Sunday, January 20, 2013

Did I have a "disability" as a youngster? The question becomes both moral and medical

Last Tuesday (Jan. 13, 2013) I outlined my focus on the rights and responsibilities of those of us who are “different” (hopefully not too “special”) and indicated that I thought my own life provided some strong suggestions in that area. I’d like to go down that part further today with some “remarks”.  Oh, this sounds so much like a graduate school mathematics course!

I’ve noted that I was “behind” others of my age in gender in physical strength, agility and perhaps endurance as I grew up.  I first became aware of this in third grade (1951) because the teacher made so much of it.  I had been a good student.  I remember starting that year with an alarming incident (the lowest grade in the class on a “My Weekly Reader” test) but quickly pulled out of the cellar on academics and became at least a reasonably good student again rather quickly.  I was “teased” a lot in grade school and middle school (which ran through ninth grade then), but outgrew some of the social issues quickly in high school, which went much better.  Physically, I remained behind.  Physical Education was mandatory but didn’t “count” (maybe it should).  I always got a “C” in it (except once I got a “D” in 11th grade on the tumbling unit).  But I developed some moderate skills, like being able to hit a slow-pitched softball a reasonable distance, well into the outfield.

I was “deferred”, perhaps spoiled, from the military draft until I finished graduate school, and entered the Army in February, 1968.  I was “protected” from becoming cannon fodder in Vietnam (so soon after the Tet Offensive).   But I got recycled once and spent four weeks in Special Training Company (“Tent City” in Fort Jackson, SC) until I could pass the PCPT (Physical Combat Proficiency Test).  I had particular problems with the expected male (or maybe “lesbian”) upper body strength (the parallel bars), but improve steadily.  In the end, I passed the PCPT at graduation with a comfortable margin, almost in the middle of the pack, at age 24.  I scored low Sharpshooter on the rifle range (which did not turn out to be difficult at all, almost “fun”), and scored reasonably on the “G3 Testing” at the end of Basic.  I remember the experience vividly, living in another world that would sound unbelievable to many young people today. The student deferment system of the time reinforced a belief system that individual people owned intrinsic moral "grades" that could sometimes guide the sacrifices society could demand from them, or the benefit of the more "worthy".  And we had won a war to defeat that kind of thinking! This was an era where the show title "The Biggest Loser" would be viewed as a pun.
After Basic, and for a few years, I would be the most physically fit at any time in my life. At a church retreat in 1969 (long after Basic, when I was safety tucked away at Fort Eustis, BA), I hit a real “home run” in a softball game, actually clearing an outfield hedge at a normal distance from home plate  -- on the first pitch of the game, when no one expected me capable of this.

So was my “physical weakness” and social awkwardness a genuine physical disability – a medical issue – or the result of physical “laziness” and flawed character?  There has never been a clear medical diagnosis of anything, although I have had a slightly irregular heartbeat all my life.  In the environment in which I was reared, it was seen as a “moral” issue.  In the Army, it could have skirted malingering and cowardice, in the days when sacrifice could be legally demanded of young men (it still could be).  In an interim phone bank job in 2003, a coworker, legally blind, said that I should accept the idea that I had been disabled "too".    
In more recent times, we’ve read of kids overcoming autism with great dedication from teachers (as with the book “Game of my Life” by Jason McElwain ("Jmac"), Books blog,. March 18, 2008) or sometimes on their own (with recent media reports).  Still, when I was growing up, respect for the potential of people with disabilities was nowhere developed as it is today. There was a sense that developmental disability was a “moral” issue, and sometimes as kids are taught behaviors  even today (as I saw as a substitute teacher), the instruction they get (as "tough love") may leave them with that feeling. 
Of course, this relates to the problem of bullying.  My experience with this was not as bad as what some kids have experienced in more recent times.  Nevertheless, once in a while I could “pass it down the chain”.  Once, at age 14, near the end of ninth grade, I verbally teased a classmate with epilepsy, and got reprimanded not only by a physical education teacher but also by the school nurse!  Today, in some school systems, that behavior could result in suspension and a year in an alternative school.  I feel  aghast that I could have done this.  Is it teen brain immaturity?  I think it was partly a literal extension of a prevalent cultural belief that any sort of disinclination to keep up with others and make any demonstration at all was a “moral” problem that should be contained.

