A funny (un-funny) thing happened the other morning. I unwittingly missed a contest-entry deadline (foolishly thinking any such opportunity could be the big one). “You idiot!” I said it aloud, without thinking, the only person in the house (not counting the cat). Why has that reaction become my default?
It’s become automatic. If Justin hasn’t screwed up yet this morning, wait a half-hour.
I’m about to turn 42 (not The answer to the Universe is 42 but Hmm, you’re approaching middle age 42) and still, daily, I call myself an idiot. Why? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me that I have to ask that very question, What is wrong with me (sad echoes in a quiet house)?
Somewhere in my brain, not unlike Cloud Cuckoo Land from “The Lego Movie
,” there’s this plane of existence where nothing goes wrong. Nothing I do will be incorrect, insufficient, or just plain wacky. I aspire, smoke-tendril fingers reaching for this plane, even though I understand it’s a laughably ridiculous and fictional place. There will never be a time in my life when look back on the last 24 hours and say, “Yup, that was perfect. Nailed it.”
(For those who don’t know, nothing will trigger ego-realignment more than parenting.)
So, I make mistakes–a lot of them–but my blunders don’t seem any more frequent than most people’s. Also, they don’t belong in the car-accident or forgot-a-kid-at-camp categories, so I’m usually the only sufferer of consequences (plus attendant headaches).
And yet, I’m still me. And I seem to have a problem with me.
Let’s be honest: most people’s natures are not easily seen. We don’t strut around the world like Alonzo from “Training Day”
or the inimitable Hannibal Lecter or even baseball star Alex Rodriguez. In fact, reading books like “Gone Girl
,” it makes sense that there’s been a bit of machinery at work, here. Subterfuge U. We’ll teach you how to talk and act like a witty, charming and intelligent modern male (pro women, organic kale, wage injustice, all that jazz) even though you’re an anxious fight-dodging mess on the inside. Cover it up, bury it deep, keep those quivering stripes out of sight, because nobody likes a dumbstruck waffler, you know. Oh, and that gift bottle of Reposado that costs two hours’ wages? Don’t freaking hesitate. Whip out that plastic like a smooth operator. Because life costs. Even if you can’t justify it and can’t deal with it, you
gotta deal with it.
Fortunately, I happen to sorta like the person I am on the outside. He could use some streamlining and a better wardrobe, but his beliefs and hopes are aligned with the ones on the inside. He’s positive, fun to be around (much of the time) and laughs. Despite the current bullshit political mess in this country, he’s staunchly optimistic. That inside, on the other hand, could use some work.
How We’re Coded
Human psychology is incredibly complex. How we think and feel is almost a whole different ballgame compared to the hundred zillion amino acid chains we actually know to exist. Theories and studies and schools of thought run in this direction or that one. Occasionally, things are pinpointed–Eureka moment!–and then tried out on subjects. To me, it’s the non-physical nature of the field which defies true understanding. Engineers can disassemble a Boeing 747 into its 6 million individual pieces, and locate a flaw in part or process. We can’t exactly do that with a living person’s brain.
Closer to my understanding (very limited, I admit) is computer code. (Yes, I know so little about it, I’m likely to get nothing wrong and inadvertently raise the hackles of some developer eager to correct my flaws.) Somewhere back when the Modern Era (the Information Age) truly began, there was BASIC and COBAL (no, I don’t recall what either of those acronyms stand for, and it’s not really relevant here). From what I’ve heard, almost every computer language we have finds it roots in these two forms. So maybe pieces of those two code types still play a vital role in all the C#s and Pythons and so-ons of today. Is it too clumsy to compare the human psyche to them? (Just let me run with it, now.)
In that case, the source code for us, as individuals, would be all that emotional and intellectual input during our Formative Years. Everything since then–in my paltry understanding of psychology–would be built on that source code. Our behavior and emotions and personalities change as we grow and develop–switching to new code, morphing and re-writing and adding channels to increase bandwidth, etc.
But what about the original source code? From what I’ve read (again, limited) it stays the same. There’s no program (short of utter brainwashing) that would go in and strip out or re-write the original code. Therapy can add improvements or accommodations, or even ‘programs’ to counteract it, but doesn’t touch the original source code. Same goes for anti-depressants and religion.
Justin, We Have a Problem!
So, in a way, we’re stuck with who we became during our Formative Years. It’s beside the point to say that’s good or bad (and I’m an inadequate thinker on the subject). The matter isn’t even as simple as looking (through the fog of inaccessible memory) at what happens during the first five years of a person’s life. We’re not lumps of biological clay taken fresh out of a sterile barrel (pardon the rhyme). We come with baggage, the genes of our parents, and their parents before them. Manic depression runs in my family. Severe anxiety runs in my wife’s family. Despite our best efforts, these are truths which cannot be denied.
Is it any wonder I’ve tried to make sarcasm and laughter the Lingua Franca of my household? Something funny, something interesting, something sarcastic–every single day. Yup, something self-deprecating, too.
And yet, any time one of my kids says something bad about themselves–“I’m an idiot!”–Luanne and I pounce on it like tigers. C and E are not allowed to think that way. I know, from experience, that the more you say something about yourself, the more you believe it (with limitations). It is my hope that, by preventing C from verbalized self-deprecation, he won’t actually believe it. That enough coaching and encouragement and reassurance can steer him and his sister towards fruitful, happy futures full of positive choices. I don’t cringe when I wonder about his source code or her source code. As parents, though never perfect (“Cloud Cuckoo Land holding on Line 1!”) Luanne and I did the best we could.
Am I Right?
Have I done the best I could? It is one of the tragic shortcomings of the human condition that we cannot truly know what effect our influence has. We can guess and speculate, but there is no real certainty. We have examples of both extremes of incorrect parenting–from mass shooters (neglect) to the septuagenarian child in the Oval Office (spoiled). What about everyone in-between? How much finger-pointing is worthwhile? (In cases of violence, where these questions most-often arise, everything is in retrospect, anyway–the deed done.) In “Gone Girl” (spoiler alert) toddler Nick Dunne could not have gone up to toddler Amy Elliott’s psychologist parents and warned them, “You’re creating a monster by making her the center of the universe!” Life doesn’t work that way.
And while we can suspect something is wrong out the wazoo…that’s all it is: Suspicion. This seems like the most elusive truth of all. What do we really know about another person? What is truth? Certainty?
“How Would I Know That This Could Be My Fate?”
A week has passed since rock star Chris Cornell took his own life in a Detroit hotel room. Incredible, talented, passionate, troubled. Once again, an artist has departed the world prematurely. Once again, the rest of us are left with an endless string of questions that are simply, maddeningly unanswerable. At the core of these, I suppose, is how Mr. Cornell really felt about himself. We can’t ask him. Tragedy has already struck.
As a fan of Cornell’s work and of the Soundgarden song “Fell On Black Days,”
I often hear the above line playing in my head. It’s haunting, it’s desperate, it’s real.
For myself, I think it’s best to focus on, and follow, other lyrics:
“So don’t you lock up
Something that you
Wanted to see fly,
Hands are for shaking
No not tying,
I sure don’t
Mind a change.”
[copyright Chris Cornell/Soundgarden]