“That Dreadful Question ‘What For?'”

This right here. After 38.5 years of living and on my 16th wedding anniversary (happy day, Lover!), I deeply resonate with Seth Godin’s post about the infinite game.

What is the meaning of life? Godin answers it – “To play.” In Christian religious speak (and archaic sexist language), the question and the answer go like this – “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace (which took me the past year to read!), Pierre – a Russian aristocrat taken captive by the French – discovered the same thing after being freed.

(Aw, go ahead, sit down and read this little passage! I’ve highlighted my favorite parts for you skimmers, and added a couple explanatory notes in brackets. And I acknowledge that this passage also uses sexist language.)

A joyous feeling of freedom- that complete inalienable freedom natural to man which he had first experienced at the first halt outside Moscow- filled Pierre’s soul during his convalescence. He was surprised to find that this inner freedom, which was independent of external conditions, now had as it were an additional setting of external liberty. He was alone in a strange town, without acquaintances. No one demanded anything of him or sent him anywhere. He had all he wanted: the thought of his wife which had been a continual torment to him was no longer there, since she was no more [it hadn’t been a happy marriage, and his wife had died while he was in captivity].

“Oh, how good! How splendid!” said he to himself when a cleanly laid table was moved up to him with savory beef tea, or when he lay down for the night on a soft clean bed, or when he remembered that the French had gone and that his wife was no more. “Oh, how good, how splendid!”

And by old habit he asked himself the question: “Well, and what then? What am I going to do?” And he immediately gave himself the answer: “Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!”

The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find- the aim of life- no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily- he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.

He could not see an aim, for he now had faith- not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karataev [a peasant who had befriended Pierre in his captivity] God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.

In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore- to see it and enjoy its contemplation- he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

More Thoughts on Stories A and B

Thinking more about the contents of my last post  and the thoughtful comments that were made on it, I remembered this poem I had written a few years ago, a little meditation on my tussles with Stories A and B in my own life:

In the springtime of your life

When people make pronouncements

About the heights to which you’ll rise

Someone has a prophecy

Someone says you’re chosen

Don’t tuck it away for later

No, hold that sign up high

Wave that banner with all you’ve got

And go, girl, go

Because a well-preserved ticket

Is useless after the show

And no one cares to hear

About your might-have-beens.

(On the other hand,

An awakening 34-year-old

Is a powerhouse of presence.)

As I mentioned in conversation with Jodi’s comment on the previous post, I think that when I recognize my Story B, it won’t feel like I am “settling” for second-best, although it may look exactly like that to an outside observer.

In my case, I started chasing Story A as a twenty-something singer/songwriter recording my first album in a professional studio in a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis, financed by two benefactors who saw big things in my future.

Looking back on that over ten years later when I wrote this poem, I mused about how I didn’t work hard enough to actualize Story A. But you can see the seeds of Story B beginning to sprout in the last sentence.

And far from feeling like I’m settling, I feel more deeply alive.

I’ve still not fully elaborated my Story B to my satisfaction, but I feel like I am getting closer. Letting go of other people’s storylines for me, and picking up the threads that are actually there, the real living story of me that can actually be woven into something true and substantial. It may not be big and flashy, but it will be utterly valuable.

So there you go, a little case study for you, my own working out this life-story thing. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, “I am a Story B (and so can you!)”

Failure and Love

About eight years ago I decided to try gardening. There were raspberries growing in the back yard of our Minneapolis city lot, in a fenced-in area with a brick path down the center. (Previous owners of the house had done some quality landscaping.) On one side of the path where no raspberries were growing, I tilled the ground and planted rows of vegetables. The refreshing spring breeze, the earthy fragrance of the soil, my own enthusiasm and hopes of fresh food from my yard combined to skyrocket my mood into bliss.

Well, that season – and a few seasons afterwards – I was the very model of a “three-day monk.” It may have crossed my mind to water my seeds or pull up weeds, but after a few days, I mostly neglected my garden. My enthusiasm was sapped and I had no habits in place to keep me going.

Needless to say, I failed at gardening in those seasons. But I did learn a few things the first season – mainly, that a sunny spot is imperative for a vegetable garden (my spot was not sunny enough), and so is regular watering and weeding.

