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

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Leaving The Past Behind–Can We Ever Really Change Who We Are?

Charity Mooreland had never been happy with her parents, her genes, or the tight, unpleasant social environment of New Brighton.  She wanted out of all three, so left home as soon as possible.  This was America, after all, land of opportunity and above all individualism; and who was to say that even the most hardwired traits could not be short-circuited.  Her parents did what they thought was right – Sunday school, dancing class, and the proper schools – but had no idea how all three jarred her nerves, tested her will, and fueled a determination to get out of town.  Her genes? Every one of her relatives had a cautious optimism – all would be better if you simply stayed put, waited for a right moment, and above all remained faithful.  It didn’t matter to what.  Faith in God, family, or political principles was enough of a foundation on which to build a better, more durable, and more promising life.  Faith was the point. Nevertheless, considered Charity, even faith could be quite easily dismissed once it was recognized for what it was – a natural conservatism brought from the Old Country whose tethers, despite decades, were still on tight and fast with no wiggle room let alone freedom to roam.  Not a hardwired matter at all.  Given half the chance and a generation later, they might have been successful entrepreneurs.

Image result for images new britain ct 50s factories

As for New Brighton? It was little different from the many other old industrial cities in New England – bank building, clothiers, pharmacies, churches, and park alongside basement factories and  the tool-and-die shops on Arch Street.  There was nothing holding her there, certainly not the well-to-do social life of the West End nor the working class East End; and more importantly nothing of the place had ever been imprinted on her, nothing socially or culturally indelible that couldn’t be washed off in a hot shower.

Yet for all its niceties, New Brighton was never benign; and there was no way that Charity could accept that her parents’ lukewarm Republicanism, depressing genetic profile, and  the cultural demands of a decaying Rust Belt city would define her for ever after; that she would be never more than a passing, minor character in a discontinued soap opera.  Nothing human could be that carved in stone.  Didn’t serendipity play an important role in human affairs? Didn’t Napoleon lose the Battle of Borodino for want of gum boots and the cold that resulted because of the inadvertent forgetfulness of his valet? If we are all so minutely programmed, so indelibly marked, and nothing more than cargo on the Illinois Central, would that not somehow negate the idea of God and free will?

Of course she was making a mountain out of molehill, bringing in Luke and Martin Luther when it was perfectly clear that things always turn out predictably.  Children always end up like their parents;  the small town never leaves the girl no matter how many bright lights she sees; and that the habits, surplices, rosaries, bells, and chalices of the Church are never more than a disturbing thought away.  Although the present can only be measured in quantum fractions of time; the future is only a possibility; the past is real, recognizable, immutable, and permanent. The past is who we are.

Image result for images martin luther

While understanding the idea of determinism was easy enough, accepting it was far more difficult; and doing something about it was next to impossible.  There are few Übermensch out and about, and Charity was certainly not one of them.  It was one thing to be born with will,  another entirely to act willfully.  Nietzsche was partially right but Eliot far closer to the truth.

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent

Falls the Shadow…(The Hollow Men)

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Yet, despite all, a makeover was what Charity wanted and intended.  Changing her political stripes was easy.  The road from her parents’ timid Eisenhower Republicanism to the radical progressivism of the 60s was no trouble at all.  It was a relief to finally do something, march somewhere, yell something after her family’s tepid Republicanism.  It was even easier to endorse radical populism.  It didn’t take more than an American flag on the lawn to stand out from her progressive neighbors and her vigorous defense of the ultra-conservative agenda which finally and once and for all excommunicated her from her colleagues, family, and friends.

It was easy to endorse radical individualism – an originalist, fundamentalist expression of God-given human nature – and object to ‘Compassion, Community, Collaboration – the three C’s mantra of secular idealism.  To follow human nature’s dictates – territorialism, aggression, self-interest and implacable self-defense – was both a statement of will and a statement of faith.

Yet the older she got, the more troubled she became.  Despite many years away from New Brighton, she found that distance had made little difference.  She was the same girl who had left her parents but found herself in late middle age depressingly just like them - her mother’s deliberateness, a streak of her father’s bad attitude, their squabbling.  She turned off lights like her father, got moody and irritable like her mother, and never ever got rid of her parents’ nagging Catholicism.

On second thought, however, her father’s Republicanism might not have been the tepid affair she had thought, and a much more important foreshadowing of Buckley, Reagan, and the Bushes.  In is own temperate way he was defiant and contemptuous of New Deal socialism, an originalist thinker who dismissed secularism as deflective of Enlightenment and Early American principles of a faith-based republic, and a firm believer in the conservative ethos of social stability, national culture, enterprise, and opportunity.

Image result for images ronald reagan

Her mother’s rectitude, insistence on family integrity, honesty, and centrality was not the often caricatured expression of a frustrated 50s housewife, chattel to her husband, tied to Kinder, Küche, Kirche, and helplessly dependent; but a principled commitment to history.  Her defense of social fundamentalism was no different from that of any era and no less important.

More surprisingly, Charity herself had become more like her parents than she ever thought possible – more like her reflective recasting of them than her adolescent impressions of course, but like them nonetheless.  Her social trajectory was not a trajectory at all but a circle.  Not only had she not removed all traces of New Brighton from her life, dismissed genetic probability as a possibility, and permanently marginalized her parents from influence; she had adopted, endorsed, and welcomed all that they were.  She even embraced the silly, bothersome parts of growing up – patent leather shoes, organza communion dresses, permanents, and manners – the details which made her story more interesting.  What were the principles and foundational beliefs of the 50s if they weren’t dressed in frilly clothes and discussed over a proper dinner?

Charity turned out more moody than her mother, with a mean streak far meaner than her father’s, with a sense of practicality and trust taught by both parents, and a need for religious inquiry which certainly had been an unexpected by-product of the nuns, Catechism, and the Mass.

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In short, she could have saved herself a lot of time, effort, and impatience had she gotten the message earlier on.  Despite the idealism of the 60s, the belief that change is possible, and a hopeful idealism that through change comes progress, Charity fell back into her old ways and the ways of her parents.  The hand of cards she was dealt was neither good nor bad, no cause for joy or regrets, just a hand.  She came to all this late, but not too late to go back to New Brighton before her mother and father died. Better late than never, of course, but in Charity’s case it was more than family dinners.  It was conclusion and confirmation. 

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