“Stuart went out into the world full of the joy of possibility and the fear of dogs…” Stuart Little
Our family is on a road trip so we’ve been listening to books on CD. When I heard this part of Stuart Little, a mouse born into a human family, I thought how wise little Stuart is to the face the world with an active eye to possibility tempered with life’s inevitable limitations.
As the New Year fast approaches, countless folks will be utilizing the commitment device known as the “New Year’s Resolution” to weigh their limitations in the light of hope for the benefit of their future selves. In Daniel Goldstein’s recent TED talk, he defines a commitment device as, “a decision you make with a cool head so that you don’t do something regrettable when you have a hot head.” He uses ancient Odysseus, sailing past the island of siren song roped to the ship’s mast in rapturous torture with his crew’s ears safely deafened with wax rowing beside him, as the first example of a commitment device. And although commitment devices can often be effective, they also often fail, as many of us can attest in February as we visit our failed resolutions in the cemetery of discipline and self-control.
Goldstein wonders if there are other incentives, beyond commitment devices, that can inspire us to act in ways that benefit our future selves to the partial discomfort of our present selves. He is especially concerned with our poor financial saving habits (he quotes the McKinsey Global Institute that reports that for “every 3 boomers, 2 will not be able to meet their pre-retirement needs”). He plays with using imagination as a motivator by creating a veritable Ghost of Christmas Future in a computer program that e is eHeallows an individual to imagine being old and to imagine what his or her lifestyle will look like based on his or her current savings rate. When we imagine the specific details of what could be, he hopes we will change our present practices in order to benefit our future selves.
Following the trail of commitment devices and imagination, I read rock journalist, Neil Strauss, who offers excerpts from his favorite interviews with countless celebrities, rock stars and rappers in his book Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead.
In the Epilogue, he reflects on the lives of the famous he has interviewed and how the ways that they have faced with world with the hope of possibility and the wisdom of limitation has helped him imagine what the future can hold and thus make better choices in his own life. Beyond the “obvious lessons [like] don’t marry your thirteen-year-old cousin, don’t kick security guards in the head, and don’t loan Courtney Love money…,” his lessons are pretty run-of-the-mill stuff like “let go of the past, seek balance, don’t derive your self-esteem from others’ opinions…” All lessons that most of us would assume you would learn from talking to the average celebrity, who tends to live in the past, go to extremes, and needs lots of attention. But one lesson he learns from his interviews resonates with much at FamilyScholars:
“…people who grew up in stable homes with unconditional love, like Sacha Baron Cohen and Jay Leno, tend to stay out of turmoil, while others who suffer from trauma, abandonment, or neglect in childhood—and never resolve those issues—often end up sabotaging their career and their life.”
Somehow a stable home environment during our formative years enables us to be more open to imagining healthy versions of our future selves and more realistic about out limitations that necessitate the use of commitment devices. But limit experiences shake us up nonetheless. Strauss includes many of the celebrity obituaries he has written and he admits that obituaries have been some of the most difficult pieces he has written.
“The most humbling lesson one learns when writing obituaries is that it doesn’t matter how famous, obscure, good, evil, happy, sad, or healthy someone may be. In one instant, everything can change.”
He closes with his reflections on rock critic and writer Paul Nelson, tracing his last ten years after he left an editorial position at Rolling Stone, stopped writing and pretty much disappeared from public life. Despite a vibrant and influential career, he starves to death, alone.
“After all, here was a man with better taste than most of us, a better writer than most of us, a better critic than most of us—and better didn’t mean happier. All those books and videos he’d dedicated his life to collecting and consuming ended up as junk to put in boxes and bring to Goodwill…
The baby shoes hanging over Nelson’s bed continue to haunt me, because as someone who’s sacrificed personal relationships for the pursuit of culture and career, I know what they symbolize: the regret of someone who has spent his entire life with his priorities wrong. Nelson did not live for nothing—the sheer breadth and influence of his work bear that out. But he died with nothing…”
Personally, I am haunted by a blue, plastic, baby swing that hangs from the porch of a house in our neighborhood. The house is located on a main street I drive often, and for months, I have found alternate paths to exit the neighborhood in order to avoid seeing this swing. Several months ago, in that house, a husband shot and killed his wife and then himself, leaving young children who attend my children’s school to grieve them. I did not know them, and can only imagine the grief that their family and friends feel, but the sight of their house unnerves me. And that baby seat. The heavy, fearful fist of mortality seems to press on my chest every time I pass and see that swing. Joan Didion’s words, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” echo in that swing. Our banal belongings become holy icons of life lost.
I am quieted by the reminder that an effective commitment device or a moment of imagination that helps us see beyond the finality and despair of any given moment can mean the difference between life and death for us, and joy and sorrow for those who love us. May you face the coming year in the spirit of Stuart Little, with confident hope and the tempered wisdom of our limits.