[I wrote this in the late Summer of 1995. --GSS]
I moved to a new apartment this Spring, and it happens that my new apartment number is 101. We live by symbols, like it or not, and I can’t look at my door or write my address without thinking of George Orwell’s “1984.” For in Room 101 is housed one’s greatest fear, the secret dread that, Orwell implies, will drive a person to betray every value in his life. Nothing like that here, thankfully, but there’s nothing so fine as a metaphor to focus the mind.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the love of life and its antithesis. For me, the quest for human liberty has little to do with laws or strictures or jack-booted thugs hiding behind mirrored shades. We are not enslaved or set free by other people, and we will not change our interior existence by convincing other people to change their behavior. We are free as we dare to rejoice in the beauty and glory of life, and we are enslaved as we shrink from that rejoicing. The ego is a realm infinite in extent, and it cannot ever be invaded from the outside.
And thus, some of the secret desires of libertarians seem a little silly to me. Assuredly we need to stand firm against new statist encroachments and complain incessantly about those already in place. But the Minerva fantasies and Atlantis fantasies are a bit much. To the world, we speak of free countries where free men and free women can produce untold wealth in free markets by the free exercise of free thought. But I suspect that in the privacy of imagination what is foreseen is the Neverland, where one can play forever and never grow weary. That’s fine, I suppose; life would be dull without daydreams. But the essence of a daydream, or the vice at least, is imagining a universe where one is not oneself, where one is not who one really is.
“‘I like people who live their dreams in the day.’” I made a fictional character say that a long time ago, and I still love her for saying it. The antithesis of the love of life is not hatred but indifference, anomie, blank-faced apathy, the lifeless pursuit of death. And that, I say, is a public response to a very private fear, the fear kept locked away in Room 101 — the fear of life, of risk, of failure. And the opposite of one’s greatest fear, I think, is one’s deepest desire.
This really happened: An outrageous evil was done to a very bright child. The child asked later, in essence, “How can you explain this incomprehensible act?” And the answer was: “Sometimes we do what we fear.” This is a form of the argument that we become what we despise, a piece of psychopatois of the Marxo-Hegelian variety. I hate the statement and I hate the argument and I hate the depths of self-destruction that must be plumbed to arrive at such a horrid opinion of one’s own soul, and, truly, I cringe in revulsion whenever I think about any of this.
But I must think about it. I won’t cower in Room 101 and hide from life. The deed was done and the words were said, and the challenge for the mind is to discover why.
Here’s a dirty little secret: We like to think in terms of “us” and “them,” but in reality there isn’t any “them.” We want “them” to be distinct from “us” in every way we can imagine, but the truth is that they are just like us, right down to the last tooth and toenail. I am what you are and you are what I am, and if we draw any distinctions, they are meaningless if they originate in nature and arbitrary if they originate in volition. When we speak so lovingly of “us,” we aggrandize ourselves by excoriating “them.” We are celebrating not so much our virtues as their vices, in which they are gracious enough to persist.
And here’s another dirty little secret: I have a fair idea what goes on inside your mind.
Yikes! Pull the curtains! Draw the blinds! Call out the Pinkertons!
Scary, isn’t it? We know that the ego can never be invaded, can never be groped at and pawed by the hands of strangers. Our elemental privacy is our secret solace: We risk only what we make manifest in our words and our deeds. That which we leave unspoken, undone, unventured, unexposed — the treasure we keep locked away in the jewelry box of the mind — is forevermore safe.
And yet nothing is hidden, really, for you are no different from me. I know in a general sort of way what’s in your mind because I know what’s in mine. And I know that not everything locked away up there is a treasure.
“I resonate in the quiet recesses of your mind, And Yet I Am Sound, a thing made undeniably real in your spirit.” I have Ayn Rand’s disease, an irresistible urge to quote from my own corpus; I come bearing news and all of it is good and much of it is unsettling. I am not asking you to bare yourself, I am stripping you unasked. And you thought the jack-booted thugs were a peril!
For the question arose later, “If they do what they fear, then why don’t they just kill themselves? Don’t they fear death the most?”
And the answer is very unsettling:
Worse than death they fear exposure.
They are evil — and they are just like us. They are vile and venomous and insufferable — and they are just like us. They are repellent, repugnant, revolting — and they are just like us. We cringe and in our cringing seek to put a distance between “them” and “us,” but the differences we observe are all products of choice, man-made and readily malleable. We shrink from their vices because we know we are just like them, just as much at risk to temptation, just as much imperiled if we succumb to that Siren’s song.
