Pencils to Death

We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them. — Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy

What should we do when everything we have tried seems to turn to ashes in our hands, when our best and most concentrated efforts have produced. . . . nothing. When we have failed?

We could take the route of Roseanne Rosannadanna, that lovable klutz from Ft. Lee, New Jersey, created by Gilda Radner all those years ago on Saturday Night Live. Roseanne once addressed an eighth grade graduating class on how little things can lead to a full crash-and-burn. You’re sitting in a classroom ready to take a test but you have no pencil. You fail the test, get kicked out of school, become homeless and die on the street. All because you forgot your pencil. It’s what my wife and I have come to call the Pencils to Death syndrome.

The ability to put failure in perspective is not coded into our genes. It’s a learned response and it takes a lot of failure to learn how to do it well. From an evolutionary standpoint, of course, all of us here today are the triumphant offspring of the winners—the ones who prevailed, adapted, overcame, and survived. The losers, wading in the shallow end of the gene pool, didn’t live long enough to reproduce and are gone and forgotten. But that glib scenario covers up the fact that the winners learned how to win by losing—not fatally, of course—but in enough small ways that effort had to be made and lessons learned. Don’t eat that! Don’t go there! Do we fight or run? Hello, hello? Guess I’d better run. . . .

But the lure of instant success is so powerful. All it takes is the trajectory of Justin Bieber shooting across the YouTube universe and into the welcoming arms of Usher to set the hearts of teenagers aflame with visions of personal stardom. Shortcuts to success abound in the popular mythology, their phrases ringing tinnily in the ear: The One-Minute Manager, Think and Grow Rich, The Secret. The culture encourages nay, demands, riches without work, knowledge without learning, success without sacrifice.

 As civilizations go ours is still an adolescent, beset with all the bumbling enthusiasm of a teenager, endearing in its energy, annoying in its arrogance, dangerous in its naivete. Our shiny hopes are easily bent; we grow surly when thwarted. In our impatience to grow up we bluster and brag, and then whine when we get the inevitable pushback. A country of immense natural resources, endless horizons, boundless opportunities—all those wonderfully elusive phrases that still pepper the speeches of politicians on the run—such a country will not be denied its place at the pinnacle. Will it?

In our unshakable faith in science and technology we believe that every problem has a solution, one that can be downloaded with the click of a finger, a swipe of a credit card, a flick of a switch. We can’t imagine a world in which some mountains cannot be moved or some barrier not be shattered. When in doubt, we say, put the pedal down and smash through it. Who has the time to untie the knot? Just cut the damn thing and we’ll be on our way. We seem to have little patience with difficulties, seeing them not as part of life but a personal slight, almost a slap in the face.

So I hear the wistful lyrics of Paul Simon in a song called American Tune to a melody by J. S. Bach:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
Don’t have a friend who feels at ease
Don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to it’s knees.
But it’s all right, all right, We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on,
I wonder what went wrong, I can’t help it
I wonder what went wrong.

What went wrong is that we never took to heart the truth that life is difficult. Philosophy, religions, literature, psychology, drama—they’ve all been nattering about that for eons. It’s one of the perennial issues that comes up in arguments about why people suffer, what evil is, and what God has to do with all of it. It is not the problem of evil, it is the mystery of evil. Gabriel Marcel, a French poet, playwright and philosopher, called it a mystery that has no solution but calls our very being into question. In answering it or trying to anyway, we discover our own unfathomable depths. We learn who we are in our response to evil and in our response to failure.

There’s something I’ve been living by for years that helps me. I think I may have picked up the terms from William Blake, that mad poet and visionary, but the illustration is my own. We begin in innocence, blessed beyond belief, and then we take a fall into experience. Down in the pit, cursing or sobbing, we look back up to the heights we occupied without realizing there were depths and we choose: death or life? In grace we begin to climb, foothold by foothold, until we arrive, after pain and effort, at innocent experience: the delight of discovery without the cynicism of defeat.  In this context we are no longer innocent for we have taken the inevitable fall into rough experience that comes to all humans. No one is exempt. What matters is how we react in the pit. Will we stay there, raging in our pride, or begin the climb, having sloughed off our naivete and arrogance?  We have learned and moved, on and up. And that’s good, very good, because we will have many falls in life and each one is a new occasion to learn. Failure may not be an option, but it can be an opportunity.

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