I don’t believe in God.
Which. Big fucking deal, right?
I live in a major urban center. I’m in the arts. Politically, I have long been agitating for a new Robespierre to start filling baskets in the center of public squares with the heads of bankers.
Furthermore, I have two kids. And I feel the world has enough gullible people ruled by their fears, and don’t wish to create any more.
Given these facts, the likelihood that I’m going to be devout is pretty slight.
So. No shock. Water is wet. Artsy egghead in city is atheist.
But. For me. This is a bit of thing, actually.
Not because my family is churchy. Not because my wife is religious. Not because I think I owe my kids some kind of relationship to the divine.
It’s because I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’ve been going to Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings since 1994. So if I make it to next spring without a drink, then I’ll have gone 20 years with drinking alcohol.
Outside of the meetings, I rarely talk about being sober. For a couple of reasons: main one is, like much of what is really real, it is none of your goddamn business. That’s the selfish reason. The better reason that I mostly keep it on the down-low is that if I ever start drinking again – which is always a risk, most days it’s a low-level risk, but a risk nonetheless – it could be misinterpreted as a failure of the program, rather than my personal failing, if that makes sense.
Because if somebody who’s a drunk, or a druggie needs the help of AA, like I did, but then they learn that I’m a member of the Fellowship, and they see me drunk, then they might not believe the program works, and they might give up and die a horrible, pointless death.
And maybe this sounds weird to you, but I take this obligation really, really seriously. I owe everything I have to Alcoholic’s Anonymous – I know that sounds corny as fuck, and that we’ve all been conditioned by Upworthy videos to view such a statement as hyperbolic and dopey. Or I have, anyway.
But it’s the literal truth. Everything I have, I owe to AA.
If I had not found my way to Alcoholic’s Anonymous, I would never have gotten married. I would never have had children. I would never have started writing seriously. I would never have started my show WRITE CLUB. I would never have found a way to forgive my dad for killing himself at what, for me, was an age when I could really have used a man-shaped person to help me figure shit out. I would never have made what peace I can about my grandfather’s unsolved murder.
And mostly, I would be dead. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I’d have been dead by like ’97 at the latest.
And I’d have died alone, just like my dad – a-wallow in despair and self-pity; enraged by phantom injustices; choking back the always-rising bile. The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.
But so when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.
Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.
For the non-addicted among you – you can know repose, for you tranquility, or at least neutrality, is possible – for us, even where we may outwardly appear to be free of turmoil, likely as not, we are coiled. We are in that single breath that precedes fight or flight. We are on a rolling boil even when we don’t look like it.
So. Given that this is as you can imagine an exhausting condition, it follows that we need relief. We turn idiotically to every form of feeling-cessation there is – TV, internet, gambling, porn, food, rage, work – any substance or activity upon which it is possible to binge. Where there is no precedent for abuse, we will invent one.
But we find, inevitably, that none of these is effective for very long. We need something more – more comprehensive, more encompassing. Which is why the program of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is framed as a spiritual one. To gain relief from the unendurable tyranny of the fucking feelings that never, ever stop for even a second, no matter how desperately you might plead with them, we are advised to turn to God.
Which makes sense. Since we are under siege from inside our own skulls, there is a sound logic to seeking relief from some outside source. And God, let’s face it, is a classic.
But I find myself unable. Not unwilling – it’s not for want of effort. I have prayed. A lot, actually. AA is a temple built by “fake it till you make it,” and it is populated by people of good will who wish to help you for no other purpose than to see you get well. So I have been advised to pray even in the absence of belief. And I have.
But whether it’s my own intellectual pride, or lack of humility, or any number of deficits that plague me, I have never been able to shake the feeling as I pray that I am a fraud, and that I am talking only to myself.
When I first got sober, I was vehement in my atheism. I was strident in my certainty.
Now I have no such certainty – I am marooned, actually, by my lack of belief. I can see in other people that their belief – even if it is rooted in nothing – is effective. I have witnessed the relief, the calming, the reduction in turmoil and hate. I see it all the time.
As you probably suspect, I hate acknowledging my vulnerability. Hate it. I also hate acknowledging that I have love in my life – that I have married the girl of my dreams and have the privilege each day of living with a woman far too good for me. I hate admitting hat I am stricken by love for my kids, a love of such intensity and ferociousness, I did not think myself capable. I hate acknowledging that I am blessed and fortunate. I hate conceding that I have found the work I need to be doing, and that despite its frustrations and the fact that it is largely unpaid, it is fulfilling and constitutes a for me a sense of purpose. I hate acknowledging that people whom I respect seem not to be lying when they tell me they like my work.
I hate all these things only in part because I hate the kind of soft-headed affirmation-spew that exists as a slack shorthand for actual feeling, the kind of psychobabble boosterism that stands as a spineless substitute for actual self-examination.
