I’ve been brushing up lately on my classical philosophy – Socrates, Plato and the like – and have been reminded of two things: 1) Greek philosophy makes a lot more sense now than it did when I was in college; 2) the ancient search for arête, the pursuit of our best possible selves, is an undertaking as worthwhile as it is ancient. The first I attribute to my 20-some years since college of ascending and descending the peaks and valleys of life – just the transit for which the ancients were writing. The second, the search for personal growth and excellence, is the thrust of this post.
On this topic there is no shortage of potential research material. From original source philosophy to countless academic works and self-help books, you could easily spend so much time reading about self-improvement you’d have no time to actually get out there and make it happen. Where to turn, then, for good, concise direction on walking the arete path? First, give the self-help genre a break, venture to the children’s section and pick up Dr. Seuss’s work “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
I know – it’s a kids’ book. This may seem a strange choice, and with its Seussy illustrations and cutesy rhyming style it is easily dismissed as “just a kids’s book.” But if you can get past that, I would argue it is so tightly-packed with wisdom it should be a top pick for any arete-seeker. As Seuss takes the main character – you and me – through the whole range of life experiences he underscores a wide variety of virtues: steadfastness, moral discernment, confidence, initiative, courage, emotional resilience and more. I would like to extract all these in a more in-depth review of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” at a later date, but for now I would like to deal with “The Waiting Place.”
If we view the arete path as a lifelong process of choosing to begin or renew productive, positive activities and to reject or quit negative activities, we see that arete is a path of action. Its natural enemy then may not be some egregious vice or lack of virtue but simply procrastination in taking on the steps laid clearly before us. Seuss examines this in “The Waiting Place” – a place where inactivity and patient waiting supplant both vice and virtue. It is a place where life makes no progress or regress, except in the inevitable and merciless slip of time.
I first wrote about “The Waiting Place” in a column for the Fairview Republican, a weekly paper in northwest Oklahoma. I used to work there as editor, reporter, photographer, errand boy and yes, columnist. I first thought to adapt the column to this post, and update its references, throw in a few more citations and make it more bloggy. But, I prefer it in its original version. It refers to my daughters at a younger age – around eight and four, when they both still clamored for the perfect spot on a twin bed to hear Dad read them a bedtime story. Their youthful innocence allowed them to enjoy Seuss’s work without any pretensions or hang-ups about the style, and through their eyes I was first introduced to the wisdom, faith, initiative and courage it takes to escape “The Waiting Place.” I hope they’ll return to Seuss’s little book later, when they can appreciate life’s many twists and turns and its “weirdish wild space.”
The Waiting Place
I love books. I love the feel of them, I love the smell of them (yes, even the old dusty ones) and I love the thoughts they convey and the questions they raise. Yes, in a society in which it is usually negative to be described as some sort of -phile, I am proud to claim myself as a bibliophile. As a self-professed bibliophile, as a man who is often more comfortable with dead authors than live people, it seems only natural that a book would make its way into my column.
So, for your entertainment, I will now perform an exhaustive review of the contemporary social implications of 15th century Slavic poetry. No takers? Well, that will save me from pretending to know anything about anything Slavic. But, just for grins, how about a classic Dr. Seuss piece?
I can smell your skepticism from here. And believe me, I understand. If I had sat down to intentionally pick a book upon which to base a column, Dr. Seuss would probably not have made the short list. But, as is often the case with such things, I didn’t arrive at this topic by design. I sat down a couple of weeks ago to read my daughters a book, and I happened to read, for the first time, Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”.
I am a little embarrassed to admit I had not previously read the book, mostly because I had dismissed it as a children’s work and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. I will spare you the tedium of painstakingly dissecting the book (though if you want to make an out-of-work English major really happy, you might just ask them to do so). But, if you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to give it a try.
Basically, Seuss takes his funny floppy-shoed character on a walk down life’s path, through ups and downs, through fear and courage, through success and failure, elation and depression. And, being Seuss, all of life’s major pitfalls and rewards are accompanied by amusing pictures. As I was reading the book to the girls and enjoying Seuss’s unique marriage of funny, scary and inspiring, I found myself mentally stuck on one page. It was the page that Seuss dedicated to “The Waiting Place.”
After leading the reader on a colorful journey through success, joy, failure, shame and fear, Seuss drops you into a realm completely devoid of emotion. It’s not inspiring. It’s not scary. It’s not really anything at all. The scores of goofy Seuss characters are simply loafing about, standing in lines, anxiously waiting. They’re waiting for everything from the incredibly mundane to the all-important and ever-elusive “Better Break” and “Another Chance.” Mostly, they’re just doing nothing, quietly waiting for something or someone to come along and change their situation for them. Of course, Seuss leads his character and the reader to escape from the deceptive serenity of the waiting place, to venture once more into the immeasurably more dangerous and rewarding realm of life.
