To learn from mistakes
Yeah it's really a shame
Oh and the scars that you show
Yeah might as well be for show
Oh it means nothing to me
And I really don't know
Cause I don't want to know
Tell me when it's over
I want to know when it's done"
---Steve Wynn, from the Dream Syndicate song
"Tell Me When It's Over"
Many thanks for my wonderful LJ friends and new friends for answering my poll. I learned a lot, and I am grateful. Tonight I wonder about the lessons life teaches me, and how hard they are to learn.
The Greek myth of Sisyphus intrigues me. Sisyphus proved rather a human coyote trickster. He managed to chain Thanatos, Death himself, so that the dead could not reach the underworld. Hades himself, the ruler of the towering inferno (oops, wrong movie), intervened to restore the order of things.
As a punishment, Sisyphus' sentence was to roll a rock uphill.
Each time he reached the top, the rock rolled downhill and he had to start again. Nowadays, we have a phrase to describe this exercise in futility. It's called "first year associate at a mega-law-firm". But in Grecian days, this type of thing was novel enough to land one on urns and in myths later collected by Edwardian myth-collectors.
Anti-biotics and high technology medicine effectively extended life for decades beyond the time allotted in my grandfather's time. My grandfather, for that matter, spent his teen years watching his father die of tuberculosis in the New Mexico desert. His family travelled across Texas by wagon; when his father's moment passed, the family limped home to Arkansas, where my grandfather's father died. My grandfather skipped the twelfth grade to support his family,though he had been atop his class. By the time he was 25, and ready to face the world, the Great Depression removed all the jobs but the most strenuous and menial from the landscape. He worked making roads through the woodlands, using shovels and dynamite. One Christmas, he worked at a company which provided a lot of its annual compensation to workers in the form of a Christmas bonus. My grandfather and grandmother used the December pay to buy presents for relatives. Then they had to miss Christmas at their folks' home when the company did not pay bonuses, and they had no money to travel.
These tales of difficulty sound like some Norman Rockwell painting, because they always end up with stories of how families found love and happiness and rest despite the ridiculous wrongs done all around. But lately, I think of the tremendous effort just living in some earlier generations required. Yet, the relatives from my grandfather's generation rarely complained of being Sisyphus, though they lived in many ways Sisyphean lives. By contrast, today I meet many people who feel the desperation of life lived meaninglessly.
I think that in a world of endless material possibility, and limited spiritual fulfillment, it's all too easy to set one's goals too high ("I must be great"), and yet too low ("I am nothing since I am not great"). For some reason, it's no longer acceptble to just live a quiet, good life. I like the bit from Phillippians, which suggests that "thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous or worthy of praise". I don't really believe in pollyanna-ism, because life doesn't become lovely merely because one grins. But I do think that life is very hard, and that the modest goal of living with integrity proves much more difficult (and much more to be valued) than popular myth suggests. Commercial media bombardment contributes to this phenomenon--we must have perfect figures, partake of luxurious pleasures, have flawless sex and have homes more conventional than Beaver Cleaver. Even the curious subdued "sponsored by" marketing done through public radio features the accoutrements of the materially perfect life, with an added bit of what the Sheryl Crow song calls "intellectualism". As she says, "I've never been there, but the brochure looks nice". The examined life apparently involves a taste for raves, beat poetry, designer china, David Sedaris, outre food, and bands more obscure than one's neighbor's bands. But it's all life as wish fulfillment--the endless wine and cheese party of the soul.
No wonder guilt reigns supreme with so many people I know. Who can be a godling, if the gods must succeed at all they touch? All the basic drives--hunger, sexuality, creativity, vocation--become pawns in some material game, some unattainable goal.
Even rejection of the capitalist marketing system becomes a dead end road of chic rebellion. Who can live up to the ideals of impractical perfection? Perhaps humanities professors, but tenured jobs are so hard to find. Since when did people become perfect, and yet be excused from just simply building nurturing lives and being kind to one another?
Some years ago the comic Bill Cosby scored a minor song hit with "Float On", a parody of a popular soul ballad, in which the singers (all Mr. Cosby, of course) each introduced themself by their zodiac sign and by what they imagined were suggestive tidbits of information. I think that Mr. Cosby was mostly having fun with the disco era, but I'll draw a deeper metaphor from it all. Each of the song characters was all about superficial things, trying to sound "attractive". The goofy vanity of the singers he parodied made the song attractive.
I know that legend tells us that the Great Recording Angel
writes down our every achievement, and preserves our accomplishments for some session of sheep-and-goat outing. But as much as I fear days of Judgment, I must admit that I also fear the personal hell which self-loathing creates for myself and others. I really think that this is all tied into the incredible personal ambitions which I don't really hold anymore, but with which I am capable of judging myself.
I find myself at peace with myself in my career right now.
