An Open Book: The Examined Life

Los Alamos

I was not involved in many college extracurriculars. I did join the “Unicorn” humor magazine as a freshman, and after one contribution, the editor told me I had a “Chekhovian” sense of humor. I smiled back and nodded, but I had no idea what that meant. Whether he meant a compliment or most probably some sophisticated insult, I never went back to another meeting. The funny ending is that a few years later, the “Unicorn” was shut down due to an article that, even for a college humor magazine, was in extremely poor taste. So, I guess the joke was on them, whatever joke that was.

Fortunately, soccer intramurals did not require any literary education. We formed a decent B-league team from a group that had met in freshman orientation. Although most of us were from the New York area, one of us hailed from an exotic, far-away place named Texas. In honor of the Lone Star State, we decided on a team name that would strike absolute fear in our opponents, a Texan’s post-beer flatulence. To a bunch of freshmen at around 2 am this made perfect sense, so our team was christened “TBF,” which either stood for Tony-Bob-Frank, or for you-know-what.

The only season when I didn’t join TBF was my junior year. For some unremembered reason, instead I signed up with a C-league team. Their name was much more offensive, “The Fairies.” This is where my story gets darker and uncomfortable to retell.

I don’t remember meeting anyone who was openly gay during my whole career at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and I cannot fathom what the queer experience at RPI might have been in those days. This was before the AIDS epidemic and the increased visibility of LGBTQ issues. But given the toxic atmosphere at a primarily engineering school in the late 1970’s for the few women on our campus, there would have been little acceptance of alternative identities and lifestyles. Certainly, my soccer team’s behavior, which included wearing pink team shirts to accentuate the homophobia we embraced, contributed to this noxious campus culture. My participation on that team is the most regretful, embarrassing, and distasteful choice I made in college.

The ultimate gift that a long life offers us is the opportunity to look back on our actions with perspective and to accept gratefully whatever wisdom comes with it. I don’t know who I insulted or harmed on the soccer pitch that season. For all I know, there might have been queer students on other teams, in the stands, maybe among my teammates. I am sure I also offended those straight students with the least level of maturity and sensitivity that I lacked.

Ironically, around the same time that I was making a fool of myself by associating with this soccer team, I was taking an introductory class in philosophy. Probably the first class was on Socrates, and he posited that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As a college student eager to learn profundities even as I acted like a jerk, I interpreted the aphorism as a directive to spend our lives wrestling with profound philosophical questions. But now I know the lesson was much simpler: we should look at our actions over time and, if not atone for those that were wrong, at least learn from them.

This blessing of perspective is bestowed on communities as well as individuals. All of us, individually, and communally, can accept our historical sins and seek renewal. We just celebrated Independence Day, the anniversary of a declaration of principles whose ideals, as limited in vision, and imperfect in implementation as they were at its initial pronouncement, have the fertility to grow and mature and achieve new richness if we as a community give ourselves that mission. Allegiance to the principles that formed our country does not imply that we must be tied to our past, in some form of adoration. The adoration should be toward the principles that imbued them with a virtuous purpose, not our, or our ancestors’, choices.

Our country is now going through this healthy periodic review of our history, our present, and what we want for our future. Let us remember that words on paper, whether written by a founding father or not, are only as powerful as the meaning so provided by those who read them. As we grow as individuals, we grow as societies, they accrue new meaning and new significance with time and experience. So does our language, and so do our symbols. It is not a repudiation of the whole of our traditions to re-examine, and as needed, to repudiate, those parts that in retrospect represented something we no longer accept, those experiences like the one I just confessed to, that had we been more thoughtful or gracious, or blessed with more wisdom, we might not have ever accepted. So, yes, statues can and should come down when their purpose to preserve or celebrate something we no longer tolerate has been recognized. Statues should come down when we now see, when we have achieved more perceptive eyes, that they are rightfully odious to our friends and neighbors and co-workers.

However, it should be done in a calm atmosphere of solemnity first, and celebration afterwards. Solemnity because, for however long they stood, we were blind to the offense that they embodied and we are to seek amends. Celebration afterwards, because now we have followed that old Socrates’ guidance. We have examined our lives, our history, and our principles just a little deeper, maybe gained a little more Socratic wisdom, and now our lives are worthier than before.

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