Apparently there is a holiday called “edge day” which began as a straight edge music fest in Boston more than a decade ago and which has continued to be celebrated every October 17th since. I myself do not drink or do drugs and haven’t since 1985 and yet I don’t call myself Straight Edge, although I used to.
I had never heard the term “Straight Edge” in the early 1980s, I was a budding metal head/punk rocker when a friend made me a cassette tape labeled ‘Minor Threat’. When I got that tape I had already fallen in love with punk, there was just something about the whole aesthetic which resonated with the part of me that constantly felt stifled by the silly conformist caste system of life in a Texas high school. For my entire life nothing has pissed me off more than someone (or something)trying to force me into a box. I wanted friends as much as anyone else but I just couldn’t modify myself to the level that seemed to be required to “fit in”. I have a big mouth and a personality that simply can’t just accept what is doled out, I need to know ‘why’ and if something seems nonsense or unfair I say it. Needless to say, this doesn’t make you a lot of friends with people who don’t like to think, for a clique to be a clique every member must be willing to shove aspects of their personality that the group deems “unacceptable” down into themselves lest the groups appearance of unity be threatened. I could not do this, I tried and failed miserably as an adolescent, and by the time I was 15 or 16 it was pretty clear that I was going to be a friendless loner since I couldn’t shut up and tow the group-think line.
Then punk came along. All of the sudden being iconoclastic was celebrated instead of the thing to be suppressed. I made a bunch of friends who reveled in being big mouth wise asses laughing down their noses at the jock-y, rich zombies who seemed baffled at our complete lack of interest in being like them! Even better was the powerful music that seemed like it was connected by a high voltage cable right to my angry teenaged soul. Social Distortion, Discharge, and the Circle Jerks spoke to me like no other music had, I was hooked. Those bands changed everything I knew about music, but when I put that Minor Threat tape in my beat up Walkman it changed my entire life! You see as much as I loved punk and the extreme metal that defined my life I found that most of my friends who were into the same stuff also were really really into getting wasted. I had just found my “group” and already I was marking myself out because I would not drink or get high. I felt like an alien, I simply didn’t understand why someone would want to be high, it scared me and the way that I saw people who were wasted acting didn’t do anything to change my mind.
So when I heard Ian Mackaye scream the words “I don’t drink! I don’t smoke! At least I can fucking think!” On the song “out of step” I knew I had found my band! It was an amazing relief to learn that there were bands like this out there, that I really was not alone. I had been straight edge before I even knew there was a name for it. To this day I will still get a chill listening to their music, almost nothing since has had that electrical impact on me the way those songs did.
From their lyrics and from interviews I knew that to Minor Threat being straight edge was a personal choice, something to demand of myself not anyone else. I liked the fact that it was a credo I already lived without requiring anyone else to agree with me. It was all the back up I needed to simply stand up for my way of life without shame or superiority. As I got older I discovered that some straight edge folks didn’t feel the same way. The 1990s spawned all sorts of flavors of edge and some folks took it as an excuse to form the same kind of cliques and jock-y gangs that had driven me into punk rock in the first place. All of the sudden it was a pissing contest and I lost interest in defining myself this way by the time I was in my 20s, I still lived the life of a straight edge person, but the sense of belonging which those words used to generate in me was gone.
When I began to study Buddhism it was immediately apparent how similar it was to punk rock on many levels (including the suggestion “not to take substances which cloud the mind“) with one important difference, one was admonished over and over to question everything, even Buddhism! You were cautioned never to believe anything just because someone said it was so, not your teacher, not even Buddha. There was to be no safety in lazy thinking. Ever. You don’t just abstain for drinking or drugs because zen says so, you look at why this is so in your own life. The precepts were not rules to govern someone elses behavior, it was the things that someone who was already enlightened did naturally, not because they were ordered to or because some god told you to, but because if you had your eyes open and had spent any time looking at the world you would understand that it was the best to way to live while causing the least amount of suffering to everyone (including yourself!) Punk and Straight edge almost got there but like most great philosophies they rely on things outside to make them “worthy”. Peer pressure and guilt can only motivate for a short time and then the pressure needs to be ramped up, eventually you end up with the same sort of power structure enforcing the “rules” that punk originally sought to disregard/destroy. In the end authority of any sort means giving up your own responsibility to think for yourself and, it turns out, this is what I had been rebelling against my whole life.
Meditate for a little while, daily and seriously and it wont take long to see a lot of your cherished beliefs and ideals drop away. It wasn’t long before I found that many things I felt truly defined me were becoming like someone elses clothes on over my own. No matter how nice the suit, when it was on top of my natural clothing it felt stifling and constraining. I was surprised to find that I ceased feeling the need to be smarter than everyone else, I dropped my knee jerk atheism, I stopped having to define myself as straight edge, or a punk, or even a tattooer. So while my natural inclination was (and is) to live a straight edge life, I found that it felt more natural and direct to simply live that way without labeling myself. Of course one of the other things I realized is that it was not my business or right to judge anyone elses life choice and so I have nothing but respect for my friends who have decided to identify themselves as Straight edge. Even if their way is not my own, I have tremendous admiration for people who live in a society like ours which constantly bombards you with messages and peer pressure to get fucked up rather than deal with life head on, and who stand by their ideals in the face of all the forces marshaled against them. I feel the same way, but the label began to feel like it was getting in the way of the real work of living a straight, sober life with compassion instead of superiority or pity.
Do I think that the world would be a better place if no one did drugs, got drunk, misused sex, or blindly followed religions? Ab-so-fucking-lutely!! But what I discovered is that the only way I could truly make that happen was by policing my own life, by judging my own actions and choices, and only when I approached the rest of the world, the drunks and the straight edge, the right-wing and the left, the jocks and the punks as all part of one universe. Zen opened my eyes to the fact that we are like leaves on a tree, individual and yet all part of the same , giant organism. I may not like the way some folks choose to live but I can’t deny that I am them (and they are me) and so hate and judgement against them is just hate and judgement towards myself. It was both a relief to discover this and a huge pain in the ass, sometimes it would be a great thing for me to still be able to say “fuck those guys, I’m a good guy and they are bad!!!” but these days I can’t do that without seeing myself in “them” and knowing I am just the same as they are. So I continue to live an essentially straight edge life and finding it feels much more honest to just do what I know is the right thing without labeling myself, it turns out that calling myself Straight Edge wouldn’t honestly show how strongly I live that life! Words and labels, in the end, are simply too small to capture what amazing and complex things we really all are.