I have a good career, and I do work that my clients value. I am never bored--and apparently not many people can say that.I'm a tool which works certain types of projects perfectly--like some really cool abstruse software fix. I'm nobody's idea of the world's greatest jury lawyer, and I'm not an academic (to me, the grandest law life) with a string of citations to the Harvard Law Review and the University of Chicago Law Review. It's easy for me to resist the temptation to discuss my work much on line, even apart from client confidences, because it sometimes takes paragraphs to define the issues. gurdonark would sound like the proverbial dull boy if I described some of the more arcane ones in detail. My latest legal publication is a chapter in a book about the rights of people who are exploited by others when they buy and sell fractional interests in insurance policies ("viatical settlements"). After all, if you can't chain Thanatos, you might as well be a well-protected consumer when you buy up all his insurance. But somehow, I'm able to look beyond what I am not, and find a way to contribute what I can. I think that the key is to turn off that inner judge. That judge continually runs a scorecard that even the Great Recording Angel would find a bit anal.
The "inner scorecard" for me ran like this. I only scored a "B" average in college, so I could not be a doctor like my father, although medicine is really the only truly saintly profession. I attended the local State U. and the local commuter secondary State U. for college and law school, respectively, so I was not really bright, even when I did pretty well in law school. Bright people, of course, go to Ivy League schools. My first job was with a solid shop, but it was neither the "white shoe" splendor of a top firm, nor the public interest law saintliness of legal aid. I played enough chess to be an expert, but in fact at my best I was only an "A" player, a full notch down (now I'm a "B"). My poetry publications were always insignificant, in journals that few read. My few short stories drew only form rejections. By all the "scorecards", I'm just an average, if curiously eccentric and fun, guy.
But I learned something as I went through life. I learned that finding meaning in one's life is an incredibly important thing. I learned that contentment in a life nonetheless rigorously examined matters. I learned that putting food on the table, helping out in little ways, and loving one's family and friends is an extremely important and elusive path to walk. I must say that when one does work with bankrupt clients, one realizes that even balancing a budget in a society consumed with credit card material lust is a major achievement. Similarly, the "traps" of fame and recognition lay many low. It's much easier to imagine that one must be Prometheus, bringing fire to the rest of the poor mortals. But "right work" amounts to more than work which makes one famous or somehow indelibly cool. "Right work" is work that matters, regardless of its "importance".
I donate a Thursday night once in a while to the legal aid clinic at the Salvation Army. Sometimes the meetings with folks who need a half an hour of advice and a referral to an attorney leave me filled with "there but the Grace..." feelings. But last night, I felt that I was meeting with courageous people. Each had a unique story whose secrecy I will take to my grave, but in each case, he or she was not just sitting at home fretting about a problem, but instead driving across town to meet with a professional who uses odd jargon to seek help with their most precious and private problems. It's so easy to look at those less materially fortunate and apply some mental scorecard. But if the inner Great Recording Angel makes me depressed, why should I use it as an editor of other folks' soundtracks?
I am not suggesting that striving for success, professional, creative or passionate, is wrong. I am a huge believer in going for the things one wishes with a pragmatic, "can do" approach. I find myself almost a cheerleader for trying and striving for one's dreams. I believe that people can accomplish so much, even without any of the "advantages". But I do believe that the success of a life well-lived is so important.
There's more to life than pushing a rock up a hill. One cannot get so caught up in our "work for XYZ corporation and you'll have your 2.5 and your simultaneous and your peak vacation". At the same time, one cannot decide that since the "mainstream material life" is so unworkable, nothing works. There is more to life than the puffing promises of television commercials.
The last thing one needs, though, is to turn self-denigration into one more flagellatory way to defeat oneself before one has begun. I like in the Wizard of Oz that Dorothy could always go home to Kansas--if only she truly believed. I want to let the rock stay at the bottom of the hill. I'll leave the cheating of Death to a future, more scientific age. I'll do without the million dollar estate, and Mr. Stamos can live with Rebecca Romijn. But if I must be larger than life, then please give me a hammer, show me the rail, and like John Henry I'll split it as if my life's meaning were bound up in it. But it will be my rail--I'll hammer at what matters to me. That's the key challenge--to split rails that matter, and not be trapped splitting the unimportant rails.
In so much of the world, evil people will take one's life. But in our society, trends on both sides of the aisle will give you your life, but take your soul. It's a prison of sensation misplaced, and dreams expanded into "needs". But I believe that there's a way to live in which ambition is neither evil nor controlling, in which pleasure is neither sin nor merely a way of escape, and in which simple good living matters. I don't practice as much as I preach. I am learning.
I think that life features a lot of negativity, and difficult emotions, and, worst of all, amazingly confusing conflicted feelings. The shearing of competing ideas, in some cases all wrong, can drive many a plane to the tarmac. Inside,though, I fancy I can hear a quiet voice that says "endure. love. trust. hope. pray. work.". My ears may turn pointy in the effort, but I plan to strain to hear that voice.
I'd trade my kingdom and all its horses for the perpetual sense that I live a life that matters. I think life teaches me this over and over again. But I must continue to stop, and listen, and change my behavior in tune with the lesson.