Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I wonder sometimes if it is natural to become more misanthropic as one grows older -- to embody what one might call the "old coot" syndrome. Whether it is typical or not, I certainly find it is true for me. And honestly, I've always kind of looked forward to being an old coot. When I was 15 (in 1973-74) or 25 (in 1983-84), I had little identification with my own generation and felt that whatever criticisms might be launched against us by our elders were probably entirely justified. I believed that although I might be a technically adept writer as a young man, I wouldn't really have anything to say until I was past 40; and I think that has proven to be precisely the case.

Despite my clinical depression, which I have learned to live with, I am outwardly a cheerful and upbeat person. My students have always taken me that way, and I have always felt that I owed them that kind of persona. It's not a put-on. But it's equally true and not at all contradictory to state that I have less and less use for many, perhaps most, people as the years pass. Events conspire to remind me of that pretty much on a daily basis. I have less patience for willful stupidity, for mindless conventionality, for unkindness and petty cruelty. I find myself less and less able to cut those behaviors any slack at all.

Although I basically subscribe to Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis (as propounded in her book Bright-Sided) that "positive thinking" is a scourge on American rationality, I tend to go along with the positive thinking crowd on at least one point: It is helpful to eliminate "toxic people" from your life. Not realistic people; they are always welcome. But I don't think that the concept of "toxic people" is merely a pop psychologism. I have known too many of them, invested in too many of them, and know from experience that their influence is indeed toxic. I will gladly look at any book or website that advises one how to rid oneself of toxic people (or, more rarely but just as helpfully, how not to be a toxic person).

A problem attendant on eliminating toxic people from your life is, however, once you have done so, who will be left? Not very many, in most cases. Ray Romano used to describe one of the thematic wellsprings of Everyone Loves Raymond as, "your family and friends who drive you crazy" (which they definitely will do, if they live next door or across the street). It is unquestionably rich material for a sitcom, which needs those kinds of tensions to play with, but thinking of the issue in a real-world way, my response has invariably been: Cut them loose.  If you are surrounded by "deflationary people," as Raymond clearly is, people who belittle your every thought and aspiration just because they can, you have to rid yourself of those people -- and if they are family members, that makes it all the more imperative. Of course, most folks find this hard to do, because it puts them more or less on their own, and that's even scarier than being constantly criticized. But co-dependency with the enemies of your selfhood is not a state to be desired, either.

As the great poet e.e. cummings once put it, "To be nobody-but-myself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and keep on fighting." In that struggle, sad as it is to say, most people you know are not your friends. So I am thankful for the members of Confabulation, and The Blackboard, and those others who are genuinely my friends, and I hope that I can live up to the ongoing challenge of being the same to them.

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