But mostly, really, I hate these things because I am afraid - chronically, feverishly afraid of losing all of it. It’s not a fear you could see, probably. I’m not one of those anxiety monkey-type people.
But I am afraid. Because of the kill switch mounted on the wall of my skull. I am afraid that one day it will all prove too exhausting, too overwhelming, too impossibly large and important and confounding, and in a moment of weakness or depletion, I will abandon it all and leap into the abyss of self-immolation that always awaits me.
People – inattentive people, mostly – too readily mistake me for a cynic. Which I get. I rant. I say mean things. I adopt a tough-minded posture.
But the people willing to peer through the cracked windows into the flimsily constructed house just past that posture, though, can see that I am no cynic. I am afraid. I am badly, hopelessly afraid.
I have a heart that is warm and wounded, and I have much – so much – to lose. So in a corner of that flimsily constructed house, I crouch around it all like a cornered animal, clawing at any who draw too near.
I wish it was possible for me to invite God into this house. I actually envy those who can, because if I could, mine would become a house less lonesome. But even with its warped floors and poor layout, the rats in the walls and leaking roof, this shabby house of mine is a true house. It is real.
So even though God is not unwelcome, exactly, he seems to me to be a made-up thing, and therefore cannot stay.
Strength need never account for itself.
Strength does not explain.
Strength does not seek your counsel or your solace.
Strength is irreducible and complete. Strength is self-possessed and self-sufficient.
This is what Strength tells itself. This is what Strength would have us believe.
Strength makes a big show of… well, of strength, but secretly? Strength is actually pretty ragged and – if we’re being honest – isn’t doing so hot, actually.
To tell you the truth, Strength is pretty beat up. And has been feeling more than a little sad. I mean, it’s been getting dark so early, it’s tough on all of us, a little bit. For Strength, though? This has been a long time coming.
Not that Strength is headed for a breakdown, or whatever. But the demands. Placed on Strength. In recent years.
Have been a drain. And a hassle.
And Strength… I mean, Strength remains STRONG, obviously. I mean, it isn’t that. It’s just… Strength has wondered – in a mostly idle way, you understand – a purely, like THEORETICAL way – whether it’s even WORTH it, anymore.
I mean – it’s ENDURABLE, obviously. This is still STRENGTH we’re talking about, here. But, just… sometimes. To be honest. Strength would way rather be having a glass of wine in a hot bath. And a good cry. Than all this… like, stoic abiding. That is expected. From all quarters.
The thing is: Strength doesn’t want to QUIT, or whatever. Strength can HACK it – it isn’t anything like that. But Strength could sure use a break. That’s all. Just a break. Because it never lets up. Does it? No. Never does.
Strength would just like to catch a goddamn BREATH without, you know, without the constant threat of everything falling completely apart if Strength doesn’t bring the A game all the damn time.
All Strength is ASKING – which, when you think about it is totally reasonable and in no way out of bounds, or whatever – is to sit DOWN for five minutes to grab a cup of fucking COFFEE without being, like MOLESTED by whatever the latest goddamn CRISIS is.
Honest to GOD, you guys.
Strength could use a little HELP around here. You know?
Strength would really appreciate it – like a LOT – if you could just figure shit out for yourselves for like ten goddamn minutes so Strength could just, I don’t know, not have shoulder the ENTIRE BURDEN ALL THE GODDAMN TIME BECAUSE NOBODY ELSE CAN SEEM TO HOLD IT TOGETHER.
Is it so much to ASK?
You know what it is, you guys? Real talk. Sit down. House meeting. Strength is calling a house meeting. Right now. Drop what you’re doing and listen up. Let’s go. Circle up.
It’s the everything-ness of what you expect of Strength. The unrelenting-ness and totality, the every-moment-of-every-fucking-day-ness of it.
Look. I get it. Some stuff only Strength is gonna be able to handle well. You pull a double shift when you’re fighting a cold – that’s a Strength job, for sure. Or your sister needs a ride to chemo. And sit with her while she fights the nausea. Strength all the way.
But there’s plenty of other areas where the rest of you guys have GOTTA pick up some slack. Come on – get off the bench, you guys. Quit riding the pine.
When the fucking client makes the racist joke in the meeting – you guys all clam up and look at Strength. Convictions? Principles? Where are you guys when that shit happens?
When you turn from your mailbox to see your landlady crying, you guys all slink past her and leave Strength to ask her what’s wrong. Even though he had the same shitty day as the rest of you, and has never liked her that much. Compassion – step up. Decency? You, too. Get in there.
Or when your spouse tells the same story – badly – for the millionth time, it falls to Strength to hold the tongue, to stop the eye roll. What about you, Discretion? How about you, Simple Kindness? And Love: where the FUCK have you been all this time?
