I always tend to get contemplative and introspective in February. It’s my birthday, two of my kids’ birthdays, two of my favorite musicians’ birthdays, hell it’s Facebook’s birthday! It certainly gives plenty of reason to look back and to assess. A conclusion I’ve made this year, and certainly not a revelation, is that I was not born this way. Unfortunately the gospel of Gaga is incorrect and I was not born as the person I am now.When I was in college my poorly chosen major was K-12 education. That meant that the subject of nature vs nurture occupied a good deal of my mental space. Somewhere there is a rotting PC with a 10-page essay on its hard drive that has me extrapolating the virtues of each argument. While I’ve come to realize that nature certainly played a part in who I became, nurture seemed to be the only logical explanation for who I am. But then my inner snowflake started calling out. I’m too unique to be the result of two options, right? I’m so complex, and interesting, and different!
The older I get, the more ridiculous I find myself. When I was a teenager, and well into my early twenties, I struggled for acceptance by alternative groups. The names change over time, but they’re all the same. Freaks, goth, emo, punks, hipsters. They’re all just names of people searching for acceptance but who don’t fall into the larger majority categories. Of course at the time I didn’t realize the absurdity of claiming to be an individual while desperately struggling to be anything but. A couple of decades later and I’m able to laugh at my former misery, anger, and hatred.
If you’d asked me a question back then such as, “Why do you smoke?” my response would have been something to the effect of, “Because I like it.” All while maintaining a look of effortless casualness that is so contrived I want to punch my former self in the face. The real reason that I began smoking is that one day after school 3 or 4 kids that I determined to be far cooler than myself were smoking. They offered me one. Refusing seemed to me the most ridiculous choice I could make. Again, the irony isn’t lost on current self. In my struggle to be an individual, a rebel, a unique snowflake, I refused to make a choice to be different. Sigh. Some time after that I was buying a pack of cigarettes about once a month just to have them around. Whenever in the presence of said “cooler kids” I would have one or two. Then, and I honestly don’t know why, after one of these friends killed himself I somewhat latched on to smoking. I don’t know if it was a result of his suicide, some sort of bizarre memorial maybe, or if it was totally unrelated. I just started smoking more.
Around the same time I was invited to go along with my older brother to a New Year’s Eve party. I was 13 or 14. Everyone there was closer to 15 or 16 and they were drinking. I was offered a drink. It tasted like earwax and urine. I got no pleasure from being drunk. It was a feeling of moving in slow motion, but far too fast. I felt sick. Again, the idea of actually being an individual while pretending to be an individual never occurred to me. I would proceed to smoke, drink, and party to an absurd level for the next 5 or 6 years all while never really enjoying myself. It wasn’t until long after I was 21 and could start buying good beer that I actually enjoyed drinking it, and by that point I didn’t really drink to get drunk.
Now I’m 17. I’m visiting my brother at college. Someone asks if I want to smoke a bowl. Try not to laugh too hard here. I was under the pretty firm impression that this meant we would put some tobacco in a wooden bowl of sorts, light it on fire, and breathe it in. There’s a scene in crocodile dundee that actually contributed to this bizarre notion but I digress. I went into a back room with a few people and they handed me a crumpled up beer can with some embers on it. Rather than say no, rather than admit I had never done this, and rather than admit that I didn’t really have an urge to do this I just took a hit. Oh how unique and individualized we all were! Shortly thereafter getting high would become my only priority or function in life. The better part of my Junior and Senior year of high school exist for me only in pictures that I’ve seen or in stories that others have told me.
Off to college I went. Here’s a chance to reinvent myself! I can be the real me, since there are no preconceived notions about me! Oh how quickly that changed. Like most freshmen I became an accumulation of the influence of my professors and dorm mates. I found myself talking about things I didn’t care about, listening to bands I didn’t really enjoy, hanging out with people I found annoying. Amidst all of this confusion, and denial of self, something else was happening. My future wife and I were becoming closer. We were becoming more real with each other as time went on. I was exposing her to the genuine parts of me. Telling her all of the weird, embarrassing, depressing, hilarious, disgusting, fucked up, and amazing things that went through my head. The more she accepted me, the more I exposed to her, until eventually I was laid bare.
