This morning I watched a good friend in law enforcement explain his journey (itineris) thus far through life. He spoke about “losing traction” in some of his efforts, and at long last, graduating from college. I congratulate him and he inspired me to write.
We are all on our own journeys, and many have planned itineraries, but as John Steinbeck showed us in his classic book that borrowed a phrase from Robert Burns, our plans often derail.
Along with Eric Fromm’s To Have or to Be, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, one of the books that altered my thinking earlier in life was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. The narrator of Notes is a civil service worker in a dismal Russian government building in the late 1800’s. Following the theme set up above, he describes himself as a mouse of a man, living in a dank hovel and looking out at his customers as well as his superiors with contempt, jealously and spite. Being the self-described mouse, he lacks the fortitude to rise, or to get out of the maze.
So this is what distinguishes us – the mice from the men? The will to rise, to break out? Or is it more. . .
I hear rumors of the prejudices and the privileges of various peoples, and I often agree. It seems at a glance that white people are born into privilege and minorities are born into prejudice, but then my thoughts are challenged by stories of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Barack Obama. Don’t bother telling me that these are just 3 individuals out of a couple of centuries. The State of Arkansas alone had 44 black legislators between 1868 and 1893 – a time during which, based on general knowledge, I’m surprised there were any at all. Don’t get me wrong here – I am by no means suggesting the civil rights problems were or are fictional or that racism or lack of privilege does not hold people down. I absolutely know better. But there are multiple examples of men and women of any skin color or heritage who came from lowly circumstances and demonstrated the fortitude to rise, taking advantage of direct opportunities and treating barriers as nothing more than indirect opportunity.
My own father was one. He came from little more than a shack in Naylor, Arkansas. He was raised fishing and raising animals and vegetables not for sport but for sustenance, but became the valedictorian at his public school and then without the formal training of an engineer, came to be the supervisor of a team of electrical engineers at an international firm building power plants and paper mills. He inherited no particular privileges. His initiative, though, allowed me to have more direct opportunity than he did, and now I’m an attorney trying to give my sons and others opportunities, but more importantly, teaching them to recognize the direct and indirect opportunities that come their way.
At some point we must – we must – accept where we are in this world as the place we are supposed to be for the present, and recognize that we will move up or be the foundation for someone else to move up. I am happy to be my children’s foundation but it is simultaneously difficult to accept that I may not reach the heights on which I once set my aim. And I do not care to be the stepping stone for someone who sees me as nothing more than that. The truth is, regardless of my nationality or other circumstances, sometimes I’m the stone and sometimes I’m the stepper. If I stay down because I was the stone yesterday, I may miss my opportunity to take a step tomorrow.
When the plans of mice and men go awry, sometimes we have to accept the detour and sometimes we have to overcome it. What distinguishes the man from the mouse is the wisdom to figure out our best route and the fortitude to take the risk.
Like a lot of people world wide, I believe that the problems, trials, and hardships that I have endured so far are my training for whatever is to come beyond the beam of my headlights. I am often discontent with my present state and I get disgusted with people who seem to have things handed to them on a silver platter. And then I remember that we are where we are for a reason, and I re-focus to find how I fit into the puzzle and make the most of the present.
Thanks, Adam, for the lesson today, and the example of how to be a man instead of a mouse.