Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, May 20, 2005

What makes normal lives?

My father was born in 1919, in Berlin. His father had left the family before he was born. His mother already had two other children. The family lived in a horrible mid-19th century tenement area, with their apartment located above a brothel. Because of the horrific post-WWI inflation rate, my father had memories of people shlepping their grocery money in big bags and carts. When he was 5, his mother could no longer cope, and placed him in an orphanage. My father remained in the orphanage until 1935 when, at the age of 16, one of his teachers invited him to emigrate to Palestine with him (the teacher was shepherding a group of middle-class Jewish youngsters whose parents had been lucky enough to get them out). My father left, and spent the next 3.5 years helping to found a kibbutz in the middle of a swamp. Kibbutz life was not for him and, in 1939, he moved to the big city -- Tel Aviv. Things didn't go too well for him there and, he always claims, when England entered the war, he was actually starving to death. Daddy enlisted in the RAF the day after war began. He spent the next five years all over southern Europe and North Africa, where he saw some of the worst fighting the war had to offer, including hand-to-hand combat, with bayonets. Repatriated to Palestine at war's end, he had a breather of a couple of years, and then was commissioned as an officer in the Israeli War of Independence. My mother was born in the Dutch East Indies, but soon moved back to Europe. She lived a privileged life until 1935, when her father decided to move to Palestine (he was an early and ardent Zionist). The money vanished with the move, but it was nonetheless a happy time for my mother. Then, her parents divorced, which was especially traumatic in a time and place when that didn't happen much. Things really took a turn for the worse for my mother in 1941. Her father, who was chummy with the British command structure in Palestine, learned from his friends that they were dubious about their ability to hold out against Rommel. Of course, had Rommel made it to Palestine, the slaughter would have been unbelievable. Thinking himself clever, my grandfather sent my mother back to the Dutch East Indies. Bad mistake. What many Americans don't realize is that, shortly after Pearl Habor, the Japanese took over Malaya and Indonesia, both of which provided the Japanese with much-needed rubber. The civilian population was placed in concentration camps, where they remained until war's end. My mother has always given thanks for Fat Man and Little Boy, since she was beginning the dying process when they were dropped, and could not have lasted much longer. She was then repatriated to Palestine, and had a breather for a couple of years, before she too became a soldier in the Israeli War of Independence. I actually have a reason for reciting these histories, aside from how remarkable they are. When all these horrible travails ended, my parents embarked on an entirely normal life. They got married, and they immigrated to America, got jobs, and had children. They did not drop out, they did not do drugs, they did not drown their many sorrows in drink. They just got on with life -- as did their whole generation. Now admittedly, in America, not many people went through quite what my parents did, but it was a generation that bounced from WWI, through the wild 20s, into the great Depression, and finally into the Vale of Shadows that was WWII. And they got married, got jobs and had children. Not all were happy, but most did not drop out, they did not do drugs, they did not drown their many sorrows in drink (at least not to the point where they could no longer function). And I have to ask why they could do that, and why that seems to be so much to expect from us now. Why are we more vulnerable? Why do we believe it is acceptable, not to move on from tragedy, but to become dysfunctional from it? Of course, I'm not saying that everyone does. In fact, despite the media's hype, I believe that most people go on to create lives that are normal and functional. Nevertheless, while the paradigm in our parents' and grandparents' generation seemed to be to soldier on, the paradigm in ours seems to be to stop moving, get therapy, and become very fragile. Indeed, Wendy Kaminer, more than a decade ago, wrote quite a funny, ironic book called, "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional," in which she discussed our current cultural pattern of wallowing. I vividly remember a chapter in which she compared some suburban women's support group (hangnails? bad hair? I don't recall) with the unwavering resilience of immigrant women from the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Only recently, I believe there was a book published about our therapeutic culture (although I can't think of the name right now). It seems that, since the 60s, we've become so busy looking inwards, contemplating those navels, that we've forgotten how to look forwards. Sometimes, just as we teach our kids when they have an injury, you just keep going. You acknowledge the pain and then abandon it. It's such a simple lesson and helps facilitate a normal life, and yet we can't seem to master it nowadays. Instead, coached by Oprah, and all the other maudlin self-help, self-actualization, and self-realization "teachers" out there, we're leaving normal very fast.