Sunday, February 25, 2007

What Counts As Success In This Life?

On a recent trip to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, I stood transfixed before the circular, floor-to-ceiling tank at the entrance to the exhibits. It’s a lighted tank, full of tropical fish. A bright yellow fish, about the shape and size of a large, vertical pancake, swam lazily near the glass. I bent over, aligning my eye with its eye. I waited for some sign of recognition, if not from the fish, then from within myself; we are both the stuff of earth. The fish waggled its tail and turned, unresponsive, from me. I watched it pass into a mesmerizing conglomerate of fish. A heaviness descended on me; I was tired, but almost giddy, too; depressed, but also anxious. I turned to my friend beside me and said, “Why? What does it all mean?”

An Australian Lungfish at the aquarium has been on exhibit since it arrived for the Chicago World’s Fair, in between the two world wars. It sits, hardly moving, near the bottom of a shallow tank, as it has done for 74 years, while men and women have lived and died and loved and fought; faced failure, loss, disillusionment and, sometimes, success.

Humanity, as a species, is purpose-driven. We want to do something, but also to know why we are doing it. What use are we to our selves, to others, to the world? This is why we don’t exactly love the menial things like washing clothes or dusting bookshelves. These activities don’t seem to “get us” anywhere; they simply maintain a state of being. Standing there in front of the tank, I saw the entire life of a fish as consisting of the maintenance of a state; that of existing. A voice in my head fairly screamed, “But what is the point of existing?”

Several years ago, I had the—dare I say—pleasure of being depressed at the same time as a friend. We sat side by side in front of a small, dimly lit fish tank. He told me he’d heard that fish-watching is therapeutic for depressives. I could only work out that it must have something to do with water and “gentle” movement. I’m wondering now if it doesn’t work (if at all—sitting silently with an understanding friend goes a lot further, I think) in a more unexpected way. The fish does not pursue purpose. The fish doesn’t fail or succeed in anything, except most basically; it either procures a meal or it doesn’t; it escapes being prey or it doesn’t. And the life of an aquarium fish is even less purposeful, since it has no need of eluding predators or finding food. Yet, the human being, watching the fish, cannot help but look for ways to assign meaning to its meanderings from one side of the tank to the other or at least, to recognize how very different she is from a fish. If this is insufficient proof of genuine meaning, it is at least sufficient to demonstrate that human life is a series of purposeful actions directed toward attainment of a goal (or goals), which will result in a status change or an improvement; a growth. Accomplishment of these goals, we call success.

But what counts as success? Must we always achieve our goals in order to be successful? What happens when the pursuit of a goal leads you to conclude that you should abandon it? Have you failed? I read a fascinating paper, once, exploring the idea of “sunk costs”. The example accompanying this explanation of the term is that of a pre-paid theater ticket, in the event that it is non-refundable and the buyer no longer wants to see the movie.

...[T]he ticket buyer can choose between the following two end results:

  1. Having paid the price of the ticket and having suffered watching a movie that he does not want to see, or;
  2. Having paid the price of the ticket and having used the time to do something more fun.

Let's say I went to the theater and pre-bought a movie ticket for later in the evening. On my way out the door, I ran into a friend, who assured me that the movie in question was a tremendous waste of time, and also invited me to a dinner party at her house, the same night. If I do what I want to do, my original goal of seeing the film will remain unaccomplished. However, had I not pursued the goal and paid the price of the ticket, I would not have bumped into my friend, nor been invited to her party. I need to accept the ticket price as a sunk cost and leave it behind me, where it properly lies. If we are too rigid about accomplishing our goals, we will experience dissatisfaction and failure, as surely as if we make no goals at all.

A definition of success seems more nuanced than "the accomplishment of a goal". Must the goal come to fruition in order to achieve success? As a writer, a reasonable goal may be to get published, one day. The pursuit of that goal will certainly make me a better writer and hopefully be of some interest to my friends and family. But what if I never find someone willing to publish me? Does this mean I am not a successful writer?

How do we determine when we are being successful? In other words, on the road to a goal, at what point can we say we are “having success”? I came across a definition of success as,

“Doing what you said you would do, with ease." (Maria Nemeth)
I guess the "ease" part is put in there to imply that “things are working” and you are, therefore, “experiencing” success. This seems ridiculous to me. Many successes are a hell of a fight, and we don’t know until the last minute that we’re going to win.

Building disciplines into our daily lives, which become habits and then mature into character—as we talked about in a previous discussion—will equip us to achieve our goals. But what if we uncover a fundamental personal deficit? William James made this bold statement,

"There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man's lack of faith in his true self."
I can see how that statement may be inspiring (to me it is only depressing), but it simply isn’t true. We sometimes make honest mistakes and other times, we misjudge our capabilities. There is more than one way to fall off the side of a cliff, and lack of faith is not the most usual. So perhaps the important part in success is fixing on the proper goal, in the first place.

Albert Einstein, by all accounts very successful, said,

"Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value."
When we think of what makes someone “valuable” in her field or in his relationships, we see it is those with integrity who are valued. If we love a thing and do it as well as we can, perhaps that is success?

How about Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of success?

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded."

It certainly wouldn’t do for a fish.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What are we trying to do when we wear clothes?

Blue jeans. Running shoes. A little black dress.

An impeccably dressed man. An elderly lady in a housecoat. A woman in a business suit. A twenty-something college student dressed in charity-shop threads.

A half-naked child with a bloated belly stares out from your television screen. A half-naked woman pouts for the camera, hoping you'll run right out and buy that Racing Red lipstick she’s donning. African children sport faded Nike t-shirts and bare feet. An overweight teenager wears a midriff and low-riders. A six year old girl dresses like a beauty-queen.

Whoever we are, our relationship with our clothes is, at the very least, an intimate one. As the only species on earth that both needs and desires additional covering for our hides, what we wear and how we wear it is a basic part of human life on earth. Some protection from the elements is necessary for our survival. But for all of human history, we have treated the making or purchasing of our attire as something more like an art form, involving careful craftsmanship and aesthetically pleasing design. Today, the ease and economy of manufacturing has put innumerable styles and fabrics at our fingertips. We all need a coat, but do we need a closet full of them? We need a solid pair of shoes, but ten or twenty pair? Clearly, we are trying to say something about ourselves, with the clothes we wear. What do your clothes say about you, anyway?

For ages, clothes have served as social signifiers, denoting such things as class, wealth, marital status or age. In today’s western society, these distinctions are fading. Is that woman twenty-five or thirty-five? It’s sometimes hard to tell. Are we losing something by blurring the lines? Gaining something?

One of the most obvious uses of clothing is to hide our nakedness. Stripping of the clothes is often synonymous with the stripping of pride. It is a form of intimidation and torture. The Seattle Times covered the story of an anthrax scare which required everyone within the potentially toxic zone to strip and be washed down. Even in the face of so grave a threat, a reluctant few refused to undress. The article was titled, “We’d Rather Die than Take Our Clothes Off”.

At the opposite extreme, Naturists advocate nudity as the natural and therefore, best clothing. They say it’s all about erasing the barriers between people of different social classes and about accepting yourself for who you really are. Are those of us who prefer wearing clothes, unenlightened—or worse—vain? Naturism reacts against the gnostic idea still prevalent in parts of our society, that the body is inherently shameful. Are they right? Is wearing clothes always a sign of shame? Or is there a certain metaphorical protecting and reserving or even—in direct contrast to the idea of Naturism—a reverencing of ourselves that takes place each time we pull on our clothes?