Monday, January 31, 2011

Emerson, The Wicked Dollar, and The Bumper Sticker

I have for some time struggled with the animosity I feel toward the proliferation of causes we seem to have these days. I even railed against it in a Facebook post the other day in which I wondered why liberals always seem to have so many more bumper stickers than conservatives. The post was intentionally contentious, and I’m neither a liberal nor a conservative, but I am driven to the edge when I see the back of a car that is plastered with every cause from here to eternity. “How can one person care about so much?” I often ask myself. Regardless, I was the same way as a younger guy, and the back of my old Ford Fairmont was plastered with every trite cliché and cause-du-jour that caught my eye. I even had a “Free James Brown” sticker at one point. In hindsight, I think to advocate for the early release of a repeat-offending, heroin-addicted junkie who put his life, the lives of innocents, and the lives of police officers in peril…was, in fact, a very poor cause. He needed the jail time. Godfather of Soul or not.

And, as is often the case, when I am angry about something as random as what stickers someone unknown to me chooses to put on their car, it’s a good sign that it’s time for me to do a little introspection. And, as I mention above, I probably feel the anger I do because I see the “old me” in those people. And, at the expense of sounding like I’m delving into psychobabble, I don’t like the old me at all. So I can project my inner anger outward. That feels better, if only temporarily.

And one of the things that I didn’t like about the old me is that I didn’t have a center. I didn’t have a clue as to who I was; I showed no real passion for one thing or another. I didn’t have a sense for looking into my heart’s center to see if I truly cared about or believed in the things that I espoused externally. And, to be certain, I’m not castigating myself here (at least not consciously). I think to be uncertain of one’s identity is the status quo of modern youth. It’s written a great many catchy pop tunes and for that I am grateful to this angst.

But I do begin to castigate myself a bit (or a lot, to be honest) when I look at who I am as a man in his early forties, with a child and wife, and I realize that I still have very little sense of my center or what I am intended to be in this life.

But, let me very clear: I don’t believe we’re intended to muddle through our lives with no sense of our true purpose. It’s a lie of mediocrity into which too many of us have bought. We are content to be happy for Susan Boyle rather than having the balls to be Susan Boyle.

I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson these days, specifically the essay “Self-Reliance.” And in this amazing piece of literature I have encountered a truth and emotional resonance that I have never before found. It speaks directly, unequivocally, to the rumblings my soul has felt for many years – and those rumblings scream, “Doug, wake the hell up and do what you were meant to do!

And what I was not meant to do, above all else, is follow the prevailing winds. And one of the strongest prevailing winds these days is this sense that if we are helping others, then we are bringing purpose and meaning to our soul. That if we give to causes, that if we give to those less fortunate than us…well, then, by God, we are being good humans. And “bollocks!” is what my heart screams when I hear this. My lot in life is not to be charitable to others simply so I can assuage the sense of self-betrayal that I feel at not bringing my own inner genius to fruition.

This morning, I read the following from Self-Reliance, which, as you may be able to tell, has lit a bit of a fire under me:

“Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

In my early twenties, I had the following encounter with a friend of mine from high school, who has always been wiser than his years would attest: We passed a homeless man on the streets of a large city. I gave him a dollar and immediately, a smile of self-contentment came over me. He sensed this, and asked me why I was so happy all of a sudden. I replied that I felt good because I was able to help my fellow man. He replied, “Did you really help him? Or did you just give him a dollar to make yourself feel good?” The asshole was right, as usual.

As I read Emerson’s lines above, and in full realization of the fact that what Emerson thinks of the notion of Charity is of little consequence to some, I ask the following:

Is the “system of entitlements” in our country really helping anyone?

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