But what would I know? I've come late to the psychological understandings of life.
Forty or so years ago, when I was eight or nine, one of those summers after the horror at the Olympic Games in Munich, Jim McKay telling us, "they're all gone," perhaps that summer it became increasingly evident through hearings on afternoon television that the President of the United States of America was up to some truly dirty political machinations, or the summer in which he, Nixon, that August resigned, mom went to the hospital, suffering from a minor nervous breakdown exhibiting as anxiety. A family friend had recently died. Lithium may have worked for Robert Lowell, but it did not do well by my mom.
Forty years or so later, I've finally worked up the courage to go see a therapist. And strangely, suddenly appearing, out of the blue, there was the psychological dimension, the question, "how did you feel..." Which is of course followed by the commensurate awakening to the thought that my own motivations for all I'd done with my life were from an unseen source, which of course, is quite a thought, an inkling aware of toiling under a weight.
It is not strange to tie a nervous event in with the idea of finding meaning in life. That, for my mother, was basically the precipitative question from her own analyst, "what is the meaning of your life," and she went on from there to find indeed an excellent answer to that question.
So, I begin to poke around. What to make of my life as a bartender? What would be my own guide to sanity, prompted by my friend Jake, an excellent customer, to write such a thing. After all Abraham Lincoln had been a bartender, and if you look at it, that's what he became, Bartender in Chief. As he found out, it is not easy to legislate morality in the great barroom of America, to cut off the South of a bad habit. But he was called upon, and he did a fine job, and of course one crazy customer ended his life just when he had some of his greatest work left to do. Once a barman, always a barman, and in a way it's one of those root jobs of all jobs.
And what do we know about Lincoln? Well, we can gather that he had suffered from a kind of low level pervasive somewhat benign, but not always benign, form of depression. Of the kind that made him sensitive, concerned over pigs stuck in mud and grieving over fallen birds. Of the kind that made, that prompted him to, in his own mid-life crisis, seek greater meaning in life, a purpose to wrap his talents around.
Yes, the television commercials, and the popular way of life, preach pill taking and warn heavily against falling into depression. Keep positive, positive, positive. And yet a lot of us cannot help it to be somewhat contrary to that. Those of us who seek meaning, concerned about the fate of the planet given the spread of the human creature over the earthly habitat, yes, might well be a bit inclined to be depressed. It would not be healthy to not be concerned and burdened.
I've always found it natural and perhaps even healthy to keep that mode of the benign meaning-seeking depression about. I like my slow walks in the woods, the down time. I find them honest. They help me think out what I need to think about, and as I say, those times help me extract meaning out of being alive in this here world.
But seeing a therapist can be a little unnerving. "How crazy am I," you may wonder. I had a lot to think on. It wasn't a person I was obsessed with, it was a firm sense of all the mistakes I'd made, those with her in particular, symbolic. I had made all those mistakes because of my psychological build-up, reacting in ways I couldn't help, as if I had trust issues, as if I had a default people-pleasing mode.
I had somewhere within a switch that had gotten stuck, and I had acted in ways I could not fully control, as if I'd been thrown out into the open, without direction, and so I could not carry through with any choices of my own, just leaving things to fate. And so no wonder I wanted to hide from that which I could not hide from. No wonder I wanted to retreat away, as if to protect an open and frayed self too vulnerable, unable to make much of a decision about anything and feeling lost. Because I had no direction.
Suddenly I understood the psychological dimension of Moby Dick, the obscured psychological forces driving like Ahab, the sense of being left on a ship amidst the waters amongst a bunch of strangers to make the best of things, to get along, morphed into shape by experience, no driving force within the mute self, a strange sense of having been kidnapped, going along with it all. How is a poor near-sighted intellectual who does not take easy to the current academia going to protect himself anyway? Through agility, speed, quick-witted good humor? Melville wrote long books full of poetry based on personal experience to keep a roof over his head.
Everyone seemed to want to drink at the end of their day, wouldn't that be a perfect way to fit in, to be everyone's buddy?
I began to wonder if Buddhism didn't have its draw for me because of my particular psychological blind spots, my own inability to establish the necessary importance of self? It seemed to fit with the natural world order. I did not see the self-protection my family's hard work and talents had given me in the form of opportunity, a good school, a great head-start in life, which I then tossed aside in some nobility of the working class fantasy. Such opportunity does not return so easily. This was the difference between myself and the people of normal ambitiousness, my strange habit of detachment sprinkled with self-destructive behavior. And then add on top of that being a naturally nice guy, a kind and caring person concerned about strangers, who got plenty of unconditional love as a child.
So there began my effort to understand what was wrong with this guy I knew intimately enough, this poor guy who feels unprotected in the field of intimacy, though an easy friend, who fears the challenges that would let him grow, inhabiting the rut of the status quo, suddenly growing aware of his own deafness, dutifully marching to some imagined orders.
But all that said, I am in many ways proud to be a bartender, one looking for sanity, accepting of the self. I had to take meaning where I found it, and if there is any lotus that blooms out of a swamp, that swamp could indeed be a barroom.