Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Own Worst Enemy

This one might read more like a journal entry. If you are expecting an article you'll probably read this and assume that I'm a crazy narcissist. I believe one must only talk about ones self (to such an extent) in the context of a biographical journal entry. If this were an article I would have thrown in an extra amount of self deprecation in order to assure you of my humility. (I'm only sort of joking.) I apologize in advance if I ramble as I let my mind wander.

I grew up third of six. Our family adopted my two younger sisters (number seven and eight) when I was about eleven, so for the most part I was smack dab in the middle. Like most middle children I felt somewhat overlooked so I acted out in order to receive the attention I craved (or at least thats what they told me I was doing). If anyone challenged me I would fight them back as if my life depended on it. Often times my weapon of choice was a handful of the smooth rocks from the playground at Quilchena Elementary School in Richmond, BC. Because of this I spent most of my lunch hours across the desk from our lovely principle, Mrs. Thorton. She was terrifying. She must have been well over six feet tall, and her stature and spirit made her the most intimidating creature this second grader had ever laid his eyes on. With her white hair pinned back tight against her scalp and her gigantic, unblinking eyes penetrating deep into my soul, she'd stare for what seemed like hours before articulating a very sinister, "Do you know why you're here, Matthew?" I always knew why, but I could barely speak. I was afraid to. My lips would shake and my tongue would get twisted. A huge lump would well up in my throat and I would feel like crying. I couldn't look at her without wanting to cry, so I would glance away. "Look at me!" She'd scowl. This would go on daily. Some mornings I'd fill up with dread and fake sickness to get out school, because I knew I would end up in that chair, across from 'the witch' as she attempted once again to steal my soul. It was probably all my fault, but I never saw it that way. I was just defending myself. The punishment was never on the kid who threw the first stone, it was always on the kid who threw back. That was me, in my mind anyways.

I remember one of my most recent victims found me at recess and jumped on me, pinning my shoulders with his knees and pummeling my face with his fists. A teacher broke it up and told me to get back to my class. My attacker didn't even have to go to the office. It seemed there was no justice for me. I was almost heartbroken with humiliation. For weeks I tried to get him to fight again. I wanted a rematch. I wanted to win. Instead he befriended me which was even more disheartening. He didn't want to fight, he was sorry. "Let's be friends," he'd say, which was something very hard for a middle child to turn down. It was terrible. He was the hero, and there was nothing I could do to win.

I was looking to be at the top of a hierarchy. To get respect and attention through violence is probably hard-wired into a lot of boys, especially boys who have brothers. I saw myself as 'Defender of the Weak' but I think teachers just saw me as a tyrant. I remember in 5th grade having to see the school counselor on a weekly basis. I think having to be called out of class for counseling is one of the most humiliating things a kid can go through. She (the counselor) would talk about how life is a road and there are speed bumps in it, and I would laugh because I thought she sounded crazy.

As I grew I slowly realized I could get attention by being good at things. My family is naturally competitive, so when it came to life as a contest I just decided that I was going to win. Anything that impressed people I would learn to be good at. As a kid, it was drawing comic books. To this day I have eight notebooks full of characters and stories I created (I do believe this was a sincere passion of mine, but I know it was partly to impress my older brother). I had dreams of becoming like my hero, Jim Lee, a famous comic book artist (not to be confused with Stan Lee, who's art is sub-par in comparison). My friends would be impressed with my work and I would feel gratified. I collected sports cards, coins, pogs and miniatures and would organize them meticulously. I would do anything to obtain a certain sense of worth and wealth.

I remember one summer in 6th grade I decided I was going to be like Michael Jordan. I spent hours in the driveway shooting a basketball. To this day, I'm terrible at basketball. I love to play it, but I'm not so good. I don't know where it came from, this delusional self confidence, but I had it. For awhile, I was king of the nerds collecting and creating comic books, websites and playing online games. When that wasn't enough I became an athlete. I was always pretty limber, I think growing up with a trampoline in the back yard helps, but I remember for a few years in my teens I really focused on sports. I went to State in swimming and Districts in track and field. My delusional self-confidence eventually became haughty arrogance, which you can read about in my blog post titled "One Small Story of Regret." The contest academically became how much work can I NOT do and still maintain a good grade? I had set myself up to be pretty good at everything that seemed to matter to people. However, my motives weren't entirely pure. Until I found music.

