Recently, in a group I belong to, a lot of younger friends were talking about how adult life is drudgery and work and a lot of being kicked in the teeth again and again, before arriving to the end, broken and with nothing to show for it.
I won’t say they are wrong. I will just say they’re not right.
Dr. Peterson says that human life is tragic, and he’s right too. But he also gives instruction on how to live a life that lets you die in peace, with the certainty you have accomplished something.
A lot of human philosophies are about that. And you, know I have a friend who is an hospice care nurse, and she will absolutely tell you that there are hard deaths and “good deaths” for people of all religious persuasions and none. There is a way to live your life, not with no regrets, but knowing that you did the best you could, you tried the best you could, and you can now face eternity or nothing with a clear conscience.
What I do know is that it’s not “Those who die with the most toys win.” I know this because some of the most quickly-forgotten, reviled people I know were very wealthy. They were also impossible to live with. Note the two are not necessarily the same. The rich man who can’t pass through the eye of the needle is his own breed, not just correlated to wealth as such.
Those who live only to accumulate power? That also doesn’t seem, in the end, to bring the kind of serene certainty you did what you could that you might describe as a good death.
I’ve always thought of those who scramble for power as scared people. They want power to control others, because they’re terrified of others, and therefore must be able to tell others how to live. Dictator or family terror, these people usually die just as scared as they lived.
For years now, this has been the pattern I try to fit myself to, particularly because I’m TRULY unsuited to it. The neurotic personally of the writer doesn’t want to do anything QUIETLY. I want to rage, scream, and kick things like a Shakespearean villain (and some heroes.)
“For three thousand years architects designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures. At last Rodin pointed out that this was work too heavy for a girl. He didn’t say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must do this, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it. This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl-look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods…and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.
“But she’s more than good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, […] and victory.”
“Victory in defeat; there is none higher. She didn’t give up[…]; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father working while cancer eats away his insides, to bring home one more pay check. She’s a twelve-year old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her post while smoke chokes her and fire cuts off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit.
—Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
There is a danger in it too, mind you. It is possible to become enamored of the thought of self-sacrifice and distort oneself while enabling others to be useless and never grow up. This is a particular risk for us mothers, particularly those of us who literally love our kids more than ourselves. (Look, not all do, but some of us are broken that way.)
When I was in high school the first sentence I wrote in every notebook was “The important thing is not to be happy. It’s to be good for something.” While there could be worse mottoes, my psychologist friends cringe when they hear that, and they’re not wrong.
So, what’s a good life? I don’t know. It’s probably different for everyone around, and each of us has different temptations to stray from it. Look at what Heinlein said: those are good lives, well lived, even if you never heard those people’s name, and they’re buried in a pauper’s grave. OTOH there are probably people who think they’re doing that, while infantilizing their families and taking the brunt off life for people who can and should face it alone.
We all start out with dreams. Big dreams, if we’re worth anything. And it’s easy to dream really big when you know nothing about the world. Particularly if you know you’re brighter than the average bear, and stronger too, and are willing to undergo work to get where you want to be.
Me? My first book was going to astound the world. I was that good.
Was I that good? Who the heck knows. You can’t judge your own writing, anymore than you can judge your own beauty. But I’ve read a lot of bestsellers (not all. Some do things I can’t figure out how to do. I’m working on it, damn it) who don’t write as well as I do. So, my assessment wasn’t all wrong. BUT — but — things only work out perfectly, ever, in dreams. In reality I had to sell what the editors were willing to buy (and my first trilogy, while competent and — I THINK — decent of its kind, wasn’t even in the genre I like to write. (I can write just about anything, though.)) and it came out with the cover they chose, and the push they chose and the time couldn’t be more disastrous unless it had come out the day all books in the world caught fire simultaneously (which hasn’t happened, obviously.)
As a result my career has been — yes — a bunch of kicks in the teeth. But between them, there have been moments of shining pleasure and beauty. Usually not when the awards come or the book “sells better than expected” (Pfui) but when I create it and see that it’s good (of its kind and for what I wanted to do.)
My writing will be forgotten ten minutes after I’m dead, probably, but I’m doing it as well as I can, and I’m NOT QUITTING. It will never be a shining thing of immortal beauty, because that only happens in dreams.
In reality the actions and decisions of others get a say. And yes, life is often unfair and horrible. So far I’ve been blessed with a much beloved husband who loves me too. (No, he’s not the redheaded astronaut I fantasized about as a young teen. You know what? NOT sorry at all for that.) I’ve been blessed with two sons who are good people, and probably both more grown up and sane than I am by now. And I haven’t lost any of the three of them, and I’ve never gone naked or so hungry I couldn’t bear it. AND because my husband loves me, I get to work at what I want to, to which success is secondary.
But in a chaotic system there’s no such thing as “fair.”
I was lucky in another way, now I think about it. At 33 I spent 11 days in ICU with pneumonia. All the doctors told me I was going to die.
It clarifies the mind enormously.
I wasn’t sorry I’d die poor-ish or that I’d never won awards, or that I’d never got the accolades of the writing world (I wasn’t even published, though I’d sold a short story, and the magazine went under.)
Two things bothered me: I’d be leaving my husband in a difficult position, with two very young children to raise (4 and 1.) And I’d never written even one book in the multi-connected world I’d dreamed about since I was a little kid. I had several novels written in my head, that I’d never share with anyone.
Those two things were what ate at me. And it will tell you something about traditional publishing and compromises that I’m only now starting to write in that universe, now that I’m indie: Schrodinger worlds. I will probably have to have a diagram on my writer page, because even “date” unless it’s “Earth date” is a matter of opinion in that one. The one thing I know is that I might die with only some books out, but I can’t face dying with none of them out.
What else is important to me? Making sure my kids are “flying free.” I.e. that they have the tools needed, and are working at something they love and preferably married to someone who is right for them. (One down, one to go. Yes, real marriage is also difficult and often you struggle with it, but the good ones make you better than you’d be on your own. They will literally make you a better person, and more capable of achieving whatever it is you need to achieve. I think older son has that. I know I do.)
That was actually what clarified it for me. Because I love my sons very much, what I wish for them is the best and that is: Satisfying work one feels is important; a life-partner whom one loves and who strives with us and themselves to make both better; children if possible, because love grows and because humanity must go on; the courage to accept one’s own limitations and live past the times when death kicks you in the teeth again and again.
In Heyer’s book A Civil Contract, she has the main character, after breaking (of necessity) with his fiance and agreeing to marry a rich woman (actually long after that, when the first fiance marries someone else) thinking “He had come to the end of dreaming.”
But by then it is clear to the reader that the lost fiance was the worst possible match for him, and that this dream in his head is a fantasy. He’d have been miserable with her. While the wife he’s forced to marry makes him happy (and BETTER) in ways he could not have dreamed of.
Yes, it’s a romance, and Heyer is not “realistic about the relationships between men and women” say the intellectual midgets. But she IS realistic about life.
Sometimes the most worthy things are done only when you come to the end of dreaming. It feels like your guts are ripped out whole, but it is what’s known as “adulthood.”
And at that point, knowing you’re too weak for that damn stone the builders expect you to lift, and that it will inevitably crush you, if you try to lift it ANYWAY, you will win, even as it crushes you.
she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, […] and victory.”
“Victory in defeat; there is none higher. She didn’t give up[…]; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. – Robert A. Heinlein.
Go and lift. Go do the most worthy thing you can conceive of, no matter how hard.
And you’ll win. Even if you lose.