Life - What Happened?!
or, How to Begin Where You Find Yourself
At some point in a man’s life it becomes apparent what the general outlines of his life will look like from henceforth. Revelation isn’t the form this understanding usually takes; it’s more gradual, such as when the high school football player doesn’t make it in college but continues to play for his fraternity, then moves on to other sports as a suburbanite – maybe golf, maybe softball. Maybe he coaches his kids’ teams or vainly tries to put his dreams into them.
Such a man runs, works out, looks longingly in the mirror: All that potential, wasting away little by little till there’s nothing left but a bunch of guys gathered around the television on any given Sunday watching the game and reliving opportunities lost and gone, grieved by the wind, as the man said.
And so it goes with the would-be artist, the would-be writer, the would-be intellectual: Visions of glory at the outset, a growing sense of loss during the only pursuit they may be assured of – the grave, our long home, where all pretence is shed.
Sure, in my younger years I was possessed of that sense of destiny and sure victory. I had it strong and it fueled my days and nights as I worked and labored over creations and books. And it still creeps up on me now and again and promises stupid things.
I’m on the downhill slide, though, and picking up speed. I don’t have much time for stupidity, my own or in general.
Once upon a time, I wanted to change people through art, words, and ideas. And the idiotic thing is, I believed I could do it. I could improve the world, I could change things and people’s minds, just me, my art, words and ideas alone.
Much to my dismay, not much ever got changed.
Well, over time, to be sure, I improved – one does not spend year after hungry year in the company of great thinkers and great creators without having the rough edges beaten off one’s naïve and ignorant soul. One would have to be very dense, indeed, to not improve under such tutelage.
Part of the improvement involved a constriction of my aims. At 18, the world was not a big enough challenge; by 34, my art involved tattooing, not painting great frescos like Goya or murals like Diego Rivera; by 35, my reality-spanning metaphysics was beaten down into political and philosophical essays published in the local paper, angering more than they touched.
At 39, I taught philosophy as an instructor at a public university and found students who half-hearted struggled to do the bare minimum to pass. For nearly 13 years I worked in the field of public mental health hoping to make some sort of difference in the lives of poverty-stricken people who were miserable through no fault of their own; when I left at age 43, I was easily replaced and it was as if I’d never existed in the first place.
Now, I publish an occasional collection of essays, make the occasional political cartoon, make comic books and hold my tongue a lot.
That, gentle reader, is life and the Way of the World.
I’m not going to change the world and that’s just the way things are. No petulance is involved in the statement; it’s just an observation. I could not change my very small community, I could not change a few classrooms full of students, I did not change many people afflicted with mental illness, I do not affect many readers (though I’ve afflicted a few), my art does nothing for most, and that is just the way it is.
I’ve managed to change myself. Had I known at age 18 that, on the verge of 46, I’d be here at 4 AM on a Monday writing these particular words, I think I may have wound up living under a bridge drinking myself to sleep. But that’s not how my life managed to work itself out, either.
Here and there, I made a difference to a few, even when they didn’t know or understand. And that was difficult enough.
Somewhere in all the wreckage of the days that floated off in my wake as an adult, I left behind what were my treasures – as I learned, I shared. As I changed and contemplated, I recorded and explained – sometimes well, sometimes poorly. But I shed my writings publicly, gave out my lectures and interpretations, handed away stacks of art. Not to change the world, but just to share, to allow others to make of it all whatever they could or would.
Because I can’t change anyone else; people have to decide to change themselves. Each and every last one of us have to feel our neediness and poverty and seek to mend it in this world, each in her own way; and my destiny was never to change worlds or people, but just to share the little I have as best I can, lose the bitterness of the defeats and rejections, and keep on working, to quote Pete Townshend.
The everyday is profound enough for me. No, there’s no fame attached to it, and, needless to say, little money; but there is something to be said for knowing one has provided others with a few tools and directions for their journey, whether or not they made use of them. I’ll never know one way or the other. Not my job to worry over it. One must leave a few things in the hands of Deity.
By myself, I am not much. In connection with the traditions I am part of, I am not alone, though. My labors are never solitary even though they involve solitude. I am a point of transmission from sources beyond and more than my pitiful ego. Maybe, sometimes, some truth makes it through and I no longer stand in the way. And through that, the poison of egoism has slowly been cleansed from my blood.
The world is someone else’s problem. Living what I know to be The Good is my problem – it involves voting and writing essays against savagery and greed and other vices in favor of better perspectives on communal reality, but it also involves putting my pocket change in the Salvation Army bucket and giving someone who needs it a ride to the store and carrying groceries for them. It involves being kind and attentive to my wife and offering prayers for my son and scraping up child support money when I can’t do anything else.
All of that is philosophy, just as much as anything else I’ve ever said or written.
The everyday is the source of profundity and the arena for great tasks. Waiting around for the day when one’s life will involve more glorious matters means one has already failed in one’s primary mission as a human being.
Richard Van Ingram
21 November 2011
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