"Seek not the good in external things. Seek it in thyself." - Epictetus

The Devils In Your Details - INTRODUCTION

 The Devils In Your Details

INTRODUCTION

The most noteworthy thing about this book ought to be the unexceptional status of its author. Unlike many authors who publish self-aggrandizing verbiage on life and all its wonder and meaning, I don’t hold any degrees in psychology or philosophy. I’m not a rock star whose very celebrity justifies the existence of my writing. I fully expect the collection of dead, tattooed trees you’re currently reading to be self-published, none too popular, and selling copies that don’t exceed the single digits. Oh, and that one positive review on Amazon you’ll probably see? It's likely that one of my friends wrote it. Wait…who am I kidding? My friends don’t read! Must be one of those Red Hot Chili Peppers fans trolling me again. (And I’ll explain that one in a later chapter.)

   But there’s a simple aphorism that underscores this book’s existence: Writers write. In fact, I can assure you that when they don’t write, they get up to all sorts of self-destructive distractions, ranging from having a finger in every pie (think of the calories!) to full-blown depression. In both cases, been there done that. The simple fact of the matter is that I really wanted to put down my thoughts and feelings in written form. If I could do that, the next step would be to get a few people to read them.

   I wanted to condense those thoughts and feelings down to something comprehensive; something centered around my outlook and personal philosophy, yet with enough objectivity to balance the anecdotal and the tangential with the rational and relatable. I wanted to write a book that might provide someone reading it with an actionable understanding of the world and society, albeit filtered through my own lens of moderate life experience and background.

   I firmly believe that there are two ways in which we process the passage of time in relation to our own wellbeing: we either strive continuously to better ourselves and our lives, or we go passively through the motions, only ever engaging in what’s fleeting, easy, and instantly gratifying. I’d like to embody the first example – and sometimes I do – but I fall victim to the habits I mentioned in the second all too often. We all do. Because those two ways of being do not represent a dichotomy; they are never mutually exclusive, and we play on either side of the spectrum at various moments in our lives. But damn it, we would like to do the striving more than the going through the motions, wouldn’t we? Actually, you’d be surprised at how many people would answer that question with a resounding “No.” Though perhaps even more would respond with a “Yes,” and it would be a lie.

   We live in a time where people generally want what’s easy and temporary, rather than what’s difficult and lasting. That alone is the fiercest argument my personal muse need make as to why I should go ahead and write this book. I want to properly elucidate how and why striving for a better life and a better self is so very important, and I’m asking you to take that journey through the pages with me and humor my self-indulgence. You might be surprised by how I temper it with moments of humility, humor, and insight that can be of benefit to myself as much as anyone else.

   From Carl Jung to comic books, Satanism to ‘Seitanism,’ and moral relativism to mimosas, this book could be seen as a back-alley, discount version of your favorite self-help New York Times bestseller, or as a veritable bible for the alternative, marginalized, countercultural layman – that all comes down to what my words mean to you. I know what they mean to me…or at least, I think I do. Somehow, I often seem to find that when I put my views down on paper, I discover things about myself to which I was previously ignorant. And that’s a large part of what this book is about: taking full accountability of oneself. Personal identity is a numbers game, and any slight miscalculation can wreak havoc on our lives.

   Bear in mind, of course, that I never set out to write something bogged down by lecturing, riddled with personal agendas, or defined by self-righteous finger wagging. I want the views and ideas that follow to be challenged by careful reflection and consideration, counterbalanced by the personal experiences and understandings of each individual reader, and concluding with the affirmation that I’m not perfect and I don’t have all the answers. Like all of us, I’m just muddling through. That in no way weakens or invalidates anything I have to say. On the contrary, it lends to it a greater sense of frankness and meaning than anything written by someone sheltered in an ivory tower, looking down to dictate to the masses.

   I don’t intend to sell you my version of life, nor would I want to encourage anyone to emulate my views or behavior just for the hell of it. Align yourself with what you read here only if it feels right for you, and just as importantly, continue to press on even when some of my statements or opinions raise your hackles or set you on the backs of your heels. Question and examine that resistance – there may be important lessons behind that feeling!

   And yet, even as I write this, I have to address the possibility that, rather than be caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions, you may still be wondering why you should feel or contemplate anything in regard to what I have to say. Bereft of college degrees, lofty titles, or endorsement quotes on this book’s back cover, it’s easy to dismiss any words I put forward here, and seeing as how I’d have the same reservations, I can’t really blame you if you do. We’ve been trained to believe that celebrity, academia, and politics are the primary parameters within which knowledge and wisdom ought to be espoused in written form. Yet many members of each of those categories may be cloistered by their own bubbles, unable to see beyond the blinders of their own cliques and echo chambers.

