The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. —Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
At the peak of Texas summer, my brother sometimes challenged me to walk barefoot across hot asphalt in a who-can-go-slowest race. I needed to disconnect brain and legs. My knees couldn’t bob. No strain could show when, reaching the other curb, I had to say (without saying), “No big deal.”
Perhaps you feel a metaphor coming on.
I’ve been thinking recently about “The right stuff,” not the web-defined, “Essential abilities or qualities like self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge necessary for success in a given field or situation,” but the sort suggested by Tom Wolfe’s book of that name. Wolfe says the right stuff extends so far beyond what’s apt that “self-confidence, dependability, and knowledge” are givens, the bedrock of your being. The right stuff is so placid and nonchalant, so James-Bondsian that it can be neither shaken nor stirred.
And, for me, it’s mostly an act.
Pretending tranquility can’t fool everyone. The people closest to you know it’s make-believe. Those who have seen your sudden temper, seen your peevishness and general dismay, they recognize you get bothered. They begin looking for signs of earthquake. And with the rare few for whom you’re transparent, being read is disarming and strangely comforting, as if everything you’ve lost suddenly rolls into view.
Most people, however, want to fall for your act. Juggling is impressive only when it adds calm as it adds clubs. I try to carry all my clubs serenely, but most of the time I’m settling for appearing to. Knowing it’s not okay to just scream, I say “I could just scream” instead. I figure keeping cool is good for those around me, and what’s the harm in acting the way you want to feel? Frequently I’m just idealistic enough to believe thinking can make things so.
Still I feel split. People who suffer panic attacks say their episodes well so suddenly, incongruously, and strangely that the attack seems to happen to someone else. I know that situation in reverse, wondering why I’m not more upset, how I could be racked and so pain-free. When people tell me appalling things, I gulp and say, “Oh.”
I wonder if I’d ask to shower and shave before my execution.
Medicine might tell me the right stuff is the wrong stuff. No one can inhale a hurricane without internal damage, and a few heavy sighs won’t dissipate it. But when you’re sitting on the edge of a precipice, you don’t dare let the hurricane out.
I’d like to ask if everyone feels as I do and am afraid to.
The other day a colleague praised my “poise,” and I answered, “I don’t feel poised.” But I only said it. How can you know how far away that other curb is?