Goodness gracious! Have you had the chance to read Stanley Fish’s astounding personal reflection in The NY Times this past weekend, “My Life Report”? He wrote it in response to an assignment that colleague David Brooks gave him and a bunch of other septugenarians, asking them to report on their lives: what they have and haven’t done well, and what they’ve learned. After reflecting on a lifetime of “luck,” Fish turns the microscope on himself with a remarkably candid assessment of his shortcomings. He relates that he’s not been a person who has known how to rest, that even mundane social situations take on an exhausting performance (scorekeeping!) aspect for him, and that the fallout in his personal life has been significant. Life as one long succession of tests to pass, standards to meet, people to please, judgments to avoid; it sounds remarkably familiar, does it not? The Law asserts itself over all creation – we’re not making it up. The diagnosis is not an arbitrary one.
Fortunately, Fish doesn’t leave us there. His wizened self-understanding has led him to a truly compassionate view of other people. That everyone is suffering, everyone is afflicted (no one is comfortable!), so much so that generosity is the only humane response, to both oneself and others, the only thing that makes any sense or difference. What good news that generosity turns out to be a divine attribute as well – even when it comes to the ungenerous. But I digress. Fish paints a profound picture of demand humbling/oppressing a man to the point where his heart has genuinely taken a bit more of Matthew 22:39 shape. Not because he was able to pass the endless tests – but precisely because he couldn’t. Go figure. Be sure to read all the way to the end, as he closes with what must be some of the most touching lines the esteemed paper has ever printed, ht MB:
What I didn’t do so well, and haven’t yet done, was figure out how to be at ease in the world. I noticed something about myself when I was married to my first wife, an excellent cook and hostess who knew how to throw a party. My main job was to dole out the drinks, which I liked to do because I could stand behind the bar and never have to really talk to anyone. (“Do you want ice with that?”) My happiest moment, and the moment I was looking forward to all evening, was when the party was over and failure of any number of kinds had been avoided once again.
If you regard each human interaction as an occasion for performance, your concern and attention will be focused on how well or badly you’re doing and not on the people you’re doing it with. This turned out to be true for me in the classroom, on vacations, at conferences, in department meetings, at family gatherings, at concerts, in museums, at weddings, even at the movies. Always I have one eye on the clock and at least a part of the other on whether I’m doing my part or holding my own; and always there is a sigh of relief at the end. Whew, got through that one!
It may be unnecessary to say so, but this way of interacting or, rather, not interacting does not augur well for intimate relationships. If you characteristically withhold yourself, keep yourself in reserve, refuse to risk yourself, those you live with are not going to be getting from you what they need. So my first wife didn’t get what she needed and neither, in her early years, did my daughter. Typically, I escaped to work and a structured environment where the roles are pre-packaged and you can ride the rails of scripted routines without having to display or respond to actual feelings.
I’ve tried to do better in my second marriage, and I have done better with my daughter now that she is an adult who draws sustenance from other sources and doesn’t need everything I don’t have to give. But I’m still overscheduling myself and trying as hard as I can to make sure that I have absolutely no time for thinking seriously about life, never mind reporting on it.
And what have I learned along the way? Three things, closely related. The first is that people are often in pain; their lives are shadowed by memories and anticipations of inadequacy, and they are always afraid that the next moment will bring disaster or exposure. You can see it in their faces, and that is especially true of children who have not yet learned how to pretend that everything is all right and who are acutely aware of the precariousness of their situations.
The second thing I have learned is that the people who are most in pain are the people who act most badly; the worse people behave, the more they are in pain. They’re asking for help, although the form of the request is such that they are likely never to get it.
The third thing I have learned follows from the other two. It is the necessity of generosity. I suppose it is a form of the golden rule: if you want them to be generous to you, be generous to them. The rule acknowledges the fellowship of fragility we all share. In your worst moments — which may appear superficially to be your best moments — what you need most of all is the sympathetic recognition of someone who says, if only in a small smile or half-nod, yes, I have been there too, and I too have tried to shore up my insecurity with exhibitions of pettiness, bluster, overconfidence, petulance and impatience. It’s not, “But for the grace of God that could be me”; it’s, “Even with the grace of God, that will be, and has been, me.”