When you get to be as old as I am, you are reluctant to give advice. It’s unlikely to be followed and highly likely to be resented. But there are times when you throw caution to the winds. Here’s my half of a three-part dialogue with someone who probably doesn’t need my advice. But my wife thought some of you might like it.
Why do I ride you so hard? So many answers. None you should take personally as a member of your generation. You should take them personally as you.
You’re not mad enough. My rage is volcanic. You don’t want to draw lines between you and liberals/progressives you work with. You, regardless of what you say, think I’m extreme in cutting off relations with such people. They’re only just people like you and me, right? Can’t we all get along? No. They’re sick in the head and the soul. My wife got into a yelling match with me about the Olympic opening ceremonies. I said I didn’t want to watch an apologia for Soviet communism, which I was sure NBC would do in service to Soviet Putin. I went to bed early. She watched. Ultimately I won the argument, because NBC did exactly what I predicted they’d do. The narrator called communism a “pivotal experiment” and Meredith Vieira called the moment when the child on stage let go of the red balloon symbolizing communism a “bittersweet moment.” The media show also featured a giant hammer and sickle. My wife didn’t even see it. And she was a Russian major who knows exactly how murderous they were. The stroking of network news is embedded more deeply in her than her own education.
Why I am absolutely and completely out of my fucking mind crazy mad about what is happening to our country.
She thinks I’m a lunatic until I argue her into the ground. You think I’m a lunatic until I run you to ground.
You have an enormous built-in inertia to keep thinking that what’s imminently fatal is merely a bad trend. Which YOU can fix by being a great teacher.
Bad news for you. When my wife and I argue, for hours, about these issues, she sees my point. She concedes. It’s all dying. There’s no chance your kids can have a normal old fashioned life. They won’t. You’re running a two track version of reality in your head. In one version you can be happily married with excellent and hopeful young children who can go on to have excellent lives of their own. In the other track, the part that’s stuck so inconveniently on me, you know that track one is a sheer fantasy.
We’re at war for the soul of our nation and our children. It’s not an impending war, a possible war, a thing metaphorically akin to war… It is the deepest, darkest, most important honest to God real life fucking WAR, already deeply engaged, ever fought.
You got drafted all those years ago in BalowStar’s back yard. What I ask is ‘asked’ only for the sake of politeness. You have been educated, by me and others, to know where your duty lies.
I’m sorry that this isn’t a literary story. Not about my books and blogs. You wouldn’t want to trade my nighttime dreams for yours. Trust me on that. I keep wanting to go back and do it all over, make myself a conventional success in terms my father would approve. Every night I’m back at Mercersburg or Harvard doing it better. Every morning I wake to the reality. I am an outcast, a failure, a loser.
Except that I am content with the decisions I’ve made. Understand. I have no desires anymore. This from someone who used to have more desires than time to list them — for cars, for women, for admiration, for money and comfort, for followers, for everything a man can dream of. The Buddhists speak of nirvana as the end of fear and the end of desire. I’m very close on the end of desire. Less close on the end of fear. Because I fear that I haven’t done enough to try to save my faith and my civilization.
Do you understand? Why I get up every day and do whatever it takes to write for one more day. Not because I think I’m a savior. But because I haven’t yet done enough.
When you get old, you’ll have the same obsessions. How do I know? Because you’re a version of me, not a copy, not an imitation, but a variation. Only in terms of specific interests and talents. Essentially, you’re a kind of brother. You have dark desires, as all men do, and you think you might transcend them by doing good things. The light you see is in your own mind. Which is not an illusion at all. That’s exactly where the light lies.
Where the light is. That’s the only question of moment. You are supposed to answer that question. Everything we tend to focus on is a distraction from that question. Your children will have to answer that question. It’s a raw, terrifying, impossible question that can only be answered by a lifetime of devoted thought and work. You can’t answer it for them by protecting them, loving them, pushing them, or throwing your body and soul over them. We all come in alone and go out alone. Parents can only provide a few years of rules and fun. Not as important as they think. Until they spin themselves into the denial of obsession.
Where the light is. The direction you have to keep moving toward. Despite the distractions. Life is not a journey. It’s a catastrophe. Fear, defeat, hurt, general awfulness, but always the opportunity to think. Also victory, beauty, enlightenment, faith, and peace of mind. Which are their own flavors of catastrophe.
I’ve probably gone deeper into darkness than you. I may have reached higher into victory than you have yet. But they really are two sides of the same demon. Why you should follow your heart, no matter where it leads.
