Saturday, 26 January 2013

The arrogance of youth

I’m still thinking about Oscar Wilde, in particular his comments on the destructive nature of moralizing.  In his prose and literary characters Wilde frequently remarks on the temptation and danger of putting ourselves above another, of thinking ourselves more worthy, of being so cocky about our good character that we interpret events and others harshly, claiming the moral high ground to sometimes play judge and jury.  Of course Wilde packages such themes in colour and humour so audiences find it hysterical.  Yet for all the laughter, the message is a serious one.

The moralizing that Wilde explores in his work is a proud and mean response to disapproval; an ungenerous view of people or actions which don’t fit with our perception of ‘how things should be’.  It is essentially a cold and narrow response to weakness or difference - born from feelings such as discomfort, inadequacy, envy, fear and hatred.

As I’ve said before, David Hare expresses these ideas powerfully in The Judas Kiss.  They are made dramatically effective by the use of Christ as a parallel figure who was widely loved one minute, then shunned the next.  And it is the suddenness of the swing which drives home the cruelty of unforgiving and judgemental behaviour.

Reading further about Wilde, I began to wonder if his ferocious need to ‘live his life his own way’ played into this potential for resentment… if his inability to be anything other than an artist, to strive to be true to his talent and spirit, provoked jealousy in those who found compromise and traditional structure more respectable than self-expression? 

I also wondered if Wilde’s independence and determination to ‘be himself’ was interpreted too readily as arrogance, when what it might have been was honesty and courage?  Of course there is room in any man for both - primary drives of honourable dimension, coupled with elements of imperfection – but such is the tendency to label a man by his fault rather than his strengths that one can imagine how a life lived above the parapet could make for such a target.

Wilde stood apart for good reason.  For many of the qualities which led to misfortune, we remember him still; which is more than we can say for most. 

Nevertheless I’m sure in his youth Wilde (and for that matter Boise) was arrogant.  His gifts gave him reason.  Yet when we all look back on our lives, it’d be rare not to be able to identify occasions when we conducted ourselves with the classic arrogance of youth – the cockiness that we already know everything, that we know better than the previous generation, that our needs and views of the world are pre-eminent.   Can’t we all see that in our past?  Before maturity (hopefully) allowed us to be less zealous and more compassionate?

On the whole I think people in their mid to late 20s (certainly my friends in London and Italy) are more mature than I was at their age.  The world encourages kids to grow up so much sooner now.   So the blindness or ‘arrogance of youth’ of which I speak is perhaps more in evidence with teenagers and early 20s.   Yet at whatever age a person ‘looks back’ they are bound to be reminded of some things which make them cringe.

A couple of examples in my life come to mind.  One time I was rude to a friend of my father’s.  I admired this man immeasurably because my father was deeply fond of him and because he was a professional singer who gave me encouragement to pursue that path.  So, with the black and white vision of youth, I was appalled when I discovered he had been unfaithful to his wife; that he had in fact a long-term girlfriend.  The pedestal I had him on came crashing down, and the next time he arrived at our front door I let my displeasure be known.   

Well, if I didn’t half get a bollicking from my Dad!  “How dare you sit in judgement on a man three times your age”, he said to me sotto voce in the kitchen… “how dare you be rude to a friend of mine in my house”… “until you have lived a little more you won’t understand that things are not all black and white… and Please God you will come to have more compassion… but right now you will go back in there and you will apologise for your bad behaviour”.   He was dead right of course.  I was given the seeds of an important lesson that day and, by showing respect, I managed to repair and preserve the friendship.  I remain grateful too that my Dad challenged me to grow beyond the narrow confines of presumed ‘right and wrong’ and consider the big picture.

Regrettably, however, it took several more mistakes before I took the lesson on board more deeply.  A few years later, while still young enough to not be afraid of what could go wrong, I travelled the world for a year without a companion or the security of email or mobile phones.  I arrived in Ireland where I spent my time drinking Guinness, joining musical jams, hitchhiking and researching our family’s Irish roots.  In one small town on the Shannon I was staying in the home of people I had discovered might be long distant relatives (such is the warmth of the Irish), but who later turned out to be less related than another family with the same name who lived on a farm out of town.  That’s another story… but one Saturday night I went off to Mass with this lovely bunch of people before adjourning for a few pints in the local pub (as you do).  There I sat in high-dungeon pontificating on the fact that the Priest, as I saw it, was unfit to be on the altar.  Ok, he had clearly been drinking.  Ok, he repeatedly burped on the altar like Homer Simpson does after too much Duff Beer.  Ok, some of his antics were so ‘out there’ that I honestly expected to find a Monty Python film crew hidden in the vestry.  And when he lay down on the floor of the altar at one point for a little snooze… I kid you not… I looked around the church in horror that the congregation were so patient and passive.  Outraged I was, that they weren’t more outraged.  So in the pub I went on at length about the need to write to the Bishop and do something about this ‘disrespect’ as I saw it.  Well, if they didn’t just look at me and shake their heads.  “Ah, that’s just Father O’Reilly” they said in a lyrical brogue (a name invented here for the purpose).  “Oh, he’s troubled.  We must just let him be the poor soul.”  Incapable I was, at the time, of seeing grey in the argument… of seeing that it wasn’t necessarily laziness which led to this resignation but admirable compassion. 

A month or so later I found myself back in England having lunch at a friend of my parents where I told the man of the house the story, fully expecting this dentist (don’t ask me why I remember this detail when I can not for the life of me remember his name) to be as morally affronted as I was by an alcoholic priest failing in his duty.  Well, if he didn’t give me a bollicking!  He told me it wasn’t my place to waltz into a country and pass judgement.  He told me I should feel kinder towards someone who was clearly struggling, and an array of other sensible things.  He put some perspective into the situation, as my father had often done, and because of such example, because of the boundaries I was given in which to grow to adulthood, in which to modify the natural zealousness of youth, I became a better person. 

Over the years I’ve often wondered what happened to that priest or that parish?  And thank God, before I sent a letter to the Bishop, I learned to pray for him rather than accuse him. 

It is important for elders to set an example, to guide and to coax the best out of society’s most energetic reservoir.

But, with such lessons behind me, ultimately I can do nothing other than forgive the arrogance of youth when I encounter it – for a feeling of invincibility is the charming flipside… something we all wish we could possess forever.