Epilogue of “In Over Our Heads, The Mental Demands of Modern Life” by Robert Kegan
I should stop I believe to drive Robert Kegan’s thoughts and study, as expressed in his book, at the pinnacle. So I will, for the time being, end with bringing to you the integrality of his book’s epilogue:
One last look in on Peter and Lynn. “Some things your children do and care about make perfect sense to you” Lynn muses, “and some make none at all”. Their eight-year-old, Rosie, routinely returns from school, heads into the driveway, and, hour after hour, alone or with friends, happily hurls a tennis ball against the door of the garage.
Peter and Lynn might comfort themselves with the thought that perhaps this is how Chris Evert or Roger Clemens began. Perhaps Rosie does have fantasies of athletic heroics. Perhaps these solitary sessions will eventually give way to organized team sport and the development of skills under a succession of coaches who know what to do with a child’s love for throwing a ball.
But what if the child has no interest in sports, or whatever interests she does have has little to do with why she likes to spend hours bouncing the ball off the garage door? Perhaps she has no idea herself why she does it. Maybe she just loves being inside the rhythm of it, or experiencing her certain connection to this flying object, however much it looks as if it is off on its own. Maybe she is still fascinated by the different directions and speeds and arcs she can create after the bounce, depending on the initial spin she puts on the ball when she throws it.
Any of these ways of being intrigued can of course be captured by the most well-intentioned parent or coach and put to use in a variety of sports. And when they are, Peter and Lynn may rightly feel that something productive has finally come of all those hours they listened to the repetitive thumping resonating from the garage into the house. It is a wonderful thing to see a child’s interests develop into a rewarding discipline, socially satisfying recreation, or productive pursuits. Something is surely gained when these rudimentary loves find a fertile soil where they can grow.
But something is lost, too, if it is predetermined how they should grow. Better perhaps that something come from the love of bouncing a ball that nothing at all, but in our own need for our child’s activity to have a point or lead somewhere we could be turning away from what is most precious and creative about the activity, namely, that it is passionate. Passion is its own purpose. Passion can be a bit disdainful of reasonableness and productivity. And passion is among the most sacred and fragile gifts the gods bestow on us. It is fragile before our devastating embarrassment and impatience. And it is sacred because it promises the possibility of a new life.
If Rosie’s love of bouncing a ball is channeled into some coachable sport, she may find considerable satisfaction and increase as she gains the progressively complex set of skills acquired by hundreds of thousands before her. This is the flowering of her interests according to a basic design constructed long before she and her interest ever came along. She might even be a very talented player. Then she will realize this plan that others created faster and with greater skills than most.
But none of this has anything to do with her passion or with creativity or with new life. In fact, the most gifted of those who play a sport, the few that come along in each generation, are probably those who find a way to sustain passion in the midst of someone else’s design. These are the ones who just love to play the game. And while everyone else is totaling statistics, or salaries, or championships won, they are attending to something else – not, like the fans, to what this game means for the season or, like the experts, to their extraordinary mastery of this or that subtlety of the game, but to something else – to a ball they are bouncing the door of the garage. The greatest victory of a Kirby Puchett or a Monica Seles may never be in a championship game at all but in the triumph of their passion over the orderly, prefabricated home to which it was brought. And isn’t it too much to ask of passion – that it only be allowed to ripen into its unique expression if it quiets our needs to understand its point by holding, in the meantime, a respectable nine-to-five job?
If we could imagine all the possibilities a child might realize from her passion for bouncing balls, or setting suns, or modulations of the human voice, it would be like saying that nothing new can happen in the world. All of life, we would be saying, has already happened, and minding children might be something like seeing to it that mail carriers meet their appointed rounds.
The Jewish mystics say that God makes human beings because God loves stories. This is quite a modest stance to give an all-powerful, all-loving God. Even God, the mystics are saying, does not know we are going to come out, so why should we wish for greater control or need it? Better perhaps for us to emulate this kind of God, whose pleasure in us comes not from our obedience to God’s laws and regularities, however subject we may be to them, but from God’s sheer fascination with how we will live.
For a God like this one, we ourselves are the objects of passionate engagement, endlessly let go of and recovered for a purpose God himself (or God herself) may not yet know. We ourselves are endlessly let go of and recovered as we, all the while, reverberate against the garage door and throughout the whole House.”
Food for deep reflection for me, and I know, also for many of my friends.