In the dawntime between Thursday night and Friday morning we watched the giant snowflakes fall. They hovered in the streetlight, framed like picture postcards for movies starring Cary Grant. When I drove past South Fork Ranch on my way to work, a half-inch of prairie snow imbued the scenery with a winter holiday feel. By the time I reached the suburbs in Richardson, the snow had already melted.
I renewed my acquaintance tonight with Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet whose best work I find congenial to the way I think about things. We dined on sushi and then watched a DVD I picked up at Big Lots for a few dollars. The DVD was a Hallmark special, which, when I was a kid, would have meant it was cutting edge and melodramatic (or, contrariwise, that Burl Ives figured into it somehow). This was a latter-day special, which meant that hearts warmed as someone realized that family matters more than work. It hit the spot perfectly, as I saw one too many violent scenes on television this week by would-be artistic shows wishing to see just how desensitized I am. I must admit I am not very desensitized. Besides, I have the evening news I can watch for free. The bachelor careerist whose sister died came to realize that his nephew mattered more than the big taco account. Then he got to warmly embrace Marin Hinkle, which shows that virtue is its own reward, but a bracing reward in a huggable way.
I pondered today the healthy practice of self-assessment, and also the needless practice of self-denigration for a failure to be omnipotent or omniscient. I am not one of those people who says "I would not change a thing" in my life, or who holds the state of my being as so sacrosanct that any editing would lose some precious essence. I tend to think that esse IS esse, and that one therefore has the freedom to change or lament or even learn once in a while, without quite losing what it is that makes one number 7 with a bullet.
Yet it's so tempting to think "if I had done x, then everything could have been avoided". The temptation is especially strong when one thinks of a work situation, a former relationship, or even an opening statement. If I had had an A- average instead of a B average in my undergraduate degree, for example, I might have been a country doctor like my father. I grew up, after all, with the local grocer calling me "little doc". If I had been more bold, or less bold, or more possessive, or less possessive, or more relaxed, or more taut, or more insightful, or more simple-minded, then I think I might have held onto a relationship that I invested seven years in to no avail, if we define avail as the permanent relationship I thought I wanted.
I don't mind at all living in "repent and learn", nor in "progress and grow". Yet the notion that "if I had only been different, it would all have been okay" is rarely productive field to furrow. So many times it's not so much that things are meant to be or not meant to be, but that things just aren't, as in "are not". The past is a funny place to send semaphore signals, because the tea leaves are so hard to read when the water no longer boils.
One thing I liked about myself from the ages of 17 to 23 is that I said to myself "you know what you are getting into, and the one rule you must follow is not to be surprised if it does not quite work out". That's not a bad insight, at that age, and
it's a kind of silent judgment upon me for various emotions about and one palpable expression of resentment of ancient history that I have experienced, heedless of my youthful insight.
We so often think we can choose our way, and everything is all right. But sometimes things are not all right. Often there is no problem--it's just not going to happen like in the fairy tale. Sometimes there is a problem.
I think that it's important not to judge oneself too harshly, because everyone falls short of glory. We many of us are convicted at trials of our own making which afford one far less due process than any demonization in Hell's judicial system might do. That fellow Bonhoeffer, whose work I admire, cautioned us about bestowing too much cheap grace on ourselves, when a bit of discipline is in order. Yet I think, sometimes, that self-denigration is merely the cheapest grace of all. It's so addictive to just loathe oneself, and spare oneself the duty to do anything or be anyone.
So many times we are fitted for higher callings than we give ourselves credit for being called upon to be and do. Sometimes it's a matter of personal presbyopia. I can offer up the journals I read, for a moment, to casual and non-astringent scrutiny. I read a world of people who each month accomplish things ranging from personal creative endeavor to domestic miracle to romantic transport to business innovation to religious insight. Yet, if you read their journals, you might imagine they instead are failures, throbbing with fear, or successes in all the wrong ways. We see our faults up too close, and we see our places in our fabrics far too dimly. Part of it is a kind of NBA thing--like those kids who imagine that the only career out there is to be Michael Jordan. Yet we're not all fitted to shoot baskets on television. There are one or two other callings.
One of the books I'm reading continues to make me marvel at how much of the 1960s pop songbook was created by insightful kids who had no particular social, financial, educational or lovelife advantages. They just wrote good songs at the right place in the right moment of history. I'm touched by the image of Goffin going to a Dylan show, and realizing that their way of songwriting was outdistanced before they were thirty. Yet the songs the Brill Building folks wrote include a lot of really enduring popsongs. So many times the unexpected happens. Who could imagine that an often-flat woman of no stunning beauty with an early penchant for singing novelty songs would less than a decade later end up with one of the top-selling albums of all time--consisting of polished arrangements of her ditties made into ballads?
I have my own insecurities and failed ambitions--you should see my art room--but I'm starting to believe that all this living in the past is good only for Jethro Tull songs and for reminding oneself that one can learn compassion, kindness, and working toward goals. I'm not saying that careerist stuff doesn't matter--I've always been a kind of oddly career-focused guy.
I'm saying instead that we are here to love, to learn, and to pass on our communities to others who will in their turn love and learn. If we can do that, we've done what we are here to do. If we can't miraculously change all hearts with the force of our personal "what if" goodness, we might can learn, and share, and love.
I believe a lot of fairly dogmatic things. I believe that compassion is more important than justice. I believe that men and women can be just friends. I believe that heaping people up with rules is pointless, but also that if people would keep the most important rules, things would go much smoother. I believe that the great equation of world suffering must be solved with teaspoons and soothing warm cloth. I believe in the saving power of the kindness of heretics, and the heretical salvation inherent in compassionate power. I believe that people are hard-wired and environment-wired to hate themselves in all kinds of fashionable ways, but in the long run, the question is whether one added a little to the world more than how one feels about one's past.
As I read this, I see this post is mostly a lesson to myself. Yet I think that in general people should make peace with themselves where possible, because the real wars are against suffering and neglect, and lie ahead, and not behind or within.