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Wannabe Distance God

Prologue

         I wanted to be a distance god.

         There. I said it.

         I would’ve broken out of the lead pack and surged away, thrown down some impossible late-race splits, devastated the elites as I stretched my lead­­­­­­­­­­—merciless, alone, almost floating. The field would’ve strung out and withered behind me as I burned and buried the best runners on the face of the planet.

         I would’ve become immortal.

         Was that too much to ask?

         There’s a theory in psychology that says we take on for ourselves a piece of every person we meet, even if we merely brush up against him or her in a fleeting, profound moment—even, I suppose, if he or she just runs past us or sits across from us in an overstuffed armchair.

         I wanted to take on more of what the distance gods had.

         Still do.

The Chameleon Complex—Dad Chapter 78

So, Dad disinherited his children, leaving his entire estate to his third wife. At first, I accepted it because it was consistent with how he treated his children lifelong. We were raised knowing that we were an inconvenience until we could leave home, at which time we were only inconvenient when we needed anything. But the more I thought about the disinheritance, the more determined I became not to allow this final slight to wash over me. It was perhaps the last chance for my father and me to connect, because the disinheritance, some serious health issues for him, and his turning eighty years old all occurred in the same year. I mustered the gumption—having been rebuffed my whole life—to speak my truth to him one last time. I expected the usual pushback, but I had little to lose.

      Always before, Dad had told me not to “psychoanalyze” him, which was not something I ever did outside of a professional relationship. He meant that he was uncomfortable being vulnerable. See, his idea of a father-son relationship and my idea were incongruent; he wanted us to both be at level 5, friends; but all my life, I wanted to be in his level 3, children—except that level never existed for him. Remember, he hadn’t experienced much emotional intimacy in his own childhood, in a stark era and in a poor and dusty part of the world. He had necessarily shut down his own emotions to better survive. So, no, Dad didn’t know about—or desire—emotional intimacy because he literally didn’t know what he was missing or that it existed other than in some touchy-feely crowd that he had no interest in joining. Thus, he simply didn’t understand what I wanted from him. After all, he had provided the requisite room and board until I graduated high school and left home, which was exactly what he had gotten at the same age. He went to work in the local slaughterhouse and then joined the military.

      I explained that my objection was about being written out of the relationship, not the money—it made sense to secure his wife’s financial well-being—that paternity mattered to me whether or not it mattered to him. I explained how deep the cut was and how hurtful it had been my entire life for him to frequently quip, “I never wanted kids; I just got horny,” because I was his kid and I knew that what he said was true. For him to rewrite his will and give me nothing from him or from our deceased mother in that will was his final statement regarding the insignificance of our relationship. Remember Mom’s prescient yet hopeful last words (if you believe in premonitions): “Take care of the kids.” I explained that the will brought into sharp focus my pain over always wanting my father but my father never wanting me. Now his disregard for me was in black-and-white legalese. I knew I was right; after all, I had a son, too, and I’d never treat him that way. I asked for a token gesture of paternity and suggested that he give me his military medals in a rewritten will.

      Instead, he drove to Scottsdale and gave them to me within a week. I sobbed at the gesture, unable to articulate that his lifelong lack of showing care for me had left an odd space inside of me, the masculine part of me that always needed an older and respected male to tell me that I was wanted and admired. Dad still didn’t understand what I wanted if I didn’t want his money and if his shadowbox of medals still didn’t satisfy me.

      So, I continued to place my desires into behavioral terms: I requested phone calls more frequently than twice a year, especially during his treatment for prostate cancer, which he’d hidden from us. I also wanted him to rewrite his will, taking care of his wife financially but placing his children in the lead paragraph as well—not as an afterthought or obligation but out of love—and to enumerate the sentimental things bequeathed by Mom and him, stating what his children meant to him, all written in legalese, to make a point, to stand on principle that paternity, at long last, mattered to him, and that I, as his son, also mattered to him.

