Sunday, November 06, 2005

Everything I Knew Was Wrong

What if everything you thought you knew appeared to be wrong?

I’ve been there. In several posts below I described a bit of what is was like to be raised to believe a lot of lies regarding race, especially regarding African American or black people. I also tried to give a peek into how my mind could change as I was confronted with new information and experiences.

Race was just one area where I began to realize that I had been misinformed. However, it was a very big one. It had powerfully influenced my behavior, my attitudes, my understanding of why there were problems in my life. And so as the misinformation began to be revealed, my world was shaken.

I have been told that one reason some people are so frightened by earthquakes is that the “solid earth” is one thing that they feel they can really depend on. When even that solid ground begins shaking, it robs them of something foundational in their belief about what to expect in this world.

As I became a college student, I saw my own foundations being shaken in a way that I never imagined. I met many people that were very different from those I had known as a boy. There were lots of people from all over the U.S., especially the Northeast. I met foreign students from Asia and Africa. Many of my teachers espoused philosophies that were completely alien to anything I had heard before.

I did not believe that anyone could be sure there was a “God” or gods. I felt rather convinced that the idea of God was just a crutch for those who could not handle all the ambiguity in our lives. So I had no spiritual foundation to rely on.

I began to realize how narrow and bigoted my parents, teachers, family, and friends had been when I grew up in the southern U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s. I very quickly angered my father by questioning things he had taught me all my life. My mother was terrified by the conflict between us. But she was also eager to avoid conflict with my father. So I had no family to turn to.

As I began to understand that I had been taught many lies, I wondered if I had ever been taught any truths. “Firesign Theatre” was a comedy team that had an album titled: “Everything you know is wrong”. I began to consider that as a real possibility. At some level I even understood that the absence of God and the rejection of all authority left me suspended in a featureless void with no hope of direction. I had no sense of purpose that I could defend.

Meanwhile, another part of me kept my life in reasonable order. I continued to study engineering. I found comfort in the way science seemed to explain so many mysterious things. I was an athlete. I found comfort in new friendships and in a relationship with a girl who whom I would marry the same day I graduated from undergraduate school in 1972.

Of course, anyone with the slightest knowledge of that period in the late sixties and early seventies will know that I was certainly not alone in questioning the authority of all I had been taught and the authority of all who claimed to have new answers. It almost seemed that the collective modern western consciousness convulsed and shattered a great deal of the conventional wisdom that allowed those of us with no God to continue to function. We scrambled to find some basis upon which we could continue to do the things that people must do. We still wanted to love. We wanted to be safe. We wanted food, shelter, and a degree of comfort and a sense of security.

“Sex and drugs and rock and roll” is now a funny little phrase. Now it is a refrain from a goofy song recorded decades ago. And I did not chant a mantra to that unholy trinity as I began to dismantle a great deal of what I had trusted in as “the truth”.

I will begin with sex. Simply put, every young male that I knew, including myself of course, was desperately eager to have sex. It is difficult even for me to remember that in the early sixties, sex outside of marriage was truly taboo. Of course, it happened and happened often. However, there was often a heavy price to be paid if it was discovered. It is almost unimaginable that there was a time when characters on T.V. and in movies did not simply just have sex when they wanted to. Even sex within marriage was not discussed or written of in ordinary society.

As I began to question what I had been taught. It was especially convenient to discard prevailing ideas about sex. It was not an overnight process. Nor was it uniform in all age groups and segments of American and European society. However, the rapidity with which ideas about sex changed was astounding.

The suggestion that the girlie magazines and “art movies” of the 60’s would seem quite tame by 1973 would have been laughable. “I Am Curious Yellow” was a foreign film released in 1969. It had brief images of full frontal female nudity. By 1973, full nudity in magazines, movies, etc. was common. The “soft porn” simulated sex films and magazines of the late 60’s were rapidly replaced by hard core pornography that was openly available in every sizable city.

The people who warned us that trouble would come from this dramatic change seemed suspiciously similar to those who had assured me that the races must never mingle. Why should I believe them? I had been told many lies in my past. I will not use this space to relate my personal experience of these changes. Now that I realize just how damaging the changes were, I do not wish to dwell upon them or appear to glorify them. It is my very fervent prayer that the tide has begun to turn, and in God’s mercy he is exposing the lies about casual sex and unbridled lust. May God have mercy on all who have hurt themselves and others by believing and acting on those lies. May God have mercy on me, corrupted, scarred and still fighting against a sinful nature.

Very effective birth control was introduced about this time (“the pill”). Abortion came out of the shadows and was embraced as the fail safe back up when even modern birth control failed. Antibiotics could treat the common venereal diseases of the day. The pleasures of sex began to be declared openly. And the subtle use of sex to sell rapidly became as blatant as it was common.

