The strange compulsions of an examined life

It’s only human to be interested in the people around you. I’m still in touch with friends from my childhood days, college days at Berkeley, and my days with IBM in Vietnam and Germany. I’m still in touch with almost all the women I loved seriously but didn’t marry.

A huge exception in this is people that I knew during the 30 years I spent in Washington DC; a smaller one is the people I knew at Reed College. The people that I served with on school boards, in church, and professional organizations, and especially the family and associates of my former wife seem mostly uninterested in what I’m up to. I don’t take it personally, and I do not think it is a coincidence that most of them are liberal.

One of the things we share with our primate relatives is an intense interest in others’ reproductive success. Like monkeys, we compete for mates with others within the tribe, but cooperate with them to advance the interests of the whole tribe. As young men we were curious about what sort of a girlfriend another guy might have. Now, in my seventh decade, I have a similar curiosity about how well they did in the mating game. Is their marriage still intact? Do they have grandchildren? Are they happy? Did their children achieve what they would consider to be success in life?

This interest is not prurient or misplaced. It is natural human curiosity, an essential aspect of any animal community with an interest in perpetuating itself. Evolutionarily successful tribes like the Chinese and the Jews take great interest in every member’s contribution to the survival of the tribe.

People who identify themselves as liberal purport to have an interest in all of mankind, but those I know seem to be rather oblivious to the individuals who make up that mankind. Particularly people whose politics do not agree with mine, and whose beliefs might be called into question if they were to examine their own lives. What is the purpose of their lives, if not their progeny? Are these childless people really scolding me on behalf of my own unborn descendants? Or, is this simply a perversion of a natural interest in other people’s social conduct?

It is not coincidental that my conservative acquaintances seem more fertile than liberal friends. By and large they have raised their children a bit more traditionally, hence more likely to form families. They are also more inclined to keep up correspondence, including news on how our families and children are doing.

The world has previously witnessed changes in the course of civilization that are both vast and fast. The fall of the Roman Empire was major; others include the collapses of the Indian civilizations in the Americas, of the Ottoman empire and communism. Maladaptive social trends had a role in every such change. I sense we are on the eve of another.

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2 thoughts on “The strange compulsions of an examined life

  1. Had to chuckle about your lack of contact with old DC ties since I recently posted something about “DC Friends,” which tells a similar tale.

    But your greater point about which people stay interested and in touch over the decades rings true. My experience shows that It’s the folks of tradition and faith that have continued to reach out more often with genuine care and curiosity. Meanwhile, it seems that my old political hipster friends dropped me at the first signs of, uh, non-compliance.

  2. Thank you for the confirmation. I just read your post and love it. My wife, Oksana, graduated from the university in Kirovagrad playing a domra.

    We have somewhat different angles on the lack of connection in DC, but it comes out the same. I occasionally call people up just to chat, and they mostly seem ill-at-ease and ready to get off the phone. Conversely, most of my other friends seem genuinely glad for the contact.

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