Chapter 37 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Discover the importance of reflecting on one’s experiences, not just having them, in order to get the most significance from them one can.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to understand more what makes a good life.
I think there is a quality which is part of our humanity, that (when it is exercised) is one of the qualities that makes us meaningfully distinct from other species. I think it is a quality capable of bringing about much good, and I think that it ought to be cultivated for that reason and because it is unique and special to us. I think our humanity lies in part not in our having experiences, because every animal has experiences, but in our reflecting and in our reflections upon those experiences. It lies not in our suffering but in our sorrow, our sympathy, our compassion, and our attempts to understand suffering and to remedy it. It lies even perhaps in our bitterness toward the perpetrators of needless suffering, but only in a reflected bitterness wrought from a sense of justice and our compassion toward the suffering victim, rather than from an immediacy of vengefulness. And our humanity lies not in our joyous moments but in our appreciation of those joyous moments. In short, our humanity lies in part in our attempts, and our successes, in trying to put our experiences into a meaningful perspective.
And though not every joyful experience needs to be meaningful, rewarding, reflected on, or etched indelibly in memory for future savoring and appreciation, somewhere some experiences in everyone’s life should be. One should be capable of such experiences. Those who lack the ability for both appreciation and for sorrow seem to lack a part of humane-ess that makes it difficult to consider them as very worthy or full human beings. The fellow who can only talk about his exploits, his successes and failures, but not about what they mean to him and/or to others, is perhaps whom we should call (as many do in a dating context) an animal, rather than a person of merit. The guys or girls who are only interested in whether they can score either sexually or professionally, but not in how they score or what it means, other than some momentary personal or selfish reward, seem somehow to be using less than the total capacity that human beings (should) have.
When you have a tremendously moving experience, it is often disappointing to share it with someone who is not so moved. There is very little more frustrating than sharing an experience that is soul-shaking to you, with someone who finds it trivial, stupid, boring, bad, simply fun or just another nice time, and who will neither savor it, cherish it, nor remember it in the way that you will, or would like to if their attitude and presence does not ruin it for you. Sometimes people are not moved by an experience because they do not have the necessary sensitivity; sometimes it is simply a matter of a cultural or generation “gap”. I was 18 years old when John F. Kennedy, whom I idolized, was assassinated; and it is probably the saddest and one of the most transforming moments of my life. Yet to my children or to all the children born afterward, it is just a simple, cold historical fact. Just as World Wars I and II and the deaths of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are for me. Well-written biographies and histories, and well-produced films impart some of the experience of the times, but it is not the same as having been there and lived through it.
It is sometimes a lonely and saddening to appreciate something your companion does not. Dr. Zhivago is, I think, one of the finest movies ever made, and when I first saw it, I was so moved I could hardly speak when it was over. But I saw it with my sister who was still in high school at the time and she could not understand why anyone would want to make a movie “about communism.” She missed the point entirely, and when she persisted in speaking in high school platitudes I had to pretend to threaten her with letting her walk home if she did not simply quit saying anything about the movie. I asked some friends to go see it, but after they did, their only comment was they did not like stories about married people who “fooled around”. Agggggg! It was not until years later that I met a person (college roommate) who I learned was as affected by the movie as I was and who appreciated it as much as I did. That year it came back to the town where we were in school and I went to see it for the second time, and got even more out of it than I had the first. He and I stayed up all night discussing its remarkable subtleties and insights, heightening even further each other’s appreciation for the film. He got so enthusiastic about it that the following night he went to see it again himself, and that occasioned another long, intense discussion and analysis, as he got even more out of it again with this viewing.
