. . . And I thought, I've got nothing . . . which meant, I had nothing to lose.
-- Bruce Springsteen*
You can mould clay into a vessel;
yet, it is its emptiness that makes it useful.
-- Tao Te Ching, 11
I was brought up to get it right, no matter what the cost. If the assignment, the action, the long division problem, the situation, whatever, wasn't right -- well, then it was my fault: I had obviously not worked hard enough. I must go back to work right now, and must not stop until all was correct; and whoever stood in my way because they didn't understand, or thought I was wrong or untimely or misdirected, had to be set right. By me.
Great accomplishments were expected, to be attained only through unremitting effort. I was not to set the matter aside, or read a book, or watch tv, or work on a more gratifying project, or go to bed in hope of morning insight. That's what lazy people do, said the voice, and if you act like them you'll waste your talents. Anything you don't get right is worthless. And here would follow a list of people known to me who had come to nothing because they had been lazy and wasted their talents.
If you screw up enough things you might make something work in the end, and I am a man of superlative obscurity in a fourth career, disappointing the voice of endless demand, never attaining more than a middling income and often struggling for that. I've been hired and fired, but never had the power to hire or fire anyone. In these times perhaps that is a blessing.
To be a first-born son, informed at the age of eight that I had an intellect, is as much curse as blessing. My responsibility to the gift, always defined by someone else, often overwhelmed me. Perhaps in my eighth decade, right now, on this page, for your eyes only, I apply it to something of my own.
Perfectionists have their uses. They get a lot of things right. That's how they're driven. And they're alone on their faultless shore.
But some things can never be right, not the way a page of long division is supposed to be right.
And the cost of rightness, that rightness of a sum, saps not only the visceral power but the mental ones as well. Not even mathematics is tidy right. The structure of the universe depends on an irrational number. No matter how many digits you write, you can never get pi just right.
Chanticleer sang again the other night at the Church of Ignatius Loyola (so yes, now Christmas can come). They were singing the lullaby Suo Gan, and my favorite singer had a solo, and I turned to my daughter saying "That's my boy!", but before I turned back the song was done, and their so soft cadence had pounced on me, beyond right, uncanny and there was water in my eyes. I wasn't ready. That's the point.
The right of music, and the right of a poem, and the right of love, these are not to be carried and remaindered. You know when it's there, but there's no map to take you all the way. Every musician knows how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice practice practice), but no one tells you when or where to leap off the building, though you must fly part of that way or they won't let you in.
The things I've done best I had no idea how to do, and I was sore afraid, wishing I knew how to get it right. The only thing I had was a need to jump off the building. These few works, of theatre or teaching or ministry or caritas, were uncharted. Step by step and breath by breath, feeling wind on my face and shift of ground beneath my feet, I would pray for a provisional truth to reveal itself for one more day. I didn't know. I wasn't full of knowledge. I was empty. I had nothing.
The risks are real. Human beings can get it wrong, Terribly wrong, pitiably wrong, or damnably wrong. You can harm yourself and you can harm others. That's the basis of the fear, the holy terror that accompanies every truly important act. But the surest road to hell is the highway of utter safety.
And that's the beauty of this last career of mine, its anti-perfectionism. I've been forced off the island of perfection. I'm really not supposed to know, as I pass over a threshold of pain and fear, what the good news is. I'm supposed to discover it there, in that room, and name it and bless it. My usefulness is to be empty.
*The New Yorker Radio Hour, November 25, 2017.
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