I always loved to sing, and when I was twelve my mom decided she was going to get me real voice lessons. The guy who gave them was in a nineties Christian pop band called The Suspenders. I was a huge fan. He taught me how to warm my prepubescent voice up and make weird noises. After about 4 lessons I had tracked vocals and harmonies to a very cheesy rendition of, "I Swear" by John Michael Montgomery (Or All 4 One, which was the version I preferred). I remember free-styling the harmonies, and Ashley (my instructors name) would laugh and say, "Wow! That was jazzy!" I had no idea what he meant, but I took it as a compliment.

I think the first song I wrote was when I was thirteen or so on my moms classical acoustic guitar. It was when I was in my early teens that I discovered rock music. On my 16th birthday my mom bought me my first electric guitar: a blue Fender Squire. I still have it. On it I learned to cover numerous songs, but that bored me quickly so I went back to writing my own. They sounded a lot like Blink 182. Sorry if I'm rambling as I remember, there is a point to this I promise.

What was different about my musical talents was that I didn't know if I was good, and I wasn't about to show off to people just in case I was laughable. For the most part I continued writing songs alone, showing them only to my brother or my close friends when they implored me to entertain. They'd smile and say it was good, but I wasn't sure I believed them. Music was different than anything else I had attempted. It was personal. My motives weren't to impress anyone. I didn't need people to hear it. I didn't need approval. I needed to write because I needed to express myself through this new outlet. I needed it's comfort. I lived for the sound of my voice over the guitar chords and the instruments that swirled around in my head along with the song. I would sometimes spend the hours at school playing songs in my head, and then run home and figure them out with the guitar (I still do this now, except I sing them into my phone so I don't forget). I could hear these songs done, every part working together to create a symphony of wonderful music. In retrospect I was ambitious, uncultured and my songs weren't very unique, but I FELT them. I needed them.

Two things made me cool at parties in my late teens. The first was that I could do a back flip off of a car. The second was that I could play the guitar and freestyle songs about peoples moms. They loved it. You don't even have to be clever. Whenever you sing made up words in a catchy melody to chords, people tend to find it genius. These were essentially the two things that set me apart from my friends who were all athletes, nerds and artists to some extent. I was one in five guys in my class who played guitar, and one in two who wrote songs. I felt unique in that sense. Music started to define me socially as well as something personal that I relied on. So after being a delinquent, a nerd, an athlete and a stoner (I left that part of the story out), I decided I was a going to be musician.

The point of that long recap was to describe a picture of myself that I believe is at war constantly with my other half. My first half is this compulsion to get better, to learn more and be the best at whatever lies before me, something I probably developed out of insecurity but something inherently 'me.' I think everyone has this to some extent, and for the most part it is a productive attribute, although sometimes it can be consuming and destructive. My other half is for the most part self-involved, complacent laziness. "I don't CARE!" Is what this half of me childishly screams. Those are the three words Kristie hates to hear. While we were dating in my teens I said them a lot. They helped me detach, but oh, how they are deadly. Sometimes I am truly surprised as to how she put up with me for so long.

Half of the time, I would much rather watch TV than write songs, record music, or spend quality time with people I love (i.e. do productive things). Even though I understand the latter is an incredible source of joy, it seems I'd much rather fill my time with nothingness. I get easily caught up in pointless, mindless hobbies like playing Mafia on Facebook, games on my iPhone, or marveling at Bob Ross' wizardry on PBS. On one hand I want to be good at everything, and on the other hand I'm much to lazy to do the work. I settle for the cheap thrills that always leave me empty. In this sense I'm my own worst enemy. I've heard it said, however politically incorrect, that there are two types of people: indians and Chiefs. There are those who read the news and those who make the news. Those who are envious and those who people envy. The thing about being a Chief is that it takes hard work, responsibility, dedication, commitment. Even when it sucks and you don't feel like it. It's trying and failing and trying again. Those who lead aren't those who are smarter, it's those who have an abundance of motivation, positive outlook and the compulsion to vacuum the heads of those smarter than them. One half of me wants to be this better person, and the other half isn't concerned in the slightest. If my life was Pinocchio I'd be a half-donkey with one foot in Pleasure Island.

This is part of what they call the 'duality of man.' Good and evil. Ecstasy and enmity. Inspiration and desperation. For every peak there is a valley. The only thing that is going to hold me from my potential is myself. I can stay in the valley for as long as I wish, because its always a forced decision to climb back up the mountain. Man, the valley sucks too. Whenever I spend too much time filling myself with nonsense I self-destruct. Whenever I cut the nonsense out I feel a lot better. Why is it that I cannot make that decision every time? It's such a no brainer. Half of me says, "This will not fill you," and the other half says, "Might was well try anyways."

I love this quote from the Apostle Paul, who struggled openly with the same issue in Romans 7 (The Message):

4-16I can anticipate the response that is coming: "I know that all God's commands are spiritual, but I'm not. Isn't this also your experience?" Yes. I'm full of myself—after all, I've spent a long time in sin's prison. What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can't be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God's command is necessary.

17-20But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

Paul is talking about this in reference to the Law, as in the Jewish Law. He's basically saying that humans can't follow the law perfectly, they will always fall short, so we need Jesus to clear our names where we fall short. He's saying its good to know the right thing, but its not enough to know it, because even if you know it it's impossible to do all the time: I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.

I guess the struggle is inspiration and focus. Acting on the inspiration of your conscience saying, "This won't fill you" and then focusing on the things that will.

I have a feeling that I will never master that.


  1. I think the issue is much deeper than our own strength and will to do right.

    "[12] For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. [13] Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."

    "[3] For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. [4] For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, [5] casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, [6] and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled."

  2. please don't apologize for ranting. your rants are interesting, and we only read because we believe they are :)

    the way you recall your teenager music-writing experience is so like my own :) yesterday i was talking with a friend of mine about why she doesn't like tcc's music, and it came down to the fact that her worlview/emotion didn't fit with that of the music... because, as you said, it's that emotion that makes it amazing it's the emotion that attatches one to the music. it's the emotion that spurts out of you in the first place to *make* the music.

    haha i like that you wrote music at school. i've written some of my best music in algebra :D "I could hear these songs done, every part working together to create a symphony of wonderful music..." i love that swirly feeling. it's cool to know i'm not the only one that gets that.

    the quote from romans is so true. i've had a long love-hate relationship with that passage- sometimes it frustrates me that paul doesn't give a satisfying answer to solving that way of thinking, the lazy, shallow way of filling yourself versus the deeper one that sustains- but it's also reassuring to know that he was that way too. to know that god can help that, should you let him. i fall so often this way, and i doubt i'll ever master it either- but it's not about perfection. only progress.


  3. when you gave those verses from romans it really kinda reminded me of myself and how i can swear to God that i will not sin but when the temptation comes its like i just blow off everything i promised to God

  4. wow, matt. this is such a great post. it might not be the most eloquent, but you articulated your view amazingly well. it was as if you disected my being and wrote this about me, to me, for me. thank you.

  5. I love that passage. I love the whole book in Romans. After that, I believe, it goes on to talk about how there is no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus and then the Spirit and how we need to live by the Spirit. . .yet that still doesn't make much sense. . .faith, faith, faith.

  6. That was a really long post dude.


  7. man, isn't it so crazy that despite all the things we face, have strived through, and have yet to learn, we're still here? regardless of all the things we say we live for, what we actually live for, and what we want to live for, we're still living. sometimes it doesn't feel like I make choices everyday, but I do. whether or not they're GOOD choices, well thats different... :p

    i think its the choices that show our heart's nature. "the world isn't all good people and Death Eaters, Harry. we all have both light and dark in each of us. it's the part we choose to act on. that shows who we really are." - cheesy movie quote

    i appreciate your intimacy with your blog, matt. you just sort of turn on the spiritual firehose sometimes, and it reminds me that even though we have not and may never meet, we've both thought through of a bunch of the same things, and choose to believe in what we wish.

    what a canvas our lives are on.

  8. If I thought that your last post was way heavy, this one certainly beats it, but as always you have made an interesting point. Anyone who reads it is bound to see themselves, we all have good and evil within us, and after all we are but simple human beings. I like the verses concerning Paul; Paul's life was much like yours, he taught the law, lived the law, even to the extent that he became good at punishing those who were followers of Christ. But Christ came and chose him to do His will, talk about a 180! Yet it's obvious, Paul's old self and new self were constantly at war! Phil. 4:8 reminds us "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things."