Sunday, January 16, 2011

Striving after Emptiness

What is success?

Is it playing a piano concert in Carnegie Hall? Amy Chua's daughter accomplished that, according to news reports. I studied piano for 8 years, mostly enjoyed it, am glad I did it, even considered (briefly) majoring in music in college. Yet I never played in Carnegie Hall, never even imagined I would. Did I not succeed at my piano lessons? (For the record, I never learned to play by ear, play jazz piano, or play whatever was on the radio when I was in high school. I really wasn't much of a performer (ironic; music is performance), but like every high school kid, I wanted the attention the right performance could bring. So I never felt like a "success" at music. Never occurred to me to play Carnegie Hall or consider my efforts pointless, though.)

I agree with this assessment of "success" and "achievement," at least in part. I am perplexed by the concept of "parenting" and the idea of success for children. What is the success everyone chases? A good first job? A secure future? A guaranteed income?

Who has those things?

When I was in college, the mantra was: "To get a good job, get a good education." Well, yeah, but how many college students can get jobs just now? If only the top 10% can "win," then the other 90% are just cannon fodder, people there to make that top 10% possible. Is this so difficult to understand? If I had played Carnegie Hall at age 18, what would I be doing today? Would I be guaranteed an income as a classical pianist? Or would I simply have been a "success" back then? And is "success" really so superficial, so shallow, so determined by circumstances? Is there no wisdom in Chinese or Eastern culture to teach me that success flows from a state of being, or mind, or "inner contentment," and not from external circumstances over which I have little control?

The irony here is I've taught one of Amy Chua's essays in English composition for a few years now, and I've always considered it a remarkably weak work full of tendentious and conventional (i.e., "received") reasoning and a refusal to take the positions she asserts to logical conclusions, to explore all the ramifications of the ideas she purports to stand by. She is clearly intelligent, but she is not very wise. I remember an interview with Jerry Seinfeld, where he remarked on his boyhood idol, Superman. But he said Batman was superior, because while Superman has "super-intelligence" (according to the comic books of his childhood, and mine), Batman was "the world's greatest detective," which meant, said Seinfeld, that Batman was "wise." Better to be wise than just to be smart, Mr. Seinfeld concluded.

Music enriched my life, and someday I may even return to the level of piano skills I once enjoyed. Am I not successful, though, because I was not a musical prodigy? I have decades of education, but am I wiser for it? I know, even as I don't quite live in the knowledge, that happiness and success flow from what I can control, not from what I can't control. Am I a failure? When I left the practice of law, most of my lawyer friends said they envied me having the courage to give it up. I never felt I was courageous, or that such a step moved me any closer to being "successful." Many of them have succeeded in their careers, and I'm glad of it. But did I fail? Maybe by Amy Chua's standards; but, and this is, to me, the heart of the controversy: who is Amy Chua, and why should I care what she thinks? Especially when it comes to my relationship with my child?

Is success only what other people say it is?

Nor am I above ending this with a bit of scripture I often passed on to high school graduates about to go to college:

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The words of the Preacher. Amen!

1 comment:

  1. I find that a powerful question, "Is success only what other people say it is?". We are so programmed into the "matrix" of the voice of society that it is hard to step out of it and ask these questions.