The Problem is Not Your Demons

– It’s How You’re Handling Them

Rather than scroll past this for fear of it ruining your Friday mood, I urge you to take it as a moment of focus. So let’s talk about demons, and about how an absolute tragedy can give us a little bit of light. Are you ready to meet the real enemy? I guarantee it’s not who you think it is.

Three days after fashion icon Kate Spade’s suicide, and a mere day after the CDC’s report revealing a 30% increase in U.S. suicide rates over the last 17 years, beloved, brilliant, charming, curmudgeonly chef extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain takes his own life.

Not that you need reminding, but it’s been nearly 4 years since Robin Williams did the same.

Perhaps the most commonly-asked question when people such as these decide to end their lives, is “why?” We, from the outside, see genius. We see talent. We see creativity, heart, passion, wisdom, curiosity, success… we see a lot of things. What we don’t see is the internal process.

Too often we assume that people who create beautiful things are filled only with beautiful things. I assure you this is not always the case.

And to be clear, when I say “create”, I’m not referring to the stereotype of the tortured artist. In fact, I’m not referring to artists at all. Raising children, selling houses, teaching students, building a business- these are all creative acts in a sense, because to do them well requires concentrated effort, passion, and sacrifice. For all acts that require purpose of energy are a form of creation. This is one of the realities of nature that connects all people.

In fact, it’s often those parts of us- the poison, the darkness, the demons -that drive us to create in the first place. We create because too often it’s the only way to hold up a candle against the night. In doing so, many find a sense of peace- or at least of stability -in the sense that they’ve come to grips with existence, with the past, with the future. To be compassionate, not only towards others, but towards themselves. To be mindful of, and grateful for, the time we have right now.

But for many more, the struggle to find that balance becomes a focus of pressure itself. And so the brilliant singer extinguishes her own flame before her song is ever truly sung, simply because she views her failure to conquer her demons as an inexcusable flaw, one rendering her unworthy not only of success, but of salvation. And the mastermind chef and teacher cuts short his own life, believing that the joy he’s brought to millions isn’t justification enough for his existence.

This is why you cannot fight your demons. There’s no possible way I can over-stress this truth enough.

Listen. I know you’ve been told over and over again that you must “conquer” your fears, and “fight” your demons, and “win” over yourself. But there’s a sinister, hidden flaw nested in this advice that will lead- and has lead -many into the realm of self-defeat. To imply that you can conquer the darkness within, that you can single-handedly slay your own demons, is to imply that you are somehow broken or tainted, and that with enough force of will, you will stand victorious. That you will reach a state of “completion”.

This can be, as today’s news shows, a deadly fallacy to believe. For as with physical life, our consciousness, our memory, our internal processes are in constant states of change and evolution. Having anxiety, depression, fear, doubt, blame, and guilt trying to crush your success at every step is, like it or not, an intrinsic part of being human. Everything from modern society to modern food to modern technology is both a product of and problem for the human mind. Our minds arise from each of our unique collections of cells, our neurology, and without literally lobotomizing yourself or using some kind of magic to physically remove the problem areas, you’re more or less stuck with yourself. There is no “completed” version of You.

But hear me out- that’s not a bad thing. That’s not a bad thing in any way, no matter what you’ve done or been through. You are not a failure because you’ve failed to construct an idealized version of yourself, a Jesus or a Buddha who lives without flaw and without fear.

In fact, because of the way our brains map themselves as we progress through life, everything that makes you “You” is tied together. You are a complex and beautiful network of knowledge and memory and dreams and flaws. So without the problem areas, you wouldn’t be yourself. In other words, take away the demons, take away your soul.

So the real question, the real battle, then becomes “How do we deal with our demons?” How do we mitigate- and integrate -the things that strive to kill our spirit?

After observing many situations like Bourdain’s, including some tragedies of those I personally knew, and including some horrific things I’ve experienced, I’ve come to a radical understanding about the nature of our demons.

Have them over for dinner. Sit down, break bread, speak with them. Barter and trade with them. Strike deals with, and in doing so, subjugate them. But nicely. They have to decide to. You have to decide to. They are part of you, just as you are part of them. They are you. Yes, they may have arisen from incidents, or been given to you by others, but now they’re yours. You have to decide how best to befriend them and make them work for you.

Every piece of light and dark inside you has a purpose, but it’s up to you to define that purpose. When you accept that you have control over this process, and that it’s an act of compassion and of negotiation, you’re free to succeed as you see fit because you’ve thrown away the youthful notion that an intrinsic, and perhaps unwanted, part of you can be magically cut out and tossed aside.

And now, the real enemy: your ego. Disregard the assumption that “ego” means power, desire, or confidence. Your ego is a vestige of primal competition, of battle, of survival, of “choosing sides”. Your ego wants to fight your demons, because it’s the screaming part of your personality that stands up and shouts “I’M ME, AND I WILL FIGHT ANYTHING THAT THREATENS ME!” Sometimes, the ego is a necessary part of survival- especially after any form of trauma or failure. But these things beget fear, and fear feeds your ego. And when your ego becomes trained to feed on fear, your outer strength becomes the killer of your true, inner self. Your demons then run rampant, because the truth is that Ego has a loud voice but makes a poor warrior.

And still, your ego will fight you every step of the way on the journey to yourself, your success, and your freedom.

Along the way, it will throw every lie in the book at you- you’re a failure if you don’t “conquer yourself”, you’re “not worthy” because you’ve committed sins or have been defiled, you’re “not successful” because you haven’t attained someone else’s version of success, you “can’t do enough” or “can’t do anything right”; and perhaps the most vile, insidious, and downright sad lie you could ever let yourself believe: you don’t need anyone.

Whether for attainment of a goal or a desire to become a better person, not one single person on this planet has done so alone. You are not God, you are not a god; hell, you’re not even a demigod. You’re human, and we arose and succeeded through connection, support, negotiation, and community. We are, in fact, “wired for help”.

Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, once wrote:

“…for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

To accept the lie from someone else, or from yourself, that your journey in life is a solitary battle of defiance against the world… well, that’ll kill you. You may not die in the literal sense. You may not take your own life. But a part of you- the part of light that shines from within, blinding not only your demons but those of others around you -will surely die. And so you become weaker, and the pack becomes weaker.

All because you believed that you’re broken,
that being broken is a bad thing,
and that you’re a failure for not fixing yourself.

So here’s the point, my beautiful people. Sit at the table with your demons, and talk it out. But be wary of this dinner at first. Demons have notoriously bad table manners. Some adjustment may be required on both your parts.

Take heart, though, and take note: this will be an ongoing conversation for the rest of your life. There will never be a point of completion. I believe you have the courage, and the compassion for yourself and those you love, to do so. The strength and elegance of character you desire, and the peace and success you want, are right now within your grasp.

Needing help from time to time does not make you weak; in fact, asking for help requires a much more graceful form of strength than does a brutish rebuking of the world, or a solitary march to war.

Talk to your demons. Question them. Learn from them. Own them. Ignore anyone who says you can kill them.

Give love. Accept love. Do both with wild abandon, and keep your eyes on the horizon. But keep distance, as well, from anyone who tells you to fire on all incoming ships.

Above all, remember this: even the best and brightest of us have defeated ourselves. As the winds and storms of life fill your sails, and you carve the waves of your own destiny…

…don’t forget who the real enemy is. Make that enemy your friend, and gather your crew.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
– ancient proverb

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