In the last few weeks we’ve learned a few things. We’ve learned that people take selfies in funeral bathrooms. Not just some people, lots of people. Scores of people. Of all different shapes and sizes. Of all different ages and locations. That’s right. We belong to a culture of people who sneak off into bathroom stalls, yards away from the broken, rapidly numbing hearts of their families,to smile seductively at cameras and click capture on their own miserable faces.
We’ve learned, quite separately, that we are also part of a culture that will stop everything it’s doing to play make-believe with a five-year-old who may not see six. We followed closely as the city of San Francisco transformed itself into Gotham to bring joy to a young leukemia patient who wanted nothing more than to be Batman for a day. And we learned that such an act will lead an entire nation of people, including the president, to stop everything they’re doing for a moment and take it in.
For the now-treasured BatKid, a day that started predictably with rubbing the sleep from his eyes and teeth brushing, ended in a city transformed, more than 78 thousand tweets, a presidential address, and a near universal sense that, yeah, we got that one right.
Humanity got it right. It proved once again that we have the capacity to do unselfishly perfect things.
When you’re a kid you lump these two compulsions into wholly different categories. You see the world as good and evil. Political party X and political party Y. Home team and away. You remain that way until one day, you find yourself embarrassingly on the other half of that wall. However slight the infraction, from that point on — the world becomes exactly as it is: a tumbling, chaotic mix of degrees. Most of which is spent unremarkably in-the middle.
When as a culture we spot a good moment, particularly a moment as wholly exceptional as Friday’s BatKid saga, we want with every fiber of our tangled chaotic being to stay there. We want it to signify a new era of humanity. Which of course, it never does.
In the 1940s, Harvard launched a study to determine, at least in part, the path between these two extremes. Suffering only one interruption in its lifespan, The Grant Study became one of the longest studies of human nature on record. The goal was to chart the route to well-being. Along the way it made a few predictions. Among them:
l. Goodness is rooted in a happy childhood.
2. Maturity grows alongside a deepening capacity for love and work.
Just as it sounds, the goal was to find the science behind beliefs we’ve stitched into wall hangings for years. And in some cases the wall-hangings came through. But not, most notably, when it comes to consistency.
George Vaillant, the young (and troubled) psychologist who took over the study after it had stalled out, explained that when it came to maturing consistently the men studied were “as changeable as the weather…Periods of success at work and love came and went unsystematically and according to circumstance.”
In a fascinating article he wrote on the whole thing Dan Slater pretty much nails it, writing “Triumphs of Experience, [the study’s summary], is not only a history of how the Grant men adapted (or not) to life over 70-plus years, but of how author and science grew up alongside them.”
Valliant himself was a flawed man. The product of a father driven to suicide and a marriage driven to separation, Valliant strived to be better. He made cracking the science of happiness his life’s work, even, according to Slater, ignoring his own children in its pursuit.
Our whole lives we vacillate between baseness and our own wildest realizations of perfection. This is how it goes. In single nights, we have awkward conversations and moments of unmistakeable connection. We do good things, and then we unravel them. We can’t seem to find the balance. We are, after all,inventors of the #humblebrag.
The Grant Study was looking for a path. There is none. The Grant Study was looking for formulas. There are none. There is only the life-long continuum of submerging and coming up for air, of being lost and finding a clearing.
And at any given point, you don’t really know what side you’re on, or how close you are to your next clear stance. But some days, you get there, and you’re thankful for the view.