Once upon a time, I was twelve years old, using our free dial-up internet to look at Oxford and Cambridge’s websites, probably after reading about them in a novel. I tried to figure out how the college system worked and even had some preferences for which one I’d want to be in, but was attuned enough to my family’s circumstances to know (after a glance at the scholarship page) that I would probably never be able to afford that dream. It stuck around somewhere, but as I applied to various colleges and universities, I figured it wasn’t happening and that would be that.
It was only in the process of transferring from community college, as I checked out the study abroad catalog at Penn, that I realized there was actually a way to do it. It didn’t hurt that the program requirements were among the most stringent, at least as far GPA went, so I could satisfy my internal need to accomplish something meaningful if I did get in. Of course, as the four or five regular readers of this blog and myself already know, I eventually ended up going to Cambridge to study for six months and was deliriously happy even when I wasn’t (i.e. while smudging all of the underlines in my Abelard text with tears because I just could not understand what, precisely, I was supposed to be getting out of it after spending many hours on one or two paragraphs). I pointedly didn’t take pictures of many things, just so I’d have to spend time smelling, hearing, and seeing every detail into memories that would linger in greater potency.
I think that it’s unusual that we get precisely what we want. I say this as someone who has rarely formed more complex ambitions than “survive” and “don’t grow up to be like Mom,” but I think even for people who have a detailed notion of what they want and can aim themselves toward that, the results are never going to be exactly that, because there are too many other variables. It’s also possible that we may find out that what we think we want isn’t what we want at all.
There’s no terribly original thought behind this post. I just happened to be thinking about that experience in contrast with most of life, where I think the truer way to satisfaction is to follow the Innocent Smith model. Smith is the strange and wonderful hero of Chesterton’s novel Manalive. The title comes from a telegram he sent to an old school chum, and this with no context whatsoever: “Man found alive with two legs.”
It’s meant to be a sort of wondrous announcement, to wake others up to the marvel that Smith himself (and I do think Smith is meant to be a somewhat parodied but semi-autobiographical figure for Chesterton, if only because he writes elesewhere with such naive jubilation in apple trees bearing apples and sunrise happening every morning) has discovered.
In the course of the story, we find that Smith’s realization has led him to take some very unusual steps. For example, he is found to be a bigamist, romancing different women and then eloping with them, never mind that they all turn out, in the end, to have been his wife, sent off somewhere to work as a secretary or lady’s maid precisely so that he could then find her and make off with her. On another occasion, he is caught attempting burglary, breaking into a house via an attic window, but, after all, it’s only his own house that he’s breaking into.
What Smith is attempting is the quiet revolution (though maybe not so quiet in his case) of wanting what you get. The satisfaction of attaining a goal or dream is great and deep, no doubt about that. But there is a great deal that we cannot control or know, and if we mean to find delight in the less earthshaking moments, then contentment is far more consistently rewarding. That’s not to say that we should settle or stop dreaming; rather, as in all things, there’s a balance to be walked if we wish not merely to weather the “low” points between attainments, but rather thrive in them.