Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wisdom Gap

This is a piece I wrote in Mid-March, 2012. I had just called off a romance, facing the fact that I would never fit into her world. In a two-day period, I wrote my song, 'St. Patrick's Day' ... and this small essay. I opted not to post it ... and the blog soon fell silent for many months. Here it is.

Well ... it turns out that there was still a little bit of winter stuck in the chute. It rained here in Thousand Oaks today. And there was thunder and lightning and cold blustery winds as well. I have the lap-top actually sitting in my lap just for the warmth of it on the tops of my thighs. Yes ... it's come to that.

I've been a little bit off-radar lately. Work has begun to come in, and I've spent some nice uncomplicated hours just trading calories of muscle-energy for the value stored in money. I've spent enough time wrestling ideas of late, to appreciate that simple exchange. Also, the romance that had inspired me for a while has deflated; like a bright balloon snared on a radio tower, proving again that unlikely flights are fragile. The people remain, and remain friends, but reality - like gravity - won't be gladly denied. Too many interests and commitments pulling in opposite directions. We're not in charge here. That which calls us forward is.

But it's good. It's proper. And, as is always promised when disappointment leans from the shadows to slap me awake, a fine and truthful new song is here. Well truthful to be sure.

I haven't been writing much. I haven't been rewarded when I do. The reason for that is this: as I think deeper and deeper below the surface, I find that less and less of what I used to believe rings true to me. And that has been a problem for my friends. I think though, that it ought not to be. You might think that growing older should automatically produce a change in thinking, and that that result would then be accepted as the wisdom of experience. But something went wrong with my generation. We somehow locked our minds onto the strange notion that wisdom flows not downward from the experienced, but upward from the pure of heart. We have dislodged respect from those who have won knowledge the hard way, and bestowed it upon the untarnished soul. The child. The creature who knows nothing of the world beyond it's own emotional responses.

It's a leap of imagination, this idea that youth knows all it needs to know when it blooms into this harsh world. And that we all must become as children ourselves, lest we become 'set in our ways'. I think it is a youth-centeredness that occurs rarely in history, but is here now. Always, I suppose, youth has been valued for the strength and beauty it gives so fleetingly. That is lovely and ought never to change. Wisdom, though, was a decent consolation prize, to be shrugged into like an old coat as youth's sun-struck beauty faded out. Knowing what is really going on. A sharp understanding of people and their motivations. This was what we had when we no longer had young bodies and bright eyes.

But a mass abdication is underway - has been underway for a long time. We are now embarrassed to grow old. I don't mean physically; we try to prolong our youth, but even we know that the fix is in and the physical decline inevitable. What I mean is that we are ashamed to grow older in what we know. We want to remain - in our thinking - the people we once were. We want the beliefs that inspired us when we had not much experience ... to inspire us still. We demand it. It sets up an odd juxtaposition.

On the one hand we act as if change is life's ultimate sacrament. It was, remember, Mr. Obama's flower to the world. We'll change, he promised. Change will be our legacy  It's all about change. Yet, when somebody is observed to change his mind - unless he changes it into alignment with ours - he is seen only to have been corrupted. And I have been the object of much frustration from friends who cannot figure out how to keep caring about me when I agree with a group they have all agreed to hate.

Once, years ago, I was in the living room of friends in Hollywood. Everybody there was a musician or an artist of one or another stripe. The conversation turned to public funding for the arts. It was axiomatic with this group that the government ought to be pumping money into the artistic community with great gusto. I'd already been an artist long enough to know that being subsidized for the doing of art, does not necessarily produce good art.  I said something like: "I don't know why taxpayers ought to be on the hook for whatever somebody decides to call art. Seems to me that if what we make is valuable, somebody will pay us for it." A hush fell over the room. Our hostess looked at me with eyes narrowed and said, "You're getting ..." and she stopped. 

"I'm getting what?" I asked back, "conservative?" 

