Thursday, 29 October 2009

Destiny's Childishness

Destiny, by J W Waterhouse - public domain; thanks to jwwaterhouse.comWhen I were nobbut a young whippersnapper, I believed I had a Destiny. Not, you understand, a supernatural Destiny – my mysticisms have never leaned in that direction – but a sort of mixture of responsibility, ambition, and brain-bestriding conceit. The precise things I was going to do varied with time, but by gum I was going to do them Big. Science, art, politics, love: impossible and despicable to imagine acting on any scale less than the positively heroic!

Pretty good going for a hereditary dormouse and accomplished dreamer? Well, eventually I got up, and eleven o'clock was kind of late to be saving the human race on a wet Tuesday, and anyhow I had a thumping hangover and an overdue assignment about the evolutionary strategies of starfish. Tomorrow was plenty of time for the chores. Several iterations of this strategy have led directly to the present state of Planet Earth. I can only beg my guests' indulgence for the swirly fermentations slithering around Gaia's great washing-up bowl, and the drifts of questionable smallclothes and used pizza-boxes currently disfiguring the Chintzy Sofa of State.

These tasks I must now pass on to the fresh-faced heroes of the rising generation, whilst my mature powers are bent on graver and less glamorous duties. I do so in full confidence that most of them will pass the test at least as well as I, and refrain from doing anything truly horrible to their fellow-humans such as 'saving' them.

For most of us do, thankfully, grow up in the end. Not, I trust, out of hoping to achieve great things! These forty-two winters have not cured me of that, and I hope the next forty-two will do no more. But that implicit worship of Greatness as an idol in itself - that greed to have a Destiny, of which everybody else is necessarily Fated to get the sticky end – is one of those childish things that can be put away to everyone's benefit. Not all childish things can. A solemn judge or stodgy manager who is too consciously grown-up to play at being Flying Purple People Eaters with his kids of a weekend... has perhaps not put the right part of his childishness in the cupboard, in order to become the proverbial man. Like the worshipper of Destiny, he is so anxious about being Big that he is in danger of shrinking from all the really serious things in his life.

That is comic when a body is four years old, and it can be so at fourteen, but it is sad or even tragic at forty. A really great character – one who is too magnanimous ever to stoop to littleness – will play Flying Purple People Eaters in a heartbeat, if so inclined, because worrying about how big they are is so absurdly beneath them. And I am thinking that a similar rule might apply to those who can't stop concerning themselves with their Greatnesses and Destinies.

So although it is mostly indolence and frivolity that have disqualified me from the race to become what is called a Great Man, I don't think I have too much to reproach myself with on that score. After all, if I'd been more energetic and focused before I was also sadder and wiser, my Destiny might have led me to become so poor, ephemeral, and pusillanimous a thing as a Cabinet Minister.

What a sorry little fate that would have been!

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