There was an interview before a World Series baseball game with a ballplayer whose series’ share seemed to mean to him only being able to put in a backyard barbecue. His wife was going to play tennis one morning, while this interview was being taped; he told her to win — because they only had winners in their family. Yet it seemed to me that if that was the extent of his thoughts he himself was only a loser. Maybe she was only playing tennis for fun and companionship or to improve her skills or to learn new shots or to challenge herself to her capacity, or for some reason other than just winning. Would he have liked her opponent to forfeit? I have memories of Jimmy Connors, certainly a player who liked to win as much as anyone ever has, in a match with Manuel Orantes, Connors trying desperately to massage the cramp out of Orantes’ leg and begging the umpire for an extension of time for Orantes so that the two could finish the match, and not have him win by default. Unlike the baseball player above, it was not the winning that was important to Connors, but the winning over a worthy (in this case, healthy) opponent. Even in some of his losses of important matches, where he played well, but his opponent played fantastically, he has seemed most appreciative of the event and of his opponent’s talent on that particular day. Once, when asked to comment on his losing match (the finals of the U.S. Open championship, I believe), he said to the crowd and to the national television audience a one-word expletive, phrased in a humorous way with a twinkle of appreciation in both his tone and his eye showing both disbelief and amused frustration at his opponent’s inhuman skill that day at repelling Connor’s own superb efforts. It was obvious he was well-aware that he had been defeated by one of the best performances and in one of the best matches of all time and that his efforts had helped make it such a terrific match. He knew he had played extremely well and that his own performance that day would have won over any other player or at any other time.
After one of the most exciting World Series games ever, the sixth game of the 1975 World Series between the Reds and the Red Sox, Pete Rose, as competitive a person as anyone, when asked about the difficult loss that then also made the Reds have to face a seventh game said something like, “Gee, it was just such a great ball game, I’m glad I got to be a part of it! Wasn’t it fantastic the way that…!” People like Rose and Connors in these cases seem more fully human and more appealing because they have their sport in an interesting and valuable perspective, instead of just playing it like gorillas or robots.
Frustrating to many are people who have been fortunate to have traveled abroad, but who only saw that the countries they visited were not like here, and were, they then thought, therefore obviously inferior, particularly if they could not (conveniently) buy the kinds of things there they wanted or could get here. Such people spend a lot of time, energy, and effort going places to miss the most important things — seeing the contributions, life styles, and perspectives that other cultures have to offer and seeing in what ways that sometimes being different is better. Such insights can be refreshing, often making you see that things you assumed could only be done a certain way could be done quite differently with the same or better effect. They can help you see that things you thought you could not live without can be done without quite well. And they can help you see afresh the things you and your family and friends always did that you took for granted and assumed were part of human nature, though they are not.
One could go on and on in the world of sports or business or whatever about people’s attitudes toward what they are doing and how they are doing it. But it is the people who have some sort of reflective attitude toward what they are doing that we seem to (or at least that I seem to) respect and appreciate rather than those who just walk to the bank or carve another notch in a gun, bedpost, or barbecue.
There was a movie by, I think, Roger Vadim, with, I think, Jane Fonda, one of those good movies that is in a few theaters for a few days that only a few people ever see before it is consigned to oblivion. It was called Circle of Love. It was set in eighteenth or nineteenth century France and portrayed a series of affairs or one time sexual trysts, starting with a soldier’s seducing of a young woman before his going off to war. The next affair is between the soldier and another woman, the third between that woman and another man, then that man and another woman, and so on, following the life of the new partner of each lover until he or she has a new lover. Finally, the movie comes back around to a soldier having an encounter with a young woman. A gnarled old woman appears as a washerwoman or servant. When the young girl tries to hide her rendezvous with the soldier, the old woman, who one sees now is the same woman as the first young girl, says, with her eyes obviously reminiscent and grateful, “Ah, such a fine young soldier you have; …I too once knew a fine young soldier….”
I saw this movie shortly after hearing what I thought had been a very good lecture about how sex with someone you cared about and had an ongoing stable relationship with was better than just a fleeting sexual experience or such an experience for just fleeting physical gratification. That lecture seemed reasonable, but something about it did not seem quite right and kept gnawing at me. The movie, in combination with that lecture, helped clarify and produce some of the views I still have today. Certainly a fleeting sexual experience for just physical gratification, conquest, needed emotional support, or whatever may be very disastrous, psychologically and other ways. But it is not always so. Certainly in this movie, a great deal of luck and perhaps self-deception was involved for this old lady to be able to treasure the experience she had as a girl. But the point is she was able to treasure the experience, even though she never saw or heard from the soldier again. I have met many people who have cherished memories of sexual and other kinds of experiences that meant a great deal to them even though the relationships were not lasting. Relationships at any time can be foreshortened by death, separation, divorce, or whatever. It is not the long lastingness of a relationship that makes treasured moments special at the time (since the duration of the relationship is not then known or guaranteed). It is something else in the relationship, or, as in the movie case, something believed about the relationship.
