Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

a practical turn of mind

Perhaps pragmatism provides me with a tragic flaw. Lately I focus on the "I can't" syndrome. I suffered from this syndrome in my own life a great deal more in the past than I do now. When my first home was worth less than I owed on it, I "couldn't" sell it at a loss and make a career change I contemplated. Even today "I can't" be more organized, and "I can't" seem to get my "to do" list cleared.

"I can't" thinking has its place, of course. Sometimes "I can't" is shorthand for "I considered many possibilities for changes in my life, added the pluses and minuses, and that's just not right for me". But in my own case, "I can't" served as a knee jerk reaction to various dilemmae, in which I felt trapped.

I'm intrigued with the notion that the mere mental attitude one brings to a problem colors one's ability to solve a problem. I also find that desperation, more than even mere necessity, tends to be not only the mother of invention, but also an effective solution to melt "I can't" thinking.

I like the books about living simply, but sometimes I think that living fearlessly matters a good bit more. I don't mean that fearlessness which arises from taking life-threatening physical risks, as that is a more extreme kind of courage than I am discussing here. I speak about the kind of courage to recognize that every choice involves pleasure and pain, and one must choose according to what one truly wants to try.

I know a woman who is a fine actress. She's never had more than a cameo role on a TV series, a commercial, or a bit part in an indie film, when it comes to "material success". She instead plays in little Equity Waiver theaters, where her performances usually gain stellar reviews in the local alternatives. She moved from the inland valleys to coastal California, took out student debt to get an MFA in theater, and works a day job having nothing to do with theater. She had the intelligence and chops to choose any of a dozen more lucrative and less subordinate jobs, but she wants to act.
Although she "can't" make it big, I always thought she has a better life being what she wishes to be than if she had gotten an MBA and never given it a try.

Perhaps paradoxically, though, I think that it was much easier for her to get to "I can", even though she has an "impossible dream". Some people feel a pull to a particular career or way of life--"I am an actress. I am an artist". In my circles, engineers tend to be born, not made.
Indeed, when one finds an engineer who did not have the work discipline to get the engineering degree, it's always interesting. Some become techs or repair people--but some are just plain odd, engineers without portfolios. They sell retail electronics, and talk about things they wish, but they lack the math discipline, to know.

But I've always classed myself in the broad group of people who do not have one particular call to one particular field of work. I loved law school, and I made a good lawyer, but it is not my ruling passion. I do not believe I have a vocational ruling passion. I could work in any of a dozen careers, with equal "good but not my whole life" results.

Some people feel called, as if to a ministry. But I always felt that I never had one specific call to one specific thing. This can seem like a vice--I remember in college, feeling that I had no real direction to do things. But it also has a virtue, because one can be so adaptable this way, like one of those wrenches which can be adjusted to turn a thousand different bolts. I pick any of three dozen careers within the limits of my skill set, and could have achieved a workable life in each of them. But this way of being requires a different discipline than the "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" approach that a person with One True Vocation faces. When one knows one could do "anything", one is tempted to just roll along and in essence do "nothing". After all, if I had a vocation, that would be one thing, but without one, I "can't" be bothered.

But my flaw of pragmatism tells me that I still use "I can't" sometimes as a shorthand for "I don't want to change or take risks". Lately I try to use "I won't" more often then "I can't". I try, whenever possible, to point out that I choose not to do things, rather than to imply that I am unable to do things. I think there is great power in "I won't" and "I will", because I have the control of choice in those phrases, whereas "I can't" suggests I am merely a prisoner of my outlook and circumstances.

I think that trying to avoid risk and change is one of those impossible efforts. Life ends, at least on this plane of existence. People wither, and change, and suffer chance and mischance. Risk and change are inevitable. I like the image of the person who saves his or her retirement money in a savings account, because it is FDIC insured. That person "can't" take the risk of potential losses in the stock market. But that person takes an altogether different risk--the risk that inflation will eat away the value of the principal, rendering retirement materially worse than a more moderate approach would have rendered it. A world of people avoid risk in such matters in their minds, but actually take far greater risks than they realize.

They say a person with substance abuse problems has to "hit bottom" before he or she can make a change. But I like to think that one need not "hit bottom" to change one's outlook from "I can't" to "I can". I do not accept the notion that if one merely says "I can", the universe then becomes a co-conspirator in making one prosperous and whole. But I do believe that changing one's thinking is the first step in changing one's life.

On a different note, I think when one lacks a "call" to do something (and I note, with interest, that non-theistic people experience metaphoric "calls" as well as do theistic folk), one is not merely imprisoned in ennui, but also liberated from compulsion. If one need not be an actor, say, or a doctor,then one can say "what work atmosphere would I have?", "how much could I avoid being under others' thumbs", "what geographic mobility could I have?" and "could I make a bit more money?". Work becomes less a priesthood than a congenial way to spend one's day. I am not saying that one does not work hard--if I have a career fault, it is of the workaholic kind. But the pressure is off--I don't need to publish a novel, or achieve a particular degree, to
find a livable life.

Sometimes my heart aches when I see people trapped in "I can't" and "I am without direction" thinking. I have been trapped in that kind of thinking myself. In some ways I am still trapped in those notions. But my belief is that one hs to ignore that feeling of "I can't" and just do. It's a bit like the silly line from the song in the musical--"when I fool the people I fear I fool myself as well", only I don't like fooling anyone.

The cards get dealt unevenly and unfairly. One gets the "great artist" card, with its compensations and huge penalties. Another gets the "great charismatic business card", with its guarantees of worldly success. Still another gets "can sell anything", "spiritual leader" or "born to teach". Most of us, I suspect, get the "could do a lot of things, within a limited band of skills" cards. But whatever cards one gets, one has to play the hand.

I meet brilliant, lovable, capable people who mire themselves in traps of their own making. I wish I could release them from the traps, but woodlands mystic and trap-liberator are not among my cards. But I have this joker in my hand, and it grins at me, and it says "if they just go do, they will succeed, or they will fail, but they will truly live". My pragmatic flaw is that I wish to give folks in the trap a gift. It's a booklet--a very short tome. It says "just go do, as if it mattered". Go get that education.
Go take that risk. Go plan for that comfortable home, the potential kids, the loving pets. Go make friends, and read books, and work as if work mattered. It's a curious thing, but although it all counts for nothing, it all counts.
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