The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
- James Baldwin
My colleague Trina Roach tweeted this quote the other day, and it caught my attention. (And I'm not alone--a search for the line turns up 30,000 hits. No one seems to know exactly where Baldwin wrote or said it, but it certainly sounds like him, so I'm going to trust the attribution.)While Baldwin was surely inspired by the specific challenges he faced pursuing his own calling as a writer, I'd extend his sentiment beyond professions to include any institution, from nations to organizations to families. And I suspect that Baldwin--a gay Black man born in 1924 and driven abroad by ferocious bigotry--would agree.
Someone included this line in a list of "cynical quotes," but that's a misinterpretation; there's a big difference between soul-sucking cynicism and clear-eyed realism. I'm not a cynic, although occasionally I play one at dinner parties, and I love darkly sardonic humor. As a coach I believe deeply in the power of the positive--an attitude supported not only by my empirical experience with clients and students, but also by everything we're learning about neuroscience and how our brains respond to threats and rewards.
But emphasizing and harnessing the power of the positive doesn't mean turning a blind eye to the negative, ignoring ugliness and celebrating this best of all possible worlds. It means accepting that there is ugliness in this world, in innumerable forms, and choosing how to respond to it.
Consider Baldwin's quote in context: He was obviously intimately acquainted with the ugly side of life, and yet he wrote 24 books, the last one published the year he died of stomach cancer. He didn't shrink from or ignore ugliness, but he didn't let it prevent him from pursuing his calling; I'd argue that he used it to help fuel his genius.Acknowledging the ugliness that exists while also staying focused on and making use of the positive isn't easy--at times it can be the toughest challenge we face. But to me that's the definition of maturity, and striving to maintain that balance has been an important process in my own growth and development. I fail regularly, but hopefully less often as the years go by.
Photo of James Baldwin by Mottke Weissman, accompanying "Freeing James Baldwin" by Dwight Garner of the New York Times.