My Young Self had caught me in the act of rationalizing away whatever hangups I still carry, about the inequity and hypocrisy of such a comfortable existence.
And so we resume, with my (real self’s) rejoinder:
“Your problem, Young Self, is that you are blind to your own fundamentalism. You are so consumed by your fear of compromise, so obsessed with moral and creative purity, that you have been forced to adopt an antagonistic worldview to compensate.
Your prejudice, then, is a defense mechanism, a pressure-relief valve. You sit in judgment against the world as a way to escape your own fears and insecurities — about yourself, and about who you will become.
In other words my young friend: you are just as guilty as I, of rationalizing. Your ideology is no more pure or moral than my own. But in the meantime, you are far less compassionate.”
If I could have heard these words at the age of 22, I hope that I would have dropped my sword, disarmed the defense mechanisms, and sought relief and rest.
And if this happens to be your position too, then I would advise you to consider disarmament, as well.
So then. What should I say, about the great cognitive distance that (apparently) separates my 2007 from my 2015?
Maybe the thing that has always deserved my suspicion was not compromise or moderation, but fundamentalism.
This week, I turned 30.
As I look back on my journey over the last decade, what I see is a saga that could be titled The Recovery From Extremism.
Which extremism exactly? The kind that is motivated by a fear of annihilation; that is, my fear of becoming so flaccid, so inoculated by our culture, that my life would be unremarkable, nothing fierce, and easily forgotten.
This extremism has many forms and puts on many different outfits … but at the heart, the engine of such movement is this base-level fear of fading away. Karen Armstrong would add that all kinds of fundamentalist movements are, deep down, innervated by the same trepidation.
In my early and mid-20s, I spasmodically quit jobs and changed life rhythms, took hasty risks, and battled with myself frequently. All of this was in pursuit of refusing submission to establishment, and thereby staying “true to myself” … whatever the hell that was. Howard Roark would probably know.
The great irony is that at the heart of all this turbulence was nothing particularly noble or ethically refined — again, it was just the fear of amounting to nothing special, at the end of my days.
That ‘engine’ was also the hidden core of my old atheist / Objectivist prejudices. And ironically, this little reactor came with me happily into the Christian world, when I converted in 2007.
Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, apparently irrespective of the colors or doctrines it trumpets on the outside.
Only in the last few years have I begun to let this fear go. The engine has slowly dropped into a low idle. And right in sync, my once-fundamentalist ideologies have finally begun to relax.
What is it that finally abated this elemental fear?
I don’t totally know yet, and this post has gone way into the weeds from where I was originally headed.
But I’ll suggest that there was at least one keystone piece that resulted in a truly seismic shift: being loved deeply by my wife, with all my imperfections and failures in full view.
Why would this make such a difference? Well, even though today I intermittently drift into agnosticism, I have to say the New Testament hits a stupendous jackpot when it says: perfect love casts out all fear.
There is something uniquely transformative about being unconditionally affirmed and approved-of.
This force can enact such growth and healing in a person, that it makes even the most profound ethical systems look feeble by comparison.
But my 22-yr-old self could not have known this, because he had never experienced it quite like I do now. More importantly, he likely never suspected that his fear of ending up unremarkable in the future was underlaid by an even more primordial horror: being unknown, and unremarked upon, in the present.
“You mean to say” my young self would respond, “that if I just felt more connected, known, and loved, that I wouldn’t have needed to bother with any of this extremism and vagabondage?”
Damn right. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Being happily married, it is now at least conceivable that I could enjoy the aforementioned warm-fuzzies for the rest of my life. As a result, strangely enough, I have relatively little use for the disgruntled-warrior ideology of Roark or Durden.
Instead, for the past few years, I have found it much more productive and fruitful to focus on compassion, empathy, sincere dialogue, and humility. In a small way, these values are the undoing of my earlier fundamentalism(s), because they require me to extend official approval to the stories and beliefs of people who might be very different from me.
Ultimately then, I have not been mastered by the stupefying systems that Tyler Durden warned us about. But I do have to do battle with the moral hazards of being a middle class human who is gainfully employed in a western industrialized society — and by that I don’t mean #1stworldproblems.
Tyler seemed to promise us that if we would simply adopt his martial-ascetic approach to life, we would be free of these moral hazards entirely. When phrased this way, it should now be apparent that his promise has the same structure as any other extremist snake-oil philosopher.
Having cautiously laid Mr. Durden to rest, what should be said about him?
He was compelling, dynamic, totally sexy, seemingly untouchable, and easy to latch onto. But if I can read between the lines, I also suspect that he felt disconnected, unloved, and alienated — in those ways, he was a product of our depersonalized industrial world, much more so than he would ever admit.
As a result, I submit that when it came to life’s most important questions, Tyler was no visionary worth following. He was misguided. He meant well, but his most important theories were, finally, just wrong.