In your struggle to keep fighting for your place in the world you want to see, whether you keep moving forward matters more than how you feel about it.
The preacher Chuck Swindoll once wrote “We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…”
I come from a working class family, with grandfathers on both side who worked their way out of poverty and hard labor in the 1930s and 40s into something better for themselves and their families. One worked his way off the factory floors of Detroit into an engineering degree, the other worked for a coastal DPW his whole life, plowing snow, digging canals, but rose through the ranks to eventually run the place. Like a lot of working class kids, from families like that, probably families like Chuck Swindoll’s, that idea– that you’re responsible for your own attitude, and your own fate, was rarely said out loud, but it was still the assumption that most of my view of the world was built on as a child.
Had a fight? –How could you have approached that situation better?
Didn’t get an A on an assignment? –How could you have worked harder to pass?
Got bullied and punched? — How is the bully seeing the situation, and how can you alter that?
It’s a very constructive way to look at the world, and empowering, in terms of facing facts and looking for do-it-yourself solutions. For any working-cass hero, with no options but to get through a hard shift, it’s often just a necessary way to look at your day.
I’ve spent years trying to escape this idea. It’s not enough.
On its own, it’s designed to make anyone who believes it fail.
That idea– that there’s a lot about the world you can’t change, and your on pleasure or suffering don’t matter so much as what you actually *do* in response, is just Stoicism, same as it was when old Zeno first talked about it in the 3rd century BC, same as Marcus Aurelius and his meditations, same as the Christians who read that book and carried the ideas down for the last 2000 years for Chuck Swindoll and my mom to teach me one day.
There’s a truth to modern stoicism that’s hard to argue with– the world *is* unfair, and a lot of the time, we can’t expect to have much to show, beyond what we’re willing to fight and work for without complaint. At the same time, like Swindoll’s “one string” we’re left to play, stoicism assumes that we live in a world we have almost no control over. An ancient stoic story compares human life to being a dog tied to a cart, with no choice but to follow where the rope leads it, and make the best of the situation.
There’s a lot of hard, cold reality in those statements, and people willing to deal with hard, cold reality without whining are something we’re awfully short on these days.
The problem with this sort of stoicism is that it teaches us to not hate that rope, nor resist it, to not ever test it to see if it breaks. It leaves very little room for the human soul and its needs. It leaves very little room for unexpected things to happen. It will get you through a hard day at the factory. It might not get you to form a union and change the factory, or walk out and find something better. It teaches us to respect social order, and power, and neither of those things has ever deserved our untested respect. Yes, you need to be able to be hard, and face facts. Yes, you need to persist. You also need to rest sometimes. and sometimes, you need to fight.
I’ve been strong for a long time now. I’ve picked up stakes and moved all over the world trying to find a place to feel at home, and largely failed at that. I’ve built a working business for more than a decade as an independent artist, and built it from nothing, with no mentor, no great patron, largely based on my wits, and my nerve, and my willingness to keep walking forward, even when things look hopeless. Though I’ve largely succeeded there, any professional creative will tell you, it usually looks hopeless.
Wins or losses aside, I’m tired.
The thing about being an artist, or an entrepreneur, or anyone who makes things from nothing, is that there are no directions.
Which city to live in?
Which thing to make next?
What hours should you work today?
What’s the missing piece that’s preventing this piece or story or product from connecting with an audience?
Will going to the party tonight lead to you meeting someone who can help your career?
It’s all a random guess, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you or themselves. It’s damn hard. It’s exhausting. It’s impossible to communicate to anyone who lives in a world where they are told what to do every day. It will literally kill you, or drive away everyone and everything you love. Creating a successful enterprise, leaving behind a body of work, are incredibly difficult things to do. Those paths will lead you down many dead ends. They will lead you astray. They will fail even when you do everything right. You’re allowed to be angry about that. You’re allowed to hate it. You’re allowed to make mistakes, to resent your lot in life, to hate the cart that’s pulling you. You’re allowed to test that rope. You’re allowed to break the rope and knock the damn cart over. You don’t have to be positive or neutral about any of it.
You don’t know if any of that’s possible until you try. And even then, you don’t know if it’s possible next time. You are allowed to tell fate, and circumstance, and the ways things are, to go fuck themselves.
As an artist, as a creator, that is, in fact, your job.
You are here to see a better way, and show people that way.
While you’re doing that, it’s ok to hate the bully instead of understanding him, it’s ok to complain about a test that it’s impossible to win at, and complain loudly. it’s OK to simply win the fight, and walk away.
The problem is that who rises or falls in life is not decided by who complains or who maintains the high ground or who lays down in exhaustion, or who’s had enough and gives up on it all today.
It’s decided by who gets back up tomorrow.
Get up full of anger. Get up in hopelessness. Get up determined to ruin it all. Get up for your own reasons, and no-one else’s. Get up with the worst attitude on earth that day, and complain about it all, but get up, and fight your grumpy, unpleasant, hopeless fight.
You have the right to do that too.