Friday, September 28, 2012

Relevance in Irrelevance

When I was younger, one of things that nagged constantly at my soul, assuming I have one, was that I just never could seem to fit in with anything or anyone. I tried, but it seemed my destiny to be the perpetual outcast. Even within my immediate family it often seemed like it was three to one (In all fairness, this was more perception than anything. But my sister wasn't an obnoxiously rebellious youth and I was, so there were some very real differences between how I related to the family and how they related to each other). In elementary school I would either be a leader or a loner. In middle school, where social hierarchies were suddenly structured around physical strength and bravado and book smarts were no longer relevant, I was immediately thrown to the bottom of the social ladder. From that point on my life was a constant struggle for acceptance, an acceptance that I would never find.

The human being is designed to live in a group, just like our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. My yearning for a group that shares my values, desires, even appearance, is not a weakness. It is an instinct. And, like most instincts, human societies have found one way or another to villainize it, turning it into a scapegoat in place of the Devil we just can't seem to find (Hint: you haven't found the Devil because he's inside you).

Since the invention of spoken language, religions have oft been the greatest of evolutionary tools for social cohesion. They kept primitive groups of humans together as they competed for resources with other groups. The groups with the strongest socio-political-religious cohesion were the ones that survived, thus giving us a world today wherein religion is still a driving force behind so much of how we go about things. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good and inevitable thing. Religions provided a structured morality that helped us get through disasters, diseases, and wars left and right. However, as with all things human, it has been very easy for us to take a good tool and turn it into a horrific weapon. Other groups became not just competitors for resources, but enemies of one's local god. Sexual codes became cartoonishly exaggerated and oppressive by most religious groups across the span of history. All had the same purpose: keep the group together and hold everyone in it to the same standard. These are the things that quite effectively helped us survive and to a fair degree still help us survive today.

Recently, however, there has been a turn in developed societies. We don't need or use religion exactly the same way that we used to. Even the Dalai Lama, the head of a worldwide religious hierarchy, has stated on numerous occasions that his primary goal is not to promote Buddhism, but to promote humanist values. Yet he remains a staunch Buddhist. I think that this speaks volumes. We can all keep our respective beliefs and create value systems and governmental codes that enable us to live according to shared standards of ethics and morality without abandoning our beliefs about the gods, or forcing our gods down each others' throats. Yes, it is possible. (There's this one country that's actually done pretty well in this arena. You may have heard of it, it's called the United States of America).

However, the Western abandonment of religion as one of our main social binders has been both a blessing and a curse. It's been a blessing because of the unprecedented amount of inter-religious and intra-religious peace we see before us on a daily basis (oh sure, some whack jobs in the OC tried to stop a mosque from getting built, but no one bombed the Islamic Center of Orange County over it. Take a look at Egypt and we'll have to tell and very different and much sadder story). We've found a way to potentially live within this tension, a tension that is quite inevitable to the human condition. And never before has it been abided so well.

The Enlightenment brought us a new kind of humanism, a way of viewing the person as precious regardless of which god may or may not have created it. Unfortunately, alongside this philosophy came the radicalization of the individual. It became each man and woman for themselves. To this day post-Enlightenment philosophies are touted by individualists who've felt shackled by the social standards into which they were raised or thrust into as youths. For the modern West, it is inarguable that many universal religious codes become absurd upon second glance because they don't answer the question of just how exactly the gods deal with the complexities of the human experience. Is there no specificity to these supposedly omnipotent and omniscient beings? Questions like these challenge the absolute claims of religious doctrine. So many people abandon the group, encouraged by intellectuals or New Age spiritualists who greatly exaggerate the worth of their intelligence and individuality to think for themselves. (Does anyone really think for themselves? I wonder).

Strangely, even with the abandonment of archaic moral codes, the instincts that come so naturally to us all are still under attack, except now it's from a different front. One example I used earlier to represent some of the problems with religious absolutes is the type of religious code governing our sex lives. Sex is an instinct. Not only that, but apart from the instinct to eat, it's basically the most important one. Within the new paradigm (if it's new, that is) a different kind of instinct is being portrayed as a great evil: the instinct to congregate. Philosophers complain and lament the human sheep, the masses, seemingly oblivious to the fact that human beings have always lived and thrived in groups since before we started walking upright. The group survives, the individual dies. That's Nature.

