“It’s critical,” my wise friend said, “that you continue to advocate for what you want without allowing yourself to be shaped by the limitations around you.”
This is such a challenging idea, my head swims when I try to get a firm grip on it.
In the personal realm, it arises with great force. Despite all the money, energy and imagination our culture puts into creating fantasies of perfection—the perfect job, the perfect romance, the perfect family—the conventional wisdom is to settle, is it not? I constantly hear people making calculations along these lines: one’s spouse has lost interest in her, but he’s a “good provider,” or a “good father,” so the balance sheet adds up to downsizing desire and learning to live with resignation. Another’s job is soul-deadening, but the economy sucks, he’s not getting any younger, and who’s to say there’s a better job waiting for him?
When do you decide you can’t get what you want? Is it better to stop wanting, to lessen your pain and frustration along with your hope, to put your attention elsewhere and settle?
Gazing around, what I see most often is people settling too soon. The pain of wanting what you may not get becomes more intense than most of us are willing to bear. We resign ourselves, or we bail. I know this close at hand. When I bring my late mother’s image to mind, “resignation” is the word that always captions her picture: she sits, slumped, at the dining room table. The TV is on, she is turning the pages of a supermarket magazine, she is ferrying snacks to her mouth with a machinelike rhythm. She is trying to fill up all the spaces where errant thoughts might perch. When I ask her about happiness, this is how she answers me: “Happy schmappy. You live.”
I am sorry you suffered so much, Esther, but thank you for giving me such a clear and unmistakeable image of the way I don’t want to live. When I bring it to mind, my energy rises, and I tell myself, “Do or die!”
In the public realm, ambivalence is stronger. For instance, I am thinking hard about helping to create a project to advocate for a “new WPA” for artists, a new era of substantial public investment in artists’ roles in community development. The idea is generating a lot of excitement right now, but when I floated it with a colleague who is involved in day-to-day legislative politics, he said, “I’m not sure of its political timeliness.”
When I hear this, the voice of conventional wisdom broadcasts a message in my head: “Yeah, who are you kidding? You’ll never get this done!” But the answering voice says something more measured and undeniable: “You never know.” For years, the consoling icons of my social imagination were the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia and the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Now they have almost been superseded by the election of Barack Obama, who certainly was inundated with expert advice to give up his well-meaning but overly audacious campaign before he made a fool of himself. And who persisted in advocating for what he wants without allowing himself to be shaped overmuch by the limitations around him.
In Saturday’s Kansas City Star, Senator Claire McCaskill (my new senator) is quoted as saying this about the orgy of cash bonuses the tone deaf wizards of Wall Street awarded themselves to end the year (more than $18 billion in New York alone): “What planet are these people on? What could they be thinking about?” McCaskill proposed that companies accepting government bailouts limit executive compensation to the salary earned by the President of the United States: $400,000 per annum (McCaskill says it’s 8 times the nation’s median income, but actually it’s closer to 13).
Two years ago, anyone in public life making a comparable observation about Wall Street greed would be hooted off the stage with accusations of “Class warfare.” You never know.
The thing about conventional wisdom is that it is always based on the past. Congress hasn’t supported public service jobs for artists in more than thirty years, so what’s going to change now? The underlying notion is that what has never been done before never will be possible (or at least not in the foreseeable future). When a tremendous amount of data is amassed to support that conclusion, it can be a rather compelling argument: given the number of consecutive sunrises and sunsets our planet has experienced, I’m betting day and night will come in their course tomorrow.
But I always like to think of the anecdote about the fat, happy turkey, who—serene in his confidence, well-grounded in past experience, that the farmer will arrive with more food every morning—expects to live forever…until the day his head is chopped off! Our world repeatedly throws up what Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “black swans,” significant and exceptional unpredicted events, and the conventional wisdom has absolutely nothing to teach us about them.
When I remember that, I recommit to taking my friend’s advice. I don’t want to live out the rest of my life believing in the limitations conventional wisdom extrapolates from the past. There are worse things than to fail: for instance, not to do all in your power to translate your deepest desires into reality.