I love when I read a book, story, or play and find a resonating or universal theme that stays in my mind for days. I enjoy mulling it over and allowing it to marinate for awhile, applying it to my own life to somehow become more cognizant of who I am or strive to be.
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is one play that has stuck with me. If you aren’t familiar with the play, it takes place in Harry Hope’s bar whose patrons, mired in their lack of purpose, seek oblivion in each other’s company and by getting drunk. Their pontification of their personal pipe dreams is their sole impetus for living at all.
One of the characters, Hickey, kills his wife before showing up late one evening at the bar. Hickey is a philandering alcoholic whose wife forgives him over and over for his marital transgressions and alcoholism; her devotion unwavering. His pipe dream is his reformation and his admission of her murder not only liberates him from the guilt and burden of that pipe dream, but also indicates his hatred and resentment at her faith in him and her constant forgiveness.
“And then I saw I’d always known that was the only possible way to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving me. I saw it meant peace for me, too, knowing she was at peace. I felt as though a ton of guilt was lifted off my mind. I remember I stood by the bed and suddenly I had to laugh. I couldn’t help it, and I knew Evelyn would forgive me. I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it was something I’d always wanted to say: ‘Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch.'”
His own self-loathing behavior of repeatedly cheating on his wife coupled with his alcoholism brought about a notion that there must be something wrong with her to feel love for him and to always forgive him. Pipe dreams may keep one going, but he came to the dismal conclusion he’d rather kill the dream of his salvation than live under the guilt of it. He convinces the others to kill their pipe dreams, too, and to face the reality of their futility.
Perhaps our lives are not so dramatic; we may not literally be murdering our spouses or loved ones, but rather the relationship itself to alleviate not just the guilt of living under the burden of a pipe dream, but also to allow ourselves a static existence in our own despair or misfortune.
Mired in the guilt of self-loathing or low self-esteem, it is easy to fall into the trap of hurting those close to us because we either feel we are so insignificant that our actions are incapable of hurting those closest to us or we have convinced ourselves we are unworthy of love because of our mistakes and flaws–or both.
How do we fix that? How do some of us who are so flawed learn to stop creating the stumbling blocks that sabotage our ability to be receptive to love and forgiveness?
The answer, though difficult, is simple: by loving oneself. For some, that’s a difficult idea to grasp. It’s an all or nothing notion; hating oneself to the point of despair or destructive behavior, or taking on a narcissistic love of oneself so grand that it becomes in and of itself a form of self-hatred. Both are equally destructive.
What Hickey lacked—what many of us lack—was the not only the ability to just be receptive to love, but to also love himself enough to do better by his wife; to set himself to a higher standard and strive towards it. We do not have to be brilliant or amazing. We don’t have to be beautiful or witty or charming. We must love in reverse; accepting our flaws as opportunities for improvement, or perhaps just accepting them just as they are.
Hickey saw his wife’s resolute and unyielding faith as a burden; a constant reminder of the guilt he carried at making the same mistakes over and over. He buried himself beneath the weight of his despair; his resentment at his wife’s love gave way to his dream of reformation as being merely dissipating smoke. Our flaws and our mistakes do not define us; they are opportunities to learn, in small steps, to love, to be loved, and to love ourselves—which is a much more colorful and tangible dream.