“Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse. We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not. Beyond or behind this there is no intelligible principle; and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.”
–The Imp of the Perverse, Edgar A. Poe
Last night I watched the American Masters film documenting the life of Edgar Allen Poe (who actually went by “Edgar Poe” or “Edgar A. Poe” because of his difficult relationship with his adoptive father John Allen.) The above excerpt was cited to illustrate Poe’s struggle in life with what he viewed as his own self-failings. Poe might seem a morbid writer, but his work’s confrontations with death, love, and the struggles of living resonate with us all. What a contrarian yet human thought: that we might actually carry out “wrong-headed” actions simply because we know they are wrong.
Consider this completely different piece of text:
“Our mindfulness practice is not about vanquishing our thoughts. It’s about becoming aware of the process of thinking so that we are not in a trance – lost inside our thoughts. … To train in becoming mindful of thoughts can help us to notice when your mind is actively thinking, either using the label “thinking, thinking,” or identifying the kind of thought – “worrying, worrying,” “planning, planning.” Then, becoming interested in what’s really happening right here. Coming home to the sensations in your body, your breath, the sounds around you, the life of the moment.”
–I realized I don’t have to believe my thoughts, Tara Brach
“A core teaching of the Buddha is that we suffer because we forget who we really are. We forget the essence – the awareness and the love that’s here – and we become caught in an identity that’s less than who we are.
When we are in the trance of unworthiness, we’re not aware of how much our body, emotions, and thoughts have locked into a sense of falling short and the fear that we’re going to fail. The trance of unworthiness brings us to addictive behaviors as we try to soothe the discomfort of fear and shame. It makes it difficult to be intimate, spontaneous and real with others, because we have the sense that, even if they don’t already know, they will find out how flawed we really are. It makes it hard to take risks because we’re afraid we’re going to fall short. … Right in the heart of the trance, there is a need to do something to be better, to avoid the failure lurking right around the corner.”
Wait a minute, are Edgar Allen Poe and the popular Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach onto the same thing? I think they are. They both endeavor to paint a more real picture of what it means to be human, not denying our self-doubts and contrarian thoughts, but accepting them so that we are not afraid to take the risks to become our true selves.
The experience of parenting seems only a magnification of the emotions and struggles that every other person on the planet is contending with as well. As parents we might forget to be self-forgiving, because we worry that every action we take could negatively affect both ourselves and our children. But self-acceptance also means not creating an illusion of perfection, because our children need to know that we are not perfect. They too will feel imperfect as they grow older and face challenges. We can model for them how to embrace human imperfection, so they have the courage to believe in the power of love and kindness.
Courage comes from facing these realities of life just as it comes from facing the realities of death. Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and Dia de Los Muertos all celebrate death as a celebration of life, because one does not come without the other. If we need any help considering death, Poe is our man. Here’s something that gets right to the point:
“The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.”
–The Conqueror Worm, Edgar A. Poe
This might be too real, but part of the fun of parenting is the ability (and need) to be blatant. My daughter’s questions and comments regarding death and dying over the last year have been eye-opening (and often hilarious). Fear of death is often something that is taught, and I try my best to avoid instilling that fear in my own children. Instead I encourage them to accept the imperfection, self-doubt, and even death that comes with accomplishment, confidence, and vivacity. If we can teach a whole world of children this mindfulness, none of us need fear the perverse thought, especially that which might lead to the furtherance of good.