Sunday, June 01, 2008

98 Year Old non-Celebrity Pens Interesting Life Story

I was reading a review of Harry Bernstein's memoir, The Dream, about an immigrant who came to America in 1922. It seems very interesting, and pretty remarkable to think that a 98 year old, who is not famous, would write a story about his childhood and that other people would care. What makes it interesting is there were a lot of important decisions that would have made a huge difference in his life, and this makes his life seem so much more special, contingent. Children of immigrants invariably have these butterfly effects, because, a small change in circumstances would have meant they stayed in their home country, or died in the Holocaust, or changed their career.

I wonder, if my dad didn't take that job transfer and I grew up in Los Angeles instead of Cleveland, would I be really different? What about my choice in college? These are less important than Bernstein's big life changers, but the same point. I had a brief exchange with Andrew Sullivan while he was debating Sam Harris (Sam the hard-core atheist, Andrew the ecumenical Catholic), and he said that 'contingency' is one of the main reasons for his faith in God. That is, generally, we are grateful for our lot in life. If one of innumerable things in history were different, we would all be in a different situation, with different loved ones, jobs, etc. (given the average ejaculate contain 100MM sperm, your existence is already predicated on a large improbability) It's an interesting thought, and I don't see logically why this should make a God's existence more probable, but there is something compelling about it just the same. As if, God acts within the Heisenberg uncertainty limits, and these actions make all the difference in our lives.

Several times I have had an older person tell me their life story, and damn if it wasn't very interesting. My old building supervisor told me about coming to America at 19 knowing no English, and endured a lot of intrigue navigating his local immigrant community in Chicago. He struggled with unions, which involved a lot of physical violence and intimidation back in the 50's through the 70's. And there he was, on the verge of retirement, with children who were well-adjusted, successful, with kids of their own he could enjoy. So it was a wonderful story about a guy taking all sorts of chances, enduring daily struggles, and ending up with a really happy ending. What made it so poignant was it was so real. He didn't do anything uniquely difficult, or create anything uniquely valuable, but his day-to-day integrity and hard work paid off in a way much greater than any financial lottery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My father's immigrant story lives inside of me, instilling a gratitude, patriotism, and anxiety over losing it all that I don't really notice among the people I grew up with and live with in Los Angeles. So, one of the contingencies he probably didn't consider is how his choice and its result would guide his children.

(And I have no idea how to instill those attributes in my children because parables of dusty old staricek seem unpersuasive)