I grew up in a world where conformity would be coerced, as it often is demanded by force in many cultures today.  I think there is a belief that families and communities have to hang together to survive a dangerous world, and that “weaker” members depend on the “strong” to protect them, and can become “burdens” on others to make the sacrifices for the common good. The, it seems just that the “weak” must do what the “strong” tell them to do, and must prove themselves somehow through rites of passage.  It’s an acceptance of a Darwinian idea of social combat, that some kind of cohesive structure is necessary, and will be rules by those who “win”.

Sometimes I would be told that I should keep a “low profile” and not draw too much attention to myself, and that I should not imagine that I had the standing to speak to the problems of the world, lest I draw the hostility of others, possibly on other family members besides myself.  This notion sometimes came up in my recent period of eldercare for my mother when I came back “home” as a kind of “prodigal son”.  That sounds like an extension of the culture of the organized crime world, doesn’t it!  You owe your life to those who can “protect” you, or you prove you can “protect” others below you.  Sometimes, it doesn’t sound much like a life worth living, does it!

I wind up with a definite sense of what is expected of someone in my “position” or “situation”.  The rules are like this:  Accept the fact that “you” depend on others in ways you don’t see.  Don’t draw attention to yourself.  Do what others want.  Don’t make too much of your own ideas or plans.  (I wonder, if my own “purpose” isn’t respected, why should I be around or be loved? But watch what happens next.)  Since “we” loved you, then learn to love others whom you might otherwise perceive as “beneath” you.  Don’t look upward too much.  Outside family or tribe, “ocelot” heroes have clay feet.  (Well, I saw, I already learned to beware the hairless man like Lance Armstrong.)  Don’t indulge in your fantasy or dream world, enter the world of real life.  Learn to take care of others, using gender-appropriate skills as much as possible (and be prepared to sacrifice, because others do, in their own ways).  Eventually, you’ll be able to marry and have children and have a little Capecod-cottage domain space around yourself (although maybe in someone else’s model railroad!)  Most of all, realize it isn’t about you (out of Rick Warren), or that you may not matter as much as you want to – you may have to accept the idea that it will be your descendants who can amount to something publicly or globally. It "isn't about you", it's about "shared goals", governed in granularity by the "natural family". 

This sure sounds like swallowing (and not retching on) some humble pie. It is also an "alternate universe" of morality, self-evident in older generations but rather forgotten today.  Of course, it opens people to the abuse of authoritarian leadership, which may need to have some sense of earned or deserved superiority ratified. But it does recognize that you need cohesion and leadership, or your clan might not make it at all.  
There are (indeed) a few good reasons why people can expect these things.

One is a basic principle of freedom, particularly as social conservatives see it.  One is that government is less intrusive if we don’t depend on it for a social safety net. But then we have to depend on one another a lot more. That ultimately means that every one of us, if we expect respect from others and to have a voice, need to have a stake and this means we start by taking our turn taking care of others. Of course, the "Left" has a valid point when it says that a reasonable social safety net can actually free people to take the necessary risks to raise the standard of living for themselves and others (families and else).  

A second idea is closely related.  We’re supposed to value all human life.  That means all of us have to pitch in.  A few democratic countries, in fact, are already experimenting with allowing limited euthanasia (International Issues, Jan. 15, 2013). 

A third idea, again related, is population demographics.  Medicine is enabling people to live much longer.  But this is only practical if adult children and even siblings accept filial responsibility (which brings back the old idea that marriage, through procreation, is the way social power over others in a local unit is distributed).  One can see from all these considerations that the “requirement” to take care of others doesn’t necessarily wait for sexual intercourse to create a baby. In fact, that puts a new twist on the way we look at marriage and avoiding unwanted pregnancy (or waiting until much older to have children, or not being willing to have children at all because of the risk or opportunity cost).  We can’t put off the “responsibility” forever.
A fourth idea has to do with more general concerns about environmental sustainability (as well as fiscal stability in the area of debt and entitlements).  People may have to live more “locally” in the future than now.  They may have to do more for themselves and each other. Real privations in the future are possible, and these could happen because of unprecedented storms, or because of asymmetric war resulting from “overconsumption” by the “rich”.  The “right” often points out that today’s consumption is coming out of the resources of the unborn.  The logical moral answer is that everyone should have a “stake” in the future – through specific people, hopefully their own children, or else other people’s children that they have taken responsibility for.  “Generativity” has become a new moral value.

