The Neurotic in Search of Glory

Chapter 2, Part 3

I spent my early years as a fatherless boy living in my grandparents’ house in Texas. My grandfather would read the “funny pages” to me every Sunday from the Dallas Morning News as I was sitting on his lap in his big padded rocker.Pogo on Walt Kellly's poster for the first Earth Day

One of my favorite comics was a rather philosophical cartoon about some colorful denizens of the Okefenokee Swamp in North Carolina. The title character was a thoughtful opossum named Pogo, who was prone to probing into the nature of existence. Okefenokee literally means “trembling earth,” and this clever strip sent out a constant reminder that we all operate on shaky ground. Pogo once filled a dialogue balloon with one of the most profound and succinct observations about the human condition that I’ve ever come across, to this day.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are each our own worst enemy as we go about our lifelong pursuit of the comprehensive neurotic solution and all the delusions it triggers.

My own persona is a good example of the comprehensive neurotic solution gone over the top. In extreme cases, as Karen Horney observed, “The neurotic, in his search for glory, goes astray into the realm of the fantastic, of the infinite, of boundless possibilities.” This general observation describes my own neurotic solution in particular, and my own early life in spades.

In search of glory, I spent decades competing with millions of other capable writers as we all submitted our work over and over again to the same small cabal of New York houses, which control the exercise in futility known by any other name as “publishing.” All but a precious few writers in this throng live on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. I took up permanent residency in this low-rent district, while, at the same time, listening to my ego browbeating me about what a loser I was.

Cover art for Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance

Not that I had no so-called success

The end result was a lifetime of rejection slips, enough to paper the walls of the whole Bantam Dell Publishing Group, and a built-in literary critic constantly nagging me about my failed career.

Not that I had no so-called success. I’m a much-published book author, poet, and journalist. But I quickly learned how the success I dreamed about wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As a youth, I envisioned how publishing my poetry in literary journals and placing my articles in nationally known magazines must be some of life’s most fulfilling triumphs. Book-publishing must be a hoot. But that was just my ego jive-talking, setting me up for the fall. Once I became widely published, the thrill vanished more certainly than morning mist on Walden Pond. It was only phantom happiness, tingling along a severed nerve path.

I eventually realized that the success advertised by “popular wisdom” – which is surely an oxymoron – is just another Chimera pawned off on me by my ego. Where was all the giddy and lasting joy that went with achievement?

Frustrated by all these dismembered dreams, I escaped to…well, anyplace else. Finally, after years of escapism led me to the point of slashing my wrists, I gradually pulled my life back together. But not before the comprehensive neurotic solution had almost killed me. 

Horney’s neurotic scenario applies to all of us to some degree. When we are young, especially during the uncertain and often terrifying days of puberty, the ego searches desperately for a way to cope with the difficulties of adult life, which, from a teenage viewpoint, seem overwhelming. What it comes up with is a package of smoke and mirrors: delusions, fears, ambitions, passions, desires, false hopes, misconceptions, and anxieties, all loosely held together with duct tape and chewing gum by the self-image.

Sunrise on Walden Pond

The thrill vanished more certainly than morning mist on Walden Pond

Buddhists believe that these delusions are the cause of most suffering, confusion, and unhappiness in the world, and they refer to them as “attachments.” Sylvia’s Plath’s most self-destructive attachment was apparently jealousy. My stepfather’s was paranoia. My own designated attachment has always been escapism, and especially the conceit that I could avoid all my troubles by climbing out the bathroom window and slip-sliding away to another place or job or mate or reality. Other typical attachments include ambition, sex, angst, love, security, money, materialism, and overeating. Each of us has a whole nest of attachments.

Lama Surya Das called this rogues’ gallery of attachments “all the usual suspects.” Being a thoughtful person, you can psyche out your own attachments by examining the potent motivations that drive your life and the people who push your buttons.

We in the United States have our own special brand of the comprehensive neurotic solution, one based largely on marketing, materialistic values, and capitalism. What’s it called? The next section lets you know.