You live inside your mind, and your life is not merely your body, nor your body and mind right now. Your life is your awareness of your life — your conscious awareness and subconscious mental processes right now, your memories of your past awareness, and your anticipation of future awareness. Your ego — your soul, your spirit, your self — is the idea of your life you nurture into being in the quiet solitude of your mind.
The love of life is expressed by building and sustaining and maintaining and improving upon your ego. And that is done by pursuing your deepest desire — and in no other way.
And we love to daydream, don’t we? In daydreams one is always the star. Rushing out of the burning building carrying a coughing child. Poised and perfect, arms enfolding an enraptured lover. Pontificating before a hushed audience on a TV talk show. The reward is immense and the effort is nothing, for a star is a celebrity, a person who is renowned and revered for no reason whatever.
Daydreams can be a wonderful thing; everything new under the sun owes to their indulgence. But they can be a curse, too, a putrescent sinkhole into which you pour the precious time of a finite life. Indulging the daydream, you don’t save anyone else’s life, you simply squander your own. You don’t leave your imaginary lover palsied with pleasure, you palsy your mind with a saccharine fantasy. You don’t stun and amaze a horde of indolent mouth-breathers, you merely tickle your vanity with an empty dream of confounding the hopelessly credulous. You will be a star, though, by the exact and literal definition: An imploding ball of hot gas.
When you attempt to live your life within your daydreams, you exchange the irreplaceable hours of your day for nothing, for imaginary checks drawn on imaginary funds deposited in the imaginary bank of your mind. You sate yourself on candy — sugarless candy at that — and ignore the feast of life. You hide in Room 101 and fancy yourself to be a doer, an achiever, and yet the purpose of the daydream is to lend you the smallest taste of the satisfaction that can come only from achievement. You miss out on the feast, but you don’t have to make the effort — and face the risk — it takes to earn your place at the table. You know you can’t thrive on sugarless candy, but you know you won’t starve, either.
And thus we can draw a distinction between self-love and self-esteem. Self-love is the joy and reverence you earn and deserve by the relentless pursuit of your deepest desire. Self-esteem is the high regard in which you presume to hold yourself in appreciation for the accomplishment of absolutely nothing. Self-love cannot be faked, and self-esteem is nothing but a pitiful little fraud.
But it gets worse: For the person who is defrauded by your daydream of virtue is yourself. We have but one life, and we can spend it daydreaming or doing crossword puzzles or reading bad novels or musing over wistful infatuations or watching television, but we cannot cheat ourselves of life without trading away the most precious of treasures for nothing. A dissipation is not something we pursue for its own sake. No one lays awake at night fretting about the crossword puzzles left unsolved or the sappy mash notes left unwritten. The purpose of a dissipation is to provide us with an excuse for failing to pursue our deepest desires.
And you know that. Everybody knows it. I distinguish myself — make a “them” of myself — by naming everyone’s dirty little secret. Life is not merely existence, and life is not purchased with the product of idleness or dissipation or spite. We all know this, and we tell it to ourselves all the time, and we try all the time to tell ourselves that it’s not really that way, and we fritter and we dither and we writhe. Man is the only animal capable of comprehending what his life requires, and he is the only animal capable of failing to do what his life requires.
Not fundamentally, of course, since we would perish at once if we refused to act for survival. But we scamper out a secret little soft-shoe in the the quiet of the mind: We can escape the necessity of pursuing our deepest desire, we can file the serial numbers off mere self-esteem and pretend to the world that our behavior expresses the love of life. But there is someone who knows the truth, isn’t there? Even in solitude, there is a witness to every human action, a witness who is unimpeachable: Oneself. Lying to others is something we do to pretend to ourselves that we are justified in lying to ourselves.
And recall, the answer was: “Worse than death they fear exposure.”
I am stripping you unasked and no one can see. Do you cringe? Do you quiver? From whom do you seek to hide? No one can see, and, after all, I can’t see inside your mind, can I? I can see only inside my own. And yet I am tromping right into Room 101, the home of your greatest fear, and I am stomping around like a jack-booted prison guard. Our treasures we hide away to protect, and we might venture once in a while to reveal them to people we trust very much. But our secrets — our lies, our wounds, our crimes, our humiliations — these we bury as deeply as we can, in places we hope never to find again. We never reveal them to others, and we strive mightily — and fail — to keep them secret even from ourselves.
