The Tyranny of Self

King Baby GreatIn my late twenties I lived in Boston and I was worried. I desired a respectable career with a respectable salary, but my job was unsatisfying, a dead-end. I wanted better but I was resistant to the naked ambition I saw in my peers. I craved, but also resented, the cultural seal of approval a good career represented. At age 28 I felt like an outlier: trapped, stressed out, and not much closer to discerning my life path than I was at age 21. I needed guidance, but I felt irritated by the advice offered by others.

I did find help in an unexpected place. One evening after work I was idly walking around downtown when I saw a group of rough-looking people snuffing out cigarettes as they entered a building. On an adventurous impulse, I followed them inside. It was an AA meeting, Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d heard of the organization, but knew little about them. I rarely drank alcohol, but curiosity kept me in my seat. What I saw and heard was fascinating and life changing.

At that meeting I heard for the first time the phrase, “the tyranny of self.” They spoke of this as an intense burden, common to man, that couldn’t be lifted by wealth, recognition, alcohol or career success. This caught my attention.

According to AA, the tyranny of self results from a type of distorted self-love that compulsively seeks to control and possess whatever it views as essential for its comfort and well-being. Other values in the human experience then become subordinate and compromised, which reduces comfort and well-being. Fearful reactions to this failure become tyrannical, leading to oppressive, forced solutions. Where there’s tyranny, there’s loss of freedom.

AA calls the person possessed by these tyrannical emotions a King Baby. This person becomes hyper-vigilant to a narrow vision of his own needs, locked in a cycle of grasping for what soothes and avoidance of what doesn’t. In this unchecked egotism, any perceived slight is felt deeply, any criticism is wounding, any experience of satisfaction fleeting.

The King Baby is actually a slave, servile to this infantile view of his own needs. Like a baby, he becomes rigid in his choices, and increasingly manipulative towards others. Like a king, he has a low tolerance for dissent. The King Baby is a miserable companion.

Since the world at large is under no obligation to comply with his wishes, the King Baby experiences a loss of inner peace and a steady increase in anxiety and stress that do not go away. This kind of inner misery was precisely my experience at that time.

I attended that AA meeting for a year.  They have a framework for taking personal inventory and then positive action in a new direction. I found this approach to be elegant and effective. Overthrowing the inner tyrant involved, paradoxically, a type of surrender I had never done before. AA’s system gave me the beginning of a sweet release from the tyrannical emotional strain I had lived with for many years.

Not all problems were instantly solved, but once I confronted my own King Baby, my sense of well-being expanded significantly. I discovered a more generous attitude of acceptance, towards myself first, and then towards others people. My anxiety about the future diminished dramatically. This was very exciting.

King Baby and the tyranny of self: an inner state that is burdensome and disheartening for sure. But any forward step out of this must begin with the individual’s awareness of his or her own complicity in the dreadful situation. I enjoy how AA humorously characterizes this steady movement toward a robust and lucid way of life as “trudging the road of happy destiny.”

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