      He made the phone calls; he let me in. He took the steps to rewrite his will in exactly the way I had requested, in a manner that suggested that his children were important enough to him to leave them an inheritance, even merely as a token gesture. I greatly appreciated the gesture. He then beat the cancer via modern medicine, and I came to realize that he just never knew what was required or what it was like to let somebody safe into his inner-world. He was intimacy disabled, having learned at a young age to fear vulnerability. He needed age and some health scares to open his mind enough to see that there was more available in relationships than he’d previously been aware of. The confluence of events and my open heart made it safe enough for him to open his heart to me in return. He asked if it was even possible for someone his age to change in the way that I asked, and I said sure—that despite many decades of habitual defensiveness, motivation was the deciding factor, whether at twenty-one or eighty-one. I often talked with men who became less defensive upon becoming elderly.

      I’m glad I found the courage to approach my father one more time, to risk that he would reject me when I was incredibly vulnerable and authentic with him, and to risk that he would not care, that he would not at least try to reciprocate my vulnerability. It’s scary to take an emotional risk, and it’s wonderful when it works out. My dad became a more vulnerable, caring, and intimate father at eighty-one years old. At fifty-seven years old, I moved into my father’s level 3, children, which meant that I finally got my dad.

      I like to think that we both benefited.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 77 Life

It’s trite to say that life is what happens while we’re making other plans. As you are now aware, I never planned to act out Mr. Holland’s Opus. The thing is, it worked for me. Life unfolded, and I grew in ways that I needed to grow but didn’t realize.

      Freshly discharged from the army, I searched for “ultimate truth.” I looked outside of myself for the meaning of life. Now I look inside myself. Life is just what it is; it’s how we deal with life that is the meaning of life for each of us. So now, I conceptualize life as a book with blank pages. It begins empty and has no meaning yet, but it has potential. Then our life plays out, and we fill our book as we choose, and it’s our book, and it matters to us, and that’s enough, even if it matters to nobody else. There is no meaning to life other than what each individual brings to his or her own existence, which means we determine our life’s meaning for ourselves. Will our books be filled with self-distortions and fear of each other, or will they be filled with authenticity, love, passion, and adventure? Will we allow others to tell us what our lives mean? Will we write a fictional story of our lives and keep people from knowing us; or will we live authentically, bring others into our personal life’s story, and fill our book of life with emotional intimacy and love?

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 76 Dawn

In the United States, 33 percent of high-school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives; 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college; 57 percent of new books are not read to completion; 70 percent of adults have not been in a bookstore in the past five years; and 80 percent of families did not buy or read a book in the past year. So, who would want to read Wannabe Distance God, especially considering that over two million new book titles and revised editions are published worldwide every year?

      Publishing removed the last veil from my eyes. I clearly saw how delusional I had been. Reading and writing and publishing and distance running were my things, but they were hardly everybody’s things. I saw that I had been self-centered the whole time, believing that everybody should like what I liked and should pay attention to the same things as I did. When I looked around with new eyes, I realized, Hmm, we are all self-centered. If we are successfully taking care of ourselves, we are necessarily selfish to a large extent. I was ridiculous and self-centered to have taken it personally that others were merely taking care of themselves, too, and naturally had little interest in me.

      Before publication, I had a distorted understanding of how humans perceive life, how limited time is for all of us, and how we are mostly only aware of those closest to us in our Levels of Intimacy. The people who get our attention are those who help us manage our day-to-day lives to survive and thrive, the people we see. That just makes sense.

      When I was younger, I didn’t receive the attention I needed in my family of origin, so I concluded that I needed to be more attractive, faster, wilder, funnier, better educated, or richer. But none of that ever mattered; people might care about those things regarding themselves, but they didn’t care about those things regarding me. They cared how others treated them, what they got out of it, and how they were positively reinforced, but they didn’t have time to care about my interests and me. I didn’t know what the proper balance between self-care and caring for others was because I was raised “every dog for himself.” I didn’t understand that if I didn’t get what I needed from my family of origin, it would never be about me, regardless of how well I performed or what I collected, until I added the right person in my level 2 spouse or significant other. That’s why the legalistic and ritualistic nature of marriage is accentuated: it is indeed a very big deal to have the right person—the person you can trust explicitly—there, and you can give each other as much attention as you each need.

