Tony Esolen, professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at the Thomas More College, recently posted a little Facebook pep talk for men about self-pity. It went right along with some thoughts I’ve had lately:
Men — I am speaking to YOU, man to man, here. You know and I know that the one thing that will ensure your failure is if you are persuaded that your failure is inevitable, because the world is against you. Let us suppose that people in general ARE against you. You have three options. One is to preoccupy yourself with it, and complain about it, and — because you will not be able to resist the temptation — attribute your failures to it.
The second is to ignore it. The third is to be aware of it, and to be doggedly committed to being MORE virtuous than your detractors, MORE industrious, MORE likely to get your rear end into church, MORE committed to cleanness at least before marriage and to begetting children only within marriage, MORE honest, MORE temperate with regard to booze, and so on …
The first option is lethal. The second is the way of the gentle and sweet-tempered Roy Campanella. The third is the way my father’s father chose for his children. The question is simply this. You want to win. What do you do to WIN? Forget about who does what to whom. Think only of winning. Worst strategy of all: one of resentment and self-exculpation.
Last night my wife and I watched Gattaca, which for some ridiculous reason is a relatively obscure film. It paints a dystopian world in which a person’s genetic makeup determines his entire course in life and place in society. No one exceeds his potential. No one breaks the biologically-determined social strata. You are either genetically selected upon fertilization for superior traits, or you are “invalid,” born naturally through sexual conception.
Yet throughout the film, genetically perfect people who were supposed to conquer the world fail in life. They fall short of their goals, they try to commit suicide, they chicken out, they let fear get the best of them, all because they’re leaning on their physical perfection to get them ahead in life, expecting everything to be handed to them as it was at birth.
The genetically imperfect, on the other hand, are shown conquering enormous odds, overcoming adversity, exercising that much harder, studying that much longer, refusing to quit, refusing to take “no” for an answer, and as a result, succeeding.In one scene, the main character’s genetically perfect brother challenges him to a swim out to sea, attempting to settle an old score. Lost in the fog and the darkness, near drowning, this ubermensch tells his older brother they have to turn back to shore.
“It’s too late for that” his brother replies, and keeps swimming out to sea.
Broken, the perfect brother asks how the other, who was supposed to die of heart failure at age 30, keeps managing to best him at everything.
“You wanna know how I did it?” comes the reply. “This is how I did it…I never saved anything for the swim back.”
I hear a lot of men these days complaining that life is just too hard, that the deck of society is stacked against them, and that feminism is keeping them from succeeding. “Why even try?” they often wonder.
This is why. Because what life hands you is only half the game. The other half is what you do with it. You are not the sum of your constituent atoms and circumstances. And often, it is precisely the hardship, the adversity, the impediments, the weaknesses, and the barriers that give people the drive necessary to succeed, allowing them to excel even those who had everything going for them and chose to sit on their laurels.
More important than earthly achievement, there’s the spiritual dimension. C. S. Lewis observes in “Mere Christianity” that we will likely discover when we reach Heaven and all our earthly garments fall away that many of the Christians we considered “great” were actually abysmal failures at reaching their massive God-given potential, while many of those we considered rather ordinary and not especially virtuous overcame enormous obstacles, fought back fiercer temptations, and won incredible dividends on their meager talents. They will be first in the Kingdom of God because they utterly used up what they were given, while many others who were objectively more successful on earth barely tapped their potential.
This may be part of what Jesus meant when He said the least shall be greatest. Don’t worry about what other people have. Don’t blame your problems on others, and don’t fall for the self-fulfilling prophecy that your story is written by your circumstances. Don’t save anything for the swim back.
Image: Gattaca, Columbia Pictures