“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)
My recent post on attending my thirtieth high school reunion may not have produced many public comments, but it has engendered several excellent conversations via private email. Few of my friends have any qualms about condemning my take as too facile, ignoring a vastly complex emotional dimension to the reunion phenomenon. They also criticize my affection for these events as a sign of my tolerance for superficial conversation.
I cannot completely dismiss their critique. It is true that I approach school reunions with an emotional simpicity, low expectations, and good-natured affability. Still, I believe that there is more to my point-of-view than vapidness and lack of critical depth. Either that or, as I have always argued, John Stuart Mill (who presumed to know a thing-or-two about hedonism) was a bit off-the-mark when he slandered the happiness of pigs.
I have taken the liberty of excerpting the most interesting of these discussions, which I think displays the merits of both Socratic misery and porcine pleasure.
I read your comments on the reunion this morning and . . . well, you know my general reaction. I thought I would respond to you on your blog by publicly calling you a blithering sentimentalist and demanding that you confess to crying during the worst Hollywood movies, and that needs to frame and contextualize your silly comments about high school reunions. Then I started thinking that maybe I was simply scared of the confrontation that the reunion would require with my own self-evaluation of the past thirty years, whose accomplishments do not make me particularly proud. I do think I’ve wasted most of that time.
But then I got real serious and thought that no, I can’t stand the thought of a reunion, especially a high school reunion, because those were such horrible years for me, not because of high school (even though that institution was bad enough), but because of the whole parental-family scene. At least I have been able to repress it enough to avoid lingering active consequences. But a high school reunion? God, why would I want to go back and rethink about what was going on during high school? No thanks.
A strange thing about the high-school photos listed on the web site. There were certainly names I remember, and some of these people I remember, or think I remember, quite well. But then I clicked on their old photo, and nothing. No recognition. A real twilight zone moment: I have been remembering someone (when I think about it) in a particular way according to a particular memory, but when confronted with the truth of the photo—I couldn’t say I ever knew these people.
If you see high school reunions as an unwelcome catalyst of self-reflection and critical appraisal of all that has transpired in the meanwhile, then I’d agree that they are best avoided. But I’d say the problem is in the need to re-assess, rather than in the mnemonic. What the hell does it matter what you should have done in life, what choices you should have made? Hindsight is easy, flawed, and pointless — far more pointless than the masturbatory feelings of nostalgia which many of my friends deride in the reunion experience, and which at least are joyful. Why does it matter what books you should have written? I’d say what matters is: what books do you want to write now? Do you even want to write books? One of the cool side-effects of being a lazy-sack-of-shit and quitting work was the chance I get to see (indeed, to get to live) the fact that we are a lot less stuck-in-circumstances than it seems. Lives are quite malleable. Who knew! In any case the idea is to move toward things that are happier, not toward things that are more impressive. At least that’s my view.
Shit, I sound like Oprah! And the humiliating part is: I actually believe everything I just wrote.
Anyway, I think you would have enjoyed seeing how people have changed and not-changed in the ensuing 30 years. And they would have enjoyed seeing you; many told me so.
It’s not about liking them or not liking them; it’s about the somewhat awe-striking opportunity to witness how idiots have become aware or how good people have managed to retain their goodness despite the exigencies of adult life. I didn’t make any new friends or feel any closer to those once-friends who have long-since dropped from my life simply by virtue of the one-night proximity in which the reunion placed us. But the experience was wonderful, if only because it was interesting.
