It was a warm weekend evening in September of 1985. We sat in our small urban backyard, pink clouds over-head, starting on a second pitcher of Sangria after a shish-ka-bob and salad dinner. I was more or less happy. I’d become aware of the need to marinate meat the week before and the beef and lamb skewered between red onion, green peppers, and fresh cut pineapple was as tasty as anything you’d get at the Shiska-Wu truck downtown. It was a beautiful evening. Our friends, I’ll call them Gary and Monica, were happy, too. We were all happy — satiated, a bit tipsy, present in the beautiful evening together, young, fit, beautiful, on our way. Gary and Monica were just hitting 30. We — my wife at the time, and I — were just edging that way at 27.
And then I brought up the earthquake that had just happened in Mexico. Michoacan on the west coast had been ruthlessly devastated by this catastrophe with thousands dead and injured. A tsunami added to the carnage. I said, “We spend so much time talking about nuclear war and invest so much in new weapons, but our military should be investing heavily as a nation in helping countries deal with disasters like this instead.”
It was an innocuous statement. I was making intelligent conversation. One of the skills you develop in college, if you care to learn, is the art of moral discourse. You don’t really learn it in class. It comes in all those late night debates and discussions about the state of the world and the meaning of life.
Monica said, “You know, I see what you’re getting at, but, frankly, I’m tired of worrying about other people’s problems. We need to focus on what matters to us.”
“Yeah,” Gary said, “it’s time to cut our losses and stop trying to save the world. I’m tired of paying so much in taxes. Do you know what I pay?”
I remember Monica finished her glass of fruit juice and wine. She spun the remaining ice cubes expertly in the bottom of the glass then reached for the pitcher and a re-fill.
There was silence. At first, it seemed normal. But it built up, the way moments sometimes do if you’re paying attention. And then it felt like everything just stopped — the sound of cars a block over; the hum of wind; late summer insect songs. All noise was virtually non-existant. Gary moved a knife around on his plate and it didn’t make a sound. It was as if the whole world had paused to take that statement in.
What matters to us…?
Our friends Monica and Gary were good people. They were well-educated and highly liberal. Gary and I often had great discussions about free market economics and socialism. We both agreed that the key to economic freedom was not unfettered capitalism, nor was it collective control and ownership of private property. The key, it seemed to each of us, was a democratic economic system that spread responsibility between the public and private sectors. Gary is the first person I ever heard say that we don’t really have a mixed economy so much as a democratic one.
Monica did lots of health work with low income women and girls. Gary had a number of special projects he worked on to help the poor. Both of them were avid supporters of the burgeoning rap music movement.
You get the picture, right? And yet, there they were saying it was time to cut our losses and that we needed to pay attention to what mattered to us.
The world stood still for me that day. I know it didn’t really stop, but it sure seemed like it. Because, in fact, the world didn’t stop — I did. That was my first brush with something that I see more and more these days. It’s been growing and morphing in ways that make it hard to discern. But it’s there nonetheless — it’s getting too easy not to think outside the box. It’s become old hat to question reality. It is easier to ignore the suffering of others because it costs too much — either monetarily or figuratively.
Those of us who still want to ponder morality and the meaning of life are more often than not humored or regarded as quaint. But we’re becoming more and more alien every day; we’re treated in many ways like doddy old uncles and aunts. That is, we’re given that kind of “tutt-tutt” pass if we’re calm and thoughtful with our ideas. Many of us, though, are quite frustrated and sick of people ignoring us. Many of us get loud, argumentative, and overtly self-righteous. We can’t help it. The 20th century was all about looking out for other people and taking care of each other — even though we did such a bad job of it.
Up through the 1970s, it was also a time to reflect on the mysteries of the mind and the meaning of love and to walk the fine line between the pleasures of the body and selfishness. We talked a lot about how we were all going to be dead and buried in 100 years and no one would even know we existed. We wondered what death was. We took great delight in all these mysteries. They were inevitably open-ended and never definitively answerable. But that was why questioning life and thinking about its ultimate meaning(s) was so alluring.