      We are high-functioning mammals living within the constraints of our senses, brain function, time, and space. Our toilet-paper tubes and personal needs limit us. We must attend to ourselves and to those closest to us who reinforce us and help us to survive physically and emotionally and only later, perhaps, psychologically and spiritually. I needed to recognize this and accept it to achieve homeostasis—equilibrium—to make my internal conflict disappear and thus to feel better with the dissolution of my delusion of deserving more attention. I simply needed to embrace what was true. We truly are alone, but by implementing Levels of Intimacy, we don’t need to be.

      Why did it take me so long to awaken to this reality? Now I hear that at twenty, we’re worried about what other people think about us; at forty, we don’t care what they think of us; and at sixty, we realize that they were never thinking about us at all. Am I that predictable? I am, after all, writing this on the cusp of sixty. Am I that unaware? What am I missing today?

      Everybody prefers to look at his or her own reflection in the so-called “river of life.” But in the final analysis, we’re preening and impression managing mostly for ourselves, to feel better about ourselves. Attracting attention is meaningless; it’s mostly for silly ego, and it’s especially ignorant once we’ve worked our way far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy. Celebrities have some unique issues and some common issues that get overblown, but they are not happier than we are. The normal curve falls on them as well. In general, people don’t notice us normal people—not for long, anyway—and they generally don’t care about us unless there’s something in it for them. It’s supposed to be that way because it’s normal. What’s not normal is to take offense or expect more.

      Now I’m normal in that way, too.

      I suppose I could say that the problem is that mammals want to be reinforced and escape punishment. But that is not really a problem—it’s evolutionarily adaptive, and it works. To become cynical is a sort of death; to transcend that cynicism is a sort of rebirth. Our rebirth is to recognize what is, accept what is, and then use our huge frontal lobes to rise above self-centeredness and selfishness when appropriate, because that’s good for individuals as well as for societies. Plus, we usually have to give to receive, which is selfish even when we’re trying to act unselfishly. Remember the theory of reciprocity.

      The world is so big. There are over seven billion of us alive…and over seven billion of us dead who left interesting stuff behind. There are so many things to do and so many people clambering for our attention. The communications revolution has made the smorgasbord of human awesomeness to enjoy even vaster and faster, as is the cascade of human brutishness, but we don’t have more time to pay attention to it all. Our choices are overwhelming unless we look through that toilet-paper tube for focus, so even the toilet-paper tube is good. It also helps determine where the people in our lives fit in our Levels of Intimacy. In the end, we will be forgotten. Eventually, all will be forgotten, and then all will be vaporized. So, here, in the present, who are the few whom we will spend our limited time with; to whom will we point that toilet-paper tube and pay attention intently? Whom will we trust? Whom will we allow close to our hearts? Whom will we commit to love and allow into our inner levels?

***

This means that when we offer ourselves, our art, to the world, we should do it for our own growth and expression and not expect the world to notice, care, or have time for it; we should do it anyway because we care, and that matters to us, to our level 1. And that is enough. We matter, even if just to ourselves (although I strongly recommend that you have at least one other person to whom you are committed and who is committed to you, and to be in each other’s level 2). For me, to put myself out there, naked and vulnerable in my writing, was scarier than writing fiction. It was risky. But the payoff was great. Now I see that the lesson was the same as with distance running: the journey was always the point, not where I finished in a race or the publication of a book. The struggle wasn’t bad; it was the point. The unpublished present wasn’t wasted time; it was all that existed and what mattered most. Being a novelist, even if only in my own mind, was like being a wannabe distance god; the quest was worth it. It added quality to my life. It matters to me that I tried, that I enjoyed writing all along, and it enriched my life, made me more self-aware and aware of others. Finding my voice was more important than being heard. The quest to publish was more important than publishing. Letting go was more important than attaining. Learning to love ourselves enough to be authentic is more important than any of the phony chameleon manifestations through which we seek to be loved.

