Hell Reconsidered

THIS POST started as a September journal entry, written on a trip to NYC for a friend's wedding. I was sitting in a park which, nine years ago October (9th), had been the scene for another journal entry, written before I had ever visited San Francisco. The memories were surprisingly fresh, sitting there. I wasn't sitting in the same spot: a homeless man was now sleeping at the table where I once had written. But the birds were still there, the old people sitting on benches, the autumnal crispness and the children playing in the fenced in "Only Guardians with Children Admitted" area. It was, as New York always is, the same yet subtly different. I found that I too was that way.

That journal entry, at least in hindsight, was the beginning of my recognition of Hell. Only after six years of the experience, that recognition would widen dramatically in a sadly famous essay that still sits linked off to the side here, having been widely circulated and published and discussed and linked. In that essay I recognised I was in Hell, living happily. But I failed to see clearly what comes to me in the park now.

My journal entries from all those years ago would be a remarkable psychological study. I say that not out of any pride. In fact it is out of shame: the same shame I feel when I read them. They are the same entries over and over. The same patterns repeat over and over, the same hope, the same failures, the same sadness, the same purple funk, the same burst of poetic creativity (most of my poems from that era were also published) followed by the same fallow ground in which "hope springs eternal"; and then the same pattern starts all over again. The journal entry from October of 1996 was all of those encapsulated. I was suddenly and painfully aware of the pattern - but I didn't want to acknowledge it.

In my early 20s it took a month for the pattern to cycle followed by several weeks of "getting over it all". By my late 20s it was running in cycles of two or three months followed by 6 months. In my thirties I managed to cycle through sometimes every year or two. But always the same failures, the same sadness, the same purple funk: the same poetry. It is remarkable how similar all my poems are. The only thing that changes is the subject or, to be more correct, the object. For, like my journal, like my blog, so also my life: the most common subject is, sadly me. The journal entry from 1996 sounds like a poor writer hurt by foul circumstances and people; misled around many bends until waylaid by highwaymen. What the objects of the entry never knew was that I felt that way - that poor wounded writer considered them dear friends who had betrayed me. How it galls me now to see that in myself. The objects never knew the blame: my friend Susan said I should publish my poetry as a book entitled Poems for People Who Will Never Read Them. Resentments are the mortar for the walls of Hell.

Two years ago, "Hell" was very present to me - or so I thought. "Hell", according to Sartre, "is other people." And reading that essay from two years ago, you can see that I accepted what he means. My essay is very true but for one point: Hell isn't other people. Hell isn't heterodox religion or alternative lifestyles or open relationships. Hell isn't a pride parade where no one looks at one. Hell is a box about 18" to the side. It is no bigger than my own head and all mirrors on the inside. Hell is, exactly, one person: me.

So two years later, I reconsider Hell. Yes, the Hell I described was real enough but I put blame out in that essay - which blame was easy to place and, for some, enjoyable to read. I was happy to blame liberal religion, I was happy to blame liberal clergy and libertine friends. I was overjoyed to blame a liberal, libertine and permissive culture - and some readers ate it all up for it played, in many cases, into their own political agendas. I am sorry that I gave them stones on which to grind their axes and more ballast for their political canons: for in trying to blame others for my own sins, I may have misled many.

Despite my egotistical bluster, however, some readers found therein a quiet truth... so I hope this essay is the continuation of it: as that was the First Step, this may be the Fourth Step of Twelve, or at least the turning towards that step. In that former essay I realised my life was out of control - but I blamed everyone else for my own misdeeds. To one degree or another all of those objects I named were really present in the Hell I knew. But they were not the cause of Hell. One does not blame one's furniture or house for one's unemployment. (And to be honest, I've treated a lot of people like furniture.) Liberal religions and sexually permissive cities and libertine cohorts are not Hell. They may have tended the fires in many ways, but Hell was - and is - that 18" box. Hell is, exactly, one person: me.

I remember now - more than I wanted to two years ago - all the good that was done to me when I was in Hell. It was all good that I ignored. I remember now - far more than two years ago - all the harm that was done, not by others but by me to them. I failed to see or return all the love that was offered me. Hell was my own crafting and the damage done was by my own hands - to myself and, most importantly, to others: for even when I was only "playing along" with the realities of Hell and moreso when I was freely giving in to them, my wake drew others along with me.

