When the Midnight Demons Come Calling

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

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Thus sang Bradley Cooper in the powerful reimagining of A Star is Born. (Beware – spoilers coming. If you haven’t seen the movie you will want to stop reading). Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a singer/song-writer who is an alcoholic struggling with the reality that is best days may well be behind him. During a night out drinking he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana and helps catapult her into stardom even as the two build an intense, loving if not flawed and co-dependent relationship. Jackson and Ally both have doubts and demons – from less than ideal childhoods to lingering fears of inadequacy – that they share with each other and strive to overcome. In the end, Maine succumbs to his demons and commits suicide.

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One could say that he was pushed to the decision by Rez Gavron, Ally’s controlling and condescending manager. Rez confronts Jackson, accusing him of holding Ally back. Ally, Rez assures the recovering alcoholic, would be better off without him. When Ally lies to Jackson about why she canceled a leg of her tour he decides to kill himself. An inconsolable Ally blames herself. The audience can blame whomever they want, but Rez’s verbal attack could be viewed as a triggering event. His words, however, would have no impact if they were not reinforced by Jackson’s demons.

You might know those demons. Those fears and doubts that emerge from their daytime hiding places to plague the soul when one is alone. The demons that lurk in your mind and lend power to the criticisms of others. They augment negative messages and reduce what should be the powerful support of friends to gossamer threads. Ally’s grief, to a degree, is fueled by such doubts. Thankfully she has the strength to listen to Jackson’s older brother.

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Bobby, played by Sam Elliot, explains to Ally that Jackson’s death was of his own making, not hers. Bobby has a point. The Jackson’s downward spiral began long before Ally came along. I would like to suggest that perhaps…and this may be stretch…but perhaps Jackson could have begun the process of reversing his downfall if he had learned to employ a little fuck you therapy.

Excuse me? Did you say…

Yup. Sometimes people need to employ a little fuck you therapy to their lives. To be clear, I don’t mean Jackson should have shouted, “Fuck you!” at Rez. In fact, that would not have worked at all (even if it would have felt good to witness). In the end, Jackson still would have committed suicide. You see, Rez’s words only had the power to cause pain because Jackson believed them. Deeply. His soul was receptive to the sharp criticism of a man who essentially hated him.  The words fed his doubts and fears, amplifying them to the point that only one path could be seen by the beleaguered singer. It is truly a tragic moment in the film.

The fuck you that Jackson needed wasn’t an immature expression of rage designed to protect his ego and hide his shattered sense of self from prying eyes. You know, the way we usually use the phrase. But there might just be a quiet use of the phrase that promotes healing rather than spreading anger and reinforcing delusion.

Calling Sean Maguire

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In Good Will Hunting we encounter the brilliant but…shall we say…difficult and anti-social Will Hunting played by Matt Damon. Will, through the patient guidance of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, comes to grips with his abusive past, transcends his attachment disorder, and willingly takes the risk of pursuing a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Skylar. During the breakthrough therapy session – the “It’s not your fault” scene – Will weeps and hugs Sean. As the camera pulls out Sean whispers, “Fuck them, okay?”

I love that line. That moment. That idea. The whispered use of “Fuck them” was and is fantastic. Both Will and Sean had suffered physical abuse as children. One can only imagine what the midnight demons used to torture these two characters. We can try to outthink our demons – and I definitely believe talk therapy can be helpful – but racing thoughts at two in the morning can’t be subdued by more thinking. Alone at night there are sometimes no friends to comfort or loved ones to offer hope. Anger is nothing more than a tattered cloth failing to contain fear while tears burn rather than baptize. But, what if the knowledge that friends are part of your life, your mind is ultimately your own, and where anger fails the earned pride of having fought the good fight enables a moment of calm? Perhaps in that calm there is a moment where one can look at the demons with mature strength and just whisper a forceful “Fuck you.” Perhaps on occasion we need a little vulgarity to find our peace and to stand with confidence before our dark fears, our midnight demons (1).

