Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Why I Can Never Entirely Be An American"

Here’s why I can never entirely be an American (which is the same as the title with a “here’s” in front of it.  I don’t know, maybe some people don’t read the titles.)

Forget about “the probability.”  Forget about “the likelihood.”  Forget about “It’s a fifty-fifty proposition.” 

When considering the outcome – the way something will ultimately turn out – Americans summarily exclude from “The List of Possibilities” the possibility of failure.

And I don’t.

I am not talking about the certainty of failure.  That’s making a definitive prediction of a negative result.  How can anyone guarantee a negative result?  Except maybe a one-legged soccer player.

“Kick the ball.”

“If I do that, I will certainly fall down.”  

In my view, people predicting the certainty of failure are fundamentally arrogant.  As well as people you do not want to be around. 

A FAILURE CERTAINTIST:  “Why even bother?”

THEIR ACQUAINTANCE:  “Yeah, I gotta go.”

Confession:  As a kid, I was a dedicated “Failure Certaintist”, my selected strategy the result of personal experience.  My older brother tells the story – I was too young to remember the event myself – that when I was around four, the kids in our neighborhood held a weekly draw where if your name was pulled out you won a free box of cookies. 

All week long, I’d go around saying, “We are not going to win, we are not going to win.”  And then we won!  

From then on, that was my mantra.  Whenever something I really wanted was on the line, I’d go, “I am not going to get it, I am not going to get it.”  Believing that simply repeating that would assure somehow that I would.  (“Providence” enjoying proving me wrong.)

This is what makes me a terrible scientist.  “We are not going to win, we are not going to win” worked exactly once.  The rest of the time, we lost.  And yet, even with the statistics clearly indicating that it wasn’t going to help, I continued doing it anyway. 

And it is no cinch I am not still doing it today!

As a concept, I have always had difficulty with “certainty.”  (Starting in Hebrew school where they fed me biblical “Truths” that seemed conspicuously unlikely.)  I would dearly like to see the day when “certainty” is laughed unceremoniously out of town and “doubt” itself becomes “The New Certainty.”  But that is never going to happen. 

You see that?  I am still doing it today!  (Old mantas die hard.)

People, it appears, like certainty.  History suggests that the majority of human beings would rather cling tenaciously to something that is demonstrably wrong like, (INSERT YOUR FAVORITE EXAMPLE OF THAT HERE), than to live with “I have absolutely no idea.”  I understand the “inner peace and comfort” component, but I have to say, I do not really get it.

Canadians as a group – maybe not a Canadian who has one American parent, but Canadians in general – do not believe in certainty.  How could we?  You sit there in the middle of winter, under that black funereal sky where, adding insult to injury, it gets dark around two, and even though it has happened every year in the history of the world, you feel no certainty whatsoever that there will ever be spring. 

Americans, in the context of failure at least – and it annoys me tremendously – reflect unqualified certainty.

“Failure is not an option!”  

(Wait.  Are you saying it is not even on the list?) 

“Yes, parenthetical naysayer, I am.”    

To be truly American is to be indefatigably optimistic.  (Some people actually find this trait attractive, their irrepressible optimism, perhaps even more than the promise of freedom and the chance of making a killing attracting immigrants here more than any other reason.  They don’t all come, of course.  There is a “selection process” going on.  The inveterate “doubters” stay home. 

“Yeah, it might not be better.”

Only the foreign optimists come here, guaranteeing a new crop of arrivals who believe in the certainty of “making it” – making them the latest incarnation of a longstanding tradition.

BRITISH STAY-AT-HOME:  “Why the deuce are you unthinkably leaving England?”

ORIGINAL IMMIGRANT:  “Because out there is a land where a man who works hard – and can stomach doing terrible things to the Indians – can triumph over adversity and make his fortune.”

Speaking of making their fortune – a prime example of American optimism?

Financially struggling Americans, it has been said, are so certain they will some day themselves be wealthy, they refuse to vote to raise taxes on the super-rich now for fear of being hit with that increased tax rate when they get there. 

Now that’s “denying even the possibility of failure”:

A pre-emptive tax strategy.

“But raising taxes on the rich will help you right now!”

“Short-sighted thinking.  It is only a matter of time before we’re them.”

Failure to such struggling Americans appears clearly unimaginable.  As, it would appear, is reasonable thinking.  Sure, a handful of “the financially challenged” might actually hit the jackpot.  Apparently, however, like people playing the lottery, everyone thinks it’s going to be them.  I bought a lottery ticket once.  I lost.  And I never bought a lottery ticket again.    

Here’s the only time you hear about American failure.

When a person writes a book – and there’s always a new one – bearing a title like, I Pooped In My Pants – Lessons of Humiliation and Failure That Will Carry You To The Top.

The chapters include testimonials from CEO’s and champions in their various arenas sharing the indispensible lessons they learned as a result of their failures.  That is the only context in which you will ever hear about failure – as an inevitable steppingstone to success.  

Where’s the book, “Failure And That’s It”?  Unredeemed failure is the story of the vast majority of our lives.  But nobody ever writes that book with which virtually all of us could identify.  Why don’t they?  Can you say, “Number 1 on the ‘Worst Seller List’?” 

Will I ever be change my spots and become a sunshiny American?  Anything’s possible. 

But my time’s running out. 

And it doesn’t look hopeful.

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