There is that wistful nostalgia that always seems to hit me hardest on a Sunday. I know that there is really nothing productive about rehashing the past unless you can write like Proust, but these waves of “what once was and what might have been” sometimes wash over me so intensely that I feel like they deserve some analysis outside of my head.
Then there is the reality of who I really am when I stop imagining how great I only think I am. The person I would become, were I to have the chance to relive part of my life with my present memories of things to avoid, is probably not nearly as great a person as I might imagine him to be.
It’s really a terrible thing to say, but I suppose I can’t deny it–perhaps I won’t publish any such thoughts while I am a live, though–that all of the friends I made and hung out with in college were the wrong kinds of friends. If I were to be dropped into my 18-year-old self on the first day of arriving in Columbia, I would spend little or no time hanging out with those people. I’ve known this for years. I knew this in 2005 when I went back to Columbia and hung out with a few of them and pretended to still be the person they knew me to be when I was in college.
I used to blame my falseness and unwillingness to discover and deal with my true self on my older brothers. It’s true that I had a long tail of wanting to emulate R and R, and be the kind of person I thought they might have been in any given social situation I found myself in during middle school, high school and college. Except, I eventually came to realize that my character flaws that prevented me from growing as a social and emotional human being were all entirely my own. It did no good to blame my shortcomings on my parents or my brothers, because none of them would have wanted me to end up the mess that I was by the time I got my DWI twenty years ago.
I also have stopped blaming the Devil or a demon or the demonic for my past issues. Surely, there was something evil about some of the things I thought and wrote and did, but no demon ever got inside of me unless I let him. Indeed, some of the earliest sex sickness and will to cruelty toward H came from me allowing the demonic to make a home inside of me. Was my tendency toward irreverence and irreligiosity partly due to wanting to emulate my older brothers? Sure. Was my expression of it in accord with the way they ever acted or would have acted? No. I was my own little demon, being a turd and being plain mean to others. Even after I was severely bullied on the bus in middle school and in the locker room in high school, I still maintained a will to be someone who mocked others and took pleasure in doing evil, rebellious things to gain approval from the darker, cooler kids in the class or dorm.
What was at the heart of all of this, except fear? Surely, fear in its most vivid and intractable forms is an evil. Fear first found me when we moved to Missouri, and I discovered that I really liked a girl in my class, and suspected she might like me as well, but I was afraid to do anything about it. Of course, that in and of itself is something every single individual on earth experiences at some time. But, what I chose to do with that fear was what turned me into a completely miserable little pain in the ass.
I had a deep love for H, but didn’t want to express it out of fear of seeming less than cool or macho. I teased H at first as much as R teased me and as much as any older brother teases a younger one, but soon found myself unable to stop telling H how dumb he was, no matter how much my Mom yelled at me about it.
So many of my unsavory behavior came as the result of internal thought loops getting out of hand and getting the better of me. I was blinded by my overactive imagination and obsessive nature. I refused to go to school dances in middle school out of an intense fear of being teased or rejected, but imagined myself one day becoming the most popular guy in the class every single night in endlessly intricate fantasies that were not grounded on the least bit of reality.
This is all to say that my life problems are all pretty much my own to fix because they were problems I created for myself. Of course, I still live with the fallout from these issues, even as I seek to rid myself of them and start over again, small, humble and as brand new as possible.
I woke up last Saturday with a vivid memory of the first version of my Ecn.com blog I created when I was 26-28. You might think that by this age I would have had some grasp on who I was as a man, and not live in an unrealistic, pretend world, but you must remember that my social development has been slow and greatly retarded. I suspect that much of what I created and put on that website was no more or less mature than what a 12-13 year old would create. I knew that I was behind my peers socially, but I underestimated just how behind I was.
Now, at 40, I am probably every bit as mature as a well-adjusted 26-27 year old.
