Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No Regrets

      If you haven't been watching Friday Night Lights, I'm sorry. It is easily one of the best shows ever done, and I would place it on the short list of truly great shows that are all in contention for Best Show Ever That's Not The Wire. (If you haven't watched that yet, that actually is a problem and I might not be able to be friends with you anymore. It is simply the best thing ever put on celluloid... that goes for film too. Yeah, I said it.) The other shows I would put on that list are Californication and Spartacus. Anyway, I thought I'd take this post in a slightly different direction than the norm and do some comparative television.

      No, not really.

      But I do want to use a couple of the characters from these shows as a jumping off point for something I do want to talk about. The characters are Tim Riggins, played by Taylor Kitsch, from FNL, and Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, from Californication. The characters bear many similarities; alcoholism, sexual-adventurism, looks and attitude that make them have to beat the ladies off with a bat, and a tendency to make the same mistakes over, and over, and over. The irony here is that it is the illiterate, Texas high-school football star, Riggins, who is better able to articulate their mutual life-philosophy than the college-educated, New York-raised, published author, Moody. Which is, as Riggins says, No Regrets.

         In my last post on monogamy I said that "jealousy is a disgusting emotion," and argued that it is the least productive of all human emotion. The only other that gives it a run for its money is guilt. I'll try to make clearer what I mean by that here, and bring in some related feelings, such as embarrassment and shame. I'll also try to make clear that while there is much to admire about Riggins' and Moody's lifestyle, even the writers of these great shows lack the cajones to take their subject to the next level. Though they have created two very realistic characters, they do fall into some of the classic tropes, and fail to make these characters something people could actually want to emulate in their own lives, and not just because of how much they get laid.

            Although this isn't meant to be a post about TV characters, it is important to make clear why I started there. If you've seen the shows, you don't need much exposition to understand what I am talking about. If you haven't, it would take a lot more exposition than I have room for here, and I couldn't possibly do justice to the writing, direction or acting on either of those excellent programs, so I won't bother, and it wouldn't do you much good anyway. So I'll try to make clear what I am talking about by using these characters as examples, and then move on.

            As I said, both Riggins and Moody are thoughtful, intelligent and genuinely caring individuals who repeatedly get themselves into trouble for their philandering, boozing and/ or drugging, and general live-in-the-now mentality. The viewer is able to sympathize with both of these characters, even cheer for them, because even when they screw up, which they both do in nearly every episode, they do so with the best intentions. Whether it is professor Moody sleeping with his (married) colleague, TA and (stripper) student all within a 48 hour span, or Riggins hooking up with his recently paralyzed best friend's girlfriend, the writers manage to convince the viewer that although these would normally be huge moral transgressions, the character is coming from the right place when they decide to embark on that path. But this is about more than being a sexual libertine. It is, as Riggins says, living with no regrets.

            The function of guilt is to convince the bearer that the recently undertaken action was not worth the price one is paying now in negative feeling. I would also suggest that guilt is unique, or at least in the minority of human emotions, because it is largely a result of cultural amplification. All emotions have their roots in our biology, but most of the process of acculturation teaches us to lessen the “natural” expression of many of these; anger, lust, appetite, etc. In our current culture, Hallmark and Cameron Diaz flicks try to convince us that we should be more “in love” than reality really allows, but our culture as a whole comes out neutral on love, by placing diminishing value on love for family and friends and an increasing value on love of self.

      All of the emotions mentioned above, even jealousy, can be seen readily, in a simplified form, in the animal kingdom. (Recent experiments have shown that social animals have an innate sense of fairness, getting upset when they are given less food than another, and some will even try to make it more equitable when they are the one receiving more.) But, guilt, shame and regret are much rarer. True, when my dog has an accident in the house, her ears are back and her tail between her legs when I walk in the door, but once she sees I'm not going to hit her and I let the poor thing outside, her ears are up and tail is wagging. Other emotions we share with animals- anger, lust, appetite, sorrow, can be as all-consuming for them as they can be for us, driving them to distraction or persisting for days on end. But when my dog does something "wrong," she is not going to lose sleep over it. 

