Why would an educated, upper-middle class young man or woman leave behind a family, a modern American life, potential success in work or academia, and perhaps more blessings, in order to go be part of a restrictive, repressive, ultra-conservative world such as ISIS? Though I’m not Muslim and I despise ISIS, perhaps there is some element to their motivation that has contributed to their ability to make such horrific choices. I wonder if they have struggled all their lives with cultural contradictions, with a duality within themselves. I wonder if, on some level, it is a similar type of contradiction — the same type of duality — that drove me to self-pity and infidelity.
From a very early age, I was two people, not one. I lived in two worlds. Yes, basically I was bicultural. However, unlike many bicultural Americans, the birth culture that caused me inner strife was not evident to the outside world. In fact, for years, if not decades, it was not really evident to me.
It wasn’t race or ethnicity for me. In fact, fifty percent of my blood is from a minority race among Americans. The issues that raised for me were no more or less interesting or challenging than for any other American with minority racial or ethnic stock in their DNA.
In a way, the issue for me was religion. But, mine was not a classic, simple, comprehensible case of my family being of a minority religion. The short version of the story is that my mother grew up in a very conservative Christian family and the village where I grew up was overwhelming dominated by that same brand of super right-wing Christian conservatism. I use the term “Victorianism” as a shorthand for its repressive social values. My father was agnostic.
My mother had a troubled relationship with her birth family, and with almost everyone else in the world, for that matter. As part of that troubled relationship, my mother outwardly rejected the religion. Inwardly, however, that religion and its worldview was such a deeply-ingrained part of my mother that she didn’t even realize how much it guided her thinking and her behavior. She frequently would say, “I don’t like that church.” But, she believed everything the church taught and followed all of its social prescriptions. For the first eight years of my life, my mother sent me to that church and lauded me for taking part.
She never attended. That’s a big part of why I stopped attending at age eight, when my mother finally gave me the choice. I guess that was my first big contradiction: being encouraged to live according to the religion while my parents went out of their way to outwardly reject the religion.
Throughout adolescence, my mother continued to insist that she hated “the church,” and, with no hint of irony, continued to insist we live according to the teachings of the church. The church is very vocally opposed to tobacco and alcohol. Narcotics were beyond even mentioning. Anyone — related or unrelated, known or unknown, kind or heartless, intelligent or mindless, or any other variation — is to be shunned, shamed, avoided, pitied, patronized, and judged if they partake of such evils.
Sex, or anything vaguely associated with sex or thoughts of sexuality, is dirty, unnecessary, foul, unholy, and sick. Even the thought of normal sexual traits, appearances, behaviors, or stereotypes should be hidden, avoided, hushed up, ignored, not acknowledged, and forgotten. If any of these things — sex, tobacco, sexuality, alcohol, or drugs — appeared on television, in films, in literature or news, in overhead conversation, or elsewhere, my mother would sigh, grumble, fuss, frown, and generally make it clear that she did not approve. Those things were forbidden. How dare they inadvertently appear, so nonchalantly, in modern American culture — in our day-to-day lives?
All the while, my mother preached a constant mantra to me. “Get educated. You’re so smart. Don’t be like these small-town people in this small town. Science is wonderful. Be so worldly and sophisticated.” She never once, to this day I believe, understood that her mantra about being educated and worldly was diametrically opposed to her frighteningly Victorian, provincial attitudes about sex, alcohol, and the like. She was contradicting herself, and she neither knew nor cared.
I was struggling with inner conflict. I only recently began to understand it. Figuring out the norms, mores, and values that would guide me in life would have been hard enough — as it is for any young man — if I had received coherent, consistent signals from my parents. Perhaps I would have lived according to the church had my parents done the same; had they not only condemned sex, alcohol, and the like, but also said “the church is good” and “live as the church teaches;” and had they said “date and marry within the church.”
Perhaps I would have bravely, or matter-of-factly, accepted that some people are not raised to hate and fear sex, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and progressive ideas, had my parents thought and acted that way too, had they not forced me to attend the church, had they critiqued the church’s teachings instead of just critiquing its members, and had they not aped the church’s views on life.
