I’m trying to “build a platform” these days. That’s writer-speak for creating buzz around your work so that agents and publishers will take notice. In other words, marketing. I have less gag reaction to cesspools and eviscerated bodies. Well, maybe about the same as to eviscerated bodies. I’m finding ways to do the necessaries while avoiding the really repugnant stuff, trying not to feel like a greenback whore in the process. I’ve always hated self-promotion, and that was even before I found out that I suck at it.
Still, some things must be done. How can I do the nasty without denigrating my self-esteem in the process? The more I think about it, like so many other things, my quandary comes down to intent. What I mean is what matters. How it might be perceived is secondary. That helps. I wonder if it works retroactively?
What Did I Done Do?
The only way that we can know if we did x, y, or z for good reasons rather than bad ones is to finally, simply decide that we did them for good reasons. No one else should make that decision for us if we want to maintain self-respect. And in the final analysis, no one else does. Any authority we defer to is one that we prefer. Any amount of evidence that we cite one way or the other boils down to what we decide the evidence means. Bottom line, we judge and we choose one way or the other, shades of gray and all. What comes after that decision are mostly rationalizations that serve to mask the most important factor: who did the judging and choosing? We can deny that we chose or even that we have a choice, thinking that nature or history or circumstances or other people left us none; but that would be our mistake. Firmly gripping our power over judgment and choice is to grasp the power of truly being human: the power of telling our own stories. Short of that we are just characters or props in someone else’s narrative.
Who is our storyteller? Who controls our narratives?
We who author our own stories determine our own intentions. What we want and what it means aren’t decided in someone else’s judgment, but our own. We control our narratives.
The apostle Paul gives a great description of controlling his narrative in the last half of Chapter 7 of his letter to the church in Rome. He took it beyond intention; he controlled his narrative about responsibility. Paul chose not only what he meant by his behavior, he chose whether or not he did it.
I’m going to take some license with the following text, because I’d like to avoid getting sidetracked by sticky terminology that doesn’t contribute to the discussion, namely “sin” and “evil.” I have yet to hear that theological or philosophical consensus was reached on the meaning of either word. On top of that, if you pay attention to how they actually get used, their value lies primarily in their emotional impact, not their rational content. So, as I do in such cases, let’s replace those quagmire terms with something that more closely resembles actual usage and has least as much punch, but is broad enough that we can all allow it. Distinctions are irrelevant without clear meanings, so I’ll use a single term to substitute for both. For my purposes here, what we lose as a result is beside the point. I’ve italicized substitutions.
Substituting “sin” and “evil” with “shit” helps us avoid definitional side-issues, carries the emotional impact that I think are appropriate, brings the entire matter down from ivory towers or saintly heights to a level closer to where most of us live, (whether we tend to euphemize or not,) and focuses on what, I believe, Paul thought was important. Regardless of the nature of the sin and evil he wrote about, he drew a critical distinction — and a complete separation — between himself and that sinful, evil stuff.
I Dunnit… Or Did I?
Paul was deeply, frankly, vulnerably introspective in these lines. His agonizing with such a subtle issue, i.e., whether or not he was responsible for his own shit, might seem foreign to us. After all, he did it, didn’t he? What’s to question? The dilemma might not be as strange as you think. I’m sure that you have gone through similar struggles when it concerned your impact on those you really care about. Just think of a time when you were mortified by the outcome of something you did. You did or said something you seriously, deeply wish you hadn’t. What did your actions imply about who you were and what you thought of them? Did the mere fact that you did it prove that you intended the outcome that resulted from it?
Being a jerk and doing something we later regret is one thing. Trying our level best to do something good, and then realizing how short we fell of what we intended — even that our efforts were counterproductive and ensured that we would achieve the opposite of our intention — is quite another matter. Paul wrote about the latter here. We don’t usually feel mortified when we accomplish what we intended, unless we later have a change of heart. But it’s easy to feel mortified when our best intentions backfire. If we aren’t in denial — blaming this, that, them, anything but what we did — we can understand the struggles that Paul wrote about here. I don’t think that he was being rhetorical or abstract in this confessional. I’m sure that he had in mind specific, concrete examples from his own experience that involved the “sin” and “evil” he referred to. On the contrary; I think it’s challenging to take what he wrote as personally as we should.
(My sister-in-law recently wrote “Good bless you” in an email. English is not her native language, and I assume she meant, “God bless you.” I haven’t asked her if “Good” was intentional, but I thought it was priceless. Even atheists can get some meaning out of Good, so maybe you’d allow me another, more benign word substitution. Having tolerated my last one, even sticklers shouldn’t balk at equating God with Good.)
Paul practiced the very shit that he did not want. He found another “law” in the “members” of his “body” that waged war against the law of his mind. Although I suspect his use of those terms differed somewhat from our understanding of them, again, the differences don’t prevent us from feeling his angst, a feeling that resonates in the core of everyone who struggles to be a better person.
Who Done Did It?
Paul could have excused his dilemma as an unavoidable feature of his constitution. He could have generalized this excuse, scapegoating his species like many of us do: it’s just human nature. In fact, his closing words to Chapter 7 almost sound resigned, defeated. After crying, “Wretched man that I am!” and pleading, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” he seems to simply give up and accept the situation as his fate. “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of Good, but on the other, with my flesh the law of shit.” That is how many people “resolve” their versions of Paul’s dilemma: there is no resolution. They just “accept things the way they are.” We are imperfect, fallible sinners. To be human is to fu — , er… err. Shit will happen, so our only option is to mitigate, mitigate, mitigate…
I find small consolation in conclusions like that. Besides, I don’t like the fact that they prioritize self-interest. Who precisely cares about the fact that we blew it? Not the ones we affected. Just ask them. What is foremost on their minds — our screw-up, or instead how to recover from the nasty surprise, clean up, heal up, and get on with what they were doing? We tend to make too much of ourselves. They might appreciate our mea culpas, but they probably would rather we’d wise up so that it doesn’t happen again. Chagrin over the fact that we were the ones who screwed up belongs almost exclusively to us.
There is an alternate solution to Paul’s dilemma. We’ll take a look at it in Controlling the Narrative, Part 2: Discovery.