Monday, January 3, 2011

A moment of introspection

Marcus Aurelius said: "A man's life is what his thoughts make it." One could analogize that into modern phrasing such as "You are what you want to be." or "You're only limited by your own imagination." But MAAA (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was a Stoic; latterly considered one of the premier thinkers of that philosophy. Part of that perspective is that people deal with what life brings to them (or upon them.) So, I'm not so sure that he felt that one's imagination was the limiting factor, rather than how one dealt with outside forces that may be beyond one's control.

I consider this quite often in estimating my own life or lack thereof. At a young age, I became aware of what a lot of people considered to be my 'limitless' potential. It led to me coasting through school much of the time and skipping two grades so that I was able to graduate from high school at the age of fifteen and later from the University of Michigan at the age of nineteen. At that point and with my theretofore accelerated pace, one might have thought that I was on my way to doing something 'big', as it were. Many people that I knew said that to me and about me. Over 20 years later, my lone response would have to be Jon Stewart's famous catchphrase: "Not so much."

I spent a fair amount of time pursuing goals that were of immediate interest to me at that particular moment. My parents had constantly stressed the future, urging me to discard friends and situations in the name of something and someones better at some point in "the future". When exactly that would be was never specified. They certainly encouraged the idea of skipping grades, but I was perfectly comfortable with that, as well. After all, I was bored to tears with most of what I was "learning". I typically learned much more about the world outside of school by reading on my own than I did in the classroom. That trend continued in college and, by my junior year at Michigan, it took a while for my mother to convince me not to drop out and do something else. "At least you'll have your degree.", she said. "And a degree from Michigan will get you a job anywhere." What was true in the 60s wasn't so true in the 90s, but that's another discussion.

So, by the age of 20, I desperately wanted to do what I wanted to do and right now, dammit. I was done with doing "what was done" by regular, middle class white kids, like me. But, of course, with somewhat less life experience than those around me, I fell into the conundrum that many people encounter at some point in their lives: I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I had been accepted to Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service as I was leaving Michigan; presuming that I would continue on into the political/diplomatic realm with my BA in political science. But I desperately wanted to be out of school and had little enchantment with the idea of being part of the Washington machine which I so decried. So, I joined a couple other political groups like the SWP, worked where I could, created a comic studio with a friend that we ran for a few years until the distribution monopoly shut us down, led the Green Party of Michigan for a few years, and have spent a few more paying an underwater mortgage and watching my marriage wither to the end. Thus, I am here.

Have I wasted my life?

One of the recurring themes of Thoreau's Life Without Principle is the idea that doing something solely for money is no measure of personal success. He suggests that doing something that is less enjoyable to you for the sake of money or fame simply means that you need to find better hobbies. His emphasis there as in so many of his other writings is that of a life well lived, regardless of the direction or result. That's certainly an appealing thought to me. Of course, Marcus' frequent charge of being mindful of the end results of one's actions ("Let every action aim solely for the common good.") and striving to achieve something better than everyday endeavors is also highly appealing to me. In many ways, I've internalized both of those, despite the conflicts between them. What concerns me is that I feel quite often that I may not have even followed Thoreau's approach in that even the things that I did for little or no financial return have amounted to very little of anything else, as well.

I don't have a great deal of interest in material success and never have. As I've often noted to people around me, I'm probably the closest thing to a communist most people are likely to meet. I'm not an ascetic. It's certainly nice to have access to certain material things (like, say, computers...) but if my house-that-I-never-wanted were to burn down tomorrow, the only thing I would want to save at any cost would be my cats. I'd be disappointed at the loss of my books and my computer, but I've read those books and other computers can be found. Thus, achieving piles of money has never been a goal that I pursued with any zeal. What I really wanted to do was achieve something worthwhile.

What is 'worthwhile'? That's a very nebulous question. In the movie, The Last Samurai (a rather disappointing film overall but worth watching for Ken Watanabe's performance), the character Katsumoto delivers a couple lines while standing in a grove of cherry trees blossoming in the spring: "A perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one and it would not be a wasted life." This is emblematic of samurai culture under the Shogunate, when a class of warriors in a land of peace began to emphasize perfection in smaller (and less violent) actions and rituals and the perceived nobility achieved by doing so. That, too, dovetails nicely with Thoreau's thoughts and even, to a small degree, Marcus' perspective on striving for greater things. But I look back at what I've done and what I've pursued and wonder if I even tried to look for the perfect blossom.

Have I wasted my life?

Granted, my life is not over. Presumably, it will continue for quite some time. But I'd like to think that there was still something to accomplish, something to lend purpose to it that will be memorable for more than simply occupying a Social Security number. Once again, I'm not quite sure what that is. My only definite impression is that my string of failures, wasted opportunities and, indeed over the past few years, idleness has amounted to very little that would engender approval from even Thoreau. I would like to think that there is something to be done that would encourage people to remember that I existed to some positive end. Is that vanity? Probably. Is it an expression of "aim[ing] solely for the common good"? Maybe.

Another movie line I'm fond of is one of George C. Scott's from Patton, where he vents his frustration to an aide at being left out of the war: "I feel that I am destined to achieve some great thing! What, I don't know." I don't believe in destiny. But sometimes I do wonder if I've missed one too many opportunities or if they were ever there to begin with.

Back to the real world next time.


  1. Speaking as a guy on the adjacent seat on the train you describe, I stay sane by recognizing that as long as I'm not dead, there's always the chance to find that opportunity to make an impact, and I may even get do it more than once. Taking away the sappiness, "where there's life, there's hope" is actually a pretty good operational guideline.

  2. Well I know you've impacted my life, and I have impacted others, and I have grown as a person through our friendship, but I'm not sure that sort of thing qualifies in your mind. I think a lot of little things add up to a lot, and I think you live your life well, and support your principles through your actions.

    I have these similar thoughts, and have a wildly different life than the one I thought I was going to have when I was younger. But for those of us who were forced to grow up quickly, I think we miss the opportunity to test ourselves out in the same way other kids do. To really find our niche.

    Anyway, I'm rambling, but I just want you to know that I think you're awesome. :)

  3. I wholeheartedly second every thing Leigh said. She's awesome; you've told me that over the years, and now I know for sure.

  4. Thanks, all. Just some things to think about, I guess.