***

Are the philosophers right, then? Is life best lived without ego? We need to let go of the future (which doesn’t exist), the past (which doesn’t exist), and embrace the present, which is all we have. Our big brains cause us to carry our past baggage and shame and to imagine our future as dangerous. We create self-legends that we can live with and stay safe. We change colors. We should decrease the impression managing and know that being imperfect doesn’t mean being inadequate. We can be vulnerable and safe by understanding our sameness and setting appropriate boundaries.

***

So, it’s been a lifelong journey to become more authentic; I can see that now. It’s been an unfolding, if you will. There were lessons to learn, experiences to collect, and growth to endure. I suppose the hard times somehow go down easier, thinking about it that way. But I remember the poorer versions of myself, sometimes with shame and other times with a smirk. It’s as if I’ve awakened. Ah-ha, I say. Now I get it. I’m awake for the first time. Just forget all that silliness that came before.

      I’m still not convinced that I get it. I mean, not totally. There’s always something. Can we ever get to the end, to self-actualization, or is it a perpetual coming of age? We are forever psychological children experiencing an endless series of insights. Or not. Maybe personal growth is a luxury, one that fortunate life circumstances, the right kind of pain, other people who grant us grace, and a slew of near misses facilitates. Don’t we start out genetically programmed and mostly normal until we experience the wounding of life, and then we set about picking at our own scabs and wounding each other? We allow others to convince us that we’re defective, not realizing that they are acting out their own pain and ignorance. Still, their voices stay in our heads and in our emotions and become our own. We carry on even after they leave us, and we spend our lives compensating and acting like chameleons. Suppose, instead, we assume that we were born lovable and still are? Suppose we take on different roles depending on the job at hand but never change color and are always authentic? Being emotionally balanced is part of overall wellness, which means having clear boundaries between levels and having the right people at each level. If we conclude that we aren’t good enough for others to truly know us and we display only a chameleon manifestation, then our emotional intimacy needs will not be met. These boundaries don’t preclude loving one another at every level. We can be both loving and have good boundaries.

      I didn’t understand all this authenticity and Levels of Intimacy when I was younger. I think that I get it now. But I keep discovering new truths. Sometimes, it’s stuff that everyone else already seems to know, and sometimes it’s rarer stuff that I stumble upon. It’d be incredibly ignorant and arrogant of me to imply that I’ve somehow arrived anywhere other than at a mile marker. When will I have the next humbling insight? I can say that at least I’m different than I was. I’ve made better sense of my past. I wish to remember and feel grateful for the struggle and the lessons because they’ve led me to a fulfilling present infused with hope.

***

I accept that I’m a growing organism—though my exterior is slowly declining, at least I’m evolving psychologically. I see a new way. Sometimes I see people for the first time, even though I’ve known them for years. Sometimes they’ve changed, and sometimes I’ve changed. Sometimes I learn things that should’ve been obvious but eluded my awareness for a lifetime. When I misbehaved as a youth, I never thought that I was a bad person, and I was insulted when others treated me as such. Remember, I thought I was being special. We all need sound guidance. We do not need to be attacked or rejected. We should love each other enough to be mentors and role models. When humans look beneath each other’s chameleon manifestations and truly connect, regardless of age, it facilitates growth in both people—but especially in the person who desperately needs to be understood. Don’t most of us strive to be someone accepted and good and better? Shedding our chameleon colors and becoming authentic facilitates this and models it for fearful others.

      I don’t believe that what I see on social media is the whole story, either—it’s merely the impression people want to make publicly, but it has placed the Chameleon Complex more squarely in our faces. It’s surprising how many people present themselves as close to perfect but feel rotten inside. What color do they take on? There are countless ways to hide ourselves. Many people believe what the impression managers post, and then they feel horrible about themselves for not living up to the images they see. Take it from an insider: a bit of skepticism makes sense. Look deeper; all is not as it seems.

