Friday, June 19, 2009

A Responsibility Question

Is there a gap between being grateful and owning your life? If you recognize that people, circumstances, and forces beyond your control have contributed to your experience of life, are you by definition denying that you are the author of your own story?

There's tension in this question. Very little seems to agitate people more than someone who is always the victim of circumstance. When we blame outside forces for our situation, invariably people are turned off. I know this because I have turned a lot of people off.

The tension arises here: in being grateful we recognize that our achievements, attainments, and ambitions are possible thanks to the work (and often, the suffering) of others. For some there's no question that blind luck, providence, or even - gasp - divine intervention play a role in who we are and what we have. I was born into comfortable circumstances and grew up in one of the most fantastically beautiful places on the planet. My parents gave me a powerful education. These things weren't my doing; I couldn't help where I was born or who my parents were. I was luckier than billions.

Then I spent more than a decade on a drive toward self-destruction and somehow survived it, turned myself around, lived shakily for a long time and eventually went to graduate school, paving the way for a reasonably successful effort to cling to a middle-class life. These things were my doing, and I have the student loan balance to prove it. Even there, I have been touched by incredibly good fortune at every turn. I'll spare the details but suffice it to say that just about every time I have fallen, I've landed on a higher spot and there is nothing I can think of to explain it.

There is no question that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Nothing I have "achieved" would be possible without my parents, theirs, or their ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War or who passed through Ellis Island. This is true for everyone, I say. Yet I still sense the tension, and the opportunity to balance pride and ambition against gratitude and humility.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Just the other day

We moved about two weeks ago. The last couple of months while I have been letting my embarrassment about not updating this blog build up, we've been house-hunting, managing family life, packing, moving, unpacking, and managing through a job that is - quite thankfully indeed - busy. I've also finished a manuscript for a book in that time and we're nearly ready to go to press with it. About that, more later.

During 2007 I led our family through two cross-country relocations, partly through ambition, partly through circumstance, partly through negligence, and largely through great luck. I do not recommend this to anyone. The fact that our marriage survived is more a tribute to my wife and daughter's patience than to anything I did; mostly I screwed a lot of stuff up.

In any event when we moved to Texas we rented a house and put lots of boxes into a spare bedroom where they remained unopened, since we expected to move to a more permanent home soon. A year and 10 months later, here we are.

I work from home (the most civilized way to work if you're asking me) and as I unpacked my office things I came across a little paperweight with a small question in very small type. "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

All manner of grandiose thoughts filled my head. "I would run for Senate," I thought for a moment, or become a professional golfer, or create the world's most exquisite fly fishing guide service. I would research cures for mystifying diseases, end poverty, clean up the world's water, restore the rainforests and thus the lungs of the earth.

Then it struck me. At the core of each of these thoughts was an indisputable edge of self-aggrandizement. I don't really want to do any of these things; I like the idea of the accolades that would surely flow my way.

Last night my wife and I lingered at the table with a glass of wine. Most of the boxes from our move are unpacked and gone, things put away. I listened to our daughter joyfully rambling with anticipation of the tooth fairy's first visit here, and I saw it in a flash. What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?" This. I've given these two precious angels a comfortable, secure place to live, and our daughter the chance to grow and make her own way someday with confidence, intelligence, and poise (okay, we're working on poise. It'll come). How could I be more fortunate?