The older I get, the more respect I have for following traditions and being involved with institutions. I think I was still in my twenties when I realized that you can’t be a rebel in our society, anymore, without being a totally depraved criminal. Of course, it took me several more years to understand that my pose of the rebel was a convenient mask to hide my fear of social situations–ones that I gradually became better at negotiating the more I was able to face my fears and be willing to be laughed at for being awkward.
I don’t think that it is healthy to be so caught up in traditions and institutions that you are incapable of seeing the larger world around you, but if you approach them with a healthy skepticism, touch of irony, and ability to keep your own self together in the face of so many people trying to change you and shape you (which is going to happen anyway, whether you participate in traditions and institutions or not), then you can benefit from them in ways that will see you not having to completely start life over again repeatedly.
To be sure, there are a few who become successful in our society as rebels. They wake up one day to find that they are incredibly wealthy or famous (or they die and this comes later) for having stayed true to their art, their peculiar selves, their own unique ways of being. Unfortunately, most of us are not built that way, no matter how much we hope to be or try to be. I can’t tell you how many people I met in Austin during my first years there who were utterly normal and boring underneath their tattoos and punk rock music. They most definitely were never destined to be anything other than clerks, office assistants, waiters–nominal jobs that might have been jobs like managers, accountants, owners, leaders if these folks had just come to terms with their normalcy.
I never got a tattoo for some reason, but I certainly wore a pose of being the weirdo for too long. I started experimenting with this posture when I turned 13, and started the eight grade, terrified that it was going to be a repeat of the seventh grade where I was relentlessly teased for being shy and covered in acne and large glasses. Newly armed with contacts and a prescription from a dermatologist, I hoped that I too could make a place for myself among the cool kids.
Who are these cool kids, anyway?
Inevitably, they end up being losers, plain and simple. The coolest of the cool in our society die young, full of drugs and depression, and unable to even witness how they’ve been turned into icons. Dying young and full of drugs starts to seem like a complete waste of time by the time you are pushing 30. Others who manage to become cool through other channels and remain so into their middle or old age are among the very few. For every Steve Jobs, there are a million geeks who quietly code away, hoping to be part of the next big thing. For every Jim Morrison (as in the ones who die young and full of drugs), there are millions of rich and middle class kids who survive their rock n’ roll years to go on and become just as boring as their parents, living in the suburbs with kids and a mortgage, but maybe blogging about it instead of just living through it.
Starting a family in your late thirties, early forties is rough business. I am blessed to be of pretty good health and sound mind, with some access to a little savings and little debt to get my second career launched. I am basically doing at 40 what I should have been doing at 25. The retirement age will continue to be pushed up, and so it won’t seem quite as unusual for me to be working at 70, but I’m sure I will be pushing the limits of what people expect out of me if I carry forth my calling until I am 75 (though I certainly intend to try).
My mom had begged for years for me to get to church to meet a nice church girl. And, eventually, I did. I was terrified that church would change me into some kind of stuffed-shirt preppy with no personality whatsoever, but really, I don’t think I had that much of a personality to begin with. I had an affected persona of sorts–a suit I’d tried on and kept on for too long. Church did change me.
What I finally realized was that everything and everyone changes you. You change yourself. You might fight to remain the same person you were at 16, but what you are fighting to keep the same is the core self you discovered very early in adolescence that changes very little, if at all. The You that moves through this life is constantly being shaped and molded by this life. Some of what that change brings about must percolate down to the core Self, but most of it doesn’t, thankfully.
Perhaps it is with some irony that some of those kids from the 60s to today who sought to destroy all of the institutions — burn it to the ground — are now ones who seek comfort in that which is familiar from the days of their youth. The music isn’t the same, the television, the cinema–all different, and mostly for the worse. Beware of those who want to wreck the institutions–very few come with the good intentions of scrubbing away the foul aspects of institutions–most are born nihilists or would-be little gods who really just want to see the institutions of themselves erected in place of whatever they think is preventing them from being able to do whatever they want.