But there's no such thing as an individual, really. Everyone exists only in relation to everyone else. And the ones who rebel against one group are merely, and probably unwittingly, conforming to another group. You see it all the time. Kids (like myself 15 years ago or so) become disgusted with the "norm" (which is an illusion of course, but we didn't know that at the time), so we start dressing differently and acting differently, fully confident in the fact that we are rebelling. But we're not rebelling, we're just joining a different rank and file of sheep. It didn't take me very long among the goth subculture to notice that it was just like every other subculture - it had standards, it had codes, it had expectations, and you were shunned if you didn't live up them. So much for nonconformity. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. It is simply reality. And the irony of ironies is that people like me who seemingly fit nowhere are merely just another necessary part of the equation. If the world were a giant statistic I would be the outlier, and that's as necessary a component to the greater whole as any other. This may sound like I'm trying to make myself out to be truly unique, like I actually am the individual the post-Enlightenment nimrods want us all to be. Quite the contrary. I'm just one of many more like me. History is replete with us, and we all say the same damn asinine thing, "Why am I so alone?" A more appropriate question would be the ironical, "Why are we so alone?" People like me are incredibly adept at convincing ourselves that we are alone, however preposterous the notion.

Can anyone ever truly be a nonconformist? Over the years, my closest friends and I formed a very cohesive group. We didn't dress the same, we didn't do the same things, we didn't even share the same passions necessarily. But we had one very important thing in common- we loved each other (and still do). And of course we hold our group to a standard and code. That standard and code is, "Don't try to force your standards or codes on me." If someone else were to come into our group who insisted on a certain way and was not open to the constant rotation of doing things one way and then another depending on whose house we're at, then that person who be shunned or would more likely want nothing to do with us. So in a sense, I did indeed find my group.

So what am I complaining about, you ask? Why then is there still this existential nagging for conformity? Why do I lament that there is a distinct absence of the monochromatic in my life? Well, my standard answer is that I've never been in love nor ever felt loved by a woman, so there is a rather poignant lack of intimacy and experience in my life, and that could definitely have led me to seek strong interpersonal connections elsewhere. (And God only knows how being in love or in a healthy relationship with a woman would or would not change my other social yearnings). I make no secret of the fact that part of why I'm so obsessed with my Russian heritage is that it's one of the only things that makes me feel grounded and linked-in with a group of people, intellectually, emotionally, genetically, physically, even spiritually. The first time I read Dostoyevsky's "Notes From The Underground," I was reading my own thoughts. When I listen to Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, I can hear my sorrow, my joy, my moments of calm, my moments of manic passion, and all frantically swinging back and forth from one to the other. In Russian culture I see something that reflects my self that I've never found in a church, or a subculture, or a theatre company, or even in my group of best friends. (And lest I should seem ungrateful - I've never loved anyone like I love those friends, and I truly owe my life to them. Nothing can be compared to what they've been to me and what they've been for me. I only mean to say that they cannot placate every woe in my heart, and nor is it their job to).

"Isn't that sad?" you may be thinking to yourself. "Shouldn't the love he experiences with his friends be enough to give him a true sense of community?" Well, maybe you're right. Perhaps I'm just damaged beyond repair and my studies in religion, philosophy, evolution, and anthropology have simply given me excuses to intellectually justify my brokenness.

From the time I was a child even, I never really felt quite human. My struggle to find some kind of a socio-cultural group to connect to has been a struggle to find my own humanity. Those people who try so hard to be enigmas confound me because I've tried so hard my whole life not to be one. Radical philosophical individualism is just irksome to me. It celebrates the individual in such a way as to inevitably, though perhaps unintentionally, promote isolationism, which is absurd and inhuman. No one is an island, so the saying goes. The fact that we are all individuals is blatantly obvious, no one need elaborate on it. If I cut my finger, no one else is likely going to feel it. If I have a thought that I don't vocalize, no one else is likely going to hear it. I am an individual and no one has ever been or ever will be exactly like me in every way. And yet I'm still just one face of the millions that came before me. Even the seemingly lone voices crying for sanity amongst the charging masses of polarized idiots are not really unique. Every war has its neutral parties. That's just my lot. And sometimes I mistake my place as an outlier for being irrelevant to the greater whole, because most people who can relate to more easily identifiable groups can quickly dismiss me. But that's exactly what makes me part of the cosmic play. By not fitting in, I fit in. By feeling inhuman, I experience humanity. By my very irrelevance, I am relevant.

