Monday, September 15, 2014

Good News for People Who Like Bad News

I was 13 years old. The combined forces of high estrogen and high testosterone had turned my classmates into strange creatures, alien even to ourselves. We had no idea what to expect next from day to day, as we waited for the bus stop. The fact that we spent eight hours a day together in classrooms without windows and painted cinderblock walls made us feel claustrophobic, increasing the already stout pressures each of us felt, though we could barely speak of our feelings. I never quite figured out who I was or what was expected of me. If someone had told me to march in some general cardinal direction, I would have gladly followed, desperate to escape this anarchic struggle.

One of the great peculiarities of my life was my refusal to take part in the prerequisites of jock royalty. I could have had a popular girl or even a cheerleader of my very own. One by one, when each time I was much too shy to take part in a conversation, they vied for my attention. They were silly and teasing. I acted as though my head was about to explode. I was never sure why they or any woman would be interested in me. Because I was a star, albeit a reluctant football player and they were popular girls, I was considered something of a catch by default. I wonder now how many of them were in hot pursuit more for the status of what I represented to others rather any genuine interest.

At the time, I didn’t know what the girls felt about me. I was too shy and self-doubting to believe myself boyfriend material for anyone. And yet they kept trying. What I meant to them could well have been a complete reversal, full of confidence to how I felt about myself. One especially persistent girl kept asking if she could borrow my brain. She was alluding to my unquestioned status as the smartest, most intellectually precocious kid in school. Accordingly, she would pick a large vocabulary word and quiz me on it, desperate for me to parrot the proper answer in her company. She was persuasive, but I always wondered about an ulterior motive on her part.

I could have had any number of sweet Southern Belles, except that sweet Southern Belles bored me to tears. If my priorities were very different, the process could have worked well for me. If I’d started going out with a popular girl, my stature would have risen considerably. It makes me happy that this awkward game is years in my past. What I really wanted were the intelligent girls who were high achievers and a little geeky. Winning the hand of one took a lot of convincing and patience, as I was responding to the very same reservations in someone else that I felt in myself.

Writing this piece was meant to underscore that the decisions we make ought not to be only about a rise in our personal stature. This might be one particularly compelling part of the puzzle, but there is more to romance than ego. I can truthfully say that I never regretted dodging the popular girls. It taught me life lessons. It revealed to me how easy that game is to play for some and how difficult it was for myself when I was looking for something very much outside the box. Some of my classmates were groomed to believe otherwise.

I am not a woman, but I wonder if some lingering aspects of failed, adolescence romance persists into the current day of adulthood. We still rate ourselves based on who we find attractive and who finds us attractive. I do, even though I am in my mid-thirties, though I wish I didn't. Even today one observes the lasting power of hierarchy, especially when it comes down to romance. As Quakers, we seek to be non-hierarchical, but we live in a society which is extremely so.

Fluffy magazines and websites reinforce this notion of worth being simply a matter of physical beauty and the ability to fit a set pattern of attractiveness. I suppose I should have been flattered that I got so much attention earlier in life, but I tossed it aside, voluntarily. As middle school became high school, some overgrown boys I knew dated popular girls because they got the dual benefit of having arm candy and, for some, sex. That could have been me, too, but sex isn’t everything.

This is a post partially in support of men. There are good men and bad men. Men fail when they do not police their own or they let their desire for popularity and belonging to a group become more important than justice. Men fail when they are accessories or guilty of what has been termed in recent years rape culture.

But both men and women find many examples in their own lives and in the lives of other friends and associates of a deplorably sad and greatly commonplace set of problems. This is especially true for those with poor moral character and a manipulative attitude. Every woman seems to have known a man who fooled her, valuing her only for her physical appearance, and that memory is never forgotten. Every man seems to know a woman who is either unfaithful or selfish. We don’t forget them, either.

Looking past our own baggage is a life’s work. And it doesn’t mean stopping the process of identifying the societal problems that are often overlooked. I often think of the title of a Modest Mouse album. It is entitled Good News for People Who Like Bad News. In my day to day work, I feel that I’m always seeking to provide Good News for the People Who Like Bad News. We can fall in love with Bad News, just as soon as we can fall in love with a cloying, optimistic notion that only whitewashes the real problem. Neither discipline can be adequately taught in any form, in my opinion. Ours must be a lived experience that comes from experience and wisdom. Few solutions can be adequately conveyed in a college class, by attending the right conference, or by reading the right book.

We may dwell for a time being part of the Bad News brigade, and find our needs satisfied there. I think all of us go there for a little while, with the right set of circumstances that push our buttons. But if we can’t express our opinions in ways that aren’t merely hurry-up-and-pay-attention-to-me righteous indignation, we’re only seeing part of the problem. For some, this is a just a phase, and the arrival of pending middle age for myself has provided needed insight. The tools we’ve once used to wound others are now kept on our metaphorical mantelpiece, next to other heirlooms, a reminder of a different time where our priorities were very different.

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