            This is because although guilt is, like everything else that goes on in our heads, rooted in our biology, it has been particularly exploited by aspects of our culture to have much more control over our lives than some of us, I would think most of us, would find desirable. The same goes for shame and regret. What is guilt? Or shame, or regret? It is the feeling that you should have done differently than you did. Something in the past. Well, that's great, but its a little late now. There is, by definition, nothing we have less control over than the past. (Unless you live in 1984, which we will get too.) These emotions affect you by causing you to obsess over something over which you have no control. So why entertain them?

            It's not that guilt doesn't have any usefulness. If you get behind the wheel after too many beers and cause a fatal accident, you ought to feel regret. For a long time. You should think about it every time you have a drink, or start a car, for the rest of your life. If you succumb to temptation and sleep around on your spouse, you should think about that for a long time. It should be painful enough that you never do it again. You should learn from it. But that doesn't mean the accompanying emotion needs to linger forever.

            And this is where I feel like the creators of those characters could have dared to take those characters to the next level. These characters live hard, play hard, but the message the shows convey is that the only way one can live without regret, without crushing guilt, is by never learning any lessons either. You are either a “normal” person who experiences varying degrees of paralyzing guilt (and live a painfully dull life) or you are a completely oblivious fool. There is no middle road for someone who learns the necessary lessons to continue living a non-monogamous, oops, I meant non-monotonous life, without making the same dumb mistakes over and over and over.

      Perhaps the suggestion is that the inevitable result of learning lessons from one's mistakes is the slow, grasping slide towards adulthood. Maturity. That once one has made enough mistakes, one has to avoid all of those scenarios that were mishandled in youth, since you should have learned how those situations turn out. Guilt should have taught you its lesson by now.

      I disagree. I think we could all learn a lot from our dogs. It is possible to recognize when we have done something wrong, take the necessary lesson from that, and move on, without spending hours, days or weeks being paralyzed by it.

       We can also employ guilt to our own benefit. (Not by guilt-tripping others, no.) As a personal example, I have been committed to a fairly consistent exercise routine for the last 17 years, involving some mix of weight-lifting, running, swimming and biking. I have had periods of my life where I would do at least one of these five days a week. I have had other periods, like now (fatherhood), where if I hit each one once, its a great week. But I have not, that I can recall, in the last 17 years, gone more that two weeks (and I could count those times on two hands) without at least getting in one workout. And although I wish my life allowed me more consistency in this area, the bar I set for myself is that I maintain my ability to do a sprint-triathlon on any day of the week, which I feel is pretty satisfactory for a guy who is naturally a pretty terrible athlete with a lung capacity condition. So my point is, there are two types of exercise-conscious people. Those who employ guilt to their benefit, and those who let it rule them. If I go more than three days without exercise, I start getting in a pretty heavy funk, and a day or so after that, the psychosomatic effects kick in, mostly my muscles aching in places they shouldn't. Then I go to the gym, or for a run, and all is good. Then there are people who go five days a week for four months, then miss three days, go once, miss four days, then don't go for six months. These people let their guilt at slipping up, instead of being a motivator to fix their mistake, become a crushing, paralyzing weight that causes them to avoid the situation altogether.

      Of course, the other way to deal with guilt is through Nineteen-Eighty-Four style historical revisionism. There are all sorts of psychological terms for this, denial, rationalization, cognitive dissonance, etc. but I am an English major, so there you go. When confronted with the fact that they did something wrong, something they wish they hadn't done, they compensate by reworking and reinventing history until they have twisted it to the point that they are no longer the one who screwed up, and if they are really deft at it, it is suddenly someone else's fault. As a middle-school teacher, I see this every single day in the majority of my students. I usually try to pull this one on my wife when I screw up, but thank goodness I married someone more mature than myself, and she is pretty quick to call bullshit on me. This is the defining, maddening trait of people with a personality disorder, and it can be so intractable, and is so obviously detrimental to the process of fixing the problem, that I know many psychiatrists refuse to treat it.

