Early in Peter Medak’s 1972 film, The Ruling Class, is a scene for which I have always felt kinship. When the insane British peer, Jack Gurney (Peter O’Toole), declares his love to Grace (Carolyn Seymour), the woman being maneuvered to become his wife, the madman reveals his feelings in the only way that makes sense to him. Lanky limbs spiking and strutting, he breaks into a courtship dance that would be the pride of any puffed-up wood grouse in The Isles. The display is so patently inappropriate that it would collapse into the ridiculous were it not for the unselfconsciousness, passion, and sweet sincerity of O’Toole’s performance. It’s a fairy tale moment in the film O’Toole himself described as “a comedy with moments of tragic relief.”
Choosing to love—rising to the counterpoint of passionate engagement with another—is ever a fraught proposition. It can bring a harvest of satisfaction, sometimes joy, if one is nimble enough or lucky enough to avoid stumbling at the outset, or the harvest can fail, and the aspirant reap disappointment. There are no guarantees, first because there is absolutely nothing that compels an object of affection to reciprocate the feeling, and second because even the best matches launch in perilous waters. Experience teaches that—absent the charm of a Peter O’Toole—passionate, sweet sincerity will produce at least one featherweight Cyrano for every fortunate Darcy.
Hope may come without guarantee, but disappointment comes with a suite of regrets. That’s the risk that makes choosing to love an act of courage.* By definition, a choice to love involves allocating a portion of one’s emotional life to engagement with another, and not just any portion, but that emotion for which humans hunger. It does not matter why the stake is frustrated; if it is frustrated, regret follows.
Of course, all frustrations are not created equal. Consequences when disappointed after one has loved well and been present and honest are different (we assume) than those in the wake of loving badly, with distraction and deceit. A given case also modulates depending upon eventual assessment of the desirability of the disappointed match. “That fool done me wrong” spawns a different set of poignancies than “I flew too near the sun.” And then there are the discoveries of introspection, when a good, clear look into one’s heart exposes the lacks fatal to hope, and no one to blame but oneself. It takes footwork to avoid bitterness if it becomes clear that, though the object of one’s affection may be eminently worthy, one’s attention, in fact, is unworthy of its object. That’s a sobering moment. In the best case, quite actually sobering.
Sobering, as a process, has been much on my mind recently. It’s a process I started twenty years ago when I renounced alcohol and tobacco, vowing to get healthy and strong. It’s a process I continue as I learn to pay better attention to the cues of my body. In response to those prompts, I have eliminated dairy products and wheat from my diet, and reduced my consumption of animal flesh, with results comparable to (and in my mind consistent with) sobering. I also struggle against innate laziness to cultivate a modest physical practice centered around sequences of yoga, nei kung and tai chi. Adoption of these physical forms is another part of sobriety.
Two things I have resisted giving up despite clear body signals that doing so would produce benefit, are coffee and cannabis. I have constructed an argument that, since immoderation glares at the world as a huge flaw in my character, continuing to enjoy these substances in a deliberately moderate way produces a benefit in self-control that outweighs the negative physical effects of either. Until now, the argument has seemed like a good one. I have successfully limited consumption to a fraction of former levels for both java and weed, and occasionally I have gone for extended periods without sampling one or the other. The reduction of habitual toxins has had a salutary effect on my system, plus I’ve given myself a big pat on the back for being moderate. Now, however, revisiting the issue with a freshly critical eye, I do not think I have done myself any favors with this cleverly constructed rationalization.
