Better lives, by right
We should all have the right to live our lives free of fear, self-pity and self-congratulations.That’s what Haven Kimmel said about a month ago, and the thought has haunted me ever since. I agree with her, although I know it’s wildly at odds with reality. I suppose that’s the difference between journalist and novelist. The journalist is compelled to at least acknowledge there is a reality, holding dear to its little facts. The novelist is freer to stray while exploring for that larger truth.Novelist Kimmel’s words at the Festival of Words in Beaver Creek poke at me like a larger truth, or at least a sharp corner of it.I like the levels I see in this notion. There’s the reality of Iraq, life at the office with always overbearing bosses, our American egos run amok. There’s civil rights, daily life and our human relationships all bundled into a sentence. Just do it, don’t feel sorry for yourself, and don’t get so stuck on yourself, either. Of course, we all fail miserably, even beyond high school.Kimmel is an author, and she was talking about writing in a banquet room packed with fans of writers and writing. They wouldn’t have been there that last weekend of ski season if they weren’t.Her wise words apply to the craft, absolutely. To put yourself in position to tell the story, you do need to let it all out without worrying, at least for the moment, what others might think. Self-pity can be fun, and funny, as long as you aren’t mired in it. Then again, if you can treat it lightly, then perhaps you are free of its weight. Self-congratulations – maybe that’s the most pernicious, since we tend to be the least aware of it in ourselves. We wrap ourselves so tightly in our pride, self-righteousness, sanctimony, puffed-up place among peers and don’t realize what obnoxious boors we really can be. In any case, to write in a way that connects, all that stuff in Kimmel’s sentence has to go. I can see that. We simply have to get past ourselves. Never mind that this is fundamentally impossible for human beings. It’s a prescription for nirvana, as well as writing a column and otherwise coping with daily life in America or considerably scarier Iraq. You go at it as best you can. Scratch as close to the ideal as you can possibly manage. And try to drop the baggage; it’s of no real account, anyway.
I would change one word in the sentence, as I would when considering all the “rights” we enjoy as U.S. citizens. That would be to “responsibility.” Whether we take it up or not, we do have a responsibility to vote, not merely a right. We also have a responsibility to speak freely, to pursue productive lives, to not discriminate, and so on. And so also to live our lives free of fear, self-pity and self-congratulations. We’re responsible, not merely passive accepters of rights handed to us. We have to go take them and exercise them, like muscles.Kimmel’s sentence works as a philosophy for something as unremarkable as my jumpshot those Wednesday and Friday noon hours on the basketball court, as vital as my livelihood and family relationships, and as large as our exercise of democracy as a nation. It may be that so many of us despise politics in the pejorative precisely because it seems so permeated with fear, self-pity and self-congratulations. Can you name a politician free of that stuff? They’re positively sopping with it. I think it’s in their playbooks, if not their DNA. And maybe this is part of why so many of us enjoy those endlessly formulaic heart-warming stories of triumph, so long as the protagonist manages not to become overly inflamed with his or her own glory, of course.I appreciate Kimmel’s writing for her ability to condense big thoughts into short sentences. I also have to admit I love the thought that the perspective behind her words can build better people and nations. I know it’s only a sentence, through which cynics like journalists can poke lots of holes. Still I cling to belief in larger truths, too. There really is hope for us, you know. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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