My father and I shared beautiful times together, illuminated during the seasons of his emotional stability. Over coffee and pie, we discussed his affliction, theories about its nature and the power it had over him. We boated and fished and flew low along the Florida coast planning our next adventures. By the time he was thirty-six, he had blown up a thriving South Florida and Caribbean real estate business and an idyllic family, four kids, a stray dog and a pet alligator.
Other times, when he became unhinged amidst terrifying auditory hallucinations, his fear grew into paranoid calculations about existential threats. When I was six, during the Cuban Missile Crises, my mother found him drinking out of puddles thinking the water supply contaminated. These scary instances when his trust melted away, when his mind took flight, neutralized his last shreds of objectivity. I supposed his triggers were internal, possibly a response to the pain of believing that he was rejected by loved ones. This would set off a cascade of dark negative self-talk leading to the suffocating tomb of isolation, traceable back to an abusive childhood. Without lithium in his system, his spiraling was only a matter of time.
When his kind, gentle spirit returned, usually after hospitalization, in the serenity of who he truly was to me, he would play and pray with his children and tell wonderful stories of adventures on the high seas. When I was older, he mentored me, sharing stories of his life—including those he shared with his recovery groups. I learned from the knowledge he gained and the care he received from the numerous psychiatric counselors and doctors not able to fully understand his torment. I knew he cared about me and that I cared about him and in many ways, I was my father’s son—but not all ways.
I too was neuro-atypical. Unlike him, however, in me there was a brusqueness that would manifest at times in my arrogance and fierce competitiveness; insensitive to how I made people feel, sabotaging the acceptance I craved. Hubris was my second skin, the kevlar wrapped around an oversized ego. Insecurity, entangled with my hyperactivity triggered involuntarily off-putting rants—trancelike diatribes as dangerous as a runaway train.
In the summer of 2019, on a trip to Amsterdam (then boarding a ship to cruise through the fjords up the coast of Norway) with friends from Italy, I first read Herman Hesse’s brilliant existential crises novel Steppenwolf. Like Harry Haller— Hesse’s autobiographical, reclusive, suicidal protagonist—I too longed for human connection, as I knew my father did. Like both of them, I often distanced myself from the very people I wanted to be near.
Hesse describes Haller as he described us: “For the air of lonely men surrounded him now, a still atmosphere in which the world around him slipped away, leaving him incapable of relationships, an atmosphere against which neither will nor longing availed. This was one of the most significant earmarks of his life.”
That summer, I came to believe Harry Haller and I had both heard the voices of the past: writers, composers, philosophers and poets (perhaps romantics and transcendentalists as well) who advocated for the collective soul of humanity professing freedom in nature. He called them Immortals, and that’s what they called themselves, lives that burned with the intensity that Steppenwolf longed for—my longing, my father’s too and perhaps all people at some point.
Haller viewed the middle class with disdain for their middle path, neither the extreme saint or sinner, but lukewarm. And Haller himself—worse for his cowardice and compromise; unconventional and struggling, knowing he didn’t flow with the mainstream of the modern social order, yet lacking the courage and will to break free from the conventions that bound his wings.
He was not a man without morals but struggled to accept the compromise of civilization. While the bourgeoisie succumbed to convention, seeking balance, accepting social progress in the industrialization and technology of the time, embracing that which fed us faster, tethering us to machines and rules that separated us from nature and art and a greater faith—Haller in his individuation sought something higher.
For me, the voices of the gods and men rose above the waters and through the canyons and cried out from the beauty and mystery of the arts and nature when the magnificence of a creative process alone was enough to awaken my consciousness. In nature and art I also found closeness to the God above all other gods.
Before our friends arrived, we toured the canals of Amsterdam in a small open deck boat with a bar in the center. Enchanted, we propelled through some of the sixty miles of waterways connecting this fascinating and progressive world-class city, its ninety-some islands—its rare air.