In the movie case, luck, and perhaps gullibility or naiveté played a large role. But I think that role can be greatly reduced; and people are doing that in numerous ways now. But the numerous ways are all different ways of expressing to their partners what the sex means to them, and knowing also what it means to the partners, before having sex, and judging whether that is acceptable grounds on which to proceed. Now, as my ex-Navy student said, this does not always require discussion (though I think it is often, if not always, even in the case he mentioned, safer that way), “since, when she is waiting at the pier for you to get off the ship and you happen to be the first sailor whose attention she happens to catch, it is fair to assume certain things about the likely lack of permanence of the situation intended by both sides, especially when a fee is set.” Likewise to some extent when people meet in certain ways at a singles bar or particularly at a sex club. (However, the reason I believe discussion is still better, is that though someone may seem in control of their lives and of what they want and may think that sex is it, discussion might show they are not really in control and that sex with you may not be the best thing for either of you at that time and under those circumstances.)
And certainly prostitutes and one night stands or indiscriminate or casual sex is not everyone’s cup of tea, and as I mentioned before, I doubt that it could long be a satisfying activity to have uncommitted, eternally new, intentionally only abbreviated, and only sexual, encounters that never develop past the same stages every other such relationship has had. Although I think one night stands can be good and more than just physically satisfying under certain circumstance, I doubt they would be good or fulfilling as a steady diet, and I would think they generally are better in fantasy than they are likely to be in reality. There are never any repercussions, entanglements, or disappointments in fantasy.
But there are often strangers who have been important in our lives in any of a number of ways; why not sexually. I am hardly saying it is a goal to be sought because, apart from the physical risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, it can be a very empty, dissatisfying, disappointing and/or saddening experience. It can also be very lonely, particularly if it makes you want more than you can have or if it makes the other person want more than you are able to give, in terms of a fuller relationship.
(It occurred to me while I was writing about this that there was a difference about the way you felt after watching on tv an episode of The Lone Ranger and after watching an episode of The Fugitive even though both shows were somewhat the same — a stranger comes into someone’s life when they need help, helps them, and then leaves. Lone Ranger departures were uplifting and glorious; Fugitive departures were often melancholy. The Fugitive often made you feel that it was really sad for the relationship that had developed to end, that there was much more that it could have developed into. Whereas the Lone Ranger was so one- dimensional and needed for only one specific, and not particularly personal, purpose, that it seemed the “relationships” he developed would not have gone anywhere even had he stayed. He would have had nothing to do and nothing to talk about.)
Although sex could be an enjoyable kind of one-dimensional physical romp, without much interesting discussion or any particularly endearing non-sexual character traits showing, that is rather unlikely, I would think, except in fantasy. In some cases traits would appear that would make the partner seem worth developing a relationship with and in some cases traits would appear that would make sex not seem like such an interesting thing to share with that person. There is also the possibility, and this is what would perhaps make a purely physical affair more or less perfect, that character traits would show which make you like one another just enough for sex or for sex one time, but not enough to pursue the relationship further. I would guess, however, this would be the least likely possibility in general. One-time sex, in particular, seems to me to require possible but rare sets of circumstances to occur for both people to enjoy the time together but not to regret not having even similar future times together, let alone a fuller relationship — circumstances such as under very traumatic conditions, like war, circumstances such as in the movie Silent Night, Lonely Night, or possibly in some cases in youth, circumstances where each of you is experimenting with sexual kinds of things and can appreciate sharing a kind of experience together without expecting a permanent kind of bond to develop from it.
