On Being Nineteen

A few years ago I read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and in the books there exists an introduction by Stephen King entitled On Being Nineteen summarizing his view on life at the time and what drove him to start writing the Dark Tower Series. I’ve held to that title, On Being Nineteen, as that was a pretty pivotal year for me in a lot of respects as well. It was the year I failed out of college and the first time I had my heart broken; most decidedly a trying time for a teenager coping with finding his own sense of manhood and his place in the world.

Growing up I had never failed at anything. In middle school I was a straight A student – literally. I never got a B once, not on a single report card, and in fact won several awards each year for having the highest grade point average of the few hundred students that were there. I still have them in fact, tucked away in the box marked “keep sakes” right alongside my Garbage Pail Kids, 1986 Lego Ideas book, and GI Joe Comics. High school wasn’t quite the same, I was an average 3.00 student, but in no respects had ever truly failed at anything.

As for a broken heart, everyone needs their first love to end. It sets the stage for the rest of your life; its called growing up. I’m sure anyone reading this can think back to their first breakup. Statistically speaking, most of us have had many. Some easy, some hard, but I think almost everyone would universally agree that our first was the most challenging because we didn’t know how to cope with the feelings of romantic loss. And so alongside learning to accept failure in one segment of my life, I was forced to learn a second measure of it, but in a much different capacity.

When I was 19, and I guess for a few years subsequent to that, I was filled with the idea that one day I would be a great man. That I would change the world, that I would invent something great, that I was going to blaze a frontier to greatness. Dealing with heartache and failure at the time didn’t really phase that ideal notion – I knew there was greatness in me.

So now, a decade and a half later, I’m … weary. I feel it in my mind, I feel it in my actions, and I feel it in my soul. I haven’t achieved greatness, I haven’t changed the world. Maybe I’ve changed my own little corner of it, and perhaps that’s the best we can ever strive for in our lives, but what has really got me to thinking is not so much will I ever get there, that’s a crystal ball question that can only be answered with time, but do I have the qualities to get there?

So here I’m sitting, at 11:03 on a Friday night, listening to Danny Elfman’s Finale on repeat, making a list in Notepad of the qualities that I would consider necessary for one to make themselves a great man, weighing myself against them, and it hit me that I had seen the list I made before.

Many years ago I read Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, part of the Ender Saga. To this day Ender’s Game is still one of my favorite books and I re-read it at least once a year. My grandmother, who worked at the Rochester Hills Library outside Detroit, used to box up the books the Library was getting ready to discard and pass them along to me. In fact, a little known tidbit for which I’m eternally grateful – my love of science fiction books was a direct result of her being kind enough to take the time to do that. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in those boxes was a cornucopia of Who’s Who science fiction authors – Heinlein, Asimov, Card, Lewitt, and a host of other smaller known names. I don’t know if I ever thanked her or if she ever knew how much she has touched my life with that simple gesture… so thank you, grandma.

As a child, we absorb the things around us and mold them into our own fabric of beliefs. In the same way a child absorbs religion and it’s teachings at a young age, so we also absorb ethical lessons in the literature, games, and media around us. And as a child, reading these books, I unknowingly absorbed the ethical and moral implications found in science fiction. Speaker for the Dead was somewhat of a black sheep in Card’s history of books; while Ender’s Game focused on space warfare, your typical sci-fi fare, Speaker for the Dead was almost entirely philosophical in nature. There are many plots and subplots within its pages, but the thing that I absorbed most was this – when the Speakers, think of them as priests, deliver their eulogy they “deliver the speech not in a way to persuade the audience to condemn or forgive the deceased, but rather a way to understand the person as a whole, including any flaws or misdeeds”. In a nutshell, they speak to honesty.

I’ve had many people tell me I am the most honest person they know. Not because I am flawless, but in the fact that I speak to my shortcomings in the same manner as my advantages. And that honesty starts within oneself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, how do you expect others to be honest with you? It’s a notable concept, and unfortunately, incredibly rare as it takes a person of great resilience to be honest about themselves without destroying their own self esteem. But it takes a person of even greater character to realize their weaknesses, fix them, and thereby improve their self esteem; side stepping the issue is a work around, it doesn’t really fix the root issue, and in essence, leaves you unable to be the great man or woman you desire to be. One of my biggest fears is meeting the woman of my dreams and being found to not be a good man; not because I’m afraid of rejection, but because the woman of my dreams deserves the best man I can be.

Alongside science fiction, there is a second source of this purported moral definition of a great man that I would be remiss not to mention – computer games. In the summer of 1989 I was 11 years old and got my first computer – an IBM 80286 clone with dual 5 1/4″ floppy drives and a 4-color CGA monitor. Alongside the computer came a floppy disk pre-loaded with a half dozen games like Sleuth and Asteroids and in short, I was hooked. One quick year later, Ultima VI was released and with it, unbeknownst at the time, I would absorb the ethical template I am ingrained with today.

Ultima VI, a fantasy dungeon and dragons type game set in the mythical world of Britannia, brought with it the first concept of forcing players to accept ethical choices for their actions. The virtues as they were designed into the game were based on the beliefs of Richard Garriot, the lead game designer, which were taken in part from Hinduism. As the player explores the game world they were forced to make choices to either adhere or not to the 8 virtues:

  • Honesty
  • Compassion
  • Valor
  • Justice
  • Sacrifice
  • Honor
  • Spirituality
  • Humility

The catch with the virtues, was if you did not meet them you failed to advance in the game. Very similar to life. To a 13 year old the message was simplistic; to succeed you must embody the virtues you’ve been taught throughout your life.

So as I sit here, the cursor blinking in front of me, looking at my list of what makes a great man, I’m filled with a sense of peace. I see the framework before me, and while I stumble, I know what to strive for. A couple weeks ago I asked a good friend of mine, quite out of nowhere, if I was a good man. Her response was “of course you are”. At the time, I accepted her words, but couldn’t prove them to myself. But after writing this, and finding a sense of criteria to which I can weigh myself, I feel as though I’m a good man. I haven’t become a great man, but maybe trying to just be a good man is enough to propel us to greatness.