So is this what I mean when I say, “Worse than death they fear exposure”?
For I really am talking about “them,” the “them” who are not like “us.” We are human, and we all — myself included — defraud ourselves of life some of the time. But there are among us people who defraud themselves of life all of the time, whose lives consist of lies, frauds, betrayals, crimes. They live behind a mask, and every moment of every day is devoted to portraying a mannequin of an ego. The real ego is imprisoned in Room 101, a horrid dungeon of the mind, and the exposure they fear is the exposure of the horrible crime they have committed, the willful destruction of the precious gift of life.
They cannot permit it to be known that this is what they have done. Each of us knows that we have but one life, and that someday it will end. We blanch in horror at murder or rape or torture, but in our secret heart of hearts we suspect that the worst crime of all might be suicide. What, then, can we make of people who refuse to die and yet refuse to live? It’s the perfect murder, isn’t it? The life is dead, yet the corpse is animate. Who could suspect a thing?
Anyone with an ear for contradictions could raise a suspicion or two, of course, which is one source of the fear of exposure. But there is another, one that is far more menacing. For “there is a witness to every human action, a witness who is unimpeachable: Oneself.” Imagine the frenzy of living in fear of your own mind…
We have each of us told a lie before, some of us today. We know the dread that worms through the intestines, the dread of discovery, of exposure. It’s not the exposure of the lie we fear, but the exposure of ourselves as liars. We can tolerate the self-knowledge — by ignoring it — but we cannot tolerate the thought that someone might discover our secret shame. Most of us learn from that dread — and not from being repeatedly found out — why we must not lie. But those of us who refuse to learn that simple lesson move eventually to the opposite extreme, and their every thought and deed and utterance becomes the expression of a lie, the lie that has consumed what was once a human life. And their dread of discovery, of exposure, is whole and total and undivided and unrelenting. They live in terror, continuously, a terror masked by the continuous performance of the lie, with no respite this side of the grave.
They portray a lie to spite the truth. An actor or a con-man is a fraud with an objective, but the life-liar has no objective, no goal or value that justifies his ceaseless deceit. He is motivated not by what he seeks to gain, but by what he seeks to lose. The performance will ordinarily include some sort of elaborate value-pursuit, but this is mere camouflage. He will fight tenaciously for his ostensible goal, often unscrupulously, frequently criminally. He intends to fool others, of course, but his primary purpose is to fool himself. For, while he dreads your discovery that he is a fraud, he lives in abject terror of his own discovery of this fact. Not discovery, really, but acknowledgement. He knows but cannot admit to himself that he knows that he is the embodiment of human corruption. Even if you make it plain that you see right through the nothing he has become, he will refuse to acknowledge the truth of his life, will attempt to freeze the universe with an icy glare.
“The challenge for the mind is to discover why.”
“They don’t want to live. They want you to die.” My disease has progressed to the point that I am now quoting directly from Ayn Rand’s corpus. And that is one of the scariest statements I’ve ever seen in print. But, while I agree with it, I think it describes the consequence of corruption and not the cause. I think the life-liar does come to wish for destruction — not just the destruction of his enemies, but the annihilation of the entire universe, the universe of unavoidable fact that is open to the apprehension of any observer. We can live our dreams if we take the risk and make the effort. Or we can indulge our daydreams instead. But we cannot live our daydreams, portray with the body what we contrive to invent with the mind. We are each of us observable to everyone else, and if our deeds should contradict our description of them there is no barrier to anyone — oneself included — taking notice.
To tell a lie is terrifying, but to portray continuously a lie that can be discovered at any moment by anyone — Winston Smith knew no fate worse that this. And yet we are all alike, and we are all value-seeking beings. They embrace this corruption, this vile and incomprehensible fraud of life, and they do it in preference to an alternative. And the course they reject, as absurd as this may sound, is living life the way it really is…
They are at war with the universe for being what it is, and they seek their fanatical retribution by attempting to destroy the thing that is, for each of us, the locus of the universe: The ego. Every action, fundamentally, is taken by the self, upon the self. They may come to hate the productive, as Rand says. They may come to hate the universe, as I say. But they begin by hating the ego, by engaging in self-destruction in the most perfect sense of that term: By attempting to dismantle the ego. The mask and the mannequin are decoys intended to allay the suspicions of gawkers, including the life-liars themselves. The real action is in Room 101, where the screams echo silently and the blood drains out through a hole in the floor. They don’t want to die. They want to kill the source of life.
