It Is What It Is

Here’s a thought that attacks me all the time: I’m not doing enough. I should be spending more time with my mother; I should spend more one-on-one time with the kids; I should be praying better, and more often; I should be able to handle a long day without losing it; I should be able to manage without having my husband step in and rescue me all the time.

At first, I tried to counter this thought by arguing against it. I would tell myself that I really was doing enough; or I would say that yes, it wasn’t enough, but I had good excuses, and I would do better later. Neither of these worked; I couldn’t convince myself that I was giving my all, but I couldn’t realistically see myself doing more, either. I used to torture myself with the thought that I was not actually trying my best, because there were some moments–a lot or a few, it didn’t matter–when I was not trying as hard as I could have. This led to a vicious cycle of self-pity and self-accusation: I knew I could theoretically try harder, but even with my current minimum of effort I was a mess; so what was I supposed to do?

Here’s the answer: it is what it is. The fact is, you are not doing all you could possibly do. It could always be better. But here’s an equally important fact: just because you should, ideally, be doing something, doesn’t mean that it’s possible. Yes, I should be spending more time with my mother; but the fact is, I just can’t. For so many reasons, I can’t. This means that, given the situation, thinking about what I should or could be doing is irrelevant. It is what it is. Give yourself a break: this isn’t an excuse, it’s just reality. There are enough things to worry about without wasting your energy on things you can’t change.

(I had this insight while I was in therapy, not so much from my therapists, but from the thought processes they helped me start. I’ve found that this is the best thing about a good therapist; she doesn’t give you the answers so much as ask the right questions, and guide you to answer them yourself. I know, this sounds like a cop-out; but if you’ve ever tried sitting down by yourself and thinking about why you do a certain thing, or what part of your life needs to change, I bet you didn’t get very far. Having to do it out loud, in front of someone, really helps you kickstart the process!)


Would You Like Fries With That?

When I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts high school, my Euclid teacher, Mr. L., used to tell us that proponents of the liberal arts were often scoffed at for preparing students to live in a cave, not to encounter the real world.  Then he would gleefully proclaim that his main goal in teaching was to prepare us for that cave.  None of those mercenary, servile arts for us!  We weren’t being prepared to do anything so ignoble as make a living.  We were studying beauty, truth and goodness for their own sake.

My college’s former president, on the other hand, Dr. S., was rather sadistically fond of this joke: “What question are liberal arts students most likely to ask after graduation?”  “Do you want fries with that?”  Ha ha!  As a political science major working part time at a supermarket, that one isn’t so funny anymore.

Looking back, I’m not sorry that I pursued liberal arts all the way through college.  In addition to the enrichment it brought to my faith and the wonderful people it brought into my life, college taught me how to write well, how to speak clearly and persuasively, and how to research and make public presentations.  It didn’t teach me how to get a job, and I wasn’t expecting it to.  But looking back, I really wish it had.

Instead of glorifying in its “uselessness,” my alma mater’s current tactic is to promise prospective students that employers will be lining up to hire them after graduation, not because of their job skills, but because their classically-trained minds will be an asset in any industry.  They feature stories of alumni who have gone on to earn advanced degrees and succeed in various professions, all beginning with a degree in literature or philosophy.  They do not make it clear that these people are the exception, not the rule.  They do not feature stories like my husband, who needed to support a family immediately after graduating, and found out that he needed to go through a long, exhausting, and expensive graduate program to do so; or my friend J., who wanted to pursue a medical degree, but had to first add many basic science courses to his already-heavy college course load, to make up for the lack of science in our liberal arts curriculum; or my friend M., who was unmarried and pursued his love of theology through grad school, but found himself afterwards with not much more of a career plan, but a lot more debt.  Or you could end up like many of my friends, who found a satisfying job in writing or teaching, but still had to deal with the fact that it didn’t really pay enough to easily support a family or pay back student loans.

Now look, if my kids feel a calling to the liberal arts, I’m not going to stop them.  I think it’s a wonderful thing.  But I’m going to encourage them to take a year off first and get their LNA, or their HVAC certification, or learn a foreign language.  If they end up at a liberal arts college, I want to make sure it will give them some real career advice, instead of assuming that they’re just going to be perpetual students.  I don’t ever want to see them unable to buy a house or have another child, or have to work 3 jobs, because of crippling student loan debt.  I also want them to know that there’s nothing wrong with a job that’s not intellectual!  There’s nothing wrong with a job that’s boring, or manual, or technical, or unimaginative.  As Christians, we’re supposed to strive to sanctify any work we do, whether it’s “meaningful” employment or not.

