“Cancer will help you grow as a person.” “Paddling on the Allagash River made me stronger in all kinds of ways.” “God wants us to be constantly making ourselves better.”
It’s settled nowadays that if there’s one thing worth valuing in our lives, it’s constant self-improvement. It’s not that great to be born into riches and take over the family business; it’s wonderful to start from nothing and become the richest car-seat salesman in the country. There’s little point in being an excellent pianist—there’s tremendous point in practicing every day to get better at Für Elise.
I’m working as a camp counselor now (the cause of this blog’s fallowness), and I’m surrounded by this ethos. The boys, after all, are in a stage of their lives when everything is moving in a straight line. As Adam gets older, he gets better at sailing. His conversations get more intellectual. His face grows a beard, his voice gets deeper, and he commands more respect. To Adam and his excitable counselors, it seems like human life is all about growing up and improving himself. That’s where the secret to happiness is.
But it’s just not true. The world is full of growth, but also full of decay. People are born and grow for the first twenty years, and get stronger and smarter. But then they start to decay: by fifty we can’t run as fast, by sixty we can’t think as fast, and soon we die and all the growth that we’ve accumulated gets buried in the grave. If we invent a narrative for our lives that requires us to constantly accumulate good character, professional accomplishments, and material goods, we’re not setting ourselves up to be happy.
|Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.|
We would do well, then, to find ways of being happy that don’t involve polishing ourselves ceaselessly until it’s time to apply more polish. We must be happy both when we’re getting weaker and when we’re getting stronger. Even more importantly, we should focus on doing right by other people without worrying about what it means for our own “ethical development.”
A side-note while I’m talking about morality: Judaism has an annual Day of Atonement, a day that is filled with scripted confessions of sin. When I was growing up, I would finish the prayerbook on that day and be puzzled: if I’ve just finished repenting, why is it assumed that I’m going to need the same book next year? Isn’t it assumed that I’ve grown out of sinning now? But the rabbis who wrote the book were wiser than I was. Flesh is weak, and no one is really strong enough to improve himself to the expected level. It’s good enough, then, to sin and atone with the full consciousness that we’ll sin again despite our best efforts.
Back to the main point. Am I saying that I don’t like growth? Not at all. It’s a pleasure to watch children grow up, just like it’s fun to go to the gym every day and get steadily stronger. But I do want to help remove it from its place of culture-wide adoration. Growth is a pleasing part of human life—but it shouldn’t be our idol. After all, if it becomes our god, we will be deeply frustrated when we are denied it in the end. (Death, it seems, is always good at destroying idols.)