Wrestling with my conflicting thoughts and trying on new ones.

My thoughts are a bit clouded by recently reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. So proceed with caution.

I remember a Bugs Bunny cartoon that opens with Elmer Fudd once again chasing Bugs through the forest. The action picks up when a hat truck loses its cargo spreading all kinds of hats across the valley. As the different hats land on Bugs and Elmer, they assume the personality associated with one that would be wearing that hat. Comedic pursuits and dialogues follow. They end up getting married in the end because a top hat lands on Bugs and a bridal veil lands on Elmer. Like Elmer and Bugs, it seems like I’ve spent a life time trying on different hats, some fit and others don’t. Some I attempted to force to fit, which didn’t do myself of anyone else any good. And I’m still learning which hats belong on my head and which ones don’t. 

From the 1956 cartoon “Bug’s Bonnets”

Have you ever wanted to escape? To start over in a new place where no one knows nothing of your past? Where you could only be judged by first impressions? A new job. A new circle of friends and acquaintances. A new perspective. I think this is a common feeling, especially as we find ourselves in a pandemic that is complicated by political streams that share conflicting information on a daily basis. Who should be believed? And why is there so much hate, so much divisiveness in the world? When people lament their plight, others quickly respond with “Yeah but what about ____________” You fill in the blank. There is always a naysayer who wants to scream “What about!” In these kinds of moments, it is easy to fill our minds and hearts with fantasies of escape. Starting over and beginning again, or putting on a different hat. 

In many respects I think I’m doing a lot of that here lately, or at least dreaming of doing so. I’m trying to recapture the feeling of a fresh start. Which often begins with fresh thinking. Metaphorically I’m cleaning out the closet. Discarding hats that no longer fit, and certainly ridding myself of constricting, ill-fitting and unflattering attire that I was once required to wear. 

Education has been very helpful in determining what I keep and what I discard. There is a passage in The Catcher in the Rye that profoundly reinforced this thought. (I warned you.) And I just feel like I have to copy these words to remember them. It is an old habit of mine. In fact, I have vague memories of copying passages from the Bible before I could even read them. Tracing the words and letters before I could comprehend their meaning. And if I think about it, I still do this as a means to understand and comprehend what I read. So thank you for indulging me. The particular passage from Salinger’s work that I want to highlight is found near the end of the book in an exchange between Holden Caulfield and his former teacher Mr. Antolini. Holden seeks refuge at the home of his teacher and receives some advice about his future. 

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Mr. Antolini sizes up Holden this way; “You’re a student -whether the idea appeals to you or not. You’re in love with knowledge.” This is an identity that I embrace along with the rest of Holden’s angst but perhaps less of his vices. At least the ones I would reveal to you. The problem with experiencing Holden’s angst is that I’m not seventeen reflecting on being sixteen. I’m a middle-aged man reflecting on half a century of life. The investments I’ve made, the relationships I’ve cultivated and the failings. Oh the failings! And the accomplishments. But compared to what? To whom? If judged against what may have been accomplished, then it’s just more failings. 

Mr. Antolini is helpful once again here in his advice to young Holden. “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them -if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” 

I’m attempting to engage in this reciprocal arrangement by sharing with you what I’ve learned, and confessing that I still have much to learn. 

Mr. Antolini continues; “I’m not trying to tell you that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world. It’s not so. But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they’re brilliant and creative to begin with -which, unfortunately, is rarely the case -tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end. And -most important- nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker.” 

Holden Caulfield

This beautiful prose resonates with me profoundly. I’ll finish with one last passage from the sage advice of Mr. Antolini; “Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t. After a while, you’ll have an idea of what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extra ordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You’ll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.” 

I won’t spoil anything, but it turns out Mr. Antolini has some failings of his own that are revealed in the story. So fair warning, it is possible to dispense wise advice from a problematic source. Something you should keep in mind, especially when you read anything I write. But thanks for helping me figure out “what size mind I should be wearing.”