26 June 2012

Escaping the Trap of Resentment and Hedonism

I'd never read Augusten Burroughs; his books burst onto the scene in the 90s, when I was working at a book-and-music behemoth chain. I tended to be wary of wildly popular books, and his appeared to be such. Even to this day when I see the cover of Running With Scissors I hear snatches of tunes by Vertical Horizon and Savage Garden in my head.

I'm getting to where I try to determine whether to read a book or not based on its content, rather than its popularity. When I heard good things about Burroughs's latest book, This Is How, and read an excerpt online, I decided to give it a try. I loved it, and wolfed it down in a day. In fact, I intend to return to it time and again to recall its insights. He doesn't pull punches, or try to sugarcoat reality. I don't agree with everything he says, but I suspect if more of us took to heart and manifested some of his ideas, we'd get along a lot better in the world.

 He points out that life is inherently unfair, and that almost all of us are shortchanged in some area or another: looks, opportunities, intelligence, family situation, etc. It's very easy to let this sense of the unfairness fester into resentment. After all, if life is unfair, we feel like those who brought on the unfairness–parents, schoolmates, clergy, politicians, society at large, or even the Universe itself–owes us some payback, or at least an apology.

But no one is going to pay us back for the unfairness we've suffered, and even if we could get that preacher whose fire-and-brimstone sermon sent us into years of torment, or that boss who screwed us over, or whomever—even if we could get that person to apologize for what they did, how would that make our lives better?

The only way to make my life better is to do the work myself. No one can do it for me. I must take responsibility for my life, regardless of who fucked it up and how much, and make it better, if I want it to be better. Analysis into the whys of the fucked-up-ness will only get me so far. The better path is to try to find out how to make it better. And dwelling in resentment is the worst possible thing I can do.

Resentment is a sweet trap. It fuels righteous indignation. I get to feel holy because others have done me wrong. I get to feel righteous because I'm the victim. But it's a place of stagnation, even of deterioration. I cannot let myself get trapped in the cycle of resentment. The world may be unfair, and others, even the universe, may indeed 'owe' me. But they're not going to pay up, and the trap of victimhood and resentment is a terrible place to dwell.

I think resentment is the reason why gay culture turned to hedonism in the 1970s, and despite the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, never really got out of that mindset. If you feel like the universe has been especially harsh to you (by having you be born gay in a very homophobic culture, for example) you might feel that if you can't get payback you can at least get as much pleasure out of life as possible. So gay people turned to extremely casual sex and high levels of chemical abuse in an attempt to pursue pleasure as its own end.

I've been reading a series of columns by Nicholas Benton in which he highlights the hedonism of gay culture and contrasts it with gay life in other ages. I don't agree with a lot of what he says (for instance, I cannot find any proof that gays are inherently, congenitally different in their 'spirit' than straight people), but he brings home the cost that four decades of hedonism have exacted on gay culture.

The fact is that many of us simply refuse to grow up. And in not growing up we stagnate and become more of a burden than a benefit to ourselves, our friends and our community. If we've reached midlife and yet we're stuck in an adolescent mindset, it becomes more and more difficult to find and/or maintain long-term relationships. A lot of us cannot even imagine partnering with someone of our age cohort, finding our own and our peers' bodies too repellent to take pleasure in.

It is very difficult to seize the reins and force oneself to grow up, especially when there is very little in one's culture that would encourage one to do so. I have to do it, to escape the trap of resentment, to become a benefit again, and to make meaning for my life—but again I feel like a trailblazer, making and faking my way through a wilderness no one has bothered to explore.

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