     To take this already meandering thread down a slightly different path. ("Now for something completely different.") Sometimes we allow guilt to rule our lives even when we haven't done anything "wrong." We usually call this shame or embarrassment. I was taught an important lesson in this by a chef I used to work for, who, beyond teaching me every important thing I ever learned about cooking, taught me a few life lessons that I will always be grateful for. Chef, (I'll just call him that) came up to me one day and said, "What CD do you have in your car that you hide when another dude gets in your car? You know, the wicked girly album that you blast and sing at the top of your lungs when you're alone on the highway?" I looked at him for a second, and said, "Well, what's yours?" He said, without hesitation, "Alanis Morissette." (You should know that Chef is a die-hard Republican, owns about three dozen guns and was a state-wrestling champ.) I said, "Tori Amos." So this became the Album Game, and whenever a new guy started in the kitchen we would ask him the same question, and even tell him our own answers. I don't think anyone else ever took us up on it. They all failed to see how completely liberating it was to admit something completely effeminate in one of the most testosterone-addled, un-PC, alpha-male dominated work environments around. They failed to see that once you give someone something embarrassing about yourself, it is no longer embarrassing at all. This started to extend to everything about our lives. One day, Chef walked in, walked right up to me and said, "I have a yeast infection on my balls and I have a little pink bottle of little pink pills in my bag. There. Take that." Similarly, when I dropped my apron from under my chin while taking a leak, and pissed all over myself, I walked right into the kitchen and told him, "I just peed my pants like a five-year old."

     Most of our co-workers thought we were weird, but what I learned from the my years working with Chef was the simple rule that if you tell someone something embarrassing about yourself, it really stops being embarrassing at all. These are silly, trivial examples, but try to imagine the reaction of the locker-room mentality if it was discovered that one of the guys was hiding the fact that he had a yeast infection. He would never, never be allowed to forget it. I don't think everyone needs to go around sharing every weird, embarrassing moment of their lives, but I think that this is another area where people often fail to see that they can have control. If you are really worried what people might think if they find out about something you did, or something that happened to you, think about whether or not that reaction might be better if you were the means by which they found out. Most of the time it would be. Many of us have pulled a Riggins and slept with our best friend's partner or very recent ex. That's not the big mistake. The big mistake is made when you fail to walk right up to your friend and say, "Look..."
     That last conclusion assumes that the deed is already done. The most important thing to remember is, and this escapes an astonishing number of people; If you don't think you can deal with how people will react if they find out you did something, DON'T DO IT! If you do it, you'd better be prepared to own it. You are really much better off, and much more in control of your own social standing, if you live your life assuming that pretty much anything you do will be discovered by someone else. This is almost the creepy Big Brother, judgmental god, Panopticon approach towards regulating your own actions, but I am actually suggesting the opposite. When you do it, if you're gonna do it, just look right at the camera and smile.

     Most of us live incredibly dull lives. But they aren't dull because we aren't rich or famous or James Bond  or traveling the world all the time. They are dull because we let them be. We avoid doing the things we actually want to do because we let guilt and shame and embarrassment rule us instead of taking control of them. They are there for a reason, and they should be heeded, and only a fool doesn't learn from his or her mistakes. But really, you've only got one life to live.* Enjoy it. Go ahead, crank All I Really Want. 

      No regrets.

(*And even if there is an after-life, you're either gonna spend it en fuego or in a heavenly chorus, both of which are boring as shit.)


  1. Awesome entry and I may even borrow some of this for what I'm currently writing, as I have a section that is on both reputation and another specifically on what you call 1984 style revisionism. The lies we tell other people are bad, the ones we tell ourselves and believe are a complete disgrace.

    It's a little scary that I feel I could have written this myself. Also as I recall I did tell ya'll that I owned a Hootie and the Blowfish CD. That's rather gay.

  2. Actually, if I write something and DON'T feel like you could have written it, that's when I stop and double check that I am saying what I want to be saying. Not that you always have to agree, but it's a good first edit.

    Yeah, you're right, you did fess up, but yours were all from the past, like Tiffany. The point was about albums from the present. I thought about mentioning that, but it would have turned a side-note into a major focus.

  3. Author's Note: WooHoo! Over 1,000 views! Now pushing for 5 digits...

  4. i am embarrassed to admit that while i agree with everything in this post and really loved it my favorite part was the link to "and now for something completely different". it made me extremely happy.