Once I wondered why the men I respected in my life spoke so often about old and weathered sins and vices that still they struggle through. They talked of pecadillos the way we, as children, talked of a refusal to eat our peas and carrots: as if they’re mortal sins. In this way too, Benjamin Button represents the chiasm of aging, in this arc of transgression moving us from the age of innocence to the age of ignorance to the age of integrity at long last by way of sorrows over our regrets, sorrows that lead to lasting change. For instance, I have heard old men whom I would follow unto death speak of their pilfering as if they still robbed banks. And it’s because even a sole black feather often applied to the tiniest scrape will one day turn to torture: they are sick of their weathered sins.
There is no example fit to use fully except my own, so I’ll offer myself up as the world’s fool that by me some might be made wise. Partly by my family environment, partly by my landscape of friends, partly by living in a small town, partly by the predispositions in DNA, and completely connected to my own choices, I fell into lust for women at a young age. You grow to know the difference between lust of the flesh and love of the soul. A boy can feel both for his mother, as Oedipus taught us, the one twisting into the other, or in the case of Solomon (I believe) the other repenting into the one. One cousin can feel both for his other — is not Kentucky exemplar enough of incest? And is The Godfather not exemplar enough of the loyalty one might feel in affection for opposite gendered cousins? You add to this the talk of forbidden body parts among boys, add to this the gossip that spreads the first time one of the girls in your class loses her virginity (for us it was the sixth grade — and a preppy girl, no less, living up to the typical rebellious cliché her environment — but not her schooling — had prepared for her), you add to this the compulsion for the youngest child of one family showing his brother’s pornography magazines to the eldest child of another… well…
See how quickly men stumble among so many stones?
The dull ache of the lust of the flesh never vanishes, it merely fades, an infinity of slices, a halflife like any other radioactive isotope capable of nuclear holocaust. And it is a holocaust that adultery of any sort — whether that of the heart or that of the body — brings in her wake. “Her slain are a mighty throng.” You cannot imagine the pain that she brings with her. So I’ll warn you as a victim of her attacks and I’ll warn you as a co-conspirator in heart: do not yield. And the same would be said of the adulterer, I have no gender bias of our mutual capability to fail. Moral failure and its consequent suffering are no respecter of persons. That halflife may dim, but the ache of the lust of the flesh remains like a man whose leg was blown off by a claymore mine in warfare: he finds himself wary of turning corners, yes, but more importantly he finds himself daily resisting the urge to scratch an itch on a limb no longer there.
To that degree, I live in a city of children who know the freedom of rebellion but who do not know the rebellion of freedom. This is — by far — the most self-indulgent city I have ever lived in. And I’ve learned as I’ve lived here that ever since someone broke the heart of any one of its inhabitants and that inhabitant’s age of innocence went out the door, they have equated rebellion with freedom. The more you drink, watch, eat, buy, snort, hear, and screw, the better in their minds. But it’s hollowing them out into half-human shells. They — like all humans — have given up the age of innocence for the age of ignorance and cling to their ignorance as if it were freedom.
But the freedom to choose ignorance over innocence isn’t freedom, whether you’re talking about education or consumption. Freedom is realizing the effect of all of those innocence-shattering experiences and growing wise from them — moving beyond the age of ignorance into the age of integrity.
Very, very few integrated men and women live in this city, but the ones who do stick out so vibrantly, they affect the whole culture. I know one man who’s stone sober after being an alcoholic for years who can tell the worst stories about his indulgence. Having come out of it, he has people all around him who protect him from drink.
Because he’s weak?
And his weakness makes him strong. He’s sober precisely because he carries himself with sobermindedness, knowing he may fall at any moment. It’s the Gandalf line:
I would use the ring from a desire to do good but through me, it would weird a power too great and terrible to imagine.
He knows what it was like before he consumed alcohol. And he knows what it was like before alcohol consumed him. And now he knows what it’s like to be sober.
That third step is the one that most of this city will never get to because they think their ignorance is wisdom and their folly is freedom. The truth is, they’re trying more and more to run away from the age of innocence simply because they were naïve of all of the evil in the world — and specifically within themselves. But running towards follow and ignorance is its own naïveté. The proper response is to let it all go and to move towards integrity, wisdom, and a whole life.
And that’s why grown men will speak of one glance at a trashy billboard as if it’s the worst thing in the world.
It’s not that they’re naïve.
It’s that they’re not naïve and they know they can fall.
I guess you can say that when the lusts of your flesh become a bit more nuanced — when you find yourself being tempted by subtleties you never knew existed — you’re literally on the right track.