Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, The Associated Press
A group holds a sign at the intersection of Murray Ave. and Forbes Ave. in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh during a memorial vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue where a shooter opened fire, killing 11 and wounding six, including four police officers, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.
When I was seventeen, a kind professor warned me that my optimistic faith in human nature was not going to last.
A half century later, I am still trying to decide if he was right.
As a freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I took a required course in Western Civilization. Good fortune assigned me to a discussion section taught by a historian named Jasper Rose. He was from England, and he was fluent in a colorful language that no one had spoken in Banning, my hometown. But young people are flexible, and, after initial bewilderment, I adapted to being called “ducky.”
Mr. Rose was a joyful presence, a tectonic force in the terrain of wit and merriment. But during one intense class discussion, his tone and temperament took a turn. As we deliberated on the concepts of original sin and humanity’s fall from grace, Mr. Rose did not instantly dismiss the idea that a capacity for wrongdoing was lodged at the center of the human soul.
But surely Mr. Rose recognized that the idea of human depravity was a relic of an unenlightened and long departed era?
I was mystified, but I kept a grip on the hope that I had simply misunderstood him. And so, when I found a chance to talk with him individually, I pled for his help.
“In class,” I told him, “it seemed as if you might actually believe in the idea of original sin. But how could you possibly think that there is an inescapable zone of darkness in human nature?”
Mr. Rose responded with both force and brevity.
“Just wait, ducky,” he said. To me. “Just wait.”
I’m still waiting.
For reasons I may never fully understand, I am part of a sector of humanity that travels through life with an over-supply of cheer. As a historian, I have encountered mountain ranges’ worth of evidence that humanity took a bad fall from grace — and landed hard. As the famed Western author Norman Maclean said, any alert and observant person “will soon find it factually and theologically true that man is by nature a damn mess.”
In the last months, with a proliferation of mass shootings; with the temper of our times steeped in antagonism and opposition; with the collapse of any agreement on the qualities of truth and honesty; and with a passion for demonization and petty quarrels governing the soul of the national leader who should be summoning the better angels of our nature, I have wondered if I can meet the criteria for renewing my membership in the Brigade of the Buoyant.
And yet I won’t be submitting my resignation.
Every day, spirited, energetic, and utterly charming young people visit the Center of the American West. They aspire to careers where they will build alliances, negotiate the terms of shared enterprise, and refuse the bitterness and hostility that have captured so many of their elders. Maybe even more important, the students in my company are far more realistic and pragmatic than I was at their age.
So I’m keeping my membership in the Brigade of the Buoyant. And, as the self-appointed Chair of the Membership Committee, I am accepting applications.
Applications for membership can be sent to email@example.com.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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