Two of my favorite poems are by Robinson Jeffers: “Shine, Perishing Republic,” and “Hurt Hawks.” In the first, he advises his readers to “be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.” In the second, he says that he’d “sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” Of course there is a lot more in these poems, but those are the startling lines. Jeffers doesn’t care much for humanity as a whole.
A lot of great writers carry a disgust in their hearts for human beings in general. In Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence, speaking in the voice of Rupert Birkin, a character based upon himself, says: “… I abhor humanity. I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no absolute loss if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit,…”
I remember, when I read this passage the first time, 35 years ago, the words jumping off the page as if alive. How brave of Birkin (Lawrence) to express his misanthropic feelings so out loud, so unflinchingly. With no, qualifiers, like “sometimes I feel …” or “in certain moods …”
Everything around me felt suddenly cleaner, firmer: the chair I was sitting on, the rustle of leaves through the open window, the album playing on the stereo. Lawrence had shined a light into a dark region in my heart where I felt the same way as he did.
That’s what idealists generally devolve into, isn’t it? Misanthropes. After we realize that ideals are by their nature unreachable, we may well grind around in the dark cave of misanthropy for a while, and either die in there or find our way back out. Call it the dark night of the soul, this coming to grips with the disappointment people are, especially oneself. That nations are, especially one’s own.
From the beginning, what a miserable failure America has been to its ideals. Maybe we would have been better off if slave owning Thomas Jefferson had never written that all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course this equality, these rights were something Jefferson wanted America to aim for, but pretty poor aim he himself had when he didn’t even free his own slaves in his last will and testament.
Not only are ideals unreachable, they become something not that we aim for, but use to avoid seeing our flaws. By voicing an ideal we kid ourselves to think we have attained it. Only this morning, reading a biography of Henry David Thoreau, I came across, almost as an aside, the detail of Abe Lincoln signing a presidential order for a mass execution in Minnesota, the public hanging of 38 Sioux Indians who had refused to take another broken treaty by the whites sitting down.
How honerable was ole honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, in that particular moment. Dear God, one doesn’t want to know too much about heroes — which is probably one reason why I had never come across that detail before. The country wanted to hush it up, and pretty much succeeded in doing so. Or I didn’t search hard enough. One likes to think America has had at least one president who stood taller in character than Donald Trump.
On second thought, Trump fits into the overall picture of presidents well enough. The history of every so-called civilized country, told in an honest history book, like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, would be 90 percent about the corruption of power. When I consider Robinson’s and Lawrence’s (and my own) misanthropy, I’m sure it first rooted in the horrific but lawful things people with power have done to other people, to animals, to nature, usually in the name of some ideal, in America often in some weird mix of capitalism and Christianity.
In that sense, in despising the despicable, misanthropy starts out as a virtue. However, unfortunately, rarely is it contained there. Disgust for a certain kind of person is prone to migrate, over time, into a disgust for almost everybody (except for one’s friends, of course; misanthropists generally have a pretty good circle of friends and close acquaintances): disgust for aggressive drivers, disgust for rude fans at a college basketball game taunting the visiting team, disgust for people constantly looking at their smart phones.
I possess all of the above disgusts, and many more, but my disgust for smart phone addicts more or less possesses me. Listen to my thoughts right now, in the Daily Grind, a coffee shop in Martinsburg, WV. People are irking me all over the place. One person is talking loudly on her phone, saying things like how she never leaves the house without her dark chocolates, blah, blah, ha, ha. Why t’fuck go out in public and then talk loudly to people about nothing on the phone? Be where you are. Respect other people’s space.
And here’s the dull little nuclear family sitting far too close to my table – a boy for him, a girl for her – adults and children alike on their smart phones, the kids talking in whiny voices, the parents ignoring them, ignoring each other, the little girl, maybe six years old, saying things like, “oh, I’m going to download this when we get home,” sticking her phone screen into the face of her Mom who is so mesmerized by her own phone screen that she can barely feign an interest. When I saw them come in, I thought to myself “there’s a cute looking family,” an observation that obviously had no staying power.
