"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 15, 2017

Dance With The One That Brung You–Preparing For Life’s End With What Got You There In The First Place

Parker Jones was the son of persistent individualists who had held their ground in the high mountains of Montana until they had been forced to leave because of foreclosure, illness, and extremely bad weather. But for bad luck, an unexpected and surprising downturn in cattle prices, and an unforgiving loan officer, they could have survived another year and perhaps even prospered from the profitable gas exploration in the valley.

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Parker inherited his father’s rebellious individualism, his mother’s pluck and ingenuity, and his grandfather’s  brains; but his irrepressible – some said insufferable- ego was his own.  From a very early age he wanted nothing to do with the concerns or affairs of others.  They had been dealt hands from the same deck of cards as he had, granted reasonable intelligence and physical ability, and with ambition, drive, and pursuit could achieve whatever ends they sought.   He had neither compassion for their failures nor praise for their successes.  He and they had been both scrambled in the same genetic potpourri, conditioned by similar environmental factors, and were quite capable of making do with what fortune had decided.

Of course few of his peers had his unusual combination of brains, indifference, and ambition – the sine qua non of American success – and he left them far behind as he moved through Wall Street, corporate America, and finally academia.  In each of his professions his arrogance and supreme ego were given a pass because of his performance.  As a ruthless financier, he made millions for investment banks.  As a corporate executive who could sense weakness, vulnerability, and fear, he earned millions more through canny mergers and acquisitions.  As an academic, freed by tenure to follow his own intellectual instincts, he made waves and a solid income from his books.

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Such was the productive, active, and up until his 70th birthday, happy life of Parker Jones.  He had avoided bad marriages and worse divorces.  He had skied at Gstaad and summered at St. Tropez.  He had done things of which he and others were proud.  He was known.

Who knows who or what sowed the first seed of doubt; but for the first time in his life Parker Jones felt uncertain, unsure of his footing. He was as healthy and strong as ever, on the road to 100, and as sharp, witty, and perceptive as ever.  Yet there was this new and totally strange feeling of unsettling unease.  Something was wrong, he was sure of that, but he knew not what.

Turning seventy had been far more difficult than he had imagined. Decade turning points had meant little before.  Fifty and sixty came and went without notice – lots of champagne, oysters, friends, and sailing in the Mediterranean – but seventy was clearly different.  Nothing really had changed from the day before to the day after, but numbers don’t lie.  There could be no hiding from the fact that not only was most of his life over, but he had scant few years left, and he felt unprepared. 

Most men passing this milestone have similar moments of reflection – has my life been worth anything? Will I be remembered, and if so for what? What’s next if anything? – but since Parker Jones never gave meaning, worth, or reflection any pause or value, these thoughts were particularly troubling.  Not only was he headed down the end of the tunnel, he was singularly unprepared.

Tolstoy spent most of his adult life pondering existential questions.  He read and studied every important work of philosophy, scientific theory, literature, art criticism, and history in the hope of finding something of moral authority, absolute reason, or emotional satisfaction.  As his character Konstantin Levin wondered in Anna Karenina, how could God have created a being with such intelligence, creativity, insight, humor, and ambition, let him live a few short decades, and then consign him to an eternity of nothingness in the cold, hard earth of the steppes? In the end Tolstoy simply gave up – the questions he was asking were simply imponderable and unanswerable.  If billions of people have believed in God, he reasoned finally, then why shouldn’t he?

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Parker’s problem was not that he was afraid to confront approaching old age; but that he had no idea how. 

Tolstoy at the end of his life turned his decades of existential search into practical action. The exposition of his newfound faith became as passionate as his earlier search for truth.
The philosopher Peter Kropatkin wrote in 1911:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason...
Tolstoy made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force…. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state, and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars.
In short, Tolstoy remained true to his character and the intellect which had characterized him since childhood.  Although he had become more open and sensitive to the plight and conditions of those around him, he never changed course, never became a mendicant, a monk, or a charity worker.  His political and religious advocacy evolved from the same hard, disciplined place as his philosophical quest or his writing.  If he were to positively influence society – and this make his final mark on history – it was to be through a committed and courageous advocacy.  His message of Christian teaching plus secular activism were typical of his nature and vision.

Parker Jones, on the other hand, had no such insight.  As he looked back on his life and career – companies bought and sold, millions made, books written, adventures had and their chronicles written – he wondered if such a life of action, purpose, and endeavor was really all there was.  Perhaps he had overlooked his compassionate, giving, and charitable side.  Perhaps his life, as respectable and admired as it might be, had really been not much at all – a collection of selfish opportunities, nothing more.  Nothing really lasting, meaningful, or essential.

So he joined men’s clubs in the hopes that these collegial and confessional groups could help him discover and/or reveal a more sensitive, principled side.  He contributed time and resources to charities to help the poor and disadvantaged.  He did his best to curb his temper, insolence, and impatience.  In short, he tried to remake himself into a much more understanding, forgiving, and compassionate person.

Of course none of these reforms worked. He frustrated his colleagues at men’s groups because of is insistence on talking about his problems, his challenges, and his existential crisis.  The venue might have changed, but Parker Jones had not.  He was still the self-centered, ego-powered individual he had always been.

He became increasingly intolerant in his political views which had shifted far to the Left.  A man’s political philosophy was what defined him most; so the new Parker could no longer espouse libertarian conservatism but only radical progressivism.  In other words, he flew the banner of progressivism to herald his own convictions not to announce real social concern. 

It was not long before Parker’s self-inquiry and –criticism took another turn.  He quickly tired of the men’s clubs whose members were too slow on the uptake; too impatient with the liberal zealots who tried to tame his individualistic enthusiasm; and too fed up with women who insisted on disagreeing with him.

Sadly, the final turn was inward.  Neither his natural, boundless energy and enthusiasm and absolute self-confidence; nor his new compassion and understanding were satisfied.  He was betwixt and between, emotionally hemmed in through his own doing, and very, very unhappy.

The simple moral of the story of Parker Jones is this – dance with the one that brung you. Stay the course until the end.  Parker Jones had not a snowball’s chance in hell of changing his attitude, personality, character, or ways; and so was ill-equipped to deal with the existential questions that troubled him.  Had he accepted who he was and lived with the fact that people don’t change, that the dice have been cast at birth, and that both nature and nurture conspire right from the very first, he might have had a chance of figuring out what’s what and to become schmart before he was old.
Unfortunately he was more locked into his box more inescapably than most.  His was not a happy end.

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