By Marlene Lang
The shoulder strap of the seatbelt crossed under my daughter’s chin, falling too high for comfort on a five-year-old. I made a note to adjust it. From the back seat, she whined the whine of a tired child with sticky cheeks who’d been carted from school to doctor to bank drive-through, where she was given the sticky lollipop, to gas station to grocer—last stop so the cold things would stay cold—to car again. I told her we’d be home in five minutes. She was quiet while she apparently shifted from whine-mode to musing and she asked, “When will I be grown up?”
I thought to myself, “When will I be grown up?”
I thought to myself, “When will I be grown up?” Days like that one made me want to kick and cry like a five-year-old. Even as I navigated the traffic, I planned my complaint speech, to be delivered later. It wasn’t pretty. Who would be the lucky listener?
“You know when you’ll be grown up?” I said, looking at her in the rear view mirror. “When you feel icky and tired and maybe you’re mad, and you don’t whine about it. You just keep driving.”
“Oh.” That’s all she said. It was cute. I was glad there hadn’t been a follow-up question. I also decided not to deliver my complaint speech.
That night after dinner as the dishwasher rattled, I unraveled with some reading—an essay by Richard Feynman. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist is a funny man, one who had the gift of talking science with non-scientists like me. He’d accepted a lecture invitation, and developed his ideas “slowly and carefully” into two lectures. He learned last minute that he was contracted for three lectures; so to his audience he confessed, “I have completely run out of organized ideas, but I have a large number of uncomfortable feelings.”
“I have completely run out of organized ideas,
but I have a large number of uncomfortable feelings.”
This is why I enjoy reading Richard Feynman. He proceeded to share his ideas, as is, noting that this third lecture was on a Saturday evening, which is a night for entertainment, anyway. Of course, no one was disappointed, because even Feynman’s disorganized ideas about science and the world were more interesting than almost anyone else’s.
Why could I not imagine Richard Feynman complaining about the third lecture, launching into a fine whine about the demands of the contract? What was this excellence on display that manifested in humor and a confident delivery of disorganized ideas amid uncomfortable feelings?
Humble about his achievements, self-effacing about his “awards,” Dr. Feynman was being was he is: a physicist with a bonus gift of gab.
And he was acting like a grown-up. I realized my answer to my little girl was only half an answer. We can halt our whining and put a lid on the complaints, but we’ll still have those uncomfortable feelings. What do we do about the angsty and the icky?
When students—and adults—ask the tough questions about what to do with their lives, certainty is scant. Uncomfortable feelings abound. Sometimes that’s all we’ve got, so we have to give an as-is lecture. This isn’t the same as “fake-it-til-you-make-it.” Feynman could step into the discomfort because he knew he had something in him to give, even if it seemed half-baked. He wasn’t ill-prepared, and he wasn’t faking anything. He was just out of organized ideas for the moment. He made do with what he had: that mess of uncomfortable feelings and the knowledge that lecturing on physics and life was his work to do.
Is it too simple to say: Do what you are? Maybe, but keeping the idea in front of us can clarify a lot. Continuous discontent, negativity, the frequent urge to scream, or even vague sadness can be signposts, revealing a divide between our Doing and our Being.
Conversely, when we’re doing what we really are, when we’re even close, we experience lightness. Surprises morph into opportunities instead of disasters. Extra lecture? No material? No problem. Just: Do what you are.
Extra errands? No time? No problem. Just: Be a mom who loves her child. Be a writer who writes when she feels uncomfortable feelings.
Quotes taken from: The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard Feynman. Perseus: Reading, Mass. (1998)
Marlene Lang, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Joseph University. She previously worked for more than a decade as a government reporter, editor, and columnist.
Redwing Post and this blog are the property of Marlene Lang. Copyright 2017.