Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snowtober power outage, we were all feeling a little ragged, and apparently the three-year-old Baskinette had taken note.

“Amy Gutman, listen to me” she said authoritatively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a little bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remember thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you probably already know this—the saying is a standard part of the preschool repertoire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a standard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Baskinette kindly transcribed it, and it now has a prominent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s nothing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zillions of times in zillions of different forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite formulation from Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Moreover, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research suggests that people who want what they have are actually happier than others.

And yet—like so many obvious truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasping. This crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a friend angsting over a single less-than-perfect development in a pretty terrific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest possible way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just possible there was a tiny bit of envy and resentment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its attendant financial pressures—my friend’s worries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reaction spoke to a larger point. Something happened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with winning numbers in life’s lottery: We started to believe that we were entitled to perfect lives.

This thought came back to me again while reading Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, which deals with the stunning aftermath of her daughter Quintana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Didion endured an unimaginably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death coming shortly after the death of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne (itself the subject of her best-selling The Year of Magical Thinking). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recurring refrain that this was never supposed to happen.

Make no mistake, Didion’s baffled outrage isn’t limited to the deaths of her husband and daughter—it’s pretty universal, extending to the fact of her own aging, including a frustrating inability to continue wearing (at age 75) her favorite red suede sandals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s worldview, these things were (apparently) not supposed to happen to someone who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swimming pool, a garden . . . There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile. There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair. . . .”

In sum, Didion devotes her considerable gifts to marveling over the shocking fact that she, like the rest of us, is vulnerable to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the awareness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unexpected blow. It seemed so, well, childlike—this notion of a personal exemption, coupled with the implicit expectation that we readers would share her astonishment and chagrin. (Which may go to a separate, if related, point. In her mesmerizing piece on Didion in the current issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flanagan quotes one critic describing Didion and Dunne as having possessed “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a perspective that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funerals always make me think about my own mortality and how I’m actually going to die someday. Me, dead. Imagine that,” Elaine Benes marvels in one of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insightful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed magazine story about the dangers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of People Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Molesters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fucking Die.”


At several points in Blue Nights, Didion seems to recognize she’s at risk of losing her readers. Her response is defiant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home telephones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daughter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in privilege. “’Privilege’ is a judgment. ‘Privilege’ is an opinion. ‘Privilege’ is an accusation,” she writes.

But privilege is also something else: An observation, a statement of fact. And because we are all human and mortal, it is also always temporary.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

  1. Amy, I’m too tired right now to add anything of value to this discussion, but I just wanted to say that you write beautifully about meaningful topics–thanks!

  2. My own personal philosophy is life is unfair, and is often painful. But there are many delights in life, so focus on those and be happy for them. The bad stuff lets us know what the good stuff is. I’ve come to accept that we need both.

  3. Loved little Baskinette’s wisdom—sooooo true! I remember being shocked and appalled that severe autism could happen in MY life! Then being shocked and appalled that I was shocked and appalled? Why NOT in my life?

    As a person who is trying to live a spiritual life, I find being content with what IS very essential. Letting go of all my expectations, and letting God just do his thing with me. I’m much happier when I don’t feel like I need to be in charge. You know?

    By the way—John has that quote from Cheri Huber in a prominent place in his office. He loves it!

    • As always, I love both what you have to say & how you say it, Katie. Thanks so much for reading & commenting. And that’s so cool that John has the quote on his wall! Do you know where he found it? I’m not sure of the original source (what book it’s in) & would love to know.

      • He got it from YOU! :-) You quoted it in something else you wrote, I read it to him, and he loved it!

        • Ah! I know I read it in one of her books, but I can’t remember which. (I looked for & found the quote on the Internet, but they didn’t ID the exact source either.)

  4. Among the mystifying things in the world is this: preschool teachers work so hard, do the most amazing & valuable work & don’t get paid for its worth. There must be a bigger payoff in the learning of these lessons?

    It’s a continual struggle & pleasure to look for what IS good NOW. Glad Saskia’s keeping you honest! xo her mama ps: she is keeping me honest that’s for sure — yet wondering which friend complained about what. Hmm.

  5. that preschool mantra must be relatively new (don’t recall it used with my kids). we read a lot about how the younger generation feels so entitled (well, at least those who were born into a certain level of privilege seem to), but as a parent our natural impulse is to shelter our kids from life’s hard truths. we raise them to believe they are in control of their destiny and that hard work and good deeds are rewarded. who wants to say to a child, “you know bad things can and do happen all the time and often you have no control over it”? we can talk to them about gratitude and privilege but until something really bad does happen to someone in our inner circle, it’s just talk. not sure what any of this means, but your post set me to thinking. thanks.

  6. I agree with Kathryn about the gratitude, and I agree with Baskinette about being okay with what we get. My work in the garden keeps me focused on how the “goods” are all beyond my control. The only thing I can do is show up out there, work at the weeds, and be gloriously thankful for whatever ends up growing. And — thankfully — I know how to cook weeds, too, and there are plenty.

    • The garden seems like a great metaphor here, Cathy. You can do a certain amount–plant, water, etc.–but you ultimately the weather is beyond your control. It feels healthy and reassuring to me to recognize that fact (in gardening & in life). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  7. I love this courage in the face of Didion’s narcissism that the world has so honored!! Thank you! I was reminded in CS Lewis’ Screwtape letters where the Senior Tempter Devil advises his junior counterpart, “Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury…a feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life…the more ill-tempered…/But the truth is/ the man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift…and all the time the joke is that the word “mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. …they will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong — certainly not to them whatever happens.” It also reminded me of the song Thank You by Alanis Morrissette – when you let go, then blessings come.

    • Love the Screwtape lines, Allegra–my mother adored that book while I was growing up, but I never got around to reading it myself. Maybe I should! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. I am constantly sorting out acceptance, gratitude, and the desire to work/fight for something bigger and better. This is a great essay.

  9. In my own stumbling life, I have found Gratitude to be a pretty good inoculation against self-pity and any tendencies toward thinking I am the center of the Universe. Just sayin’…..

    I have had a year of on and off employment on my career field with a combination of being told I was too stupid to do the job (really!) to being told I was terrific but they just didn’t have enough work for me. On top of that I was dealing with treatment for a benign brain tumor that successfully treated the tumor but gave me seizures. Yay, huh? Thankfully, the condition is temporary but I found out first hand how employers view employees with “conditions” (flash back to the employer who fired me for being “too stupid”) and now I have a deep well of compassion for my fellow human beings who just want to work but are discriminated against because of illness. Yes, I am deeply grateful my condition was temporary and deeply angry at the injustice for myself and my fellow human beings. I am deeply grateful as the experience made me much more compassionate. And I am grateful as the experience gave me the opportunity to really look at what is important in my life and guess what? It wasn’t work! It turned out to be helping others have a better quality life. :) That’s why I have my dorky little blog….it makes me feel better anyway and sometimes people will post that they read something that made them feel better OR they tried something I suggested and it worked for them. Yay! Great success!

    • I love what you say about being grateful for the opportunity to develop compassion–I think of challenges that way too, sometimes. Compassion is such a wondrous quality–one of Buddhism’s four brahma viharas (sacred abodes)

      And I also love the look of that pizza you blogged about–yum! As I said in a comment, I may have to try making my own one of these days.

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