A Child of the ’80’s Chooses Life
For me it happened at about age 15. I’d just finished what was the darkest year of my teenage angst, and I was not a happy camper. I had pouted and brooded my way most of the way through, unhappy with the same things as most ’80’s teens in the U.S. Nuclear proliferation, Iran contra, lack of access to MTV, whether or not Michelle actually liked me or was she just asking about algebra homework because I was a nerd…
I don’t know what it was exactly that turned the corner. I do remember feeling very alone, very hopeless. I was certain I would never be in love, because while all my friends seemed to be dating, I was the nerd, the weirdo. It may also have had something to do with being given the book Time Enough for Love by my Sunday school teacher. Whatever it was, it resulted into a personal manifesto: If no one’s going to love me, I’ll show them – I’ll love everybody!
Impeccable teen logic.
Beginning Studies in Loveology
I tackled it in exactly the same way I’d approached (and, to be fair, still approach) everything else that’s ever attracted my interest, from astronautics to small-businesses: immersion. I got books on love: Buscaglia, Moore, Bach, Aristotle, Hesse. I listened to love songs, not just between people but about life (Howard Jones became my obsession). I watched movies about love, read plays, studied Rilke and cummings and the sonnets. I cried at the end of Tennyson’s tale of Gareth and Lynette.
I changed the way I dressed, picking out ridiculous pastels and bright colors. I joined drama club, swing choir, I joined two jazz bands, madrigals, a barbershop quartet, I . Not satisfied with a basic knowledge of the birds and the bees, I studied advanced ornithology and entymology.
And did I love? Of course I did! I believed that everyone was capable of love. I knew that people were good, at heart, and even if they seemed to not be so good, they were like the Grinch, just waiting for their hearts to grow a size or two. Like many a book-learner I often mistook the map for the territory and ideas that looked great on paper that for some reason didn’t seem to work so well when faced with real live people with real live emotions.
I got hurt. I hurt others. Many of the lessons were learned the hard way. Many came with unexpected blessings, too. I wouldn’t trade my daughters for anything, for example – but I sure wish I’d been able to find an easier way to get them. I suspect my ex-wife does, too. Likewise I will always be proud to be a Marine – but that came at the price of several other dreams and aspirations.
All’s Well That Ends, Except It Doesn’t
While I like to think I’ve learned and improved my skills at love (short answer: it’s all about communication) I had it pointed out to me recently that I seem to have retained a basic optimism in regards to relationships. “You always tend to see and expect the best of people,” was the way it was expressed.
It surprised me. I’ve made a fairly extensive layman’s study of human and societal behavior, and if you asked me to describe human nature in one word, it would probably be ugly. If you gave me another word, I’d probably add fearful.
For me the outcome of all this research is definitely a kind of sadness and also worry that we can be too fast, we humans, we can get too fast into intergroup conflicts, which don’t make any sense to anyone, that we start to harm each other, that we start innocent people to kill each other for something that at the end of the day could have been decided in a much more reasonable way.
Benedikt Herrmann (quoted above from a Freakonomics Podcast), is a sociologist who coined the term homo rivalis to replace the idea of homo economicus. To put it another way, we aren’t so much motivated by what is good for us as the idea that we want to make sure the other guy has less.
It’s just an idea, of course, but it’s a remarkably easy one to accept given events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, or Gaza and the West Bank, or the Ukraine, or Syria, or Boston or any number of other places.
But it’s also why the third word I’d use to describe humanity is adversarial. We like to compete against challenges. When the challenges are natural, we work together to overcome them, and when things get too comfortable, we find something else to compete about. If we’re lucky it’s competitive farming, or who can raise the nicest children, but more often it’s more violent.
Choose Your Lens
That’s ok. That very adversarial nature is what makes some fight against the fear and ugliness to create beauty – through acts of heroism, charity, humor, kindness, which we can find everywhere. Especially in the areas where things are worst, because when it’s darkest it doesn’t take much more than a match to cut through the shadows and illuminate things.
So that’s why I choose to see the best in people. It’s selfish: I know it’s probably not true, but I enjoy my life more by looking at it that way. By choosing love over hate, generosity over scarcity, and optimism over pessimism. It’s not a blindness; rather it’s a deliberate way of seeing. Or, to put it another way:
Of course the game is rigged. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.
–Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love