Thursday, December 31, 2015

Another Year In The Rear-View Mirror

     Viewed objectively, our celebration of the New Year is more than a bit silly. December 31 and January 1 are entirely undistinguished days, no different from any others on the calendar. Yet millions of people deem them occasions for raucous partying and the consumption of way too much salty snack food. There are numerous television “specials” replete with celebrity hosts and performers. There’s the whole Times Square / ball-drop spectacle. And of course, there’s the way the partier feels the next morning: the salt-saturated “hangover” that reminds him of why he’d said “never again” exactly one year before.

     The “year in review” column is a common practice among persons who write for public consumption. I’ve done a few, myself. (Perhaps this will be one such; you won’t know until you’ve read all the way to the end, now will you?) But the events of each year connect seamlessly to those of the year before it, and to the events that will follow. Apart from phenomena that are specifically tied to the calendar, such as sports seasons, the year-end punctuation is entirely a mental artifact.

     We do it anyway, and for a reason few of us take time to contemplate: we need mileposts. We need ways to demarcate our lives into segments small enough to comprehend. Yes, life is an organic whole. Yes, it isn’t really possible to regard one day apart from all others, much less one calendar year. But we seem to need to try it anyway.

     For obvious reasons, the elderly – I’m one such – are more likely to spend their time looking backward than forward. When we look backward, we might see particular years as particularly important to us, but it won’t be because of the number at the top of the calendar. It will be because the events of that period glow especially brightly in our memories. People and places, delights and disasters, and the recognition of important transitions all play a part. Most important is the way we remember those things in the context of life as a whole, for they, not the increments in the year, are the real mileposts in our lives.

     Yet there’s much about any man’s past that he would rather forget. As Jean Valjean says at the conclusion of Les Miserables, we’re all fools most of our lives. The overwhelming majority of our lessons arrive through our mistakes – and the greater the lesson, the more painful the mistake.

     Many of our worst mistakes arise from wishful thinking: that desire, in opposition to everything we’ve ever read, seen, heard, or experienced, to believe that “it will all be all right,” that “things will be better in the morning.” How often has it really been that way? How often have we awakened to a vista even bleaker than the night before? How many times have we said, to ourselves and to one another, “If only I’d known then what I know now?” How often have we strained to forget that we did know better then – that though we knew better, we willfully chose to do worse?

     I once tried to keep a count of such episodes. I lost track long ago.

     In his lawyer’s autobiography My Life In Court, the late Louis Nizer wrote that “Defeat is education. It is a step to something better.” That’s the optimistic view – the view that assumes that we’ll learn from our defeats, our mistakes. Yet in many cases we lose, or at least fail to gain that for which we strove, not because we blundered but because the prize was unattainable, or the enemy not defeasible, at least given the powers and resources at our command. Don Quixote isn’t remembered for fighting and losing to potentially defeasible enemies, but because he “tilted at windmills:” enemies he could not affect in the slightest, that didn’t even realize he was trying to joust with them.

     Consider how many people rail against acquisitiveness, which they call “greed.” Consider how many people condemn “racism” and “sexism,” which are merely the human preferences for others of one’s own kind. Consider how many people denounce “homophobia,” mistaking the natural disgust at an unnatural, unhealthful, life-shortening “lifestyle” for a fear that it might be contagious.

     These are “enemies” no man can defeat. They are written into our natures. To struggle against them isn’t noble, but foolish. Rather, we should seek to enlist them and turn their forces to our advantage. But try to convince a “progressive” of that.

     We salve the wounds from our follies, especially those from the tendency to “think” with our desires instead of our reason, with a variety of balms:

  • “At least you tried.”
  • “It couldn’t be helped.”
  • “Now you know better.”

     I did a few foolish things in the Year of Our Lord 2015. A couple were self-indulgent; others were merely heedless or thoughtless. No, I shan’t catalog them for you. As the gag runs in defense engineering: “How’re you doing?” “You have no need to know.” And I can recall, at least in a few instances, applying one or more of the remedies above to the hurt I’d earned. But those things can numb you to the lesson you could derive from your blunder. If there’s anything truly educational about defeat, it lies in the pain it inflicts; as P. J. O’Rourke has written, it teaches us that we’re boneheads.

     A wise man I paid too little attention at the time tried to tell me so. Given how often I’ve excused myself for my stupidities and struggled away from the pain they brought me, to assume that I learned from them, that I’ll manage to avoid those or similar follies in 2016, might be the most foolish thing of all.

     An odd column from the Curmudgeon Emeritus to the World Wide Web, eh? Chalk it up to too poor a night’s sleep and too good a memory. Kurtz looked into the abyss and was gripped by terror. I look back at 2015 and am gripped by if-onlies.

     Happy New Year, Gentle Reader. I hope your 2015 was a good one and your 2016 still better. For my part, I’ll try to look only forward. Above all else, conserve your hopes, for oftentimes they’re all you have. Besides, hope is one of the theological virtues.


Groman said...

Health and happiness to you and yours in the New Year.

Groman said...

Health and happiness to you and yours in the coming year. Thank you for all that you've written over the years. Whether in agreement or not, usually in, I appreciate what you've penned here and elsewhere.

Tim Turner said...

'if there’s anything truly educational about defeat, it lies in the pain it inflicts;"

The pain of losing isn't that someone beat me. It's not that John or Paul or Muhammad beat me. I have nothing against them.

It's that I tried and lost. I believe we're hard-wired to try and WIN. Scraping out a living as a solo human against the earth and wind and rain and age is a losing proposition. We're gonna die.

Even with a billion of you next to me, it's up to ME to believe that I can make a difference, if I can believe that all of us together can.

Whether it's baseball, football, academics or business, I wasn't EVER trying to beat a girl, a Negro, an Arab or a Liberal. I was trying to do my best and get something - a medal, an award, a job I thought I deserved.

Now people give trophies to every kid for just showing up. You know that's wrong. We're hard-wired to succeed and that means winning - not to beat someone else, but to be the best we can and protect our woman, children and way of life.

By convincing kids that showing up is enough (which is what a trophy for everyone is) we're really telling them that a team is worth nothing more than jacking off. It doesn't matter, because you get nothing more for your best effort than you'd get if you just stayed home and wished for the best.

What's worse is, we're implicitly teaching our kids that nothing is worth winning, because by winning, we're beating some innocent.

Wrong, on so many counts. Winning is what we're hard-wired to do. We're not amoebas or mindless nebulae. We have limited power, but boundless minds to dominate and procreate.

Winning - striving, doing your best, giving your all against an enemy - is not beating an innocent. It is making the best of what God or nature gave you and *protecting* the others of your kind.

But, yes, sometimes winning is beating the enemies that you recognize are a threat even before they storm into your bedroom and kill your loved ones.

God Damn Reverend Wright, Obama, Vin Jones, Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders, Ruth Ginsberg and their ilk for thinking that by denying their heritage they are being "right."

They are doing nothing more than letting people more careless and evil than they are destroy everything that brave and hardworking generations have tried to build.