Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
In Artic Dreams, Barry Lopez somewhere talks about an Inuit word for a wise person. The word, if I recall, means “someone who through their behavior creates an atmosphere in which wisdom is made tangible.” When I read Lopez a few years ago, I thought of Paul Mundschenk. As I recall, I never once heard him claim to possess, say, compassion, good faith in others, or kindness. Yet, he embodied those virtues, as well as others: He made them visible.
Mundschenk was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, and, as you might imagine, I discovered he was inspiring. But not inspiring in the sense that I wanted to be like him. Rather, inspiring in the sense he showed me that certain virtues could be honest and authentic. I was a bit too cynical as a young man to see much value in compassion, good faith, kindness, and so forth. I thought intelligence mattered an order of magnitude more than those things. Yet, because of Mundschenk, and a small handful of other adults, I could only deny the value of those virtues; not their authenticity.
I can see in hindsight how I naively assumed at the time that we all grow up to be true to ourselves. Isn’t that normal for a young man or woman to make that assumption, though? Aren’t most youth slightly shocked each time they discover that yet another adult is, in some way important to them as a youth, a fake?
Perhaps it’s only when we ourselves become an adult that we eventually accept most of us are less than true to ourselves, for by that time, we so often have discovered what we consider are good reasons not to be true to ourselves.
If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Mundschenk never grew up. That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.
Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man. He was anything but confrontational. Rather, his notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any fronts or airs. He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform.
Often, when I remember Mundschenk, I remember the way he shrugged. I remember some folks for their smiles, others for their voices, but Mundschenk for his shrug. It seemed to hint of Nature’s indifference, but without the coldness. Which, I guess, makes me wonder: Is there anything unusual about someone who is both notably indifferent to himself and notably true to himself?
I was put in mind of Paul Mundschenk this morning because of a post I wrote for this blog three years ago. The post was intended to be humorous, but I titled it, “An Advantage of Being Cold and Heartless?“. Consequently, the post gets two or three hits each day from people looking for advice on how to make themselves cold and heartless.
I can imagine all sorts of reasons someone might want to make themselves cold and heartless. Perhaps someone they are on intimate terms with — a parent, a sibling, a spouse, a partner — is wounding them. Or perhaps they are among the social outcasts of their school. But whatever their reasons, they google search strings like, “How do I make myself cold and heartless?”
Nowadays, I think it is a mistake to try to make yourself tough, cold, heartless, or otherwise insensitive. But I certainly didn’t think it was a mistake 30 years ago, when I was a young man.
Yet, I see now how my values and priorities in those days were not largely derived from myself, but from others. The weight I placed on intelligence, for instance, was from fear that others might take advantage of me if I was in anyway less intelligent than them. I valued cleverness more than compassion and kindness because I thought cleverness less vulnerable than compassion and kindness. And I carried such things to absurd extremes: I can even recall thinking — or rather, vaguely feeling — that rocks were in some sense more valuable than flowers because rocks were less vulnerable than flowers. The truth never once occurred to me: What we fear owns us.
It seems likely that when someone seeks to make themselves insensitive, they are seeking to protect themselves, rather than seeking to be true to themselves. If that’s the case, then anyone who tries to make themselves less sensitive than they naturally are runs the risk of alienating themselves from themselves.
Can a person who is significantly alienated from themselves be genuinely happy? I have no doubt they can experience moments of pleasure or joy, but can they be deeply happy? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps a little bit like asking whether someone who wants a melon will feel just as happy with a pepper instead.