Long-term relationships have a special beauty, however, that is greater than just the sum of the individual good times you have shared together. There is a meaningful bond made by the shared memories of many special times; and the more special the time, or the more times that were special, the more meaningful and special the bond. People who “go way back together”, often have a particular affection for each other; they are a part of each others’ memories, development, histories, generations, and cultures that people who are strangers and more recent friends simply cannot be. Even in cases where old friends have been separated for many years, there is often a kind of affection at their meeting again that cannot be present between more recent acquaintances, friends, or lovers, no matter how exciting or solid that newer bond. It is also particularly nice to know that genuine affection can endure time and sometimes separation. Also, sometimes one finds out there were some shared experiences that were particularly meaningful to each other, or that became even more meaningful as time proceeded (and perhaps showed them to be more special or more rare than they seemed they would be at the time they happened). It is nice to find out you have helped contribute something special to the life of someone else; and sometimes you can only find that out after much time has elapsed, either because it took them that long to tell you about it or because it took a long time for them to realize how special the experience was, or both.
Further, individual experiences can take on a meaning between people who know each other well that other people are not privy to without at least some sort of explanation. A simple illustration of this is how much more enjoyable certain kinds of television series are in some cases when you know the characters from previous viewing than when you watch an episode of the series for the first time. This is in the kind of series like Cheers, Magnum, or Barney Miller, where personality is consistent and where character development is an essential part of the series. There may be particular remarks or occurrences that take on special meaning because they relate in some particularly poignant, ironic, or funny way to aspects of personality or occurrences brought out in past episodes. In real life, the same thing can occur, where events and occurrences can take on a special meaning to people who realize the significance they have in relationship to past experiences, personality, and growing older. Although a new relationship can often have an excitement and freshness that an older relationship does not, an older relationship can have a richness of understanding and meaning through interwoven memories that a new friend can only begin to understand if an explanation is first (able to be) given.
Concerning sex and long-term commitment, my own experience was that when I was even beginning college I still worried about as little as holding hands with a girl I was not totally committed to or in love with. Even though I was shy and insecure about being liked and/or loved, I did feel I could meet a girl who might be the same way or who might like me for the wrong reasons; and I was afraid that something like holding hands would unintentionally lead on someone like that.
My first week at college was dismal. Every guy seemed to have a girlfriend but me. Classes had not yet started so there was plenty of time for parties and what they called “mixers”, affairs which were awful — guys on one side of the room, girls on the other, only a few people able to “break the ice”. Yet outside the dormitories — this was in the early sixties, when dorms were sexually segregated and mixed company was not well received even in the lounges — couples were “making out” like bandits, kissing and petting practically anywhere there was space. Being alone could be terribly lonely.
Then I met a very attractive girl and we had a nice time together. Later we went for a walk, and on that walk we kissed. We kissed rather passionately for about a minute or so till I started feeling very guilty. After all, we had only just met a little earlier that evening. I was not in love with her. I had to talk about it with her. I figured she would think I was really a fool, but luckily she did not. We became friends after that talk. That was gratifying.
For years in college my ideas about relationships did not agree with my biological and psychological feelings and desires. Like Augustine some 1600 years earlier, I often did things I regretted (even though in my case they did not involve intercourse), and I only felt I wanted to be “saved” from myself after the next date, not during it or before it. At any rate, there were a number of talks with girls and a number of times of soul searching, trying to figure out what was right and what was wrong, and why, in regard to dating and relationships with others. Slowly and painfully I arrived at the ideas I have presented in this book. There were a lot of movie situations reflected on, a lot of relationships and experiences thought about, a lot of debates or discussions with friends in the dorm, a few lectures about sex attended, and even one course on the sociology of marriage taken. Gradually I got to know myself and other people a lot better. I learned better how to verbalize moods and intentions and feelings without having to try to express such thoughts by kissing, or setting seduction scenes, etc. (And as I have tried to make clear in this book, such things cannot express anything anyway.) I learned, for example, I could tell someone I was attracted to them, or just felt friendly, or was in a sexually aroused (horny or lustful) mood but did not think it would be right to (try to) play just for that reason. I learned that quite often horniness was just the result of loneliness and that both could often be resolved with even just a good long telephone conversation with a good (for me, female usually) friend. I gradually became more aware of my own moods and feelings, and those of others, and thus learned what kind of behavior was appropriate in situations which had previously been difficult to deal with. I learned, for example, that I could hold hands for different reasons and express those reasons and desires verbally so as not to have to worry about misleading or later offending someone.
