Friday, August 31, 2007

Thoughts on Destruction

Thing 1, my seven-year-old, has a memory that is, at times, jaw-dropping. In the car just now, coming home from lunch, he mentioned something about me needing to use insurance money to fix a rip in the roof of my convertible. I had that car--a VW Rabbit--in the mid-1980s. When it was that I told him this story--or why, or in reference to what--I have no idea. It's certainly nothing I told him more than once, and it's certainly nothing I told him recently. But he remembers everything.

I loved that car, even as it began, over the years, to decay. First the emergency brake went (I had to carry a cinder block around with me in case I had to park on a slope), then the knob off the gear shift, then the latches holding down the soft-top roof. Eventually I sold it to one of my students who was eager to have something she could work on and play with.

One day, when I had the car parked somewhere around the Medium Sized Southern School from which I had recently graduated, I returned to find the car slashed. I never left anything valuable in the car--nor did I ever lock the doors. When I bought the Rabbit, the dealer let me know that the top, which was insulated and multi-layered, was probably more expensive to replace than anything else. So I didn't want to give anyone incentives for tearing into it. Take the car--just don't rip the roof.

Well, some idiot came along and slashed the roof anyway--and not even all the way through. A big gash on the outside that didn't cut all the way to the inside. And nothing else taken or disturbed.

Being the kind of person who Dwells on Things (maybe even Broods, on occasion), I thought a lot about the meaning of it all. Why cut through a car's roof if not to get into the car? What was the point? Was it really just to prove to me that there was someone out there in the world capable of wreaking havoc? Was he just trying to let me know that he could break things faster than I could keep them in repair?

That wasn't exactly news. I mean, I was well aware of the fact. There are two kind of people in the world (yes: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don't. But seriously, folks): people who use their energy and power to create, and people who use their energy and power to destroy. This is not cultural--there have been mound builders and ziggurat erectors and city planners and artists and sculptors and composers from the dawn of human time, and in every corner of the earth. And just as there have been Builders, there have been Wreckers. Sometimes the Wreckers have come from outside the wall and sometimes they have been homegrown. No one has a monopoly on creativity...or destruction.

But what a strange urge! Why is it so important to prove to someone that you are capable of destruction? Why is that warning shot across the bow of civilization important for some people? Is it because the opposite urge--the urge to create and build--seems intimidating and dangerous to those incapable of it? Does it smack of hubris--something requiring a take-down, a stiff dose of reality, whether in the form of graffiti, vandalism, or Semtex?

Obviously, these ruminations back in the late 80s would have taken on a very different hue had the incident happened after 9/11/01. Because, let's face it, the obliteration of the World Trade Center was the ultimate expression of the destructive urge, undertaken by people utterly incapable of building such towers, and using as their destructive weapons airplanes that they were likewise incapable of building.

But remembering all of this again today, I think back--as I did when my roof was slashed--to something from my own past. And suddenly, again--now as then--I don't feel so smug. Because I'm wrong: there no Them and Us. There is only Us.

Back when I was in middle school, I went to a summer camp in Massachusetts. I had spent my early years in day camps because my parents had a summer house up in the mountains, and that was "away" enough for all of us. But as I got older, my parents thought it would be good for me to try sleep away camp at least once or twice. So I began my sleep away camp experience at 12 or 13.

In this particular camp--a boy's camp--we slept in three-sided lean-tos--shacks, really--that were humid and moldy and smelly at all times. There were three sets of bunk beds against the three walls, and six boys per cabin. One kid in our cabin was a genuine pain in the ass. He complained all the time. He was spoiled. When we went on a hike and someone got hurt and needed a bandage, he refused to give up his bandanna--because it was expensive and he didn't want it to be ruined. We all hated him.

And was I relieved that we all hated him--that he got to be the goat instead of me? You bet I was.

Well, one lazy afternoon we were all sitting around the cabin--all of us except the Goat. And it occurred to us, in the way that terrible ideas seem to drift in on the breeze and take over everything like a strong odor, that it would be fun to cut holes in the Goat's underwear. Why this particular idea occurred to us, I don't know. He had underwear; we had Swiss Army Knives. Apparently that was all that was necessary. So we opened up his trunk, took out all his briefs, and cut big holes in all the crotches. We laughed and laughed. Then we cut his soap in half. That was also pretty funny. Then we cut up his letters from home. Then we threw his transistor radio in the woods. Then we ruined his tennis racket. Then...

Well, you get the idea. When we finally looked up and caught our breaths and...came to...we realized that we had utterly destroyed everything this boy had brought with him to camp. Hundreds of dollars worth of stuff. And no one could exactly remember having decided to do all that. We had decided to embarrass him with some holes in his shorts. And then we just got... carried away.

Carried away. It's a very interesting turn of phrase, isn't it? What is it, exactly, that we think has lifted and carried us? What force external to us do we blame for moving us away from where we intended to be and who we thought we were?

Obviously, we did the only thing that honorable pre-teens could do--we lied like hell about what had happened, and told our counselors that we had seen some Strange Adult lurking around the cabin. I don't think it occurred to any of us how ludicrous the story was, since only one boy's possessions had been touched.

The counselors made it clear to us that the police would have to be called in if, indeed, an outsider were involved. They interviewed us separately and worked each of us over until we broke. In the end, we all gave each other up. Amazingly, we didn't get kicked out of camp. We just had to pay to replace the Goat's things.

I remember this particular incident because it was rare and strange for me. Perhaps it isn't for lots of guys, but it is for me. I don't tend to think of myself as having much a destructive urge. I take no great joy in wrecking things or seeing things wrecked. Some people find carnage fun; I just don't. I'm a creator, after all--a writer, a team-builder, a developer of programs, blah blah blah. What happened to me back then? Was I possessed?

Whatever it was, I'll tell you one thing: It was fun. There was joy in that moment, at that moment. I don't think I credited it at the time--I was too afraid of it. But there was tremendous glee and fun and...euphoria, really. Complete Dionysian release.

There is something freeing (if a little apocalyptic) in letting that urge loose upon the world. It's awful in the real, original meaning of the world. You stand in awe of what you can do. From the outside, we see that as juvenile: "Nyah, nyah--look what I can do." But perhaps, sometimes, there's something intoxicating and frightening in it, as well: "Holy shit--look what I can do."

Sometimes we take our creative urge for granted and forget to celebrate our potential. Obviously we should pay respect to that urge and its products, and cultivate it in ourselves. We can do great things, and each of us is capable of imagining and bringing into reality something wonderful. But we need to pay homage to our destructive urge as well--to note it, and be aware of it, and pay it a kind of grim respect. To pretend it isn't there is to ruled by it--in secret, in silence, unaware, and from a very dark place. One day, all of a sudden, it erupts--and we look around in horror, saying "What happened?" Saying, "I got carried away." Saying "It was the devil!"

The old Greeks knew how dangerous it was to serve one god to the exclusion of others. To them, nothing was more important than balance. Feed all of the Powers that rule the universe (within us and without us) and avoid having any one of them possess you utterly. Obviously, our more advanced culture knows that this is nonsense. The very idea of balance is old and stodgy and stale and foolish. It's boring, really. The ideal, for us, is the extreme (sorry: Xtreme).

But maybe that makes sense. After all, we aren't aiming for the Good Life; we're aiming for the Afterlife. The sooner, the better.

Climb aboard.

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