Garrett (garote) wrote,

The young will always be at odds with the old, forever

When I was younger, I had this idea that parents and kids didn't get along because there were things wrong with the world that the parents were too lazy to deal with, but kids could solve easily if given the chance.

REVOLUTION NOW!!!! Et cetera!

But at the same time, as a kid, I realized there was a huge nasty roadblock to solving those problems: Other young people.

... Because collectively, young people are influenced by what they really understand -- and they haven't been around long enough to understand much.

That's why young people pay so much attention to good physical looks, popularity, and visible material wealth. It's what they collectively understand, so it's what they fight for in their peer groups, and that gives it value and makes it desirable.

When you get older, you realize that good physical looks are only a superficial indicator of attractiveness, and attractiveness is really driven by personality, wit, and poise. You realize that popularity is a superficial indicator of other things that carry real value - like integrity, talent, accomplishments, and power. And you realize that visible material wealth is just a superficial indicator of contentment, and true contentment comes from more subtle things, like friends and family, exploration, self-care, creativity, and romance.

When you are young, these are all things that you think you understand. What you actually do is imagine them as means to the ends that you do understand - talent as a means to popularity, self-care as a means to good physical looks, romance as a means to sex. In this way you devalue what you don't understand ... until eventually you get experienced enough to realize how backwards you've been behaving the entire time. (And by extension, how backwards many people around you are behaving, and how badly a youth-oriented culture misleads everyone.)

Of course, if you're fighting to stay alive and fed most of the time, this sort of enlightenment is no comfort at all...

This is coming to mind for me because I've been looking back at my own history, and finding value-transitions like this. Many times, I've gone from pursuing a goal that I thought would bring me happiness, to achieving that goal and feeling some measure of happiness, to eventually seeing that happiness fade even though the goal was still met, because it was actually dependent on some underlying quality of what I achieved - not the goal itself.

The best examples are with relationships. When I was a teenager I would explode with a combination of happiness and fear if a girl I had a crush on just spoke a few words to me. (For example, in 5th grade, a blond girl named Jennifer sitting down next to me and asking if she could borrow a pen.) It was all I could handle, up until the 10th grade, when I faced the fact that I wasn't really connecting with any of the girls I was attracted to. A few words or a nod in the hallway no longer meant anything to me.

I found that sense of happiness again by having longer conversations, where actual communication took place. In my Junior year I started doing my math homework in the school library before classes started. One day a girl named Tara showed up in the same room, doing her math homework, and we sat at the same table. She was pretty, with long straight hair, a round pale face, and a toothy, enthusiastic grin, but she never wore a revealing or form-fitting outfit, which made me feel safer somehow, and after we worked in relative silence for a few days I took the risk of asking a few non-math-related questions. She was friendly and intelligent, and though she made a point of mentioning that she was dating someone (without naming any names), she didn't shut down the conversation either, and I appreciated that. 25 years later I still remember that feeling of happiness, from learning real things - having a real dialogue - with someone I was attracted to, for the first time ever. (It's hilarious that I remember the feeling, but nothing of what she actually said. Hah!)

But that happiness faded too, when I realized I wasn't making a personal connection. I was always imagining that connectedness in my head, and the feeling I got was based on whatever small way the situation resembled what I imagined. I loaned a girl a pen, or saw her laugh about a story she was telling me, and I filled in the rest of the details myself. Sharing stories and playing 20-questions with a person isn't enough to really connect with them, and once I knew that, I wasn't happy with just any old conversation. I wanted intimate conversation. That took another few years to develop.

So was I wrong the entire time about what I wanted? Or was I just wrong about whether I had it? Or both?

For years my vision was something like: Me and the girl I love, staring into each other's eyes, quietly understanding everything we felt without needing to say a word. Also there would be candles or a fireplace, or we would be sweaty from some fancy outdoor activity like rock-climbing because we were both total badasses. It took me until my mid-20's to realize that that vision was not the pinnacle of anything, it was a relatively unimportant corner-piece of a much more complicated and interesting puzzle.

This all reminds me of a Savage Chickens cartoon that goes:

* Live, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes.
* Repeat until wisdom is acquired.
* Realize that the wisdom you acquired is not really wisdom at all. (This realization brings new wisdom.)
* Repeat for the rest of your life.

I don't think there's a way to short-circuit this. It seems that with every goal, we inevitably find a mismatch between the vision we had, the happiness it promised, and the details of what we've achieved, like snapping a puzzle piece triumphantly into place and slowly realizing that there are just as many irregular edges as before. Of course, this immediately leads us to conclude that it's the process of discovery - the a-ha moment itself - that brings the happiness. But that's too simple of an answer. Sometimes we achieve a goal and it makes us miserable. Sometimes the picture revealed by the new puzzle piece is revolting. We need guidance in our goals, in constructing our visions, or things can go quite wrong.

If I was raised in a less respectful or thoughtful family environment, I might have taken the hormonal surges of sexual desire I felt as a teenager more literally, and embarked on a crusade to get into bed with a girl as soon as possible, by whatever means I had. Tell her lies. Flirt with her in that over-eager, sticky way that young boys can. Push her into doing something uncomfortable. There were times when my desire was so intense I tried to convince myself to behave that way, because I watched other boys that I didn't like, and they had girlfriends. Was being pushy the right tactic? How could it be when I hated being pushed? (It was my stubborn patience that saved me. Eventually I left high school and entered college, and there, most of the men who were threatened by quiet geeky types - and the women who spurred them on - had been weeded out.)

But my point is, when I was younger, my goals and my values were thoroughly constrained, and there was no way around it. "You'll appreciate it when you're older," didn't work; not on an emotional level. A lack of wisdom also worked against me directly, by harassing me with questions I just didn't know how to answer, like "Why do girls wear form-fitting clothing, and then get angry when I stare at them?" (Some men live right through their entire lives without figuring that one out.) As soon as I thought I understood what I wanted and how to get it, the game changed and my ambitions changed right along.

It's kind of ridiculous, but I'm not interested in raging against it, because it's also quite natural. I think it's the fate of all mortal, intelligent creatures to be turning in a kind of wheel of suffering based on learning one thing, and then learning how that thing is wrong, et cetera. What's interesting to me is, we have found a way to hasten and guide this cycle, by passing on what we value, through all kinds of cultural channels, some of then quite powerful, and many of them only recently made available with new technology. From holy books to internet memes, we can guide each other to figure out what really matters just a bit more quickly. Sounds great! I imagine some distant future, where all parents have enough time away from work that they can just spend 15 years caring exclusively for their kids, teaching them, letting them loose and then being there to answer questions, all while taking care of themselves and consulting with other parents as well so everyone's on the same page. A liberal society where you learn by doing, and curiosity - even of dark things - is answered with patience.

On the other hand, history has proven that we're collectively really bad at choosing the right things to pass along, in the right combinations, to bring enlightenment to the next generation. The aforementioned holy books being the biggest, baddest example. We have a tendency to simplify things down into absolutes, and ignore very important context. One good example of this is pornography. I don't think there's a "holy book" anywhere in all of history that has good things to say about pornography, even though the Venus of Willendorf is quite pleasant to look at and predates them all by thousands of years. According to modern Mormons, it "encourages destructive and selfish preoccupation". I think that's a bunch of malarkey. You know what encourages destructive and selfish preoccupation? The concept of original sin. (At least the Mormons got one right by rejecting that.)

And that brings this rickety wagon train of thought around to the recent election. I've seen a resurgence of racism, jingoism, and fear in politics. So many people my age, or way younger, with goals and ideas that seem dangerous to me. What's the best way to change their goals? What's the best way to put their twisted fears to rest?
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