It’s time for more.
Blogging has changed a lot since I started doing it. In the meantime, I’ve stopped doing it. But this is a good time to pick back up again, I think. I might find a few occasions for reflection this summer. And this is a juncture in my life, an appropriate time to take stock.
I can no longer pretend to want to participate in what now passes for political debate. I don’t understand what the point of my wasting energy on that would be. People do many things for the sake of reputation. Reputation is an important currency. But I now try, and to a surprising extent succeed, at ignoring such concerns. I think at some point during grad school I realized that you could not fake your way into anything that really mattered. I am now comfortable in the belief that succeeding by my own lights is success. I’m not sure how I arrived at this point, but a recent conversation with a college senior reminded me how unusual it is. I remembered my own anxiety at the beginning of grad school, which occupied much of the first two years. Being cut off from other people did not reduce my status anxiety; it increased it. Not only did I still worry constantly about where I ranked in the grand scheme of things, but I no longer had any good feedback to back up my judgment about where I ranked. That all seems stupid to me now.
Maybe it’s that I am, after all this time, finally on an ineluctable career path. Sure, many unknowns lie in wait for me, ready to upset my poise. But for now, at least, I think I know where I’m going, and I may do better or worse, but I will still be traveling the same path. Even the unexpected is no longer a real source of fear. I have already encountered the unexpected many times. It produced intense anxiety in me because it upset my belief that I had an all-encompassing theory that would predict all the relevant events. I no longer pretend to myself to have such a theory. The solution is never intellectual. Most of these obstacles are more like hammering at a boulder, knowing that you’re stressing it, believing that at some point – probably well after you’ve forgotten why you’re hammering, well after you’ve gotten used to hammering for the sake of hammering – it will simply crumble before you.
I just finished Ross Douthat’s Privilege. Before that I read a book by Shamus Khan, also called Privilege. I finished them both in 3 or 4 days. I suspect that these books are the reason I am now blogging. I feel a desire to speak back, in kind. I am deeply sympathetic to the message of both books, which often addressed the same things in the same ways. After reading them it’s hard not to reflect on where one stands in relation to the elite. I suppose Douthat’s book is a reminder of how much is going on above my head. The Porcellian, and all of that. The Yalies I briefly orbited in the New York days, people who had their shit just a little bit more together, people who were like me but just a little cleaner, a little nicer to look at. What is surprising to me is how little I care. I know now that there are people out there who are better than me – people who have more pleasure, more knowledge, more skill, more luck. I know better that there are limits to what I can do. All I can do is struggle to overcome those limits – not out of pride, but out of a desire to do the things I do better. I’ve lived long enough, and my work habits have improved just enough, to have lost the fear that I will simply fall off the face of the earth. I’ve reached some kind of equilibrium between pride and ability. The thought that there were people out there who were better than me used to be an arresting thought, a thought that was too painful even to complete in my consciousness. That is no longer true. There are now determinate answers to the question of how much I am capable of. They may not be the final answers, but we have some ballpark figures.
Invidious comparison belongs in the earlier social domains of high school and college: the days in which everyone might go on to do something, but in which no one has yet done anything. Even the greatest accomplishments of people at that age tend to draw attention more as indicators of some as-yet-unrealized potential, rather than as great achievements in their own right. I’ve already heard enough stories from my professors about the supposed superstars from their own time in grad school, people whose names I wouldn’t have recognized otherwise because they went on to mediocre careers. Status anxiety creeps back in when you compare yourself with people with whom there is no basis for comparison. They are in different fields; they have different values; they are ships passing you in the night. The anxiety comes from trying to find standards that could provide a basis for commensuration, which really amounts to precipitately abandoning your own standards.
Surely much of the complacency comes from the fact that I do have a relatively stable set of values now. First, I attend to the distinction between the transcendent and the mundane. I believe that much of the trouble of earlier years came from seeking transcendence in this life. But another word for transcendence is death. Until we die, we are stuck here on this miserable Earth, crawling through the mud. That is the life God gave us. My earlier struggles were understandable, since I had to try to come to some knowledge of the transcendent. But that was destined to be a relatively brief period in the span of my life. Now it reveals itself infrequently; to encounter it is a rare gift. But it is all the more precious to me as a result. We cannot live every day on that plane. But the memory of it hovers over everything I do. That is the hardest trick to pull off: remembering God while you crawl through the mud of this life. It is not an intellectual achievement; it is a matter of habits, of practices. I am not bitter about my alienation from the transcendent, an alienation I only expect to intensify in the coming years. I accept it as the only way life can be. To expect differently is a great failure of humility.*
Second, I have changed what I think of the goals of my life to be in accordance with my acceptance of the mundane. A mundane life can only have the mundane goals of an embodied creature, made from dirt and eventually returning to the dirt. I’ve come up with a relatively short list of goals, things that can be achieved in the span of a lifetime, and that I am sure are worth achieving. I have to fulfill my duties to my parents in their old age. My parents are the ones I love, and they are also the ones who need me. I have duties to my brother and sister, to be a resource to them to the extent that I can. And I hope to begin a family of my own, and to make it a great family. For me there is no alternative to adopting the intergenerational perspective. What I can’t achieve, my children will achieve. And we will be on this Earth for a long time still. That is where the real contest of values will occur. Some values will last, and will guide the hearts of multiplying generations. Others will crumble into the dust. Time is the only judge that matters.
That’s it. None of the Promethean fantasies that fuel the ravenous egos that drive a capitalist society. These are the ends defined by bonds of love. They are irrefutable by argument; they cannot be touched by it. Everything else in my life has a merely derivative value. I do have personal duties of dignity and self-improvement, but these mostly overlap with the dictates of prudence. The rest is about happiness, and about the means to all these things. The domain of instrumental reasoning is more vast and more important than I wanted to acknowledge as a young person. The means to a good thing are good.
The importance and pleasure of work cannot be overestimated. Excepting family, nothing else has been faithful to me. I value work mainly for a single property of its products, which is that they have durable worth. And in almost every instance the worth of the product of work is vastly outweighed by the worth of the effect of producing it on me. Every effort makes me a more powerful and efficient instrument.
I have spent long stretches of my life depressed, at a loss to figure out what was at the bottom of my misery. And at some point in the past couple of years I discovered the answer, which is that my failure to work hard enough was direct proof of my unworthiness, which I recognized unconsciously. And I found that nothing lifted my mood more quickly or decisively than simply doing the things that had to be done. The pain and suffering of doing them was completely irrelevant in the emotional calculus.
I’m not a man in step with the times, but this is not a tragedy. Nothing need prevent me from living out my values, and my values allow me to concede a great deal to the times. They positively require me to succeed under the constraints that face me. Above all they demand that nothing get in the way of my doing what it takes. Life is a gamble. Another, clearer way of saying this is that human life has no intrinsic worth. All of the worth comes from what we do.
* I’m remembering now how much what I’m saying accords with the message of David Foster Wallace’s well-known commencement speech. He was a great man.