"No" she said, "Old." I might have been thirty-eight. But 'old' and 'conservative' were co-equal insults for this staunchly liberal woman. I still know her, and I doubt that she'd still use those words interchangeably, but I don't doubt that even now she scans the inside of her head for any stray thought that might be deemed 'conservative' and quickly destroys it like a note burned in an ashtray.

If people, as they grow older, hold rigidly to ideas they held in college, then the natural system of knowledge being accumulated and passed down is derailed. This makes for a sort of Wisdom Gap. Where will those in college now look for a deeper take on callow principals if their elders refuse to modify their thinking as time goes by? One cannot entirely rely on professors as sources of wisdom. They move from one protected environment to another, school after school, until finally achieving the ultimate protection - tenure. What challenge would they face that might cause a change in thinking? Not much, I'd say, considering that in most colleges there is eighty to ninety percent consensus in political thought. Often even more.

A few more minutes with my long-ago hostess. Her husband is a fine artist and a friend of mine. I love him dearly. But he is the sort that I have always feared in conversation. The type of liberal who holds his beliefs with none of the self-doubt that I have always figured ought to accompany ALL beliefs. He is equally sure of his contempt for opposing views. I'll listen intently to the conflicted theologian, or the scientist who admits to a few problems with his key theory. I'll take more seriously a woman whose love for me is conditional. I suppose that I have always acknowledged the transitory nature of beliefs, as I have understood them to be ideas - or bundles of ideas - that groups of people have adopted as a sort of what-we-know-so-far thing. The world is flat? Fine. But wait ... the shadow of the earth upon the moon is clearly round. So ... we were wrong about the flat earth. Okay. Makes sense to me. Scratch the old idea, and get used to the new one.

But what happens when ideas that we love for their counter-culture, anti-establishment modernism are tested and found lacking in significant ways? Does an idea have to be old to be wrong?

My friends refuse to jettison beliefs even when they are shown not to work. Instead they insist that any such failure is really sabotage from the right-wing. Ideas born in the theories of academics, that have never worked in application, are still held as truths. 

My wife and I had kids a bit before they did. But both couples were raising children around the same time, and often I would see them with theirs in tow. Politically they believed that the rich ought to provide for the poor through state agency, workers were good and bosses bad, and that the underprivileged (particularly minorities) were not to have much asked of them. But as parents, they had their children doing chores, going to religious school, accepting accountability for their mistakes, and working hard to carry their own weight. In short, these two ultra-liberals were raising their kids in an old-school manner, completely consonant with conservative values. They understood instinctively that coddling their own offspring would ultimately hurt them. Yet they never missed an opportunity to bestow victim status upon any group that organizes around a perceived slight. Provided - of course - that those accused of the slight were white Americans with money and or traditional values.

What happened to me, was that - instead of burning to change every last tradition on planet earth - I changed how I felt about a lot of the traditions and rules that I had thought needed to be changed. "Oh, that works better than this? Okay." 

This is not to say that I accept blindly these days all of what my parents believed. All beliefs, far as I can tell, are subject to adjustment as time goes by. But I am now 'Old' enough to understand that much of what we have pejoratively called 'conservative' thinking is really pragmatic thinking. What works? That is the basic question. And further, because we are a pluralistic democracy, what works for the greatest number of people? After I have looked at a problem, and seen it in its historical context, and watched versions of it solved or not in my own experience ... I claim the right to act upon it - or support those who will - regardless of how such actions might be labeled by those who make a living off political debate.

If a change to how we live as Americans will serve the greatest number of people ... terrific, show me how I can help. But if the way we have been doing it serves the greater number, I won't carry a placard just to prove that I am not growing old. And I will gladly step back if I find myself standing on nothing, So, to my liberal friends who are disappointed in me, I offer no apologies. I hope we'll still be friends, but you guys are gonna have to work that out on you own.

Dave Morrison, Mid-March, 2012

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