And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past. . .
(“Fountain of Sorrow” Jackson Browne)
I’m going to borrow a little quote from Henry David Thoreau, used in my previous post, to introduce this one. You will perhaps notice a tweak or two:
I went into the wilds of western Massachusetts because I wished to write deliberately, to front only the essential facts of my work-in-progress, and see if I could not get something done away from laundry, appointments, and the flotsam of daily life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not written …
It’s my way of saying this is a repeat, but I believe it still has merit. I hope you’ll feel the same.
Sometimes, it’s something we truly earned—and didn’t get. The career-making job that would have launched our dreams. Sometimes, it’s something we never had, but always craved. Parents who could love us. And sometimes it’s just one terrible moment: The car we failed to see in time. Whatever it is, in most of our lives there lurks The thing that cannot be changed. It’s the moment, the decision, the situation that all our effort and talent and endurance cannot alter or undo.
Successful writers and actors, business people and ballplayers, if they’re honest, often mention the role luck played in their achievement. Along with the hard work and long hours, they confess to being in the right place at the right time. No one mentions the opportunities that went to someone else, the love that never materialized, the awful accident of standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that’s the hardest part about The thing that cannot be changed. It’s almost never the result of our own doing. Perhaps that’s why it looms so large. It lies outside our control, and people like to control their own lives. When someone else denies us our most basic needs, tramples our dreams, we experience it as an injustice, and injustice bites deep. Its grip is tenacious.
Yet, we must learn to live with The thing that cannot be changed. Thrive in spite of it. Not let it swamp us internally or accept it as a judgment of our own worth. There’s a myth that only losers suffer from The thing that cannot be changed. That successful people simply leave adversity in the dust. Would that it were it so easy.
“The Places That Failed Us Before”
Tennessee Williams was a two-time Pulitzer prize winner and hailed as one of the greatest dramatists in 20th-century American theater. Decidedly a brilliant writer and a great success. But he was never able to stare down The thing that cannot be changed.
For Williams, The thing was twofold: The abusive, alcoholic father who disdained and bullied a son he considered weak; and the controlling, puritanical mother horrified by all things sexual. Williams heard their message loud and clear: “You are wrong as you are.”
In one particularly harrowing incident, his father hauled him out of the University of Missouri after he failed a military training course in his junior year, and put him to work in the factory of the International Shoe Company where the senior Williams was an executive. Tennessee hated the daily grind and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.
After he recovered, Williams enrolled in another college, and later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Speaking of his early days as a dramatist, collaborating with others on a play for an amateur summer theater group, Williams wrote, “The laughter … enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that saved my life.”
The hope in that last sentence is moving; its subtext, haunting: If I just work hard enough, long enough, I can write my way free of my pain. But he never did. Despite using that pain to create some of the most memorable characters on the stage (Big Daddy, Amanda Wingfield), he remained trapped within The thing that cannot be changed. Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’s plays said, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”
In 1939, with the assistance of his agent, he received a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a play he was writing, Battle of Angels. The play foundered when it opened, but Williams was on his way. And yet, a poem he penned that same year reveals how badly The thing that cannot be changed dogged him:
CRIED THE FOX
I run, cried the fox, in circles narrower, narrower still, across the desperate hollow, skirting the frantic hill
and shall till my brush hangs burning flame at the hunter’s door continue this fatal returning
to places that failed me before!
Then, with his heart breaking nearly, the lonely, passionate bark of the fugitive fox rang out clearly as bells in the frosty dark,
across the desperate hollow, skirting the frantic hill, calling the pack to follow a prey that escaped them still.
Williams once remarked that “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.” But the undertow of those experiences finally claimed him. He died of asphyxia, an accident related to the quantity of alcohol and drugs he consumed over the last 30 years of his life. His obituary in The New York Times (February 27, 1983) paid homage to him as “a master of dramatic moments who created lost, tortured characters struggling for dignity and hope in a world that often denied both.”