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Still

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In the Walking Dead (Episode 12: Season 4) Daryl and Beth engage in a memorable moment of what we are calling fuck you therapy. The unusual paring brought us one of the best episodes in that show’s run. Both characters are stung by the death of Hershel, Beth’s father. Beth suggests they have some drinks and, after initially declining, Daryl drinks some of the moonshine he supplied for his younger companion. The drinking leads initially to arguing and insults but, ultimately, hearts are opened as grief is shared. Daryl does not merely share his guilt (he feels he should have saved Hershel) but also divulges information about his difficult childhood with his brother Merle.  A calmer conversation ends with Beth suggesting the duo burn down the dilapidated house they had holed up in as a form of letting go of the past. The house is consumed by flames and the friends salute the flames with their middle fingers. Fuck you, painful past.

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Midnight demons often get their strength from past pains that we struggle to let go of, as if the pain is necessary to our identity. Jungian analyst Carol Pearson contends that one of the archetypes that helps us grow is the destroyer. When used without skill or in an immature manner the destroyer’s energy causes us to lash out, harming ourselves and our loved ones. When used with acumen, however, the destroyer archetype allows us to break unnecessary chains that bind us to past pain, allowing us to move forward unfettered. Well before Jungian archetypal psychology another great thinker counseled all who would listen to let go of the past – the Buddha.

Buddha and Fuck You Therapy

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Okay…I hear ya. Now I’m just being ridiculous. The Buddha never said “Fuck you” to people. That is likely true, but he surely advocated the difficult step of letting go of your attachment to the past. The very first chapter of The Dhammapada includes the verse,      ” ‘He was angry with me,he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” Think about the way such a line could strike one’s ears. Buddha is not saying you have negative thoughts for no reason for you were “attacked” or “robbed.” He is saying, however, nurturing that pain binds one in chords of hate. We must sever our bonds with our pain – actually break them not merely claim to have done so –  if we hope to be free from hate. To be free from the Midnight Demons. 

Before we move on from Buddha there is another aspect of Buddhism that will be useful. Many people have a tendency to split reality into categories that makes life understandable (my side good/yours bad) but ultimately does not allow for the richness or totality of life to be felt. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as a religion of undisturbed peace and tranquility. While that is the final goal, it is also a tradition of effort with a deep understanding of the human condition. The wrathful buddhas of the Tantric tradition remind us that some Buddhist thought has a more direct approach to what we sometimes categorize as negative emotions.

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The wrathful buddhas are ferocious beings with intense passions that absorb hostile emotions in order to dispense them. Only by embracing the darkness do we ultimately transcend it. While Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) wold not have said, “Fuck you” to the midnight demons the wrathful buddhas are portrayed as ferocious entities (picture Wolverine in one of his berserker states) that battle evil at its own level. A couple cusses are well within their realm.

Brining it Home

The dark side of fame, a therapist’s office, a zombie apocalypse, and Buddhism have all made an appearance to help vanquish our midnight demons. I would like to close with a brief story to ground this conversation. 

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My oldest son used to attend a parkour gym. He would train and work on skills that he would bring to the concrete jungle he and some friends ran through. His instructor had a phrase he would share with his students when they were holding onto fear instead of trusting their bodies and their skills. I remember the first time Logan sheepishly shared the phrase with me, unsure how I would respond. It was a fine phrase and I hope he follows this advice the rest of his life. “Sometimes,” his coach told him, “ya just gotta say fuck it and chuck it.” Nike’s PG-13 “Just do it” has nothing on parkour!

Thanks for reading everybody. Do me a favor. If your Midnight Demons come out to play tell ’em I said, “Fuck you.”

(1) I must confess, it was difficult to use this movie because of Robin Williams’ own tragic death. I decided to do so because the film’s powerful message of healing is still valid despite the sorrow of the loss of the great Robin Williams.