For a while after grad school, I worked at a small law firm, summarizing case studies for client newsletters. The practice was seven lawyers, only one woman. I hardly saw her. I worked most directly with one of the partners and two of his associates. They liked me – I was smart, worked quickly, and would occasionally accompany them to bars after work. We would talk about politics and the state of the world. One of them, an avowed Republican, was fond of saying, “That’s the problem with you. You are so intent on fixing things.” I no longer remember the specific context in which this comment first arose, but it’s something I have thought about a lot in the years since then. This idea that trying to make things better – however that might be defined – was somehow a weakness, a fatal flaw.
There have been years of my life – great swaths of time – during which I can’t say that I tried to fix anything. A kind of treading water. But I think of those now as dead years, years of avoidance. Years of profound alienation from my own desires. I see photos of myself from those years and recognize nothing.
Happiness is the wrong question, a friend announced one afternoon over lunch. The question is whether you have an ample life. This is, I think, another way to talk about meaning. Does life feel meaningful? Sufficient? Full?
The lawyer went on to marry another lawyer and they live in the suburbs and raise their children. The impulse behind conservativism seems to me to be one of protection, a kind of hoarding. Isn’t the fear that there is not enough for everyone, so here is mine. I draw a circle around it and guard it. I build an impenetrable border.
In a book on Korean lineage documents, I found an illustration of a traditional Korean courtyard and something about this image struck me so powerfully, I found myself crying without knowing why. The low wall around it. What is let in, what is kept out. In my dreams of this courtyard, the walls are high, and I am on the ground, in the middle of it, alone. The people I know – family, friends – come to its perimeter and call out to me, but I do not leave the courtyard, and I do not let them in.
The newsletters I wrote were cautionary tales. Here is how you protect yourself from vulnerability. Avoid this outcome by taking these simple steps. Pay attention to these warning signs. Remain vigilant. Cultivate your heightened sense of danger.
Not long ago, I met a woman who had returned from an artist residency in Korea. I told her about the illustration of the courtyard, and how I was struck by the fact that the houses were closed off – encircled by this wall. She looked at me, and nodded. Oh, she said, that’s so interesting, because they seemed to me to be so porous – the gates thrown open all day for people to wander in and out. There seemed to be hardly any boundaries at all.