I, like so many people, am cursed with envy. I look around and think that everyone seems to be doing better than I am. But the fact is that we are all human (except for a good friend of mine who happens to be a dog), and thus, as has been said numerous times by spiritual leaders throughout the ages, we all suffer. Of course, keep in mind that spiritual leaders who lived before indoor plumbing really did suffer in ways that we cannot even imagine, and maybe that is what they were talking about. But the fact is that even with flush toilets life is not easy.
What I have always found remarkable is that sometimes the people we most admire are also not content. Case in point: Back in 2000, I went to a political fundraiser where the speaker was none other than President Bill Clinton, who was in the final months of his second term.
I was waiting on line with a friend, and he told me that he had heard through authoritative sources that the president was trying to find someone who could help him with the problem he had with procrastination. “What?” I thought, President Clinton? The guy who was so popular that, if the Constitution permitted it, could have easily won a third term, in spite of the Monica revelations? Even he is not satisfied with his life?
So there it is. You can be an incredibly popular two-term president of the United States (who, nearly 12 years after you leave office, can galvanize a national convention with your speech), and yet you can still be dissatisfied with yourself. And Clinton? Procrastination? This guy was sworn in at age 46, making him the third youngest president in American history. Did he think that if he wasn’t a procrastinator, he could have become president when he was 38?
Not everyone suffers from procrastination, but it does seem like no one is really satisfied with him- or herself. Or with you, for that matter. No matter how inadequate we feel about ourselves, all we have to do is talk with, say, our spouse to see how much further we are falling short than we thought we were.
But back to how we feel about ourselves, even when practically everyone (with the usual spousal exception) is telling us how wonderful we are. I don’t know if, along with his procrastination issue, President Clinton feels like he has not accomplished enough in his life, but I do know that is a problem for many people. Take me, for instance. Please. I have what can be called good credentials — in terms of education and achievements. But if you ask me if I feel that I’ve accomplished a lot, my immediate answer is a resounding “No.”
To paraphrase the late Bobby Kennedy, as quoted by the late Ted Kennedy when he eulogized Bobby in 1968, “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” Well, I dream things that never were and just go back to sleep.
It is comforting, though, isn’t it, to realize that probably even those whose accomplishments are unquestionable may not be so happy with themselves or their achievements. It is well-known that Johannes Brahms was such a perfectionist that he burned many of his compositions. And I often wonder about Franz Schubert, who only lived to 31. As he lay dying, I can imagine his family and friends clustered around his bed and one of them saying, “Ah, Franz, it is sad you leave us so early, but look what you’ve accomplished.”
To which Schubert might have replied, “Big deal. Mozart lived only four years longer than me, and he wrote 41 symphonies. I only wrote nine, and one of them I didn’t even finish. I’ll bet someday they’ll make an Academy Award-winning movie about his life and they’ll forget all about me.”
To which one of his friends might have responded, “Oh, Franzie, don’t be so hard on yourself. And by the way, what’s ‘a movie’?” (It was, after all, 1828.)
And no one is happy with how they look. It’s a good thing the only people whose portraits they put on postage stamps are dead. Otherwise, I’m sure honorees would complain endlessly about how they look on the stamp.
In a moment of spontaneity in a college classroom, back before teachers had to be so mindful of political correctness that they could actually be spontaneous once in a while, I said, “Getting to know someone well is learning how unhappy they are.”
This might be just a bit hyperbolic, but not too much. There have been people I’ve thought had it all — until I got to know them really well and discovered that they were actually almost as much of a basket case as I was.