The following is from a letter I wrote to my oldest son a couple years ago when I went home to see my Grandma once more before she died. It came to mind today as a weeks worth of flu drugs are finally draining from my brain, there’s still the flat dead feel inside my head that I often get when I break down and take cold/flu medicine. I’ve never been one to take much more than a throat lozenge because most med’s seem to really throw me for a loop, and that sensation put the point of this letter into my mind – the doppelganger that seems to be within each of us, ready to take the controls should you let them slip – always ready to slip between you and yourself.
I'm sitting by the barbecue at Grandma Jeane's house - fresh from the pool, and the afternoon desert quiet. Grandma Ebbie is close to 104, and closer still, to being no more. This morning I saw her for the first time in over a year, and her arms are no thicker than my index & middle fingers twined, her hair snow white, and thin as blown snow, and the oddest thing, was watching her slip into and out of her face.
I sat by her as she woke, and she was no more my grandma, than anyone else passing by on the street - in fact less; her neck & face twitching with primitive animation, little of it human, and less of it anyone I knew.
Then as her eyes began to blinkingly recognize that someone was sitting next to her, you could see Her trying to reclaim her body... moment by agonizing moment of wearisome attention... fleeting and halting, but persisting. She began by "Who are you"... Who? I have a grandson? Are you Mason? Brother?... She and her humanity slipped out, and the bodies default reflexive animation let her rest, and then she made an effort to come back again... "I have a Grandson that lives far away..." "Who are you?" "Van? Who'is Van? Are you in college?" and slipped off again, and then another charge at retaking herself, and back & forth for about 30 minutes.
And then I saw Grandma slip into her face. It was the oddest thing, her lips lifted up, her eyelids drew down a fraction and her cheeks bunched "Van... it's good to see you... are you here?". For the next half hour it was much the same style repeated "Are you in college? Or Do you live here? Followed by a few minutes of recognition, and back at the time-phased questions again, but now not the primitive default life working the face and keeping the body alive, and keeping the controls for Grandma ( or keeping her from them?), but yielding their face to her with a simple blink, and Grandma was back. Her memories scrambled, her sense of her place in time non existent, but She was there all the same, and recognition and delight in her voice at the mention of Ryan, Chad, Rachel and Carol, and a glittering as she craned her neck to eye the slideshow of pictures on my laptop of the faces that attend those names.
She got a little bit better in the afternoon - maintaining a grip for about an hour, then slipping back again, and fading for the remainder of the weekend.
It got me thinking of what an immense stretch of time she has covered, what a unique thing a person is, or can be, aside from merely human, and what it means to be either. It also got me thinking, that we all, every moment of our lives, invisibly and almost imperceptibly even to ourselves, have to engage in that same battle for control of ourselves, as your Grandma was visibly engaged in.
When your Grandma was born, the Train was still the fastest transportation on earth, airplanes were unheard of, electricity and telephones only rumored, and the century the 19th. She's seen the coming of Modernity, Movies, two world wars, Airlines, Spaceflight, Computers, the internet, and an absolute transformation of culture which marked someone of age when she was a child, their bearing, beliefs and attitudes, from someone of our time, as distinctly as if they were from Ancient Greece or Victorian England.
What those differences are, and whether Pro or Con isn't the point I'm after here, but only that a Human being, someone who has shaped and claimed their self, and what that means, and the uniqueness & significance of it, is what I'm after - and what it means for you.
Modernity, Movies, two world wars, Airlines, Spaceflight, Computers, and the internet, are not what make us who we are, or that make us anymore or less worthwhile or significant. In short: The differences between Togas or shin length shorts - Papyrus or HTML - don't mean a crap.
The choices that you choose to make, rather than to default to, Do.
You are at the age, where you are emerging from childhood, and into the character which you will essentially define as you, for the rest of your life. You are also at a time when you don't yet have the habits or experiences which you will use to shore up, define and further shape You into the self you will come to be able to map yourself out to others from.
By that I mean, you have yet to have those defining moments where you can say to someone "See, I did this, then, and for this reason, and so, as you can see, I am like This." You may already feel it, but as of yet, you have only a limited Proof of it, and the self assuredness that it establishes and demonstrates.
However, it will be those choices yet to be made, the experiences stemming from them, and the beliefs which they will cement into the structure of your life yet to come, that will define you, and mark you as you, to yourself, and to those around you, for the rest of your life.
What I want to say to you most of all out of all of this, is that you will always have the moment of choice throughout life, of whether to actively engage yourself, and uphold what can be the integrity of your life, a life that You have Created, through an unceasing procession of individual decisions in the heat of the moment, to choose your life.
Either that, - or as is more often the case with most, to yield their life to that primitive animation, the default life, which exists in us all, but is not Us, it's a doppelganger - a thing that bears our face, but not our soul. It is a choice-less default of energy that will readily accept the reins of your body at anytime you wish to casually stand aside and let it move you along. It knows the trick of your words, and has access to the snapshots of your memory, and is always eager to DO as the heat of emotion urges, but never with regard to what You would do, were you in it's place, as indeed you should be.
Will you always successfully choose to make that choice? Not likely, I at least can't say that I have always successfully made the choice to choose, but I flatter myself to think that I have been more successful than most, and have been forthcoming in admitting when I haven't, or in admitting that although I chose, I chose unwisely.