   Let’s not forget that for every Keith Richards, Richard Branson, Richard Dawkins, Obama, or Oprah, there’s someone out there with a name and face you don’t know who’s got a story to tell. It might be the homeless veteran on the street corner asking for change, or the man quietly birdwatching in the park. It could be the captain on your flight to New York or the stewardess handing you your complimentary snack. Hell, it could be the person you see looking back at you in the mirror, and that’s probably the best place to start. Everyone has a backstory, but few have the ability to tell it to a broad audience. Well, I’m no entrepreneur or television personality. I’ve been a passerby. A pedestrian. A peasant with an empty wallet, a sense of style, and strength of character, and I also just happen to be a writer. So I’m going to tell my story. If there’s some rule barring autobiographers who don’t fit a certain economic bracket, I’m breaking it. If my Instagram follower count doesn’t justify my self-importance in the eyes of petty people who count such things on an imaginary abacus and sit in judgment, tough shit.

   As I swivel about in my office chair, looking down at my cat for moral support and up at my favorite posters of Lemmy Kilmister and Cristina Scabbia for inspiration, I find myself recalling a moment that takes the point I was just trying to make and ties it all up into a nice, neat little bow.

   It happened back in 2007. I remember the year, because I saw Dark Funeral perform in Poughkeepsie, New York, at a show where I damaged my ribs in a mosh pit, trying to be the tough guy in foolish contradiction to my bony, 90-pound body. But this happened before that, and is entirely unrelated. I was waiting for a bus on Union Valley Road, in the town of West Milford, New Jersey. The bus shelter I sat in was small and innocuous as you’d expect, and it was a Saturday, so one could expect it to be frequented by bored teenagers en route to the local mall, and older New York transplants ready to begin their commute to work. It was rainy and rather late in the day, so it was occupied by neither. (I myself was on my way to visit some friends back in my hometown.)

   Within minutes, however, a highly eccentric looking old man approached, having exited the nearby Dunkin Donuts with his coffee in one hand. In his other was one of the most fascinating canes I’d ever seen. Its handle was shaped and painted to look like the head of some kind of bird of prey, perhaps a hawk or an eagle, and there was some kind of floral print on its staff – they might have been roses, I honestly can’t remember, but they were mixed in with a black, vine-like pattern. The whole thing was colored an unforgettable cherry mahogany. The man wasn’t so much leaning on it for support as he was letting the beak of its bird head rest on his wrist, so that it swung pendulously as he made his way to the bus shelter to sit down.

   Of the man’s physical appearance I don’t remember much, other than mid-length white hair and a bedraggled beard, and clothing that seemed new and well cared for. He also wore glasses with thick rims and yellow-tinted lenses; they sort of reminded me of something Jeff Goldblum would have rocked back in the 90s. You can imagine how unexpected all this might seem in the tiny ‘downtown’ area of a middle-class New Jersey exurb at one o’clock in the afternoon, especially when he looked nothing like the average person you’d see in such a place at any time of day.

   I do vividly recall that he wore a backpack adorned with sundry stickers and patches that seemed to represent a collection of travel souvenirs, bearing the names of different cities, states, and countries. I remember seeing Georgia, Montana, Niagara Falls, some kind of national park that seemed to be in a country below the equator (Los something or other), York Minster, and some other place that I knew at the time was in the UK but which I now no longer remember. After a few sips of his coffee, he set the backpack on the ground at his feet, pulled from its main compartment a book whose name eludes me (though the hardcover tome was old, thick, and weatherworn), and began reading, sparing not so much as the briefest of glances in the direction of the eighteen year-old goth/metalhead staring at him with total bemusement.

   Eventually, the NJ Transit 197 arrived and I boarded, and as I took my seat and glanced out the window, I came to a surprising realization: the old man hadn’t gotten on the bus. And that was the last I saw of him, continuing to read his book and sip his coffee as the only bus in town took off to its next destination. Somehow, that made him even more mysterious and fascinating in my mind. Why would such a man, clearly an out-of-towner with no car, enter a bus shelter with no intent of going anywhere? Especially someone as clearly well-traveled as his backpack indicated? Perhaps he was merely looking for someplace to sit and read, and the bus shelter proved the only reprieve from the spritzing rain. That seems the most likely explanation, yet as I sat aboard the 197 on the way to the next town, I don’t think I considered it. I was too ensorcelled by how starkly different that man had seemed, and through the onset of gathering clouds and the beating of raindrops against the bus window, one thing pierced the overcast backdrop to my journey and became abundantly clear: that man had stories to tell.

   As do I.

   I want this to be more than the culmination of my travels and experiences, however. I want this to provide the impetus for more of your own journeys. I want to set you on a path where you feel glory, not shame, in looking into a mirror and spending a few moments admiring the contours of your face. Where you cast aside your machismo in the face of an unpleasant situation and summon up the courage to tell a person they hurt your feelings. Where you stand with a collective while knowing why and for what purpose, rather than because you’re told it’s “correct” or that everyone else is doing it.

