Of life and love-nubs, sex and selves, hype and help. La finale. (And, yes, the last post of its kind.)
Be good at what you do. Whatever it is you do. If you're going to be a hit man...be a good one.
—Frank Salerno, circa 1977
[Click here to read beginning of series.]
My father was not as well-known as Socrates for his philosophy. But he got off some memorable lines. He offered the above advice jokingly—I think, for it could be hard to tell in those final mournful days of his battle against bladder cancer, when Dad washed down everything, including the generous helpings of perc that got him through the day, with even more generous amounts of beer.
His point, however, was taken. Do what you do, and do it well. I thought of that the last time I was in The City, grabbing coffee and a brownie in a cramped, very crowded cafe overlooking Sixth Avenue amid the gaiety of Christmastime in New York (which, for my money, is like Christmastime nowhere else). One of the busboys, squeezing his way past some of the patrons in the hubbub, noticed a small area of crumbs on the just-vacated table next to me. He all but sprinted back behind the counter, grabbed a cleaning rag, sprinted back to the table and wiped that table-top down with a thoroughness and sense of purpose that seemed more befitting a Michelangelo putting the finishes touches on the ceiling at Sistine. He even stood back for a second and inspected his handiwork before sprinting somewhere else in the cafe. This kid was all of 17 or 18, probably working his first job—and let's face it, it's a crappy job—but he cared. It meant something to him. It was his job, and he was gonna do it well, dammit. As anyone who's been in a fast-food environment or a mall boutique lately knows, there aren't enough kids like that out there. Hell, there aren't enough adults like that. And I think I know why, at least in part.
See, there's another layer of meaning to Dad's remark. I don't advocate for becoming a hit man or doing anything else that will leave you teetering dangerously at the edge of normalcy; to be honest, I feel like I've spent a good part of my life just beyond that precipice, and yes, it can take its toll. At the same time, it has its rewards. If nothing else, I feel that I've lived my life—was the best me I was capable of being. I'm not talking about narcissism here; I'm not talking about the need to shower myself with material possessions or take off for Madagascar on a whim. I'm not talking about being oblivious to the needs of others, or being conscience-less when it comes to weighing my own interests against theirs; indeed, the people who know me well (there are one or two) would probably tell you—and this is ironic—that I may be the textbook definition of "codependency," as the 12-steps tried to sell the concept to America back in the late 1980s. No, I'm talking more about being true to who I was. Besides, I know for a fact that I could not have lived successfully pretending to be someone else. I would've self-destructed—as I, in fact, pretty much did, every time I tried.
We are, each of us, individuals. We are not just another thin slice cut from some Brobdingnagian cake, where each and every other slice looks and tastes the same. It follows that if our search is truly for self-actualization, we should attempt to maximize what we inherently are—not run from it in order to embrace some carefully processed, universal vision of Life on Earth.
I have to believe that if more people thought—examined things from all sides—they'd find more personally relevant answers to life's mysteries. Then maybe they wouldn't need to peruse those same damned magazines (or books) month after month, hoping against hope to find something that elevates their lives above the quotidian, something that actually helps them be the unique persons they are. Even when it comes to the search for suitable partners, how can we expect to find a "soul-mate" by employing the sort of shop-manual, one-size-fits-all approach to dating that's advocated by (and embodied in) books like The Rules? I hereby give you, in its totality, the chapter on relationships from Steve's self-help book: When you go on dates,* for Christ's sake, just be yourself! How else are you going to find someone who likes you for who you are?
(And here's the funniest part. Let's suppose that self-help really, really gains societywide traction, such that everybody has read "the literature," all the major works in the genre. Now think about the simplest career advice—say, something like "Always make eye contact with the person who's interviewing you." OK, now we're all making eye contact with the people who are interviewing us. So...where are we? Back to square one, is where we are. We've accomplished nothing.)
The bigger point is that when we stray too far from what we were "meant to be," something inside us rebels, chafing at that betrayal. This is what I meant in an earlier post about unintended consequences. Yes, it is possible that all those books and seminars, with their 10 rules and 7 keys and secrets unlocked, may provide you with the outer trappings of success. But they may also kill you, the real you, in the process. I submit that you may well be far less happy with what you have become—even if you are more outwardly successful (whatever that means)—because what you have now become is a reproach to the individual you were prewired to be. You'll exist in a constant state of inner tension, not unlike the hundreds of millions in the former Soviet Union who lived their profoundly constrained lives, doing exactly what they were told to do, knowing that the penalties for dissension—which is to say, for personal freedom—were extreme. This helps explain why so many of them turned to the bottle.
That kid in that cafe was a rarity. Most of us will not wipe down that table, certainly not with such passion, unless it's what we really want to do in life. We'll give it lip service, go through the perfunctory motions, and we'll hate ourselves in the morning, if not all day long. We do not as a rule take genuine pride in "achievements" that are unaligned with what we truly want(ed) to do and be. And we can't much help what we truly want to do and be.
More and more, science refutes the idea that we are blank slates at birth. More and more, science affirms that what we are, whatever we are, was largely present in the womb. We are tall or we are short, we are gay or we are straight, we are left-handed or right, we have dimples or not, blue eyes or brown. So too, we are moody or we are mellow. We are logical or emotional. Artistic or analytical. Dependable or erratic. It's all in there, in large measure. That is what I believe to be true.
I realize that a series of posts like this is bound to have overtones of elitism and intellectual snobbery (or at least the pretension to same). That is not my intent. But one thing I do know about myself is that I think for myself. Which is to say, I don't (knowingly) regurgitate pithy quotes or even whole arguments (as some do) that have been postulated by others, which I present to the world in the guise of "thought."** Further, I take almost nothing as a given, which can result in some pretty bizarre areas of inquiry (as those of you who've been with us a while can attest). I started this blog as an adjunct to the publication of SHAM, but I have maintained it all this time, largely, because I like to hear what people think. What people themselves think. And so if I ask you why blowing up Congress or having sex with roosters is wrong, I don't want you to quote from some law or one of the Commandments, or tell me "that's just how it is." I want to hear why you think it's wrong. My whole life, I've wanted to hear people talking as individuals, as selves. Not as reflections of what society (or Church; or the legal system; or Tony Robbins) made them. We can't help what we've internalized to this point in life. But we don't have to default to that body of core knowledge in approaching each new situation, and we certainly don't have to define ourselves by it.
So please, do me this favor: Don't call what you find on all those shelves in bookstores "self-actualization." Call it acculturation or selling out or whatever you want to call it. Just be clear on this: When you learn how to fit in, how to be better at what society wants you to be, how to make life go more "smoothly" and such, it is not self-help. It is the opposite. Because self-help does not actualize. It homogenizes.
This is likely the last post of this type that you will read on SHAMblog. In any case, our new format launches on March 1...otherwise known as the conclusion of my 60th year, all of which were, I swear, spent on this very planet. :)
* I am told that younger people don't really "date" anymore. Primarily they just fuck, see how they like it, and decide if they want to fuck that person again. Pardon my French. But I allow myself more leeway in footnotes.
** When I do use quotes, as in this series, they are more like mini-headlines, or what we in the magazine biz call "decks." Or I use them to be "catchy." In any case, they are always the result of the ensuing argument, not the impetus for it.