Do You Need to Be the Smartest Poet in the Room?

“The contrariety between the most opposite things on earth, between fire and water, darkness and light, vanishes into nothing when compared to the contrariety between God and mammon.”                                                                                                                 —John Wesley

I was not on the right path. For well over fifty years, almost sixty.

I wanted praise. Or you could call it love from the world. I was spoiled, as an only child in a middle-class German-Jewish family, but my parents were critical, status-conscious, Holocaust-scarred people never lavish with their praise. In school I carried a briefcase and wore my shirts buttoned up tight all the way to the neck. During some of my childhood I was heavily bullied and made fun of. Then, starting around the age of twelve, I imagined that I might go into politics. The qualities that my parents and classmates did not appreciate would surely be recognized by a wider public. First I’d be mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then president. When I was fifteen and began writing a little poetry and fiction, I imagined that eventually I would be known all over.

I went to high school with an extremely popular, athletic boy who, only a few years after we graduated, began to be known the world over for his stories and novels. My father sent me newspaper clippings about him. I was in Barcelona then. I spent ten years living in Spain and this was the answer I gave to one of my students who asked me why I was there: “As an expat, it’s all right not to be well known for anything.”

I dreamed of publishing work that I had written. I imagined that I would open my mailbox and finally an answer would come with an acceptance; this would be “paradise,” as I told my Freudian therapist. And, eventually, when those acceptances did come I got a fleeting feeling of excitement and bliss. But that soon faded when I realized how much further up the ladder I still needed to climb.

I never cared much about money or material possessions, but praise from the world was another matter.

I’ll give an example of how this disease got worse. In 1998, with the airwaves full of Frank Sinatra songs on the day of his death, I went to pick up a new pair of glasses from the optometrist. I remember sitting there and trying on the glasses and speaking to the employee but feeling completely invisible and unworthy because I was not of the stature of the larger-than-life personage who had just died. Why would someone be nice to me? I had done therapy in Spain and now I was in Los Angeles with an even better therapist, and yet, to some extent, nothing much had penetrated into my thinking. I was still dominated by the tween in me who didn’t believe I could be worthy without some form of even limited renown.

I had begun therapy for what seemed on the surface something else: an intense romance addiction and the almost complete loss of self whenever a breakup occurred. But when I think about it, was it really more erotic loss or a horrific sense of wounded pride that brought me down into such a low? Perhaps it all had to do with ego much more than libido.

The search for approval never led me to experience as many depths as the ones at the end of (or during) romance, which is a much more primal thing. And yet, eating away at me all those years, was a nagging feeling of being less-than, an emaciated figure in a room full of bodybuilders, of never being able to catch up with my successful high school classmate or the women and men whose accomplishments got written up in the papers.

Years went by and I reached my fifties, at which time the romance and sex addiction waned to (comparatively) nothing. And yet the hungry ego raged louder than ever.

At some point during work on my memoir about my adoption, while reading many memoirs from the past, I dipped into St. Augustine’s Confessions. It struck me how much he talked about praise and his own temptation (if I recall right) to overvalue praise from the world. It was the first time I’d ever really seen praise talked about in this way. I knew about other vices; I knew about lust and gluttony, etc., but I never considered the extent to which hunger for praise from the world could be considered detrimental to having a good life. My upbringing had been (weakly) in the Jewish faith, which doesn’t dwell on humility—at least that’s not one of its salient features. And all that time in therapy, this simple concept of praise- and honor-hunger (or call it pride and vanity) hadn’t come up in precisely this way.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s I’d been active in 12-step groups and had worked through the steps though never quite reaching the twelfth step of a spiritual awakening. The prayers—especially the Third Step Prayer with its line “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will”—had touched on my area of difficulty, my narcissism (I use that word loosely since I don’t technically have a narcissist personality disorder), but the focus of the meetings had been sex addiction; what I needed more, perhaps, was Fameseekers’ Anonymous, if there were such a thing. Eventually I dropped out of the program but their (basically Christian) language and sayings stayed with me, especially, of course, the idea of God or a Higher Power. I believed, but I didn’t have much of a relationship with God.