I have tried to express in this book the kinds of distinctions that have been helpful to me in becoming aware of what my wants and desires really were, what I thought was right and what was wrong, and why, what states others might be in, and what behavior was appropriate behavior and the appropriate response in such cases. I hope this book and these distinctions will be helpful to others. I think it can be, though I also think a certain amount of experience and reflection of one’s own is important or necessary to know what one really wants oneself, and to really be able to understand this book. Unfortunately, experience is often a bitter, if not bitter- sweet, teacher. Until you have had romantic attraction, until you have kissed someone you like, until you have kissed someone you do not like all that much but are sexually stimulated by, until you are loved by someone you care about but do not love in return, or until you have had other specific experiences or feelings of the myriad possible regarding relationships, many of the descriptions and points mentioned here will perhaps be just meaningless categories. One can tell others it is easy to find love; but it is difficult to make them believe it until they have done it. One can tell others it is easy to find friends and to be accepted by being nice and by having some interests you can share, etc., but it is difficult to make a person believe it who feels unpopular in school or whatever his company or society happens to be, until he or she finds some companions with whom to share the bonds of friendship — people treating each other well and enjoying each other’s interests, abilities, and characters. One can talk about the proper behavior to have in regard to periods of extreme loneliness or lust, or in regard to passionate moments of strong sexual desire for a loved one, but until one has been faced with the power of those moods, the discussion will often not have the impact it otherwise may. Perhaps good movies, good stories, and good poetry, can much better help make intelligible and alive the experiences of others more than an analytic, expository book like this can; but even with them, there will always be that gap, however small, between knowing about yourself from experience and reflection and believing something about yourself in the light of the portrayals of the experiences of others.
It is perhaps unfortunate that a certain amount of wisdom has to be painfully re-learned by each member of the species, if it can be learned at all; but it is fortunate that we can learn and grow from the reflections of our experiences. I think this is tremendously important for people, and I think that is why it seems so reprehensible and repugnant for people to seek to avoid consciousness of the experience of something or to seek to avoid reflection about that experience through the use of drugs, alcohol, escapist sex, or even mindless imitative socializing.
If there are any proper nonmedicinal uses of drugs or alcohol (Norman Mailer, for example, has written alcohol sometimes helps him nurse a reverie through the night, presumably making it more clear and meaningful to him), it seems to me that escape from experience or escape from the educating reflection on it, is not one of them. As even a fairly trivial example, it seems a pity to me that some people have to get at least somewhat drunk in order just to be able to be friendly at parties or in order to behave in a way they think they should but cannot bring themself to while fully sober. It is a shame to have to lose control in order to be able to do what is right and proper or potentially more enjoyable. Further, memories of pleasant experiences and interesting acquaintances often fade all too soon anyway without making it inevitable that they will fade even by the next morning. Even some unpleasant (but not devastating) experiences, it seems to me, should not be avoided, if reflection on them is necessary for desirable personal growth. But good and satisfying experiences and relationships should not be made any hazier than time and the fallibility of memory will make them anyway. They are rare enough without the need for us to do things which make us oblivious to them, further unable to achieve them, or totally unable to appreciate or remember them. The point of writing this book in fact is to help others (as its contents have helped me) better distinguish and better appreciate the good they have experienced or can experience from relationships, and to give a perspective to relationships that might help more good come about from them than would without it.
- This book is an attempt to help readers better reflect on and understand, and in some cases, better appreciate, their own experiences in all relationships, particularly those involving love.
- Our humanity lies in part in our attempts, and our successes, in trying to put our experiences into a meaningful perspective.
- Experience is often a bitter, if not bitter- sweet, teacher.
- A fleeting sexual experience may be seen as just a fleeting physical gratification.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: What constitutes an important part of our humanity?