Strength feels pretty, well, strongly, you guys, that if you just pitch in a little bit, if everybody just pulls together and does their part – then maybe we can get through this. Because. You guys. Right now, it is not looking good.
And Speed – what are you even DOING here, man? You contribute nothing but hyperactivity and fidgeting and annoyance.
But if not – if you guys cannot get your shit together and do your share – if you keep over-relying on Strength to get us through every fucking situation, then we all run the risk of Strength losing it completely and turning on us.
And we do NOT wanna cross Strength.
Because I think we can agree – none of us wants to go toe-to-toe with Strength. Strength could crush us without breaking stride. Strength could snuff us out without breaking a sweat; Strength alone has the power to destroy us all.
As the founder of this thing, I’ve written something like 70 WRITE CLUB pieces. I’ve performed the show in five North American cities. I’ve written to a wide range of topics.
And I can tell you this:
Nice is the worst fucking assignment I’ve ever given myself.
Not only am I temperamentally unsuited to the task of advocating for Nice, but from the standpoint of writerly craft, Nice is one of those gutless, toothless, limbless words that drive me right around the bend.
You know the ones. The words.
All those fucking words that are so thumb-worn and degraded from centuries of having drizzled off the tongues of the insincere that they have ceased to contain any vestige of their meaning. Words so compromised and pissed-upon that they may as well be made-up non-words like “edutainment” or “nutraceuticals.”
In every office and coffee shop, at every bus stop and at the end of every bar, they sit, these words, by the bucketful. Used by the desperate in the wrong-headed belief that any utterance, no matter how hollow or false, is preferable to the silence that surrounds us always. People who would sooner say SOMETHING, because the prospect of a stretch of nothing said, a howling pause in the something-ness, well it’s more than most can bear.
[SILENCE FOR A BEAT.]
There, now. Wasn’t that nice?
It is no secret that many people labor under the misconception that I am not a nice person. I am quick to hatred, and live suspended in a molten pool of judgment and harshness.
But it is not for want of ABILITY that I am not a Nice person. It is because I believe that being NICE is not worth aspiring to. NICE people are well suited to standing in line till they die; NICE people make outstanding hostages. If you want a trainee for middle management or a lamb for the slaughter, call a Nice person. Nice people are good cannon fodder or medical test subjects.
In short, Nice people are mostly stupid and afraid. I also am mostly stupid and afraid, but I am nonetheless lacking in Niceness.
But setting aside the hollow and senseless aspects of Nice, the pleasing and vacuous and agreeable aspects of it, what do we find? What was the original intent of the word?
Well. Murky as fuck, as it turns out.
[PRODUCE Oxford English Dictionary]
Following are several archaic definitions of Nice, which will demonstrate that despite the vastness of my hostility, the nanoscopic scale of my patience, and the combustibility of my good will, I am, in point fact and despite the evidence of your senses, Nice.
“Shy, reluctant, unwilling”
“Wanton, loose-mannered, lascivious”
“Requiring or involving great precision, accuracy, or minuteness”
“Critical, doubtful, full of danger or uncertainty”
And finally “Fastidious in matters of literary taste”
Now then. On the surface, the misguided among you could argue that I am a bit of dick. But if one RETURNS to true nature of the word, it is plain to anyone that I am as Nice as I can be.
Where reluctance and being critical are concerned, where one has need of doubt and lasciviousness, one would be hard pressed to find anybody more fully empodying these attributes than I. I am a PARAGON of unwillingness, a TOWER of uncertainty. In fact, when you apply the right metrics of assessment, I rapidly emerge as THE NICEST PERSON YOU HAVE EVER MET.
It is precisely BECAUSE of my misanthropy and formless dread that I am so Nice. It is LESSER people, people lacking the courage to be judgmental and unforgiving that actually LACK in Niceness.
It is the people who seek always to be agreeable and civil, actually, that are the dicks, here.
Not this guy.
I am distasteful and truculent enough to recognize that it is those traditionally regarded as The Nice who ACTUALLY demonstrate the worst kind of cowardice and hypocrisy with their solicitude and tact and enthusiasm. It is the TYRANNY of jocularity and accommodation, in short, that have conspired to ensure that Nice Guys like myself finish last.
You have it in your power, however, to RECLAIM Niceness from the legions of the attentive, the armies of the cordial, the fascism of the friendly.
You have it in your grasp, here, this night, to seize for good and always the sense of what it means to be Nice. Do NOT LET this singular opportunity slide, ladies and gents. Do NOT permit these CHARLATANS to continue selling us the snake oil of their respectfulness. DEPROGRAM YOURSELF from this Cult of the Kind.
NOW is your time to stand and be counted.
[FLIP THEM OFF.]
Who among you is Nice enough to return my salute?
Latest solo show,
Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull
runs 10/19 ($25 - opening night) thru 11/16 ($15 rest of run)
Please to attend. Tix HERE