Years ago in India, an 80-year-old man in Coke-bottle eyeglasses took my hand and said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. We were talking about human virtue, the ongoing struggle—which I’d just described to him with some pain—of trying to perfect oneself on a spiritual path, to eradicate one’s vices only to fail again and again. On this particular day, I found myself in my usual torment of self-exasperation when this old guy set me straight. “Baba loved scoundrels,” he told me, referring to Meher Baba, the late, great Parsi god-man whose personal attendant he’d been for 30-plus years. “Of course, Baba loved everyone. All the `broken furniture,’ as he called human beings. But scoundrels were his special children.”
“What do you mean by ‘scoundrel?’” I asked. He blinked his magnified eyes as if to say, “Look in the mirror, dummy.” Then he wobbled his head in the Indian way and drove home his point. “Remember that God does not need your virtue. God will take the worst of you. Never try to be too good.”
Something in these words rang true. I was always trying to be too good (meaning better than I was), always striving for perfection, the straight and narrow, the ideal balance. Much of my energy was directed toward cleaning up my act, stripping away nasty habits, controlling wayward desires, in hopes of attaining some squeaky clean nirvana on earth where I would finally know the freedom of absolute recovery.
This Sisyphean struggle never ceased. There always seemed to give up, some vice standing between me and Enlightenment (capital E). Cigarettes, gossip, hamburgers, TV, caffeine, booze, or (heaven help me) the occasional toke off a party reefer. I imagined that there was some kink in my character blocking the pristine state where I would finally be my own master. But no matter how hard I tried, the crusade to sanitize my life never seemed to work. Sooner or later I’d fall from grace, compelled by an ulterior force to undo the knot I’d concocted to bind myself to good behavior.
I called this weakness; I called it lack of discipline, hedonism, and many other judgmental names that made me feel like a dog. But persecution didn’t help, and no amount of whining would change the facts. Though the moralist in me resisted admitting it, something in me often needed to be bad in order to feel good. It was as if there were a gremlin inside me, refusing, mischievously, to be tamed, fighting off attempts at saintliness with strong, hairy fists. As much as I craved order, boundaries, and moderation, I deeply needed abandon, too—a chink in my character to let off steam, a wicked outlet to spice things up, keep me askew, stop this virtuous life from becoming too – virtuous. Without room for transgression, the days grew overly predictable, stupefied by their own too-goodness, like a row of tight-lipped ladies nodding off in church.
This need for wickedness interests me, not because it’s prurient, but because it seems to reveal a secret of what it means to be happy and human. Cycling around for the thousandth time to the same illicit bump in the road, I wondered whether the intractable need for vice and disobedience had not been put in us for a reason, whether it might not serve some vital function in the mandala of being, in fact. Much has been written about the Shadow, the darkness of the psyche that must be acknowledged in order to integrate our lives. But not enough has been said of the role that vice plays, how crucial it is for us to maintain a forbidden zone where the soul can trespass, betray herself, and blissfully fall. Falling is the key. As Milan Kundera described it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the human urge to throw ourselves into the depths (particularly when we get too high) is an archetypal thing; a way of reminding ourselves that we’re alive by keeping one toe over the edge, another stubbornly in the muck. Self-defeating as it seems, I know I’m here when I make mistakes, I know I’m trying when I fail, and the tension of this tug-of-war between angel and devil enlivens the game of consciousness.
The form that vice takes matters little (provided, of course, that it hurts no one else). What is indispensable, it seems to me, is that it be somehow out of bounds, off the record, verboten, a flouting, however harmless, of what the sinner knows to be righteous. If you hide this vice, it’s even better. Let me use myself as a case in point. I used to be a closet smoker. Since lighting my first cigarette the year we pulled out of Vietnam (I was only 12 but very precocious), I’d remained a semi-secret butthead, flirting with this banal compulsion, stopping, starting, stopping again for years at a time. No matter how long I stayed away, I always came back, surrendering with a perverse combination of pleasure and relief to a stinking habit I knew to be harmful. It wasn’t nicotine addiction in my case – I only smoked a couple of cigarettes a day — but what these smoldering icons represented in a health-crazed world: a bird-flipping finger at common sense, what the French call je m’en foutisme, the human need to not give a damn sometimes. Without contradicting myself, preserving a dark corner of myself, for myself, in the too bright, too good, too conscious room of my seeker’s life, I felt myself losing something that mattered. In my opinion, this is the primary reason that people drink, smoke, have affairs, and spend too many hours watching junk TV. It’s the reason why, no matter how right, we always need to be slightly wrong, refusing to cut off that one last wart. We need to be foolish, excessive, absurd, to be far less than we can be, to remind ourselves that we will never be perfect and that’s a good thing.
My mother used to say this in not so many words. “Rules were made to be broken,” she’d remind me when I was too hard on myself. As a newbie seeker, I wanted to prove her wrong, till one day my mother called my bluff. During some virtuous period or other, years after I’d moved out of her house, Ida found me in the garage smoking one of her Pall Malls. I’ll never forget the delighted look on her face, the way she smirked as she lit one herself and sat next to me on the washing machine. Looking back at the two of us there, sharing our vice amidst the dirty clothes and detergent, I realize that this was among our most intimate moments. Since childhood, I had tried to hide my weaknesses from her, though Ida knew it better than anyone.
For a long time, we sat there, smoking, without saying a word. Finally, my mother stamped out her cigarette and rose to leave me to my solitary pleasure. Before she left, she turned to me and asked, “What are you so afraid of?”
At the time, I didn’t know what to tell her.