Wednesday, December 5, 2018

uomo on men's faces

On the corner of 121st and Amsterdam, I stomp my foot in wet concrete.
I am pleased at the literalness of the action:
I have made my mark, and now nunc dimittis domine.

It is satisfying, that particular moment to assert myself on my surroundings. Being a human being is such a frustrating and painstaking process of discovering how very much we are shaped by our environments. So much in us is simply received from who and what surrounds us.

What if, asked the small boy yesterday, someone is born without a conscience?
Well, I said. Consciences are formed by our communities.
So what if they lived in a community that said it was okay to steal?
Then, they would probably think it's okay to steal. But would that society last long?
No.
So is it in their interest to tell people that they can steal?
No.

The question he poses is perceptive, because it gets at that terrible fear: since we learn from the people around us, what if those people are wrong? What if they have shaped us into something we shouldn't be? We are so contingent: wherever we were thrown into this world is where we've landed, and there's so little we can do to choose who and what we will become.

What a strange collection of circumstances have led me to be born in Minnesota and not Texas, to be Catholic and not Methodist, to have gone Jerusalem, or to have seen Assisi in the sunrise. None of these things were under my own aegis, they are substantial pieces of history and personality that have been shaped by others, given to me from something outside of myself.

We wonder why we are so crabby, and we discover that if we only leave a city of pavement and buildings that block the sun, then our mood improves. We see everyone around us mock the same things, or value the same ideals, and eventually we find that we have molded our language, our hair, and our hearts to match theirs.

It is sad, because we want to be what we want to be, that would seem to be the precious pearl of authenticity: who we are without anyone else imposing on us. But we are the result of constant impositions. That is what it means, I suppose, to be human.

So there is a great joy in one moment of stamping ourselves upon something else, upon the place that so often dictates us, we, for a moment, get to impose ourselves upon it, to mark: I was here, and here I will remain.

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