Monday, January 05, 2009

What People Do

Another commonplace essay that states the obvious.

I recall a wonderful quote – I’m not sure who said it, perhaps Juliet Schorr – that this is the first generation of which it’s commonplace to frame the basic question, “who are you?” in a way that sets an entirely new standard. In ages past, one had a profession and was identified by it; I am an artisan, a bricklayer, a warrior. Today, one may have a job, but the question of what one is, is still undefined. I work for the City of New York as an Engineer; I’m a Caribbean American. But what is my essence? I only “do” what I aspire to do, and what I aspire to do is not defined by my job. Individual unfoldment has taken center stage.

Hey, it’s a long road. If life is a climb to reach mountain peaks, I was never satisfied with it. So I sought fulfillment in the moment itself. And I found a lot of it. Very true that most people see their lives defined by what they lack – especially in the Western world. Comparisons become overwhelming; the reason to strive, and the way to define where one has been. Then, as one grows very old, the mere experiences of pleasure seem to become defining. But still one may be impelled to compare one’s pleasure with that of another – confounding and confusing. The only person whose pleasure can be compared to your own is your lover’s, because you know her, and her pleasure often becomes yours. But this isn’t really a comparison at all, it’s a unity in which comparison disappears.

I remember with some embarrassment one afternoon where I sat on a sofa between two beautiful women – the two most beautiful women I knew. Each one knew me, appreciated me, and wanted me (at least one of them did). I relaxed and let my arms out on the ridge of the sofa; the moment was timeless. Here was my mountain peak. The women got annoyed (at least one of them). The purpose of introducing two supremely beautiful women to one another, simply because you know they are beautiful, had no purpose. It was discordant; the women didn’t understand it.

So, it’s in this context that I have always wondered what people do; I mean, what is truly the meaningful, satisfying activity of life. Like one of those many cinematic or literary parables, when everything up front is revealed to be a façade: what do people really do, what is the clear relevance at the heart of life? Ivan Illych, in Tolystoy’s great novella, remembers meaning in selfless impulses and sacrifice – or just in honest communication, without artifice. This is a beginning, in the quest to understand just what it is that we do.

I have an artificial profession, or an extremely real one. The dignity of work is diminished, it seems, if you don’t make an actual product; fashion something that is useful. Yet I bring people together in shared understanding, comfort those who worry that their labor doesn’t mean much, find ways to strengthen the framework that surrounds their job. This has dignity, because it has a worthwhile purpose.

And now, the simple answer: People go on trips with friends and family. They raise children. They go to work and come home. They read the paper. They take in a night of music. They enjoy themselves at parties. They get married, make vows, set goals and accomplish them. They exercise. They worry. They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They get involved in causes and intense conversations. They worship. They find art. They exalt each other. They make money, take it in and spend it in ways both sensible and frivolous. These and many more things go into what makes up a life. These are the things we all do. They add up to lives, like multicolored sands add up in a tall glass; filled to the top, it’s the sum and measure of all of our years and experiences.

The moments live, each of them. Make the most of them. Focus. Relax. Call in the good, the best. Let fear blow out through the window with the dust in your home.