When Halitosis Can Push You Off a Bridge
I’ve loved comedian Richard Lewis for over thirty years, having fond memories of his standup on David Letterman as far back as the early 1980s. I immediately felt connected to his neediness, anxiety and depression. For example, he talked about how depressed he could get from foul odors and told a story of preparing for a date when his grandfather, reeking of insufferable halitosis, got right in his grandson’s face and wished Richard good luck on his romantic venture. Catching a whiff of his grandfather’s bad breath from hell had such an effect on Richard that he cancelled the date because all he could think of was his grandfather’s loathsome halitosis, which gave him thoughts of jumping off a bridge.
Viktor Frankl says we can choose our attitude toward life, that we are not a “plaything of circumstance.” But can Richard Lewis and I choose not to be repelled to the point of despondence and depression by rank odors? Our overreactions to stimulus seem to be part of our hardwiring and this is one type of example that makes me skeptical of Frankl’s claim that we are agents of free will.
Another type of example, one that I talk about with my students, was my “choice” to finish college. People I went to high school with congratulated me for getting my Masters and becoming a college professor at the young age of twenty-five. Part of their happiness for my success it seemed to me was based on their low expectations for my future. I was a troubled high school kid, self-conscious, anti-social, absorbed by bodybuilding. From the age of fourteen to nineteen I was the sidekick to Falco, a former high school classmate, three years my senior. He was equally troubled and had no future prospects evidenced by his short-term jobs at a margarine and ketchup factory, Toys R Us, a pork processing plant. One day I went with him to the unemployment office and Falco knocked on a nicotine-stained plastic partition to talk to a pinch-faced weasel about getting a job. The unemployment office and its joyless functionaries looked like a bastion from hell, a place I’d be doomed to frequent if I continued to hang out with Falco.
I was nineteen and on academic probation at the time. Standing in that hellish unemployment office, I saw this huge flashing red light bulb over my head and the warning flash possessed me with fear, which compelled me to break away from Falco and get serious about college.
I tell my students this story and make it clear that I don’t know if I made a choice to go to college. After the Light Bulb Moment, I didn’t make a choice to continue my education; I was driven by fear. Every morning I woke up and felt a cold gun pressed to my temple, coercing me to getting up early and going to college.
I had no choice in the matter. College would open opportunities for me. Not going to college would most likely put me at the mercy of the unemployment office. Was that a choice? I never saw it as one.
I also tell my students I was smart enough to know I wasn’t smart enough to make a good income without a college degree. I was no Bill Gates.
I make it clear to my students that lots of young people, many smarter than I, were in my circumstances, on a road to nowhere, but inexplicably they don’t have a Light Bulb Moment and they end up more vulnerable than they should have allowed themselves to be.
Did I choose to have a Light Bulb Moment? Did I choose to feel fear like a cold gun pressed to my head every day while I went to college? Did I choose to become nearly incapacitated by morbid thoughts when confronted with foul odors?
I don’t think so. I think I was hard-wired a certain way. So on the subject of free will I remain an agnostic, at best, and this casts doubt on my ability to teach the principles of my hero Viktor Frankl.