Okay, so why have I drug you along on my own personal Seuss reflection? Because I keep finding myself going back to that page, and realizing with more than a little anxiety how much time is lost in the waiting place. Frankly, I’m terrified by how much time I’ve spent there.
We, as a society, have been taught to wait. We wait for the right time to buy a house. We wait for the right time to have kids. We wait for the right time to tell our loved ones how we feel about them, and why. We wait to speak up, to publish our book, to make ourselves heard, the right time to broach sensitive topics and the right time to openly disagree.
Of course, at times, a measure of patience and waiting is appropriate. Sometimes waiting is the place of preparation, of sowing seeds, of resting and finding the right path. We may need the peace of the waiting place to discern God’s path for us, and to accept His timing. These all are appropriate reasons to pause in the waiting place – out of deliberate intent. All-too-often, however, the waiting place is a place of escape, of delaying or avoiding the path of life out of fear. There are innumerable other reasons – anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension, feelings of insufficiency, inadequacy, and on and on – but if you trace the roots back far enough they all end in fear. Seuss depicts this insidious character brilliantly in the background throughout his work.
How, then, do we discern between appropriate waiting in preparation, and waiting as depicted in Seuss’s “Waiting Place,” a waiting devoid of deeper purpose? The answer, I believe, lies in the motivations that landed us there in the first place. If we have paused there to make necessary preparation for the next step in our life’s journey, then huzzah for us! We might change our course a thousand times, but we’re doing so with vigor and intent. If, however, we have settled there out of indecision, or far worse, out of fear, then we’ve landed in a dark place indeed – a place Seuss appropriately depicts more as a state of animated death than of a part of life’s path.
The tricky part of all of this, the part that traps us forever if we’re not careful, is that if our motives are of the latter form – based in fear – then there likely will never be a “right time.” As long as fear reigns, there will always be a theoretically better time in the future. Or, maybe it just slipped by us and we must now wait for its return. Of course, we may just want to avoid the snares that lie outside the waiting place, and continue to hope that someone else will escape, and carry us with them. After all, by doing nothing we can stay comfortably right where we are…waiting.
If and when we do venture beyond the waiting place, life will take us into some pretty scary and uncomfortable places. It may bruise us up a bit. People may not like our work. Our deepest emotions may unsettle those around us. We may fail. We may be hurt and suffer personal and professional loss. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)
But, bleak as this may sound, it’s one of the principal reasons for my love of this book. Seuss, speaking to children mind you, doesn’t promise an easy path through life. Quite the contrary. Life is full of bumps, and bruises, and failures and problems, and paths that take you exactly where you did not wish to go. And it hurts. And it is scary. And disheartening. And sometimes just plain unfair.
So, why again do I like this book? Because it’s truth. And all that dark, scary stuff: that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story, for all of us, is on the other side of all that. There’s a great panel in the book, two pages, with 21 simple words: “On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.” Accompanying this passage is a picture of a large, scary green monster in a cave. I believe it is fear. The character – you and me – is wagging it’s finger in the monster’s nose. The next pages revert back to dark and scary – you get all mixed up and lose your way from time to time. But, once we’ve learned to face that without fear – KID YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
We all have our mountains. We all have our fears. And, at times, we all find ourselves in the waiting place. The good news, as Seuss shows us, is we can escape. We have the power to overcome our fears, to survive setbacks and pain. But we can’t do that from the waiting place. We can only do that out there, where it’s dark and scary and uncertain. And beautiful. And rewarding. And utterly lovely in every way that makes life way more than worth living. We have the ability to push out of the waiting place to a place of inner peace from which we don’t just survive our mountains. We move them.
So, the next time you find yourself in the waiting place, as I have too often, ask this simple question: Am I here out of necessity, or out of fear? The hardest part, perhaps, is answering that question honestly. Because if the answer is “fear,” then there really is no more question of the “right time.” There’s only the right thing to do. And if you can say right now that “it” is the right thing to do, then the only right time to do “it” is right now. The alternative, as I’ve said, isn’t scary or risky. In fact, it’s peaceful and safe. But waiting, in the end, isn’t living.
God bless, and I hope you all find peace, happiness and love on your path. “Your mountain is waiting. So…get on your way!”