Monday, February 04, 2008

On Compromising

By the time you get to middle age the life you have is very different from the life you planned -- unless you're the odd geek who started Microsoft or the poverty-inspired boy from a town called Hope who wanted to be in JFK's shoes one day. Is the answer to dream doable dreams? To work harder? To accept fate?

These questions will one day dog you, too, younger readers. Trust me on this. My favorite description of life is "life is what happens when you had other plans." (Anyone know this phrase's author?)

The answer depends in part on your philosophical system. The ancient Greeks subscribed to the invincibility of Fate.

On the other hand, core Judaism, Christianity and Shi'ite Islam all teach that we have free will, that the deity may well know the future, or rather be outside time, but that nothing is preordained. That is, unless you area Calvinist, one of a small band within the Lubavitcher school of Hasidism or a Sunni Muslim.

By the time we become adults, most of us subscribe to some middle road. We have some power to alter the course of our lives, we think, but there are limits.

Some limits are givens: we are born rich or poor, male or female, a perceived member of the majority in our society or of a minority; our genes, science tell us, carry many predispositions. What little science I know and what experience I have tend to tell me that my individuality amounts to little more than a certain mix of chemicals that one day we will know how to completely control and manage.

Still I persist in thinking that by sheer willpower I can achieve a few things. Years ago, when I first learned the game, I spent weeks losing at backgammon consistently until I went to the library, borrowed a book about the game and evened my odds.

Why can't I do the same when it comes to becoming president of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize or enticing Penélope Cruz to my lair? Where's the how-to book for dreams?

Even if I know that I will never be president nor be invited to the prize ceremony by the Swedish Academy nor spend a night with Penélope ... what would I really feel if I embarked on a campaign to achieve any of these things and actually succeeded?

Does John Updike wake up every morning thinking "Gee, how wonderful, I'm John Updike"? Or does he get depressed from time to time that he is not, say, Gustave Flaubert or Albert Schweitzer or Neil Armstrong?

I'm probably not the first to muse on why we conceive of dreams. They're archetypally human. Heaven and salvation, wealth and power and sexual satisfaction, the admiration of others and the feeling of conquest over oneself -- these are some of the things to which many of us aspire.

The story was once told to me of a saint who, upon applying to enter a monastery was asked what job he would like. He said "abbot." He was placed as porter and later laughed that if he had said anything less he wouldn't have been admitted at all.

The paradox seems to be that attaining goals by sheer effort is illusory or happenstance and probably impossible. It's not true that the poor are lazy; most work more than the rich and at harder, more grueling jobs. Yet we would not be human if we didn't aspire to a reality beyond our present one.

So what do we do once we know that the big dreams won't come true? Three things.
  • We realize how unrealistic it was to believe that by our own single-minded, individual efforts we could succeed. Most success involves help from others and sheer luck. (Balzac put it another way: all wealth come from a crime, he said.)
  • We gratefully accept the wisdom that falling short imparts.
  • We adjust our dreams to things that still stretch us but are no longer obviously unattainable.
I have more or less attained the presidency in my little world. I still am continually looking for the opportunity to build my own little Lambaréné, realizing that the real prize comes not from the Swedish Academy, but from the smiles of those you manage, by chance, to influence for the better.

Finally, I'm not sure that Penélope and I would actually get along or have much of a passionate night, but I'm daring to hope that, as Daniel Berrigan once wrote, there is "love, love in the end."
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