Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by
But “happily ever after” fails
The End of The Innocence – Don Henley
Discovering that your worldview is wrong or mistaken can be a life-changing event. It’s part of growing up but can happen at any age. What you do when it happens shapes who you’ll become.
Dinner in a Strange Land
When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)
As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.” (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)
One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment – drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors.
One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on – ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.
That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.
Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.
Tell Me it Isn’t True
One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”
The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.
She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.
This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.
I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”
The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.
It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.
The End of Innocence
In much smaller ways I’ve watched my children and now my students discover that their worldview is wrong, mistaken or naive. I’ve watched as they realize there’s no Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy; the world has injustice, hypocrisy and inequality; capitalism and politics don’t work like the textbooks and money moves the system; you can’t opt out of dying, and without regulation people will try to “game” whatever system you put in place.
Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.
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