In the end though, I know that this search for conformity is not going to be fulfilled, and I wouldn't really want it to be. That's the beautiful paradox. By my very nature I despise conformity as a rule. So the real key to my psychological well-being is to simply accept and even appreciate the tension as proof that I am indeed human, and never for a second fail to appreciate the people in my life who are crazy enough to love me. As for the rest of humankind, you work it out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Little Boy With The Glass Heart

I would wax poetic and say that there's a little boy running around inside me waiting to burst free, but even as a metaphor that sounds a little awkward and fairly disturbing. However, the image itself does fairly accurately portray my regular state of being. My inner child doesn't have as many chances as he'd like to get out these days, and I'm trying to make sure he gets his fair share of attention, lest he should grow up (few things on this earth terrify me more than the idea of my inner child growing up). The trouble with having an inner child with so much innocence and excitement ready to explode at any given moment and take over my entire being is that, well, sometimes at any given moment he explodes and takes over my entire being.

The thing I've realized as I grow older is that, rather ironically, I'm looking for a playmate. You can build a sandcastle by yourself over and over again and it can be satisfying, it can be fun, it can be just dandy, but the waves will always come and wash it away. A playmate doesn't stop the waves, but a playmate helps you rebuild your castle quicker. And, if you're really lucky, the playmate will help you make the most of the ocean's phlegmatic destruction of your castle and start obnoxiously splashing water in your face till an imaginary and epic beach battle of Normandy-esque proportions breaks out!! (I apologize if any of you needed a dictionary for that last sentence. But I just learned myself that "phlegmatic" is a word and was dying for an excuse to use it. Having said that though, I'm still not going to define it for you).

This is not meant to discount the important values we learn as adults regarding our relationships with one another. We have to make sacrifices to keep people in our lives, we have to be responsible, we have to show up, we have to be strong when we may not feel so strong, and we have, above all, to be loyal. I'm not speaking about marriage, family, and eternity per se, but I am speaking of love. Love isn't always strong enough to make those things last. Sometimes it fades, sometimes it changes shape, sometimes it grows. It's a fickle thing, love is.

I've been officiating weddings for awhile now, and when I was writing the sermon to one of the more recent weddings, a profound and disturbing thought occurred to me: I'm a fraud. A complete and total phony. I've never been in love. So what right have I to get up there and talk about love? Who the hell does this clown think he is, anyway? Thing is, and please forgive me my vanity here, I'm really good at writing it. People have come up to me after each of the ceremonies and complimented me on how I took the unique personalities of the couple and blended them into a succinct sermon on the virtues of love and loyalty (and when they're religious ceremonies, how I also blended in relevant scriptures and beliefs without sounding preachy or boring). More often than not I'm complimented merely on the fact that I delivered a sincere wedding ceremony which took everything very seriously whilst managing to make them laugh at the same time. (Thank God none of them knew at the time that I don't have a clue what I'm talking about, eh?) 

My ceremonies and sermons come from pure faith. Faith that love is real. In the same way that I don't actually know that God exists, I certainly cannot say that I know love exists. I've just never had the privilege to experience it. (I've had relationships, but in the end I think people who've been in love know damn well that they've been in love. Those of us left questioning it - probably not). After officiating a few weddings though, I would've been been made a believer even if I hadn't been before (and I had been before. I can't deny that I'm a sickeningly bleeding-heart romantic to my core). At the second wedding I officiated I saw a look in a man's eye the like of which I'd never seen before in anyone's eye. Call it what you want, but at that moment I saw love, I saw life, I saw beauty, I saw purity, I saw God. But the most beautiful thing about it was that I saw God in the eyes of an atheist. Everything on his face told me that every ounce of him belonged to the woman standing before him. And I believed in him. And I believed in them. And I believed in love.

