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.

Good news? Bad news? Who knows?

Question mark

A few years back, while still work­ing at Har­vard Law School, I heard this story:

After weigh­ing her options, a soon-to-graduate stu­dent turned down lucra­tive offers at pres­ti­gious law firms to accept a low-paying fel­low­ship with a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion. This did not sit well with her fam­ily, who expected her to “do some­thing” with her Har­vard Law School degree.

Flash for­ward a few months: The Great Reces­sion has hit. Both of her par­ents have lost their well-paying jobs. Class­mates who’d thought their post-graduation lives were set are now see­ing their law firm offers post­poned or with­drawn. She alone, among her friends and fam­ily, is untouched by the crisis.

I’ve thought about this story a lot–and what it says to those of us nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation. As I see it, the take-away is this: We never really know for sure where our choices will take us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to plan. It does mean that we are well-advised to keep an open mind about what events “mean.”

The past two years of my own life are a case in point.

After my Har­vard Law School job ended in the wake of the Great Reces­sion, I embarked on an exhaus­tive (and exhaust­ing) search for pay­ing work. At the time of this writ­ing, I’ve long lost count of the dozens (hun­dreds?) of jobs for which I’ve applied. You see, my resume is impres­sive, but it’s also quirky. I’ve pub­lished sus­pense nov­els, writ­ten speeches for a Har­vard Law School dean (now a U.S Supreme Court Jus­tice), and designed a pro­gram to bring pub­lic school teach­ers to rural Mis­sis­sippi. At the same time, I’m not a whiz with Excel or Pow­er­Point. Basi­cally, I’m a writer, and as smart and tal­ented as I may be, I don’t eas­ily fit into an iden­ti­fi­able niche.

But here’s the thing. If I’d got­ten any of the jobs I’d applied for (and believe me, I did my best) I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be writ­ing this blog, or the pieces for Huff­in­g­ton Post and Salon that paved the way for it. And these essays that I’m writ­ing now—they feel impor­tant. Hard as the road to this point has been (and you’ll be hear­ing much more about that), right at this moment the life I’m liv­ing feels deeply meaningful.

One of my med­i­ta­tion teach­ers told this clas­sic story:

There once was a poor rice farmer, who had a very small field just large enough to feed his family.

Then one day a herd of wild horses came run­ning through the vil­lage. They ran into the farmer’s rice field and got stuck in the mud, and since they couldn’t get away, they were his.

His neigh­bor came run­ning over and said, “This is good news! Such good for­tune! You are rich, this is amaz­ing!” And the rice farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few weeks later the farmer’s 12-year-old son jumped up on one of the wild horses for a ride, only to be thrown off and have his leg bro­ken. The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Oh no, this is such bad news!” And the farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A week later a Chi­nese gen­eral is march­ing through the farmer’s vil­lage on the way to war. On this march, the army is con­script­ing every healthy boy over 10 years of age. So they took every boy in the vil­lage except the farmer’s son because of his bro­ken leg.

The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Yes! This is won­der­ful news, how lucky are we!” And the father replies, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

And the fact is we never do.

Fail­ing at some­thing you don’t really want—even if you think you do—may be a step on the path to a won­der­ful life you can’t even imag­ine today.

Good news, bad news, who knows?

Since we can’t know what the future holds, why not keep an open mind?