Oliver Lee Bateman discusses how he came to terms with his troubled past.
Trigger warning: contains a candid discussion of suicide.
“He felt the guilt of inaction, of simply waiting while his life went to waste. No one was worth the gift of his life, no one could possibly be worth that. It belonged to him alone, and he did not deserve it either, because he was letting it waste. It was getting away from him and he made no effort to stop it. He did not know how.”
Leonard Gardner, Fat City
Everywhere one is being admonished to “make the most of his life,” to “live large,” to “live outrageously,” and so forth. Soul-searching trips are taken around the world, ostensibly to engage in heavy-duty “eat, pray, love“-ing. Yet if success in life is measured by living, we’re all doomed to failure. How, then, can anyone hope to save his life?
Jesus, when exhorting others to take up the cross in Matthew 16:25, explains in a rather menacing way that “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” The second part of this statement always disturbed me, the for my sake part anyway, because it seemed a direct call to martyrdom, without which life would lack all meaning. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard took this quite seriously, believing that the true Christian–of whom in his opinion there were none, or nearly none–was not simply someone who had a “cross to bear,” who suffered unto death, but someone who actually brought suffering upon himself. That is, a life of misery and woe was not enough to win salvation, at least not without a voluntary decision to accept Christ’s burden.
When I was just an adenoidal teenager trapped in a state of affairs that seemed both hopeless and absurd, martyrdom of the sort that many early Christians lusted after struck me as a golden ticket. Why bother facing tribulations I had not even freely selected when I could erase my map in a single glorious moment? I devoted countless hours to plotting out the scene, which went something like this: I would focus what I assumed were considerable mental and libidinal energies on obtaining an unobtainable paramour, who would justifiably reject me in all my domestic violence-forged brokenness, and then I’d spontaneously burst into flames, thereafter ascending into seventh heaven alongside the other Young Werthers who decided to hang up their cleats/empty their inkwells/mothball their powdered wigs in the wake of similar spurnings.
There was, as it turned out, only one problem: this was the most horseshit line of thinking that anyone anywhere could adopt, ever. Real suicides and real suicide attempts were absolutely gut-wrenching…which is something I should’ve realized lo those many years ago, as I had at that point recently experienced the emotion-numbing aftereffects of a close relative’s bid to call it a career. The emptiness and resignation that prompts an action of this sort was absent in my case; rather, I merely wanted the attention that would accompany what I then viewed as the grandest of gestures.
This is where meaningless, unrealizable threats to “end it all” falter. If one does indeed shuffle off this mortal coil, how on earth will he get to bask in all his wonderful obituaries and postmortems? How can he be certain he’ll get treated to some third-person omniscient narrative in the grand A Christmas Carol/It’s a Wonderful Life tradition? Emotionally threadbare people will be left behind, absolutely devastated people…although undoubtedly far fewer than one expects. “Oh yeah, that dude. So, uh, whatever happened to him?” is a more likely reaction. And what of the individual for whom the action was ostensibly undertaken? Can you imagine laying something that heavy on anyone’s plate, particularly someone who wasn’t even interested in you in the first place? What a terrifying prospect.
Let’s return to Matthew 16:25. The critical part here, I’ve come to believe, is “whosoever will save his life shall lose it.” I used to bemoan my fate, such as it was, because I felt I didn’t “deserve” such treatment. And if I did somehow “deserve” it, I needed to make a big show of this fact–to act out, to “be a man,” to lead a heroic fourth-quarter comeback. But what I failed to understand then was that the only way to save your life is to lose it. And not to lose it “for Christ” in a cockeyed bid for seventh heaven-dom, but to lose it right now, in your own lifetime.
The past hundred years have been referred to, rather neatly, as the “century of the self.” Each person is now a grandiosely important and thoroughly unique self–in the Deleuzian sense, he or she is a cancerous body without organs (BwO) grasping endlessly after the most selfish desire-patterns. These BwOs victimize others and are themselves victimized, but more importantly they see fit to broadcast all of their goings-on as loudly as possible. Each infected BwO demands attention; it is an attention-getting machine, an esteem-machine. You encounter the BwO of this sort on Tyra or Oprah or Maury, a blaming-machine heaping scorn for its myriad sicknesses at the feet of others: daddymommybrothersister etc. didn’t love me, abused me, hated me, didn’t rent me a limo for prom, didn’t send me on all-expenses-paid grand tour of Europe. Or they’re an assigning-blame machine, an outrage-machine: “Can’t you see how victimized I’ve been and how much your careless words/blogs/tweets affected me? Can’t you just suck it up and apologize, you asshole?” These unwell BwOs are mattering-machines, because their lives matter in ways they cannot rationally describe but most assuredly can feel. “Why do I need facts when I have feelings? It’s enough that I’m feeling bad; it doesn’t matter if you were right or wrong.”
By contrast, the healthy body without organs is, in playwright Antonin Artaud‘s words, “delivered from automatic reactions” and “restored to true freedom.” Even if such a BwO is only a hypothetical construct, a horizon of unfettered possibility after which one must seek and never find, the first step toward reaching it is to lose your life while still living. In other words, you can’t be saved in this lifetime–which is the only one you’ll get–if you’re still attached to your life in these times. I don’t intend this remark in any generic eastern philosophical sense, nor do I even mean that one should go as far as the New Testament suggests one should go (abandoning all material possessions and renouncing this world is the only proper method toward living as Christ did, in Kierkegaard’s opinion). But I do believe that twenty-five years of nearly unremitting abuse accomplished one valuable purpose in my life: instead of driving me to a Werther-ian fate, which it did briefly lead me to contemplate, it severed me from any sense of self-importance I might have ever entertained.
The great curse of our age, abetted by recent technological improvements, is the rise of this mattering-machine. It’s not enough to write–one has to be read. One doesn’t just talk–one has to be listened to. One’s outrage, however clichéd or insipid, warrants instantaneous redress. But now more than ever, nothing is read. Nothing is listened to. Voices carry throughout the echo chamber, but one is indistinguishable from another. The controversies of the day flare up like hemorrhoids, and with a precisely similar purpose–i.e., as retribution for the release of too much waste. They vanish just as mysteriously, and can be recalled, like the pain of hemorrhoids past, only with the most assiduous concentration. Because everything and everyone matters, no one and nothing does.
I harbor no illusions that this will ever be read–it’s already over 10 paragraphs long, and most of us work for a living, for crying out loud!–but I also harbor no illusions at all. And hey, if the alternative to this dinful and dissonant mattering is merely existing, of going on for the same reason that a dog chases its tail, then the life you save from following such a path of least resistance might very well be your own. Excelsior!