In the capital city of a state more conservative than many, in its midsized newspaper more conservative than not, runs a weekly feature called “Single File,” of presumed interest to, yes, area singles (people, not cheese slices).
This week’s article, “first in a series,” was “Sex and Love Intermingle in the 80’s.” Titillated by the title (Had they never intermingled before? Would we be able to watch?), I was disappointed in the rest of the story. I wondered how the author’s husband felt about her enthusiastic account of her latest reading matter: “To expect more from love, like promises and futures, is ‘bizarre and inappropriate.'”
Then, at the end, the teaser for next week’s installment crept into view: “Etiquette for the Sleepover Date,” with the “Drop Us a Line” box asking, “What ideas do you have on sleepover dating? Is leaving your house with toothbrush in hand too obvious? Should children be ushered off to Grandma’s house for the night?”
Now, I’m not old, except to the solicitous, down-cheeked male carryout persons at the Super Valu, and I like to think I’m realistic. Whims of the flesh are not alien to me, nor is the recurring wish for slightly less responsibility in this life. Still, I’ve spent a sizable part of my life being ashamed, or trying to act in such a way that I wouldn’t be ashamed, or at least trying not to get caught, and suddenly I’m a 32-year-old Edsel.
Shame is out; positive attitude is in, is everything, in fact. A local doctor friend, when I said that a group of us were guilty of letting another friend shoulder too much responsibility in a certain matter (“guilty” meaning “we’re doing it; let’s stop doing it”), silenced me by announcing, “Guilt is the world’s most useless and destructive emotion.” I’d always found it eminently useful: when I had it, it kept me from smoking (or at least enjoying) the cigarettes I swiped from my mother; from skipping gym class; from tormenting my brother (who was always asking for it). I refrained from more than I thought fair, for fear all hell would break loose at home. I trod the line between good and evil, and it was neither subtle nor narrow (although I liked to think it both); my difficulties lay only in my occasional narcoleptic plunges off the wrong side. (“You weren’t guilty; you were just afraid of being punished,” some have said, and that, to me, is a subtle and narrow distinction.)
But all hell never breaks loose any more. Do you sleep around? (Strange that the up-front people who do would use such a coy euphemism.) It’s the healthiest thing in the world, like jogging: you work up a sweat and grimace a lot, but feel great when it’s over. Do you abuse your child? That’s a learned behavior, and if someone tries to tell you it’s a “sin” you can haul him to court and win. Do you steal? You’re a victim of the crass, incessant materialism in the lousy world you’re forced to inhabit (never mind that your nine brothers and sisters live happy, productive lives). Do you have sex with persons of your own gender, or with cocker spaniels, or with hot roast-beef sandwiches (hold the mashed potatoes)? Normalcy is relative, and if queerness is normal for you, that’s all that matters.
Not only is there nothing to hide any more, you are suspect if you don’t proclaim your proclivities. To act as if you love your wife when you’re longing to get her daughter (or son) in the sack; to act as if you’re still a virgin at 19 when you’re not, or as if you don’t wake up in a different bed every Saturday morning; to act as if you’re sorry for the shaky life you’ve bequeathed your three illegitimate children: all this can make a person awfully nervous and resentful. Guilt and embarrassment went the way of bundling, signs of a damaged id; restraint is the only unnatural act. Be what you are, and shout what you have done. All feelings are equal, but some are more equal than others. Propriety is hypocrisy.
It’s just that my very naturalness is what makes me so ashamed.
The General Confession contained in the Morning Prayer service in the old Episcopal Book of Common Prayer read, in part, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” (The last seven words do not exist in the 1979 revision, which an Episcopal friend, one of the best men I know, found an improvement. “Thinking like that is self-defeating,” he said. “It makes it sound as if we can’t ever be any better than we are.” Wellll . . . ) The General Confession of Holy Communion in the old book, and in Rite I in the new (used for eight o’clock low-church diehards), contains the lines, “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.”
No other phrases in the services fly from my tongue as instinctively as these. The Apostles’ and Nicene creeds are intricate and logical and vaguely incomprehensible to me, although I try to be saying the truth about what I believe when I say them; but these confessions are painful and immediate, compound fractures of my would-be private life, newly eloquent each week with my most recent tears and same old fretful remorses. There is no health in me; I will never get better. Attribute this to any theological or scientific cause you like, but call it the human condition.
What I’d like to read about more often, I think, is the acknowledgment of: (a) a little more shame; and (b) the sometime appropriateness of “hypocrisy,” which is often just good manners. Date whatever kind of fauna you find attractive, but don’t try to make us think perversion is enlightenment. Mankind has known better for millennia. Let off a little steam on Friday nights, but take the children to Grandma’s first and tell her you’ll be working late at the office; she’ll appreciate the effort at pretense. Raise your illegitimate child, or give it up for adoption, but don’t ask me to pay you for it, or act as if a one-parent home is the best of all possible worlds. Have the good grace to blush and avert your eyes once in a while. God knows we’ve all earned that privilege.