It’s almost as if our crazy love of dreaming big is a last-ditch survival mechanism to cope with our day-in, day-out awareness of how small, pointless and ineffectual we turn out to be. For all but a minuscule few, life is about recognizing just how little change you can effect, from politics and economics to public opinion and popular tastes. It often seems to impossible to change even one person’s mind, especially a partner or relative. We indulge our big fantasies despite what appears to be endless, intimate evidence to the contrary. Why do we do this? What are we, crazy?
that is one of the definitions of middle age I suppose. realising you are, in fact, ordinary. (Ordinary people more likely to be married, vote Tory and, among boomers, not stay in education into their 20s) pic.twitter.com/FWHSazGDYk
— Ed West (@edwest) April 27, 2018
I remember being a teenager and buying one of Robert Fulghum’s books at a B. Dalton (back when malls had bookstores instead of cellphone-repair kiosks). The cashier commented on it, saying that she had tried reading it, but “it just seemed to be a lot of stuff I already knew.” Even at the time, I remember thinking, well, yeah; why would you expect that truth should be something completely exotic and abstruse? Some of Fulghum’s stories are twee, no doubt; but some of them are hilarious, and others contain minimalist insights and observations that blossom into the universal truths that, yes, we all already know, but somehow fail to honor in practice. Truth often is ordinary. The effort we put into rationalizing it away is what’s extraordinary. Part of getting older, I think, is finally getting tired of creating complexity and complications where none need exist.
The Lady and I were talking on a hike about a podcast she’d listened to with an author who’d just published a book based on the claim that willpower is feeble in comparison to having a properly structured environment. The truth, of course, is that both personal discipline and a supportive environment are necessary to achieve goals in the most efficient way, but the precise proportions of each depend on individual circumstances, and they can’t be reduced to an abstract, universal formula. But that’s boring, and it can be summed up in a sentence. To write a book like that, to get attention and distinction, you have to take a strong stand on one side or the other. With truisms, there’s nothing to do but accept them. A strong either/or partisan argument gets our adrenaline pumping. A stubborn opponent sharpens our wits and concentration. We feel so much more alive and engaged when we’re fighting, even if we’re fighting over a completely manufactured disagreement. At least then, we’re not alone with our thoughts, forced to admit how rarely we do the things we know we should and how lame our perennial excuses are for not doing them.
When I look back at my decade or so of writing online, I notice that the years where I did my best work were the ones I spent with some sort of challenge. For a couple of years, I was writing for that most inspiring of reasons, to impress a girl. For a few years after that, I was writing in order to make sense of what would come to be known as the Great Awokening, while coming to terms with my own evolving political perspective. Having achieved both, I can now afford to write for the pure enjoyment of playing with words, while making tentative, experimental attempts to develop as a writer and a thinker. In one sense, that’s liberating, but that same sense of pleasant weightlessness can also make you feel adrift and alone, unable to connect to a culture dominated by angry, partisan adolescents of all ages who are determined to make the entire world fit onto the Procrustean bed of their narrow political obsessions. Without an argument to join, without a sacred cause to crusade for, without any desire to be noticed and appreciated, I’m forced to acknowledge how plain my pleasures are, how banal my tasks and routines are, and how very much I have in common with people I formerly scorned in my supercilious youth. It’s often said that the story of humanity has been a sequence of increasing disillusionment. Copernicus demoted us from our place at the center of the universe. Darwin relegated us from our special status above the rest of the animal kingdom. Freud then informed us that we weren’t even the masters of our own minds. Now, even within the privacy of our self-image, it seems the final humiliation is the recognition of our own individual ordinariness, a recognition itself so common as to need no famous spokesman. Thankfully, the consolations of simple, earnest joys more than make up for it.