Everything’s got phases. Fashion. The moon. The economy. Your trust in the institutions that shape you.
Barring chemical instability or a particularly tough row of sorrow to hoe, which emotional factors can mar judgment, when you swing back into skepticism like the moon, you come back a little older and a little wiser. Full of a little more insight into what you believed the last time you were here: what about it was right and what about it was wrong.
I peddled, for many years, a kind of earnestness I imagined could’ve been hocked, like Truthiness, as a well-intentioned concept-cum-bullshit-word. Earnesty, I thought it could be called. Prior to that I adopted the knee-jerk cynicism worn like a favorite sweater by anyone of the right age in a liberal school, surrounded by peers who believed the same. When I grew tired of it, I couldn’t just lay it aside like said sweater. I had to abhor it. (I ran stats once on a study whose point was to prove that most people will come to be happy with the choices they made after the fact, even if denied their original, most-desired choice. We adapt to second-best.) Hence earnesty. I tired of my classmates waxing poetic about The Man and The System and how They’re All In It Together. “They” this, “they” that; there was always some nebulous “they” out to get you and it was so ridiculous and paranoid I jettisoned most of those people from my life for good.
But I’m halfway through This Town now, and yes I know his tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. Yes I know the value of the book isn’t in its revelations so much as its wit. It’s not supposed to be a revelation, the degree to which “they” are all “in it together.” Everyone is supposed to know this.
I try to imagine, though, how I would address the younger version of me, or someone like her, still in that full-mooned cynicism of college and reading this book. How would I rationalize it? The quote that opens one chapter is from Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It is one thing to rail about this sanctimoniously and to believe that you are the special snowflake who can sail in and hang on to your integrity and clean things up and kick out the criminals. But when you swallow all of the truth of it–when you acknowledge that you, like the better people that came before you, would probably fall prey to the same petty concerns they did, and become part of the racket–what remains? When you know that the people you knew who went to work for things they believe in now do no such thing? Who gets to keep doing something they know matters? Is it that everyone turns pernicious and predatory and self-serving with age, or is it more that there wasn’t a great deal worth “believing in” in the first place, and that age causes you to realize this?
I have in no way been pushed to some sort of quarter-life crisis by, of all things, This Town. That’s another difference I think that comes with the perennial return to mindsets you embrace and lay aside; embrace and lay aside. For younger people this might be worth slamming doors and crying over. Or sailing to a foreign land and declaring freedom from. But it doesn’t seem worth that now. A raucous protest would last only as long as it took the moral compass of enough people with money to swing the other way again. And that’s not bitterness talking. That’s just blandly observed fact.
A friend just left my home whom I hadn’t been close to in years–not since we were both earnest college students. I asked her what she was doing these days and she hedged and dodged and finally, as a requirement of an anecdote, confessed to “having finally caved” and to be “working for the man.” It took me a moment to realize that the silence that followed was uncomfortable for her. It hadn’t dawned on me that she might be expecting, given our shared past, condemnation or at least stifled distaste. But she can pay her rent in a city four times as expensive as my own, and can put away three times as much as I can for a rainy day. She’s still the same person and loves the same people. Why would I fault her for finding a way to get by?
Well, I wouldn’t. Not now. And maybe that’s the difference, when you return to a cynicism you laid aside before. The fangs of it dull with age; grow familiar and less sharp. It isn’t that these things you used to believe in turn up empty to spite you, or as the result of spiteful of actions taken by someone else. They were always empty. But you carry on regardless, because–barring chemical instability or a particularly rough row of sorrow to hoe–that’s what you do.
Just maybe with a little less conviction this time.