And, obviously, this is a death-pursuing way of life, and death is ultimately all that comes of it. Rarely soon enough, I’m afraid, since the people who live the life of lies shed tragedies like a cat sheds fur. They must silence that witness they can never escape, and they wreak boundless havoc in doing it. Often only to themselves — if we can credit them in any way at all — with drugs or drink. But more often by inflicting the most unconscionable of crimes upon innocents. The crimes we read about in the newspapers, yes, but also crimes of emotional violence committed against anyone who might unmask the liar or cause him to disbelieve his own performance. Human savagery is what happens when a life-long liar tries to exorcise his fear of exposure.
Now the intelligent question to ask is this one: Why am I talking about this? I don’t hate my enemies, I love my friends. I don’t fear these pitiful wretches; my infinite ego is forevermore beyond their reach — and so is yours. I write about them not because I hate and fear them, but for a much more compelling reason:
Because they are just like us.
They are alike to me and to you in every natural respect. They differ from us only as the result of the consequences of the choices they have made, the bad choices they have made over and over again.
They are just like us, and the only thing that distinguishes “us” from “them” is the better choices we have made. And to maintain the distinction, we must continue to make those better choices.
Freedom is not freedom from the state. Freedom is not freedom from other people, from your neighbors, your boss, your pushy relatives. Freedom is freedom inside your own mind, freedom from the torture and imprisonment of your ego in Room 101, the dungeon of the psyche. If you are free in your mind, you can find a way to liberate yourself from your pushy relations and your snoopy neighbors. If you are free in your mind, you can work by whatever means seem best toward liberation from the state. But if you are enslaved by lies or shame or humiliation or doubt or fear, you cannot be free no matter what your external circumstances.
And I am pushier than your pushiest aunt, am I not? I have laid you bare for none to see and hectored and lectured you and told you nothing that you did not already know. I did it for a reason, and, though that’s hardly justification, it’s the justification I have. The reason is this:
I want you to live.
I want you to thrive, unashamedly alive, knock twice, pay the price, don’t give up ’til the walls come down. There’s a song I know, a song for a choir composed wholly of soloists, and I want you to learn to sing it.
I seek to warn you about the risk of becoming one of “them,” the peril of so completely habituating deceit that you become a lie. But that seems a small threat, given that we are all already so perfectly “us.” But more importantly, I seek to induce you to become more completely what you already are.
I am crazy enough to write to infants, and when my son Cameron was born, I told him, “Be the man you love to imagine and you will have all you need. Fail him, and no mere treasure will satisfy.” And you know that, too, don’t you? But here’s something you may not have thought about: If you dare to live the life you love to imagine in such exquisite detail, you won’t have to imagine it any more.
“And that is done by pursuing your deepest desire — and in no other way.”
We use our daydreams to tell ourselves lies, and we use our daydreams to tell ourselves the most perfect and loving truths. When you are not rescuing children or regaling TV talk show audiences, when you are not being a star — that is when your daydreams tell you what you really want. We imagine for ourselves a million options and we pursue none of them and we tell ourselves that our paralysis results from the inability to choose among too many inviting destinies. But, in fact, there is only one thing that you are burning, yearning to do, and that vast array of alternatives is simply an excuse to mask your fear of risking failure.
And yet to refuse to pursue your deepest desire is to fail by default. It is a great big scary world out there, but you cannot conquer even the smallest of your fears by cowering in Room 101. You cannot live by refusing to. It’s hard, I know it, the second hardest thing you could ever do. But the hardest thing, by far, is trying to convince yourself you don’t really want to.
I said this to my son, also, and I yearn and burn to write it in ten-mile-high letters all across the sky: “Be who you are. Do what you want. Have what you love.”
And elsewhere I said, “‘It’s not easy, but the reward is worth it — life. Your life, the way you want it — and the serenity of knowing that it is right that it should be thus, that you have earned the joy that can never be stolen.’”
In Room 101 we cherish death as a way of absolving ourselves of the fear of life. For my own sake — in pursuit of a true Atlantis peopled by giants who can never be enslaved — I want you to escape forevermore from Room 101, from deceit and shame and humiliation and doubt and fear. You are a hawk raised by pigeons and you waddle in squalor only because you have been taught by life-liars to fear your own glory. Dare to soar, and rejoice in the enormity of your power to rejoice.
“To Life! To the life that is a doing, a being, a becoming!”
I love what you can become, and I hope you will permit yourself to become it. I want you to live, and I hope you will let yourself escape from death.Related posts: