Merton faces his failure as a Cambridge student . . .
Day after day I read Freud, thinking myself to be very enlightened and scientific when, as a matter of fact, I was about as scientific as an old woman secretly poring over books about occultism, trying to tell her own fortune, and learning how to dope out the future from the lines in the palm of her hand. I don’t know if I ever got very close to needing a padded cell: but if I ever had gone crazy, I think psychoanalysis would have been the one thing chiefly responsible for it.
Meanwhile, I had received several letters from my guardian. They were sharp, and got sharper as they went on, and finally, in March or April, I got a curt summons to come to London.
I had to wait a long time, a long, long time in the waiting-room, where I turned over the pages of all the copies of Punch for two years back. I suppose this was part of a deliberate plan to sap my morale, this leaving me alone in a dismal, foggy room, with all those copies of that dreary magazine.
Finally, after about an hour and a half, I was summoned to climb the narrow stairs to the consulting room immediately above. The floor was waxed, and once again I got this sense of precariousness in my footing, and was glad to get across the room to the chair by the desk without falling down and breaking a hip.
With polished and devastating coolness, which carried with it a faint suggestion of contempt, Tom offered me a cigarette. The implication was that I was going to need it. Therefore, obviously, I refused it.
Nevertheless, the fifteen or twenty minutes that followed were among the most painful and distressing I have ever lived through: not because of anything that he said to me, for he was not angry or even unkind. In fact I do not even remember exactly what he did say. The thing that made me suffer was that he asked me very bluntly and coldly for an explanation of my conduct and left me to writhe. For as soon as I was placed in the position of having to give some kind of positive explanation or defense of so much stupidity and unpleasantness, as if to justify myself by making it seem possible for a rational creature to live that way, the whole bitterness and emptiness of it became very evident to me, and my tongue would hardly function. And the words I murmured about my “making mistakes” and “not wanting to hurt others” sounded extremely silly and cheap.
So I was very glad to get out of there, and as soon as I was in the street I smoked plenty of cigarettes.
Months went by, and things did not change at all. After the Easter vacation, I was called in to my tutor to explain why I was not attending most of my lectures, and a few other things besides. This time I was not so uncomfortable. As to the exams that were soon to come—I was to take the first part of the Modern Language Tripos in French and Italian—I thought I would be able to pass them, which as a matter of fact I did, getting a second in both. The results were wired to me by one of my friends when I was already on the boat for America—one of those ten-day boats out of London. We were going through the Straits of Dover, and the sun was on the white cliffs, and my lungs were filling with the fresh air.
I was planning to come back the next year, and had already arranged for a room in the Old Court of Clare, right over the gate that led out to Clare bridge. I would have looked out over the President’s garden. But certainly, considering the kind of undergraduate I was, that was the worst possible place tor me to have wanted to room: for I was right in between the President and the Senior Tutor. However, I never went up to Cambridge again as a member of the University.
That summer Tom sent me a letter in New York suggesting that I had better give up the idea of ever entering the British Diplomatic service, and that Cambridge was, henceforth, useless. To return would be to waste my time and money. He thought it would be very sensible if I stayed in America.
It did not take me five minutes to come around to agreeing with him. I do not know whether it was entirely subjective, but it seemed to me that there was some kind of a subtle poison in Europe, something that corrupted me, something the very thought and scent of which sickened me, repelled me.
What was it? Some kind of a moral fungus, the spores of which floated in that damp air, in that foggy and half-lighted darkness?
The thought that I was no longer obliged to go back into those damp and fetid mists filled me with an immense relief—a relief that far overbalanced the pain of my injured pride, the shame of comparative failure. I say I was no longer obliged to return: I would have to go back long enough to get on the quota and enter America permanently, for now I was only in the country on a temporary visa. But that did not matter so much. The feeling that I did not have to stay was another liberation.
Once again, I ask myself if it was not mostly subjective—perhaps it was. For I do not accuse the whole of England of the corruption that I had discovered in only a part of it. Nor do I blame England for this as a nation, as if it alone were infected with the sweet and nasty disease of the soul that seemed to be rotting the whole of Europe, in high places above all.
It was something I had not known or seen, in the England of those first days when I had been a child, and walked in the innocent countryside, and looked at the old village churches and read the novels of Dickens and wandered by the streams on picnics with my aunt and cousins.
What was wrong with this place, with all these people? Why was everything so empty?
Of course, what Merton is going through has nothing to do with his failure as a university student. What he's going through is a kind of spiritual ennui. Since his father's death, he's been adrift in life, not really knowing what or who he is. He's lost his feeling of purpose, and now he casts all of his dissatisfaction on the external things of his life, instead of looking inward.
It's an easy thing to do: blaming other people or places or events for your unhappiness. Addicts do it all the time, casting the source of all their problems on jobs or spouses or children or health or poverty. That's the easy thing to do. My husband doesn't understand me. My job is unfulfilling. My utilities are about to be disconnected.
The problem with this approach is that there is no personal accountability. It lets you off the hook, even allows you to feel a little self-righteous or indignant.
These last seven or so days, I've been dealing with a lot of personal struggles at home, with my son, especially. The start of this pandemic school year has been anything but smooth for the younger of my children. After a six-month Covid-19 vacation, he can't find his motivation and purpose. Along with that is a trauma that occurred a while ago that has had some long-reaching effects.
As a parent, I'm trying to be understanding, giving him space. But my son knows what buttons to push to make me go absolutely nuclear. Yesterday morning was Hiroshima. I left home in utter ruin, not quite sure how to continue with my day. Sitting at my kitchen table last night, after a glass of wine, at almost midnight, I regained some equilibrium. Not much, but some.
Yesterday morning, I was literally slumped over the stove in my kitchen, praying desperately, needing some kind of divine guidance, 'cuz what I've been doing ain't working obviously. I wanted Moses to write a message on the wall. That didn't happen. The spirit of Joseph Campbell to appear in the bathroom and reveal the hidden mythic meaning of my struggles. That didn't happen, either.
Instead, I bungled through the day as best I could. Did the same thing today, probably making tons of mistakes and miscalculations. Yet, my son made it through the day without harming himself. We had some moments of real happiness together, when all the darkness of the last couple weeks seemed to retreat into the corner. I count that as a victory. Now, he is in bed, hopefully to rise tomorrow morning and go to school.
Me? I'm sitting at the kitchen table--my work space--eating cold popcorn chicken from KFC and drinking apple wine. I know tomorrow morning is going to be a battle with my son. I can't do anything about that right now. I know that I will feel like a failure as a father. I can't do anything about that right now, either.
I have no control over what will happen tomorrow. The only thing I can control is myself and my reactions. I know that I love my son. I can tell him that in the morning. I know that I will do anything for him. I can tell him that, too.
That's a good start.
Saint Marty isn't expecting a miracle tomorrow, but he's not ruling out the possibility, either. Love can move mountains. so it can surely get an 11-year-old boy onto a school bus.
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