I’ve never been a huge fan of the holidays. Ever since I was a kid it’s always felt more like a burden than a celebration. I don’t begrudge others their joy, quite the contrary I envy it a little. But the arrival of the day never does much for me. I’m just one of those people.
At my core, I’m an intensely self-critical guy. My failures get a great deal of my attention, much more than my successes, and away from the holidays, I’m not generally much for victory celebration either. I’m too serious for that. I’ve always seen it as fleeting. And after no more than a momentary smile of self satisfaction, I quickly refocus on the next problem to solve.
My life, like most people, has had plenty of both successes and failures. I like to think that my failures loom larger in my mind because I’m trying to learn from them, but that probably isn’t true. I don’t imagine I learn from experience that much better than anyone else. And for all my decades of “honest” self reflection, I don’t seem to have accumulated any great wisdom or insight - nothing that makes life any easier. Maybe there is something to be said for at least trying, but probably not. A fool is still a fool, no matter how hard he tried to be otherwise. And since my life is getting no easier, I have to believe I fall more closely into the latter category – efforts to the contrary be damned.
One thing that was made very clear to me this year is how little “intelligence” really matters both in terms of problem solving, and in terms of personal virtue. It just doesn’t do that much for you, and in most people it’s often wasted. Low cunning and cleverness seems much more productive, and I possess little of either. For the purpose of self reflection though, I think a much better question is “How strong are you?” That’s the real differentiator. If you don’t have the strength to look at the facts that you personally are most uncomfortable with, your intelligence will put to the purpose of rationalizing and avoidance. And that does no one any good.
We all have our weak spots; our dark corners of the soul where we dare not look. And because I tend toward being self-critical, I usually spend much of my birthday taking out the mental flashlight and poking around in them. But sometimes I notice afterward that there are whole corners of my character that I had unconsciously avoided, because I don’t really want to learn the truth about myself any more than the next guy. So much for all my bravado about courage.
Emotionally, I think I’m pretty good at surviving, and in the end, what surviving means is coping with loss. I buried my youngest brother Brian several years ago. He died the week before his 21st birthday, and I wasn’t ready for how dramatically it affected me. This year, I buried my oldest friend – a man much closer to me than anyone in my own family. And it affected me every bit as dramatically as burying my brother did back in the day. So… no new wisdom there. None I can make use of anyway.
I don’t write about it much, but I think the connections between us and the people in our lives are very important. Calling it an emotional connection is too thin and weak a description for what I’m talking about. I mean something bigger and deeper than that, though I don’t have useful words for it. Too little connection and we feel isolated and lonely, too much and we feel like we’re tangled in a web of other people’s expectations. Individual results may vary.
When it comes to managing it though, I’ve always been one of those people who is very particular about who I allow to get that close, because loneliness was always easy for me than letting down people I care about. That’s the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth. There’s another corner to that, which I’ve very cleverly managed to ‘fail to notice’ as I examined my own motives.
The truth of it all is that it hurts me too. I avoid more of the connections because I don’t want to be hurt. And in my opinion, a great many people are very cavalier about how much they hurt the people around them. I’m not sure that avoiding it by mostly choosing loneliness over greater connection makes me a coward exactly. But at the very least, I’m probably not as brave as I like to think I am.
Humility is not one of the virtues that spring immediately to mind when people think of me. I’ve been masquerading as one of those “Exeter/Harvard” masters of the universe types for most of my life so wearing my smarts on my sleeve has always been very useful. (Professionally I saw it as a necessity.) That’s not an excuse, just an explanation. And the masquerade has been over for a few years now. These days I’m much more comfortable admitting that I’m a small man with a small life, who will never have a particularly big impact on the world. Such is the way for virtually all of us. And I’m slowly making my peace with it.
This year I’m gonna try to renew my resolve to have courage in the places where I’m not looking. I think that's about all I can manage.