39. dealing with Haight

So I’m hanging in the (in)famous Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco…and I don’t know why or what it was but I had this tremendous feeling of inadequacy – as if while I was there I was only three feet tall (rather than my towering 5’5″).

I think partly it had to do with the variety of people who were there (if you’ve ever been, you know what a cast of characters you’ll find there). But it wasn’t just that. It was also how sure they seemed of themselves. They all seemed to have this invisible shield around them that protected them from the brutally prejudiced eye of society and because they had that protection, they were free to be who/whatever they wanted to be. I felt I lacked this force field and so I felt a kind of nakedness.

Now I know that as a child of Christ, I am to put on the armor of God which protects me from slings and arrows and such, but what about these people? I don’t mean to judge but judging (oops) from the buttons, shirts, posters, graffiti, and bumper stickers that abounded, I’d say that most of the people there weren’t Christians. Where do they get their armor, their confidence, their freedom to express themselves in such counter-cultural ways?

In part, I suppose it has to do with the fact that they’re all counter-culturing together and so there’s a kind of strength-in-numbers voodoo happening. I mean wearing a hyper-conservative suit or an anti Che Guevara shirt would be just as counter to their culture as them wearing their patches, tatoos, and piericings in the heart of San Fran’s business district.

But it’s not just that. Take the Suit in the Haight-Ashbury section guy. He’s probably going to feel uncomfortable in that setting because he’s not used to dealing with being dressed out of his element – in the world he’s familiar with, everyone dresses as he does and to a certain extent, he builds his wardrobe around the unspoken assumptions of those around him. All that to say that he dresses to fit in.

In contrast, the H/A guy dresses in such a way that he will NOT fit in. I mean, in their own element, they all kind of blend together and fit in but because they dress in such a way that they expect to be disliked and disrespected, put them in the heart of the aforementioned business district and they’re not uncomfortable with being out of place. Instead, they get a kind of affirmation of the style choices they’ve made precisely through that reaction. They want to make a statement by the way they dress and so disdain is a kind of affirmation of their style choices.

So then, the Suit dresses to fit in and so is uncomfortable when he stands out. On the other hand, the H/A guy dresses so as to not fit in and so rejection is the very reaction he wants. And in the end, maybe the reason I felt uncomfortable/naked/vulnerable there was because being around a bunch of very counter-cultural people made me question my own personality via style choices (because as much as we want to say/believe it doesn’t matter, that we don’t think about it, it DOES matter). I mean, how much of who I am is just a product of living primarily in polite society and how much of it is really who I am.

I suppose to a degree, the two are inextricable. Tony Campolo tells a story where a student came into his office. He said that he wanted to move away and camp out alone (a la Thoreau’s Walden) to strip away all of the layers that society’s expectations had deposited upon him.

Campolo countered with the onion analogy. Take an onion, he explained, and one by one, peel away the layers. Remove one and you’ll find one underneath. Remove that one and there’s another. Keep going, layer by layer. Do you know what you’ll find in the center, he asked? Nothing. An onion is a product of its layers. In the same way, outside/environmental forces are a necessary part of who we are. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”

It’s kind of like the nature/nuture debate (do our genes determine who we are or are we a product of our upbringing). People argue for one side or another but (as with most things) the truth is somewhere in the middle. Who we are is a product of BOTH how we were raised and what we were born with.

I’m not sure where all of this leaves me in regards to how I was feeling in the Haight/Ashbury district. I feel like I’ve circled around and grabbed by own rhetorical tail…but I feel better. Writing does that for me.

Can’t wait to see what the rest of the Harrison tour has in store for me.

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