Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mike the Broken GI Joe

After a week and a half-long absence, I'm back.  I'd put the blog on hold while I finished up my latest manuscript, which commanded my full attention for the past ten to twelve days.  I have a new arc of posts that I'd like to do here, building off what I've written in the past few months.  I'm going to start by talking about someone specific: a friendship that went terribly, terribly wrong.  But this story, and its moral, are bigger than any one post.  To truly do it justice will take an entire week of blogging.  It covers a lot of ground, and brings up a lot of the themes I've written about thus far.  So, without further ado, I give you Mike the Broken GI Joe.

Mike could have been a great man if his life hadn't intervened.  He was attractive, charismatic, intelligent, articulate, and imaginative.  Some of the most tragic people are the ones who seemed to have all the elements of greatness but for a fatal flaw.  In that sense Mike is an incredible tragedy, the story of a would-be genius done in by insecurity and fear.  For if anybody I ever knew embodied fear and a hopeless insecurity of oneself, it would be Mike.  Mike and I were destined to be great friends for a very long time -- ten years -- but that friendship was ultimately doomed.

Back in 2000 and 2001, Mike ran a music review website that specialized in obscure and underground metal -- the kind you don't hear on the radio, and exactly the kind that I had just begun to listen to en masse.  The number of bands he introduced me to that I still listen to even now is almost too big to list: Opeth, Katatonia, Agalloch, Mercenary, Soilwork, Dark Tranquillity, Evergrey, Sentenced, Theory in Practice, to say nothing of the Children of Bodom and In Flames mix CDs we traded a full decade before they became popular.  It was a prodigious time for me: I was seventeen and coming of age, just starting to figure out my identity.  Mike was in many ways a mentor to that identity: an older brother figure I'd lacked.  Mike embodied a certain kind of machismo and masculinity I still struggle with to this day: aggressive, cynical, and wholly unaware of itself.  He was cool in the way that adolescent boys aspire to be.  Here was one of the cools kids from high school taking me under his wing.  I lacked any self-awareness to perceive his flaws.

Mike was a former Marine, an aggressive clubber and womanizer, and an ardent opponent of illegal immigration despite being a quarter Mexican.  He was tough and mean because he perceived himself to be constantly under attack, whether by real or imagined foe alike.  He worried constantly that he was a failure, a weakling, or socially compromised, even though this was almost never reflected in what he said.  It's always the people whose actions are inconsistent with their words that are the most dangerous, and Mike's thoughts always seemed to reflect his words, not his actions.

Even still, our relationship, though sometimes distant and sometimes more intimate, remained steady.  I wanted his approval.  He was a validator: he told me I was all right.  Two things changed, though as the years went on.  The first was me.  The other was him.  It was to be our undoing.

I have written extensively about a certain kind of cynicism I notice in people who feel insecure and threatened.  I know others like this: uncompromising, rigid, perenially disappointed.  In fact, as far as heterosexual male friends go, I seem irresistably attracted to them.  It's at once a strict form of idealism, and the experience of being crushed under the weight of one's beliefs.  Mike was the living embodiment of that type.  I knew what he wanted to be.  He wanted to be an intellectual.  He wanted to feel smart and respected for his intellect.  But during the critical years when that part of one's identity forms, he lacked the discipline or the financial means.  I've seen so many like him.  The failed intellectual is the most dangerous kind of all.  Without a requisite self-awareness, reason always devolves into misinformation and the worst kinds of self-righteousness.  One need only look to many of history's great revolutions (French, Soviet) for exmaples of this kind of thinking put into practice.  One of my favorite authors, the great religion scholar Stephen Prothero, likes to describe this as the following: "The most dangerous game man ever plays is dividing people into the good guys and bad guys and suggesting that the bad guys be punished."

At some point between 2008 and 2010, the weight of Mike's disappiontment began to finally crush him once and for all.  I saw warning signs: frequent links to Glenn Beck and his radio and television shows; conspiracy theories; paranoid delusions of the government and groups of designated "others" out to get him.  But I still needed him to validate me, so I ignored them.  It was, however, also around this time -- 2010 especially -- that I began to change.  I had gained a level of self-awareness and inner peace that I finally felt comfortable expressing myself outwardly to the greater world, for all my virtues and flaws.  And I was not like Mike at all.  There was a time when Mike and I could share that certain cynicism about the world.  But as I've grown older and up, my own cynicism and disappointment seems only to be diminishing, not increasing.  I was never a pessimist.  A realist, yes, but an optimist to my core.  I do genuinely believe that human beings are basically good.  I don't know when I began publicly asserting this, but it marked the beginning of the end for our friendship.  Neither of us are very good at shutting up, and at least until recent months, I wasn't particularly good at letting go of a fight.  Mike made certain assumptions about the way the world worked.  I made others, and we disagreed.  Our clashes grew more intense by the week, and started getting personal.  As I came to realize, Mike lacked the ability to distinguish attacks on his words and actions, and attacks on his person.  I still do believe that at his core he's a genuinely good person, just terribly misguided.  In many ways, people like him are far more dangerous than the truly malicious and evil.

There was no ultimate confrontation between us.  I simply unfriended him from Facebook and removed any means for him to contact me otherwise.  I think that was for the best.  I don't hate him.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I pity him.  He was in many ways pathetic and broken; a failed person.  Understanding Mike has allowed me to understand so much more about the world.  He was in some respect one of the catalysts to my own self-realization.  And for the better part of a decade, he was a good friend to me.  People have called him a douchebag, and he may have been nasty and tone-deaf to others sensitivies, but that doesn't make him a bad person.  He may have been in the process of flaming out when I knew him, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from him.  The lessons his example has taught me will form the next several parts to this story.  For now, though, I think I'll leave it at Mike the person.  Destruction always saddens me, particularly destruction seemingly without a purpose, and Mike is no different.  It didn't have to be this way.  So I mourn, not only for our friendship, but for his own inability to be happy.  As for me, however, the end of my relationship with Mike would come to be the beginning of a realization on my part of just how wonderful the world truly is.  Stay tuned for the sequel tomorrow.

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