Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

On Memorial Day, I decided to spend the day riding my bicycle up to Lake Ontario to visit the war museum in Sodus Point, NY. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until the night before when I decided to see if I could find an interesting war memorial within riding distance of my apartment in Geneva. What I found, less than fifty miles away, was a battle site from the War of 1812.

Apparently, during the War of 1812, Sodus Point was burned to the ground by the British. Two American soldiers, and an unknown number of British soldiers, were killed. The prevailing theory held by the locals, as explained to me by one of the museum curators, is that the British lost a great deal more than two soldiers. The locals say that they believe this because the British never returned to the area. I asked the curator if maybe the reason that they never came back was because there was nothing left to burn. I also made a mental note to work harder on keeping my thoughts to myself.

The route to Sodus was pretty straightforward. NY Route 14 would have taken me there without any turns, but I stayed on country roads for better scenery and more hills. As I was riding north toward the lake and trying not to think about anything, I found myself thinking about warfare. No big surprise there, given that it was Memorial Day and I was on my way to visit a war museum. I was thinking about nationalism, and the various motivations for war, which got me to thinking about the origins of aggressive social behavior. When is it that a child learns to pick a fight? Are they born with the urge to fight, or are they taught? If they are born with it, can they be taught to lose it? That got me to thinking about childhood socialization -- the process through which we are all programmed on how to think and act.

People often cite the simple logic of preschoolers as an unimpeachable source of wisdom. Unencumbered by the socialization that awaits them, children view their surroundings through uncomplicated eyes. And, when commenting on what they have witnessed, they call it like they see it, stunning adults with the clarity of raw truth.

The wisdom that children offer heeds no boundary. From a helpful suggestion on how to complete a task with better efficiency, to a casual condemnation of convention and fashion, to no-nonsense advice on conflict resolution. They put it all out there for us to consider. Children are objective and independent thinkers. They are particularly adept at challenging adults to explain the logic behind their conflicting convictions and double standards. This last point, by the way, is why children are not allowed to vote in political elections.

As an aside, I should point out that if you are ever fortunate enough to have a four year old ask you "what's wrong?", seize the moment. Don't go dancing around the issue with dismissive responses like "It's complicated" or "Maybe when you are older, you could understand". Cut the crap. Hiding your fear of honest reflection behind defensive condescension will only serve to deprive you of a rare and invaluable opportunity to simplify your life. Just answer the question and tell the kid what is wrong. She will tell you how to fix it.

Yet, somewhere between the simple days of childhood and the convoluted years of adulthood, our perspective changes.

Courtesy of the randomness of the universe, we are each born into an arbitrary life and culture -- a virtual reality that our ancestors have unwittingly stewarded for countless generations. And as we grow, the stewards teach us about the rules, beliefs, and social standards of their reality. What we eat, who our gods are, who we hate, etcetera.

People are social animals, so our need for social acceptance encourages us to set aside our childish objectivity and logic so that we may follow in the footsteps of our social leaders. In doing so, we reprogram our thinking, learning to filter our raw experiences with the colors, patterns, and textures of our caste. Our objectivity becomes biased and judgmental. Honest interaction is discouraged, in favor of the guarded communication style required of selfish commerce. We learn that honest expression is rarely welcome in the complex social systems of our culture, and we learn to keep our observations and opinions to ourselves. Well, most of us do anyway.

Eventually, we grow to accept the culturally specific model of logic and order, with all of its inconsistencies and fallacies, that has been sold to us. And so, most of us live out our lives within the confines of the virtual reality into which we were born.

Contrary to what you may have come to expect from me, I am not necessarily complaining about this. I can acknowledge that some of those alternative realities are less delusional than others, and even that some of the most egregiously pathological among them have their merits. I am merely pitching the idea that we should embrace simple wisdom when we can find it, and appropriately mourn its loss. After all, what is the value of existence if we deny simple truths?

Ok, back to the bicycle. Through all of this pointless pondering, I had not really been able to put my finger on exactly when or how children learn, or fail to unlearn, the urge to attack their peers. I was still thinking about this as I approached the small town of Lyons, when my thoughts were interrupted by the change in scenery. The economically depressed town stood in vivid contrast to the economically depressed farmland that I had been riding through over the last twenty miles or so. They were two distinct virtual realities, both impoverished, both occupying the same obscure corner of the planet, yet each awkwardly disintegrated from the other.

Riding through the center of town, I noticed a woman and a small child, maybe four or five years old, waiting to cross the road. I approached the intersection, glancing over at them a few times as I usually do around pedestrians, to be sure that they saw me coming and that they were not going to step out in front of me. As I passed by, the woman greeted me. Dutifully engaged in the socialization of her child, and in accordance with best social traditions of her cultural reality, she says to me: "What the fuck are you looking at, bitch?".

Photo Journal

Just a couple of the lake (Ontario) and a farm along the way -- my experience in Lyons had me distracted from photography that day. I also threw in an earlier shot from one of the vineyards where I am working. The photo is from early May, so the vines are pretty bare. The lake at the base of the vineyard is Lake Seneca. The perspective of that last photo is deceiving -- Lake Seneca is a mile wide.

Click here for the Photo Journal