Philip Le Reflects on the Factors Behind his Quest for Success and his Start Towards the Reconciliation of Such a Burden.
“Ars totum requirit hominem.”
I write those words in every sketchbook I start. The phrase is in reference to the obsolete tradition of alchemy. It speaks of the requirements between Art (work/discipline/endeavor) and man, of their irrevocable tie to one another to create something of value, to be someone of worth and that this creation would require the sum of his being. This resonated with me.
The Magnum Opus, the Great Work it was called.
I remember the moment of my resolution in creating a life’s work, something the family generations preceding me could be proud of. It was a 10pm third-grade evening umpteen years ago, eyes blurry with tears and a yellow No.2 pencil in my hand. I was sitting at the kitchen table, legs dangling over pea-colored tiled flooring, so tired, so tired, with an angry mother over my shoulder.
The moment produced a combination of senses mingled in shame and anger, of guilt and damaged pride. I trembled shaky cursive across a sheet of loose-leaf, my pencil scribing words I no longer recall. Why was I so stupid as to have misspelled these words on last week’s quiz? Why was I so careless?
My mother was still angry, disappointed at how I could let something like this happen. Wasn’t I concerned with my future? Didn’t I want to become something? Didn’t I understand the hard work she was doing in order for me to have a meaningful life? Couldn’t I spend a little effort getting some silly words spelled correctly?
Looking back I can empathize with her situation. She felt alone in a new world that never grew quite familiar. She worked long hours in midst of mental exhaustion induced by her relationship with my father. Her worries about making the next round of bills permeated our home. She was loving, but easy to frustrate, always a step away from irritability. And she was so fearful of my ever living the life she had to endure. And so that was the culture of our home—failure was not an option.
I no longer remember what those misspelled words were, but those errors and that evening still swirl in my head. They conjure intertwined feelings of a son’s duty, a first-born’s responsibility to make something of himself, to honor the sacrifices of a (pretty much) single mother. I can’t remember a time when the stakes weren’t so pertinent. My godparents frequently reminded me that I was destined for great things. That the hardships my mother inherited were never in vain; they were for me, the fruits of labor borne through me. I can’t remember a time when no bar of some expectation was just out of reach, a time when I didn’t feel I had to dig myself out of whatever it was that I was told I needed to get out of in the first place.
The sense of guilt was worse. A year ago, overwhelmed, distraught and floundering between maintaining a day job, creating a startup, teaching, contributing to a collective art project, and stumbling over a relationship, I called my mother. I was always anxious to call her as she never had anyone to exasperate her problems with—for as long as I could remember, I was that person. But this night, I needed to ask for some advice of my own. I shared my feelings of inadequacy, of the relentless sensations of pursuing some grandeur I couldn’t see, and of the crushing fear of failure that seemed to always loom above me.
“I feel tired all the time. I wake up anxious, not looking forward to the day, not driven to really excel. I feel depressed I think,” I said over the phone.
“You think I’m not tired? I am anxious and depressed all the time.”
“I know,” I say. Not really knowing how to respond I continued with, “Mom, you’re getting old, please stop working overtime. Besides, don’t you ever get bored?”
“How can you be bored when you have a purpose?” she responded.
The matter-of-factness took me back. It startled me, even shocked me, because I knew she truly believed it. My mother started working in the States since she landed here from Vietnam. She met her sponsor family at age 18, working, working… she still works every hour she can get her hands on. She’s come a long way since she’s hit these shores, but it was never easy.
“I get tired. But then I remember. The tiredness goes away when you have vision.”
She doesn’t see her working days ending anytime soon and still, she works hard. Because dammit there’s just no other option. This is life.
I was the son of immigrants. Of foreigners. First male of a generation across two family names. First collegiate graduate. First born into joys of Western comfort. And so, it wasn’t just a blessing: it was duty. The question of success was never a question. It just was. I just had to be.
But duty is never that easy, is it? How does one explain that sense of burden? I was expected to appreciate it as privilege: male privilege, Western privilege bestowed on the son of runaways. But all I felt was a relentless weight that drove itself into knots. The guilt of laxing through a study session or calling sick out of work. The shame of feeling that life was sometimes difficult.
The strength and stoicism this required. All feigned, I knew wasn’t allowed those feelings. I wasn’t supposed to have weakness let alone express it. I was a man, product of trials greater than mine. Where was my Magnum Opus? When would I build my noble house? Where was the meaning in my work? What was I working for? When would I stop feeling so utterly inadequate?
As I threw myself into my work, I ignored my relationships. I ignored former hobbies and passions. My myopic sense of perfection’s pursuit, of finding that ingredient that would turn my perceived leadened-self into gold drove me onward. The equation made sense: anything could be attained through diligence and discipline.
If I just worked hard enough I could be closer to perfection. The closer I was to perfection the closer I would be to love. With success, with security, with accomplishment, if I achieved the unachievable I would earn respect. If I devoted myself to the impossible, I would never feel sorrow again. I was set on making an impact on the world, because that is what it would take for me to accept myself.
Of course, these were all delusions. And it took years of missteps and losses to really take a look at what was important.
“And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy, “Three Methods Of Reform: Pamphlets”
Not too long ago I reached a point of diminishing returns, of exhausting myself and ruining some relationships. The jolt I received from this took on other forms of self-doubt. How could I have been so selfish as to think only about me? How could I be so concerned with making something of myself that I sacrificed all that I already had around me?
It was around this time that I met with a mentor of mine, a former college professor. We occasionally corresponded over the last several years and decided it was due time to meet for lunch. We discussed our endeavors, reacquainting one another with our projects, of life and of what we had accomplished and what we were looking to accomplish. I mentioned to him my shift in careers focusing on the social service sector as a reaction to my self-involved pursuits. I told him of my ambitions with a variety of projects, of wanting to better the world in some way. That, was of course, the meaning I’d been searching. But where was the key? Where was my Philosopher’s Stone to make such a goal happen?
“You know Phil, it also comes with age. You reach a point and you realize that your life is the good work. Living your life is the project. I wake up in the morning wanting to be a good person doing good things. That is my project.”
And it was at this point that I finally took a look at what was important to me, of all the good I already had in life. Perhaps the ingenuity of the Magnum Opus wasn’t in its ability to provide an answer at all. Perhaps its significance was in its impossibility. It made one search and search and in the end notice patterns. In that searching, certain models succeeded while others did not. It was the awareness of these patterns and the fortitude to hone them that provided us with the chemistry and physics of today.
And so, while there was no direct elixir of life and no transmutation, perhaps the process of learning from that journey was the answer itself. The failures and the successes. The joy and the suffering.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
My circumstances dictated that I wanted to have a “good” life. A life provided for. A life in which I wasn’t only happy, but a life full of meaning and worth. And perhaps with all my angst and all my insecurity I failed to notice the successes that were happening right now. Sure there were varying degrees of struggle, small bouts of suffering, but for all of my fears and pressures of success, I was succeeding.
I am achieving what is needed. I am what I need to be right now. I am all right. I am the art that requires the whole man. The art and the man are one and the same.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/Alchemical_Laboratory_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14218.jpg