Saturday, June 6, 2009

Random goodness

Whatever can happen to anyone can happen to me." -- Muriel Rukeyser.

My first thought when I read this was that it applied to negative outcomes. We read about plane crashes, natural disasters, illnesses and think 'there but for the grace of God, go I." We collectively and openly recognize that life has a random quality that makes everyone of us vulnerable. Whether it be a large natural disaster or a smaller personal catastrophe, something negative can and most assuredly will happen to everyone at some point. We try not to obsess about it; we try to prepare for it. But there is no way to avoid whatever it is from coming to us, whether 'it' is anything from a minor disappointment up to death. This is so patently obvious that there really isn't much to explore about it.

The other face of this coin bears some looking at, however. We tend to overlook the possibility of good things coming to us just as surely as the bad ones do. I wonder why this seems less the case than it's negative counterpart. When we hear of someone else's good fortune, we can feel glad for them, especially if they are close to us. Frequently, however, we feel envy. And if their good fortune involves something we'd hope to have for ourselves, the envy can expand to very ugly proportions.

Why is this? I think it comes from a combination of things. Partly it is a result of deep-seated cultural ideas about the 'haves' and 'have nots.' And partly, I think it comes from a collective sense of scarcity that reaches into our psyches beyond material needs.

The Calvinism of the Puritan colonists on this continent left a mark of predestination imprinted on our collective memories. What you had in the way of material goods was an illustration of where you stood in God's opinion. Wealthy folks obviously deserved what they had and poorer people obviously deserved to have nothing. On the face of it, especially put this baldly, we would reject this notion. But there still seems to be a tinge of it remaining in our subconscious, at least among those who are seen to have more than the usual share of benefits. This, and other historic cultural traits such as regal and clerical hierarchies, leave a deep rift between the favored few and the teeming masses.

With the end of monarchies and state established religion, we did not escape the structure or the belief that everyone has his or her place. Here in the United States, and perhaps other places, we are fed the dizzying notion that anyone can succeed in whatever they choose if only they work hard enough. But, like our Puritan ancestors, we also look down on those who fail to do so, assuming that they just haven't worked hard enough to merit the better things. I think this provides us some mental insulation from the notion that there is a random element to success as well as to failure. The good things in our life must be dependent solely on our efforts or they could disappear. It has also been used to oppress various parts of the population, but that it another topic entirely.

The other problem tends to lie in a deep-seated belief that there is scarcity in everything. It is as if, if you have something there is not going to be enough for me to have the same thing. And to safeguard our futures, we must continue to stock pile more and more, leaving less for others. Or so the thinking goes. But is this notion of scarcity true? I doubt it. I think the problem lies more with the fact that we seem to have collectively lost the concept of having enough. There is a huge industry whose sole job is to convince us to buy more and more stuff and generate perceived needs. And constant bombardment of their messages simply has to have a huge influence or else they wouldn't continue to do it. Many years ago I read a book by (I think) Alan Watts. In it he wrote about how our culture had substituted amount for quality in our property. And I think this also applies to the more intangible parts of life. We can't be happy for others' successes because, on some level, we think it means that they have somehow taken the success that we wanted to have.

But whatever reason lies beneath our understanding, we do not seem to believe that random, unexpected joys can come to us just as surely as tragedies. We seem to only see the lacks in our lives rather than the abundances. There are those fortunate souls who do revel in the joys rather than the pains, but for many of us there is the perpetual 'yeah, but' quality to our appreciation of what is in our lives. I got X, but I really wanted X+Y and therefore, I can't fully enjoy the X that I do have. Perhaps this is human nature. Maybe it is the motivation for human beings to continue reaching forward in our evolution. It could also be something else entirely. No matter what it is, I think we would better serve ourselves by finding some way of shifting our focus more towards the good we have, rather than dwelling on the tragic.

I'm not certain how to do this and, like most things, it probably needs to be different for everyone. Some folks are list makers, some reflective and still others make resolutions to change things about themselves and their outlooks. But no matter how it might be implemented, I feel certain that we could enhance our daily lives by living in hopeful anticipation of the random goodness rather than dreading the random arrival of tragedies.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

Everything is fragile. I live today only. Good and bad come my way as they will everyone. However, I do think we can alter this by what we believe. Some beliefs just makes us miserable. Even if we don't know we have them. Other beliefs, like in a vengeful god that must be placated or we must please, are destructive to us. Much of human suffering / misery is down to what we believe.