Last year, while wandering around Santa Monica Boulevard as a human billboard in search of people I could persuade to maybe come to my plays, I listened to the whole Bible for the first time. The contrast was so stark between the words I was listening to on my headset and the loud words of my director, worried about filling seats: “Nobody knows who you are!” The experience of (desperately) trying to get people to fill seats made an impression on me. I had assumed that almost everyone I knew would (at least) be curious to see what I’d done, after all the hard work I’d put into both my plays. But it was hard even to get friends to show any interest. Of the two theatre groups I joined, in which the people seemed friendly and encouraging enough, no one at all showed up—even at severely discounted rates! Then I began to re-evaluate the poetry groups I belonged to as well: Did I really work so hard on my poetry so it could be discussed and even praised and then quickly forgotten by people around the table who obviously had concerns of their own? And when I made comments, I felt I had to be not just smart and learned, but the smartest and the most learned in the room. Why? Where did that really get me?

Between last year (the theatre year) and this past summer it all came to a head. I was, in a very deep and primal sense, not being nourished by the world/people. I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted. I thought of some of the old Barcelona friends like Karina and Alberto who’d dropped off the map, even some L.A. friends who rarely if ever called. People were not coming through. I was not getting what I wanted from “the world.” In a very real way, I was still that infant left by my birth mother for days before I was picked up by my new parents. “Where’s Mommy?”

At that point I realized it was time to try prayer again.

During my trip to the mountains in late spring, one of my last stops was (near) Durango, Colorado. I rented a cabin for a few nights and one of those nights I finally prayed. I got down on my knees out on the cabin’s porch and said the Serenity Prayer and the Third Step Prayer. In the days that followed I put away all my reading from the Enlightenment period, reading which I thought had nourished me, and once again read Status Anxiety—the perfect name for my condition. Then I reread The Imitation of Christ. I read Ellen B. White’s The Desire of Ages, her expansion and explanation of the Gospels. I began to reread the New Testament. I listened to Huston Smith’s lectures on world religions. Now I am listening to John Wesley’s sermons—a hundred and fifty hours of more wisdom and insight than I ever got in college or graduate school. I came to see that the big book in every motel nightstand drawer, the Gideon Bible, contains on every page more nourishment than a whole library of poets and novelists eager to climb their ladders and establish their legacies. All that time in therapy and all that 12-step work hadn’t quite gotten me to the point where I realized the futility of my search. In all the new (and old!) books I read, I found my status anxiety constantly addressed and challenged, as in this passage:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (1 John 2:16).

In my years in Barcelona, I had often mentioned to my analyst how important it was for me to exist on a more exalted plane in the eyes of the world and to be more than and better than others, people like my portera (the lady who sat in her little curtained room on the ground floor and knew everyone’s business and read ¡Hola! magazine). I was many rungs of the ladder higher than her, wasn’t I? Just as people who got their short stories published in the Carolina Quarterly were many, many rungs higher than me, in this way of thinking.

I wasn’t on the right path. Far from it. Little by little, though, things are beginning to change. I will always suffer to some extent from status anxiety (just as an alcoholic with fifty years of sobriety will always be an alcoholic), but a change is happening. What they call in AA the “stinking thinking”: I bought into the world’s notions (and what we can call the “Devil’s” notions) of talent and genius and prestige and renown (much amplified by the media). I feel I am only at the beginning of getting to the right path. I pray more often. I haven’t yet found a church. I believe the Southern Baptists accept this one prayer as conversion: “Dear God, I know I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe that He died for my sins and that you raised Him to life. I want to trust Him as my Savior and follow Him as Lord, from this day forward. Guide my life and help me to do your will. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.” Not so different in some ways from AA prayers. I believe other denominations have different requirements (the Methodists, for example). I haven’t yet said the above prayer but the moment is coming.

You may know the old saying: Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell and don’t want to go back. I haven’t given much (enough) thought yet to heaven and hell, but I can say that in these teachings and doctrines that have been around for two thousand years, I am—even in the midst of this market-driven, status-mad, secular world—beginning to find a home.

Walking now with joy, and not with fear, in a clear, steady sight of things eternal, we shall look on pleasure, wealth, praise–all the things of earth–as on bubbles upon the water.” –John Wesley

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