Each neighborhood of Old Amsterdam had its own personality, and like Haller, I thought that maybe each of us weren’t just one person but many—mysterious complex and nuanced. About Haller, Hesse wrote: “[he] consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does not merely between two poles, such as the body and spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.”
As the sun was setting that first night in the Netherlands, I recalled a time I realized it was possible to become another person—the way I had in the Canadian wilderness as a kid; and again at fifteen on a monastic ranch in Colorado. I believed in sacred places because I had felt the power and the inexplicable peace they bestowed, reminiscent of prayers, creating art, or gazing in contemplation of great masterpieces whose artists’ voices called from the past. Places where kingdoms of men and angels converged when God’s spirit filled the minds of man with living waters quenching their unquenchable thirst. These same places outshined my want of worldly success and dopamine flows—things to elevate my station as I yearned for the celestial city where everything was good, where I was well, where my father was healthy and sane.
Soon after our trip across the North Sea I turned sixty-five, still filled with demons that remained to be exorcised. Like Haller, I was a slow suicide, trapped in my conventionalities but not about to throw in the towel like my father who tried jumping off a bridge when he was about my age. As I approached the winter of my life, I’d like to say I came to want less of this world. While in some sense this was true, in another it was not, and I was still pulled and pushed back and forth between realms like a boy drowning at the base of a waterfall. Like a man who awakens from a dream, refreshed after having traveled elsewhere to be recalibrated, reminded and reenergized.
I’m not certain how it was for my father exactly, but I knew he had times of joy and hopefulness—and times crushed with disabling anxiety and hopelessness. I had been with him during each. And towards the end of his life, surviving the fall from the bridge, facing terminal cancer, he seemed different—and I believe he found peace.
In the twenty-four years since he passed, humility grew in my weakness and I grew stronger, more resilient, less rigid. As I began to trust more and worry less, the world of my childhood began to reappear amidst growing awareness of a different kind of faith. This wasn’t the kind that could be made from borrowed rituals prescribed by self-proclaimed holy men, modern-day prophets or televangelists. Nor was it built embracing dogma or reciting doctrine. It was received in a place like no other, its citizens were tabernacles, jars of clay filled with living waters. Their palaces constructed in the confidence of mystery and architecture of trust unfolding into lush gardens surrounded by walls of strong character.
To enter this kingdom, it requires that you merely surrender to the yearning of humanity, becoming prisoners of grace and servants of mercy. I wondered, are all of us filled with the longing to live outside of fear and anger, free from anxiety inside the power of love? I was discovering the new country of God’s kingdom, overlaying the world of man, where the energy of faith was revealed in the strangely familiar experiences of wonder and serenity that I felt as a child. This was the state of existence I had longed for since then, especially in times of turbulence.
As I lingered in the calm of some middle path I didn’t understand, stepping in the spirit beyond the hedonic treadmill that my worldly endeavours had told me to stay on, I became a kid again. Now, as I grow older surrounded by wonderment, my new world is teeming with hope.
This was the arc of my life, my father’s and Haller’s too. Like the warmth of Florida that had set my childhood aglow, the Illinois heartland, Caribbean Islands and Europe were now more familiar and filled with light, and my place among good friends and family more peaceful.
Time with my father and the contemplation of who he was had proven love’s power to use such an imperfect vessel. Despite his crippling mental illness, the best of his humanity had shone through, inspiring adventure, self-discovery and the desire to overcome worldly aspirations. Through the years, he helped uncover the best attributes of his in me—and when I embraced my faith in the cross and the resurrection, my hope and peace were renewed.
Now I realize that my greatest insanity—and perhaps both my father’s and Haller’s too—was trying to conform to this world alone and unaided, without receiving the power available to us all. Life was the struggle to break free from our earthbound creatureliness and abide in the Holy Spirit that abided in us. This matter of transcendence has captured me and become the lifelong evolution of my soul.