It occurs to me every now and again that all that I experience is a gift.
I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden over the Summer. It was a good read, however there were things I really disliked about it. One of his more irritating arguments was the concept that there were at some level self-made men. In some kind of bizarre “west-ward the wagons” sense he pointed to some of the main characters as people who had accomplished something on their own. The land was theirs. They made it what it was. They raised themselves out of the dust and accomplished their goals.
He’s not the only one who thinks like this. It’s a very American idea. The sense of “be/do anything you want” that comes with being a stereotypical American implies not only a complete reliance on the self, it also means that we believe in limitless possibilities. That’s to say, we don’t believe in limits fettering the ideas we have.
The problems with all this are staggering.
First of all, you can’t have a single human being without a community of human beings. Think about it. No matter how far you might be able to take “yourself,” did you teach yourself to speak? No. You didn’t. Did you teach yourself to read, write, walk, or eat? Nope. Some of the most basic parts of being a person come through other people. They are in large part given. Sure, your brain is capable of doing these things…But only because people bother to show you.
Another issue with all this is the concept of “limitless possibilities.” We’re limited people. I find that many people (particularly the more privileged of us) don’t see the opportunity costs that are present in being a person. Doing anything necessarily means not doing other things. If I get up early, it means I’m not able to sleep in. If I go to a restaurant for breakfast, it means that I can’t make breakfast today. As a person with limited resources (time, energy, money, etc…) you are limited. You can’t do everything. Moreover, sometimes there are things that you just shouldn’t want to do. I have no desire to run my car into a telephone pole. It’s a terrible idea. I’m limited from this possibility by common sense.
The reason I bring all this up is that without a realistic look at community and limits, we will forget that what we have is a gift. We’re actually given time to make decisions that matter. As opposed to one out of an infinite number of pointless decisions, inevitably we reach a limited number of very important ones. How we choose matters because we won’t be able to choose forever.
We’ll also never be able to choose alone. There is more of the people you have known in you than you realize. It takes a community of people to allow (or hinder) a human to grow. Not to mention that the choices we make necessarily affect people around us. There is no vacuum of you choosing for the sake of just you. The sorts of people described by Mr.Steinbeck killed–or benefitted from the deaths of–the native Americans who lived in the territories that their westward wagons reached. Rising to the top in the way American ideals often point to will leave many suffering in the wake of “progress.”
As bleak as this may seem, I hope that this can all be boiled down to two hopeful truths: Who you are is a gift and you’re not alone.
This is really the point. Once we allow ourselves to be shaken free of the Mr.Steinbeck’s nonsense we can start seeing things how they really are. We can remember.
We don’t make ourselves.
Every breath is a gift.
Other people matter.
This isn’t to say that we ought to live in constant fear (or regret) of poor decisions. This isn’t to say that we don’t make decisions for ourselves. it means that the present moment is inexplicably valuable.
Right now won’t come again. Practice receiving the gift of being you with your limits. Practice breathing.