I have just returned from a train ride to Cooperstown and back which gave me time to reflect on many things — and time away from the blog, which was a bit of relief, I must say. One of the things I reflected on was a number of huge disappointments in my life. As one gets older, I am told, this is the way the mind wanders.
I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in (of all places) Baltimore, Maryland. Every year the students put on what were called the “Poly Follies.” It took several days and was well attended. It also required the printing and handing out of hundreds of programs. In my senior year the art department decided to have a contest to pick the cover for the program. It was a big deal and I hurried home after hearing the announcement and spent the entire weekend drawing and painting three covers — at least one of which I thought pretty good. At that time I drew and painted a bit and even submitted several pen and ink cartoons that were included in that year’s Yearbook. In any event, I was sure I would win (of course). But when the winner was announced and the cover placed in a large glass case in the main hall, along with all of the other submissions, none of mine were there. I was stunned. There were the three top covers and also all of the other submissions — none of which I thought as good as mine (!) In any event, I was deeply hurt to have my hard work ignored like that. So I went to the art department and reminded the teacher that I had submitted three covers which had not been displayed with the rest. A sudden look of awareness appeared in his eyes as he remembered my submissions, which he had placed in a cupboard below one of the art tables. I had submitted mine early and he obviously forgot all about it. I sensed that, but it simply increased the pain. I had been ignored and my covers were never even considered: they were in that cupboard the whole time.
The point of this little story, which recounts one of several disappointments I reflected on during the long train ride, is that disappointment is a part of life. The move today, which I have remarked upon repeatedly, to build our children’s self-esteem and help young people avoid pain and disappointment at all costs may be costing them the growth they require to develop as whole persons. It is the pain and disappointment that deepen sensibilities and broaden our perspectives and help us grow. Our society’s determination to disallow these experiences on the part of our children is a mistake of the first order, I believe, and I call on Dostoevsky as an authority on the subject. He was convinced that suffering is essential for the development of the human person. And he should know as he suffered a great deal himself and witnessed it in many others. It is not something we should encourage, of course, but it is something we should allow as part of the necessary steps in growing up — along with failure from which we learn so much about ourselves. In its place, we try to guarantee our children only pleasure; we have self-esteem movements in the schools and at home where no one is denied and everyone gets a prize, while only a few truly deserve it; this in turn has devolved into the entitlement we see all around us where spoiled children grow into shallow, spoiled adults whose attention is turned only on themselves.
I don’t regard myself as exemplary, by any means; but I am aware that most of the people I admire and respect have had many disappointments in their lives and have suffered at times a great deal. Dostoevsky may have overstated the case by insisting that suffering is essential to becoming fully human, but our attempts to protect the young from every type of disappointment and harm is assuredly misguided.
Hugh, not even to be considered is a blow. It probably made you lose faith in authority that they always are fair and just, when they can screw up just like everyone else. It is not ironic, we tend to remember every situation where we were not successful, but can forget some of the successes. Since you went to Cooperstown, that is a good analogy for your post, when even the best of hitters who line the museum, failed 7 out of 10 times. I have never been, I hope it was worth the journey. BTG
Good point, BTG! Sports are filled with stories of “the agony of defeat.” We do learn from that, though as a culture we seem to have forgotten it.My visit to the Hall was brief, but the visit to that area was great fun.
my mind darted out on several tangents as i read this. the thought that you once found joy in art made me smile! i put myself in your shoes and wondered what i might have done… i would probably have assumed that they thought my work was so horrible that it did not deserve to be displayed with the other! i would have retreated to the solace of nature and brooded for – perhaps years!
then i wondered, ‘what might have happened IF one or all of your designs had been selected?’ perhaps our Hugh would be sharing weekly posts about art and maybe he would have chosen an illustrator’s path!” or he might have become a graffiti artist (just joking there!) or become a bohemian artist (cant see you doing that either!). you might have chosen a serious artistic path and mentored art students and of course those of philosophy as well…
tennis would surely have stayed in your future, and i wondered if you were able to transfer some of your frustrations to that tennis ball? were you able to forgive the teacher for being so careless?
there were lessons there about fairness and having empathy for others who had been slighted, and way way way down the path of life, you were able to pass those lessons to us as well.
i wonder if that person had any remorse about misplacing your designs?
thank you for sharing your story. when is the last time you spent any quality time with your pencils or pen/ink?
Ha! I thought you might pick up on that! I haven’t drawn for many years, but I keep thinking it will happen again. My mother was an artist and I drew a great deal in years past: I was offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. It would have been a very different career path, and since I am blind to certain colors I would never have made it as a painter. But I have always kept my deep interest in and love of art.
I do think the teacher felt remorse. I was later awarded a bogus “Class Artist” award at the Senior Banquet for my work on the Yearbook. I do think it was guilty conscience at work.
I am not sure the take-away message in your blog this morning is about turning points. It can be, but maybe it is also about revelations. In ancient Greek tragedies, the audience expected a recurring theme: “through suffering comes wisdom” and were not shocked if the ending involved a “deus ex machina” (God from machine) intervention as a solution. The latter was so-called because a deity was often lowered into the play from above (by rope, boom and counter-weight) to ‘solve’ the the seemingly impossible plot dilemma. Today this may be a metaphor for ‘luck’ in our society. Witness how many people play the lottery hoping it will change their lives. I think facing disappointment and even tragedy early in life may be part of what shaped a good work ethic in ‘our’ generation. My folks had gone through the depression as kids and WWII as young adults, so they did not have a cultural history of getting things easily or taking things for granted. As a result, I think the “boomers” either were given much to over-compensate or the lucky ones learned that we could not have everything we wanted without work and that we had to save for meaningful things. I am pleased when I hear parents today still teaching this lesson to children by starting them to save for small things they can earn with successful completion of chores or a paper route. Even the disappointment in the death of a pet sends children life-lesson messages about valuing relationships (and even elders) before they too pass.
Here is an experience that may be a bit more relevant to your train trip. One of my closest friends was an avid mountaineer and a world-class film maker for National Geographic. He has been debilitated the last 3 years by neuro-muscular pains that prevent him from even walking up the drive to his rural mailbox. While this has been devastating and changed what brings him joy, there was a silver lining…….he has taken up painting! It turns out, his critical eye for ‘framing’ a subject and attention to details like lighting have allowed him to improve very quickly and he now enjoys creating wildlife art. Hugh, perhaps your recent train ride is a second calling …..about what might still bring you joy!
Thanks for the excellent comment, Bruce. Strange that a man who chases whales would know about Greek theater. But, then, you had an excellent education as I recall. I especially liked your story about your friend. Thanks again.