Instead, they filled me with contradictions. Even as I write this, I’m starting to suspect that my mother’s vociferous hatred for the church stemmed not from distaste for its teachings, but only from bitterness or envy that she was not the church’s version of a paragon, the way she perhaps wished to be.
When I went off to college, never again living with my parents, I guess I assumed I was leaving the church behind. I assumed I would matter-of-factly approach sex, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and all the other modern, secular, progressive elements of life just the way my peers did. But, my new peers never had the Victorian, provincial background pounded into them the way I did.
I tried those forbidden fruits. I went overboard with alcohol. It took me a few years to learn that the cost of intoxication — making an ass of myself, potential legal trouble, physical illness, and lost time — was simply not worth it to me. Now in my forties, I feel at ease about my relationship with alcohol. I tried drugs, just a little. It didn’t take me long to decide they really did not even interest me.
I remember that even during the years that I was experimenting with drugs and alcohol, I was very judgmental about other people who used those things. The closer the person was to me, the more I felt threatened by and acted self-righteous about their substance use. For example, I recall one particular occasion when TL went out with a girlfriend and drank too much. Not only was I threatened by fears of what she might have done without me, I was also judgmental about her intoxication. I also remember occasionally pressuring her to get intoxicated with me. I suspect the effect of that pressure was to make TL feel afraid to overindulge with me.
In those earlier years, my alcohol use was excessive, even by average, modern American standards. In reality, TL’s alcohol use was really very moderate — well within what modern Americans consider normal and healthy.
For years I’ve struggled to explain not only how I could be so hypocritical — judging TL’s drinking while simultaneously struggling with my own alcohol abuse — but also why. To be clear, I have long since let go of that particular sick obsession. Here’s how I think that hypocrisy happened. Against the backdrop of my overall low self-esteem and my terrible habit of blaming others for my unhappiness, the two conflicting world views within my head — one provincial and one progressive — lead me to act out in two inappropriate and conflicting ways.
My progressive side said alcohol should be no big deal and that everyone was indulging. That part of me said that I should keep overindulging and that I should pressure TL to overindulge with me. Simultaneously, the provincial part of me recalled how I had learned from the church, the community, and the mother that alcohol was evil. That part of me said to look down on TL for overindulging without me (that one time). Hypocritical? Yes. That’s the point.
I tried to be two conflicting things, and I got them both wrong. At least if I did not have that inner conflict, I could have worked to moderate. I believe that if I was not burdened by the Victorian voice in my head, I would not have viewed alcohol as something I had to prove to myself I could do. I would not have been able to draw on that Victorianism to fuel my self-righteousness.
I had a similar struggle with marijuana. The difference was that once I tried marijuana, I found it entirely uninteresting. I have never been tempted by it. However, I did indulge in the same self-righteous judgmental ways toward TL and others when they nonchalantly expressed their more progressive views of marijuana.
TL’s use of marijuana before we dated was very limited, well within what most modern Americans consider to be normal. Since we began dating, she has never used it. She only speaks about it on rare occasions, in terms of current political happenings. My marijuana use before we dated was more than hers and, yet, I judged her for her use of it and her more progressive attitude.
My struggle with tobacco was also characterized by contradiction. Ultimately I became a closet smoker, just as I had become a closet porn user and adulterer. With tobacco, for example, I should have just done what most people do: choose to smoke, or choose not to smoke. Instead, I took a third, more cowardly path: I smoked, but tried to hide it from everyone. Further, I spent much of my life looking down on people who smoke, acting self-righteously.
How did I get to such hypocritical behavior? The final straw, as I’ve written before, was when I smoked alone at nights for months, hiding it from TL and everyone else, and not having the courage, integrity, or willpower to either quit or bring it out into the open. Why such contradictory behavior? I struggle to understand it.
