It is unfortunate that we begin our lives knowing nothing. The same lessons must be learned again and again. Experience is for the individual; humanity has not found a way to tap into experience across the generations. Over and over again we must learn the same lessons, and we often learn them in incomplete, superficial ways. The lessons do not burrow deep within our fibers and so we are always wasting time recalling and remembering and trying to put pieces together. Great truths may be culminating across the ages, on the verge of presenting themselves to us, but we are stalled. We are an endless parade of children learning everything over and over again.
When we are young we have no confidence. We lack the experience to conduct ourselves with confidence. When I was young my speech was faltering and hesitant. I looked down at the ground when speaking to an adult. I stalled. I hesitated. I stuttered and jarbled my words. “What did you say? Speak up.” My entire fiber was one of weakness and timidity. My childhood was an embarrassment. In middle age I found myself only slightly improved. I sometimes spoke just to fill awkward silences, and what came out of my mouth was often paradox and waste. Over and over it happened.
When I was younger I was much impressed and taken with those who spoke loudly, clearly, and used expressions such as, "Listen, let me tell ya something" or "Look, ya wanna know what the problem is?" As I began listening to these individuals more and more, however, and as my powers of logic, perception, and questioning increased, it became apparent that they were often just as hesitant and confused as I was. Even those who spoke with great conviction and authority often had little to offer. It was all a veil. The only difference was their wonderful ability to speak with a conviction that glossed over complexities and contradictions. After repeated listenings, I often found they knew as much or as little on any given subject as I knew.
One of my first jobs was working in the warehouse at a company that sold and repaired typewriters. Whenever things were slow I'd pour a couple of coffees and make my way over to see Doug. Doug had one job, and that was to repair any defective or damaged typewriter that came his way. When I walked in he was usually sitting at his desk with his eyeglasses halfway down his nose, looking into the innards of a typewriter. His long sleeves would be rolled up to just below the elbow exposing a blurry Seabees tattoo. "What's wrong with that one?" I would ask, pointing to some typewriter. His work really fascinated me. I was impressed with his ability to take something apart into a hundred different pieces, figure out what was wrong, and then put it back together again. And Doug was always good about explaining what the problem was and how he planned on going about fixing it.
He loved to talk and he had strong opinions. He had little patience for small minds, and his stories often centered on his interactions with people blindly following illogical systems or simply not doing something that clearly should be done. He was fond of using terms like "idiots" and "knuckleheads." He would talk and would work himself up and wouldn't mind in the least if you didn't say anything. He had a disarming and charismatic smile that gave away what I sensed to be a genuinely gentle interior. He would often say something and then react to it as if someone else had said it. "Ya know. That might not be a bad idea!" he'd exclaim, looking at me as if I were the one who came up with it. He was passionate. He yelled, he smiled, he laughed. He would talk about the news of the day. He could go on and on about anything, really. I marveled at the amount of conversation he was capable of producing. I have never been able to duplicate it. I am capable of short bursts now and again, but I tire too easily. He was one of those people who would often begin his ideas with the phrase, "You wanna know something?" It is not a question, really. It is a rather curious transitional phrase. It is another way of saying, "I have the answer" or "Here's what needs to be done." It is very similar to the phrase, "Let me tell ya something," which he also used. But the question mark at the end of it also struck me as a kind of special revealing just for me, as if Doug shouldn't have been telling me but decided to do me a favor by letting me in on the answer. He enjoyed talking politics. Government workers and his own personal interactions with them was an especially attractive subject for him. He would rant about the inefficiencies of Boston City Hall and call the mayor to task on anything and everything he did or didn’t do.
When I was in my early and mid-twenties, I sometimes took on the persona of individuals like Doug. I would keep my arguments simple and start my sentences with the same loud convictional utterances. I might enter into a conversation about jobs and economy with something like, "Listen. Harry. Ya wanna know what the problem is? Every worker there doesn't know how good he has it. They need to look around and see there are a whole lot of people worse off than they are. I'm sick and tired of their stinking crap and whining. If any one of their idiotic demands is met I give them one year before they go belly up."
I both surprised and scared myself. I enjoyed listening to this new me. The adrenaline kicked in and I could barely contain my joy as I participated somewhat successfully in a thoroughly unfamiliar role. In some cases, where my listener did not have strong opinions, my effect was that of a paralyzing sting. Part of me felt bad for levying this staged verbal harangue, but another part of me fluttered with the thrill and excitement of exerting myself in such a sure fashion. But I could not maintain the persona for very long. One reason is that I was frightened by the barbarity of my arguments; they were non-nuanced visceral explosions. They did not reflect who I was at heart. I need to think things through. See the other side. Reflect on positions. Gather information. Listen to multiple viewpoints. Go back in history and follow the thread of an argument. I could study a topic for weeks and, at the end of it, only be able to mutter, "Well, I don't really understand it that well. It's a complicated situation."
Such thoughts, however, influence nothing. I am often embarrassed to admit that I don't have an opinion or that I need more information. History has no need for people like me. Samuel Adams did not say things like, "Well, I really need to learn more about these new taxes. I guess they're OK. It's a complicated situation what's going on." When I study Samuel Adams I see the same strong personality I see in Doug. I quite easily see Samuel Adams uttering phrases such as "Let me tell ya something." The point is that history is not moved by truth or logic or measured reasoning. It is moved by emotional people like Samuel Adams or Doug who are able to "tell us something." The point is that what makes for really good conversation is not truth or logic or measured reasoning, but impassioned half-truths, gossip, and incomplete knowledge by people who "know what the problem is." I used to find these points disconcerting since they seemed to illustrate the worst in us. The more I see how things get done, however, and the more comfortable I am in the presence of people like Doug due to my own increasing confidence and familiarity with them, the more I understand how vital people like Doug are in shaping history. Their overblown confidence and sure way of talking are to be marveled at and respected if only for the fact that they effect change. How else are things to be done?