(An essay written in response to the request in a column by David Brooks in the 11/28/11 New York Times for a report “[evaluating] what you did well, of what you did not do so well, and what you learned along the way.”)
If you’re a fan, as I am, of the now largely forgotten genius of Don Marquis, you’ll remember Warty Bliggens, the toad. Warty shared the all-too common human delusion that he was the center of the universe. He believed that “the earth exists to grow toadstools/for him to sit under/the sun to give him light by day and the moon/and wheeling constellations/to make beautiful/the night for the sake of/warty bliggens” (sic: archy the cockroach, Marquis’s alter ego and putative author of his poems, was unable for obvious reasons to use both the shift key and a letter simultaneously to create the upper case.) What I have learned in seventy-five years of sometimes painful experience is that, like Warty, I am not the center of the universe.
This might seem like a rather banal discovery, too obvious to be of great value. It’s my conviction, though, that this is the one essential lesson that we need to learn on the path to a modicum of happiness and freedom. My failure to have learned it earlier in life was the source of everything I did not do well; and those things I have managed to do well, I think, result from my having… well, not learned it, but at least having come some way to an understanding of its meaning and importance.
I did not do well, early on in life, with the enormous privilege of a fine education and the opportunity to attend one of the world’s greatest universities. In a word, I blew it. As the saying goes, I also blew it off. I had a good excuse: after twelve years in boys’ boarding schools where such things were not allowed, it was time for me to chase girls and drink a lot of beer. And at the end of it all, I made a choice that led me off on a misguided path for many years: though I had known since the age of twelve that I was meant to be a writer, I opted for the safer path and went, instead, into teaching. I climbed the educational ladder from kindergarten to grammar school and, later, with a doctorate, to higher education as a teacher and eventually a top administrator.
I’m not complaining. It was a thoroughly rewarding path in many ways. It was just not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was in my mid-fifties when I came to the realization that I had unknowingly sabotaged every wonderful job I’d been fortunate to have. I quit, cold turkey. That was one of the things that was hard, but which I managed to do well. Since then, for the past quarter century, I have been doing what I was meant to do—and, yes, doing it well.
So much for the professional life. As for the personal, well, I think because I had not yet understood that I was not the center of the universe, I blew a marriage, too. An absent dad, I blew my first two efforts at fatherhood. I did my best, at a distance, but I don’t pretend that it was nearly good enough. I have done a better job at marriage and fatherhood the second time around—now nearly forty years. But the really big moment came—the one that confronted me with the falsity of all the assumptions I had cheerfully and thoughtlessly made about myself, came only after I had followed my instinct and left academia. At a moment of deep family crisis, I was forced to recognize that I had set my life on automatic cruise control and left it there, and that I was headed off at high speed toward the edge of an unsuspected cliff. I had no idea who I really was or how my behavior affected others, especially those closest to me.
So the first, big, painful effort was to learn about the self I thought myself to be. On impulse, I signed up for one of those men’s training weekends. I arrived there, basically a shrink-wrapped Englishman, and was cracked open like an egg. I devoted years thereafter to an intense and often challenging search for authenticity. And I did that, I think, well. The search, I mean. Not only did I learn to be more honest with myself and those around me, and therefore more open and generous in my relationships. I also found a new clarity, a new focus for my work as a writer. I have learned, in recent years, to do that well. Whereas, before, my writing was controlled—and sometimes blocked—by the editor on my shoulder, I began to write more easily and spontaneously in the flow.
The biggest of all lessons, though, was still to come. It came with a renewed contact with the spiritual dimension of my life. The son of an Anglican minister, I left the church as soon as I left home, at the age of eighteen. I was never a believer—and I remain a religious skeptic. I found, however, in Buddhist teachings—others will find it elsewhere, I do not intend to be a preacher—my own way to reconnect with that missing part. After a great deal of actual practice and a great deal of study, I have come to understand that I am not even who I think I am; nor am I that person others imagine me to be. I am rather an unreliable blend of shifting selves, no one of them more “real” than any of the others. I am not some solid being at the center of the universe, but a being in constant flux, amidst the great flux of other beings, and of beingness.
Is this wisdom? I flatter myself to think that this realization has at least put me on the path to wisdom. It’s my belief that we human beings need to relinquish our desperate hold on to that comforting illusion of a seemingly solid self, and to see our “selves” in the context of our fellow beings on this planet we call home, if we are to start out on the path to true happiness and freedom. The self can be a stern, unyielding jailer and will not readily give up his key. It’s up to us to find a way to take it from him if we want to move forward in our lives. Such is the lesson I have learned, and I hope that I have learned it well.