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.”

Indeed.

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.

© 2012 — 2013, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
      amy gut­man recently posted…The magic of cause & effectMy Profile

  3. 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.
    Sarah But­ten­wieser recently posted…What Do Fem­i­nist Preschool­ers Wear? The Lik­ing Bras and Bling InstallmentMy Profile

  4. 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.

  5. 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.
    cathy recently posted…Curi­ous Farm Spicy Radish Kim­chi now at Food FrontMy Profile

    • 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!
      amy gut­man recently posted…The magic of cause & effectMy Profile

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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!
    Kathryn V recently posted…The Joy of PizzaMy Profile

    • 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.
      amy gut­man recently posted…The magic of cause & effectMy Profile

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