Monthly Archives: October 2013

On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.

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Filed under Ambition, America, Desire, Essays, Fame, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

The Messenger

chicago-downtown-sunset_30728_990x742I’m having a busy week and only found time to get a little writing exercise. I’ve tried to compose a very little story of ten sentences, the first of 50 words, the second of 45, the third 4o… you get the idea. It felt a little like rolling downhill, and the tone and content may have tumbled with it…

Because you left the door open and because your expression said you meant for me to enter, I walked through it, and, though you wanted comfort—isn’t comfort all we ever want?—I was only silent company, another heart in a room, a near stranger often worthless even to himself. Once, as my mother waited for my father, sitting in the gray light of a Saturday’s end, an empty glass in her hand, her hand resting on the table, staring toward the street, she hummed music I barely heard and didn’t know, and I spoke. She turned as you turned, eyes landing on my face as if my face were dusk itself, the final whisper of light when sun slips past the last obstacle, and every echo of reflected gold in every window blinks out. Now I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but her half smile, which she hoped offered warmth and attention, couldn’t hold its place on her lips and, despite her, fell with her tears. So perhaps you understand why I didn’t extend a word but sat just out of your reach and vision, more keen to be present, frightened to topple your fragile calm. When you grow up in a house that swings between ferocity and exhaustion, you harmonize without noticing, settling into whatever keeps you safe but close. And what was there to say that you didn’t know?—he was gone and meant to be, wouldn’t be back. Sorry as I was then, I couldn’t tell you so because I loved him too. He left both of us, and he meant to leave. I only found him gone.

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Filed under Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Friendship, Grief, Laments, life, Pain, Silence, Thoughts, Voice