That last century began with a full-frontal assault of religion and God on so many levels (not spirituality, but the hardened bunkers of traditional theological dogma) and it floated up and out and over the causeway of civilization. All of us looked over the side to view the world like it’s never been viewed before. We were giddy with the possibilities of what we saw, and we were giddy with our new responsibilities. For if you are all of a sudden free to wonder about the ultimate questions of the Universe in that kind of fearless and sublime way, but also filled with the courage and almost superhuman capacity to accept the beauty and simple joys of life as answers themselves, well, then anything is possible and the knowledge that whatever we envision can be made real is one helluva profound and celebration-worthy realization.
That all changed in the 1980s. For me, my realization of this came in my backyard that late summer evening in 1985. People didn’t want to juggle the puzzles and mysteries anymore. Thinking big was out. I noticed it more and more over time. People wanted answers. All of a sudden they knew. Some folks locked on to God and religion; some became libertarians or even dyed-in-the wool liberals. Others glommed onto social issues like abortion, gender rights, and environmental stewardship (or the antithesis for each of these). A heck of a lot of folks got rolling with free market capitalism (the seeds for this were, of course, always there, but by 1985 a dogmatic movement was blossoming into one strange bouquet of things to come). And so many decided it was all about hunkering down, making money, and/or just enjoying themselves.
It can be argued that this need to latch onto something, or a group of somethings, is natural. After decades of seeking, our collective energies were sapped. It’s certainly much easier to focus on some thing than just be amazed by Life.
Einstein’s theory of relativity had been transplanted into everything from the arts to the civil rights movement and geo-political conflict. But relativity can be quite tiring. Life is so frustrating. The 20th century saw some of the most horrendous holocausts humanity has been capable of in Europe, Russia, and China. And while slavery was outlawed by the end of the 19th century in most of the world, inequality and injustice resulted in 20th century atrocities that boggled the mind. A relative world, a world without God and divine rule, was a dangerous and mind-numbing form of barbarism, especially because so much transcendant beauty and human potential stood side-by-side with that barbarism.
And so, here we are in the second decade of the 21st century. The Western world and Islam are pitted against each other. Africa is slowly being bought up by China, which already bought up much of the US economy. Climate change is essentially being ignored by everyone in power now everywhere — as well as most of us not in power. And the fact that no one can get Israel to stand down and cut the Palestinian people a break shows how utterly bereft of imagination and justice the rest of us are — and Israel and Palestine.
It’s ironic. Virtually everyone thinks they know the answer to everything that matters now. The questioning of life and its mysteries has all but ended. We live in a world where everyone thinks they’re the smartest person in the room, and yet, things are more fucked up than ever before. Somehow that doesn’t compute.
I go back to Monica’s statement so long ago: “…what matters to us.” When you think you have all the answers, it’s easy to think you know what matters. What matters to us is a statement of value, though. Because what matters to Monica may not matter to me. And what mattered to Monica on that fateful September night nearly 30 years ago may not matter to her anymore. She adopted a little girl a decade after that evening of Sangria and shish-ka-bob. That little girl is of partial Mexican decent.
What matters to us is what counts every day. I have numerous friends struggling with their marriages right now. What matters to them these days is getting through that pain. But in another decade what will matter to them is the future of their grand children and the happiness of their own adult children in a world that continues to show no signs of coming to its senses.
So, I ask you: what matters to you? Do you really think that you know the answers to all those questions? Do you really no longer care about the big ones and the ones that seem so important but are so unanswerable it is easier to ignore them?
Gary said, “Time to cut our losses.” Is that even an option?
It is hard living in a relative world. It is hard defining the future and having the courage to admit our failures and our self-deceit. But it’s supposed to be hard. Those answers you think you have? They’re not answers. They’re blinders. Making up the truth is not the same thing as seeking the truth. We can start thinking again. It’s easy. The first step is not to think this essay is a bummer. It’s not intended that way.
The second step is to flick that switch and begin to enjoy the difficulty of life. Learn to ask questions again and do that with a smile on your face and love in your heart. Let yourself cry when you hear young children’s voices singing. Get personal with your emails and tweets. Compliment people you work with, especially those you are in charge of. Look people in the eye when you shake their hand. And marinate meat before you cook it. I usually use sugary juices, garlic salt, vinegar or wine, and soy sauce. Sometimes, like that night in 1985, marinating meat and then grilling it makes it perfect. And if you’re a vegetarian, well, marinate your vegetables, too. And think while you’re doing this. Think about what matters. And then come to dinner with some really interesting questions.