Bill Long 12/27/04
At the end of his stirring interview with poet Donald Hall in The Language of Life (1995), Bill Moyers asked Hall about one of Hall's poems, Ox Cart Man. In response Hall spoke of the life of productive work that sustains itself by expending itself. He gave the following advice:
"'Don't ever hold anything back. Put everything out that can possibly belong in that poem or story. Don't save anything for the next one.' That's the only way to work. It's the only way to live really (p. 157)."
His advice, "Don't ever hold anything back," brought back a flood of memories to me on how I lived my life from about age 18 until 50, characterized as it was by holding almost everything back. The following poem is my attempt to capture the nature of my feelings in those three decades, knowing I was holding back as I lived.
MY HOLDING BACK
The first person I ever recall telling me "Don't Hold Back" was my football coach from high school. "Don't hold back, Long!" he used to shout at me. The next game I went "all out" and suffered a season-ending and career-ending injury.
I switched allegiances and began to love God. I gave God everything I had. I didn't hold back. But I was told to be humble, to be less aggressive, to be more "Christlike" in my desires and expressions. So, I tried. I checked my energy and my eagerness, making sure never to offend. I held back.
I associated with other, more liberal Christians. They said that it was the male, dripping with testosterone, who oppressed women. It was very, very bad to be such a male. I vowed never to assert myself to the disadvantage of a woman. I vowed never to lust again, never to objectify a woman. I held back once more.
I got married. I didn't want to hold back. I wanted to work hard, play hard, love hard. She would get tired very easily. She wouldn't want to talk about my concerns. Bedtime at 10. I wasn't tired, but I felt, to be faithful, I should go to bed at the same time. Hours spent scanning the ceiling. I held back.
I got a good job. Professor at a top college. I wanted to "integrate" faith and academics. I wanted to "integrate" politics and academics. I wanted to write in "popular" journals. I wanted to speak in all kinds of contexts. I was told that I needed to focus on academic things, on my narrow field, on professional societies. I did as I was told. I held back. I read in Book VIII of the Confessions that Augustine also held back, and so I felt in good company. I wondered if there was ever to be any liberation in life or whether life was just a process of denying everything about yourself you knew to be true.
All of those things fell apart for me. My marriage disintegrated. My career fell apart. Faith disappeared. And still I held back. I could act in no other way. Life was not to be lived with energy or passion, because no one wanted you to live that way. They had the advice on how to succeed, but it turned to ashes every time I listened to someone.
32 years of deferring. 32 years of not asserting. 32 years of considering others' concerns first. 32 years of solemnly concluding that life is just not meant to be lived with energy, and that you don't get what you want or need in life.
Until...I began not to listen to people. Until...I began to disengage from people. Then my liberation came. Then my words started to flow, the thoughts erupted, the ideas never stopped coming. Joy started when I stopped listening to people. Joy began when I could finally study at 6:00 p.m or 1:00 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. Joy came alive when I could relate text to life and say that this was the truest scholarship.
Now, at 52, I no longer hold back. But I can no longer look at people in a healthy way. Because people were the instruments of my imprisonment, I think they all want to hold me back. They want to confine me to their limited vision of things; they want to define my life in narrow compass. They won't understand what I am trying to do. They will tire easily. They don't have the wherewithal to grasp what I am about.
And, come to think of it, I want to objectify a woman or two. I want to act very male and aggressive and assertive. I will judge and evaluate and point out flaws and show shortcomings and get to the heart of things that no one else can quite understand just because I am who I am. And I won't apologize for doing so.
The cost of my not holding myself back anymore is that I cannot relate with people. I have to sacrifice connections in order not to hold back. People, I believe, want to control my conversation, my thoughts, my career, my love life, my existence. They really don't want to understand. They still want me to hold back. True freedom for me now is the freedom away from others. That is what I have learned in life. Isn't that terribly sad?
And my true nature is to be quite gregarious.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long