In the Daily Grind, almost everybody goes straight onto their smart phones upon sitting down to their coffee or lunch. No. I misspoke myself. They are already looking at their phone screens as they walk in, as they stand in line to order, while they are ordering.
Go a little further back, they were on them as they drove in; go a little forward, they’ll be on them as they drive out. If it weren’t so terribly sad, it would be slapstick comedy, this massive smart phone addiction that has the modern world in its grip. I don’t see us ever recovering. It brings into focus how annoyingly boring, shallow, and stunted the average person has become, with almost nothing to “share” except for something seen on a screen.
No, I misspoke again. “Average” is not the right word. Average is a good thing, or used to be. It used to be something to feel good about. Being a regular human being, fulfilling normal human functions, learning to read, for example. Becoming a reader. Finding your way to the great literature of the ages so worth reading, so enriching, and so readily available to the average mind. Books like Silas Marner, The Return of the Native, The Rainbow, Catcher in the Rye.
In my formative years, to have attained the status of average was also to have become a person capable of having a meaningful back and forth conversation, a person who has learned to listen (not exactly rocket science) as well as to talk; a person who can relate to the outdoors, who looks up at the sky now and then, contemplates infinity and if one is part of it, given death and all. Average requires, or rather it used to, spending time alone on occasion, by choice; entails not becoming overly impressed with glossy wealth.
What I witness in The Daily Grind, and, really in every public place, is not the average I grew up knowing. In one lifetime “average” has devolved into a ghastly mediocrity. Sometimes I can barely think in its presence.
Whew. There’s a load off, but I’m not the happier for it. I wish I could rest comfortably with my misanthropic side having migrated into this disgust for people in general. Disgust for corruption of power I am still at peace with. But disgust for too many people in my general field, disgust for too many vapid conversations that I can’t help overhearing, doesn’t give me much room to enjoy life. I’m caught in a double bind: too much of what I see sickens me, and how I am seeing also sickens me.
Well, so what, I’ve been telling myself lately. Don’t be a weakling here. It just means you have some work to do. Change what you don’t like. Luckily, for a person like me who grew up in gardens and farmyards, fields and woods and haylofts, with the one screen in my life the Friday night movie in downtown Marion, Michigan, there’s a innate spaciousness that was established early on inside of me that makes it never too late to change.
So, though somewhat late in life, I’m learning some new moves. Here’s one that’s been working pretty well at the Daily Grind. When I catch myself feeling hostile, I imagine the person I’m feeling hostile towards as my own brother or sister, or even my child. It’s remarkable how quickly that takes off the edge off.
Another move that seems to be working is to imagine the person I’m feeling hostile towards in her home alone crying. Hurt about something. Maybe she has reached out for love and has been snubbed. Maybe her father has died. Maybe she just feels plain, unpopular, not well liked in general. Who doesn’t go through deep insecurities along life’s path; heart breaking disappointments that we typically feel in private.
That was one of my big takeaways from Primal Therapy way back in the 70’s. In group sessions, over time, we all saw the pain that each one of us was carrying. Consistently (we all agreed on this), seeing another person’s pain was the immediate end of all harsh judgment.
And maybe most importantly, I’m slowly building into my consciousness the understanding that in judging another, I am nine times out of ten seeing something of myself that I don’t want to see. I’ve known that for a long time. That’s not rocket science either; that’s common knowledge about human psychology. But now I’m taking it seriously. Where the shoe fits, I’m wearing it.
It’s hard work, really, to give up the sly, secret pleasures of disliking people. But I really don’t want to take a habit like that into the grave with me.
(Don’t think that means I love any less brave door openers like Robinson Jeffers and D. H. Lawrence. To the contrary. I love them all the more.)