Before reaching the age of maturity, I had the singular good fortune of stumbling upon a most unique, run-down tavern frequented by society’s disposables. Kilroy’s, squeezed between a darkened Shell station and a distinctly ungentrified stretch of Venice Beach, Calif., was home to a frowsy lot of down-on-their-luck, cast-off longshoremen, Teamsters and their women. Washouts, by proper society’s standards, too old and too played out, Kilroy’s regulars painted a vivid contrast to my life as a UCLA undergraduate.
My days were spent in Westwood surrounded by Beverly Hills, Bel Air, the Wilshire district, and ugly souls made not so ugly because of their accoutrements of wealth. A tinsel town world where the virtues of noble spirits dressed in rags went unrecognized. Kilroy regulars had nothing society valued. No youth, no education, no money beyond chump change, no cool clothes, fast cars, status or power.
In the time it took for my blonde sorority friend Bonnie and I to finish off our first pitcher, we’d been adopted with open hearts. My face-on friendship with the tavern’s habitues lasted for more than a year and, in that year, I learned what true virtue looked like — a good person was good because of what he was inside. Likewise, an ugly person was found ugly by the contents of his soul. By the time I transferred back to Berkeley in the spring of 1968, I realized that much of what had been pumped into my head was falsehood. Parents, teachers, peers — even my minister — all complicit in the mythmaking.
Since, at 20, I had nowhere near enough direct knowledge of life to guide my judgments as to what was true and what was illusion, I jettisoned the whole mess. From that point on, I wanted no easy answers … only questions, hard questions, which led to more questions.
Religion, like everything else, had to prove itself. Would it provide a tool to navigate a real world where black and white judgments only existed in the minds of true believers? The real world, as I came to intimately know it, was a rough and tumble world filled with ambiguity. Any faith that refuses to acknowledge these nuances of value was not for me.
Years passed and I finally butted up against enough nontruths, exposed by my mistakes and those of others, that I began to formulate a vague notion of what fearsome costs went into forging a viable ethic of living — an ethic, as Kant would have argued, which could be upheld universally.
I came to understand that such a difficult path was tied ultimately with absolute personal responsibility for every thought and action. No dogma, no creed. Life experienced fully, taken in openly and courageously became my only instructor. In such a way, I held my few hard-won beliefs close … almost as if they were mine as my arms and legs were mine.
How easy it must be to be a Christian these days. For me, a one-time scholar of the Bible, a rich Christian is an oxymoron as is any Christian who kills for nation or faith. How easy it is to compromise the tenets of such a religion bought on the cheap.
I suppose of all things I resent most about Christianity is the presumption that — sinful by nature — true virtue is only possible by buying into their program. My lifelong struggle to separate truth from falsehood, to attain self-awareness and live it in the real world are rendered meaningless.
I understand that others may arrive at the same place over a very different path and that’s fine by me. Still, there are lessons — the ones seared into our consciousness — which can’t be gained on the cheap. Not by a simple religious conversion or an LSD-fueled transformation which was so popular for many in my college days. Not even by a fabulously costly weekend at Esalen.
This leads back to the subject of my last column. The only too-obvious hypocrisy of so many true believers, their faith — if that’s what it is — came too easy, and at far too little cost.
To live authentically, take full responsibility for our own decisions and their outcomes. This is the predicate for a just and equitable world. And, in my view, is not attained by something as easy and simple as flipping a switch.
A lifelong activist, McGehee settled here in 1973 and lives in Palouse with his wife Katherine. His work life has varied from bartender to university instructor to wrecking yard owner.