Institutions do need scrubbing and attention. They aren’t perfect. The constitution tacitly permitted slavery. The Catholic church created a system for pedophilia. The banks created a nigh economic meltdown. The institutions we erect in the place of the old ones aren’t much better, though. The French kept wiping away their previous governments until everyone’s head was knocked off. The institution of Hollywood, by many accounts, has created an environment that is permissive of pedophilia as much as the Catholic church. The same goes for college football and rape (or pedophilia in at least one case). The global economy looks the other way while slavery and trafficking still take place. Without those who would stand up and police the institutions, monitor them and correct them when they become corrupt.
But the notion of tearing or burning down what works and starting over again with something completely different comes only from the minds of the young and inexperienced. They think they know better, but they inevitably either start to run back to the institutions they scorned, or create new ones that they just as zealously strive to keep in the face of younger generations wanting to do something new as well.
Even our founding fathers worked off of existing frameworks and “best practices” for setting up a government that would behave as rationally and fairly as possible. People who would treat the constitution as a static document are just as misguided as people who want an entire new system of government–socialist, world order, etc. The founding fathers, were they here today, would resent the tyranny of any number of interest groups, military contractors, partisan bullies, etc. who have sprung up to become would-be monarchs in place of the tyranny they were hoping to eradicate. Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to hide behind the constitution and do what you please as it is to hide behind God and the flag.
But, I guess when I started to write this piece, I wasn’t thinking so much about the big monolithic institutions that get bandied about by some as utterly corrupt and others as sacrosanct. I was thinking about the membership of a local, mainline Protestant church or the alumni association for the alma mater, reading the classics and appreciating the old masters. I was thinking about summer vacations with kids to Florida. Books checked out from the public library. Traditions that are always open for skeptical inquiry, but ones that also provide some value to the user that the user doesn’t obtain without them. Traditions I used to scorn, think were no longer relEt, or consider myself above them.
On some more abstract, metaphysical level, I began to see a darkness coming over me and the people around me. The zeal to snuff out another institution completely, do a completely new thing brought with it a kind of darkness that needed an enormous amount of light to justify the light being put out. The light within me wasn’t strong enough for me to continue to try to plunge through the darkness alone, keeping things lit sheerly on my own will power. I needed other lights to help fill the spreading darkness. I may not always agree with those other lights, or see them as being perfect (who is?), but the alternative of having the darkness utterly wash over my little candle afloat in the ocean was too unbearable. Do I think that humankind will eventually relight that which it sought so eagerly to snuff out after WWII? I can’t say. The argument that none of it must have been good if it didn’t stop Hitler from being Hitler is absurd. There were plenty of lights lit by those living even in the so-called dark ages–lights of a warm, heart-centered rationality, not the cold, quickly confused rationality of the skeptic who would be an automaton. And, there are plenty of people of this generation who are making more darkness than they even realize.
I would also argue that what I am talking about isn’t respected by so-called conservatives any more than it is liberals. Conservatives, especially Egelical Christians, have been so eager to impress the young with their willingness to play rock n’ roll, get tattoos, ride motorcycles, etc. But, the problem isn’t necessarily one where kids inherently desire more and more novel things. The problem now is one where two many generations have passed who see classical art, literature and music as being too fusty and having nothing to say to them. In short, the problem is one of attitude. The only people who appreciate classical stuff seem to be ones whose very attitude is snooty and contemptuous, elitist and detached from the rest of us. In truth, there is no reason why a NASCAR or rock n’ roll attitude can’t be brought to a museum or classical performance (within reason, of course)–I’m not talking about hooting and hollering and getting drunk, but appreciating something old with the same excitement, zeal and unbound joy you appreciate noisy, busy, chaotic things that are “fresh”. Of course, many things that are now deemed classical were appreciated in such a manner by so-called lowbrow audiences of their time. So much of classical art and sculpture could be re-printed cheaply (but still retain a solid, “uncheap” look) and put in pop-up museums all over the country. But, I don’t think that is precisely a solution to the overarching problem. The best we may be able to do is preserve as much stuff as possible and have it waiting for a more grown-up generation who will inherit it and appreciate it.