Friday, February 8, 2013

A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

...starts with one step, or so says one translation the Tao Te Ching. I dumbed this saying down a lot once, a few years ago, personalizing it and rebranding it, "You get there by going there." It's trite, sure, but I've never been good at aphorisms--damn you, Nietzsche--and it's something that I find incredibly useful as an example of how I try to look at life.

As those who know me are aware, I've taken the long road into academia, just now getting to work on a PhD at 39. That bothers me a little, I suppose, but more from the perspective of practical contingencies over which I have no control (e.g. how I will measure on the job market versus a similarly skilled but younger candidate). It would once have bothered me (or bothered me more, anyway) on a personal level as well, simply because I bought into what we shall term Milestone Theory. Milestone Theory is a familiar popular philosophy by which one's life is measured in a sort of accomplishments-over-age formulation. Most know the drill: graduation, new car, marriage, house, children, retirement--life as race, a bit like the eponymous Milton Bradley board game of youth. One must reach The End laden with the appropriate (though variable) spoils.

And of course one must. But Milestone Theory has an accounting problem: the end is a hole in the ground or an urn full of ashes. It's neither grim nor fatlalistic to notice, but it is abject sentimentality to pretend otherwise. There just is no "there," as in, "I'll get there some day." There is only going, and to stop going is usually conjoined with ceasing to do other things like breathing. I'm not a believer in the afterlife, but I think it's perhaps the worse for those who are, who imagine that being liberated from struggle and growth is a kind of utopia instead of an eternal slow rot. "Is there no change of death in paradise?" the poet Wallace Stevens once asked: "Does ripe fruit never fall?"

And so, the idea that one's life is not where one would like it to be is best translated as the remarkably banal observation that one is still alive. One will never be at that place because--here's the shocker--the target moves. You will not catch it; stop getting upset over it.

I sometimes see this mentality on display with my fellow graduate students, who conceive of the time spent working toward a doctorate in terms of lost retirement income and mortgage payments and infants produced. In short, only when they have the piece of paper will they give themselves permission to live; they will sulk and be miserable until then. The very idea that the sometimes-arduous progress toward the goal is all that makes the goal worthwhile--we wouldn't feel too special if they just handed these degrees to everyone, after all--seems to be lost on many of my peers.

Opposition is therefore essential to our understanding of the world, a thing we make as much as a thing we have. This was put beautifully to me once by a customer in the gas station in North Carolina where I was once a clerk. "If we were allowed to lie around on the couch all day," he wryly observed, "I imagine eventually we'd find something to complain about then, too."

This understanding need not be disappointing, nor should it be. It merely means that we need to reconceptualize what it means to be happy in terms of process rather than product (a point of language that, conveniently enough, we like to push in the composition pedagogy business). What is the definition of being someplace good? Going someplace good.

So I try (with inevitably varying success, of course) to like my life as it is, not as an alternative to having goals (that part's hard to avoid and probably not worth the effort) but as a more fulfilling way of participating in them. Yes, I am poor and indebted. I'm 15 years older than most of my colleagues and I live in a small space with few possessions. But I also have satisfying work and a lovely wife and good friends and very nice dog-children, and I am moving in a direction that is of my choosing and that I like. But moving in a direction that I like isn't merely enough for right now; I suspect, rather, that it is all that is there to be had. You get there by going there.