Saturday, November 8, 2008

Men For Others


Men For Others
Originally uploaded by lorenzodom

Note: Photo taken at Nine Rivers Gala at Rubin Museum on October 7, 2008.

"Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression -- hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation?" Wilkie Collins

Men For Others
November 7, 2008, New York City:


Over twenty years ago, in the Fall of 1985, I was an eager freshman sitting in one of the first four rows of Psychology 101, one of my all-time favorite college courses at UCLA.

It was with this introductory class that I immediately fell head over heels for the subject of the human mind—our motivations and our behaviors, and whether or not what we did and thought was “nature or nurtured.”

"The most beautiful as well as the most ugly inclinations of man are not part of a fixed biologically given human nature, but result from the social process which creates man.” Erich Fromm

Thus, I have long been obsessed with watching and listening to people closely.

Thus, I adopted writing, and later adapted photography based on the lessons learned from writing, as the creative means by which I capture and coalesce and craft my thoughts on such matters.

Thus, I first came to contemplate the question “Is man inherently good or evil?” In other words, do we tend to behave selfishly or do we consider others before we act?

"Scenery is fine - but human nature is finer.” John Keats

Since then, I’ve come to have a better grasp on human penchants and proclivities, both through what I’ve observed and experienced, often time and time again, but also through many of the scientific studies and conclusions I’ve mulled over by experts in the fields of psychology, sociology and neuroscience.

In turn, I’ve learned that the mind and our subsequent “natures” are as malleable as they are predictable.

Thus, one might readily conclude that, ultimately, human nature is neither “good” or “bad,” but as Shakespeare wrote—thinking merely makes us so.

A few years after my psych 101 class I came across a poem translated by Sir Richard Burton that I immediately adopted as my own; as my modus operandi, as a means of understanding human nature and coping with life and with others:

Kasidah Haji Abdu'l el Yezdi

There is no Good, there is no Bad;
These be the whims of mortal will.
What works me weal, that I call good;
What harms and hurts I hold as ill.
They change with place, they shift with race,
And, in the veriest span of time,
Each Vice has worn a Virtue's crown,
All Good was banned as Sin or Crime.

For many-many years I have believed and lived by those words, which have allowed me to see and understand and appreciate and tolerate a lot more than most common souls would let themselves comprehend and experience.

"The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature.” Oscar Wilde

However, that said, regardless of the depth of my belief in cultural relativism, I have a much-much stronger faith that often supercedes my attempts to judge and intellectualize all things as being equal—for I believe that people are inherently good.

I realized last night that I owe this important belief to the fact that I had the great fortune of attending Bellarmine College Preparatory (www.bcp.org) in San Jose, California from 1981-1985.

Founded in 1851, Bellarmine is a Jesuit run high school that follows the philosophy of St. Ignatius Loyola, who founded The Society of Jesus in 1540. At the core of his pedagogical philosophy, Ignatius saw “education as a way to lead young people not simply to care for others but to ‘find God in all things.’”

Thus, last night became a particularly poignant moment for me when I realized part of the reason why I had immediately concluded that man is inherently good when Professor Shapiro first posed the question in the Fall of 1985. For apparently, the Jesuits had done a great job of instilling this belief in me, during the four years prior to college.

I had this epiphany last night, because I attended a gathering of alumni from my prep school. It was a fairly small assembly of about 35 graduates living in the New York tri-state area, who represented a 63 year span, one of them being from the class of 1945. Most however, had graduated within the last ten years, and a significantly large contingency, about six of us were my classmates from 1985.

"You can learn more about human nature by reading the Bible
than by living in New York.” William Lyon

One particular classmate had actually come from California to New York City just for the day, just for this gathering. Pat Wahler (’85) was in town because he is now the Director of Development at our alma mater. Originally, in addition to Pat, he was to be accompanied by the school’s President, Fr. Paul Sheridan, S.J. as well the Chairman of the Board of Regents, an alumnus from the class of 1977.

Alas, the recent financial crisis put a damper on those plans, and so Pat came alone. And as Pat put it, these dire times have also hampered philanthropy in general, most of his pleas being met with silence, rather than pledges, these days.

Nonetheless, without a solicitation from him, toward the end of the evening I wrote out a check to BCP and handed it to Pat, simply because I had been moved by a conversation that led to my aforementioned epiphany.

*

I’ve been long proud and shamelessly boastful of my experience at Bellarmine.

To the chagrin of my ex-wife, I still occasionally taunt her with the dream that our boys should go live with their grandmother in California to attend Bellarmine when they come of age. And albeit I realize that it may only be a dream and that sending them across the country for school would break their mother’s heart, I still find myself hoping and praying they will follow in their father’s footsteps.

Part of the reason I speak so glowingly about my experience at Bellarmine is that, as with most others, attending the school came at a critical time in my development as a person, as a human being, and as a man.

Thus, going to a conservative all-boys school allowed me not to be distracted by many of the social pressures others face and offered me the opportunity to focus on academics and explore my potential as a person.

