Four years ago, my reaction to that highly imperfect method would be to point and laugh. Isn't it so much easier to judge people when everything in your life has gone well? Ah, for the days when things were so simple.
It is possible, sometimes, to get through adolescence without anything going hugely, catastrophically wrong in your life. (Any teenager would disagree, but I'm talking about actual major life events here.) It's even possible to make it through most of your twenties– sometimes all of your twenties– without any of your goals being sucked out from under you, without any of the irrevocable thudding blows that crush your ideas of a future with unforgiving permanence. It isn't just that life is unexpected, in the sense of the famous Yiddish proverb.**
It's that it doesn't play by your rules.
Eventually the realization will happen, and when the blows come along to break you, I say take your time reacting. Respond with intention. You're on the cusp of determining what may very well be the mental framework of the rest of your life.
"There are no second acts in American lives," Fitzgerald famously wrote, foolishly (he would later retract the statement). The question of who you'll be in your Second Act is less a question of what you do than how you think.
Revered philosopher-filmmaker Terrence Malick pointed out in a 1979 Sight and Sound interview, "The movies have kept up a myth that suffering makes you deep. It’s not that way in real life, though, not always. Suffering can make you shallow and just the opposite of vulnerable, dense."
How you choose to address the hurt, the vulnerability, the confusion... These are the quandaries for which there are as many solutions as there are people. Some become bitter, nursing a grudge against the world. Others turn their hatred inward. Still others search for a lightness that's stronger than the light they had before, moving toward that place where you can be at peace not knowing the answers.
For me it was a series of calamities. You know one of them. The details matter less than the sensation; being lost in a life that was once familiar, which you used to understand but seems now to have all new rules. I don't know much, but I do know this: nothing will humble you more than having your concept of a just universe destroyed.
The cocksure confidence you didn't know was annoying, gone like chaff in the breeze. The grief. The grief that blinds you from what you'll realize years later, and still feel guilty admitting: this is the part where you became a better person, at the expense of stupid gigantic loss, loss for which you'd give up your newfound wisdom in a heartbeat to have redacted. Where you tried hard and succeeded without noticing. Don't I wish all those young people were still alive?
For myself, I've become softer. More forgiving. Life is more extreme than I thought it was. All these humans are struggling just like you, to be loved, respected, to not be lonely. They struggle mightily in their imperfect ways, and they deserve to be forgiven endlessly.
Don't get me wrong: I'm still the person I was before, who thinks the Man Game is silly, that overblown egos and pretending to be cool are a waste of time. I stand by every word of my Man Game monologue as written in the above-linked story. But the need to condescend has subsided. It's easier somehow, to understand where they're coming from.
"Stop trying so hard, bro," I thought to myself when I saw folks like him in 2015. "Get over yourself." Now, the line in my head tends toward something like, "You don't need to try so hard, bro. You're okay just as you are." You were a child once and you have feelings and passions and hobbies, like the rest of us. You don't need to try to convince the world otherwise.
He got on my bus the other day, looking rather different than before. Gone was the anxious bravado; he relaxed now with an air of calm, like me, that manifested in his apparel choice as well as demeanor. Just a baseball cap and plain T-shirt today, with jeans that actually fit. He was like the young lady who used to wear a lot of makeup, who's prettier now just being herself.
"There he is," I said.
"How's it going."
He pounded my fist slowly. "You remember me?"
"Yeah, my buddy from California!"
"Damn, dude," he said, pausing. His face opening up in a heartfelt grin, the sort of unironic expression that stops time, even if briefly. "Thank you, bro. Hey listen, I got a spot now. I got a job, and I got a spot, an apartment just down on uh, Cloverdale."
"Man, I'm so happy for you! You're doin' great!"
"Yeah, better than I was before, huh?"
He gestured back at the middle-aged African-American woman he'd been sitting with. "S my mom. I'm treating her!"
What was I thinking, writing him off as a caricature before? Doubting him? Even if he postured more at the time... People grow. They can be many things at once. I was grateful to learn a few more of his sides. This blog would be missing something if its only record of him was as a wannabe gangster whose most memorable trait was pretending to be from a hard neighborhood.
Had he grown? Or was it me, learning a little more, how to see? Did we perhaps both "go through some stuff," age-alike contemporaries that we are, and come out the other end similarly chastened, humbled, and energized?
Hopefully all of the above.
*For more, search out landmark feminist writer Susan Faludi's gigantic Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man, about society's demand that men have all the answers, know how to fix everything, be heroes, and exist above society rather than take part in it; about how nearly all men feel they cannot live up to those ridiculous demands and feel emasculated as a result; and about how feeling emasculated doesn't sit comfortably with a gender that's been taught to hide its emotions, and to pretend to not have any problems rather than dealing with them.
**Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht. "Man plans, God laughs." Best popularized by Woody Allen, who paraphrased it as, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
Above image: That's me in Hong Kong, circa 2011, on Nathan Road. Yes, there really is such a place!