I Get by with a Little Help From …

::Thursday, August 8, 2002::

:: I Get by with a Little Help from … ::

As a Romantic, and an introvert, I would like to believe that, as McLeish says in “Speech to a Crowd,” I can simply “tell myself that the earth is mine for the taking,” that I can reinvent myself to adapt to the world of constant change that threatens to alienate me from myself and from others, making life meaningless.

Unfortunately, judging from past experience, I’m not sure that’s true. I suspect that as Jeff Ward suggests much of what we learn we learn through dialogue with others, whether those others are real people that we know and deal with or “virtual” others, authors who we can only dialogue with through reading and internal discussion.

On the other hand, I’m also unsure how much we can learn from others. I guess I’ve always subscribed to the idea that authors really can only help us to clarify our own ideas rather than converting us to totally new ideas. I’ve long suspected that it’s dramatic events in life that force us to change our views of the world, not literature per se, though literature may give us new insights if we’re ready for change. Sometimes, perhaps, we don’t even realize how our values have changed until we read an author who can articulate what we’ve been feeling.

Maybe I’m the exception rather than the rule, but I suspect that I didn’t change very much from five years of age to twenty-two of age. Although the grades I earned in high school and college show I gained a greater knowledge of the world, my basic personality and view of the world stayed the same throughout this time period. In other words, knowledge by itself didn’t change either me or my views in any significant ways.

What did change me dramatically was my two years in the Army and not just the six months I spent in Vietnam, although that did have the most dramatic effect upon my views. My introduction to the South and the racism and poverty that existed there in the 60’s shocked me to a new awareness. The following six months in Vietnam where I realized how fragile life truly is and how men could change from loving, family providers to killers in a matter of days certainly had the most profound effect upon me.

When I returned from Vietnam, I not only changed my life plans, but I also found new literature that helped me see the world in different ways. At first I found insight in Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Later, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 became my mantra, confirming my view of a world where capitalists “cashed in” on every good human quality that people showed. Later, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seemed to reflect the changes in attitude that had occurred in my own life.

It was only after the birth of my two children that I returned to a more optimistic view of the world, though certainly never again as optimistic as the view I held before Vietnam. I found hope in novels like To Kill a Mockingbird where, despite his failure to save the innocent black man, Atticus Finch stands out as a realistic hero in a world that desperately needs heroes.

My divorce after seventeen years of marriage brought new realizations and attitude changes, though I’m not sure I’ve ever found a literature to reflect the resulting changes in my attitude. Caught up in the demands of merely surviving and trying to ensure that my children didn’t suffer from their parents’ mistakes, I had little time to reflect on life for quite awhile. This divorce crushed nearly all the illusions I still had about romance and love. Fifteen years later and remarried, I’m still trying to make sense out of the feelings generated by losing the last of my childhood illusions.

My recent throat cancer was probably my closest brush with death, though Vietnam at 24 was certainly more profoundly moving. Still, the inevitability of death was never clearer, demanding new insights to carry me through this stage of my life. What is the role of a man whose children are raised and who neither wants nor needs to work to survive? Six months haven’t been enough time to come to terms with those issues, but I continue to search for answers.

Perhaps as McLeish argues I could, and should, find these answers for myself. But I suspect that a more realistic approach is to read those who have experienced similar feelings and examine their conclusions. After all, the greatest advantage of being a “social animal” is having others to help carry the load.