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Chapter 27: Self-Constructors Versus Self-Realizers

1963: Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A month later President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

1965: Thousands of people protested the Vietnam War at the Pentagon.

1966: Timothy Leary popularized the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” “Flower children” dropped out, turned on, and congregated in various hippy havens.

1967: The miniskirt debuted. Hems rose as far as they could go.

1968: Martin Luther King was assassinated. So was Robert Kennedy. President Johnson announced he would not run for a second term.

1969: Hundreds of thousands of people went to a music festival at Woodstock. Much sex. Three months later, hundreds of thousands of people went to a rock concert at Altamont. Much violence. Homicides spiked. Comedians made “mugger jokes.” New Yorkers locked themselves in their apartments with a variety of deadbolts and latches.

The longhaired boys and braless girls roaming the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s puzzled Herb. “What are they so upset about?” he demanded, gazing at the television. Mary Ellen had no idea. Herb turned to the nature channel to watch lions eat gazelles and crocs bring down wildebeests.

Neither of my parents saw resemblances between the turmoil that characterized the 1960s and the turmoil they grew up with in the first decades of the twentieth century. There were differences, of course, but the resemblances are striking. President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. “Teddy” Roosevelt was almost assassinated in 1912. Margaret Sanger was leading a campaign to legalize birth control. Young people with “advanced ideas” were being drawn to Greenwich Village where they turned on with alcohol and wrote books and poems advocating modern art, socialism, and “free love.” There were demonstrations for prohibition, women’s suffrage, and social justice. Labor unions, Wobblies, and anarchists denounced “the bosses” and “the rich” and staged protests. Sometimes one of them threw a bomb. There were also race riots—many race riots.

And beneath the notice of political scientists and social commentators, a new sect called Pentecostals was conducting ecstatic revival meetings

The sixties rock concerts were descendants of those revival meetings. Indeed, several of the rock-and-roll singers grew up singing in Pentecostal churches. And the rock revival’s message echoed the Pentecostal message: Be born again. The Pentecostals had to “accept Jesus” to do this: the people at the rock concerts just had to “let themselves go.”

Both my parents and the rebellious children of the sixties wanted to liberate themselves from the past—to “cast off the shackles of yesterday” and start over. For my parents, the past was a world of ignorance, poverty, and abuse. For the rebellious children of the sixties, it was the world that my parents and millions of other parents had constructed, a world in which all questions had been answered. A good man had a steady job, mowed his lawn, went to church, and read the newspaper—nothing more. A woman’s place was in the home. A black person’s place was in his own neighborhood. Almost everyone accepted, or prudentially seemed to accept, that the meaning—the purpose of life—was to acquire a beautiful table setting, a two-car garage, and a dandelion-free lawn. It was a world based on appearances. Nothing was lacking and there was nothing more.

The rebels of the 1960s wanted something more. They weren’t sure what, but they saw that the easiest way to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo was to alter their appearances. So they stopped shaving, washing, and cutting their hair. And they stopped “watching their language.” They made “shit” and “fuck” part of ordinary conversation.

Neither my parents nor the rebels of the sixties could define the problem they were grappling with because it was a religious problem, and religion isn’t something anyone knows how to talk about anymore. My parents sensed that their church, as they had always known it, was being transformed into an institution they didn’t recognize. But because they were never interested in ideas, they couldn’t say exactly what they sensed. They wanted their church to remain true to its past. It was the one thing they didn’t want to change. But the liberals at its national headquarters were making it a little more progressive and secular every year and were using “twenty-five-dollar” words to obfuscate the issues. The hippies were too impatient for this kind of incremental change. For them, the solution to the feeling that life had no purpose or meaning was to abandon their parents’ churches and join a movement to save the world, or the whales, or the trees, or something, and to define anyone who wouldn’t join them in this crusade as heretics—lost souls.

Like Mary Ellen, many churchgoers have taken refuge in private, self-constructed theologies while continuing to attend traditional churches and appearing to subscribe to the new progressive orthodoxy. Others, who have no affiliation to any church, have self-constructed private spiritual devotions while letting their secular friends assume they have no religion at all. These subterfuges avoid arguments that lead nowhere but are only faux solutions since they quietly undermine the cohesiveness of our whole society.

In 1851, Mathew Arnold wrote,

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar . . .

In 1888, William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus,” his famous assertion of Victorian defiance and stoicism in the face of that “withdrawing roar”:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

And in 1969, Frank Sinatra introduced “My Way,” a late twentieth-century version of “Invictus,” penned by Paul Anka. Both are responses to the secularization of the soul. “My Way” begins, “And now the end is near / And so I face the final curtain.” It ends,

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.

The song was so popular that at one concert Sinatra introduced it as “our national anthem.” He was right. Its theme of stoic, self-reliant triumphalism reflects both my parents’ belief in self-construction—that people can and should “make something of themselves”—and the long-haired boys’ and braless girls’ belief in deconstruction—in the idea that people can and should defiantly “let themselves go” in order to “realize their true selves,” which presumably are buried beneath the stifling nature of middle-class morality. “My Way” asserts a forlorn, defiant faith in our ability to make our own individual meanings in a meaningless universe.