Lessons from a life badly lived (part 1)

I’m a person who will talk into a cell-phone on a train, not because there is someone on the other end of the line (there isn’t) but to convey a message to the long-suffering passengers around me. This would appear to be good cause to cart me away to one of the few insane asylums left in this country after “de-institutionalization” got rid of most of them, but to see how I got to that point, read on.

In two posts, I’ll try to impart some lessons I’ve learned from a life badly lived. Advice will be highlighted in yellow. This is post number one.

I am one of several brothers. One is my identical twin, and of the two youngest, one is adopted, and the other is not. Another brother is dead – and his death was my fault. So its an interesting experiment – how different can children in the same family become?

There was me, who ended up being called “Hebe” with great disgust by substantial number of total strangers over the years. This disgust was deserved.

There there was my twin, who somehow avoided the trap I plunged into, though as a teen he did have severe depression – severe enough so that he felt he could not move out of bed.

My adopted brother made many friends, and was liked and respected. I remember that when we attended a funeral, I was astounded at the ease which he moved through the crowd, greeting friends and acquaintances.
Both the youngest brothers had their friends and those friends have grown up to be policemen, engineers, etc. Some are still in our town, some have scattered wherever the winds of fortune have taken them.

There are several interesting lessons of my life, so let’s get into the details.

First of all, I want to be a person I can be proud of. However there are multiple paths into the slime, and one of them is the path lacking will-power. This morning I heard on a Christian radio show a quote from an unlikely source, and I was surprised how much of it applied to me:

Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. The paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion.

I grew careless of the lives of others.

I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on.

I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the house-top.

I ceased to be lord over myself.

I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it.

I allowed pleasure to dominate me.

I ended in horrible disgrace.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

The author, Oscar Wilde, was a good playwright, and popular. Unfortunately, he was persuaded by a friend to try homosexual behavior  and he ended up associated with blackmailers and male prostitutes, cross-dressers and homosexual brothels. He was arrested since this behavior was illegal at the time, and at one point he was jeered at and spat at by a crowd on a railroad platform as he was transferred between jails.

The similarity to my life is not that I’m “gay” (I’m not) but that the sleazy stuff you do in private has a way of becoming public. Like Wilde I did get jeered at and spat at. Unlike Wilde, who was not Jewish, I was called “Hebe” as a result of my behavior. Unlike Wilde, my behavior did not involve anyone else, for which I am thankful.
Unlike Wilde, my behavior started off with a mental illness that gave me a suffocating fatigue every morning, frozen extremities, and (I believe) was responsible for the total lack of will-power I had. If you don’t have willpower then when an urge comes along, the urge wins. I could not stop eating, I could not stop my other, more sickening urges, and I couldn’t even move away from a TV set if I was put in front of one. You might ask at this point, “If there is really is a mental disease that diminishes willpower, why isn’t it in the textbooks?”. A skeptic might also point out that any addict has some choice. You may love to eat chocolate chip cookies, but you won’t do that in your job interview. You may be a chain smoker, but you will not smoke in your office if your company will fire you when you do.
However, I think my belief has merit, because it did stop rather suddenly, and today, I can control myself, though I have rearranged my life to make it easier.

There is one other point that Wilde makes above: “every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character”, and I came to the same conclusion after reading Baumeister’s recent book Willpower, which is a scientific summary of what we know about willpower.

A paradox of my life is that I became liked and even admired among some (I’ll call them group A) , and despised among others (group B). The two groups were not exclusive. When a compromising “movie” hit (of behavior I hoped was private) people in group A who were exposed to it hastily transferred to group B. But there still are people in group A.

When I was 5, my parents adopted a little boy, Noah, who by the time he was 5 was an energetic child, and very good-looking. We had spent summers in New England, since my Dad was a professor, and had summers off. One vacation was in a property with 500 acres on “Black Hill Road”, near Dartmouth college. We kids roamed and we had a barn nearby where we played around an abandoned tractor. Those summers, and subsequent summers,
were lonely for me and my twin, because our social skills were really poor. Something was wrong with us. But nothing was wrong with Noah.
We came back to our apartment in the city, and my father installed window guards across our bedroom window, to keep us from sitting onto the windowsill and falling out. One day, I saw the guard fall out of the window into the room. Fearful that my father would get angry, I tried to put it back. This was a big mistake.
A few days later, Noah went to that window, and climbed up to look out. The guard gave way, and he fell five stories. He died.
This is a horrible story, but there are several lessons here. Whether in a family, or an organization, your children (or your subordinates) must be encouraged to report anything that goes wrong, rather than try to hide it because they fear negative consequences. Feedback is crucial when things go wrong. Secondly, sometimes putting up an inadequate defense is worse than no defense, because you think a problem is solved, while making the problem even deadlier.
As for my behavior, my father did have a temper, but in retrospect he would not have been angry at the window guard falling out. He might have made a critical remark, but he would have gone in, fixed it, and Noah would be alive today.

Interestingly enough, in later years my Dad developed serious depression, and was prescribed Paxil, which had the interesting effect of curing not only his depression, but his temper!

And an issue has occurred to me in later years – which is worse: being a pig for a few years (which I was) or being responsible for the death of a little boy (which I also was). The first I try to excuse for lack of inner strength, the latter I excuse for lack of intelligence. But I don’t feel good about either.
There is another question. I attracted much undesirable attention, perhaps deserved. But I know this: assuming 20 murders occur each day in this country, most of the time I hear of maybe one and never even learn about the others. So which is worse, a slob who can’t control himself, or a man who steals the life savings of an old lady with an internet scam? The answer might seem obvious, but the reaction to me proved that I had more impact.

When I did get mastery of myself, I set down a few rules. For instance I adopted a regimen of not eating anything between 9 AM and 5 PM. I also adopted a diet that was quite different from the typical American diet. It was low in fat, it was fairly low in protein. This along with my hiking, and my bicycling for long trips – whether it be along the Blue-Ridge parkway from North Carolina toward Tennessee, or into the hills of Vermont, or along the Cascade range of volcanoes going from Oregon into California, changed my body. I was handsome, for the first time in my life. This is not an exaggeration. In fact, I was described by one man as the ‘best looking young man he had seen except for a few men in California” (So advice to girls – check out California!). I still can’t get my mind to wrap around that short period of time when I was handsome. People reacted. And even though that period is long gone, the after burn of the meteor still exists. Sometimes a stranger will snap a photo of me, trying to capture something that no longer exists.

A lesson then is: discipline matters, Self-control matters. If you are seriously deficient in either, then get help, if there is any to be had.

The second part of my bio should be posted in a week or two. That is where evil makes its appearance.


Roy Baumeister
Roy Baumeister

Willpower – by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney – August 2012


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