Last night, on TV, I shuttled between a (U.S.) football game and a public-television tale set in turn-of-the-20th-century England. Each had its proprieties, its agreements, its efforts, its uniforms, its spoken and unspoken limitations. Each had its magnetic skills and accomplishments. And there was something in each that made me long to be convinced by the human -- if occasionally inhumane -- family life of it all.
"Downton Abbey" depicted an aristocrat family on the cusp of World War I. The assurances of dress and comportment and station were deliciously serene in one sense. Even the servants, who led a less elegant life, fit into the scenario and concerns. This was the way life was -- well-off, never speaking directly of the income that supported the lifestyle, knowing which of the numerous forks and spoons to use at the dinner table, invariably polite and well-spoken, with dalliances as an accepted norm as long as no one flaunted them, and with kindnesses quietly wrapped in modulated tones.
Two things scared me about this world (which was close enough to the truth to be true): There seemed to be no laughter and the impact that psychology would soon have on the world was missing. It was a world of agreement that did not trouble itself with the disagreement that the Industrial Revolution and a World War would shortly thrust upon it. This was a world that assumed its world was the way the world should be. It was composed and serene and reassuring. Latter-day critiques had not yet achieved lift-off ... and when they did achieve lift-off, they too would seek with might and mane to create their own assurance and serenity and fitness ... another steady-state paradise. However pinched and pristine and damaging the one was, still the next would seek out a realm that was likewise pinched and pristine and damaging ... for comfort's sake, for human-connection's sake, for community's sake. No one wants to be lonely and the antidote for loneliness is imagined in a gathering of agreement.
The football game was less apparently complex than the world of Edwardian English aristocracy. The New York Giants and the San Francisco Forty-Niners were head-to-head, giving their athletic best in hopes of winning a berth in the upcoming Super Bowl ... after which one team would be proclaimed "best" in all of the football universe. The two teams were tight-knit in purpose and hope. The Giants may have won, but the definitions and pedal-to-the-metal effort created a community for which the crowd roared. They were serious in this endeavor -- and content to be serious. This was not a time for analysis. This was a time for action -- an action whose purpose each player endorsed and in that endorsement found a home, a place of peace, a sense of community ... a place that was not lonely. In that action, the rest of the universe with its myriad possibilities was forgotten. It's the same with all honest effort and action, isn't it? Wide-open, naked, go for it!
To be convinced and content ... God, how alluring! How comforting! Dressing for dinner, suiting up for football, following the proprieties ... and the devil take the hindmost! Creating the universe! This is my life and I am somebody whose somebody-ness goes hand in hand with others whose somebody-ness is likewise assured. To gainsay or critique such an adventure is both churlish and smug. Human beings are human beings -- social, seeking peace, convening for happiness and ... and ... still I think the loneliness remains. Gather for football, dress up for dinner, become a religious adherent, sell stock and bonds ... this is it! This is it because you say this is it and I say this is it and, well, doesn't that mean that this is it?
And yet, and yet....
How hard it is to throw yourself into an approved endeavor (what other choice is there?) and come out the other side with an easy mind, having left the past in the past, without clinging to or asserting the wonders of an endeavor once beloved. The past (be it dressed for dinner or dressed for football or exhaling what was previously and inhalation) informs the present; the social gathering informs the individual and yet relying on that information is ... lonely and strangely unfulfilled. Where is the laughter? Where is the delight? It may be safe, but does it have time for silly? It may be loving, but does it have time for hate?
What scared the shit out of me in Edwardian England was the very comfort it worked so hard to maintain. It was attractive and soothing and I too would like to be soothed. I too would like to feel the comfort that seems to rise up from a world of agreement. I too would like to rely on the axioms of propriety and judge myself a success ... a success who could rest on his laurels. The only problem with it is ... where is the laughter? What happens when belief is erased, as with a sneeze or kiss? If the whole of this comforting propriety can be snuffed out with a sneeze ... well, how comforting, how safe, can it actually be?
To act -- with thought, word and deed as one -- and then feel comfortable to let it slip away (slip away and yet remain) ... is there any other choice that will actually assure the comfort and connection so longed for? It might be nice to pick a world and observe its proprieties with vigor. But to rely on that world? How many times does anyone have to walk into a brick wall before the dime drops and there is some recognition that walking into brick walls is not very comforting? If commitment doesn't work and withholding commitment doesn't work, then what works?
Well, laughter seems to work. Perhaps laughter is the realm in which anyone might get a clue. Or a sneeze. Or a kiss. Or ... anywhere at all. Laughter or sneezing or kissing does not require agreement or applause. Their completeness is undeniable and, well, complete. Comfort is not the issue. The horror and the allure are not the answer to anyone's serious question.
Laughter lends a hand... the end of one story and the beginning of the next ... minus, of course, the "beginning" and "end."