keebler Elf!” another shouted. “Keebler! Keebler! Keebler!” they all started chanting. My smile vanished, chest sank, eyes widened. “What the hell is happening here?” I thought.
For the next four years my badass self, a rugged football player, in a college preparing men and women for war, was called “Keebler”. I was called “Keebler” by everyone in the school. Including some professors.
I suppose this was not an exact example of “cognitive dissonance”. But close enough. I am not a philosopher.
Its not only people that have opposing personas. Organizations and institutions also have their own culture and personas. Often they have seemingly opposing characteristics. For example, lets take a look at the military academy I attended, Norwich University. The students that attended the school often repeated the call “Norwich! Where the men are men!” which conveyed a different feeling then the official school motto “Essayons”, which is Latin for “I will try”. Scream as loud as you can…”I will try!”. Not so inspiring is it. I don’t see Brave Heart screaming this right before battle.
Here is another school persona conflict. The football field was nicknamed “The Snake Pit!”. The “Snake Pit” was situated in the beautiful mountains of Vermont. The falls were absolutely spectacular when the leaves started changing. People came from all over the country to see the leaves change. Foliage season is still a big tourist attraction for Vermont. I suppose I fit right in to the school’s culture. Wanting to be a badass, but at heart…a good person.
Are these examples of cognitive-dissonance? Or are they example of Masquerades? Trying to be something they are not. I wanted to be the big tough guy. But, in reality, I was not that big and I was very “nice”? Was the school made up of hardened young men and women preparing for war? Or was it a school creating “citizen soldiers” preparing to be leaders? Maybe in both cases it was a little of both. What I do know for certain, when I tried desperately to be the big tough guy, I was often disappointed.
In my self reflections I continued to see this pattern occur after my college years. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was and am an introvert. I am very uncomfortable speaking in front of group or to talk to someone I don’t know. You can imagine how hard it is to start a business when you avoid getting customers. When I realized that this wasn’t the path for me, I decided to go into consulting. I would let someone else get the customers and I would grow the company through exceptional and hard work. To be a successful consultant and advance to any real success one has to earn the trust of an account, gain more work, and bring on other consultants under their leadership. You would then become an Account Manager earning a percentage of the revenue you brought in with your customer. After many years I realized I did not want to maintain any relationships with customers. I found it extremely stressful walking into a new customer and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. It was exhausting pretending to be charismatic all the time. I would get in, get the job done, and get out.
Big T- little t
Another thing I learned in counseling was about Big “T” and little “t” traumas. Examples of Big “T” traumas are life threatening events, sexual abuse, and mental abuse. Big “T” traumas are often associated with PTSD. Little “t” traumas on the other hand are highly stressful events like losing a job or a long term relationship. Little “t” traumas are big events in your life but don’t reach the level a Big “T” and PTSD. The thing with little “t” traumas though, is that a series of these events can add up to the effects of a Big “T”. I had always dismissed trauma as a factor in my unhappiness. I had a really good child hood, went to a good school, and always had a good job. I had a great wife and wonderful children. No real major trauma in my life. I did however have several emotionally painful events I went through. Losing a job which lead to losing a house. The end of loving relationship, separation from children, and so on. Maybe I have had enough little “t”s that added up to a Big “T”. Was trying to be someone I was not the cause of my little “t” events? I don’t know if that is the case or not. I do know that every time I’ve tried to be something I was not has led to frustration, anxiety, and disappointment. A constant struggle with no end in sight.
The Jagged Line
I started on a quest to find my purpose in life. I discovered philosophy which led to deep self reflection. Reflection caused me to re-evaluate what trauma is. I was once told that recovery is seldom a straight line. Neither is self discovery. There are ups and downs. There are diversions that take you away from your path. Unexpected events. Unexpected discoveries. I still have not found my purpose in life. If I do find it one day, great. If I don’t, that’s ok too. I am starting to see that I do not have to “be” anything or anyone. I do not have to masquerade any more. I just need to “be”. I am happier now. More content with my life. My jagged line is pointing up.