Beyond Her Own Pain and Anger
Helen Keller became acquainted with The thing that cannot be changed at 19 months, when a severe illness left her blind and deaf. Imagine the terror of that. Your world goes dark and silent, and you are too young to even grasp why. By all accounts, Helen spent the next five years in a rage, rejecting every attempt to reach her. It was only when the young teacher, Annie Sullivan, at last broke through that dark silence and communicated with her, that Helen understood there might be something beyond her own pain and anger.
As an adult, she used that discovery to help other people afflicted with blindness. She joined the American Foundation for the Blind. For 40 years, this organization served as her global platform to advocate for people with vision loss. She saw to it that state commissions for the blind were established, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to children without sight. She also championed the rights of working people and women’s suffrage.
It is a hard thing for us humans to accept, but the bottom line is this: We cannot control other people and we cannot change the past. We can only control our own actions and responses. So when The thing that cannot be changed brings us to our knees, as it sometimes will, we must learn to breathe with it. As Helen Keller discovered, it is one aspect of our personal story, but it is not our whole story. So we own it, and then we rise up. And carry on.
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” Henry David Thoreau
It’s the most human of desires: To crave validation for our work, our ideas, our dreams, our self. Whether we are scientists or writers, teachers or public defenders, musicians or social workers, we like to imagine our work will have lasting impact, influence positive change, spark new discoveries. Even if we don’t aspire to a world stage, it’s a rare person who doesn’t want to have their efforts recognized and valued by their immediate peers and colleagues.
Warning: Seeking validation from others puts us in an extremely vulnerable place. Marks us out as a target. Like walking around with a “Kick Me” sign on our back. When we need something from others, we cede control over the outcome. This is rarely a problem with family and friends, but beyond those warm waters, be aware: There are sharks.
Few of us have escaped the damage jealousy inflicts. The colleague who badmouths us behind our back because he fears any success of ours makes him appear less capable.
The ruthless competitor is another shark. Everything is about power to the RC, and she covets all of it. Line from a quirky little TV movie Donovan Quick: “It’s not enough that we are seen to win; others must be seen to fail.” That’s the ruthless competitor.
These attacks, delivered by people we know and deal with daily, feel personal even though they say a lot more about the attacker than they do about the attacked. Out in the wider world, however, what undermines our validation is highly impersonal: Money. Trends. The status quo. If you’re feeling defeated by these faceless forces, rest assured you are in excellent company.
Too Weird: Vincent van Gogh
The all-time poster boy for lack of public validation is Vincent van Gogh. If you google famous paintings of the 1880s, a lot of Van Gogh’s works pop up, but the reality was completely different on that summer day in 1890 when he shot himself with a revolver on the streets of Auvers. Up to that day, Van Gogh had sold just one painting, The Red Vineyards, from the several thousand he’d done.
During the years Van Gogh painted starry nights and cornfields and chairs with a pipe on their caned seats, people went to galleries to view Impressionist works. Renoir’s Girl with a Hoop. Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère. Beautiful pieces of light, air, and dazzling color. By contrast, Van Gogh’s first painting, The Potato Eaters, was perceived as crude, amateurish, ugly.
Van Gogh, too, admired the Impressionists and they influenced his use of color, but his paintings were not the tranquil stuff of little boats floating on the Seine or lunching parties. The galleries and the art-viewing public turned away from the raw emotion of his work. The truth of the turbulent feelings he expressed made them uncomfortable. Not much money in that. As Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wilhelmina: The exhibitions, the picture stores, everything, everything, are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money. Prophetically, heartbreakingly, he adds: People give a lot of money for the work after a painter himself is dead [but] they are always slighting the living painters …
A decade would pass after Van Gogh’s death before his enormous talent achieved the recognition he craved in life, and only then because his sister-in-law Joanna bothered to collect all his surviving work (his mother had thrown away crates of it—thanks, Mom). She kept pushing the powers of the art world until she got a Paris show in 1901, where at last, in the new century, the world was ready for Vincent. Today, of course, his paintings are worth millions, and it’s recognized that he was in the forefront of Expressionism, a style that celebrates the artist’s emotional response to his subject.
