We don't really even understand how judgmental we are of ourselves or others. It is like in Avenue Q, the song that offers insightfully, "We're all just a little bit racist." Sometimes, our own ideas are so deeply ingrained that we don't even notice them, certainly don't question them. Not unless somebody else forces you to, and even then...
I saw Avenue Q last night, finally. It has been running for many years and I have for the last couple at least been meaning to get there as one of its creators is now a friend, lives in my building. I think there was a reason I didn't see it until yesterday. It's messages resonated in a way they might not have before, in perfect tandem with what I am thinking about now as I set upon my own mission, my own purpose.
The idea of one's purpose in life plays large in the modern musical, arguably the first of its genre, which uses puppets and lighthearted tunes to soften the blow, to ease the burden of grappling with The Big Question, the one we are often, many of us, afraid to ask: why am I here anyway??
The central puppet, Princeton, has graduated from college with an English degree and finds himself unemployed and out of sorts. Without a handy job to distract him, the "opportunity," aka free time, to explore what he might really be meant to do is offered. Suffice to say, it is not easy for him to figure. Panic, self-doubt and sexual escapades ensue. Conveniently, it being a play, there are some conclusions drawn, some reasons why, for example, he eschews love to find his higher purpose. It is never quite so simple in real life, though the lessons drawn from such smart art certainly can help.
I was thinking of this when I embarked on a conversation with a gentleman in Parco this morning. I have seen him sitting, reading, there often, but we have never chatted. Today was the day. It turns out he is a professor, of English. I laughed, telling him about the confusion of the Ave Q character after graduating with an English degree and still not knowing what to do. I said I gave people stars, though, just for trying. He seemed to understand, but then, as we talked, he would shake his head at points when I explained the moments a person might feel they deserved a gold star.
"Like after they've done the laundry, and looked around to wonder who's noticed," I said.
He narrowed his eyes, curious. "But is doing laundry really deserving of a reward?"
I laughed. "Yes! It is effort expended, it is not for me or you to judge if it is enough, that is the point!"
He thought about it and nodded. "OK," he said, "Fair enough."
I told him how, yesterday, a parent at my kids' school and a former Peace Corps volunteer, who got a gold star for her heroic efforts running the Book Fair, told a story of living in Ghana where, she said, "It is a big saying there, it is high praise, to say, 'You try!'" She laughed and recounted an instance where she had gone full bore on something only to have a woman walk up to her and say, "You try, Sistah!" Judging the comment by American standards, judging it as an effort unrewarded, unsuccessful, she was at first offended, until she remembered: in Ghana, it meant a job well done.
"It's sad that in this country, we do not see trying as enough. I think people come here to succeed, especially to New York, and they are very hard on themselves," I said to my new friend.
He thought about it and shook his head. "No," he said. "They come here, or did, because there are more jobs. It's not about that idea of 'success,' they just need jobs."
I laughed. It was funny because Ave. Q's theme of higher purpose is, of course, working on a higher plane. Of course, Princeton had parents who floated him money while he searched for greater meaning. He had the luxury. Others have no choice but to get a job that often sucks them of the energy to think about something else. But that something else, that larger possibility lurks there, somewhere, in the back of their minds, I'm convinced of it.
"I think we all work simultaneously on two planes," I said. "Even if we're not consciously thinking about let alone actively working toward Higher Purpose in a tangible way, even if we just move to New York to 'get a job,' there is always the thought in the back of our heads that something will happen, that we will be discovered or that something extraordinary will pop into our lap that gives our lives meaning."
He nodded hesitantly. "I agree with that, I think," he said. I liked him a lot, not just because he agreed with me. Mainly because he was willing and interested in thinking about something in a new way, he was curious. I gave him his gold star happily.
After he left, a new seatmate arrived and we, likewise, discussed the meaning of life, the questions that arise in middle age.
"There are no answers," she said. I nodded.
"All you can do is look at everything and keep asking questions," I said, giving her a gold star for doing just that.