For longer than the decades of my progressive sobering, I have elaborated Nod’s Way, or Hidden Dragon, my poem in the form of an oracle, my tool for self-transformation in the form of a toy, my toy in the form of a tool for transformation, but most of all a memorandum to myself about how to relate as a creature of spirit to society and world. The dragon referenced is of an east Asian character in that it is not a thundering, lumbering, fire-breathing wyrm, but the animating force or aspect of an element of being. In this conception, there is a dragon of earth, a dragon of air, another of water, and so on. The “Hidden Dragon” of Nod’s Way is that of personhood, the dragon that lives through each of us. Hidden Dragon expresses the ideal of our individual potentials. Think of it as the most perfect possible you—the wisest, most humane, most authentic embodiment of who you can be—drawing into existence by continually seeking to emerge through the material, apparent you. The kernel at the heart of Nod’s Way is that a fully realized individual will express this dragon in every aspect of life, but that the dragon will remain hidden in plain sight by modesty. Put another way, the dragon will be known only by the fact of its expression in the world, not by deliberately calling attention to itself. Simple in plan, I struggle to meet the standard in practice.
One might ask what sobriety and Nod’s Way have to do with each other, or either one with choosing to love, and the question would not surprise. I mulled these topics as three separate issues for a few weeks before it occurred to me that they bind together. Achieving full realization as a spirit creature is difficult if one’s spirit is damped by psychotropes or euphorics of whatever variety. Instead of being hidden by modesty, the dragon is veiled by haze. Such damping reduces the signal or volume or mass of one’s potential for expression of authentic self, of Hidden Dragon, within the landscape of one’s personhood.
Unfortunately, personhood does not contract to embrace the degree of authenticity that remains within the haze, because the construct of personhood is not that rapidly responsive. The most completely aware, thoroughly conscious individuals on the planet still incorporate social mythologies and misconceptions into their architectures of self, and such inclusions are as likely reinforced as undermined by psychotropes. The rest of us, with greater degrees of external defaults grafted wholesale onto our identities, are even less reliably adaptable. When one expresses Hidden Dragon—when you channel the most perfect possible you—the myths and wrong-headedness are more or less mitigated by heightened awareness of one’s ideals. The dragon expands to animate the mask. Damping the dragon, as with coffee or weed, inserts a filter into experience that dilutes both information coming in and expression going out. The dragon retreats or is prevented from manifesting fully.
Personhood, like nature, abhores a vacuum, and where the dragon retreats, yearning and fatuity rush to fill every corner of self-construct from which authenticity has withdrawn. In the worst case, the dragon jewel at one’s core is completely eclipsed by fatuous need, and the sum of what one presents to the world is hunger and trivia. Imagine sporting that fashion on the day you meet your prospective beloved. Try imagining the reaction of someone who sees that face.
I do not intend to suggest that coffee and cannabis are the only possible culprits behind such a lapse. Pathways to inauthenticity are as numerous as the mental gymnastics we perform to justify falling short of ideals. I also do not intend to suggest that use of these two substances explains the burden of inauthenticity I have yet to shed. I, and no other, hold responsibility for expressing or failing to express Hidden Dragon in my life. Without retreating from that position, I may, however, observe that cannabis and coffee are emblematic of an ongoing permission I have given myself to be less than I might. A critical step in erasing that permission requires elimination of attitudes and practices that derive from it.
Choosing to love at a moment when ill-equipped to do so has highlighted that as a creature of spirit I stand at a threshold. To pass through will be to embrace the struggle for authenticity. It will be reaffirming a commitment to Hidden Dragon. That affirmation, I am now convinced, requires discard of the props with which I have fended off the burning serpent of a difficult ideal. Coffee and cannabis are key, both as symbols and as actual contaminants. Typical of my approach to changes of this kind, I am separating from habits long held with a coda of use. Each day, I have a coffee, and I smoke a little cannabis, but now in valediction. As the clock ticks, I step and bow in my last dance with the death wish. The hour of my last coffee and toke approaches, which will be the same hour that I again shoulder the challenge of coming fully into myself. A fruit of that labor, should lightning ever again strike, will be a person whose attention is ever worthy.
*The only way to eliminate the risk is by loving selflessly, without hope of return, which is beautiful and perfect and the ultimate requirement of ideality, but that must wait for another meditation. Right now, laboring under a prodigious if metaphorical nose, I ponder love and regret and ways in which the latter may flow from the former.