And vs. Or


Shortly after I launched this blog, a friend suggested that I feature stories about people who lost their jobs but ended up triumphant, which got me to thinking about this seductive and increasingly iconic Great Recession storyline.

The appetite for such stories is easy to understand. They’re a welcome antidote to the anxious uncertainty that pervades our times. They fuel our optimism, calm our fears. They tell us that no matter how bleak things may seem they’re still likely to end well. “This is a series about people who stared down the Great Recession—and reinvented themselves along the way,” is how the online magazine Salon describes its series “My Brilliant Second Career.”

But for all this narrative’s compelling appeal, I’ve found myself balking at it, uneasy with the vision of a fantasy future squared off against the past. In particular, I worry that in our eager rush towards happier times, we risk losing sight of what these years have had to teach us—that we’ll come to view this era’s difficulties as things that “shouldn’t  have happened to me” rather than as a shared experience that shaped and transformed our lives.

Our individualist culture thrives on hierarchies and dichotomies. Good vs. Bad. Success vs. Failure. Winner vs. Loser.  It’s easy to fixate on securing a spot on the right side of the divide. When we come to the end of a challenging stretch, we often heave a sigh of relief and do our best to forget.  That was then. This is now. I am not that person anymore. (Thank God, I am not that person!)

But there’s another way through such transitions, one that involves expanding to encompass even the hardest parts of our pasts. I thought of this recently when reading my friend Allegra Jordan’s beautiful guest post on how the abrupt end of her marriage, which also coincided with a job loss, led her to launch her public-spirited Innovation Abbey consulting firm. What I especially loved about his piece was its recognition—and acceptance—of the ways in which past and present necessarily coexist.  As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Why does this matter? Because once we accept that our lives are inherently messy, imperfect, and informed by a past we didn’t choose, we can start to let go of the futile notion that life should be an endless progression upwards.  We can be kinder to ourselves—and kinder to each other. We can start to understand—really understand—that we are not good or bad, successes or failures, winners or losers. We are all of these things, many times over, and many more besides.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “And vs. Or

  1. Amy – I am finding your posts on transitions exceptionally valuable. Thanks for yet another that I will ponder in the days to come.

  2. This reminds me of a phrase I have picked up from my sister: yes and. It sort of signals that the dichotomies lie within us not external to us. That we are more complex that yes or no, good or evil. Diving or thriving. Thank you for a lovely meditative piece that reminds me not to get too comfortable considering myself to be “post hiatus” because things change and one never knows. And because I still carry with me the experiences of years past. If only thinking is such a trap for me (if only I had . . . a job, or the job of my dreams) because getting the thing doesn’t change who I am fundamentally and doesn’t transform the rest of my life into “happily ever after.”

    • Thanks, Cheri–and do enjoy these happier times! I’m all for ease and stability. What I was trying to get at was the fear and stress that arises when we strive to live only in that experience and banish the hard parts of life, seeing them as “not us” or “other” or . . . well, you get the idea. And wise sister, you have. :-)

  3. So true. I’ve been thinking a lot about uncertainty in the same context, trying to accept that uncertainty is a given, not something to fight or resent. The only constant is change.

    • And happily, that change often means a movement towards easier times–it’s not simply a uni-directional downward spiral. (Hope the piece wasn’t too much of a downer, for all its focus on the latter.)

  4. Somehow we feel that suffering is not part of life, when it is. For a while I tried to bypass it and “keep on the sunny side of life.” It didn’t get me very far. When I sit with my grief AND have self-compassion, I am able to tune into my body and listen to what it tells me. I can sense if stress comes from common anxiety, a false alarm, or deep,core issues that have nothing to do with the person I’m speaking with. In doing so, I get a more accurate view of what is going on in and around me. I also am able to better handle being around people who are still toxic to me – at least not let them have too much mindspace. They are also like me: they laugh, love, suffer, and will die just like me. We are all interconnected. Thank you for being such a strong advocate for realistically looking at the human: mind/body/spirit as we muddle through.

    • Thanks, Allegra! Also, worth noting that the same approach holds in reverse. James Baraz–who’s teaching the Awakening Joy class I’m doing online — has a story about his mother, who was very negative. He played this game with her where, every time she said something negative, she followed it with “AND, my life is really very blessed.” He says this had an amazing positive effect on her mood and spirits over time. She wasn’t denying the annoyances she faced, but at the same time, she was also consciously attending to the good things in her life.

  5. 1.Your image choices have staying power on their own and is each such an apt choice for its particular essay, that both image and essay are stronger for the match.
    2. Love your title. We so often shortchange the power of “AND”.
    3. Somehow, this makes me think, a bit sideways, of the all the folks looking for a partner with no “baggage.” Huh? Someone who’s never explored? Never been anywhere? Never lived? No past? No history? No experience? No experiences?
    4. “AND” is vastly more interesting.

    • Thanks, Penny! (Can’t take credit for the pix (excepting for choosing them)–if you want details, you can click on the photo & it should give all the relevant info.)

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