Yeah, I was going to call you on this one too and point out that this is perhaps the difference that lets you enjoy these sorts of things while I would sit and stew in the corner. You have much less of a problem with facile encounters with people. I find them much too depressing. I completely understand what you wrote here, the idea that you feel no closer now and no more reconnected than you were before the reunion. But that might be my biggest complaint about the potential of the reunion. I don’t really want these people back in my life. If I did, I would have done something about it before now. I suppose an evening of nostalgia could be fun—but there’s the memory problem (the repression problem). I really have blotted out a lot and could not reminisce with much detail about particularly shared experiences. (Now that I write this, a few do come in mind, but nostalgic story-telling also seems rather pathetic to me.) Yes, there is the curiosity about where these people are now, what do they look like, and have the projections I made for them—however general, biased, and unfair, but so completely necessary for my own sense of myself as I grappled with late-adolescence and early adulthood—any ring of truth? Perhaps I still need the fantasy, the fiction of who these people are and became rather than any sort of truthful rendition.
As for the ego, well these people are naturally tied to a moment of ego and super-ego development. Can’t be avoided. I don’t think I care much about judgment or competition—it’s the unavoidability of self-critique that looms so large above the event.
Jesus, is this related at all to high school reunions?
Actually, I think very little of this is related to high school reunions; at least for me. That was my point.
Having been to both college and high school reunions (and, yes, college reunions are far more wonderful, albeit in a slightly different way), I can tell you that, from my perspective, they are about a hell-of-a-lot less than people suppose them to be about. They are not about looking back over the past decades of your own life; and certainly not about comparing your life to the lives of your former peers. Believe it or not, they are not even about nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong: I confess to being a sentimentalist par excellence. But while some people no-doubt spent the entire evening re-telling high school war stories, I did not; and I don’t recall that any of my interlocutors did so. Like you, I’m not even sure I remember any stories worth telling concerning most of those people.
For me, it was a wonderfully happy-making thing to see the goodness in people that perhaps we had every reason to suspect lacked any redeeming quality. Either they grew out of something or we did; but either way, coming face-to-face with it is deeply satisfying. That’s what reunions are about. That and a bit of voyeurism. Okay, a lot of voyeurism. Learning a little about how the characters in the story end up. Leaving aside any emotional component to the evening, it is actually entertaining.
I’m spending much too much time thinking about this, but the difference between high school and college reunions does seem to me completely caught up in the issue of our parents. After all, the transition between the two institutions marks the jump from parental control to individual will. In that, I didn’t choose the high school, the community, the society in which I found myself until age 17. And for me, I was in such desperate need of escape—from what would represent parental authority and even image—that in life’s narrative I had to construct a distancing from high school and everything surrounding it. I was proud of myself very early on for having almost no ties to anyone from Marin. University, on the other hand, was a moment of free choice—for the most part. At least, we got to choose the institution with which we would associate and to a certain degree identify. So no matter what (no matter the angst we might have felt at college as well), there’s a sense of pride associated with college. I would go to a reunion with the same sort of voyeuristic desire, but with an added sense of pride. Every success, every personal story of pride, contentment, and satisfaction would then reflect on me in some sort of way. I would seek out those stories as an affirmation of my own choice of association. In high school—and I admit my guilt in this—I am looking for schadenfreude as a way to reinforce my own negative judgment against my parents. I’m not interested in the goodness of high schoolers; I want their badness for my life’s narrative, their failures, their closed mindedness. Not only does that fulfill my need to repress the past, but it fulfills the present as well when my mother constantly begins stories with “You know who I ran into the other day?”
The fundamental changes in my life did not take place at Redwood High School; they took place in Truckee (where I was able to develop my instincts for finding joy in things both obviously fun and subtle, and to learn the mental discipline that comes with intensive athletic achievment) and in Ithaca (where my natural curiosities finally got a heart-pounding workout). Redwood always meant so little to me because it was simply more-of-the-same – floating through school years, one after another, doing the things we were told to do, taking the exams that were given us, finding fun in rather unremarkable patterns within the narrow confines of a sometimes suffocating social environment.
This is why my agenda or experience of the reunion was both so limited (no heavy baggage, no need for a nostalgic experience) and so rewarding (the delight in meeting accomplished, decent people and the entertainment of seeing how folks wound-up all these years later).