   A path where you use one hand to welcome and embrace someone who treats you with love and encouragement, and raise your other in firm opposition to people who seek to compound your own insecurities with admonishments or backhanded compliments. Where picking yourself up when you fall is a frequent and welcomed responsibility, not a desperate last resort associated with being at rock bottom. Where you replace poor self-esteem with unconditional self-worship, not thinly veiled narcissism.

   Yeah. The prose can get a bit grandiose like that at times. Never fear, because I err on the side of relatability, not pretentiousness. I won’t make the case for any self or life improvement “just because.” I’ll provide real stories, examples, and – I hope – fair and balanced rationales as to why it’s so important. This book isn’t intented to be dogmatic, but rather, pragmatic. The idea that life is something one can immediately and extraordinarily rewrite and reshape is one rooted in romanticization and hubris. The idea that one can take steps to make substantial and valuable differences in one’s life, however, is practical.

   I can assure you that I hold myself to my own set of high standards, and I believe any personal advice that follows will reflect those values. This also means that I’ll be dispensing with any impropriety when it comes to my personal stories and accounts. So while everything I have to say here will be as honest and committed to memory as I can make it, many names of people I mention will be changed in order to protect their privacy. As reassurance for anyone with doubts, I’ll detail my encounters and interactions with such people in a way that aims to communicate life lessons and nuggets of wisdom, not to tarnish reputations, drag folks from my past through the mud, or resurrect petty adolescent vendettas that were put to bed long ago. It is my intent that any stories I share in this book prove truthful and constructive, not malicious or libelous, and it’s my sincerest hope that any shades of subjectivity that color such anecdotes are seen for what they are, and not cast in a negative light by anyone reading this who might take umbrage with certain portrayals or characterizations.

   Is that a disclaimer of sorts? I suppose that it is, with the caveat that I’m not shirking any personal responsibility in the writing that follows, I’m only relinquishing any accountability for the actions of others whom I might mention in the pages to come. For too long I’ve tricked myself into carrying the burdens of those who readily place them upon my back, so that they might fly light as a feather, circling like vultures and anticipating that I’ll crumble under the pressure and collapse on the side of the road like so much carrion. No longer will I accept the stone thrown at me from someone else’s glass house, only for me to roll it up a hill in Hades in futile perpetuity. And the rejection of others’ dead weight is part and parcel of the self-empowerment message at the core of this book, so read on for further elaboration.

   Just know that in the context of this introduction, I’m making such declarations in order to highlight the harsh truths that I intend to include in my personal encounters with toxic people, many of which I’ll share in upcoming chapters for important and illuminating reasons. And the misdeeds, misdemeanors, and simple mistakes that lay therein will be apportioned precisely to the culprits responsible for them, not to the victims who took those hits, wore them like armor, and later transmutated them into powerful life experiences. If it’s true what they say, and there really is no rest for the wicked, then surely there can be no place for authors in the halls of slumber either, because there must always be someone with pen in hand to tally and transcribe those transgressions. In short, it’s time to write some wrongs.

   Of course, not all of my personal chronicles will be summaries of bad circumstances, bad people, or bad things. Quite the opposite, there will be a great deal of space given over to positive and life-building experiences, and to tie it all together, a conclusion reached as to why the good, bad, and morally gray all play a part in shaping and informing who we are, and how coming to terms with all these things can send us on a destiny run toward who we have the potential to be.

   You may know about the Chinese military treatise titled The Art of War. Well, unlike Sun Tzu, I’m only a writer and not a fighter, but I’m here to tell you that self-betterment is an art of its very own, much as is writing itself. Artists bear the exhilarating burden of being both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster. We create and recreate new versions of ourselves each time we take steps to grow and evolve, but we often grapple with the very personal demons that we ourselves have contrived. The best part is that we can have total control over the versions of ourselves we create. We can revel in the extraordinary beast we unleash from within, or we can retreat into Mont Blanc out of shame and fear, unwilling to accept our true selves. Both the power and the burden lie simultaneously within us.

   I’ll wrap up this longwinded intro by stating that it’s my purest and paramount hope that people read this book, despite the obscurity of its central character. It’s my understanding that life is meant to be lived, and that its value not be expressed in quantities of money, popularity, or influence, but rather, fundamental understanding, knowledge, wisdom, feeling, and being. Life ought to be talked about and analyzed by someone doing the living, not the spending, acting, or virtue signaling. The real, on the ground, honest to goodness living. The steps to strength and success are built neither in lofty towers of wealth and greed, nor in bitter basements where visions are never shared, feelings are never expressed, and ideals are never strived for.

   Ultimately, you have to ask yourself if you prefer the illusion of power, or the true power that dwells in the self, waiting to be stirred up in a hurricane-like fury and brought to the surface, made manifest in all its fearsome glory. If you’re searching for the former, please set this book aside and resume your addiction to the fickle, inconsequential chump change offered by social media. If you seek out the latter, keep on reading.

   To borrow and utterly alter a quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: We ought to seek happiness in tranquility, but never, ever avoid ambition.

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