One of my favourite films is Kill Bill, because secretly I am a sixteen year old boy. I love almost every part of the films, even though I know almost every part is stolen. Creativity is hiding your sources, said no one ever except me. But one thing that strikes me about that movie/those movies is that what makes the character of the bride so powerful, and so resonant, is her single-minded drive to complete her tasks, no matter how much pain, despair and anguish she experiences. And this natural bent is cultivated by Pai Mei, who punishes her ceaselessly, in order to build in her an indefatigable, indestructible spirit.
She submits to a master and an art that, with utter unquestioning devotion, complete application of her strength and stamina and soul, batters and breaks her down into an impermeable, impassable machine. And that is one of the best parts of the movie, because we all know what it’s like to fumble and fall upwards toward our goals, even if we can’t summon that level of zeal, since most of us weren’t repeatedly shot or buried or brutalised or whatever.
In real life, that kind of devotion to your art, it requires your complete attention. It consumes your life. It becomes your life. It does not allow space for very much else. You cannot have major hobbies or many significant relationships. Your significant other is the Art, and everyone and everything else is a distraction from that relationship. You give everything of yourself to it, and you feel that the returns are exponentially greater. It is not just a physical pursuit. It is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Whom I know about because of QI) had this kind of relationship with God. She devoted her life to God, and her every action was a manifestation of her love for God and Jesus Christ. In her mind, Jesus was literally her husband, and she was literally devoted to him in all ways. She gave every single, solitary element of herself over to God; she sought out degrading experiences, because she felt they brought her closer to her betrothed. She starved and suffered, because it gave physical manifestation of her union with Jesus Christ.
Devoting ourselves entirely to something, to the point of racking our minds and bodies with pain and suffering for its sake, makes our lives feel important, gives us purpose and direction and meaning.
Tom Cruise wholly and deeply believes in Scientology. He is utterly persuaded of its purpose and its success. It is nothing but genuine on his part. He genuinely believes that is the way forward for mankind, and he is but a humble (yet zealous) disciple, spreading the divine word and method of L. Ron Hubbard. But one cannot mistake the narcissism, the belief that he knows more than we do, and the patronising selflessness in his desire to illuminate us poor souls in the dark. It almost seems plausible, when you veil your narcissism in a cause that is not your own.
Some people build this relationship with a very dangerous creature inside their mind. This creature tells them that they can overcome their desire for food, that it makes them ugly and weak, that they are beautiful and powerful when they control their intake of food. This creature takes lives when it takes root in the tendency toward annihilation. And the frequency with which young girls are succumbing to this thinking is evidence of its ever-presence. We call this creature anorexia, and it is the close relative of obsessive compulsive disorder and perfectionism.
In all these things, it is a voice inside you that tells you are less, and must aspire to be more, though that voice is never to be satisfied, nor even occasionally quieted. It is a voice that is content only in discontent, only in deprivation and denial and devotion, and it demands everything from you, and in return rewards you with the belief that you are in control of something, that you have mastered something; it rewards you with a sense of purpose.
Whether we do it for god or country or love or money or Muay Thai, we all have this inclination to absence from ourselves. Some of us drink to forget ourselves. Some of us watch TV. Some of us play instruments and produce beautiful sound. Some of us take heroin. Some of us die to be away from ourselves. The inclination toward annihilation is ever present. When coupled with devotion to a cause, it produces zeal and obsession. But the desire to annihilate the self is not selfless. It’s never selfless. It’s always narcissism.
The biggest trick this voice pulls is persuading you to believe that complete devotion means complete control. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Because it is when you are completely devoted to one thing that you are most vulnerable, because if it is taken away from you, your whole world falls apart. You only need look at an untreated anorexic or a junkie on a bender to see how erasure of self does not equal mastery, nor does it really resemble selflessness.
The truth is, it’s not possible to completely lose one’s self. One can never completely inhabit another thing, despite the feeling we may have. That sense that we have become another thing, that we have transcended, is perhaps the most arrogant belief of all, because it implies the belief that one can become more or better than a mere human. That the way to master yourself is by mastering something else, and thus by becoming it, and inhabiting it. In order to believe something like that about one’s self, one needs to look in the mirror and see more than one’s own reflection. One needs to see one’s self as having been enlightened above all others, because of the supreme devotion one has shown; as having seen the light, as all other stand in darkness.
You might think me self-righteous, and narcissistic in my own way for suggesting that single-minded devotion is narcissistic. And I will always admit to being narcissistic. I would never write this way if I thought I was ordinary. But this I do not write out of narcissism. I write it in support of the middle path. No good comes of single-minded obsession.
Perhaps you will get super fit, but you will also get injured, and the injury will be far worse than if you had rested responsibly. Perhaps you will develop a close and intimate relationship with God, but you will lose touch with real live people, and Jesus was nothing if not a man who cultivated his relationship with real people. Perhaps you will become the perfect couple who are eternally of one mind, but you will lose part of your own mind in that delirious union. Perhaps you will earn the Freedom Medal of Valour from the Church of Scientology, but you will lose the ability to recognise when people want help, need help, or do not need your help at all.
Still it’s hard for me to understand that kind of rigid behaviour, because I am so naturally inclined to indolence. I will happily piss away hours in a day or even a week watching the TV programs I love or eating shit that is bad for me. From within my own body, that behaviour seems entirely alien. Why in God’s name would you do it? It’s just really hard. Unnecessarily hard. Like, mad hard, yo.
These people seem to not understand how comfortable bed is and how awesome it is to be asleep. I mean, when I’m asleep, I’m not even awake! I’m totally absent from life; completely non-participatory! It’s the fucking shit. Also, cookies. Chocolate cookies. Many questions in my life can be answered by chocolate cookies.
In my life, I have two tools at my disposal: My body and my mind. This encompasses all that I am.
When I do Muay Thai, I am strengthening my body; I am exerting my physical self in an extremely rigorous and demanding way. The pay-off, to me, matches the effort invested.
For the time I spend in the gym slamming myself against the walls of my abilities, I am rewarded with greater capabilities, greater strength, greater rigour. But the exertion is also mental. I learn to fight in my mind, both the chess game of outwitting an opponent, and the Minotaur’s maze of overcoming my anxiety.
But I am never more in my body, never more aware of myself than when I am exerting myself in this way. I am never more aware of my own fragility, ignorance, corporeality, temporality and humanity, than when I am getting hit in the head. Perhaps if I get hit more, I won’t think so many things any more. That might be nice. I love having a break from things.
Cate Gurevich is an Australian writer, born and educated in Melbourne. After completing an informative Bachelor of Creative Arts, a useless Masters in Communications, and an occasionally amusing 15-year education in classical singing, she moved to London to be near the BBC and Derren Brown. Last year she visited Thailand to do Muay Thai for a month, then accidentally stayed indefinitely. She is currently working on a fairy tale for children, which is to be published next year.