It’s good to see that Jane Catherine Lotter’s obituary in the Seattle Times has gone “viral” — whatever that is supposed to mean anymore. I suppose if something in the culture — a meme, a song, a fad or a bit of slang — manages to reach me, it must have pretty wide circulation: I don’t keep up.
Lotter wrote it herself, as she was slowly dying, noting that “one of the few advantages of having Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer, recurrent and metastasized to the liver and abdomen, is that you have time to write your own obituary.” She faced death with humor, courage and grace.
I was especially struck by what Lotter had to say to her children, Tessa and Riley. “May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.” I’ve certainly come across the thought before; I suppose we all have. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, and don’t come to obituaries looking for poetic or philosophical originality. Besides, it’s more interesting to reflect on the reasons why the thought has stayed with me over the past few days.
First, because I have been trying to get a big new project together, and I always struggle when starting a new project to take the little steps that will get me to the big place I see in the distance. When I am struck by an idea, excited by a project, or even when the first words of a piece of writing come to me, I can easily forget that eureka is just the start of the journey. I am impatient and I want to rush ahead; I look for shortcuts, end up taking detours and don’t take in the sights because I am so focused on where I think I am heading. And since I never end up exactly where I first intend to go, I would learn a lot more if I would allow myself to experience the trip.
It gets worse than that. Every difficulty I encounter seems like some kind of grand injustice the universe, or some evil deceiver, has visited upon me. Every time I stumble or fail to make progress — which is more often than I care to admit — I risk falling into the trap of blaming myself, thinking I have betrayed myself, or just feeling sorry for myself because I am up against insurmountable odds. When others don’t see things my way or express doubts, or don’t sufficiently rally to the idea in which I have fully invested my ego and imagination, or simply say they don’t get it, whatever it may be, they can become my persecutors and enemies, even though their intentions may have been friendly.
I am exaggerating (a little) to make a point: the emotion that takes over at such moments is powerful and undeniable. At root, I suspect, these feelings stem from a sense of vulnerability: new ideas, new plans, new projects — all make you newly vulnerable, because they are disorienting and will more likely than not fail.
The pursuit of an idea, a plan or a path entails great moral risk, especially when we come up against others. Just consider how often you hear, or how often you think, that people are in the way. It’s hard not to feel this way, at some point, if you live in New York City. I’m heading down the stairs to the subway platform, and someone in front of me is moving slowly, lumbering, limping, tired, breathing heavily, grunting, dragging a granny cart or leading a toddler down the stairs, cute little step by adorable little step by sweet little step. I can hear the train coming into the station. Not the train: my train. Get out of my way! On the sidewalk, badly dressed, slow-witted tourists, sweating and bloated with their deep-fried lunch, walk four and five across, gawking and without any sense of direction. Single file! Don’t know how to merge at the Holland Tunnel? Honk! People line up six, twelve, twenty-four deep at checkouts, taxi stands, restaurants — nearly everywhere you go. End of the line.
So in our rush, in our huff, when we are inspired, wired and just plain tired, we reduce people to inanimate objects or obstacles in our way. That puts us in the same moral ballpark as seeing people as means to our ends, instruments of our will — the outrage is that they are not mere extensions of our will — but it’s a little more sociopathic and depraved. People in the way need to be shoved aside, eliminated or made to disappear. They are not human beings but mere blocks; they might as well be sawhorses, sandbags or Jersey barriers — and it’s all the more irritating that they are not cast from concrete and set down by government order; they are alive, with all the appearances and behaviors of intelligent humanity, and yet they are very much in the way.
Sometimes we say that people are in the way when they are not even there, in front of us; they are in the way because they are obstinate, or don’t see things our way, or because they are creating difficulties of one kind or another. This is the more interesting case, and it involves risk of a different magnitude. For starters, it’s a strange abuse of language to talk about these people being “in the way” when there is no way apparent — no road, no staircase, no sidewalk or path. We speak as if there is a single orientation in the world — as if there were a way, the way, my way, as if the right way for all people were established by one person’s willing it. My way or the highway. Why doesn’t she get with the program? “The way” even has a whiff of providence about it, as if it reflected some higher order, and echoes of messianic religious vocabulary.
It also suggests we know where we are going — which of course we do not. And this is perhaps the greatest risk we run: to think that we know the path before we have traveled it, and that we have secured our ends simply because we have set out toward them. Stephen Covey advised highly effective people to start with the outcome they want to achieve, but the more important lesson is that you are most likely to achieve something other than what you set out to do. That’s a basic truth about human action, and a pretty good reason to set your sights on something other than being highly effective. This is especially so if you think of yourself as a leader. The leader who cannot or will not admit his vulnerability and uncertainty about the best way forward will probably just end up getting in everybody’s way.