Yesterday, I was sitting around in a café aprés yoga with some friends, discussing our midlife spiritual crises, among other things. Not the garden variety of midlife crisis, but the deeper one which impels the others. It is the one in which one realizes that one is not living one’s own life, but one provided by all of those others, from one’s parents to Madison Avenue (a quaint term for advertising for all of you millennials.
It reminds me of this truly wonderful book I’ve assigned to some of my first year seminar students, This Book is Not Required, which relies partly on a “Buddhist sociology” I’ve not read anywhere but by the book’s chief author, Inge Bell. It is well–accepted in sociology, especially within the theoretical perspective of symbolic interactionism, that individuals undergo a process of socialization (not “socializing”, that’s a form of “interaction”). As I intone repeatedly for my students, this is the social process by which individuals learn their culture, including norms, and their place in the social world. As the chapter subtitle in the text I use suggests, it is how we become “human and humane.” While this happens most profoundly when we are young, it does continue in small ways over the course of the life cycle, when we take on a new social role, such as parenthood, or a new job in a new place. Without this critical process we end up “feral”, comically like Mowgli or George of the Jungle.
But Bell, from her Buddhist sociological perspective suggests we need to take the added critical step of desocialization, for her a process of individuation, of deciding amongst all of the options society and others present us. What characterizes us?
For my students, I’ve long tried to preserve this critical aspect of socialization, that it is not a spectator sport, that what society would have us know to be a part of the human community is not simply decanted into us as children, empty vessels and recipients of the wisdom of the ages. No, we must and do select amongst various ways of being. Indeed, if the structure of society constrains our choices, we also do exercise some degree of agency. As Willy Wonka tells spoiled Veruca Salt, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
For instance, I ask students if they play any sport for the University, and what sports they played in high school, and middle school. Typically, I receive different responses. Why don’t they play the sports they played earlier in their education? It’s clear they’ve made choices, about what they do and don’t like, or are good and not good at, from among the vast array their significant and generalized others would have them know, and do. So our choices interact with society, and this is the dance of agency and structure. (I owe my appreciation of the significance of idea to my colleague of many years.)
But choice at any age, and perhaps distinctively in middle age, is frightening. I love this song by Emily Haines of Metric, and especially the acoustic version, “Help, I’m Alive.” Not “help, I’m dying,” but “help, I’m faced with the delicious uncertainty of choice.”
I especially love this part:
If I’m still alive, my regrets are few.
If my life is mine, what shouldn’t I do?
I get wherever I’m going.
I get whatever I need.
While the blood’s still flowing,
And my heart still beats (beating like a hammer)…
How wonderful to be confronted with the terror of this beautiful life.