I can tell you stuff about how to live this kind of life. You have to accept that you are different, apart, perhaps from everybody. That’s the hardest thing. Nobody else can ever seem to remember that Track 2 is more real then Track 1. Women especially. Sad, even tragic, but true. They see Track 2 when you explain it, but tomorrow they are at the Hallmark store, buying birthday cards.
So. What do you do? You have to learn how to breathe. There really is something true in the cliched martial arts movies. Watch Man of Tai Chi. More there than the critics see or perhaps want to see. You breathe. You center yourself, meaning you trust your inner sense of knowing, no matter what everyone around you is doing or saying. You love them but at a certain level they are mere noise. It’s your job to be you, more their exemplar than their servant. It can make you seem narcissistic to yourself, but that’s just a collectivist trick. It’s not narcissism to know and believe in yourself. It’s the Leonardo in you. You have every right to make demands on others as long as you are making demands on your self for purposes that have deep meaning to you.
You take the time, every day, to withdraw from all of it. Every last smidgen of the camouflage created by the details of daily life and feel you being you.
If this is not making sense to you, we’ll start over from another tack. If it is making sense to you, tell me and I’ll explain further.
Why surprising coming from me? I lived all my life alone until I married Lady Laird. She just knows. I can remember whole stanzas of poetry I haven’t looked at in years, but not the names of members of her family I’ve seen a dozen times. She laughs and covers for me. She doesn’t think it’s a problem.
And it isn’t. You’re allowed to be ‘out there.’ That’s the enormous gift she has given me that no one else ever did. Why I can tell you, so many years on, that it’s perfectly okay to be strange.
I tried to do what you’ve been trying to do. Keep the people around you happy. You understand them better, you have more skills, more perception, the responsibility must be yours. It isn’t.
Years and years and years into this mess we call life, I have learned that you can’t save anyone who isn’t already working to save himself. It breaks your heart, this lesson, but it’s a necessary one. Most people are headed where they’re headed, and nothing you can do or say will change their course.
Worse, they don’t want your skills and perceptions. They hate them, and in time they will come to hate you, after a long period of simmering resentment.
But this is not the unfairness of life. It’s life sending you an important message. Be a Christian. Forgive. Offer help when you can give it specifically. But don’t get sucked into the dramas of others, including your intimates, if they’re making you think your life is all about them. It isn’t.
Your life is about you. I think I need to repeat that. Your life is about you. If you believe in God, you must also believe that he gave you talents, propensities, and a unique mission. It’s true that for some the mission is service, which is fine and admirable. But it’s also the case that for some the mission is bigger and its achievement more costly.
Those moments when you feel you are here to do something important are absolutely correct, divine in origin. You can feel more confident about this as you realize that the motives are not about power, money, or sex, but rather an intensive need to SHINE. There’s a glow you’re looking for. Can’t put a name on it. People run themselves in circles unto despair trying to put a name on it. Don’t get distracted that way. Your mission is not about changing diapers. If changing diapers elevates your consciousness in some way, fine. But you don’t need to do it again and again and again to take the lesson. What a thousand generations have known as women’s work is (Surprise!) true. Women don’t get tired of doing the same thing again and again and again and again.
Mozart does. Einstein does. Shakespeare does. And so do you. The interior world is so much more important. But you feel guilty about it. Which is a cultural conspiracy against you. Our inclinations toward greatness are weapons used against us. If you honor yourself and the gifts God gave you, you will learn that none of the mundane distractions are a reason not to shine.
All people are not created equal, except under the law. Some really are more equal than others. The ones who are can tell who they are because they have all the same temptations you do. They are more compassionate, more thoughtful, more easily subject to hurt and worry and guilt. They are walking targets for the fears and needs of others. But they are also supposed to learn the difference. Their superior abilities are not intended to be wasted in futile rescue attempts. They’re meant to do what they so obviously always do: isolate and force a focus few are capable of.
Do you find that your inner self can block out everything? When someone asks, Did you hear a single word I said?, you find that you can’t? It probably makes you feel guilty. It shouldn’t. All it means is that you need to get better at covering your uninterest in nonsense.
Almost everything most people spend all their energy on is nonsense. Including the people you love the most. But your job is to see past it all to the Track 2 stuff that is your mission. You don’t look down on the others, you don’t regard yourself as more entitled in any way, but you keep doing what you are here to do, and you don’t let anybody talk you out of it, guilt you out of it, or shame you out of it.
And when it comes to the truly important stuff, you don’t take shit from anybody.
Why there has to be an assassin lying latent in all of us who aspire.
There are times when the only sensible position is to give up and go along. Old as I am, I grapple with that every day. But many of you are younger. If I haven’t given up yet, how can you?