            The cycle continues. Then it goes down generations.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 75 Wannabe Distance God

On the other side of that fallow period, having clarified my goal to use my own voice to write a memoir, something freed up in me. All the little yellow Volkswagens began to appear. I noticed that, over the decades, the publishing world had shifted and become flat. The Internet means that publishing is now similar to road races; not everyone can win, but everyone can participate.

      I can write, publish, market, and distribute my own books on my computer connected to the Internet. Seeking permission from agents, editors, publishing houses, and bookstores is no longer necessary. The Internet has opened up publishing as profoundly as Gutenberg’s press did in 1440. The gatekeepers have been circumvented. I can get on the bus and sit on the seat backs, and nobody can say that I can’t. Yes, the hierarchy of elites has been overcome, and we now have a publishing democracy; the common people—the nobodies like me—have a voice. When I first started querying publishers in the 1980s, I hoped to reach millions of people via brick-and-mortar bookstores. By 2013, I could reach billions of people worldwide via the Internet. So, in the end, the only revolution I participated in was the communications revolution.

      OK, so I’d use my authentic voice to write memoir in this new paradigm; but what did I need to say?

***

I liked to quip that I was at great disadvantage for having few disadvantages. That’s why I’d courted trouble, disrupted polite conversations, and sought adventure. Remember, I was a skinny male of the majority race, wracked with neurotic anxiety and existential angst, nearsighted with a large proboscis and an overbite, in an esoteric religion, plopped into a middle-class suburb in the American Southwest. The conservative thesis of the 1950s began my journey, giving way to the hippie antithesis of the 1960s when I experienced my vulnerable formative years, and then to the synthesis of the 1970s when I came of age with a gnawing yearning for significance. Did my innate circumstances, era of arrival, and nobody-ness mean that I had nothing to say? Then what was that inside of me that yearned to be known?

      I couldn’t write convincingly about poverty, drugs, sex, or debilitating racism. I never ran away from home, had never been arrested or gone to war. The well I had to draw upon was a reasonable life with a reasonable beginning: I wasn’t raised like a reptile or pampered like a prince. I couldn’t shake up the establishment; times had changed: The beats and the hippies had grown old, and the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Nixon were long gone. Yet they all left an impression on me. I was given Reagan and Bush, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the invasion of Iraq. I joined the Establishment, bought a house in the center of Scottsdale, and twenty years of practicing psychotherapy flowed by. Had I become a flatliner, the most uninteresting of people? What suffering was I to mine, in light of the fact that “suffering” had never accurately described my life experience for long because I changed my life each time suffering became true? No, my life was better captured via a profound satisfaction with consciousness, punctuated with spikes of joy, dips of sorrow, persistent existential angst, and an unyielding yearning to self-actualize. Was there a story there?

      I was chronically average, which caused some dissatisfaction, as I’d aspired to be exceptional. I just kept regressing to the mean. But I’d finally accepted that I didn’t need to be a great writer and I didn’t need a traditional publisher; my voice could be heard, but again, what did I have to say? It was then I realized that all I had to give was my truth. I was similar to my clients, who saw themselves as not normal, as nobodies, but who were in truth mostly normal, each being a unique individual with lovable things about him or her. Wasn’t that true of me as well? Shouldn’t I, too, bloom where I was planted, which was what I told my clients? It wasn’t in me to shift societal paradigms; I was far too average for that. No, I could only have my personal shifts and facilitate smaller shifts for others. Yes, I was a normal guy, but that was a good thing; it meant that telling my story would resonate with many others. And true, I wasn’t that special, but that was also universal. Besides, there was only one me, so a constellation of things that were true about me might be unique when combined.