That old essay paints the picture of a helpless sheep that was led astray by the Minions of Evil. And, spending two years looking over the last decades of failed friendships and projects and actions, I've come to realise the sheep was very willing indeed. When pagans speak of Astrology the Church responds with Man's God-Given free will. When I spoke of Hell two years ago, it was as if I had no free will. Sadly, I see now, I did - I do.

Hell is wounding other people - and then complaining about your own wounds. Hell is wondering why no one loves me - and never asking why I love no one. Hell is demanding, in a joyous party or parade, to be the centre of attention. Hell is making it all "about me". In Gay slang, Hell is "Drama". Hell is the absence of presence: it is being alone in a crowd not because no one will reach out to me but because I let no one reach in. Hell is rather like CS Lewis imagined in The Great Divorce: a wide "community" of people slowly, by self-made choices, drifting further and further apart until each of us has a house alone in the darkness in which we can pace and plot and never reach each other ever again. Hell is like Oakland: there is no there, there. But the "there" that is absent is the Divinely-given human heart of Love. It is a absence made present in my own lack of Love, in my own ego.

When I am judged, I pray God will be merciful on me. But I pray more that I will have the courage to say what I didn't say two years ago: I did this. The life I lived then I crafted for myself, by myself. It was my own free choices that put me where I was not because I knew no better and was thus led astray but because I wanted to know no better. Hell is a self-delusion that I craft for myself when I want what I want and I want it now. Hell is an addiction - one that may take over after a while, yes, swallowing even the divinely-given gift of Free Will; but it is an addiction entered into willingly.

We say in recovery that the only drink an alcoholic needs to worry about is the first one. Reject the first one and the rest won't bother you. Take the first one and the rest will follow naturally. Hell is taking that first drink - and pretending someone else did it. It is not the fault of the bar tender. It is not the fault of the hops grower or the beer brewer or the bottling company or the delivery man.

Oddly enough, I've found that the first drink - forgive the continuance of the analogy - doesn't happen when I thought it did. The first drink of one's chosen poison may happen long before getting to the bar, long before deciding, even, that maybe a drink is needed. I remember, back in the day, how I would feel as my feet, seemingly of their own volition would turn a corner in a surprising direction and, lo: I knew where I was headed. Yet who steers my feet? Me. And so the first drink was taken on a Manhattan Corner when I thought I was on my way home or meeting friends for dinner and surprisingly enough found myself on a totally other route.

In Hell, one imagines that someone else forces one to drink because one's delusion is so over-powering that one's personal power actually blocks out one's vision of personal power. One willingly forgets the choices one makes that are the very foundations of Hell. Only when one needs to go back and undo them all, piece by piece, can one begin to see one's own masterful handiwork.

The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions laid down by my own hands.

I write this now because sitting in NYC I saw Hell again in my memories. In NYC one finds so few real friends that one hangs on to them for dear life. I was able to call people I'd not seen in a decade or more and simply fall back into community with them, so deep was the love that over time it doesn't undo itself. But I was able to see how much damage I had done, and begin, maybe a little, to undo it.

I think that for a long time recently, I've been quite happy to be coming out of Hell, never realising or, more to the point, willingly blinding myself to the point that as long as I make choices based on my needs over others, as long as I make patterns to fulfil my own needs, as long as my self-love is the only love I know - I'm still in Hell. As long as my own losses make me pout but your losses give me secret (or not so secret) joy, I'm still in Hell. As long as I need to be right, not just to be right but at the cost of you being wrong, I'm still in Hell. As long as I seek the Truth not out of love for the Truth, but just out of personal ego; as long as I preach but do not do: I'm still in Hell. As long as I claim fear, weakness and lack of freedom as excuses to not do what needs to be done I'm still in Hell.

It is not enough to want out of Hell. Everyone wants out of Hell. One has to want Paradise. One has to choose to go the other direction on the corner. One has to choose purity over concupiscence . One has to admit that one has that power and then make that choice otherwise one continues in perhaps different paths but always to the same end. Hell is, like insanity, doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. And Hell is the delusion that one has no choice in the matter - because one always has choices.

Sitting in the park in NYC - indeed on the bus ride up and back - these thoughts came to me. At the wedding I found that many of my old friends had grown and changed in ways that I would never have imagined possible. It was amazing to see. In me I still see the old man. Cow-towed, yes - chained in and kept under wraps and scared, even, to come out of them - but still the same ego, the same greed and the same hedonism. Glory to God, there are choices to make and the freedom to make them.