Because I spent the year after my freshman year “reconsidering [my] educational objectives” at the behest of the university administration, I was a year older than my new classmates, and in that year had had experiences that opened up eyes and mind considerably. Details not important in this post. One evening after dinner, five or six of us were sitting around having a sophomoric discussion that focused (as one does at times) on “what I want in life.” Someone spoke up with “What do you want MOST?” and the answers poured out: a doctorate, to be a professor, travel the world, happily married, a specific number of children, live in the city/live in the country. I sat there increasingly feeling (as I often did) out of phase with the rest. I wanted, in a general way, lots of things, some of them things mentioned for others as their “most wanted” thing. But I couldn’t name what I really wanted most.
Back in my room later, finished with the night’s study assignments, I was still feeling my way to the answer for that question. Horses? Yes, I wanted horses, but not “most.” Graduate school? Yes, I wanted more education but no specific degree satisfied “most.” A big house? Yes, but… A husband? Yes, but… Children? Yes, but….but I wanted most something that wasn’t a thing. That was….I opened up a notebook and started writing, trying to figure it out.
And this is what I wrote, slowly, a few words at a time:
The things I want most/ no one can give me./ I must carve them out of myself/ by using them. (It was in four lines, like a little poem, handwritten of course.)
And then I stared at what I’d written, and felt the truth of it sink into me, scalp to the soles of my feet, filling everything. Yes. That’s what I most wanted. Qualities of being: I wanted to BE what I wasn’t yet, and nobody could give me skills, competencies, character traits. I had to not just learn by reading, the way I learned what I studied in class…but create in myself by doing, by making myself into what I wanted most…a better person to live with, basically, though I didn’t think that clearly then. I had “abilities” that needed to become “competencies, skills.” “Potential” that needed to become actual.
It was a challenge that looked back at me from the page. Because although my abilities were inborn and enjoyable to contemplate, getting from “smart” to “capable” sure looked like a great big old bag of WORK, some of it probably painful. And I was too smart not to recognize that I had, in the past, not done a particularly good job of making potential actual. I looked at it again in the morning. Thought about it. And then repeated it to myself and…went to work on it.
It’s a pearl for sure. The gravel is all the things I tried to avoid having to do the carving…the living it. If you really want your potential, your talent, your ability to “come true”…any potential, talent, ability, opportunity…it’s going to take getting bruised, getting tired, getting back up the thousandth time you do it wrong and land on your backside on rocks. And we’re all human and we all make mistakes, and try to cut corners sometimes, and think we already know what we haven’t a clue about…but this holds true. The things you want most, no one can give you. You may not know yet you want them, but you will. And no one can give you a pound of courage, a sack of wisdom, a jar of prudence, a bucket of temperance…no one. They can give you a key to some door, a pat on the back, a kind word, a reference to someone else…but not those four. Nor the skill with tools, or musical instruments, or paint, or language…they can show you, but only you–your mind, your body–can make those skills–any skills–your own skill. You must carve your character, your skills, your competencies out of yourself: your time, your body, your mind, your experience…by using the rudimentary nubbins of those traits and skills you have now. Your scrapes and scratches and cuts. Your choosing to fill your time with working on them, slowly, slowly, re-shaping yourself to be capable of what you want most.
One pearl. Lots of gravel. That’s all I’ve got folks.