If you give it consideration, I think that you'll find, that in choices of Should you do something, of Right and Wrong, the Natural is almost never the right choice. The Natural Choice, is that of the animated doppelganger within us all, eager to gain the controls you let slip. But it is so much less than us, and when we negligently let it at the controls, we almost always lessen ourselves; in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others.
I think that it is important to note, that everything we have, either trivial or significant, is the result of our unnatural choices. Language, Invention, Art, Civilization are all the result of a seemingly infinite string of decisions against what comes naturally; and Civilization is the result of a Herculean effort of it's members to remember and pass them on, which have separated us from the Natural realm of the animal, and transported us into the realm of humanity - and it is far better than the life of the natural animal we originally were.
You can see the effects among us, of those who've let the Natural Choice substitute for the Right Decision. Those with drug problems, those that cheat in their relationships, those whom you're never sure you can trust, those who steal, abuse others, murder - what they all have in common, at that crucial point of decision, each of them made the choice to let themselves do what comes Naturally, yielding to the urge of the moment instead of doing what they knew they should do. And you can surely verify from your own experience, as I can, that everyone of them surely knew it was, if not Wrong, at least that it was not Right, at least at the beginning of building their string of actions become habits, that they were still able to make the distinction.
People know when they are making excuses for doing what they shouldn't. Eventually they may pile those excuses up so deep in their own minds, that if they studiously avoid letting their thoughts linger on their excuses, they can avoid facing the truth about themselves directly, but I suspect that there is always the echo of the life they've thrown away sounding throughout their every moment, annoying or tormenting them, as the degree of the case may be.
Religion has one thing right, there is an all seeing, ever present deity mindful of everything you do, but it's not some bearded guy on a throne in the clouds, it is you. And as the person who tried to escape their life by globe trotting the world said, "It was no use, everywhere I went, there I was". You can't escape yourself. You can however lose yourself, by ceding the controls to the easy, the Natural choice of the Doppleganger within you; and with each of those slips, the Doppleganger gains a stronger hold on the controls of your life, through those unwise actions become chaining Habits.
You build Habits, not only consisting of actions, but also habits of thinking - or not - of ceding the choice to be Human or Natural, and you can see the truth of this in the face of any addict as they come out of the influence of their drug of choice, see the consequences of it, and frantically swear "Never Again!", and note the absolute fear and loathing they feel towards themselves in the next instant, as they try to hide from the fact that they know that they no longer have the strength to completely get their life back from the Doppleganger within them.
And so it is that I've irritated you by saying, that Everything you do affects everything you want to do, and your ability to do it.
I may be staggering all over the map here. I know that I am.
My point is that to be someone worth being, is the result of a never ending string of decisions, usually of choosing not to do what is easy, natural, and momentarily satisfying to one urge or another, but instead, Thinking and Choosing to do what you determine is Right. You need to know that although the Right Choice isn't always the one that will give the immediate sensation of pleasure, it is at least the one that is far more deeply satisfying, and which will give a satisfaction that lasts far beyond the moment. And won't spawn an unceasing echo through the years of your life, an ever present torment of "I should have done! I could have been!" Happiness is not a never ending string of pleasurable sensations, but a sense of satisfaction with your decisions, a peaceful sensation of your soul which accompanies you whether in luxury or poverty, and without which no luxury can ever give any satisfaction. For proof, ask Marilyn Monroe, or Elvis, or John Belushi, or Kurt Cobain, or... The list goes on and on.
It's important to know that some of your decisions will be wrong - there is no avoiding it. The only way to never make a wrong decision, is to never make any decisions; to shuck your clothes, forsake your humanity and dash off into the forest to bark at the moon.
It is that realization which lies behind the myth of an Eden lost to the Apple, and behind the idea of original sin.
You have everything you need to accomplish anything you want. You could be a President, a Titan of business or Sport, or the best Iron Worker in town, or the best Dad who happens to do something for a living. What you choose to be doesn't matter (except of course, to you), but that you choose to Be, does. Even success doesn't matter - it's certainly desirable, and Rightly so!, but it doesn't itself make one person better than another, or more at ease within their own skin. Success doesn't mean only being successful at what you were doing, but at who you were being.
I have made a lot of decisions that didn't turn out successfully, I've taken a lot of unwise risks, that didn't pan out - dropping out of college to be a musician didn't put the odds of success in my favor. I did however understand the consequences of my choice (as best as any 20 year old can understand them, which ain't saying much!) , and I had enough confidence in myself to believe that if my roll of the dice didn't come out in my favor, that I'd be able to pick myself up, pick a new course, and, though I'd be several years behind everyone I knew, I'd make it work out.
I chose what I needed to choose to be comfortable with being me, and I still think it was the best choice. Incidentally, I even think that not having won the gamble was for the best, especially when I look at you and your brother & sister. Know what you value, and value it.
Over the last couple months, you've increasingly begun responding to being asked or told to do something, with either a calm "Ok", or an "Ok, but would it be alright to..." which is the mark of someone who is becoming their own person - maturing, laying claim to their lives.
Nurture that sense, that action of asserting your reasoned control over yourself, that is you becoming you, and it is of the most dire importance to your life that you do so. It is after all possible for a person to be alive, but no longer living, no longer being the active force within themselves. The doppelganger will wait a hundred years, but it will also be quite happy to step in and take over a person’s life before they’re through living, the person that always gives in to their emotional reactions, who flies off the handle, who drinks to handle the pressure – to the doppelganger these are all the sound of the reins dropping, and it is eager to pick them up if you let it.
Make it wait. A hundred years is too soon, make it wait.