Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Joy of "Becoming'

I really am not trying to be dramatic when I say that this is, possibly, the most important post I have ever written. Fact is, if I am right about what I think on this one, and if I express it clearly enough, it really is. If I am wrong, or weak with my presentation, down the digital drain this one goes along with most of the others.

The inspiration is in an incident, last summer. My wife and I were on the train in Chicago, and I looked across at a young man who was reading More's Utopia, pen in hand, his book bag next to him, his dark, unkempt brown hair looking compellingly like my own at his age. He was undoubtedly on his way to class; probably an English major -- as I was -- or maybe a philosophy major.

I turned to my wife and I said: "I miss being that guy."

Because that used to be me, riding the train to school, with a copy of Utopia or Lyrical Ballads or Leibnitz's Monadology close to my face, in serious danger of missing my stop, having been so immersed in exploration of the thoughts greater minds.

My wife, Karen, said, "You still are that guy, right? You are always reading, thinking, composing, writing... What do you mean?"

For a while, I didn't know how to answer. For months, even...

At the end of last school year, I was talking to a class of departing seniors. In conversation, I wound up advising them about something I had been pondering for a long time. I told them that I think happiness comes from living in a state of "becoming." "Becoming" is a state that they have lived in since birth. As such, they are generally unaware of that state's magic; the magic of having real purpose.

Why are kids usually happy and energetic? Because they are becoming people; they are becoming themselves. This is the most meaningful work they will ever undertake. Somewhere, in their hearts, if not conceptually, they feel that it is. Everyone wants his or her existence to have a purpose. Becoming might be the biggest purpose we are ever blessed with.

Young people are also becoming athletes; they are becoming lawyers or carpenters or teachers or beauticians. After becoming a person of their own, they set about carving out a spot for themselves in "the world." Still, meaningful work, but less profound: "Now that I have a sense of who I am, where's my seat at the table?"It's a second stage.

Then, we get older. Out of school; out of training, we get a job and we are still, to a small extent, becoming, but what we are becoming gets narrower, less of a Herculean and Romantic achievement: from worker to manager; teacher to principal; a craftsman to foreman; supervisor to CEO. (That is, if we don't give up on growing, altogether, as the hopeless do...)  But this is nowhere near the glorious pursuit of "self" from our days of youth. At this point, life feels like too much of an arrival and an arrival means the long trip is over...which, in this case (you, is decidedly not cool.
This climbing of the professional ladder is not the same as lying in bed at night, imagining ourselves winning the World Series with a walk-off homer or conducting the Philadelphia orchestra [guilty on both counts]. The self, in adulthood, is already there; the house is built; the rest is just a rearranging of the furniture -- which can be fulfilling, but not as fulfilling as planing the boards and driving the nails and watching the whole thing take shape against a cobalt sky.

And that was the difference I wasn't able to articulate that day on the train. I hadn't lost my ideals or my enthusiasm, but that young man was the ghost of my twenty-year-old self. He was on the great adventure I once undertook; he was becoming himself...finding his way through the forests of intellectuality and marveling at every new path his sneakered steps revealed.

My "house," as of that Chicago day, was built; the grand work was done, and I was just adding to the library; adding yet another book to the shelves, another picture to the wall...but his readings were shaping him in significant ways, as mine once did and there was a glorious, compelling, motivating question mark in front of him.

In short -- no I am not kidding -- I think being in a state of "becoming" is nothing less than the secret to lifelong happiness, if we grasp what it really means. I think we can go back to "becoming," even in the third act of existence.

Not all of us. For those of us who lave let our hearts die, there is no hope. But for those of us who have held on to wonder and who are not embarrassed to do a little middle-aged navel-gazing, it's completely doable.

For me, it was a question of rearranging of my responsibilities to allow for more time for my creativity and for getting closer to that guy I used to be, again. But this means I need a new question mark; not just a goal of status, but one of real growth.

For me, it is now nothing less than trying to establish myself in a "third act" career: professional composer. Now, with an agent putting my work into the hands of music supervisors and music libraries around the world, I am learning a new business, yes; but I am also learning more about composition than I knew before; I am facing challenge after challenge with the constraints of my composition assignments. I am exploring a new world of musical technology that allows me to write full orchestral scores in my little studio. I am looking at artistic growth, but my sight is also set on something completely new: becoming a full time composer. I'm still hoping for something. (The ghost of the young aspiring composer I once was is, at this moment, in his bedroom, bent over a Ravel score, with headphones on...wondering where his musical life will take him.)

Every time I get a note from my agency that another piece has been forwarded to a music supervisor, it is like a mini college acceptance letter, if you will -- a sign that another door has opened. Each time I get a rejection critique from an industry pro, I learn more about what it takes for me to grow as a composer. In short, I am "in school" again. If you want, you can say it is some variant of "feeling like a kid again." I really don't mind.

So, for my young readers, I guess this is a plea to keep looking for ways to "become" even after it feels you have arrived. For my fellow middle-agers: if you feel like you're just waiting for that great gettin' up morning, facing a string of sprawling, similar days with no sense of excitement, find a way to become something new, but pick something deeper than just taking a pottery class or doing Tai Chi at the local gym. Think big. Become another you. Get back on that "train to school," not just to take classes but to pursue a new question mark. There is plenty of time to build a whole new house. And, if there's not -- no controlling fate -- at least you'll "go down standing up."

I hope I did the idea justice. If this came off as me saying "keep learning new things" or "stay active," one or both of us failed... It's, as I said, way bigger than that.


  1. Chris, I'm totally on board with this post, because you're right: it's the question marks that proceed from the "becoming" that keep us young.

    Last year, I returned to art after a 25-year hiatus. Thanks to a string of good classes at a nearby art center, I've picked up where I left off, and while I'm not yet great, I'm seeing real improvement. At this point, it's a source of joy to have no idea where all this is leading. What will I be creating in five, ten, twenty years? Will I be good enough to show or sell work someday? Who am I becoming?

    I don't know. We shall see. What's wonderful about the whole experience is that when I'm drawing or painting, I get the same thrill of joyful hope I got when I was 22, but with the benefit of whatever wisdom comes from pushing 50. I couldn't have foreseen that I'd be happier being an amateur now than a professional back then--but what good is getting older if we can't do neat things with our years of experience?

    1. Well-said, Jeff. I sort of kicked myself the other day when, over on Twitter, Steerforth used the word "possibilities" in reference to this post. I'm sorry that I didn't use the word, but I did express the sentiment, I suppose. Possibilities are what the "becoming" is all about. Your art is more than just "taking a pottery class" -- it is the nurturing of a postponed garden from the past... Very cool.

    2. I also think of Stephen, over at First Known When Lost...look at what he has done as an ambassador for and a scholar of poetry, after a career in law. His work has real purpose and passion.

  2. Oh yes, Stephen is a great example of someone who has written a whole new act for his life, one that rewards the rest of us with a rare oasis of thoughtfulness on the Internet.

    When I taught college, my students were all adults who were returning to school after years, sometimes decades, away. I've followed the lives of some of them via Facebook, and they're all now vastly different and more ambitious people. Just offhand, I can think of one who's making a serious effort to break into screenwriting; another, formerly a stay-at-home mom, is now a librarian; there's a technical writer turned artist and musician; and of course, there was the professional commercial contractor who came to my classes solely because he loved literature and wanted an English degree. Thanks to nearly a decade of hindsight, I'm realizing how much I learned from these folks about so much more than literature. If they can go back to college at 40 and build whole new lives for themselves, I sure as heck can re-learn how to draw.