Sometimes I worry I’m turning into my dad. I’m afraid I’ll start to seriously believe trite sayings like “success comes in cans not can’ts,” or listening to motivational speakers while I drive. These things don’t work. They don’t work because the world doesn’t reward hard work in anything like equal measure. They don’t work because positive vibes can’t control the balance of your brain as well as SSRI’s. I think I’m fortunate to know those things, but I don’t blame my dad for believing what he did. And I can’t help thinking some inspirational words are needed right now, even if they are leveled out with some sociology.
Have you noticed that the world is a mess? Trump is president. Chaos and absurdity abound. Have you noticed friends and acquaintances seem to be having trouble managing unexpected challenges that have made their personal lives feel as chaotic as our political world? I have. I can’t help but think these facts are connected. Instability breeds instability. The details of the Trumpian chaos and the personal struggles are endlessly complex in their moments, but less so in the abstract. In the abstract they aren’t even new or odd. If my dad had inspirational Bible passages on his checks, I’ve got sociological aphorisms like C. Wright Mills’ wise words, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both,” or “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages.”
I don’t know if the sociological imagination requires any more than those two fully packed sentences to get going. None of us chose to be born at this time, in this place, with these material advantages or disadvantages, in this body, with this brain. Most of our life is a function of things that were set in motion by randomness, and big or small choices others made before we were born. In addition, the choices we do get to make have consequences no one can fully anticipate. This is as true of the choices that end up good as it is of the ones that turn out bad. It is self-torture to believe that your own decisions are much more than putting one foot in front of the other on a path that shifts with each step you take (even if I am sometimes jealous of the fortunately brained people who seem to believe in their own remarkable agency). The relationships we make, and we do make them, are as much a function of the historical time in which we live as the work we do to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘surround ourselves with good people.’ Most of the times I’ve ‘found myself,’ it turns out I really found out who I used to be – and don’t want to be anymore – because of some new way I’m living – some way I don’t entirely understand in the moment but is a function of steps I took along the way.
I know this sounds like fatalism. It isn’t fatalism. We do make choices. We can choose to focus on some things and ignore others, like those who decide to ‘accentuate the positive.’ We can do right and wrong by others, and we can know that by their reactions when they let us see them. We should acknowledge the nice things when we notice them. We should make every effort to do right by others. We should recognize when we’ve done someone wrong and try to fix it. But this can’t mean ignoring hardship like it isn’t real; it can’t mean ‘going back to how things were.’ The flow of history and biography make these things impossible. I think what we can do is try to recognize how that flow is beyond any one person’s control. We can recognize that bad exists without granting it cosmic significance. It’s a mundane part of human life.
For me, remaining aware of these things is as valuable as my dad’s insistence on appreciating a sunny day was to him. People don’t choose their historical or personal conditions, some of which are truly miserable, and none of us can fully understand either. We don’t all have the same choices, and we can’t know the consequences of the choices we make. To recognize that is freedom from the torture that comes with believing that it’s possible to make no mistakes; from believing it is possible to eliminate the negative and avoid the inevitable struggles of living in the here and now. Besides, the sun is shining in Syracuse today.