It was here that I first adopted exercise as a lifestyle, running in the cross-country and track team for the last three years. It was here that I participated in a number of theatrical productions and engendered a greater appreciation for acting, music, dance and the arts in general. And it was here that I fell in love with literature after reading James Joyce’s Ulysses as a sophomore and from that point forward—I knew I was born to be a writer.

Perhaps most importantly though, it was at Bellarmine that I also learned and lived the importance of helping, caring for and giving to others.

Thus, it is no surprise, that when I visited the school’s website this morning, I read that part of the school’s mission is to “form ‘Men for Others,’ leaders who will make a difference in tomorrow's world.”

While I was there, I simply thought I was attending a "good" school that would prepare me for greater things to come. What I didn’t realize was that I was being endowed with a greater sense of altruism as well.

Ironically, it was during my junior year that I technically became an “atheist” or more specifically someone who no longer believed in a “higher being.” I had written what I thought was a great paper on the historical origins of the concept of the devil and received a B+. Not getting an A+, as I strongly believed I deserved, perturbed me so much that I almost immediately overcame my fear of no longer “believing” and declared myself, if only silently, to be a heathen.

" . . . a belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary;
men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." Joseph Conrad

However, what I did continue believing was in the importance of “finding God in all things.” The difference for me, was that “God” was simply a synonym for what is “Good” in life.

*

"One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon—instead of enjoying the roses blooming outside our windows today.” Dale Carnegie

Over the years I have cultivated, honed and manifested this existential philosophy in a number of ways, most significantly today, in my writing and photography. My motto for the latter is that I am “inspired by and aspire to make impressions of daily life, because I love life.” Thus, I try to convey through my work how one can readily find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and how one can find beauty (i.e. good) in almost everything and everyone. Because everything is beautiful.
"Really, I don't like human nature
unless it is all candied over with art.” Virginia Woolf

What ultimately drove this point home for me though, and why I give my experience at Bellarmine so much credit, is that I was having a conversation with Pat and two of our other classmates, Chris Kearns and Greg Ahearn, and we began discussing the fate of a fellow classmate who was in deep-deep trouble.

In sum, our classmate, William "Boots" Del Biaggio, the son of a well-known Bay Area banking family and co-founder of the investment firm Sand Hill Capital, was a prominent Silicon Valley financier who was accused of major fraud this year. The accusations include defrauding a bank to secure a $10 million loan that he used to buy an ownership stake in the NHL's Nashville Predators, and providing forged documents to financial institutions to land multimillion dollar loans that he has not repaid.

Alas, for Boots, the trouble caused be the three separate law suits was abetted by the media frenzy that followed, as the local papers had a field day exploiting the extravagance of his previously lavish lifestyle.

"It is not human nature we should accuse, but the despicable conventions that pervert it.” Denis Diderot

Nonetheless, regardless of what Boots has or has not done, Pat, Chris and Greg all said that they called him to see how he was doing. No judgments, no prurient inquiries, simply calls from old friends to offer some moral support.

Pat told us of one conversation he had with Boots, who told him that he was particularly appreciative that his friends from Bellarmine had called him, because apparently no one else had—not a single person from college, work or any other associations formed after high-school.

Hearing this struck a vibrant chord in me.

For it was then that I realized one of the major reasons why I am so damn proud of being a graduate of Bellarmine. For the longest time, apart from all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, there was still a certain-something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Listening to how my classmates reached out to their fellow former football teammate in times of trouble immediately sparked my epiphany.

I relayed this to Pat a little later on, as I handed him my check. “You know, our conversation about Boots made me realize why I loved going to Bellarmine so much, because it was a great example of how we were taught that ‘all men are inherently good,’ and that we should never lose faith in that important belief.”

Pat subsequently used my comments in his remarks to the group, to drive home the importance of supporting our alma mater. Because it is especially important to realize that during financially difficult times like these, that our education was invaluable. And that we are blessed with the challenge to prove ourselves worthy of a distinguished institution that has long produced “Men for Others.”

"Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds . . ." George Eliot

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just to clear, your inherently good man, Boots, is accused, in multiple civil suits, of embezzling close to $60M from many, many people. His actions were carefully planned over a long period of time, and perpetrated against strangers, friends and family members - ultimately bringing shame to his own immediate family and costing his father his job.

I'm sure Bellarmine is a fine school and has produced many fine men, but I would be careful about offering Boots or the unconditional support of Boots as shining examples of the spirit of the place.

lorenzo said...

Thank you very much for your comment. Perhaps my musing was worded incorrectly, but the point I was trying to make was not that Boots was guilty or guilt-free, but rather that his peers from Bellarmine were there to offer support in times of trouble.

Ultimately, if he is found guilty as charged, he will likely pay the price that society deems is appropriate.

That said, our charge as "Men for Others" per se is to help people redeem themselves, to help those in need find that which is inherently good within themselves, so that they might return to the fold as better people who can contribute positively to others.