Friday, February 12, 2010

on finishing

(see that little black pole in the distance? when you get there, you will have arrived)

"If you start something, you have to finish it!"

"You started it, didn't you? Now you've got to finish it too!"

"Are you absolutely sure you want to start with that? Because you'll have to finish it, you know..."

If these statements left you breathing freely and comfortably, you may skip the rest of this post. But if, like me, they caused your blood tension to rise and your palms to sweat slightly, if there is now a knot in your stomach, and you are wondering whether your last meal has agreed with you; if you are in fact one of those poor blighted creatures who have been known to sacrifice hours, days, sleep, months, years, courage and hair on the altar of the idol god of the finish-line, make yourselves comfortable, grab a hot drink and sit with me for a while.

A few weeks ago, Isabelle announced that she no longer wanted to attend her ballet class. "You mean you don't feel like going today?" i quickly interposed, feeling uncomfortable already. No, she didn't feel like going, period. "Well, shall i just cancel for today, and then next week we can see?". No, she was pretty sure there was nothing to see, she just didn't want to go anymore. "But you love it so much!...". No, she didn't love it so much anymore. "But you loved it three years ago when you started, didn't you?". Yes, she had. "And you loved it two years ago, right?". Yes, she had loved it then too. "And you loved it last year, and earlier this year too, right????". Yes, all that was true, but now she didn't want to go anymore.

(you know that cartoon where the indian chief is being served dinner by his wife, and she is saying "What do you mean you don't like stew????? You ate stew on Monday, you ate stew on Tuesday, you ate stew on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and now suddenly, on Saturday, you decide you don't like stew?????")

By that point, i had reached a state of light panic. This was really really really not OK. Because... because... because the course ran until June... so... so she simply had to attend until June... because... because... i had paid for the course (that one didn't work too well, since i would also have paid for the course if she had attended until June), because... because her teacher would be devastated (that one didn't work too well either, though i tried to sell it to Isabelle, who, not being of the 'please-everybody-at-all-times-even-if-it-kills-you' school, looked at me with a doubtful expression and said "I think she'll be fine, mama"), because... because... and then i saw it: her entire life flashing before my eyes, unemployment, long lanky hair, drugs and depravation, failure upon terrible failure, because she was turning into a person who didn't finish things.

And of course, this was bound to happen, because her mother (that would be me) spent most of her life fearing and suspecting that she was herself one of those doomed people who didn't finish things. Starting, yes, i could proudly claim to be a well-known, you might say almost a professional starter, but as for finishing, no, not me, not enough courage, brain, perseverence, commitment, love, dignity, guts, civility, goodness and breath. How i tortured myself over the years, forcing myself to finish things to the point where the things in question almost finished me, refusing to start projects i would have loved because of the fear of not finishing them, and always hugging to myself the terrible secret of my handicap.

The astounding and trivial truth is, of course, that everybody always finishes what they start. The only question is whether the point at which they are done happens to correspond to some official 'finishing' point. And in view of statistical probability, what are the odds of that? Right: Zilch.

Which leaves us with two choices: to stop when it's time to stop or to plod on, losing life energy, enthusiasm, rosiness of cheeks and time, until the official (and utterly arbitrary) ribbon line.

And let's face it, it really is pathetically arbitrary. Take for instance your standard university degree: there you are, dying to find out about proteins, or medieval ballads, or whatever it is, and then, four years later, if all is well, you get a piece of paper that says you are done now. In my meagre experience, i would guess that on the day you get your diploma, you know loads and loads of stuff about stuff you never needed/wanted to know about (and which you have already, if all is well, completely forgotten), and way way way too little about other things, that you really did want to know about, but didn't have time/energy to find out about because you were too busy with the things on the programme that you didn't want to know. So are you done then? The little piece of paper says you are.

Now the opposition is jumping in and clamouring that in our diploma-ridden world, some of this hoop-jumping is unavoidable if you want to secure a job, a life, a spouse and/or a hair-cut. In response to which, i would like to introduce the autodidact (note that narrowly speaking, an autodidact would have to be somebody who never went to school, as opposed to someone who went and didn't complete the course, but there is a broader definition running along the lines of 'not having a diploma in that which he or she is famous for'). According to wikipedia, then, here are a few famous 'non-finishers': Da Vinci, Faraday, Socrates, Descartes, Michael Angelo, Franklin, Shaw, Hemingway, Popper, Errol Flynn, Nietzsche, William Blake, Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Frank Zappa, Spielberg, Tarantino, Kubrick, Woody Allen, Orson Wells, David Bowie and a whole bunch of people whom i don't know but who are very famous nevertheless and presumably had no trouble getting a hair-cut (although some of them may have had lanky hair and/or done drugs...). So it can be done. And it can be fun.

Now if pushing yourself through to the finishing line was an innocent waste of time, i wouldn't be squeaking. But it isn't innocent; it is nothing short of a death-toll to creativity and joy. It saps vitality, and replaces passion with depression. It gives little and robs you of the marrow of life.

I finished my PhD, by the skin of my teeth. It didn't quite kill me, but almost. When i think of what i might have done with those years, i could weep. And whatever they say, that diploma (which i seem to have mislaid anyway) didn't offer me any advantages in life so far, and is very unlikely to do so in future (unless perhaps i try to emigrate to one of those countries with the point-system admission, but even then, once the official responsible for my application reads what it is that i have a PhD in, the friendly (canadian) door is just as likely to slam shut in my face...).

And so, as of today, i embrace and rejoice in the fact that i really am one of those people who don't finish things. And i embrace and rejoice in my children turning out to be people who don't finish things. And i think my lovely husband should stop right now with finishing things. And start something instead.


Anonymous said...

just for info: if you speak French, are graduated, under 40 and have kids you just have to wait 2 years for them to process your immigration application and you will find yourself in Montreal... should you want to be up there... you are very welcome in Quebec!


Mirjam said...

Wat een wijze les :). Ik ken het..ben ook een hele goede starter ;)))

Josh said...

helemaal gelezen tot het einde (met zonnebril op onder lukt het niet), Véronique. Mooi en zeer toepasselijk. Dapper ben je, denk ik wel vaker, maar nu ook weer!