Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal puts a fairly common theme in a new package and makes it new.
Our perceptions of the world change, and young folks tend to be awfully cock-sure about the nature of reality and how easy it would be to create the perfect society.
And then they gain a little more experience. As Twain may or may not have said, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
People apparently aged a lot faster in those days. My experience is that 21-year-olds are still, for the most part, pretty insufferable.
That notion of "We grow more pragmatic with age" is the commonplace, but what SMBC has done with the bell curve is to suggest that there is a difference between pragmatism and despair.
Or maybe that young people are ignorantly idealistic and that old people are simply cranky and delusional but that there isn't a lot of difference between the two.
I kind of hope that's not what he meant because I'm nearing retirement age and am beginning to think, dammit, it isn't that complex. It just isn't.
As it happens, I was sorting out some boxes the other day and now have a pair of Anderson bumperstickers on my desk awaiting their fate and, meanwhile, reminding me of a time when I thought it was possible to get people to listen.
However, I never really bought into the vision of a world where everyone treated each other with kindness and charity. At least, not when I was straight.
And I never believed that John Anderson had a snowball's chance in hell of winning the election. My hope was that enough people would make the protest vote that he would hit the threshold of gaining federal funding for the next go-round.
More in the "well, maybe ..." sector of the above graphic.
If I had to sum up the difference between the left and right lip of that bell, I'd say it is that the left lip thinks maybe they will listen and the right lip realizes they won't.
In addition to uncovering my old Anderson bumperstickers the other day, I also unearthed, after years of wishing I could find it, this quote from Peter Yarrow, and put it into a graphic:
I originally came across this a few years after he said it, but not many. It was about the time Phil Ochs declared that the war was over, and John and Yoko did the same thing, saying, "War is over, if you want it."
In fact, the whole "back to the earth" movement of that period was based on the idea that they aren't going to listen and that your chief moral responsibility is to your own soul.
Which leaves the question of at what point withdrawal becomes cynical defeatism and empty solipsism, and to what extent you have a moral obligation to engage with others?
Within more traditional circles of the time was the example of Christ turning away from the specific question of paying taxes and, instead, asking people to differentiate between temporal and moral obligations, and making it a zen riddle rather than a directive.
Which includes the question of, if you find an overlap, which obligation becomes subservient to the other?
Easy to answer, hard to apply.
When I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child. And the key to a child's mind is a belief in black-and-white, in a world divided into Good and Evil, a binary, Manichean universe in which the right answers bring forth perfect, magical solutions.
It is a world in which, if only you had cleaned up your room, done your homework and eaten your vegetables, Mommy and Daddy wouldn't have gotten a divorce.
It is also a world in which, if Rush Limbaugh is wrong, then Michael Moore must be right. And vice-versa, because there is a perfect system out there somewhere.
So here I am approaching the right lip of the bell, and what have I learned?
First, you need to outgrow a belief in magic. Sorry, John Sebastian. It may be groovy, seeing all you people living in tents, but at some point, even Candide has to cultivate his garden, where weeds do spring up and not every tomato is without blemish.
Second, you need to outgrow cynicism, or at least, the idea that cynicism is a branch of wisdom.
("Cynicism" comes from the Greek word for "dog," and came to the fore in the person of Diogenes the Cynic, not to be confused with the Diogenes with the lantern. Diogenes the Dog lived an ascetic life in a barrel in the marketplace, and the story goes that Alexander the Great, student of Aristotle and conqueror of the known world, sought him out, expressed admiration for him and asked if there were anything he, the most powerful man in the world, could do for him. Diogenes replied, "Only stand to the side a bit, so as not to block the sunshine.")
The term "cynic" has suffered massive corruption in the intervening millennia and now means either a wiseass or someone so defeated that he hides behind not trying, which brings up the third point:
Third, you need to put aside despair.
If it seems hopeless, maybe you haven't figured out the goal. "Fixing the whole damn system" doesn't have to mean overhauling the government or the monetary system or society.
At least, not all at once. If it did, that would indeed be futile, because they certainly aren't going to listen. Not all of them.
Find the ones who do.
The kid on the left wants applause, and he gets mine for caring and for trying. Partly out of nostalgia, partly to encourage him not to become discouraged, but, rather, to sharpen his focus and learn to operate without expecting to eat the entire elephant in one bite. Or to get a lot of applause.
Because the old man on the right has learned that, as Dylan said, "applause is kind of bullshit."
Do what you can. Leave it better than you found it.
Even if nobody notices.