As the summer at the Center for Creative Youth wraps up, I am getting ready to drop this tidbit on the students. Yes, what I have historically called the “Secret of Life,” though I’ve backed off a little over the years upon reflection over a) how much there is to life besides fulfillment and b) what a luxury it is to be in the minority of people who can even contemplate things like self-actualization, a mode of contemplation which inherently requires that survival needs are being consistently met. That said, I have consistently found this paradigm (or paradigm shift, depending on how far away from it one currently is) to be an effective approach to addressing the conundrum of being productive yet contented.
Western thought is quite good for many things. Building a computer? Yes indeedy. Fixing a muffler? Yep, that too. Coming up with a well-organized business plan for a profitable corporation? Probably so, sure. I find, though, that Western thought has a fairly significant blind spot, and that is the “black or white” duality that inhibits the embracing of seemingly contradictory ideas. We all know intuitively that it isn’t this simple; heck, even the characters in soap operas and pro wrestling often blur the lines between good and bad. But the sort of rational discourse we are taught in the Western world doesn’t entirely equip us to make peace with contradiction.
One of these contradictions is something I have found to be crucial to the success and happiness of musicians as they develop. When I was in college, there was a professor named Bill Fielder, who folks referred to simply as “Prof.” He had been an accomplished musician, but by this point glaucoma had robbed him of his capacity to perform, so his role was more that of a sage and guru, particularly to the jazz brass players (teaching, through the years, a cast of trumpet players including Terence Blanchard, Terrell Stafford, Sean Jones and that other guy . . . whatsisname, uh Wynton something). He would get into the performance philosophy and science of brass playing, such as discussing “paralysis by analysis” both as a philosophy of being in the moment and in the context of the neurology therein. When discussing the growth process of musicians, he would say “always gratified, never satisfied.” That sounded clever enough for me to remember, but I didn’t really get it. He explained the difference, but I wasn’t quite there.
Over time, albeit initially only in the context of music, I started to see the nuanced interactions of these two factors: contentment with where you are now and determination to improve. These seem like contradictory, possibly even mutually exclusive approaches, but a) it’s not that simple and b) either one of these is unsustainable without the other. When I rested on my musical laurels, I stagnated. When I was driven primarily by disgust with my musical inadequacies, I practiced but was in a perpetual state of musical self-loathing and had a difficult time putting that aside to actually make music.
It was inevitable then that I would eventually see how this applies to life itself. It is universal that we all have room to grow, improve, evolve and generally get closer to the ideal version of our potential. This is true whether it manifests in glorious self-actualization as a brilliant artist and world-changing philanthropist or whether it is a matter of simply finding better ways to manage difficult circumstances. Yet the human condition is that all we REALLY have is the present moment.
Let’s start by establishing that having at least ONE of these things is better than nothing. Hating the present moment AND having no drive to improve things is a dark place to be, and like most survivors of childhood trauma, I can’t say that I’m a stranger to that place, though I’m fortunate that I have inhabited it for relatively temporary moments. If we have the drive to improve, then life moves forward, at least. We may not be happy; how could we be, really, if the present moment only exists as a step on the long-term path toward some larger goal that we speculate will make us happy? But at least there are some external things from which to draw gratification, or at least to anticipate doing so later. I personally haven’t ever known anyone who took this approach and then truly BECAME happy upon reaching the self-defined mountaintop, but a mountaintop’s better than a valley. On the other hand, contented stasis isn’t so bad either.
But what if you could have the best of both? I think we all can. It’s possible to cherish the present moment and yourself and where you are right now (warts and all, whether personal warts or life-warts) AND to simultaneously be aware of what you need to work on to improve yourself and your lot in life. Not only that, but embracing these seemingly contradictory approaches makes each one EASIER.
Pianists will be familiar with the Hanon book of technical exercises. When I was a freshman in college, desperately trying to salvage my technique and wrist strength in the face of a possible career change, I stopped playing actual music for several months and worked through these (and others) every day. I would take a deep breath (a pained sigh, really) and then start vocalizing as I played: “get your sh** together Baerman, get your sh** together Baerman . . . “ right on up the scale. It worked on the level of being a way to develop that technique, but I later had to go back and do more work to un-embed the self-flagellation that was built in there. It is abstractly possible that self-shaming is an effective tool on the basic level of forcing us to do something that’s good for you (telling oneself “alright, get off your fat a** and get to the gym, you sack of . . . “). But really if we step back, it’s kind of ridiculous to think that adding tension and shame to an activity somehow makes it better or even more likely to happen. Contentment with who we are now doesn’t have to mean being resigned to a life of Cheetos and reality shows. The activities that were once penance can actually become a relatively un-loaded reflection of genuine, energized desire for growth. And the psychic lightness of self-acceptance is actually more likely to produce the necessary energy and motivation and even the creative thought with which to best bring goals to fruition. I am one of many driven people who finds it hard to believe that anything could be as effective a motivational tool as utter disgust and contempt for the inadequacy of one’s life (from which the fulfillment of the task around the corner is a possible source of salvation), but it’s fool’s gold.
Here’s the catch, though: I can only tell you that it’s important, but I can’t tell you how to do it. That’s inherently personal, as we all have different strengths, weaknesses, cravings and inner wounds. Plus, even within an individual, establishing a formula that’s meant to be consistently effective may be well-intentioned, but it doesn’t work. Ultimately doing so represents a regression to the rigid thought patterns that this approach exists to escape. Part of what makes this effective is that it’s a balancing act that constantly takes into account our own personalities, proclivities for loopholes (“okay, I’ve been content with myself for TWO DAYS, so when am I going to write that novel and stop being SUCH A LOSER?!!”) and ever-changing life circumstances. It’s a heavy lesson to lay on teenagers on one level, but what better time to be embracing complexity of thought? Not only that, but if even one kid can be spared from the level of burnout that I and so many I know have experienced, then we’re on to something.