Writ Large

I haven’t read All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I’m not confident that I’ll get around to it eventually, but in Scott McLemee’s column/podcast about the book and its author, he quotes the following paragraph:

The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.

So (as best I apprehend this), when you’re young, you don’t have sufficient experience of the world to assay truth from folly or deception, and when you’re older, you have made enough wrong decisions that you’re enmeshed in errors that you started into when you were too young to know better.
This all seems plausible enough to me, but I wonder about the note of betrayal in the lament. Whence came the idea that we have the prerogative to expect a higher degree of certainty? I admit that just now I’m scoring pretty high on the “affected by unforeseeable contingencies” scale, but I believe I recall making this sort of point in various public venues well before this winter. The illusion that we have, or ought to have, a determinative role in how our lives play out cripples our capacity to thrive in circumstances we didn’t choose and don’t control. Sulking, fulminating, agonizing over how things should have been misses the point, because our particular (always conflicting, always divergent) visions of “ought to be” pertain to how things actually go only sporadically. If we stake everything, anything, on controlling our own destinies, we gamble on a giant lottery with contingencies compared to which our aspirations and willpower are but paltry things.
(I hope I’m listening well to what I just wrote.)
Now, speaking theologically, there’s much more to be said about sin, grace, alienation, hope, theosis, and so on. On the terms of everyday secular discourse, though, the poignance of a character discovering how much more complicated it all has been all along, and perhaps not even registering how misplaced his expectations were, struck a note that reminded me of other times I’ve inveighed against illusions of control.

1 thought on “Writ Large

  1. I think there is also an invalid assumption that our accumulated errors somehow chain us to a limited scope of actions. Too often these limits only exist in our mind. We confuse ‘”can’t” with “don’t want to”.

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