Thinking about the memories I really want to take with me from my college years or my early Austin years–I always hit upon the times I got involved with doing something on my own that none of my friends or girlfriends wanted to do. Was this because I wasn’t making the right friends, or because I really do prefer to be alone? I think there is a bit of both, though I must say that I do not crave solitude as much as people might think. The happy times, though, were by and large spent by myself or with my dog out in nature. The only really great memory that my friend K accompanies me with is the trip to NYC–and most of the happy memories from this trip are ones where we pretty much got out of each other’s way to experience the city as individuals. He wanted to pretend like he was some kind of hardened punk New Yorker, and I wanted to pretend like I was some kind of artsy, fancy man about town. I cared more about the experience of the art museums and the city streets than a shared experience with K. I think this remained pretty much the same for anyone I was with until I met A. I wanted to experience Mexico, Rome, Sf, Charleston, etc. with her–the memories there are shared, cherished ones that don’t live apart from her.
But, the day that I walked into CPC Austin and met A really was a turning point for me. It was the day I put a stake in the ground and decided to stop doing things only if I was sure I could please someone I told later about what I did. It wasn’t cool with really anyone I knew that I was going back to church, it was merely something I had felt like I needed to do for years, but was unwilling to admit to myself for a long time.
It wasn’t the first time I had gone off and done something on my own without first seeking approval or a friend to do it with, but it was the first thing I had done where I didn’t feel like I needed to please someone in the telling of it after the fact. Even my bicycling and jogging and swimming while still in college were things that I imagined myself telling someone later about to get their approval. Of course, my friend K made fun of me for doing any physical activity whatsoever.
K had a copy of the portable Nietzsche. Other than that and a handful of books about pop culture, he had no books and didn’t talk about reading books. He would often posture as some kind of intellectual, but he seemed almost proud of the fact that he read nothing at all except his portable Nietzsche. He was more content to absorb whatever passed for culture in the form of independent film and music. He would often scoff at my books about Buddhism or whatever I was reading for class–or if I needed to stay sober on the rare night I actually studied. For being someone who wanted to be perceived as being so intelligent and a cut above most average schmucks, there was definitely a streak of the populist and anti-intellectual in him as well. K later would post conspiracy theory articles from websites that I had found interesting briefly, but had long since dismissed. A few years ago, he sent me this long (for him), rambling document about how he was proud to be a misogynist, and wanted to get my opinion on it. The writing seemed to me to be at such a high school reading level, including the sentence structure, vocabulary and critical thinking and reasoning ability–it sounded every bit like someone who simply never read books but thought he had very important ideas to share with the world.
Most of his posts on Facebook seem to indicate that he hasn’t matured much socially, emotionally or intellectually in the past 20 years. It makes me sad to think that he and a few other fellows are the only people from college I am still somewhat connected to–all of my friends from McDonald’s and classes are people whose last names I can’t remember, even though I have more memories of growing as a person when interacting with them, and would probably have more to say to them today than K or the other dorm gang.
What made me click so easily with the dorm gang? I definitely shared with K and the others a persistent will not to grow up. For a long time I saw any and all evidence of growing up as simply giving in to society and losing one’s brain–becoming a complete herd animal. I didn’t read Catcher in the Rye until years later, but we were all no doubt aspiring Holden Caulfields–any growing up and participating in “normal” collegiate activities was a sign of selling out and becoming inauthentic. Of course, it took me a lot of years of trial and error to see that one can be a grown up without being a tool and a sell out, and one can even appear in many regards to sell out–by buying more conventional clothing and appreciating less independent and unheard of music and film–and still be someone who very much remains apart from most of what constitutes this society. You can be this way intentionally and happily, and you can also be this way simply because you are so far behind everyone else in your social development skillset that you aren’t nearly as integrated and adjusted as you superficially appear to be.
Perhaps, though, I miss the mark on the issue when I place too much importance on staying lockstep with the bell curve of the socially adjusted in your peer group. I also miss the mark if I reserve the rest of “being a grown up” to maturity of spirit and intelligence vs. social and emotional maturity. For, I can also look back over many times in which I felt like the primary popular group of kids or coworkers were saying and doing things that were utterly childlike to me. In my attempts to “come down to their level” I would keep going straight to the bottom, and clearly be perceived in their eyes as too immature.
Also, I can read the writings of individuals who were producing exceptionally sophisticated and cogent bodies of work in their late teens and early twenties and see that they, in their select time and place of privilege, were more mature in some ways than anyone in our present day society–affluent and highly educated people included.
