“All of us are beggars here,” wrote the 19th century psychologist William James as he ruminated on the enigma of existence, on the human as well as on the larger cosmological level. John Holt uses the quote in his book Why Does the World Exist? that I am now reading. As Kathryn Schulz wrote about Holt’s book in a New York Magazine review last summer,
“Mind, matter, abstract ideas: Where does all this stuff come from?”
As I slowly stumble my way through this book about the large universe, I am reminded of the smaller universe we all inhabit within our own lives. Interested as I may be in the cosmos and the big issues of the theory of knowledge and the science of the origin and development of the universe, I’m just as intrigued by the enigma that puzzled James: why we behave the way we do.
Being of a certain age, I have spent most of my life observing and trying to figure out why some men and their sons get on with one another while others don’t. As we all know, some of us closely resemble and act as our fathers do or did while others of us are totally different critters, almost as though we had come from other universes. After all, much of literature has to do with this age-old rivalry between “Big Daddy” and the one who will eventually replace him.
Will it be conflict or cooperation, estrangement or resolution, help or neglect? What especially intrigues me is how one man falls in line with his father’s ideas, attitudes, prejudices, and way of life, while another becomes a rebel, rejects his paternal heritage, and sets out on his own journey of self-discovery.
This whole idea of “mind, matter, and abstract ideas” plays out not just in the big picture of trying to fathom how the universe works, but also in our own little daily lives, especially in the adolescent years when boys start to get restless, begin challenging authority, and yearn to be free of the nest.
Therein lies the rub. How do parents, in this case fathers, learn to step aside and let their sons go off down the sidewalk without their training wheels? How many succeed in letting go and how many never learn this lesson and continue the old control game?
When I was growing up, most of the dads around me, including my own, were pretty good guys. They were reliable providers, didn’t squander their weekly pay checks at the local bar, were faithful to our moms, and didn’t whack us about. They were, however, men of their times, tough guys who grew up without much in the way of stuff or dreams in the Great Depression. They then got tossed into the Great Meat Grinder of WWII where they saw and did things no Ohio farm boy ever dreamt of. They didn’t show much emotion and never admitted to a “soft” side of being a father. The words “nurturing” and “parenting skills” were unknown concepts, as foreign as the German or Japanese they heard on the battlefield.
With no sense of what their children–so unlike themselves at that age–needed in an age of relative prosperity, also in contrast to the lean years of their youth, most of them didn’t have a clue or probably much interest in how to help their young buckaroos begin their own tentative walks through the minefields of life. Their own new way of life was as foreign to them as was some distant universe. They knew that to survive they had to figure out how things were going to work in their brave new world. As a result, many had little time for their kids. Sons were just left to kind of figure it out and find their own way. Get on with it, kid, just as I did at your age, since the world is unfair at best and, like the universe, always mysterious in its ways.
Like a lot of guys old enough to be collecting Social Security today, men of my generation more often than not remember our dads as men worthy of our respect. But they were also distant, had to be obeyed without question, and didn’t always offer much guidance, let alone inspiration. Worst of all, they either didn’t know how or simply chose not to say much, except mouth some political jargon or religious platitude. Unfortunately, the Archie Bunker types rather than those in the Bill Moyers school predominated.
Most of these working-class stiffs who were the fathers of my boyhood friends were nothing but perplexed and a bit threatened when their starry-eyed youngsters began asking questions of any sort. They had enough to deal with and didn’t need some yammering kid at the dinner table talking about all those big issues of existence, where we come from, where we are going, and what makes up the universe. In this mix, something was bound to give. The dads that I knew at that time usually had no interest in or patience with such heady matters. Just get on with your chores, mow the lawn, change the oil in the car, and take the garbage out on Monday morning. And no back talk, either.
So with all this in mind last night as I was leafing through The Talk of the Town section of a recent issue of The New Yorker, I stopped abruptly at an account of Walt (Whitman) Odets talking about his father Clifford, the iconic but troubled playwright of the earlier part of the twentieth century. The occasion was the revival of the senior Odets’ play The Big Knife. Odets the son, who like William James is a psychologist, was on the scene answering questions about his father, who was more than a bit of an intimidating presence to the young Odets. Not all that much different from our dads, except perhaps in his diction and ability to string words and sentences together. Since Walt and I are about the same age, I became more intrigued as I read on.
What I found so startling was how the senior Odets adjusted to his young son’s first signs of independence, that moment in all of our lives when we feel the need to stand up to the old man and blaze our own trail. It doesn’t have to be a shouting match or a knock-down, drag-out confrontation, but that’s what I remember when in the fray or comparing notes with my buddies when they ran up against the “immovable object” they called dad. Seldom did any of us get a chance to make a stand, say our piece, and then gallop off into the sunset. Our dads wouldn’t have put up with it. No negotiations, no time outs, no therapy. Do as you’re told and put a sock in it.
Odets, who had lost his mother earlier, met that moment by following a quite revolutionary trail: He just left his dad a note one day saying he would be gone for a couple of weeks with some friends on an “adventure” and that he would send him a postcard. The boy was sixteen. So off he went and when he got so far he sent the postcard, as promised. And then “two weeks later, I showed up again. I was sitting in my room, and he came home, and he walked in and looked at me and said, ‘Good for you.’”
Thus the startle for me. This was a totally unheard of ending in my circle of adolescent males. Most of us would never have had the courage or cleverness in the first place to set out. And we certainly would not have been sitting nonchalantly in our rooms upon return as though the previous two weeks had never happened. We would have been hunkered down in a bunker with flak jackets on expecting the worst.
Of course, I loved this story. The boy had had his “Joseph Campbell moment of self-discovery,” had acted on it, and returned, presumably now a young adult and no longer a child. But more incredible, the father recognized what was going on, did not interfere and had stepped back to let this little drama play out on its own. In the end he gave his son what money can’t buy. He showed him respect for his rite of passage and what he had done by himself.
Far from being any beggar, Clifford was there to give, rather than to receive. I think he felt the key turn in the lock and let the boy open the first door to the discovery of his own universe. As much as we loved our fathers–perhaps more so as we all grew older and learned to appreciate the world they came from, an existence so different from ours, as ours is from our sons–we would have been shocked had our dads responded in the same way that Clifford had.
Perhaps, even then, we recognized that one could do a lot worse in helping his son. Abstract thought be damned. What we craved was that nod of approval.