The man, the myth, the legend: Don Black. Writing a bio about your brother is a bit difficult because he’ll most likely disagree with everything I write, but as his oldest sister, I’m allowed to brag. A senior in high school, Don is absolutely brilliant (I’d share his ACT score, but he’d definitely kill me), witty, talented, and 100% devoted to excellence. He’s also incredibly competitive–Don decided to contribute a guest post because he wanted to write something beyond the (apparently) saccharine stuff I usually post. Although he did have a delightfully hilarious Twitter account that I would often steal jokes from (whoops), Don has decided to pursue the calling of an enigma & has shut down basically everything, so sadly you can’t follow him on anything. If you really want to reach him, his cell phone number is 615-96… just kidding. Read stuff by Don now before he becomes a famous philosopher. It’s going to happen, trust me.
A couple of years ago, at the end of his second term, President Clinton visited an elementary school classroom in North Texas, and, in his usual political fashion, asked the students what they would like to be when they grow up. “An astronaut” one said. “A Wall Street banker” said another. And as they all went around the room, Clinton noticed a young, shy boy in the back of the room, not standing up to give his answer. So, Clinton, feeling slightly empathetic, called on this boy specifically and asked “Son, what do you want to be when you grow up?” The boy paused, looked around and quickly said “The President of the United States, sir.” Clinton, proud of himself for noticing the boy and flashing his signature laugh, brashly responded “Doesn’t one of us already have that job?” The boy just smiled and softly said “Why yes, sir, of course. You’re just keeping the seat warm.”
Looking back at the story from the comfortable perspective of our pixels, it is easy to laugh at the kid; laugh at his naivety, laugh at his ego, at his absolute certainty that he was correct. But in some ways, we aren’t really that different.
After all, for many of us, we’ve been told our entire lives that we are special, that we can become President of the United States, that we can do anything we like. That the same cold and unfeeling rules that apply to everyone else in the world don’t really also apply to us.
And, we will go our entire lives thinking like this, because, well, to ourselves, we are special.
I mean, think about it. Everything in our immediate experience supports the idea that we are at the very center of the Universe. Things happen to us. People speak to us. Events take place behind us or around us or near us. Other people’s needs and perspective have to be communicated to us, while ours are so urgent, so pressing, so real.
For instance, if you are pulling into a parking lot of your local supermarket: Kroger, Publix or wherever you choose to buy your bread, and someone cuts you off or uses your chosen parking spot, your immediate thought is of yourself: how deeply and personally unfair and insulting this is, how they simply cannot understand what sort of hurry you are in. And when you walk into the store and check out and are told to “have a good day” with a face that is absolutely the face of death, your next thought is of yourself as well: how you have had a tough day already and how you are a paying customer and how you are certainly entitled to better treatment than that.
But perhaps, or at least what I’d like to suggest to you today, that type of attitude is entirely the wrong way to consider the situation. Maybe the person who cuts you off on the road has a way bigger, more legitimate reason to hurry than you do; maybe they have a pregnant wife or a sick child moaning in the seat next to them, maybe it is really you that is in their way. Maybe the cashier with the face of death has just come back from comforting their dying mother or father, only to have to deal with an endless onslaught of bills, a hopelessly mundane job and entitled customers, like you.
Thinking like this can be tiring, exhausting even, because, of course, none of those things I mentioned are likely, or even probable. But they are possible however, and it all just depends on the things that you would like to consider.
If you are automatically sure that you know what reality is, that you know exactly what to consider, then, if you are like me, you probably won’t consider any possibilities that aren’t annoying, terrible and miserable.
But if you really learn how to pay attention and learn what to consider, then it becomes actually within your power to create meaning from whatever your situation; when you are bored and exhausted waiting in a grocery story, when you are bitter and cynical driving down the interstate. Any personal hell type circumstance can be turned into something wonderful, magical even, if you just learn what it is that you need to consider.
And that is the really the capital-T type truth that I want to talk about: we get to create our own meaning.
We get to tell our own story.
And, for better or for worse, we get to decide what that story is.
We can choose to tell a sad, cynical story: remember our failures and let them make us fear for the future, remember the times we fell and let them discourage us from jumping, remember our heartbreaks and let them keep us from falling in love; or, we can choose to tell a happy story, we can choose to be happy.
But, of course, telling a happy story isn’t easy.
And there has most definitely been days when I just didn’t feel like it, when it would have been easier to retreat back into myself, back into my comfort zone, back where I know every paint chip and every thread. And there are also times when I feel like that it’s deserved cynicism, that it’s earned; that Republicans have earned the title of homophobic, that Rush Limbaugh deserves to be called a bigot. And sometimes I feel so absolutely angry and apathetic and disgusted that everything feels like bullshit, that oblivion is inevitable and my dreams are elusive so why even try, why even get up, get moving?
And at times, cynicism can feel crushing, overwhelming, engulfing. But that’s only because cynicism and apathy are the easy ways out.
It’s easy to laugh at those taking a stand, it’s easy to strive to be tragically hip and cool, putting on a constant face of scorn and ridicule to protect your vulnerabilities from any incoming arrows or swords.
(See the full comic here)
Because really, cynicism is just a reaction to that, to vulnerability. To protect yourself from hurt, from pain. To retreat back into the corner of your tall, guarded castle, back where you know every paint chip and every thread. It pretends that it’s wisdom, or some kind of prior knowledge, but it’s not. Not really. It’s just a lazy way to say that you’ve been hurt before. What passes for hip, cynical transcendence of sentiment nowadays is really, I think, some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably hopeful and sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic.
And in the end, I believe that is our ultimate choice: do we wish to participate in a philosophy of cynicism or in a philosophy or hope?
And when I say “hope”, I’m not talking blind optimism here, the kind of hope that makes you think that we will save our planet if we just don’t do anything about it or that your crush will fall in love with you if you just sit by and wait, but something more substantial, something more real. It’s the hope of astronauts rocketing off into the great unknown, the hope of Columbus sailing the ocean blue. It’s the hope of slaves singing freedom songs around a fire, the hope of immigrants setting sail for a distant land.
Here’s what you can do to make today’s world a better world, a more hopeful world. The next time you hear something naive, crazy, stupid, ridiculous, optimistic or hopeful, don’t laugh, scorn or ridicule; stop, breathe for a moment and move on.
Everyone is just trying their best. Sometimes we’re crazy, sometimes we’re stupid, and sometimes we all deserve a little bit of ridicule. Every last one of us.
Let’s just give each other a pass, shall we?