Doesn't say much for me, however. I can believe in love with extreme conviction, but that doesn't mean I believe it will come to me (Now, now, don't roll your eyes, I only mean that I prefer to make no assumptions as to whether it will or not). When I talk of a playmate I mean that both literally and figuratively. I like to climb trees, I like to walk silly, I like to make weird sounds, I like to hop up onto benches instead of walking on sidewalks. I do things adults are not supposed to do, and I need people in my life that are okay with that. But for a lover, she'd need to be more than okay with that. I'm not saying I expect her to jump into the trees with me, but I would at least like to look back on a smile when I do something excessively silly for no reason other than to amuse myself. But if I should want to dance in the street, or sing a silly song, or start reciting Shakespeare in the middle of Union Station, now that's where I'd like a little participation. It's not like I do these things at weddings or funerals, but walking down the street I'd like to think that deep down I have a little more abandon than your average and exceedingly boring "grown-up." I shudder at the thought. 

There is, of course, the rare occasion that I meet a woman who makes that little boy in me leap right out of my throat, punch the adult me in the face, and tell him to go sit in the corner. Sometimes I meet women like this who seem like they might just appreciate that little boy. Sometimes they start goofing off with him and he can barely contain his excitement. The trouble is, the real trouble is, that this boy has a glass heart. His heart is clear and absorbs the colors around it. Whatever is in his heart can be readily seen by anyone. And, worst of all, this heart breaks easily. So he'll hear the call of some silly woman who sounds like she just might want to play, he'll leap out, run full force, and then SMASH! Sorry kid, wrong playground.

I've tried to teach him to walk before he runs. But that's been an uphill battle. Overall I've never been a fella to let his passions run free. In part I have anxiety and timidity to thank for that one. But even so, because I am in fact an extremely passionate person, I have to hold back a lot of emotion, namely a lot of sadness and a hefty surplus of anger, a good amount of the time simply so that I don't make anyone around me experience the unpleasantness. So when my more positive and potentially productive passions do get sparked and that fire in me starts to burn, it is extraordinarily difficult to control it. I meet a woman who lights that fire and I just want to immediately share everything with her, from the philosophical thoughts in my head to the horrible puns I enjoy, the ridiculous gifts I like to hand make to the wining and dining including of course a ballet or symphony. (Ya know, stupid shit like that, bro). This has always caused me problems because that excitement is often quite unattractive to the fairer sex, and then the boy gets his heart cracked if not shattered. Conversely there have been a handful of occasions where my passions were sparked by the wrong person and by the time I realized it, I had someone who was very attached to me. And, God help me, If there's anything I hate more than getting my own feelings hurt, it's hurting someone else's feelings.

I try very hard to learn, but how do you teach your emotions anything? Emotions react how they're going to react to any given stimulus and there's just nothing you can do about it. It is your subsequent actions that you may be lucky enough to have some measure of control over. As for myself, because I'm prone to depression, it's never an easy thing to have those giddy boyish feelings sparked only to have to immediately pull the reins and hold them back. Children don't know patience. How many of us stayed up late into the night anticipating what we were going to get on Christmas morning? The adult in me usually knows when a situation is plausible and when it's not, when it's appropriate to act and when it's not, and if I'm thinking especially clearly, whether a female in question is actually a potential match or if she's simply another lovely person with a good sense of humor who sees me as just that and nothing more. Well, it's never an easy guessing game with them lady folk. Especially when you've got this pesky boy in you screaming, "Oooh! Ooh! Someone to play with!" right alongside a horny teenager shouting, "Finally, someone to get naked with it!" not to mention the adult saying, "I'll bet she'd make the hard days easier," and at last the grumpy old man sighing, "She'll still be beautiful when we're tired and gray."

Ah well. Good thing about having a glass heart is that if you know how to blow glass you can repair it fairly easily. But that doesn't make the cracks any easier or the breaks any smoother. And in case you're wondering to yourself why I wrote this, no I've not fallen for anyone, and no I've not been dating anyone. But I have met a few women fairly recently who have to a degree made that little boy in me jump like an idiot. Unfortunately the adult in me has had to hold him back, killjoy that he is, for now. Of course, by posting this I'm circumventing my own better judgment, because hey, somebody could see this who shouldn't. Not to mention the fact that bleeding hearts don't tend to attract strong intelligent women (the kind what make this heart bleed a little more profusely). But hey, one of the reasons I write this blog is for the very sake of confessing the intimacies of my idiocy. Remember, I am an idiot, after all. And right now, thanks to the fairer sex and my ridiculous reactions to them, this idiot is indeed full of sound and fury.