I know what I’m doing. I’m avoiding my work. But I’m doing it in (what I believe to be) a very clever way – I’m working on something else. I’m working on a different goal, on something I don’t need to be working on now. What I need to do is write. Sometimes we don’t want to be in our Purpose because then we’d have to deal with emotions and fears. We’d rather keep busy…like Theodore Roosevelt.
In Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Theodore Roosevelt dealt with the death of his wife by throwing himself into his work and never speaking of her again. In addition, he destroyed every memento of her including letters. He wouldn’t use his daughter’s real name (Alice). He did all he could to erase her from his life. While Roosevelt is, in many ways, a personal hero, the way he dealt with his grief seems less than heroic. He threw himself into his work, the work of politics, but he didn’t do his real work, the work of grieving, the work of being true to his heart.
Granted, Roosevelt did not have knowledge of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying – The Five Stages of Grief. He may have also been influenced by the cultural mores of his time, in which men weren’t supposed to cry, but to suppress their feelings. Or he may have been a victim of his own unique temperament.
Though throwing oneself into one’s work is not the worst way to deal with emotional pain, the pain will come out “sideways,” and manifest itself as being a workaholic, or being unable to establish strong relationships, or exhibiting some dysfunction.
Doing one’s work is meant to be a way of dealing with pain, not avoiding pain. Pain tends to not stay buried anyway. But it can be healed. When I write, I am often able to exorcise the pain I am dealing with. I don’t bury it deep within me. I get it out of me by doing my work.
Roosevelt’s mistake was to believe he could forget. But we can’t forget. We don’t want to. People who truly forget probably have Alzheimer’s. Is pain healthy? Probably not, but it’s a signal that something needs to be dealt with. Dealing with pain is healthy. I’ve had periods of profound sadness in my life, and as long as I deal with it honestly, I can live it with and eventually see it healed. If I don’t, then, as I said, it comes out sideways.
For me it came out as an obsession…with comic books. When, as a child, I was under great stress or feeling sad, I learned, almost accidentally, that reading a comic book made me feel better. My fear and my emotional pain would disappear for a while. I discovered this early in life, so soon I was buying every comic book I could. I genuinely enjoyed comic books, but it wasn’t joy I was looking for. It wasn’t even entertainment. It was a way of escaping the realities of life. The problem with trying to escape what we fear, often makes those fears even larger.
As I got older, I realized that I didn’t enjoy comic books the way I once did. But I still kept buying. I began realizing that there was more to life. But I couldn’t let go. I kept reading and buying and buying and reading. I was buying comics I didn’t even like. I was spending money I didn’t have. Soon I had to get a storage space because I didn’t have enough space to keep my comic books and I was borrowing money to pay for the storage. The worst part of al this is that I still wasn’t dealing with my fears.
There were times when I was able to let go of comic books. They all had this in common: I had a purpose. I had work to do. For example, when I was planning my trip to Turkey, I didn’t mind selling my comic books. More recently, when I began writing, I found my obsession vanishing. I no longer felt compelled to go to the comic store or buy new comics. As it is now, I visit the comic book store about once a month and I buy comics less than that. I still read them and I still enjoy them. But now I know that they can only entertain me, but not heal me. God and my Muse do that. It’s no coincidence that my comic-book buying habits changed after I began writing. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them; it’s just that I enjoy being in my Purpose, I enjoy the chance to Get Started and Keep Going more…much more.