I was standing in line at my local Corner Bakery the other day when my eyes fell upon their breakfast menu, even though it was late afternoon and they were no longer serving breakfast. I focused on the image of a colorful omelet, and that’s when it happened – my mind went suddenly spinning back to a moment from my childhood.
You have to understand that our family didn’t go to restaurants when I was a kid. I believe the first time we ever ate a meal together in a restaurant was when I was 16. We weren’t poor by any means, but we were a family of 10 and the tab to feed all of us would have been staggering, even at a modest diner.
Anyway, back to omelets – I was probably verging on adolescence before I knew what an omelet was. Oh, we ate eggs all the time at our house – over-easy, sunny-side up, scrambled, hard-boiled, etc. And I knew that an omelet was an egg dish, but I assumed it was some fancy piece of haute cuisine with exotic sauces. Well, it turned out people in my family had been making omelets for some time, only I hadn’t calling them “omelets;” I’d been calling them “fried eggs.”
All right, I guess I grew up in an oddly shuttered environment. The key moment, though, has to do with my reaction when I realized what an omelet was – I was disgusted. My thoughts went something like this: “What conceited nonsense! Who are they trying to impress? What an unnecessary word! We already have a perfectly good word for that dish: Fried eggs!”
One may smile at the naïveté of such a pedestrian thought process, but I realized as I stood in the Corner Bakery that I’ve heard similarly shallow trains of thought many times since then. They haven’t always come from children, or even adolescents, alas. No, they have all too often come from the mouths of grown-ups.
Do I need to offer an example? How about this one: On a recent Friday evening after work, hundreds of bicyclists came pedaling down State Street for a charitable cause. The riders were mostly pretty clean-cut, including family groups. They had police clearance for right-of-way through the Loop. As their caravan went by, one pedestrian made a mad dash across State, barely avoiding several collisions with bicyclists. As he reached the curb, he turned to yell at them: “Fuckin’ hippies! Go smoke some dope and get off the road!” I saw no hippies, only a tragically simple-minded individual who, for what it’s worth, did not appear to be drunk. For a brief moment, I was embarrassed to be human.
This is the connection I made today at the Corner Bakery: That such people have a kinship with myself as a child, except these people stopped growing early on. They reached a point of embracing shallow, emotional convictions, devoid of critical thinking or any mental checks and balances. They are now enveloped by a society so huge that it can absorb their considerable shortcomings and continue to function. A large part of their brains became dried and set in late childhood.
As for me – well, I may still have some growing up to do, but I can at least state that my brain kept growing after that point. I came to see that I lived in a very large world whose borders were considerably wider than my normal modes of perception. That is still my relationship with the world – I may have some things to teach the world, but it has a great many more things to teach me. Embracing such a concept can go a long way towards keeping one both humble and open to new input. As long as this post has been, it can’t begin to enumerate the shards and chips of wisdom I have stumbled upon in my journey. Some of them can be nicely encapsulated in little sayings (of which you should know I am very fond). A few that come to mind:
Don’t be too quick to attribute to malice what you may attribute to ignorance.
Show me someone who believes their teen years were the happiest years of their life, and I’ll show you someone I’m very sorry for.
You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.
I may be slow, but I’m clumsy.
. . . and I’m always on the lookout for a good new saying, if you have any to offer!