An Unaccomplished Life: An Epistle
I wanted to talk to you about forgone opportunities, about those chances so many of us tend to walk by, planning to accomplish them, finally fearful, resentful, lazy, and frustrated, blaming something or someone for the devastation of misfortune. We sit and we dream our glorious futures — well into middle age — so caught up in desire that we drown ourselves with ambition, passing time better spent putting in the work.
Now of course this is personal, probably personal for all of us (even the most successful among us) no matter how much our public egos may force us to deny it. Taking one example — Stanley Kubrick,
in my opinion the greatest American filmmaker we have ever seen (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut, as well as earlier short films and his first flawed, beautifully filmed effort, Fear and Desire, rarely discussed). And yet this incredibly accomplished man, this widely regarded genius, near his death in 1999 was heard to repeatedly say, “I wish I’d made more films.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? We all wish to do more, to love our families more, our children better, to reach the end of our lives satisfied and filled with no regret. And yet . . .
Here is a personal confession, a moment which shook me just yesterday. I had awakened early, a morning responsibility required, and I hadn’t slept much the night before, less than three hours and I was irritably exhausted. That night had been filled with mostly planning, plotting, a dense, long session of editing a variety of projects, of working on things once believed accomplished, only now realized to be a mishmosh of ideas thrown together erratically. And so I obsessed, I slashed and rearranged and stabbed in words while eliminating others. There were whole sequences abandoned, only to be replaced by others, equally unsatisfying, making the much harder work of sculpting a narrative tedious, an aggravating undertaking, frustrated rage at times overtaking the mind, an emotion which, unless very specifically needed to express an idea, corrupts and stains everything.
I worked at this well into the early morning, aware that my 6 AM wake-up time was crawling in upon me. None of this was helped by the fact that I kept drinking and drinking until I was finally sick . . .
Most of us have similar work experiences regardless of what we do (including the insensate drinking, no doubt, on occasion). We find ourselves repeating, over and over, the same trite, superficially meaningless tasks we have never been interested in, and which our indifference complicates. Take any job, that repetition of the same dreaded task, and we start to question the purpose of our existence, of doing anything at all.
So in the morning, head throbbing, I went out and did what needed to be done, and by the time I got home my wife was starting her day, working online, and my son was attending virtual class, isolated from everyone. Me? Bedtime, finally, I decided. I lay down, my dog snoring beside me.
And I set about to sleep the day away.
A few hours later, partial exhaustion exhausted, I woke with furious anxiety. What was I doing with my life?
Again, this is not an alien thought, not for any of us (once more, try denying this to yourself as you lie awake, staring into the darkness, concerned over what tomorrow may bring). And yet, for me, in that moment, waking finally around noon at the age of 49, married almost twenty years and with two teenage children far more diligent with filling their time — for me this was quite literally a wake up call.
So I rushed downstairs, everyone fed up with me (even the dog was siding with others by this point). Their busy days contrasting with my lack of accomplishment made me realize I have been wasting my life, and for a long time. I frantically tried cleaning the kitchen, sweeping the floor, rearranging things that would soon need rearranging again. Dishes, laundry — I made the bed! something none of us ever bother doing. It was a moment of panic, like a recent college graduate’s fear about what they will do with the rest of their life.
I have been writing seriously since I was nine years old — forty years now. Back then, confident and full of pride for my presumptive genius, I began writing a novel that got to about seven pages, an idea I loved, at the time, with a theme that still resonates in my work today (the social transformation and questioning morality of one assumed evil being good, and vice versa; back then, the story dealt with partially defined superheroes and villains.) This project was abruptly abandoned, another consistent characteristic of my life, that giving up, an embracing of failure.
It should not be assumed, however, that nothing has been accomplished in this life (this too goes for all of us.) Even the most stagnant being, one downgraded into the most basic survival, is not entirely without ambition. They have not abandoned every goal. It is not for all of us to reach the heights of childhood dreams, of alleged superstardom or profound influence on people we will never know. It isn’t even for those achieving these heights, listening to complaints about pressures and lack of privacy, and hearing the bitter sneers of those whose early, similar dreams have been abandoned. All those critics see any longer has been slashed into the simplicity of wealth and fame, disregarding the actual person behind the figure they wish to believe in. You listen to fans condemn the superstar making millions of dollars a year, married to the best looking people, living in the greatest places in the world, knowing the most important people, and we no longer think about what it must be like to go out for an intimate evening, or even to perform a simple everyday task, and be mobbed by people, by hearing the shrieking demands of fans and haters alike. And in bitterness some say “if they didn’t want the attention they shouldn’t have put themselves in that position,” scornfully judging the fulfillment of ambition, jealous of another’s harder work to get where they wanted to go.
Pieces like this tend to be about myself, a selfish little rant where I try to relate human experience to the deeper insights people struggle with. Most of the reactions are scorn, an aggressive avoidance of the ideas themselves. No doubt there really are people who cannot relate, but such people would have no reason to respond, to take such moments to condemn me for daring to lump them into whichever struggle I am then suffering through. And the comments are far more biting than any social or political commentary, or historical narrative revision offered (all of which have, understandably, a much larger readership than a quietly mournful reflection.) Those are the ones that transcend anger over bias, and sink far more deeply into efforts to destroy one’s very being. This one, from more than two years ago, stands out:
- Quit pouring all your pussy-assed, whining bullshit on me. No one cares. If you’re so miserable, kill yourself!
Of course we can use such cruelty as just another example of some asshole chortling to themselves facelessly on the internet, but such interactions are far too common to pass off entirely. If you look at any social media platform, such responses to anything seem to predominate. People feel freer to be cruel these days, in these devolving times. And while such a remark, directed at me, could only cheer me up, can make me laugh (if no one cares why do they? If nothing else, clearly they read some of it. And the last part, the implied suicide, that has to come from someplace deep, from the sort of person unwilling to hear about disappointment or self-condemnation; they are the sort of person avoiding anything in their life they cannot control), such a remark displays a profound and troubling notion of where we are today.
This study is called “An Unaccomplished Life,” but it is not an accurate label, our accomplishments continually modified until the person we once were has nothing in common with who we are the moment we change our minds. Our accomplishments needn’t be anything so grand, those childhood fantasies of scoring a winning touchdown or winning a Nobel Prize. As we continue on with our lives, as our families grow then shrink and our dreams gray into what is needed day after day after day, we can find satisfaction with smaller and smaller things, with the accomplishments of others. My son hit a triple, my daughter won the spelling bee, my favorite movie won a prize and my friend had a baby girl. We can be overwhelmed by happiness over a bright Spring day or thoughts of a coming vacation — even with the election of our preferred candidate for whatever office in whatever city or borough, in whichever federal or student council race.
An admission that nothing is perfect, that not all of our dreams will come true, that, too is a great accomplishment. It is a sign that we have finally grown up and that the world around us can sometimes resemble the truth.