It’s a relatively new idea to speak of responsibility for future generations as a personal moral requirement.  In the past, it was taken for granted or unspoken.  In fact, “living for yourself” wasn’t an active possibility.  When my parents met in the 1930s in Washington DC, people didn’t have their own apartments until they got married – they lived in Y’s.  People couldn’t afford to live without generating social capital (and human capital through children) on their own.  All that changed with technology.  But it could suddenly reverse because of environmental or even astronomical catastrophe, or because of the global indignation we have generated – or perhaps we can go into “prevent defense” mode and with good policy choices avoid the worst and keep our good lives.

In retrospect, it would seem that I lived in an unsustainable mode, consuming and going on trips where I rented cars with unlimited mileage—for myself.  People are generally not seen as morally culpable for behaviors that have become acceptable and available through the economy in their own environments.  That could change in the future.  Likewise, people aren’t excused for “getting out of the things”  (a favorite phrase of my late mother) that future generations avoid.  We weren’t afraid to call Bill Clinton a draft dodger.
In fact,  I was often concerned about maintaining the “infrastructure” necessary for me to meet my own needs.  That was an issue when I “came out” the second time in the early 1970s and moved to NYC.  And that’s an issue today with the Internet.  I need to “keep things together” to “protect” my presence online. And I have come to suspect that some individual people whom I would not hold in high regard have not done well because infrastructure failed them/  I have indeed recently learned more about interdependence -- that my effectiveness and reputation can depend on whether others can do their jobs. 
We have indeed become focused on our “rights” (an idea my own father found to be gratuitous).  I wrote about a local sermon about this on Dec. 18, 2011, after the Newtown tragedy.  The biggest challenge to “rights” in the face of protecting others recently has been in the gun control debate, but there is no reason in principle that the same ideas couldn’t apply to protecting minors on the Internet (as from cyberbullying) even though net freedom has been largely protected by First Amendment litigation so far (as with COPA).  I cannot presume that the environment of “no downstream liability” can be protected from challenges forever (look at the scare last year with SOPA).
Indeed, in becoming a self-publisher, I made a risky decision, that probably drove me further away from social interaction with those who might need it from me.  Other possible careers (as I have explained with substitute teaching) have been compromised by conflicts.
I do understand that an “expectation” that one have a “stake” in other people before being recognized could make the world more stable, and could help certain kinds of violence from getting out of control.  It is true that asymmetry matters in today’s world, and what one person does can affect millions or billions, for good or bad.  In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 might have led to nuclear war had not one specific Russian submarine commander personally decided that it must not – just long enough for Kennedy’s strategy to work.
Why did I not have a stake in progeny?  I can say that I found the whole world of heterosexual courtship and “competition” to be personally “humiliating”, because of my own “physical competition” disadvantages.  Whether they were the result of nature or moral laziness I cannot say for sure.  Now, I find calls for some kinds of social interaction (such as with volunteerism and the government’s offputting idea of “pledging hours” rather than money, “giving away time”, which is finite, to pay your dues and earn a stake) problematic, because I didn’t create my own stake.  These problems in “The Lives of Others” were not of my creation personally, but they are mine as a member of a community. 

I have indeed, in recent years, been surprised (even ambushed) by calls to becoming involved personally (even physically sometimes) with others, in situations where I would not have expected to be welcome (in our "mind your own business" world).  Sometimes I say, it's difficult, to fake being a "fatherly role model" if I did not have my own family.  (I recall a great line in the 2001 movie "The Business of Strangers": "You have no family.")  It would seem humiliating, right?  Yet, there may be a canard here, a chicken-egg problem.  You form a family when you've developed the socialization and ability to share goals.  (Gay families would become a whole sidebar here.)  But there is still another twist: it is the process of putting oneself in the limelight (by self-publishing one's story) that brings about this surprising expectation.
I made a truce, and led a productive adult life (at least up to age 69-1/2).  With only slightly more adverse circumstances, the results could have been catastrophic.  Some of the recent events in the news are indeed chilling, and I can see a little of myself in some of this, had it gone wrong.  Individualism encourages innovation, and too much social capital can discourage it, even though social capital is essential for making the world a fairer and more stable place.  I’ve walked the knife edge on this one.    

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