"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 4, 2013

Do We Really Ever Change?

I was recently invited to my Country Day School’s 55th Reunion.  I have never gone to any college or high school reunions and have never had any interest in the rounds of seminars, colloquia, and presentations by the same people who blabbed on every month in the alumni magazine. I had no desire to see the sagging carcasses of the fit, ambitious, and enthusiastic friends of my youth; nor to hear familiar stories of arthritic joints, divorces, and spectacular children.  Memories were enough, and I preferred to think of Sam, Bill, Harvey, and Bob as they were.

However, when the invitation to the country day school reunion came in the mail, I replied immediately.  Of course I would come.  There could be no bullshit among childhood friends, no matter how old.  When we left Marland, we were only 15 and had not hardened into the saints or pricks we would become. We were pure soul, character, personality, and spirit.  Life would soon whip us into shape, add layers and dimensions to our centers; but at 15 we were still innocent children living in an innocent age.

When I walked into the crowded reception area of the school, I entered a weird time-snapping warp.  For a millisecond I saw Herbie Swenson as the boy he was and the man he had become.  In this instant the boy disappeared and the new, older, sagging and somewhat beaten-up Herbie replaced the smiling face of my previous memory.  The same was true for the class bully, Susan Big Tits, and Weird Walter Winger.  In a split second they were what they had been and what they were.

It was downhill after that.  We caught up with our lives, predictable marriages, divorces, children, careers, and disappointments, retired early and said our fond farewells. What I remember most was that no one had changed.  Herbie still had that dopey laugh and engaging sense of humor that I liked, and I understood why he and I were friends.  Bobby Bully was fat and slouched but still looked like he wanted to punch someone.  His career had been spent as a teacher in a third-rate prep school in Vermont, so a lot of the piss and vinegar which made him particularly hated was gone, but as we got ready to leave I was waiting for him to trip me or jostle me into the coat hooks. Nancy Britton was as beguilingly sexy as she had been in the 7th grade when I looked down her sleeveless blouse at those wonderful rounding, budding breasts.  Tommy Hetherington was still the ur-WASP (New York, Gstaad, The Vineyard, Locust Valley) of the community; and Sammy Land the jumpy, smart kid who never fit in.

John Tierney writing in the New York Times (1.3.13) reports on new research on our perceptions of the past and expectations for the future:

When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.

In other words, we think we have changed from the people we were; and, feeling that we have reached the pinnacle of our maturity and emotional development, we will change no more.

Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

I am not sure what to make of this.  I look back at the childhood, adolescent, young adult me and of course I see changes, but they are superficial.  I was more liberal in my earlier days, more of a hound dog, more carefree about risk and hazard; but my essential character – the way I look at life – has not changed one single bit.  I am still the enthusiastic, energetic, curious, dismissive, and intense person I was then.  My mother’s stories of my early childhood jibe with my own later recollections.  I have never been partisan, social, or needy, and always fiercely independent. “Of course you are”, said my mother. “Although I would call it selfish”.

Some people are practical to a fault, others devil-may-care.  Some are quietly reflective, others theatrical and baroque.  Some always want to know, others could care less.  Some are rigidly disciplined and orderly, others are slobs.  Whether nature or nurture, we are dealt a hand of cards at the beginning, and no matter what we do, we cannot trade them in.

I see this as a parent.  My children are very different from each other, but have not changed their basic outlook, their instincts and reactions, the quality of their perceptions and insights, their humor, energy, or will.  They are now what I would have predicted they would become when they were little.  I could never have hit the target in the black, but got pretty darn close.

This New Year’s Eve, my wife was surprised (even after many years of marriage) that I took New Year’s as a day just like any other.  I had no resolutions nor regrets about 2012.  I have always felt that I am the same person that I always have been and that circumstance will determine my course.  I will read more theatre, teach another class, expand my writing beyond politics and culture; but I will still wake up with the same, basic fundamental thoughts, apprehensions, and expectations that I have always had.

I do not feel I have changed.  I do not think that I am on the pinnacle of anything; and I do not expect to change.  I, personally, cannot agree with the findings of the research reported in Tierney’s article. Why do people tend to underestimate the changes to come, he asks?

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” [the researchers] said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

This conclusion sounds facile because it does not take philosophical perspective into account.  If you believe, as I do, that we are determined by an immutable human nature, by our genetic codes, and by the environmental influences of our early years; and that our course in life is merely one of predictable but unexpected twists and turns; then there should be no anxiety about the future, nor no regrets about the past.

Shakespeare more than any other playwright understood that history was and always will be an endless, repetitive, series of predictable events because human nature never changes.  Nietzsche understood and accepted this view of human life in the traces; but felt that the only way to confront such determinism and ineluctability was to be a Superman - to express, violently if necessary, individual Will.  I feel that Shakespeare was more insightful.  All Supermen are simply on the edges of the Bell Curve of human activity; but are within it nevertheless.

So, New Year’s has come and gone, and what I remember most is the delicious dinner of caviar, oysters, lox, prime rib, and champagne. 

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