Each successive spring, fresh enthusiasm compelled me to plan and plant again; and each year, I had a bit more knowledge and experience and willingness to work at gardening. This spring, thanks to my work over the past few years, we have already been eating asparagus, black raspberries, currants, mulberries, rhubarb, peas, greens, and various fresh herbs from our yard, with plenty more to come throughout the growing season.

I tried and failed at something else once. I wanted to learn pottery. How cool to be able to create something beautiful yet functional! I loved the idea. I took one community education pottery class and made some decent pieces, but overall, I didn’t learn well (the teacher even lost patience with me for my failure to understand how to use the wheel!), and while I had loved the idea, I couldn’t really connect with the activity itself.

Like gardening, I could continue working at pottery, gaining knowledge and experience, until I have attained some basic mastery of the field. But taking that one class was enough for me to know that pottery was not for me.

What was the difference? Both gardening and pottery are creative and useful endeavors that must be learned and practiced to be mastered. I failed at both (actually, I failed more at my first attempt at gardening than my first attempt at pottery). And yet, I have kept gardening but never given pottery another serious thought.

The obvious but important answer is that I really want to garden – I really enjoy it – and I don’t enjoy pottery. In other words, for the love of the thing. Each growing season, I get excited to grow things! But I’ve never wanted to try pottery again.

I couldn’t be sure I loved gardening and not pottery until I had tried them both. When pottery was just an idea in my head, I loved it. When it became an experience I was actively learning and practicing, I couldn’t find any love for the actuality of pottery in my life. But although I mostly failed in my early attempts at learning and practicing gardening, I actually enjoyed the activity, and my love for it only grew.

I think these ideas are important as we think about who we are and what we want to do with our lives. We’ve heard that failure is useful for learning, and is actually necessary for ultimate success (I like this “Accidental Creative” podcast on the topic), but probably equally important is a basic drive, a fundamental love of the thing itself.

And I don’t think this love will always feel positive. Failure is real and sometimes devastating. By some measures, I have only ever “failed” as a singer/songwriter. For fifteen years, I’ve been writing songs, performing and recording them, trying to sell albums and get gigs. And for all that, my “harvest” feels a bit like my early gardening attempts – a handful of pea pods, maybe some undergrown spinach leaves, a couple raspberries.

But I keep doing it. Sometimes “the love of the thing” feels more like banging my head against a wall than gleefully chasing something I adore. But it’s love all the same. No matter the outcome, I must sing and I must write, if only just for my own emotional health and enjoyment.

As with my gardening experience, I am finding there is plenty more experience and skill to be gained as a singer/songwriter.

I’m also learning that my initial starry-eyed definitions of “success” have a way of changing as I work hard at any activity. With gardening, I envisioned myself growing and preserving most of my family’s food supply. As I have learned and worked, however, I’ve discovered this isn’t even something I want anymore. I’ve gained a reasonable understanding of my own capabilities as well as my own interest level and drive, and the place I want gardening to have in my life balanced with all my other commitments and activities.

The same is true of songwriting. I no longer hold vague dreams of stardom. The more I work at my craft, the more realistic I have become about my own capabilities and my own interest level. Through purposefully thinking about and working at this activity, I have better clarified a vision for “success” as it would look in my own real life.

In her book 168 Hours, Laura Vanderkam encourages readers to make a “List of 100 Dreams,” sort-of a “bucket list” – things you want to do or try at some point in your life – and then start making plans to accomplish these dreams. She notes that the very act of trying something may be all you need to discover that you really don’t want to go any further with that activity after all. But if you’d never tried, you may always regret (needlessly) having never done it.

So, I’m glad I tried pottery, fine with failing at it, equally fine with discovering I had no real love for it and laying it aside forever. I’m also glad I tried gardening, fine having failed at it, grateful to discover I loved it and was willing to keep putting in the work – so that today, I can enjoy the fruits of my labors!

What have you learned from failure? Does “love of the thing” keep you going in spite of failure, and do you give yourself permission to quit when you discover you have no love for a certain activity?