Too Unprofitable: Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka fared slightly better than Van Gogh. He was able to get a few of his short stories published in his lifetime, “The Metamorphosis” among them. But he wasn’t writing what everyone else was writing, and most publishers regarded his existentialist tales as too “out there” to be profitable. What he did manage to publish received scant attention.
Kafka always craved more time to write, but his lack of success as an author meant he had to work full-time for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, a job he held for most of his life, right up until the final months before tuberculosis killed him.
The man who would come to be considered the most influential existentialist writer of the 20th century died thinking himself a failure. In his last days, he begged his good friend and fellow writer Max Brod to burn all his work. Fortunately, Brod ignored this request and, like Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, made it his mission to get his friend’s work out there. Brod prepared the manuscripts for three of Kafka’s novels and saw them through German publication: The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927).
The Trial would not appear in English until 1937, by which time a world still recovering from major economic depression, mired in fascism, and on the brink of another global war, was better prepared for a novel about a man who is arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority who withholds the nature of his crime from both him and the reader.
The times had caught up with Kafka’s genius. His books were immensely popular during World War II. Their blend of realism and the fantastic, edged with black humor and themes of alienation, spoke to the anxieties of a rapidly changing 20th century.
Kafka’s handwritten manuscript of The Trial sold for a record $1.98 million in 1988, but perhaps it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez who paid Kafka the most significant tribute. Reading “The Metamorphosis,” he said, had made him see “that it was possible to write in a different way.”
No Point to It: Gregor Mendel
Sometimes what we’re doing is not perceived as too weird or unprofitable so much as completely irrelevant. Most folks in the mid-19th century had no idea what Gregor Mendel was up to, puttering out there in the monastery gardens with his zillions of little pea plants. Nor did they care.
Mendel was by all accounts a shy, quiet man who suffered occasional psychological breakdowns. He was also brilliant—a scholar of philosophy, mathematics, and physics—and curious about everything, especially the natural sciences. He conducted his experiments in a monastery garden because he had decided to become a monk. In his day, it was one way to extend your education without having to cough up the actual dough, of which he had none.
In 1854, when Mendel started looking at how hereditary traits get transmitted in plant hybrids, the prevailing beliefs were: 1) the traits of all species were merely a diluted combo of the parents’ traits, and 2) any hybrid would return to its original form over generations, ergo a hybrid could not result in something truly new. What experiments there had been to bolster these beliefs were dodgy by modern scientific standards. Scant number of trial subjects. Short trial durations. Mendel’s work, by contrast, went on for eight years, involved tens of thousands of individual plants, and mountains of meticulous data. His experiments showed that the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants follows particular patterns.
But no one “got it.” When the results of his studies—the first to use statistical analysis to predict hereditary principles—were published, the reaction was a major yawn. Like many a 9th grade biology student, the public, and even the scientific community, failed to understand the huge significance of Mendel’s discoveries about dominant and recessive traits (think Big B/brown eyes/dominant and Little b/blue eyes/recessive) for heredity, genetics, and biodiversity.
His key findings, the Law of Segregation (dominant and recessive traits are passed on randomly from parents to offspring) and the Law of Independent Assortment (traits are passed on independently of other traits) would languish for decades before 20th century biologists “discovered” his work, confirmed his experiments, and proclaimed him the father of modern genetics.
A Threat to the Status Quo: Galileo Galilei
Sometimes our work or our ideas threaten the status quo. As we saw with Mendel, people will cling tenaciously to any sort of nonsense as long as it’s the prevailing nonsense or gives them power or makes them rich. The price for bucking the established order runs high, especially the more those in power suspect you’re onto a truth that will unseat them.
In Galileo Galilei’s lifetime, the world was believed to be geocentric and fixed in place. To suggest the earth revolved around the sun was to contradict Scripture (Psalm 104.5: “The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”) and to court heresy charges.
