I just got back from a foray into the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar nearly always gets me thinking (which is why I love it so). And sometimes, you get another WMBW post as a result.
In this case, the experience wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. It was my fiftieth high school reunion. But as familiar as some of the attendees were, I encountered people different than the ones I had known fifty years before. Older, of course. And wiser, I should hope.
There was a meeting of former classmates, a discussion session, planned as an exchange of ideas. I was scheduled to speak briefly on the subject of We May Be Wrong. The moderator who kicked off the session – now a well-known author and psychiatrist – began with the assertion that it is Love – along with the treasured relationships that bind us together on account of Love – that is the single best predictor of having a long life. In study after study, said the moderator, the correlation between a long life and a life that includes friendships and social relationships with loved ones and friends is strong – stronger, in fact, than with any other predictor. By returning to campus because of our bonding, we had self-identified as people who, on average, would lead a long life.
I do not doubt such research results. I instinctively feel that the proposition is true. It resonates with my WMBW perspective. I immediately bonded with the speaker, sensing we had much in common. And as I waited for my turn at the podium, I hoped my message would be well received. I looked forward, in other words, to increasing the bond between my audience and myself. I wanted to feel more of that love, even if it didn’t add a few more hours to my life.
But then, the assertion was made that one reason we classmates had so bonded as to travel from across the country, and even from some other countries, to reassemble fifty years later, was that our common enemies had created an especially strong bond among us. The school’s Dean during our years in school was identified as one of them; when a class member suggested we take time to share stories about the man, there was no shortage of volunteers. (Needless to say, all the stories were about how inhuman and unfeeling he was, and every one was welcomed with nods, and laughter, and more love.) President Lyndon Johnson was another target, and the Vietnam war: both were identified as things we all opposed, things that brought us together in love and portended well for our future longevity.
The moderator then said we ought to be proud, describing us children of the sixties as the generation that had changed the course of America by championing love, peace, and understanding.
In fact, between 1964 and 1968, I and a few other nerds had been members of the Young Americans for Freedom. If you’re too young to remember it, the YAF was a student group that supported the war in Vietnam and other conservative political positions. What’s more, I’d never had a run-in with our dean. While in school, I had had a problem identifying with all the “bonding love” my classmates felt; during my years there, I’d felt shunned and ridiculed by them on account of my minority beliefs. The ridicule led me, in those vulnerable years, to withdraw from my politically-charged peers. To keep my political views to myself.
As I recalled these teenage experiences, I found myself contemplating something that had been said at breakfast that morning by a different attendee. She had cited recent scientific research to the effect that the electro-chemical activity in the brain that occurs when we are with loved ones, feeling the bonds of strong community, is precisely the same as the activity occurring when we come together and hate (or at least disapprove of) those not within our group.
This, too, struck me as all but self-evident. After all, why is it that having a common enemy causes us to unite, to feel comfort, security, and all the ties that bind?
A few minutes later, when I got up to speak about We May Be Wrong, I found that some things hadn’t changed from fifty years earlier. I still hoped my thoughts would be well received. I still wanted to feel some of that love. To belong to the tribe.
The world is a lonely place, from the outside, looking in.