The Values I Embrace Today

Yesterday was Easter, and since Cora’s still at that festival in the California desert, I went over alone to a friend’s place for brunch. Luc was there, too. It’s his old apartment, the last one he lived in before moving out to Anacostia. He didn’t bring Leah, his most recent love interest, though. He still thinks their burgeoning relationship is a bit too fresh to subject her to his friends. After we ate, Luc and I were sitting at a table Luc made by hand when he first moved into that place with his ex-girlfriend, the grad student in her mid-twenties. Our current host’s stepmom and this other woman Luc’s introduced me to before, Medha, were sitting at that heavy, wooden table along with us. Luc’s known Medha for years, but she recently moved back to DC from Brooklyn to help out her mom who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. I was drinking coffee while everybody else was sipping the remnants of their mimosas.

Our friend’s stepmom was saying, “I think it’s simple. If you put people on an X-Y axis so you have four quadrants, and if you consider the Y axis to be the spectrum of depression and the X axis to be family upbringing, you can start graphing how people are going to react later in life. See, in this quadrant, you have depression with a good upbringing, which makes the chemical problems manageable. In this quadrant, you have a bad upbringing but good chemicals, which explains how some people overcome their circumstances. In the third quadrant, you’re good with both, which is the easiest way for somebody to be brought up. While in the last quadrant, you have bad chemicals and a bad upbringing. These are the people who are really in danger.”

“Sure. That makes sense,” I said. “But it’s really a spectrum on both axes, right? Not to mention there are so many psychological problems that don’t fall into the category of ‘depression’ per se, and that really complicates matters. Besides, what constitutes a ‘normalized’ upbringing at any point in time? I’d say trauma is the most natural thing that ever happens to a human being in this world.”

“Despite my hopeless romanticism,” Luc interjected.

I went on, “It’s simply because our culture places so much emphasis on the sanctity of youth that the most important part of a ‘normalized’ upbringing in this culture is to avoid trauma at a young age. But what about a culture where entire generations are traumatized early in life? Like, for example, a culture that survives genocide. Then, the abnormal becomes the child who is not traumatized.”

“Right,” Medha said, “I even think about kids in this country who grow up with poverty or gang violence. But I guess that’s how we wind up with the different cultural narratives we were talking about earlier…”

“Sure,” I said. “Except there’s no real reason to believe any one narrative is inherently superior to any other. There’s only the one that wins.”

“History is written by the victors,” Luc reminded us.

“Maybe,” Medha said. “But do you think that’s why Communism lost, though? Do you really think capitalism is ‘better’?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But I’d make the claim that Marxist communism is ideologically flawed, and the flaw lies in Kant’s idealism, which crept into Marx’s thinking via Hegel. I mean, the problem with Marx, in my opinion, is more or less a problem with the German philosophy of his time. It’s the inversion of the ideal and the real. Even though Engels claimed he and Marx actually set Hegel right side up. I simply don’t think that’s the case. For me, the antidote is Nietzsche, which he probably even saw himself to be. And Nietzsche is what’s actually at the heart of the American project even though we couldn’t have said that at the beginning.”

“Are you saying we’re the overman?” Luc asked with a smile.

“No. But we have the myth of the overman, the myth of the future. Not to mention the whole ‘that which does not kill you only makes you stronger’ mentality. But that’s why, I’d say, reality is even more than just the victors writing history. The only thing that makes something ‘good’ at all – and I pretty much stole this idea verbatim from Nietzsche – is whether or not it survives. And that’s why, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to believe there’s something to this American system I spent my twenties and early thirties railing against.”

“But the American system is actually two systems,” our friend’s stepmom told us. “One system is what people call capitalism and the other is more or less Christianity. And these two systems are constantly at war here. In fact, if you look at our elections, we’re split pretty much evenly at about 50/50. But it’s those two systems in conflict with each other that makes the United States what it is. We need the greed of the capitalists to move us forward while we need the morals of the religionists to keep us from completely destroying one another.”

“Sure,” I said. “But one thing I’ve really come to believe is that the America I know is necessarily anarchic. And the more I look at my life, the more I realize those are the cultural values I was raised with. So I have to admit, despite any of my past leanings, those are the values I embrace today.”

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