This probably requires some deeper parsing. Being affluent in the 1800s probably didn’t guarantee you a suberb education, but having one in your early years almost certainly indicated you were of a privileged class. Being highly educated today–possessing a PhD in Physics, for example, doesn’t mean you have to be extremely mature in other areas of though, even if you think you know everything. The kids on the show Big Bang Theory are probably extreme and unreal examples, but there is some truth to the fact that a person can highly specialize in one subject matter without ever opening a single book in another–becoming almost infantile in their passion for sports, comics, video games, etc.
So, to be a truly mature person requires much more than any educational or social outlet in our present society can offer you. I have met people who at least present themselves as incredibly mature spiritual people, but they seem almost brainwashed in their adherence to some New Agey trend.
One certainly gains much by investing time with social groups in ones community and peers. This is probably my biggest regret for what I didn’t do in high school or college. The risk, of course, is that you end up so carefully toeing the line with the group, and you are so completely immersed in what the group dictates you wear, do and say, that you lose any ability to develop and explore your own sense of personal growth apart from the group. However, an inordinate fear of the risk, which is what I had many times or at least used as an excuse for not participating more, is probably not healthy, either.
The other fear of growing up is becoming old too quickly. There is definitely a pitfall to affecting too much maturity and wisdom–you probably start exhibiting mannerisms that are much more senior (ie, aged ones that aren’t necessarily attractive from a wisdom perspective), and perhaps you even speed up some of the processes of aging inside yourself. The concept of the truly wise old man vs. the old man who just aged is often repeated and well understood, I think.
So, how do I really get to the good part of being a grown-up without falling into all of the negative traps? By grown-up, I mean, of course, my own specialized conception of the word, and not entirely the common conceptions that arise when someone admonishes you to act like a grown-up.
The first thing that comes to mind is accepting duty and responsibility, and not trying to evade it. Even so-called grown-ups can become quite artful and clever at evading responsibility under the guise of a myriad of excuses about being too busy and working hard at something else. Clearly seeing when something simply needs to get done and doing it–that is a start. All of the things you hate to do and thought that you wouldn’t have to do once you became a grown-up like chores and demands of kids or others in your social circle–they can be approached with a simple, matter-of-fact manner. The idea of doing all of the hard things cheerfully and joyfully may be a lovely one for some who will become truly Saints, but it is impossible to get to if you are still secretly feeling reluctant to even begin doing the hard things.
The next thing that comes to mind is seeing a clear and true path for how you will move forward with your life. This may include your family and others who are impacted by your decisions. Daydreaming and fantasizing about doing really great things will always remain just that, until you start to implement practical, everyday steps to get something done. The true path is probably much more mundane and less glamorous than anything you envisioned when you were still unrealistically immature. It could be that nobody in your life will get excited about it. Maybe you won’t get that excited about it, either, but if it is a realistic path with steps you can take with the same mentality of the above paragraph–just doing them because you know that you have to–then you will at least get a few things done before you die.
The mindset of simply digging in and doing–and not stopping even when that childlike voice insists that you quit after 30 minutes or so–that is the mindset to cultivate. The mindset of doing amazing things like Gandhi or MLK is perhaps okay to have in small doses, but you can’t sustain a day of doing what for you is an excessive amount of activities until you build up to it (and then it is no longer excessive).
Remember all of the times you made intricate and detailed schedules for how you would live your life each waking hour–you jam-packed these schedules with all kinds of physical exercise, reading, writing, chores, etc., and discovered that you really couldn’t live that way for more than a few days. If you have been mostly embracing a mindset of letting life kind of lead you where it will, then you don’t have full, sturdy grown-up legs of taking charge every single minute yet.
The mindset of digging in and doing comes of its own accord during our workaday when we are beset with do-or-die scenarios. Either, get busy and just do work, or get fired. But, when we come home and sit at our leisure, we insist on never cultivating this mindset for things that we want to do. It feels alien and forced to impose the mindset that enabled you to crank out some menial task in your day job upon something you really enjoy doing like learning to play the piano or write poetry.
And so, you dabble and nibble at the things you love to do, because you are rarely seized with some great inspiration or state of motivation–and it never sustains itself when it does come about. Yes, you end up getting somewhere, but you aren’t getting very far.
If something feels foreign and weird, it may just be because you aren’t used to it.