Galileo was not interested in prevailing “truths.” Born in 1564, on the cusp between natural philosophy and modern science, he just wanted to find out everything he could about the planets, their characteristics and how they moved. Through the telescope he invented, he was able to view things like four of Jupiter’s largest satellites orbiting that planet, an observation that corroborated Copernicus’s until-then-unproven theory of a heliocentric solar system.
Not only did this get the Church’s back up, but the discovery of moons orbiting another planet contradicted Aristotelian cosmology—the “science” of the day—which said that all heavenly bodies orbited Earth. The Aristotelian astronomers felt Galileo’s discoveries made them look like fools, so he wasn’t going to get much help from that quarter either.
Pope Urban VIII invited Galileo to write a book giving arguments for and against heliocentrism, including the Pope’s own views on the matter. The catch? Galileo was not to advocate for heliocentrism. In his 1631 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo did indeed include the pope’s views, but he also strongly defended his own proofs that the earth was not fixed, nor the center of the universe.
The enraged pope formally accused him of heresy and placed him under house arrest. Knowing that neither popes nor misguided Aristotelians can silence the truth forever, Galileo continued his work, publishing a treatise on the principles of mechanics and making new discoveries about the moon, until his death eight years later. Stephen Hawking said of Galileo that he probably had more of a hand in the birth of modern science than anyone else.
Coloring Outside the Lines: Henry David Thoreau
Sometimes, our ideas, our work, our whole way of being just makes people itch. A person who goes their own way, without reference to the status quo—what is expected of someone from their background, of their gender, in their situation—poses a subtle threat to those who are careful never to color outside the established lines.
Henry David Thoreau made people itch. A writer and philosopher from a middle-class family, Thoreau studied at Harvard, but could not work up any enthusiasm for the professions available to college graduates in the 1830s: the law, the church, business, medicine. So, he took up teaching in the Concord public school, a job he quit after several weeks because he refused to administer corporal punishment. He then opened a grammar school with his brother, but his brother soon died. What to do next?
Troubled by and dissatisfied with industrialization in particular and capitalism in general, Thoreau sought a simpler life, a closer relationship with nature. It was around this time that he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became both a mentor and a conduit to people like journalist/women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, and writer/teacher/reformer Bronson Alcott. These Transcendentalists believed that all nature and humanity are divine without resort to organized religion, which they saw as corrupt. It was a philosophy that dovetailed closely with Thoreau’s own views.
Thoreau cobbled together a living by tutoring Emerson’s children and other odd jobs while seeking out any and every connection that could help get his writing published. He was a prolific writer (he left thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts at his death), but only fifteen of his essays and two of his books found their way into print in his lifetime. One of these was Walden, a recounting of the two years he spent living in a self-built shack in the woods. As Thoreau wrote:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived …
Walden received little attention at its publication. People had a hard time understanding this man who lived outside the usual conventions of ambition, a man who lived by his own lights. But after Thoreau’s death, the book became a classic that has informed environmentalists, philosophers, and writers like Tolstoy. His essay On Civil Disobedience, which champions nonviolent dissent, influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
You Are a Ming Vase
As these stories show, failure to achieve recognition during one’s life—to be publicly validated—has dogged some of history’s greatest talents. Even J.S. Bach’s compositions were little known in his day because music publishers didn’t feel they were worth the high cost of printing. So Bach, at his death, was regarded merely as a skilled organ player. His music only became known in the following century when Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced his “Passion According to St. Matthew.”
But lack of validation did not lessen the significance Bach’s music or Galileo’s contributions to science. It did not mar the enduring beauty of Van Gogh’s paintings. To accept the judgment of others as a true measure of our merits is to place what is most valuable into indifferent hands. You wouldn’t give a careless stranger your Ming vase to hold.
If you believe in your ideas, if you are passionate about your work, don’t be discouraged by what’s trending, what’s profitable, what’s status quo. Keep going. In your lifetime, you must be the final arbiter.