In this economy especially, schools are doing kids a grave disservice by either encouraging them to dream about living in romantic poverty and writing poetry, or lying to them about the job prospects of someone who spent the last four years writing essays on philosophy but who never learned to write a resume.  I’m grateful for the lovely things that the liberal arts filled my mind with, but I think it’s possible to have it both ways.  Here’s hoping that my alma mater will realize this by the time my kids are old enough.

I’d love your feedback on this!  If you went to a liberal arts school, did it prepare you for a career?  Do you regret doing liberal arts?  Do you regret going to college at all?  What are you plans for your kids?


Anne Stanton

Speaking of sheltered people, my mind keeps returning to the character of Anne Stanton in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read it!)  I had never really understood why Anne got involved with Willie Stark toward the end of the book.  She tells Jack that after she fell in love with Stark, she found out about the ignoble crime her father was involved in, and “[t]here wasn’t any reason why not then.” (p. 489) This used to seem ridiculous to me–just because her father wasn’t the perfect man she had imagined, she felt like she had the right to do anything?

I think I understand it better now.  Anne had set up a world of black and white for herself–her father, and Judge Irwin, stood for justice, and Willie Stark stood for corruption.  Her picture of the world was so absolute and unbending that when those distinctions got a little muddied–when she discovered Stark’s good side, and her father’s imperfect past–her entire moral world collapsed.  Or actually, it fell apart because it wasn’t about morality in the first place–it was built around something more artificial.  She hadn’t really resisted friendship with Stark because it was wrong, but because if she’d broken any of her rules she would have been completely banished from the supposed perfection of her family.  She didn’t have a category in her mind for a basically good person who fails sometimes; so with her father’s fall from grace, all her careful distinctions fell apart.  Although Willie was still a corrupt man–and a married man!–when she finds out that perfection doesn’t exist, there’s no reason left to keep her from succumbing to her attraction for him.

Something similar happens to her brother Adam–but for him the paragon of virtue is not only his father, but his sister.  He can’t handle her affair with Willie because his world is also black and white.  There is no category in his mind for a good woman who commits a sexual mistake; instead he is convinced that she has been completely corrupted into a “whore.”  And when he finds out that his father committed a single dishonesty, there’s no category in his mind for that, either; instead, his father has become an irretrievably evil man: “[d]amn his soul to Hell.” (p. 381) Now that I revisit the first scene, where he confronts Anne about her affair, I notice that he’s maybe even more disturbed with what’s happened to his reputation and righteousness: “he said if everything else was filthy a man didn’t have to be….he wouldn’t be pimp to his sister’s whore and nobody would ever say that about him.” (p.588) I still think Adam’s a sympathetic character but this casts a bit of a disturbing light on him.  He’s a good man, but he can’t untangle his morality from his pride.

Willie Stark’s view of the world makes an interesting contrast to Adam and Anne’s, because it’s not simply a flat opposite.  Willie is seeking justice too–in addition to glory and power–but he’s starting from the somewhat more realistic idea that everything is corrupted:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.  There is always something. (p. 286)

He’s right, in a way–nothing is untouched by original sin.  But he fails to see the goodness that survived the Fall.  Where Adam and Anne think the original goodness remained pure in their family, Willie thinks it was never there from the beginning; you have to “make it up as you go along.”

….plain, simple goodness.  Well you can’t inherit that from anybody.   You got to make it, Doc.  If you want it.  And you got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc?…Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. (p. 386)

Once again, this is not entirely wrong.  Anyone who’s ever studied politics (or history, like Jack Burden) knows that you can’t get anything good done if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty.

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind….You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. (p. 205)

No one can deny that Willie made a lot of good out of badness.  Even Anne can see that the free hospital he’s planning is going to be wonderful.  But could he have done it without falling into corruption?  I’m not sure if the book answers that question.  Warren doesn’t condone Willie Stark’s actions, but he doesn’t have much praise for the opposite extreme, either.

I can see now why the blurbs always say that this is a book about politics.  But oh, it’s so much more than that!  This post was awfully hard to write, because every time I dipped into the book for a quote, I started reading again and couldn’t stop.  Gosh what a book.  Tune in for some more thoughts on All the King’s Men soon!