I’m not a big believer in the “things happen for a reason” explanation. But I do believe that you can live more or less mindfully, more or less attuned to what happens around you. If you’re paying attention, the outside world can resonate with your inner world. You can learn things about yourself, about other people, about relationships, and just about how to find your path when life presents a million different ways of being and says, “You choose.”
So today maybe I just got lucky. I happened to be paying attention. This was my convergence: three events in short succession that struck like a chord – a perfect, accidental harmony.
The first event was a letter to a friend. I’m now in the fifth year of my PhD. I’m awfully tired of being a student. I want it to be done. I want the damn degree, and I want on with the rest of my life. I’m feeling kinda sorry for myself. I wrote the following words:
I’ve always felt like if you keep a low profile and keep your expectations in check, you won’t get to this place like I see some people: where you eat yourself up comparing yourself to others, or develop a sense of entitlement, or otherwise behave badly when life doesn’t go quite the way you want it to. When you get… Ungrateful. Overall I’m feeling less grateful these days, and more impatient. I have these feelings sometimes where I want status and recognition, and those feelings scare me, because I don’t know what’s at the other end of that road – the road of ambition. You have to think highly enough of yourself to believe that you deserve good things in your life, but I don’t want to take that too far. Where do you draw the line?
Because here’s the thing: generally speaking, the sin of academics – professor types – is Pride. The world we run about in encourages a distorted sense of one’s own importance, of the importance of one’s ideas and words. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve tried hard to guard against it, but as I described above, I was feeling the need to check the balance of my scales: I need enough ambition and self-confidence to move forward and embrace the work I love, but not so much ambition that I am seduced by a sense that I am “owed” some sort of particular outcome for my efforts.
When I asked “where do you draw the line,” I really was asking; I had no idea for an answer. But something like an answer came a couple of days later at the laundromat when I overheard a conversation between two strangers who had been chatting for a while before I’d arrived. One was a man, probably in his fifties. He was bitter – so bitter it was visceral. He spat out his words. “I could get a job tomorrow,” he said, “But ten, twelve bucks an hour. What’s the point?” He was lured to Alberta by “streets paved with gold” oil wealth, but things, it seemed, had not panned out for him. I expect this was one of many things in his life that had not gone for him as he’d hoped.
“I’m going to smack you,” teased the woman he was speaking to. Her speech was halting, her tongue thick, betraying what I’m guessing would be mild Down Syndrome. “At my job I make $9.50 an hour. Before I moved here, my job paid $6.50 an hour.” You put the pieces together. This woman, probably in her sixties, makes minimum wage, and probably hasn’t had an easy life, materially speaking. It was clear, though, that she was nowhere near as impoverished as the man.
“I’ve only known you an hour, and that’s the second time you’ve threatened to smack me,” the man joked. He missed the undertone in her voice – an indignation that did not match her smile. He missed her message, which was not at all lost on me: “Get over yourself. The world does not owe you. The world does not owe me.” As the man prepared to leave and slung his canvas bag over his shoulder, the woman wished him luck with his job search. “You’ve got such a positive attitude.” She was being ironic.
I’ve seen her around the laundromat before. She is warm. She smiles often. She is friendly. And if she is a little bit “slow” intellectually, she sure wasn’t “slow” about reading the heart of a man who, like me of late, was feeling Ungrateful.
The third “event” happened at the laundromat right after the woman left. I popped on a podcast: the Thanksgiving edition of TV Ontario’s current affairs show, The Agenda. It was an interview with Canadian novelist David Gilmour, followed by a panel of sundry intellectual/religious/philosophical types discussing – you guessed it – gratitude. It was great fun listening to Gilmour; he’s the sort of rogue-who-knows-he’s-a-rogue that you admire for his honesty, but are appalled by at the same time. He said this: It isn’t difficult to find happiness, but it is difficult not to screw it up once you’ve found it by getting greedy, by getting restless, by seeking “more.”
As Gilmour I think quite rightly pointed out, the drive, the hunger for “more” is part of what makes us human; it is built into us. It is the quest for “more” that makes us creative, innovative, and hopeful. If there is no craving, no hunger, we die. But if there is too much craving, we suffer all the follies of excess and ingratitude. We lack resilience and perspective. Instead of growing from our disappointments we are, like the like the angry man in the laundromat, scarred by them.
After listening to the Gilmour interview, I stood gazing out the window, folding the last of my warm laundry and pulling these threads of my day together. I was amazed that my question of how to strike a balance between ambition and gratitude had been met with timely wisdom from such unexpected places. Serendipity is awesome.
I do struggle with gratitude and humility sometimes; I expect we all do. But I know that these are things that I value, and that day I was reminded that even if you start wandering off track a bit, you can still find your way back to the stuff you care about. You can seek “more” with roots set firmly in active thanks for what’s great in your life, right here, right now.