Strange how the sting of a statement can persist. Lately, my memory keeps replaying an encounter with a college classmate in 1985. She appeared in Tewligan’s, a bar in Louisville where my friends and I danced on Friday nights. I hadn’t seen her in two years and, in that time, I’d received my masters and taken a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English. We exchanged what-are-you-doing-nows, and she said the only important part of this story.
“Sort of underemployed, aren’t you?”
I haven’t seen her since—I can’t recall her name—but she provided one of those moments when everything seems shaken into place—the DVD seated and swallowed, each bottle slotted into its proper square in a lattice, all the b-bs settling into the dimples of a clown’s face.
Her question stuck with me because high school and college classmates expected more of me. The usual scrawled good wishes fill my high school yearbook but so do many assertions I’d someday be president, a movie actor, a general all-around famous and accomplished person. Many students probably have yearbooks like mine, but in college my ambitions ran unchecked. They rose to Parnassian heights. My senior roommate and many of our friends fully expected us to be renowned writers reviewed regularly in the NY Times. He is. I’m not.
My son is a high school senior. Right now, his applications fly in a holding pattern over his head, and he waits to see which acceptances will land and which jet elsewhere. I wonder if he has such ambitions for himself and hope he doesn’t. His impressive talents, nurtured well, might take him far, but I’d like him to live by the standard of satisfaction, not accomplishment.
I’ve measured my own life by what I might have done. 25 years later, I hear my college classmate echoed in questions about why I’m here and not elsewhere, why I’m not doing something different or something more. People are no longer asking really, but I hear it. I ask myself. So short of my early dreams, I resist recognizing I’ve found my level. Satisfaction feels like rationalizing, trying to bury an ambition that pounds like a heart long separated from its body.
In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, on the way back from an blissful day on the coast with a new love, the main character Binx Bolling realizes the small joys of his life and says, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”
As the great Catholic novelist, Percy has Bolling express the sentiment of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who espoused the Little Way as a devotion to everyday people and everyday tasks—in her view, the right way to worship. Salvation was daunting in her day, a question of how near perfection believers came. She expressed the welcome idea people might love God less through Acts and more through simple, day-in, day-out goodness.
And I wish I could believe her. I’ve nothing to be dissatisfied about. I’m good at teaching, or at least earnest about doing my best, and have always sought to exercise my talents, such as they are. In my best moments, I’m happy in Thérèse’s little way. I want to be because there’s agony in comparison.
When my son was small, he told me he was “good at a lot of things, but not the best at anything.” He’s attended schools where even bright, creative, and diligent students stand in the shadow of brilliant and dazzling talent. It’s hard not to compare, but I want him to be satisfied with making the most of what he has and form no ambition beyond devoting full effort to building on his considerable gifts.
Like every father, I want him to have what I lack. I want him to find his way.