Thursday, August 06, 2009


Jonah Lehrer has an interesting piece on "Grit".

It’s forty years now since John Wayne’s film “True Grit” came out.

And a lonnnnnnng forty years it’s been.

It was already considered a bit passé when it came out. A ‘John Wayne movie’ by definition, it ran smack into the Boomer’s frothy mix of feckless Groovy Luv and radical – revolutionary – impatience with … everything. Rebellion and liberation – however defined – were the new conformity. And they would be ‘the thing to do’ right now and should have been done yesterday.

They didn’t have time to notice that just about anybody can ‘rebel’ without any serious effort, but that it would take a lot more to ‘achieve’. Such sentiments or – the horror! – thoughts were merely the weasel words of a burned-out and discredited Establishment, which itself expanded beyond the corporate and political power structures to include adults and adulthood in general. And – alas – maturity.

Nor did they have time for the thought that a well-honed self is the key to any genuine change. And any genuine liberation. It felt better to smash stuff, assuming – as America always has – that ‘change’ will always be ‘progress’ and that anything smashed will automatically be replaced, in the natural order of things, by something good and better.

And it would look exactly like the hazy golden picture you sorta have on the movie screen behind your eyeballs as you start smashing. It had to be that way. After all, you got that hazy picture during the moments of your most intense and groovy ‘authenticity’, when you were leaning back from a good toke or, generally, buzzed. And ‘high’ – like a balloon. How much sustained and concentrated effort did it take the Montgolfiers to design and build their balloon? Who cares? Balloons are groovy. Life’s a balloon. And so on.

And the Wright brothers? Who cared? Their airplanes were merely imperialist and corporatist tools. And they were machines, totally unnatural. Better to be a bird. Or have a balloon. And be high, like a bird or a balloon. On a nice sunny endless summer afternoon.

But it was the same summer that John Kennedy’s shrewd plan to send a man to the moon – introduced at the beginning of the decade that already seemed a strange eternity ago – came to fulfillment. It was a concentrated, sustained effort, the focused purposeful group effort of tens of thousands of individuals who didn’t necessarily know each other – and who perhaps knew themselves primarily through their purposeful activity.

Blood, sweat, tears … would be a band. Any prior references would be some sort of ‘establishment’ crap and – the ultimate dismissal – ‘history’, which had for all practical purposes ended with the Boomers, who would groove the new paradise into existence by simply tossing everything else out of the way and letting the glorious thing rise up from the natural ground of ‘life’.

Ach, those were the happy times.

Successfully executing the moon mission was ignored as simply part of the wallpaper of America – it did lots of big stuff, and always would. And would always succeed. That’s just the way things were.

The Boomers would improve upon it by doing the greatest thing: smash what was there and let the good times – and natural goodness – roll.

An unknown young woman had just recently chased the Beatles off the top of the charts with a song whose lyrics followed a haunting repetitive melody (to observe that it sounded like a Central European folk song would have been bad form indeed): “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d sing and dance forever and a day. We’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose … those were the days, oh yes those were the days”.

It was – We may allow Ourselves the thought – a song just a few decades before it’s time.

On the other hand, it was a song that warned – even in the midst of the Great Beach and Burn Party – that youth’s vitality can wind up squandered in ungrounded confidence. And that things never turn out the way you originally see them on that little movie screen behind your eyeballs. Not without a whole lot of blood, tears, toil and sweat. And even then, you’ll wind up with more tears for what might have been, and for what still isn’t – even after all you’ve put into it. And maybe for what you wrecked on the high road to groove and goodness, stuff that you can never bring back. Stuff that’s now Gone, Baby, Gone – as a later generation would style it.

Mary Hopkin sort of saw all that back then, right in the middle of the Great Beach and Burn Party.

And here We are.

Now, after several decades during which the initial impulse of the Boomers has been extended – not to say refined – throughout the width and depth of the land, limited only – but so profoundly – by their lack of sustained attention and deliberation … now, sadder but not necessarily wiser the Boomers are to be confronted by a new generation of researchers who have discovered … Grit.

Yes, it’s been ‘discovered’ by a new generation. They are going to study it, so that maybe it can be taught in schools, to kids.

Grit – perseverance, sustained effort, in season and out of season, in good times and in bad – that sort of thing.

Rather the opposite of Groove.

It is hypothesized – though the researchers are quite confident in the accuracy of their speculations – that Grit “is an essential component of success”. Though “often overlooked”.

Really? It hadn’t always been so overlooked, but why taint their good efforts with even the merest whiff of historical actuality?

There was a time when Grit was expected to be a part of every adult’s skill-set. How else get through any era’s particular embodiment of this Vale of Tears?

