Column this week
Someone recently told me that I’d managed to become just like my mentor, VS Naipaul. “You’re just as arrogant and proud as he is,” he said. “And what makes it worse is that you’re good looking and talented so you feel you can piss on anybody. And that’s why you’ll never accomplish any of the things you want.”
This gave me pause, as the saying goes. I wondered if what I was hearing was a great epiphany, if this was the moment in my life when a great realization was to be made and groundbreaking, life changing results would ensue. Was I really this horrible person, this terrible person? I felt small, reduced, a trash compacted version of myself. And I called a friend of mine to confirm.
And what he told me was this. None of these things – my looks, my talent, my body – are things that I asked for. But they are things that I work at. You’re born with a certain amount of intelligence, of talent, of looks, he said. But if you don’t improve them, they amount to nothing. I remembered the parable of the talents, the one with the three servants whose master gave them talents in varying amounts which the first two invested and the last one hid away for fear of losing. In the end when the master returned those that used and increased their talents were rewarded and the one that didn’t lost his.
I’ve never been able to forget the people I’ve left behind. I’ve left behind former classmates who entered into marriage young and eager and emerged at the other end divorced and disillusioned. I’ve left behind former boyfriends who spoke of marriage and an eternity of love yet they couldn’t stand up as men when their friends were disrespectful or even admit when they’d been disrespectful themselves.
I’ve had friends beg me to get them a job because they have babies to feed and no man to help. I’ve had friends tell me about their hope to start school next year, or the one after but certainly no later than the year after that. Years pass and I see them and ask how’s school and they tell me they haven’t started yet. But they will next year. Or the year after…
I’ve had friends cry and tell me that at their age, their young age, their I-have-my-entire-life-in-front-of-me-still age they feel like failures, like they’ve accomplished nothing, they’ve risked nothing. They feel like they’re just waiting for the days to pass by until they reach their last one. And this, more than anything, both scares and drives me.
For my belief is this. I want, that when I’m lying on my deathbed – if I’m fortunate enough to have one – that I can look back at my life with the least amount of regrets. I think the two scariest words in English are “what if”. I don’t want to be saying them at the end. And I do not think I am like Naipaul. But I certainly understand him.
Because the easiest thing in the world to do is remain comfortable. And I understand his need to not be comfortable, to drive himself to win his scholarship for secondary school and then university. I understand how he would have felt looking around at the sameness and mediocrity of his life and the decision he made to not be the same, to not be mediocre.
His biographies always contain two pieces of information: winning his Oxford scholarship and his pursuing no other profession besides writing. The first was his escape, his one chance to avoid asking “what if”. Writers will know the significance of the second. To have done nothing else besides write is a tremendous accomplishment. It speaks of never having enough money, enough respect, enough personal freedom. It means a slavish devotion to the craft, to one’s choice. It means days of doubt, of wanting to give up and get a good job with regular pay so one could buy good food and good clothes, to not always opt for the cheapest. And despite this desire, to still choose the craft. And although most people may not approve of it, it’s a damn good reason to be proud. Because when the days of self doubt and anxiety eat through your brain like a cancer the only person that pulls you out of it is yourself.
So from my insult I want to say this. I hope I’m not the person described. I hope I do not think that I’m superior and better than others. But I am proud. Because only I know where my life could easily have been had it not been for my hard work and self believe and the help of my family and friends. And for everyone who has chosen to not be comfortable – good for you. You should be proud.