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Willpower

by on January 25, 2010

Andrew Sullivan provoked a passionate response in his ongoing blog-discussion (blog-scussion?) about a few things, including drugs. His topics – especially in this post/thread – hit the point I often pursue: that of universality. The belief that when I write “I did this, I did that, it’s all about me, la la la,” that I am not just writing about me. I am writing about the human condition. I write assuming that it’s not only important to me, whatever my topic is. Some topics may interest you less than others; I’m less interested to read about some things than others. But something will grab your attention. Something that is part of your reality, too.
Andrew Sullivan is gay – homosexual – pick your word, the point’s the same. I have no problem writing that, and I do not mean to disparage him. He’s written that himself, proudly, many times. Somewhere in the last few weeks Andrew’s blog has traversed a course from Christianism to meth to drugs in general, and now to drugs as a form of escape or coping. That’s the very shorthand history of the discussion. We, his readers, have followed along on this path, guided it, and it has ended up in places it did not begin.
Part of the passionate response I referred to can be excerpted in this way:

I’m a 25 yr. old who graduated from the Ivy League a few years ago with great ambitions/hopes/dreams, and who lays awake this rain-soaked morning because I’m haunted….[by a description of] a suburban-bred, sexually adventuresome young man rushing headlong into life, [and when I read this] I heard my story.
[I] recently tried ecstasy for the second time to experience, amidst a euphoric chemical cloud, something incredibly resilient, fulfilling, and whole. It was as though my whole body was flooded with a sense of purpose, and the confidence! To feel that again after so many months of loneliness; indescribably sweet.

and the point, the denouement:

What I cannot shake, though, is the gut feeling that confidence, purpose and identity are all in the same pot–and that without some kind of chemical breakthrough, my brain and sense of self have been fried by the last several years.
I hear your reader’s voice and fear my place in this world is slipping through my fingers–wasted destiny. It’s not the drugs that worry me, save the extent to which they adjust my brain chemistry. But thinking this way, it seems life affords only so many free passes; and when hard realities (a parent’s disapproval, the Christian right, the grid) necessitate hard choices, with identity/confidence in the balance, I worry my brain isn’t up for the task. What if my character is too weak, my courage failing; after all, the headstrong passion I once though of as strength of will is, itself, only a hollow projection of force.

You may have surmised that the person writing to Andrew is gay as well. As to that experience, I cannot attest. I am straight. Perhaps I’m a touch asexual. I don’t think it matters. The question here is a question of will. That is something all humans have (or have a deficiency of). How do we build willpower? That takes a lifetime, I would guess. How do you react to things? Is your reaction to making it through another week to get drunk, so as to forget the week? Or do you face down even your most regretted moments in a sober state of mind, contemplative, hoping to produce a different outcome should the same situation face you again?
Is it fine to take drugs to escape from the reality that confronts us? I’m hardly an expert on the matter. I don’t use drugs. As I once wrote

If I had no scruples–oh, how I wish I had none!–I would down a bottle, numb the pain, and overdose for a while. Instead I must sit here and rail at myself, rail at my imperfection….

My general feeling though, is that drugs can be, are, and should be, an escape. It is much easier to stand at a distance and say, “that is fine,” than it is to want to be near a person doing drugs. It is hard to accept, for instance, that people we know have anything to escape from; we don’t want them to do drugs. But, I hear your story, and I say drugs are fine. Not as a permanent solution. Never as a permanent solution. But they are fine to use once, to experience a different self. Perhaps people should do drugs. Since one can never do drugs and not do drugs at the same time, it is impossible to know which is the correct course, and at which time.
Andrew says the solution is love. Frankly, he sounds a bit like Dumbledore, and he’s got the beard for it too. Love, I think, doesn’t have a great impact on developing willpower, which is what the unnamed-reader fears he may not have. Love may not diminish willpower, but I don’t know that it increases it. And an Ivy-league education, commendable though it is, does not teach you willpower.
The power of will to do something (or, as may be so important to this case, to not do something), is, like I said, a lifetime of work. It involves constantly evaluating what is important to us, what the outcome may be (if we try a drug, etc), what the impact may be, and whether the experience is worth it.

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