I think it was like this. The urban, secular, modern part of me said I should be able to indulge. What’s the big deal? At exactly the same time, emanating from a more primal, childish part of my personality, the Victorian part of me imposed overwhelming shame, guilt, and self-doubt on me with regard to smoking. The Victorian values were so deeply ingrained in me that their awakening was subconscious, almost Pavlovian. Every time I even thought of smoking, Victorian me said to be ashamed and afraid — to hide it. Progressive me was too cowardly to resist the subconscious Victorian me. And, by the time I thought of just quitting smoking, I was already physiologically hooked.
There are a very few people, like TL, who can have one or more cigarettes casually and then forget about smoking for months or longer, without physiological struggle. My body is simply not like that. So, really I should not smoke. I don’t now. It’s still a temptation sometimes. But, I have been away from it for three good years.
More troubling is the way I think about it. If TL or someone else smokes, I want very much to view it without judgment, fear, jealousy, or self-righteousness. The same applies to marijuana. Honestly, that still requires conscious effort on my part, to relax and view it without judging it. In the classic psychological sense, these are triggers for me. They trigger the risk of self-pity and self-righteousness.
Did you read my post about the Train Wreck movie? Promiscuity is a trigger for me. So is smoking and marijuana. I want so much to be more modern, adult, and normal about these issues. So far, I can only do so by employing the good mental health strategies I’ve been practicing. If I ever smoke again, even once, I have to tell TL about it. I have to not hide it.
From reading this blog, you know about my long struggle with sex, porn, masturbation, and adultery. I see a connection between that struggle and my inner struggle pitting Victorian me again progressive me. Sure, there were other problems and causes: low self-esteem, failure to take responsibility, and self-pity. Misogyny played a role too. I was consumed by the idea that a man should have a long sexual track record and a woman should be chaste. I suspect that, at least in part, I became obsessed with that idea because of my inner cultural dichotomy.
If my worldview was consistently progressive, I might have accepted that a spouse’s sexual history had no bearing on the present relationship. There should have been no temptation to compare myself to TL or to other men sexually.
On the other hand, if my worldview was consistently Victorian, I would have found a spouse who really shared that worldview.
But, my worldview was conflicting. I associated with progressive people in a progressive milieu, and I strived to be progressive. But, it wasn’t entirely me. I was deceiving myself. I was trying so hard not to acknowledge Victorian me that I succeeded in forgetting it existed. But, it rose up like a demon unchained, possessed me, and drove me to lash out at TL in a cruel, deceptive series of outbursts, of self-pity and of self-righteousness. I criticized TL intensely, frequently, and sometimes insidiously about her sexual history, even while I attempted to show her only progressive me. Victorian me leapt out, enveloped progressive me, and took over. The self-righteousness was coupled with revenge seeking. Victorian me said that men should be sexually experienced and women should not. So, Victorian me vowed to correct the perceived imbalance, by relentlessly trying to grow my own sexual track record — love, morals, integrity, safety, and reason be damned.
You know my story. My point is that what ended up destroying TL, the only person I really love, began as an inner struggle against myself. I thought I was a progressive person with a progressive life. In fact, my Victorian side had a stranglehold on me. I didn’t think it would. My parents had overtly told me to be modern and educated. But, their unspoken teachings, their belief in the Victorian values, saturated my mind. Victorian me could not handle what progressive me wanted. I succumbed to my duality, not by joining an extremist group, but by behaving as an extremist with regard to sex, women, tobacco, and progressive ways of life.
These kids that leave America and go off to Syria to fight for ISIS, succumbed to their duality. They were never entirely comfortable with modern American behaviors regarding sex and the role of women, for example. Combine that with low self-esteem and the seductive preaching that says their misfortune was not their fault — rather, it was the fault of another culture or a set of policies — and they are tempted to give up the struggle to accept progressiveness. It’s easier to just say that progressiveness is evil, to reject it, and to embrace Victorian (or fundamentalist) values.
I have definitively turned my back on the idea of living a Victorian life, with a Victorian wife. One of my many problems before D-day was succumbing to my hidden discomfort with that decision. The child part of my personality wanted the security blanket of Victorian views, wanted the unattainable reality of living in both worlds. So, it is the adult part of my personality that must remind me, whenever tempted by self-pity or self-righteousness, that I chose the progressive path. I must be consistent in following through on my chosen path.