Grit, in other words, may be something fizzily discovered just now. But it was something thrown away, deconstructed even, forty or so years ago. To say that it’s been ‘discovered’ is equivalent to saying that the concept of a ‘factory’ has just been discovered: a single place where all the people and stuff necessary to make a product in some quantity and with some skill, so that it can be sold and the profits plowed back into improving and expanding the ability to make the product. That sort of thing.

Of course, you’re not going to go far in the world by claiming to have ‘rediscovered’ something; Americans are discoverers, not recoverers. (Well, it was the Europeans, actually.) And being ‘in recovery’ is not quite the same thing as being a recoverer – a resilient, brush-off-and-get-back-on-the-horse type of individual. Or one of those frontier matriarchs who deployed a sturdy oaken stability to ground all that bouncing male energy.

And you’re certainly not going to get funded in today’s academia by adverting to the failures of Deconstruction, whose party cadres and panjandrums – as in Fascist Italy of 1942 – can still put your name on some very baaaad lists.

But the researchers are onto something, and in doing so demonstrate that there is indeed an Elegance in History’s workings. It’s not so much ‘intelligence’ – as measured in an I.Q. test; it’s the ability to sustain effort in a focused way, toward a particular goal.

The new-fangled I.Q. tests of the early-20th century, given such a boost here by their deployment in screening World War 1 military recruits for assignments based on aptitude, were considered more than a little outré back then. It wasn’t simply that – the military being the military – anybody could wind up being armed cannon-fodder if push came to shove: a great mind could be as easily blown up as a lesser one.

No, it was that ‘intelligence’ wasn’t considered to be the most important element of adulthood or – another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – ‘character’. It was necessary, of course: tying your shoes, adding up sums, fixing things – all good and necessary. Knowing some basic knowledge – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – was essential to carrying on a life and being a Citizen – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays.

But like a fine motor, none of that would count for much if you couldn’t hook it reliably to a transmission that would turn its energy into power, to push the wheels reliably. What good was a dynamo that couldn’t generate electricity? You couldn’t call it a life – just standing there and watch the thing spin around. Grit sort of made the difference between a doodad and a genuine machine. A real machine was something that humans invented to amplify their ability to make things that would improve life and make living a little easier and even better.

And you weren’t so much taught it at school. That helped – making yourself learn and then being tested so that you could see the results of your efforts compared to others of your kind – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – and know that your record of academic achievement, earned by your self-application, would remain for others to see – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays.

No, as with any element of character you had to be introduced to it in the air you breathed as you grew up. In the family – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays, from your mother and your father – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – and from all the adults in the community around you – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays.

One researcher went off recently and tested military cadets at West Point. For grit. Not all of them had it, she discovered. Who can be surprised? The military academies are no longer looking for grit. They’re kinder and gentler and more sensitive than that now. Combat leaders won’t be needing any grit, and anyway the service academies aren’t in that business any longer: they’re turning out ‘persons’ who will be ‘ready for a military career’; combat leadership – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – is passé. As is combat, according to the bemedalled cadres and panjandrums running the academies.

No need to master yourself by mastering ancient martial arts; if you feel like interpretive dance is more ‘you’, well show the drill instructor (or ‘development adviser’) how nicely you can do that and call it a day’s work. No need to put yourself through the embarrassment of not being able to scale an eight-foot wall – make your development adviser put a two-foot step in front of the wall – it’s the effort that counts, after all, not the result.

I wonder if that’s the reason our forces are showing so little result for all the effort they’re putting in over there nowadays. To put in so much effort and not get what you want – would create a great deal of stress, I imagine. Nor is calling your congressperson or the media apparently going to help make things turn out the way you want. Not in combat. Apparently, the other side is not subject to the authority of your Congressperson. Who knew?

But then, who really learned that you had to sustain effort over time? Like the individual who loses interest in the gum once the initial burst of sugar has worn off, generations of young are now afflicted with GDD – grit deficit disorder: if your initial effort doesn’t give you the payoff you want, and there’s nobody around to complain to so that they can ‘make it’ do what you want, then just withdraw your attention from your intention and break away – I think it would be called the Whatever Maneuver if it were in military manuals (and may be).

Grit means committing – perhaps another concept and reality waiting to be ‘discovered’ nowadays – to achieving a goal. And that means allowing your life to be shaped by the demands of your purpose: if you want to achieve such-and-such, and if this-or-that gets in the way of achieving that purpose, then this-or-that has to go.

Ouch. That’s not cool. Eeeeeeeeeeuwwwwwww.

Ah well. We are ‘discovering’ 1969. Although so much of it is rubble and now layered over with four decades of ‘better’ stuff that hasn’t quite fulfilled the expectations We had for it.

We have lived the life we choose, and we have fought and lost. Time to grit-up and get back on the road, potholed and wobbly-bridged as it may be.

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