This seems like an amazing result of an amazing relationship, and it was! The problem was the person I’d become for everyone else in the world. I had gotten so used to not being me, that I’d forgotten what it felt like. As I began to gain that back, I began to lose my tolerance for being the artificial me I’d invented. I began to hate that person. I began to hate everyone that I viewed as “responsible” for that person’s existence. Then came the detachment. In a move that, even now, my wife never seemed to fully understand, I detached the two versions of myself. The true me was left to live, the fake me was left to die. The casualties of this war were anyone or anything attached to the fake me. My parents, most of my extended family, former friends, a band, college, a brother, I’m pretty sure some clothes might have gotten tossed out. It was Armageddon time!
For someone who had spent their whole life searching for acceptance, it was an odd feeling turning away so many people at once. Looking back, it still seems a little strange to me but in the end it made total sense. I’d found true, unconditional acceptance, and nothing less would do anymore. Of course there was blow back from such a move. Many people didn’t understand it, many people were hurt by it, and some good people that would have probably enriched my life were lost in the shuffle. Additionally I developed an almost frightening callousness to losing people from my life. A friend, a relative, anyone could come and go and it didn’t really seem to phase me. Grandparents would die, and I would say the things that I know I’m supposed to say but truthfully I wouldn’t feel a loss. I could, and would, go years without speaking to or seeing friends and it wouldn’t trip me up in the slightest. Call it evolution, or devolution and both would probably be correct.
Nurture would just seem to be too simple an argument to make though. It’s too narrow a term for my glorious unique spirit to be encased in! But it’s completely accurate. I was raised by a mother who was selfish, wasn’t nurturing, was crazy, and seemed to only ever be interested in how the world affected her. Can it be all too surprising that I ended up with the woman that I did? Someone who is always caring, selfless, kind, and is genuinely concerned about the happiness of others. I was never accepted for who I was at home when I was a kid. I was constantly told to stifle, or correct what were viewed as imperfections in my personality. I suppose it’s no shock that the woman I chose to marry was completely accepting of all of my “quirks.”
I had no real father growing up, and since the day my first daughter was born I’ve been a borderline shut in/stalker I’ve spent so much time with my kids. Religion was stuffed down my throat as a child, and open discussion was a foreign concept. It can be no surprise that the opposite has always been true for my kids. Nurture really is the rule, albeit an inverse of the rule in my case.
I made a comment to a coworker the other day that I was not born a boring, conformist, office worker. My wife was not born with an apron around her neck, and babies firing from her vagina! We’ve become these things (albeit these are drastic over simplifications). There is quite literally a 31 year long story that precedes my existence as anyone currently sees it. I may not be a risk taker, or adventurous, or even all too “free thinking” these days. My wife may not be striving for promotions, or out having cocktails with “girlfriends” or breaking through some mythical glass ceiling for her children. We’ve had our excitement. We’ve had our struggles. There are stories behind each carefully calculated decision that have led me from a roach infested hovel in a town of 1200 people to my comfortable and simple house in suburbia. There are reasons why someone who was raised on foodstamps and donation bin clothes views a middle class life as a life of luxury. There are two fatherless boys who know why two men consider raising 7 children the greatest achievement they’ll ever need to have.
My existence is not one category or the other. My existence is not these words, or this day, or the lens through which you see me. My existence won’t ring out through all eternity like some great king of the past. I will live, and eventually I will die, and I struggle with everything that exists between those two events. My existence is a story that’s been told for the last 31 years, and will continue to be told for as long as I’m allowed to tell it, by a God that I’ve cursed and praised all in the same decade. Next year, I may have a different viewpoint of my life, or life in general. I may find my beliefs, assumptions, and opinions at this point to be absurd, with the benefit of the experiences of the next 365 days.
I’ve learned that there is no right or wrong. It’s all subjective. I know what I feel is right, and I know what my wife feels is right. Beyond that I’ve learned that I don’t accept everyone else, and they don’t need to accept me. It’s irrelevant to my existence as I see it on this day, at this hour, and at this minute. That is who I am as of day 11,317.
Until Next Time