Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Path of My Own

Recent debates and personal discussions bring home to me how hard it is to try to forge one's own unusual, if not necessarily unique, path.

It's not that I want to be different.

From childhood I yearned to be in a family like the Andersons in TV's Father Knows Best. In my youth I aspired to have a normal name and a normal place of origin, to be, say, Douglas, a Methodist from Lincoln, Nebraska. In my adult life, I tried to work in a regular newspaper, in a regular newsroom where rudeness and stupidity got you ahead. At some point I wanted a station wagon, a house and a dog.

I wondered what it would be like to see Paris for the first time at 25 or 35. To speak one language and only one. To have so fixed a sense of identity that I could not fathom Italian humor or Swedish epithets. What if I had grown up a Republican and inherited a seat at the local Rotary Club? Or married someone who grew up in more or less the same way I did and shared ethnicity and religion?

By now you've guessed -- I am and have been none of these.

There isn't a label for me and I won't try to invent one. To give you an idea, without getting tedious, until 2003 I had spent 25 years in a household without a car or a television: people of whom the same could be said represent less than 1 percent of the American population. And I'm only scratching the surface.

This gets expressed in ideas, beliefs, styles of life. I find myself at odds with the flavors available and I want to make myself a double-dip philosophy in a little sugar cone all my own.

Take the economic ideas of the day. In France they're protesting the first timid step toward dismantling a cradle-to-grave system of labor and social security. The step itself is a no-brainer in the USA: under a new French law young workers can be laid off more easily than experienced, proven workers.

My Menshevik instincts -- which I certanily did not get from my monarchist mother or similarly traditionalist father -- tell me the protesting Europeans are on the right track: give up one benefit and the entire house of social protections comes tumbling down. On the other hand, my American entrepreneurial experience tells me that in the world of work no good deed goes unpunished: employees treated generously cheat you and laugh at you behind your back.

The more I consider the great questions, the less certain I am that the major Answers are right. Socialism and capitalism both have flaws.

The same applies to the God questions.

In March 2002 I finally reached the conclusion that the vast majority of Catholics, among whom I counted myself, did not really believe -- a circumstance in which I included a fellow by the name of Karol Wojtyla, who was then pope, and another named Joseph Ratzinger, elected (was it the distribution of hallucinogens at the conclave of 2005?) to succeed him. Had any of these august men or their fellow bishops, let alone all the Joe and Jane Pews sitting in the churches, really believed in God and really taken the gospels the least bit seriously, they would have been quaking in their boots.

Yet there they were, appearing on television with mealymouthed press releases after U.S. courts forced them to acknowledge they had conspired to cover up the massive rape of children. And here we laypeople were trying to pretend that we didn't notice, after witnessing decades of every kind of equivocation and hypocrisy available. It wasn't just that scandal. Really.

In the accumulation of unthinkable and improbable developments, I decided I'd had enough: I would at least proclaim my unbelief openly. So sue me Papa Ratzinger. The pope is naked.

And yet ... I can't discount the notion that truth is more likely than not absolute. Truth, if it is A, cannot also be X, merely because I like A and my neighbor Emily likes X. (Note: I am right, no? Of course, I am right! Why would I believe she is right? If I did, I'd have to believe what she believes, right?)

Or, rubber hit the road, I do believe that guilt is good. Not the kind of guilt that immobilizes you and keeps you from doing the right or the wrong thing. Just the kind of guilt that makes you say, "Whoa, Nelly! I really screwed someone over here." Guilt when you've done something wrong is like pain when you're sick; it tells you that you need to get involved in some healing. Then after you're healed (and you've healed the one you screwed over), then, sure, get rid of that guilt.

These are Catholic answers right out of the textbook. But I'm an atheist, remember? I even wrote a whole godless ethic (see my blogs here and here).

Then there's the love question (I mean, besides "What do women really want?").

Is love a relationship bound by a set of rules and laws, such as I often feel should be avoided like the plague? (See my blog here.)

If so, why am I not satisfied with the Latin gentleman's lifestyle? You don't know the Latin gentleman? Here's how my father, who was a Latin gentleman, described him:

The Latin gentleman had seven sons.
The first was lawyer,
the second was a thief, too.
The third was a doctor,
and the fourth was a butcher, too.
The fifth was a priest,
and the sixth was a drunk, too.
The seventh, like their father,
was a bachelor.

Ha, ha! Isn't that a knee-slapper? No. It isn't. A priapic man devoted to fooling women is merely a waste, not to mention a scoundrel to his seven sons.

So here's the thing: I would rather find a path that's neither socialist nor capitalist, that's neither Catholic nor atheist, that's neither priapic nor hidebound. A path of my own.
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