I’ve been trying to pinpoint when I became a misanthrope. I certainly wasn’t always. As a kid, I was fun-loving, even if drawn to trouble and unconcerned with the ramifications of my actions. This always resulted in a lot of punishment, so when I screwed up, I “learned” to lie to avoid getting in trouble. This likely worked at first for a little while because I still had the veneer of innocence, but the truth of the matter is that I was probably never truly innocent. I don’t know if you can be born a petty criminal or a scofflaw, but if so, it was in my genes. Now, I never did anything heinous – I didn’t like to fight or hurt people physically and I loved animals and treated them well – but it was near impossible for me to avoid trouble anywhere else. Early on, my parents always associated this with the company I kept, and while I certainly tried to run with the bad influences, the truth of the matter is that I was as much an instigator as I was a follower. Once my parents realized that I’d fib to get out of trouble, the punishments became harsher. The reality is that most of my punishment eventually was for the lying part, and less so the act. Even when my folks couldn’t know for certain that I was lying, they always had a reasoned hunch. They were almost always right.
So, I grew up being in trouble a lot. I can think of a few times where I was grounded for a month, and even when I wasn’t grounded, they were pretty strict. By high school there was no TV on school nights, I had a bedtime through twelfth grade, and my curfew was always that of the law, if not earlier. It sucked. So, I was always drawn to what lay on the other side of being good, and this followed me into college and got me into even more trouble. I no longer had to lie now that I was not under the control of my parents, so that was good, but I also had no one to keep me in check, and I ran roughshod over everything and had little care for law or good judgment. If I’m being perfectly honest, I still don’t, but at least I’ve become wiser about which norms and rules to break (kind of). I’m drawn to trouble, like I said.
But I don’t think that’s what makes me a misanthrope. It just didn’t help. No, somewhere along the way I became jaded, and then over time that hardened. I could point to any number of missed opportunities, failed chances, poor decisions, or instances where I either felt ostracized or made myself so, and with the circumstances of a nomadic life and no real attempt to engage terribly deeply with more than a few people along the way, I guess I just came untethered from society. Now, I’m not penning this to summon your pity, not at all. I’m just using this as an exercise to see where I came off the rails – and to wonder how much farther I might stray. I’m actually quite confident in this role on the periphery of society, though I’m still in the midst of it (society). I threaten on a weekly basis to walk out of it, and I guess I’m waiting for the opportunity to do so. Or for someone to push me…
One thing I do believe for sure is that we all have control over how we respond to our circumstances. I could, with a little work, become a man of the people again, appreciating humanity in spite of its issues and all evidence against it. But I think I’ve just seen enough to know that it’s all been a failed experiment and I don’t want much part of it going forward. I still like people, at least on an individual level, and I remain fascinated by them on the aggregate, so maybe I’m not a total lost cause – yet. But the truth is, I find much of it a bother. Most interactions I have with unknown others are frustrating. Who are these stupid people and why are they in my way? Much like in David Foster Wallace’s edited commencement speech, “This is Water,” I could change my “default setting,” but do I want to? That’s the question. Much like an addict needs to want to quit, I need to want to quit hating people and society. I don’t have the willpower, though. And I don’t think they have a 12-step program for that. And if they did, I’m sure I’d hate that, too.
There are a few older male friends in my life in their mid-70s, single and sad, and one’s also very angry all the time. Neither has an enviable situation. I often muse to myself that I don’t want to end up like either of them because neither feels their life has gone the way they’d have liked it to. While they certainly bear much of the responsibility, both attribute a lot of their failed station in life to the impact of others. Sometimes I feel embarrassed for them, other times I think to myself how they’ve made their own beds so they should just lay in them, and sometimes I feel pity. Either way, sometimes I feel I’m on the same trajectory. I also feel, paradoxically, that through wit and willpower I could avoid their fate, but I also know one bad break or bad decision will divert my course to the path undesired. In other words, to end up in the dumpster of life wouldn’t be entirely unpredictable for me. It’s all a gamble.
My dentist says I clench my teeth a lot when I sleep. Usually that’s a sign of stress, but I don’t feel I have a lot of it, at least not in the way some measure it: no failing marriage, no bratty kids, my bills and debts are under control, no boss I hate, I have a few good friends, I’ve had no serious illness, etc. But I guess I have stress in how I approach life. My sarcasm and cynicism really discolor my days, my outlook, and my thoughts more than I’m ready to admit, most likely. And while I’m quick to pass them off as being witty, observant, or intelligent, even if so, they’re still a cloud over me, further pushing me to periphery of society where I cast stones and scowl. It’s a little bit like watching a car crash. It’s horrifying and there’s nothing I can do to change it or help. Except there is, but I just can’t figure out how…
The truth of the matter is that I can psychologically walk through my ways and means and take stock, and even be moved to change, at least on some days. But in the end, I’m actually okay with it. The scorecard for humanity ain’t great at all, and the way things have been going lately, I could almost argue that you’d have to be crazy not to be turned off by society today. Sure, I chose a path and had circumstances push me along it, but all my choices have been mine, right or wrong. And while I could turn the other cheek and offer my hand to others, I think I’d rather just look down my nose at the rest of you and wonder how you all got it so wrong – because I think I got it right.
Sure, it can be lonely and overly introspective as a misanthrope, but at least it’s an authentic life, if not always honest. I may judge, I may be set I my ways, but I always play it straight – you know what you’re getting with me, even if you don’t figure it out right away. There are thousands of cities and billions of people, and “we” haven’t figured out anything collectively yet – and I doubt we ever will. All we do is carve a path of destruction. To be disillusioned by it all, well, that might just be normal. I guess I was on the right path all along…