Saturday, June 02, 2012

Why You Didn’t Ever Become . . . (fill in your own blank here) . . .


I’m continuing my reading of the American 1885 classic The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, Penguin Classics, 1986.  Thus, I came across a most interesting statement about one of his characters, the now elderly Mr. Bromfield Corey.  Howells is commenting on Corey’s ability, when he was much younger, as a painter and says this:

. . . he might have made himself a name as a painter of portraits if he had not had so much money.  But he had plenty of money, though by this time he was married and beginning to have a family.  It was absurd for him to paint portraits for pay, and ridiculous to paint them for nothing; so he did not paint them at all.

As I read that, three thoughts came to mind.  First, that so many of us feel we never become what we may really have been good at.  Second, that I can distinctly remember what I thought I really wanted to do and likely would have been very good at and even the reason or reasons why I didn’t become any of those things.  And third, that sometimes the reason or reasons for us not to become what we could have or should have become is/are most inane.  Let me explain.

Many of us never become what we would have been really good at, or so it seems.  Why else would we so often hear, in the course of our lives, sentences that begin with “You should have been . . .”?  But I am not so sure about it being an actual fact that many of us don’t become what we would have been good at, especially these days when so many of us have at our disposable access to all sorts of experiences and education.  Sure, we often don’t become what we may have wanted to become, but is there actually any way of knowing whether we would have been good at that?  I don’t think so.  I think we become what we become due to many circumstances in life, opportunity among them.  But the issue of knowing what we really would have been good at is much more complex.  It has internally to do, among other things, with who we are – physically, emotionally, intellectually.  In fact, it has also to do externally with opportunity, money, and the lifestyle and values of our parents.  In fact, so multifaceted are the reasons we end up being who we are that we are almost induced to believe, as difficult as that may be in some cases, that what we actually end up being is what we are or could be best at.

Howells description of Corey’s ability as a painter brought back to my mind what I really thought I wanted to do when I was a youth and what I thought I likely would have been very good at, along with reasons why I didn’t become any of those things.  My earliest recollection was that I wanted to be a preacher like Billy Graham.  For one reason or another that didn’t last long, especially once I had discovered Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare on television.  That fantasy stayed with me a long time.  At least until I discovered that my grades were not conducive to medical school admission requirements.  I tried to rationalize the disqualification by avowing that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood anyway, unless it was in response to an emergency caused by a serious accident. (I actually had such an experience during my teenage years when we witnessed such an accident on the New York State Thruway once.  I managed to cover with a towel the seriously slashed and almost severed leg of an injured party until the medics arrived.  But talking about it still causes me some queasiness.)

When it came time to pursue university, I announced I was going to be a Psychologist, picking the closest thing to Medicine that one could pursue without having to have the marks for medical school.  Things were going well until the ‘love’ bug hit me and I wanted to get on with my ability to earn money so I could marry.  So, instead, I took the shortest route to a profession and attained, after my arts degree in Psychology, an education degree in Counseling.  That worked and from there it was only a matter of time before I left teaching for greener pastures in the world of Corporate Human Resources.  I am sure each reader could go through a similar description of what he or she thought they wanted to be and why they never got there.  I recommend the exercise highly as a means of knowing yourself just a little better.   Would I have been good at a preacher, a doctor, or a psychologist?  Chances are good, I am told.  And you know, in the course of life even today, in two out of those three, I often act in that capacity to the extent the laws allow.  I am confident you would find the same thing in your case if you chose to thing about it.

I contend that sometimes the reason or reasons for us not to become what we could have or should have become is/are most inane.  Why is it so absurd, as Howells suggests, for a rich person to paint for money?  Or, why is it so absurd for a rich person to paint for nothing?  It isn’t if we don’t want it to be.  The problem is we are apt to follow or be dictated to by the absurd thoughts and feelings of society or our parents and thus miss out on what we may have been good at or more importantly, what we really may have enjoyed doing.  And did I really have an aversion to blood that could not have easily been overcome with practice? -- Who knows?  Was my lack of higher marks not something that could be changed? – Of course it could have been.  Was I not able to satisfy my desire to marry early and still finish my graduate Psychology degree? – Yes, many married couples spend their first few years of marriage putting one of the two through school.  No, the more I think about it, the more I realize what is really absurd in Corey’s case is that he did not paint at all.  Perhaps it is much akin to the absurdity of why many of us did not follow the interests and passions of our youth that we could have followed with some boldness and perseverance.

I do not want to end this piece without pointing out a discovery that we have all likely made at one point or another in our lives.  And that is that when asked as adults what we would rather be doing today in the way of a profession, we seldom respond with any of the things that we thought we wanted to do as a young child or even as a teenager.  In my case, if I had my druthers today, I would want to be either a lawyer or an advertising genius.  My life experience has told me that it is really lawyers that rule the world albeit badly and it is creative advertising that has the greatest influence on people.  I love intellectual challenge which both of these professions provide.  I didn’t know that about myself when I was six or sixteen.  I bet you would find the same thing if you did likewise – your view of what is most worthy of doing now is different than what it was early in your existence.

But when all is said and done, what really matters is not so much what we have or what we do, but really true success is measured by who we are as a person and how we see ourselves.  Fortunate is the man or woman that has found him- or her-self by knowing his or her Creator and being contend with what he or she does with, and through, Him.

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