By: Michael Eigen, PhD
I ask Ravi, someone who rages at his wife. “Are you like that at work too?” He said, “No, no, not like that at work.” Recently he said he rages only at his wife, not his kids. So I asked, “What would happen if you treated your wife as a child?” I was trying to support him. He thought about it. I told him how actors feed their energy, whatever they might feel, into the role they played and added, “If you’re lucky your feelings will change, but for the time being maybe we can help you be a better actor.”
“Fake it till you make it?”
“I don’t have it.”
“Make believe you do.” We discuss the possibility that over time practice makes it work. Changing behavior can change feelings as well as vice versa. It works both ways. I wrote about a variation of this in the second chapter of Coming Through the Whirlwind (1992): affects and attitudes go together. There is no such thing as an affect without an attitude without affect. Gestalt Psychology speaks of attitudes as frames of reference for feeling and behavior. You can approach it from either direction. I remember Alan Watts talking about his Zen practice and how he grew by faking states he hoped to achieve. He felt this practice made him a better person than he would have been otherwise. One may wonder what that may mean as alcoholism contributed to his, as to R.D. Laing’s, early death. Both inspired many. One does not become wound-free to be of help. Watts often lived an inspired life, lifting himself beyond what he might have accomplished otherwise.
Ravi doubted his capacity to be what he wanted. I won’t disillusion you now by saying I doubt we know what to be or how. The idea of “the American dream” I find stultifying and sometimes mean, often allied with narrow, self-persecutory ideas of the human. So much lived experience is “out of the box”. Can we credit it, appreciate it?
“Practice makes perfect,” is a phrase I heard throughout my childhood. If I was going to do anything, it would be imperfect. In fact, perfect would have to drop away as a consideration. One learns to give oneself over to the moment and what arises, might arise. Something comes through – what is that something? Nevertheless, practice has importance. Practicing opens paths. Practicing to be yourself goes on all life long.
I could not have written a word if perfection was an aim. Maybe some would have preferred that. Nevertheless, it is good to be able to use oneself, exercise some of what is there, however flawed and inadequate. There are ways being inadequate can be freeing, doing what one can, a little bit of what presses to be shared.
Urging Ravi to fake it had years of trial and error behind it. Encouragement to begin the awful business of practicing to be himself, even if that is impossible. The impossible is a different category from the perfect. A little bit of the impossible goes a long way. Creativity is, partly, a venture of the possible at the edge of the impossible. Giving birth doesn’t require perfection, just life.
One day Ravi began, “I started reading Rage – finally. You suggested I look at it three years ago. I don’t know, I came upon it while dressing after a run and shower. It was under my bed. The red-orange-black cover with big white letters RAGE staring at me. Had it been there all this time? RAGE is printed twice, white RAGE on dark RAGE. Red, black, and white rage. Maybe I should just stare at the cover. How could it be under my bed and I not open it all this time?”
“Things have their moments…?” I say.
Ravi was quiet for some time. “Maybe I’m waiting for my moment.” He seemed to be searching for something. “Or my moment is waiting for me,” he added.
“I believe in moments,” I joined.
“I have a feeling you believe. All the time we spent and I still…” his voice trailed.
“You are more than the sum of your rage, more than the sum of your parts. ” I was thinking of a meditation leader who said, “You are and are not your mind. You are and are not your body. You are and are not your …”
“Parts don’t sum. There’s something more. Looking at your book brought back my father’s rage, my mother’s fear. When flare-ups came I felt them both. Caught between rage and fear. They marked me. I think of the mark of Cain, not because he killed his brother, that’s bad enough, but because murder is with us. We are Cain getting murdered and murdering. Is that the final word? “
“Caught in trauma worlds that go on and on. Yet do you remember, Cain became a builder of cities? Did trauma make him a builder?”
“Horror doesn’t go away. Yet building happens, life goes on building, ripping, more building. I had a teacher who said destruction and building go together. But we get stuck. I feel the pain of my wife. My rage is painful. You nail my feeling of self-righteous rage, the rightness of rage. I’ve met people who can’t say anything good without putting a person down. The rightness of rage comes from feeling wronged. Now everyone else is wrong and I am right.”
“Imprisoned by right and wrong.”
“Yes – the prison of right and wrong.” Ravi was quiet awhile. “Your book brings out other possibilities. No solutions. It got me to think of so many other things in my life, good moments with my wife. I’m not a rager all the time. I’m not scaring myself and others all the time. Fear is part of me, shame, rage. But there’s more, a lot more.”
“As time goes on, maybe the rage will take up less room.”
“It already does take up less room. I hope that continues. I think of trauma worlds that are part of us. I think trauma is with us all life long. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. It is part of us.”
“It gives me a deep feeling when you say that. Trauma is part of us, part of who we are, life itself.”
“It is us. We are trauma. But that’s not all we are.”
Ravi is weeping and I feel weepy too. We are both in a process of recovery that never ends. It is as if the quality of being changes, a shift in the quality of one’s sense of being.
* * *
Eigen, M. (1992). Coming Through the Whirlwind. Wilmette, Ill: Chiron Publications.
Eigen, M. (2001). Rage. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.