Bright Twilight


Here are stories about epiphanies.  What annoys me about them is that they only befell me when I was old (hence the title).  What else might dawn on me at this rate if I lived to be 125 (not in the cards)?

When I think of epiphanies, I think of Archimedes in his tub, or Fleming with his Petri dish, and of their enlightenment as like someone throwing open a curtain to allow the noonday sun to flood in.  The ones I remember best for myself, though, resemble the sunrise: imperceptibly, colors become visible, and forms become distinct.  That was the case when I was about 70, and decided I had to surrender the version of my life’s story that allowed people to think of it as heroic.

I’m sure millions have reached a higher rung in society than they were born to, just as many others have slipped back.  Those who have risen have two choices for interpreting how it happened.  The explanation that I find distasteful is that the protagonist did it by himself, and so anyone else disadvantaged should just do the same – and if he is unable to, he deserves his fate.

The other choice is to acknowledge the roles chance and good luck played.  If one finds himself in quicksand, either something to grab hold of, or something solid within the quicksand on which to stand, is imperative.  Lacking both, down you go.  Night-night.  End of story.

At a social event an acquaintance’s husband told one of those stories where he did it all himself, to justify his lack of compassion for “losers”.  He struck me as a smug, self-satisfied panty-waist.  I lost my temper like I hadn’t done since my co-worker in the post office had said “I knew your old man – he was the town drunk” fifty years earlier.  I wrecked the evening, went home, and began to ponder.

I had figured out long ago that a “bootstrap” story was often used to evade responsibility for helping others; but I did not understand why I had reacted so vehemently.  I found myself unable to put the event to rest until I could sort it out to my satisfaction.  It took me a couple of days, staring at the wall.

I think a new realization had been creeping up on me for a while like the sunrise – not just a belief, but  new knowledge.  It was that I had always told the story of my life in a way to encourage people to think I had been heroic, or at least virtuous, in overcoming strong odds stacked against me; yet I began to be certain that I had done it simply because I could, and would have been a damned fool to do otherwise.  There was no virtue involved at all.

I knew that my siblings had not fared as well, but that I had advantages they did not:  I was extremely smart, and despite her being nuts, my mother had loved me.  (She hated two of the others, which was enough to sink them.)  Advantages that we all had over a kid born in the midst of a vast ghetto were that we were WASPs, that we could witness all around us a middle-class way of living that we could aspire to and whose schools we could attend.

The guy with the bootstrap story clearly had had similar advantages, and I thought was indulging in willful ignorance to allow him to persist in his comfortable delusions.  (But I think I’m giving him too much credit.)

Neuroscientists are now finding that original factory equipment (genes and epigenes) carry far more weight than previously thought.  Because I had originally strongly favored “nurture” in the nature/nurture debate, I had been puzzled for years about how I emerged from the mess I was born into.  None of the answers I tried out resonated viscerally.  My background didn’t seem to predict my future.  I now think my nature had everything to do with ancestors I never knew.  I see in my own family and my wife’s how remarkably persistent some characteristics are across several generations – and how they vanish, and then reappear intact downline.

The other problem with the “hero” story was that it conflicted with my growing conviction that arrogance is central to what blinds us to self-knowledge; and that self-knowledge is essential to the survival of our species.  This dissonance slowly forced itself to the surface, and seemed increasingly to demand from me a choice.

 ****

 What’s so bad about arrogance?  Here’s one thing, contained in a mournful tale of what I have elsewhere called irreducible narcissism, about Max Planck:  He defined quantum mechanics, which made him famous.  By and by he made up an aphorism – “Science progresses one funeral at a time,” because old physicists had once temporarily blocked his way.   His peers loved it:  “Good one, Max!”

Max got old.  Along came a smart-ass named Werner Heisenberg with an enhancement to quantum physics called the Uncertainty Principle.  “Varenare, nein!  Nein!  Don’t touch my stuff,” cried Max, but the river of physics had broadened so that Werner could go around Max, who was trying to dam it up.  The river simply swept Max into an eddy, and went on into the future.  Now nobody was laughing at Max’s aphorism – they were laughing at Max.

This is heavy irony, and the question of why Planck didn’t think his “funerals” lesson applied to him fascinates me.  One more perfidious mind; and do you and I suffer from this too?

****

At the periphery, another question is what enabled me to walk away from the arch-conservative, paranoid Fundamentalist subculture in which I once was totally enmeshed (the land of the blind)?  I was smart enough to see its fatal flaws; and I somehow acquired an independence of mind that allowed me to say what I saw, as well as a willingness to do it.  And since this attitude appears to be to a degree genetic – perhaps a natural subnormal regard for authority?  Scotch belligerence?  A highly-calibrated shit detector?

 ****

Here’s one more problem, which I discovered on my 75th birthday!  I have as yet no solution to it.  If you can help me with it, welcome to the fray:

Because I was writing about it, the topic of my finding it necessary to surrender my “hero” story was on my mind when I was chatting with a neighbor.  Since she majored in anthropology in college (long ago!), I thought she might have something to say on the topic, so I brought it up.

I was puzzled to find that she thought I was wrong in my own thinking, and she kind of insisted that I give it up.  She wasn’t just `being nice.  I sensed that I had trespassed on an illusion that she cherished – a Horatio Alger world view, maybe?  Through ambition and hard work, struggling boy overcomes long odds and finds a comfy place in the middle class?  That’s essentially the very story I was giving up.

Is the problem that I have inadvertently dissed the pioneer myth?  A lonesome cowboy one?  It occurs to me that my current thinking is communitarian.  Is that offensive to some?

Simply writing about this seems to bring me closer to understanding it….

Onward and sideways.

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