Chapter 22 


If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.


There is hardly the space to list all the successful people who have hit rock bottom.

   The notion everyone experiences jarring, perspective-altering moments is almost a cliché. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

   J. K. Rowling finds herself seven years after college with a failed marriage, no job, single parent, kids she can barely feed, and approaching homelessness. A teenage Charlie Parker thinks he is tearing it up on stage, right in the pocket with the rest of the crew, until Jo Jones throws a cymbal at him and chases him away in humiliation. A young Lyndon Johnson is beaten to a pulp by a Hill Country farm boy over a girl, finally shattering his picture of himself as “cock of the walk.”

   There are many ways to hit bottom. Almost everyone does in their own way, at some point.

   In the novel Fight Club, the character Jack’s apartment is blown up. All of his possessions—“every stick of furniture,” which he pathetically loved—were lost. Later it turns out that Jack blew it up himself. He had multiple personalities, and “Tyler Durden” orchestrated the explosion to shock Jack from the sad stupor he was afraid to do anything about. The result was a journey into an entirely different and rather dark part of his life.

   In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis—or “a going down.” They’re forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it’s with heightened knowledge and understanding.

   Today, we’d call that hell—and on occasion we all spend some time there.

   We surround ourselves with bullshit. With distractions. With lies about what makes us happy and what’s important. We become people we shouldn’t become and engage in destructive, awful behaviors. This unhealthy and ego-derived state hardens and becomes almost permanent. Until katabasis forces us to face it.

   Duris dura franguntur. Hard things are broken by hard things.

   The bigger the ego the harder the fall.

   It would be nice if it didn’t have to be that way. If we could nicely be nudged to correct our ways, if a quiet admonishment was what it took to shoo away illusions, if we could manage to circumvent ego on our own. But it is just not so. The Reverend William A. Sutton observed some 120 years ago that “we cannot be humble except by enduring humiliations.” How much better it would be to spare ourselves these experiences, but sometimes it’s the only way the blind can be made to see.

   In fact, many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. We might call these “Fight Club moments.” Sometimes they are self-inflicted, sometimes inflicted on us, but whatever the cause they can be catalysts for changes we were petrified to make.

   Pick a time in your life (or perhaps it’s a moment you’re experiencing now). A boss’s eviscerating critique of you in front of the entire staff. That sit-down with the person you loved. The Google Alert that delivered the article you’d hoped would never be written. The call from the creditor. The news that threw you back in your chair, speechless and dumbfounded.

   It was in those moments—when the break exposes something unseen before—that you were forced to make eye contact with a thing called Truth. No longer could you hide or pretend.

   Such a moment raises many questions: How do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? Someone told me my problems, so how do I fix them? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again?

   A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits:

1. They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person.

2. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit.

3. From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement.

   Does everyone take advantage of that opportunity? Of course not. Ego often causes the crash and then blocks us from improving.

   Was the 2008 financial crisis not a moment in which everything was laid bare for many people? The lack of accountability, the overleveraged lifestyles, the greed, the dishonesty, the trends that could not possibly continue. For some, this was a wake-up call. Others, just a few years later, are back exactly where they were. For them, it will be worse next time.

  Hemingway had his own rock-bottom realizations as a young man. The understanding he took from them is expressed timelessly in his book A Farewell to Arms. He wrote, “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”

   The world can show you the truth, but no one can force you to accept it.

   In 12-step groups, almost all the steps are about suppressing the ego and clearing out the entitlements and baggage and wreckage that has been accumulated—so that you might see what’s left when all of that is stripped away and the real you is left.

   It’s always so tempting to turn to that old friend denial (which is your ego refusing to believe that what you don’t like could be true).

   Psychologists often say that threatened egotism is one of the most dangerous forces on earth. The gang member whose “honor” is impugned. The narcissist who is rejected. The bully who is made to feel shame. The impostor who is exposed. The plagiarist or the embellisher whose story stops adding up.

   These are not people you want to be near when they are cornered. Nor is it a corner you would want to back yourself into. That’s where you get: How can these people talk to me this way? Who do they think they are? I’ll make them all pay.

   Sometimes because we can’t face what’s been said or what’s been done, we do the unthinkable in response to the unbearable: we escalate. This is ego in its purest and most toxic form.

   Look at Lance Armstrong. He cheated, but so did a lot of people. It was when this cheating was made public and he was forced to see—if only for a second—that he was a cheater that things got really bad. He insisted on denying it despite all the evidence. He insisted on ruining other people’s lives. We’re so afraid to lose our own esteem or, God forbid, the esteem of others, that we contemplate doing terrible things.

   “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed,” reads John 3:20. Big and small, this is what we do. Getting hit with that spotlight doesn’t feel good—whether we’re talking the exposure of ordinary self-deception or true evil—but turning away only delays the reckoning. For how long, no one can say.

   Face the symptoms. Cure the disease. Ego makes it so hard—it’s easier to delay, to double down, to deliberately avoid seeing the changes we need to make in our lives.

   But change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of the people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don’t matter, and reflecting on the ones you do.

   In Fight Club, the character has to firebomb his own apartment to finally break through. Our expectations and exaggerations and lack of restraint made such moments inevitable, ensuring that it would be painful. Now it’s here, what will you make of it? You can change, or you can deny.

   Vince Lombardi said this once: “A team, like men, must be brought to its knees before it can rise again.” So yes, hitting bottom is as brutal as it sounds.

   But the feeling after—it is one of the most powerful perspectives in the world. President Obama described it as he neared the end of his tumultuous, trying terms. “I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls and I emerged, and I lived, and that’s such a liberating feeling.”

   If we could help it, it would be better if we never suffered illusions at all. It’d be better if we never had to kneel or go over the edge. That’s what we’ve spent so much time talking about so far in this book. If that fight is lost, we end up here.

   In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls.





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