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Burning, but not hot

Reuters ran an article yesterday quoting one Stewart McCann (who, lucky devil, works at the University College of Cape Breton, which I know nothing about but that its setting, Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, even if the bald eagles do shit on all the rocks jutting out into the ocean), whose research has found a correlation between success early in life and early death later in life, too.

Which, of course, first brings a wee bit of schadenfreude to the mind of a 28-year-old, long-unemployed layabout: Ha ha, joke's on you!

My schadenfreude is short-lived, however, mostly because it's not really my thing, I guess, but also because when I was working I was actually successful, I think you could say (my boss at the San Francisco Business Times, for instance, thought it impolitic to give me the editor's title that belonged to the work I was doing because I'd acquired the responsibility rather quickly, and told me (with a straight face!) that he thought my title should be "Small Business Guy." (And, for the record, a reporter I thought I was friends with later told me she would have quit had I officially been given my proper title, a statement I was grateful for in so many ways, let me tell you)). I also worked rather hard during those years when I was gainfully employed, and the article suggests that the early stress may be the relevant factor in the early demise. I can still practically feel the twitch my left eyelid developed during the week before one of our many site launches at a certain Internet start-up — and so now I find myself wondering just how many months of life I lost to each twitch. (But by then I was already 26, that's got to be too old for "early" success, hasn't it? I don't want to die!)

But thinking about my willingness to work absurdly hard brings me to my next thought. What about all those hardcore academic types, so many of whom seem to get so miserable when they get old? Maybe such intense ambition isn't actually meant to last forever, or even so very long. This is of course the most compelling possibility, and the most romantic — the fire that burns twice as bright, and all that. And who wants to live when their fire has dimmed, and they're no longer who they were?

Which brings me to my final thought on wanting to live versus wanting to live. The answer to that last question above is, well, no one — but whose life is defined by so little as their personal ambition alone? Who you are to yourself is something, but nowhere near everything. We are all of us (even me, who can go up to four days straight in the frozen hinterland of semi-rural Massachusetts without speaking to another soul) something to someone else; is not that thing as great as who we are to our own selves alone? And if there is someone else who does not judge our worth merely by our continuing personal success (or, should it come to pass, lack thereof), may we not truly be happy later in life, even if that success has faded? Many people, I fear, would say no, they cannot be happy unless they themselves judge their ongoing efforts as worthwhile. But who are they to judge? Someone, yes, but not everyone, if for everyone there is a someone else. And, I submit, those who cannot see that are simply blinded by their own inflated sense of self: They cannot imagine that someone else's opinion matters quite so much as theirs. But that does not mean it cannot be so; there is no reason why you cannot be genuinely happy simply because someone else likes you.

So, I say, no, no one wants to go on when they are no longer what they were. But if who and what you are is measured by those around you and not just by your own (necessarily harsh, even I, the layabout, admit) standard, yours can grow to be a greater and greater life even as your personal ambitions dwindle. We can still be as great as we were, as whole people, even if we are no longer so successful by our own personal measures. We can even be happy when we're toothless, fruitless and old.

Of course, this makes for a reverse correlation, between longer life and less success: Should we allow ourselves to be happy by judging ourselves by a broader standard, we won't want to die quite so young, but nor will we be quite so compelled to work our tails off when we're young. You just can't have everything, you know.

January 28, 2003 12:17 PM

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