      So, there it was: I shed my last chameleon color, and I’d use my authentic voice to tell about my running experience. Wannabe Distance God was about those of us who never made a living at running but wanted to, the subelites, those of us who never went to the Olympics or broke American or world records but did everything we could to get there. What was it like to be committed to a quest, to get pretty far and still fall short, but to have tried, at least, despite the obstacles, despite the setbacks? Wasn’t my personal story unique but also loaded with universal themes that would resonate with humans in general as well as with runners?

***

I didn’t blame myself for not becoming a memoirist when I was younger. I couldn’t’ve been one; I needed more experience, seasoning, insight, and wisdom. I still don’t have as many of those characteristics as I’d like. I still want to shift paradigms. I still want to blow your mind, to remind you that you are alive, and that can be as wonderful as you make it. But I just don’t have it in me, I guess. I have observation and honesty, but I lack genius. This all seems commonsensical, like how I do psychotherapy, like stuff I should’ve known long ago, but somehow, I missed it. I hope that simple common sense will somehow be an “Ah-ha!” moment for others the way it often has been for me.

      My first fifty years as a wannabe novelist prompted me to observe and enjoy life more, so for that, I’m grateful. I had to learn to speak up with intention instead of speaking up for attention. Today, I use words to heal rather than to hurt others. Then it is they who awaken.

      After I published Wannabe Distance God, I tried not to worry about others’ negative judgment; it’s always a risk. At Amazon.com you’ll find that even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye have received scathing one-star reviews. I’m totally serious. Humans will always criticize other humans; it’s both helpful and hurtful. 

      Don’t we overlap where we all recognize our imperfection, desires, and selfishness, as well as our pursuit of love, respect, and acceptance? Shouldn’t we stay on our own path anyway and bravely go down it alone if necessary, despite the critics? The critics are part of the challenge and thus are part of the growth. The challenge is not to be so self-critical. Trying to be the writer that I thought I should be only left me frustrated. I decided that I would simply be the writer I am; I would simply be me.

      When I got over my fear of revealing my authentic self in print, I got to live the author’s life I’d always dreamed. Sometimes dreams really do come true, just not necessarily the way we’d planned. Sometimes the path is obvious, such as putting in the time and effort necessary to end up in a solo psychotherapy practice. Other times, the path isn’t as obvious, such as tearfully praying for perfect vision but only succeeding via technology and getting LASIK.

      Olympic ten-thousand-meter gold medalist and Jayhawk Billy Mills wrote a thoughtful preface for Wannabe Distance God. Then I received endorsements from famous marathoner Bill Rodgers, track star Henry Rono, and many others. Soon, I was named “Blue Collar Runner of the Month #2” by Letsrun.com, and Amazon.com named my memoir a running “Cult Classic.” So, yeah, my dream had come true.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 74 Voice

I didn’t write for some months but instead sat empty and dreamless.

      I had something to figure out for myself in order to truly own it, to truly change, similar to my clients. When I’d been so driven to perform, accomplish, and be recognized, I didn’t see clearly. But when I stopped and was still, when I let go, insight rose from my subconscious. My hopelessness gave way to an objectivity that helped me gain an understanding of why I wrote at all. See, when I’d lost the thing that I felt called to do, when I acted as if it didn’t make a difference, my life felt meaningless. I was nobody, just as I’d always feared. I’d live an anonymous life and one day, pass away.

