This week’s column is in the noble Derbian tradition of advice to the younger generation. From the aery height of three score and ten I offer you nuggets of wisdom, wrenched with difficulty and some pain from a lifetime’s observation and reflection.
Pay attention, you millennials and Gen Z-ers! There’ll be a quiz period afterwards.
Here’s this week’s precept:
Avoid fucked-up people.
Most citizens of a functioning society live in a bourgeois style. They obey the law, keep regular hours, and brush their teeth. They get as much education as they can tolerate, acquire a marketable skill, work, marry, raise kids, and keep their debts under control.
The people I’m advising you to avoid, the fucked-up people—hereinafter FUPs—are the others. You’ve met them, or will: the drunks and moochers, the losers and dropouts, the profligates and unemployables. They will at best waste your time, at worst drag you down (?) into fucked-uppery.
I’ve known more than my share of FUPs across the decades. At least 20 come easily to mind. Expat life is particularly rich with them. FUPs must have cost me hundreds in current U.S. dollars, though most of it in my younger, more empathetic and gullible years.
And I’ve gotten off lightly. A friend of mine inherited a modest fortune from his father. His FUP brother co-inherited but soon frittered away his share and came to my friend for help, arguing that blood is thicker than water. My friend estimates the cost of testing those relative viscosities at $2 million over several years.
The existence of FUPs raises interesting questions.
Are FUPs just dumb? Absolutely not. There is a correlation—proportionately more dumb than smart people are fucked up—but it’s a weak one. I’ve known some very smart FUPs.
Are FUPs born or made? Ah, the old nature-nurture conundrum. In the Western tradition there are three strands that have contributed to our thinking about this.
Folkloric: The uneducated English country people I grew up among, when confronted with an FUP, had two stock explanations to offer: (1) “Bad in the bone,” or (2) “Fell in with a bad crowd.”
Biblical: Spare the rod, etc.
Until recently the Bible and Freud held sway over the Western mind, as memorably expressed by poet Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Rigorous researches in the human sciences have swung expert opinion back toward folklore, though with a spiffier vocabulary: “inherited traits” for “bad in the bone” and “nonshared environment” (i.e., not shared with siblings) for the “bad crowd.” Hence Judith Rich Harris’ riposte to Larkin:
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth
To hear your child make such a fuss.
It isn’t fair—it’s not the truth—
He’s fucked up, yes, but not by us.
Are FUPs differently distributed by race? It sure looks that way. Australian Aborigines, for example, have sensational rates of fucked-upness.
That’s a very low-mean-IQ population, though, so the above-mentioned correlation may just be especially strong in that tail of the bell curve.
Is fucked-upness merely opportunistic? Could be. As with the old joke about why dogs lick their privates, perhaps people, or some large cohort of people, are as fucked up as they can be.
In their prior state, living on the Malthusian edge, Aborigine and Eskimo FUPs quickly perished. In societies with more surplus, a small number of FUPs could be supported—Huck Finn’s Pap, for example. In lush modern welfare states like Australia and Denmark (proprietor of 1960s Greenland), fucked-upness carries very low penalties.
Fast transition from austerity to abundance may generate sudden floods of FUPs. Perhaps this explains the 1960s efflorescence of hippiedom—another high-FUP demographic.
Are FUPs more creative than average? Not likely. There have been some creative second-rank FUPs—Poe, for example—but I think this is a kind of occasional idiot-savant syndrome. Those in the very first rank of literary, musical, or scientific creativity—Shakespeare, Mozart, Newton—have been bourgeois as all get-out. Beethoven? Hmm…
Can you be a part-time FUP? Yes, you can. Case study: A man known to me married young to his sweetheart. A few weeks into the marriage she was killed in a car accident, he the driver.
He was never the same. I knew him through his daughter from a later marriage, who reports that throughout her childhood Dad was shouting drunk all weekend, Friday evening to Sunday night. As soon as she was old enough she stayed away on weekends.
Punchline: The man was a successful doctor, running a profitable medical practice until he died. Death was from an aneurysm, which of course he knew was there but did not want treated.
Is fucked-upness just a death wish? Perhaps. Somebody—Jung? I’ve forgotten—said that drug addicts and alcoholics are “trying to get to a place called Death.”
The death wish is a universal feature of the human psyche, though—Freud got that right, at least—and its strength seems not to correlate well with fucked-upness. Its most intense expressions in English poetry are those by Keats, Tennyson, and Dickinson, none of whom was fucked up. Keats died young, to be sure, but through no fault of his own. Tennyson lived to 81; Dickinson, 55.
Can FUPs be helped? Mostly not. For sure I have never succeeded in helping an FUP, although I’ve tried a few times. Alcoholics Anonymous, which works hard to rescue its one particular subset of FUPs, has a success rate below 10 percent.
Still, that’s not zero. A few FUPs can go straight. My impression is that the doctor’s words to Macbeth apply here: “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”
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