Edge Cases

It didn’t seem weird to me as a kid1 that one of the things I loved to watch was Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the version my dad, the most accomplished music appreciator I have ever known, taped from PBS.

The scene that stands out in my mind is the one between Alberich and the Rhinemaidens, recounted below — I looked up the names so I don’t sound too dumb, but the rest of the scene is straight from the memory of a grade-school me.

So Alberich the dwarf is crouching and grumbling and shuffling around, just being generally gross and ugly. Meanwhile the sexy, sexy Rhinemaidens (I knew sexiness when I saw it: I’d seen Bugs Bunny seduce Elmer Fudd) are guarding the magical gold and talking amongst themselves — well, they’re pretending to talk amongst themselves, but they’re talking kind of loud so Alberich can overhear them. Because the Rhinemaidens are jerks.


They are saying, “Oh, isn’t this gold beautiful and powerful, and I bet that ugly dwarf wishes he could have it! But ha ha, joke’s on him! Because the gold is magical and the only way to get it is if you renounce love forever. And NOBODY would do that, so Alberich is never ever going to get the gold.”

And then Alberich says, “Ha HA, joke’s on YOU, stupid sexy ladies,” and leaps forward, all ugly and wrapped in rags, making the Rhinemaidens shriek — “I hereby renounce love…Forever!!” Surprise! And he wraps his arms around the big hunk of gold like he’s hugging it, and the Rhinemaidens scatter while the orchestra gets even more dark and dramatic, which is hard to do, since it’s already Wagner.

Dreadful things probably happen then — maybe Alberich becomes a fearsome lord of powerful dark magic and lays waste to the land, or something? I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure things don’t end up well for him.

Reconstructing, I theorize that I remember that scene so vividly because of what came not long after. At fourteen, when I realized that gay was exactly the word for what I was and am, I saw myself as a kind of Alberich: twisted, all-wrong, and stranded forever without any possibility of achieving the one thing that no sane person would ever choose to live without, the one thing without which any kind of happiness you might achieve would always be provisional and second-best: romantic love.

Having grown up in the United States in the late twentieth century, by the time I was fourteen, I had a well-developed theory of happiness. I didn’t make it up, I never vocalised it, and I can’t nail down exactly where I got it from. It was just there.

It went like this: the way to be happy is to be a basically normal human being (like most people are) who is basically good (like most people are). Then you marry the person you love (like most people do), who is also basically normal and basically good. Then you stay in love with them till you die (like most people do). And you are happy.2

Who belongs in the “normal” category? Easier to say who doesn’t. Subtract people with severe disabilities, especially if those disabilities make them physically repulsive. Subtract people with mental illnesses, especially if those illnesses make them hard to get along with. Subtract people who are cripplingly shy.

Only normal people get to be in the category of those destined for happiness. The others have to get by however they can.

Who belongs in the “good” category? Easier to say who doesn’t. Subtract addicts — if you are one, you should just stop it; if you married one, you should have looked closer. Subtract religious people, because they’re all bigots. Subtract people who are scared of the opposite sex, or never move out of their parents’ basements, because they’re cowards and weaklings. Subtract the people who never make it out of poverty, and whose poverty turns to mutual bitterness. They weren’t trying hard enough.

Only good people get to be in the category of those destined for happiness. The others have to get by however they can.

How do you stay in love with your spouse until you die? I’m not going to touch that one, but Cosmo has some ideas, and you can tell that magazine is written by happy, happy people. Oh, also, Cialis.

In software engineering, there’s a concept called “edge cases”. If your software works under normal conditions, where the user is computer literate and his computer doesn’t malfunction and he never clicks anywhere he shouldn’t, then you’ve got a program that works for maybe 0.01% of users.

A good program, on the other hand, is bulletproof because you’ve already taken the edge cases into account — you’ve expected the unexpected. So it works even if the user is a colorblind orangutan with acute carpal tunnel syndrome. Who’s running IE6. Under Vista.3

If your philosophy of happiness doesn’t account for the edge cases, it’s not a very good philosophy. And the further you get from being fourteen years old, the more you realize we are all edge cases; that nobody you meet is particularly normal, or particularly good;4 and that you yourself are certainly neither of those things.

You, of all people, should know that you are neither normal nor good. After all, you’re privy to the kind of things that go on in your head, where nobody’s listening.

The universal plan of happiness — that one I breathed in from ages 0-14 — is a good philosophy, if you’re sane, rich, straight, white, healthy, American, and a saint, and so is your spouse.5 For everyone else, it stinks.

What does that mean? It means that fourteen-year-old Joey was oppressed, lied to, and bound with intolerable burdens. And, bucko, it wasn’t by the Catholic Church.

1 And it wasn’t.
2 Also you both have pretty good teeth.
3 If you get this joke, you may be a web developer!
4 cf. Luke 18:9.
5 Also you both have pretty good teeth.

12 Comments on “Edge Cases”

  1. Kate says:

    This is fantastic. I hope you write a follow-up post; we need more eudaimonism for the rest of us. I have to admit, I had almost exactly the same presumptions, except that the lovely couple were also supposed to be perfectly faithful Christians and virgins on their wedding night. And then, with all the provisos above, perfect happiness. Guess how many people that works for?

    Keep writing.

  2. Josh W says:

    When I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, I kinda ran with it in a somewhat different direction. I was more than happy to use it as a “get out of bourgeoisie hell free” card. The ensuing years taught me that taking up residence in a particular counterculture could be just as stifling in its own way. There’s the same tendency to squeeze the individual into a type.

    I credit my conversion to the Church with giving me the breathing room to just be an individual before God, with my own unique and unrepeatable destiny to live out. It’s refreshing to just not care about whatever model of “normal” my cultural milieu is expectantly holding up to me.

  3. srswhAs says:

    “sane, rich, straight, white, healthy, American, and a saint”


  4. Angela says:

    In short, we are all human, and screw ups….but generally nice people. I blame the devil and original sin. Thank God for God and all the rest. For myself, I am utterly thankful that I am not God. I would be permanently bald and have a bright red mark on my forehead that ever goes away. I’m just amazed that the human race has lasted as long as it has.

  5. Catie H says:

    Really good!! Thank you. It goes hand-in-hand with the “if only” syndrome I’m willing to bet 99% of us suffer with much of the time. The ironic part is, if only we accepted ourselves humbly for what we are – and let God fill in the gaps – we’d probably be happy.

  6. Briana says:

    That’s all well and good, but what now? This is my problem. I’m very good at knowing what happiness isn’t and how not to get there. I’m not so good at knowing what it is and how to get there.

    1. Try this, if you haven’t before: sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour every day until something changes. No special methods required.

  7. Bradley says:

    This is such a good post! I keep coming back to it. Thanks JP.

  8. David says:

    Deckard: “Implants. Those aren’t your memories. They’re somebody else’s. “

    1. Beautiful scene, incredibly fine bit of acting by Sean Young. Sheesh.

  9. Teresa says:

    “What does that mean? It means that fourteen-year-old Joey was oppressed, lied to, and bound with intolerable burdens. And, bucko, it wasn’t by the Catholic Church.”

    Best thing I’ve read in I-don’t-know-how-long.

    It’s ironic how depressing it is, thinking that you’re supposed to be living up to “Happiness”. I’m one of those that can’t even fake it. : /

    Looks like I’m stuck with Real Life, I guess. : ) Thank God for people like C.S. Lewis, who can come down to earth and acknowledge that “tomorrow is a Monday morning”.

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