Friday, December 4, 2009

Total Honesty and the Confessional Genre, or, Why You Would Like Me Less if You Knew Me Better

For the last post on this blog, I'm going to try what I will call an art of living experiment--a test of an idea. The idea is that people should be more honest with one another than they currently are. Almost everyone espouses this principle in some form or another, it's enshrined in many of the world's popular religions, and yet few of us seem to follow it. The standard interpretation of this is that the ideal is worthy, yet we as individuals are too constitutionally weak/poorly socialized/debased by some ancestral sin to live up to it. But what if that's all wrong? What if the many deceptions that we participate in as individuals are actually necessary to our interpersonal relations? I suspect, strongly, that they are, and that a world in which we expressed ourselves openly and frankly, particularly about how we feel toward our fellow creatures, would be a coarse, nasty world in which there are more hurt feelings and grudges than already exist.

So, without further ado, here are a few words of total honesty. These are things that I really, actually think and do, sometimes often:

If you have ever found yourself in some misfortune of your own making and come to me looking for sympathy, I probably felt burdened by the inconvenience. I also probably thought that you deserved what you got, and really ought to take it as a lesson and move on with your life. When people lose loved ones, I am more sympathetic (that's not their fault, after all), but nevertheless instinctively shrink from engaging with their sorrow too deeply. In short, I am cruel, impatient, narcissistic, and emotionally shallow. I have to force myself at great effort to offer compassion to others.

If you have ever enforced any kind of structure that involves me, I have probably despised you for it and thought terrible things of you. I am a borderline anarchist in terms of everyday organization and I hate rules like poison. I grant them the right to exist solely for their effects and view all deadlines as arbitrary when they are applied to me. To make matters worse, I do not grant you this same standard, and will act petulant and annoyed if you are late for anything. Rather than reform my time management skills to be more productive, I will blame others for imposing constraints upon what I may do and when. I am fully aware that this is childish, petulant, and hypocritical, but that doesn't seem to stop me from acting in this manner.

If you have ever made me angry, I may likely have plotted some sort of wicked, vengeful, possibly elaborate retaliation. When I was no longer angry, I looked back on it as the most curious species of lunacy, and yet next time I lose my temper I will again concoct an idea as bizarre as all of the previous ones.

I like company in controlled doses, but too much time around people makes me exceptionally grouchy, and I find myself being short and rude to people for no good reason. I then convince myself that there was something wrong with the person to whom I was unkind, to excuse myself from the ethical implications of spreading ill-will in the population. When I am rested and recharged, I usually feel bad about this, but then also usually forget to apologize.

I've found that the practice of meditation makes me less like everything that I've already described: less impatient, less capricious, less unkind and generally more friendly. And then I don't make time to do it, because I clearly don't prioritize these qualities enough to seek them out.

If there are dates or other commemorative events which you find meaningful, I will forget them as easily as if you had reminded me in another language. I cannot possibly be bothered to think about anyone other than myself to the extent that I would record and observe such things, and my adherence to schedules ends precisely where and when my notion of perceived gain does. Moreover, if you take me to task for it, I will attack you for being a rote slave to tradition, as a sort of preemptive strike to make you leave me be. In fact, I will start all manner of argument at any given time to deflect attention from any failings of obligation that I may have performed.

In short, I am a bad person on good days, and an atrocious one if I am exhausted or harried. If you knew what I thought, you would probably find me contemptible. I am sometimes genuinely surprised that anyone wants to be my friend and shocked that there is a woman who puts up with all of this on a daily basis. She must be the other kind of person.

Now, if I were to openly express these sentiments in conversation, no one would want to talk to me more than once. And so I don't, because, at the end of the day, I like having people to talk to. And as bad as all of this is, I have a creeping suspicion that I may not be worse than most other people. There are, of course, the ones with the sunny dispositions that are naturally gifted with kindness and optimism, but they are relatively few and exceptionally lucky. Now, assuming that I am not alone in refraining from speaking the nastier concoctions of my imagination, I must ask: is the world a better or worse place because of this? It is implicit, of course, in the idea that if we can't say anything nice, that we shouldn't say anything, that plenty of us are thinking things that aren't nice all the time. And I think we should leave it that way. How about you?

Homebrewing and Thoreau: How We Really Only Love What We Make

As a part of my own art of living, I have recently begun to make my own beer. Although I would like to claim that Henry David Thoreau inspired me to do this, that would be a lie. I have home-brewed intermittently in the past, and my decision to take it back up had more to do with reacquiring the necessary equipment and ingredients than with any philosophical epiphany. Thoreau did, however, make me think a good deal about home brewing and why I enjoy it, and that, I suppose, is the next best thing. I think of this when he suggests in "Economy," the opening and longest essay of Walden that , "[students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end."  What he seems to contrast here are lives (typically associated with students, but in reality, typical of almost everyone) in which we learn by authority rather than experience.  This is how most of us know nearly everything we claim to know, of course, and to an extent there is good reason for this: there simply isn't time in the world, given the relative brevity and certain end of human life, for us all to learn every trade, fact, or hobby by hand.  We can reject the germ theory of disease, of course, and act as if all manner of contamination and filth were our dear companions, all as an intellectual experiment, or we can read any history of the European Middle Ages and conclude that living like that might be better experienced at some remove.

But at the same time, only enjoying the fruits of the learning and labors of others rather smacks of cherry-picking the fruits of life--freeloading, really.  And, to return to the topic at hand, that is perhaps why I like making beer.  It is not receiving it on authority.  It is not practice or play life, or at least not as ersatz as just buying the stuff, anyway.  It requires getting in touch with, oddly, life, because life makes beer.

What am I on about?  Most people don't know.  Most people have no idea that the alcohol, be it beer, wine, or spirits, that they consume is the result of omnipresent microorganisms infesting objects high in the sugars that the latter feed upon.  And you'd never know until you watch it happen: until you sprinkle a packet of brewer's yeast atop a cooling vat of water, malt, and hops, and then close it up and watch as a frothing, boiling scum appears at the top and gradually subsides over the course of several days--you would never know that alcohol and carbon dioxide are waste products of a controlled bacterial infestation, that when you drink beer you are, to be truly indelicate, consuming yeast shit.

But I know; I've watched it, in all of its sublime, if entirely localized, grandeur.  And I don't like beer any less as a result of it (in fact, and returning to Thoreau, making beer is inexpensive and rewarding, perhaps like building your own house in miniature).  Making beer is realizing where something comes from; it is seeing a tiny piece of how life works.  It is a trip to the the forge or foundry, the farm or the slaughterhouse, or at least a bit more authentic than a trip to Harris-Teeter to pick up a case of canned, artificially carbonated lager.

But above all, homemade beer, done right, is delicious.  Perhaps I comfort myself by thinking that it is a gesture to nature and simplicity, when in fact I simply like to drink it.  Perhaps so.  But I know that, like the foods we cook in our kitchen here and the peppers that grow on the porch, that there is something, to combine two unforgivable cliches, sweeter tasting in labors of love.  If that is an illusion, as it probably is, it is one that, in my always-evolving negotiation with truth, I am happy to accept.