Over drinks this week with a friend, we eventually got around to some philosophical analysis. You know, the kind that comes after you’ve gone through the inside baseball at work and exchanged family updates. You can tell when the conversation enters this phase, because you start doodling on cocktail napkins. For this reason, I always carry at least two pens with me wherever I go.
As a side note, I caution against disparaging cocktail napkins. Some incredible insights have been scribbled on them, including the idea for Southwest Airlines, the MRI scanner, the digital media company Refinery29, and “Laffer’s Curve” about the relationship between taxes and revenue.
I feel compelled to add the discovery of the benzene ring and the Gettysburg address, neither of which actually involved cocktail napkins, although Lincoln famously scribbled his speech on the back of an envelope. How he did it while riding a train is anyone’s guess, but I may be jaded by my years on the D Train. My point is that these resulted from moments of spontaneous insight while doing the equivalent of doodling on a napkin.
I prefer cocktail napkins, because they are stronger than regular paper napkins but obviously not cloth napkins, which no one in his right mind would scribble on except for maybe a high tech mogul or anarchist. Needless to say, it happens.
That night I did most of the scribbling, which happens when you carry two pens. I always offer the other person a pen, but they usually refuse, as if using somebody else’s pen were like sharing a fork. There have been rare cases in which the other person scooped up my pen and went to town, but then I had them pay the tab. It seemed more than fair.
What did I scribble? The journey of my life or, better, the pattern of my life. I mean by that how I got to where I am and how I will get to where I am going. I have discovered over the years that it is best to lay out a general direction for the future rather than try to nail down everything with the formality of a business plan. I use “nail down” deliberately for its connotations to a coffin. I am often my worst enemy.
It may be unnecessary, even trite, to say that the pattern is not linear or that you come across straight lines only in geometry class. I have walked few straight lines in my life. I have also been many things, seemingly contradictory: a union organizer, a street canvasser for Green Peace, a protestor against military brutality in El Salvador, a traditional Roman Catholic, a devotee of the rosary. I don’t mind that Dorothy Day had similar contradictions, since I don’t consider them contradictions at all.
I have also experienced divorce and homelessness, two things that can cripple you if you let them. I have mentioned before that not everything you survive makes you stronger, but that conversation requires more cocktail napkins.
It hasn’t been all suffering, of course. The blessings include rearing children, writing a novel, and planting a tree that has grown to full height. The novelist Isabel Allende recommends doing all of these before you die, if possible. Think of it as a sort of existential bucket list.
“So, what have you learned?” my friend, an inveterate bottom liner, asked. I thought about it and told her two things.
First, failure, rejection, and defeat can make you compassionate. For instance, I don’t look at homeless people the same way as I used to, even those who appear threatening. I have a better idea of what their lives might be like, having gone through something similar even though not that extreme.
Second, something strange happens when you are forced to deal with death. And let’s not kid ourselves. That’s exactly what lies at the bottom of our fear of failure, rejection, and defeat. Nobody wants to die, and the little deaths of life remind us where we are all headed sooner or later. I add my voice to Augustine’s by hoping for later rather than sooner.
“But here’s the thing,” I told my companion. “You get used to it. You get used to the little deaths and failures, not in a defeatist way but in a way that helps you savor life.”
“You’re a masochist,” she said, smiling. I told her I’ve been called worse.
She folded the napkin into her purse and paid the tab.