Drugs underwent a similar amazing cultural transformation. Few member of my generation were aware of the problems that opium, morphine, and cocaine had caused during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once again, why should we believe those who warned us of the dangers of mind altering substances? Marijuana was easier to obtain than alcohol by the time I was 19. Incredibly potent doses of LSD could be purchased for less than an hour’s pay at minimum wage. Even middle class college students could easily afford to use drugs as a form of recreation.

The first night that I smoked marijuana, I stood on the side of a hill and stared out at the lights of the city. The effect was subtle. Marijuana in that day was usually weak. I laughed to think of all the terrible warnings I had been given about it. I quickly came to believe that only people who were ignorant, or who were intent on preventing others from having fun, would make such things illegal. Remember, it was illegal for black people to ride in the front seats of a city bus in many cities when I was a boy. It was illegal for a black child to attend a “white” school. Citizens were considered completely justified in torturing and killing a black man if he was thought to have had unacceptable contact with a white woman. A trial was considered a foolish impediment to the need for swift justice.

And so it was that it became common for me to experiment and recreate with drugs. If I had been arrested, simple possession could have cost me years in jail. Like most young men, I made light of such dire possibilities. It would never happen to me!

And the experiments grew more intense. One night in particular I remember taking LSD on a whim in the late evening of what had been a long, tiring day. The hallucinogenic experience that followed is impossible to describe. I was unable to sleep for the following twenty four hours. I ran the gamut from ecstasy to paranoia. I went from exhilaration to tedium and a deepening fear that I would never be “normal” again. Fatigue and fear gripped me for days afterwards. However, my conviction was very strong that drug experiences were a very great privilege that must not be missed. It was so strong that in a month or so I tried LSD again under more controlled conditions and declared that it had opened my mind to a deeper understanding of all there was to know.

I will pass on now to the “rock and roll”. It was clearly more than a style of music. As a whole, rock music was a manifesto for my time. Although it began as early as the 50’s, by the late 60’s it had morphed into something that was wholly alien to the western worlds experience. The instruments, the vocals, and the lyrics were experiments that seemed unfathomable to people of my parents’ age. I remember my grandfather sneering at the “jungle bunny” music that I listened to on my transistor radio. It was more than a decade later before I learned that rock was powerfully influence by the blues, which had its roots in the African American experience.

Imagine that if as a boy I had listened to music from 40 years earlier. Listen to the sound track of “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. That is what I would have been listening too! Now my fourteen year old son listens to mix tapes with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers intermingled. They are separated by decades and yet seen as part of a common musical heritage.

I hope that the lives of the men and women who recorded 60’s rock are not idolized by anyone today. However, to me Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jim Morrison were great pioneers who were able to transcend the mundane mess that my parents had made of the world. And when all three died of drug overdoses in a single year, I was not the least bit deterred from continuing to idolize them and many others like them. I saw rock star excesses and even their drug induced rage and vandalism as credible responses to a world that I believed was a sham. More and more what little truth I remained aware of seemed a ploy to placate me and control me.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. I really believed in them. I felt sure we were on to something. No more war. No more hypocrisy. No more greed.

Please do not forget. There were very real problems with our culture that were being exposed when I was 20. Our air and water and soil had been badly poisoned. I lived just blocks form a river that caught fire and burned for days. It flowed into Lake Erie, which was soon declared completely biologically dead. I did not smell the steel mills in Pittsburgh so much as taste and feel the acrid air they created. The Carnegie Mellon campus was filled with handsome stone buildings that had been rendered charcoal grey and even black by decades of soot filled air. Black workers were denied equal treatment. Women were openly paid a fraction of what men were paid for identical jobs. And of course, black people and women and many others were routinely excluded from many higher paying jobs.

So yes, I was a fool to ignore all the dire consequences of “free sex”, drug experimentation, and a cultish devotion to a revolution in music and mores.
I was right to think that much needed to change. I showed terrible judgment in how I tried to bring about that change.

Now I find myself more than 2000 words into this posting. It would surprise me if even my own loving daughter could stand to read this far. I certainly have no intention of even beginning to recreate, and certainly not to glorify, my life during that era.

No one could live such a life coherently or consistently. I had no integrity. Francis Schaeffer wrote something to the effect that modern man finds himself with both feet planted firmly in mid air. I knew full well that my life had no foundation. I despaired of ever having a reason even to live, much less a rationale for all I did. But so powerful is the drive to survive, that I did go on living. I lived to experience drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, promiscuity, and anxiety that dogged my every waking moment. I made terrible choices and took serious risks. God mercifully spares me from a full knowledge of the damage I did to myself, and especially to those around me. It is by the grace of God that I am spared an eternity of suffering. Perhaps yet another posting will tell of how God worked all those things to good in my life!

May God richly bless you and spare you from an awful journey like my own. I pray that you will know the truth. I pray that the truth will set you free.

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