A few nights ago, I went for a walk with a freshman girl. I have been morbidly depressed lately and thought that the company of a youthful, effervescent individual of the opposite sex might be of some comfort or, at least, diversion. I was quiet for the most part, preferring to listen more than speak. The young lady bubbled on about how the world would be a better place if people just stopped hating one another. She talked about how if you were just nice to people they would be nice back and there would not be any more conflict in the world. She talked about how she loved flowers, lasagna, and parties (in that order). After a while, I turned to her and said, “You’re pretty idealistic, huh?” She responded with a cheery, “Uh-huh!” We departed for a favorite Italian restaurant where much of the remainder of the evening was spent discussing the young lady’s dad and mom and all the good times which they had back on the farm. We ordered a pitcher of beer. My idealistic friend could really put it away. We left the pizza parlor for a party that was already in progress. People were dancing, drinking, and playing guitars. The young lady and I sat down and I picked up her hand and looked at it. She had one of the smoothest lifelines that I had ever seen. Her head and heart lines were also pretty weird looking. “When someone hurts you do you just forget it after a while or act like it didn’t happen?” I asked her. “How didja know?” I showed her, then left the room to look at the Eno River outside.
“God,” I thought, “is this kid ever unrealistic!” On the way home, squished in with another person in the back of a volkswagen, my friend, who had downed two more beers but could still walk, said, “Geez, I love life,” in a breathy, Annette Funicello tone. I thought to myself, “How could you love life when you haven’t lived yet?” I spent the next few days watching people in the Cambridge Inn and in the snack-bar of the graduate center (both of which, especially the latter, are frequented by freshman girls and boys). I began to pull my thoughts together in those disquieting surroundings.
I thought about how I do not look upon the world as a very cheery place. In fact, I have occasionally thought that if this isn’t hell then somebody must have a terrific imagination to think of a worse place to which to condemn human beings. I thought about how I had grown up, not on a farm, but in the garbage of New York. I had to fight every step of the way growing up. Somebody was always beating me up or trying to. Somebody didn’t like Jews or didn’t like curly hair, or didn’t like people who didn’t act like everyone else, or just plain didn’t like people. The world was full of people who didn’t know me but hated me anyway. The world was full of hate, fear, getting hurt, being hurt, hurting, and not seeing any way out of the mess. The world was full of people waiting for other people “outside” or kicking each other’s books down the sewer or throwing little kid’s jackets and bicycles over the fence on the way home from school. Somehow, in the steaming hell of New York, long before I reached my eighteenth birthday, I had lost all traces of youthful idealism. The world was hell, as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t wait to get away from it. I would definitely have killed myself some time ago if, upon losing idealism, I did not find something stronger.
I lost idealism, which is a blind, naive, childish view of human existence, and I began to have faith. There had to be a reason for all of this suffering. There had to be a way for people to reach one another, to not have to live in constant fear. There had to be sense to all of this senseless suffering. There had to be a way to know hell and still build a heaven inside oneself. My alcoholic, lasagna-ridden friend was idealistic and therefore weak. Her strength had yet to be tested. She had not lived long enough to see her dreams shattered all around her and still pick up the bloody pieces. She hadn’t seen the whores on forty-second street every morning on the way to work. She hadn’t been able to see that yet, and to still believe that there is more to sexuality than a ten dollar bill, ten minutes, and a trip to the health department for some penicillin. She was probably still a virgin. She was a virgin in her mind, too. An idealist doesn’t know any better than to be optimistic. He is somewhat of a fool. A pessimist has seen that life is hell and becomes corrupt, accepting hell as his destiny without having the strength of spirit to hang on and not get carried along in the Stygian current. A person who has faith has been tempered in the fires of human damnation but has not given up. He has seen his human limits, his own ugliness, his own weakness and ignorance but does not abandon himself. The faithful man has the courage to hang on to himself in the face of reality. He has come to know himself through his shortcomings and the failures of the human world and yet hangs on. He somehow knows through faith that there is a deeper self within. He can accept himself, his condition, his fate, and yet have faith in his ability to overcome fate, to overcome human limits, to fall and in falling to have glimpsed himself. He may begin to remember himself or simply to remember that he does not yet know himself or his world or even his God. Faith is not blind. Idealism is blind. Pessimism is corruption. Faith is the experience of hell without the acceptance of it. Faith is a memory of idealism transformed by the fires of earthly hell. Faith is maturity, idealism is immaturity, pessimism is refusing to grow up and take responsibility while seeming to be doing exactly that.
Only by maturing away from idealistic and pessimistic views of one’s self and one’s fellows can you truly begin to experience love. Before that you become involved in childish infatuations with fantasized superhumans, or in childish games of teasing and manipulating others because you believe that others are out to do that to you. You become involved in clutching, grasping, spiritually unhealthy relationships where each is trying to fulfill his own real or imagined needs. You always end up disappointed.
By maturing, one has the faith in himself to feel capable of loving others who are allowed to be themselves. One is not afraid that he will not be able to cope with real people. One has faith in others and can accept them as what they are without feeling threatened, ridiculed, foolish, or insecure. One matures and develops faith in the existence of life as it is. It is not threatening to him. One knows himself anew with each growing, maturing moment through his accepting relationships with others and with ones’ self which is built upon the inner freedom that comes from faith triumphing over idealism and over pessimism. It is not possible to become disappointed then.