      But then I looked around at the other seven billion people who currently share the planet. I realized that we’re almost all nobody. I shouldn’t write to please others or to be somebody other than who I was authentically. What did it matter? My goal never should’ve been to write like Mark Twain or Ken Kesey; I should write as me, tell my truth, what saw through my own toilet-paper tube; and perhaps it’d resonate with some people, but I should not expect it to resonate with everyone or even anyone. It’s shallow and even paralyzing to try to please everyone. That’s what chameleons do. The beats and hippies were just being themselves; it was their authenticity that I admired. I should set my ego aside and not worry about the critics or prestige or posterity; we are all criticized, and we are all destined for obscurity. A little boy’s initials scratched into hot tar will eventually be paved over. Even Mark Twain will be forgotten, perhaps in a thousand years, for sure in a million. I should write for pure self-expression, for love of my level 1, love of others at each level, love of connection to others, and love of the wondrous spark of life we’ve been given for a brief time. Other reasons, such as for respect, attention, or money, are too ego-driven, inauthentic, and chameleonic. They are a fool’s errand. Suppose I wrote without the sheen of fiction between my audience and me? Suppose I wrote as me instead of as a chameleon, the me I am today? Suppose I wrote the way I did psychotherapy: being present and authentic and not putting my issues onto anybody else? When I’m at work, I don’t try to be Sigmund Freud or Abraham Maslow; I’m just me doing my best job as a psychologist. And it works! Would my writing become more authentic, more intimate, and thus resonate better with whoever chose to pay attention if I was just me? What I mean is, suppose I wrote a memoir?

      And that’s when this colicky pissant finally rediscovered his voice.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 73 Delusion

So, my delusion was lifted that day. You could also say that my dream completed its drawn-out withering and finally died.

      In psychotherapy, I sometimes tell people uncomfortable things about themselves that had been subconscious for them. It can lead to their temporary unbalancing. It’s usually premeditated, always done with care, and certainly isn’t mean-spirited. Is a surgeon’s incision mean? There are other analogies, of course: a distance runner’s increased fitness after a coach’s killer workout; a student’s improved writing after a teacher’s monstrous red pen. I cut to the bone with truth. Sometimes I unbalance clients so that they will embrace change. It’s often necessary for healing to begin. If we’ve already bonded and joined as a team, and they remain engaged, they emerge less conflicted. They are psychologically healthier human beings.

      That last literary rejection was one of scores, but it was the most profound. It shocked my subconscious with truth and unbalanced me. It wasn’t only the worst rejection but was also the last because I determined that it would be. When you endure a death by a thousand lashes, there needs to be a thousandth lash, even if that last lash is spent on the corpse of a failed writing career. I thought the only control I had, the only way to be safe, was to put up an impenetrable wall, to go into a hermit-like seclusion similar to Salinger’s in New Hampshire, except I’d produce no fiction at all, not even for imagined readers after my death or for editors, agents, writers’ groups, car trunks, or even just for myself. I’d been beaten down to a cold surrender after a handful of decades.

      I could no longer delude myself. It was devastatingly clear that my fiction, although not exactly bad, was not good enough. I could no longer fall back on my delusion that I was too cutting-edge or another misunderstood talent. Clearly, I’d only worn my novelist color like the emperor’s new clothes. So, I wouldn’t stand before their judgment or offer my stories for their cruel dissection.

      I was, at long last, defeated.

***

At what point do dreams become delusions? When we believe in a dream that never materializes, do we then become delusional—like praying for health when surgery or oncological interventions make more sense? I’m not talking about bizarre delusions that are clearly implausible, such as thinking that a stranger had removed my internal organs and replaced them with someone else’s without leaving any wounds or scars, or that replicas of ourselves walked among us like Stepford Wives. I’m talking about nonbizarre delusions.

      A delusion is nonbizarre when it involves situations that could occur in real life. For example, publishing a novel—I knew for a fact that some people published novels. So, I didn’t give up for over forty years. But forty years is a long time to hold on, right? Sure, to a sequoia, forty years is a yawn and a stretch, but to a housefly, it’s an eternity. To me, forty years was a lifetime.

      I’d been going through the five stages of grief for years and didn’t realize it until then: denial that I’d forever be unpublished, anger that I kept being rejected, bargaining with my writing style and inappropriately contacting editors. That morning I moved into the final two stages: depression when I realized I’d never publish a novel and finally acceptance that my dream was dead.

      I was certainly old enough to have realized my dream, and if not, old enough to reevaluate myself through midlife eyes. I would not disappear for days in a dissociative fugue state or have an affair with someone half my age. My midlife crisis was acceptance that I’d never publish a novel. That meant that that morning, I lost hope and would write no more.

      That means I stopped treading water.