the courage to see what is

A few weeks ago I was having dinner with a newish person I’ve been enjoying getting to know better, who is about 10 years younger than I am. I was talking about playing music in high school, and he asked “Did you ever dream of becoming a big pop star?”

That question caught me off guard. I tried not to get it on my face but inside I was wincing. Even worse, I then got totally in my head, getting stuck in a thought loop about whether that was a valid reaction and oh god what does it mean that I’m even picking apart my reaction, and on and on. The part of me that was melting down heard the question as Obviously you are not a pop star, and nothing about what I know suggests that you want to be famous, but you play music and people who play music generally want attention, so did you ever dream of becoming a big star? and if I’m going deeper, and not flinching from the sensitive part of that interaction, I think I also heard it as You are a nobody, and you don’t seem like you’re trying to be a somebody, so did you ever dream of being somebody?

Obviously, that is a pretty dark way to interpret a totally normal question. It just hit really close to the thoughts I use to beat myself up, the broadcast that Anne Lamotte calls “radio K-FUCKED” that becomes depression when it’s turned up too loud. I walk around every day with at least a small part of me telling myself that I’m a nobody who spends all his life force maintaining a life that I don’t want. Sometimes countering that voice gives me a higher self-esteem, other times I feel a flood of shame for thinking that I could be better.

It is true that I wanted to be a pop star when I was a teenager. But here’s another truth: I know so much more about what being a pop star is. I am grateful that I wasn’t my family’s breadwinner since I was 16, like Beyoncé, or sexualized from a young age through beauty pageants and needing to immigrate alone to a different country as a teenager like Rihanna, or navigating having my image made over by coaches and dealing with body image issues in the public eye like D’Angelo. I know now that whether I have talent is as important a question as whether I had rich parents. I know that the whole conversation about what is luck and what is talent is not real. It’s always both, and if they lived 1,000 times, in 999 of them we wouldn’t recognize their name.

This all came up while I was reading Kate Wagner’s excellent piece in The Baffler about the broken meritocracy in classical music:

Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Wagner describes how classical music requires a long, expensive training process as a price of entry to even compete for a small number of high paying spots at the top of the pyramid. And, as always, social connections and family wealth allow you to jump the line:

The prestige of classical music obscures a range of unseemly realizations: arts managers are union-busting bosses like any other; private conservatories cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend partially because schools figured out they can charge that much and people will still go—either out of desperation to make it or because certain students are wealthy enough to afford it. And, at the same time, scholarships are cut under austerity deanships, tenure is eliminated, and adjuncts are paid poverty wages with no benefits, while the administrators get bigger and bigger paychecks. The rest of us sacrifice to prove our dedication, go to school full-time, work under the table, and teach for free in order to get a degree. And if you bow out of this gladiatorial arena, where only the affluent and well-connected are armed, like I did, like many of my friends did, you are understood to be a failure who didn’t try hard enough. In the meantime, the gilded band plays on, scoring the lives of the well-heeled and propertied.

There are some truths that it’s taken me a long time to learn. There are some that my head knows and it’s taken a lot longer for my heart to learn them, and there are some that my head knows and my heart still doesn’t believe. One such truth is that what I love about classical music—the thing I find in it that mirrors something that is in me— is not the same thing as the institutions, the traditions, and even the people that produce it. It is always in the interest of the institution to claim that they are the sole caretakers of the art form, and to conflate any change to the way that the art and their position in the hierarchy with a threat to the art form. I couldn’t see that college, and I paid a price for it. I always saw myself in the music. But month by month, semester by semester, the more that I learned about this cultural world that I wanted to take my place in, the less I saw myself in the people in it. The dissonance of trying to maintain a self-mythology in which I was a genius in training with a bright and shiny future ahead of me in the face of this discouragement was stressful, and I couldn’t keep it going for very long. That experience left me with this profound feeling of failure which has taken me years to dig out of.

Another truth that’s taken me even longer to come to is that this fantasy self that I carry around, the version of myself who was even luckier, who got the breaks that I didn’t or took advantage of the opportunities that I blew or had the mentors I didn’t meet—that person is not real. If I’m really looking deeply inside, even though my head knows better, on an emotional level, I think I do believe that if you add up the sum total of all the advantages and opportunities I’ve had, and compare them against the next person’s, it all kind of evens out. Therefore, there’s some kind of “perfect playthrough” where making all the right decisions and getting all of the breaks means that I get success, however I envision it. Because my other self is not real, he never makes mistakes. Because his perfect future is known and mine is very not, he can have a confidence that all of his compromises were worth it that I will never feel as I make my way through living with mine.

When I get hung up on ideas about myself, particularly when there are Principles and Beliefs attached, my therapist asks me, “Does this belief serve you now?” For the longest time it seemed like that doppelganger was my motivator, the source of my ambition. Now it’s only around to compare myself negatively to, and it probably was never as good a motivator as others. When I fixate on imperfect choices, I end up looking at my life with contempt, and that doesn’t serve anyone. On the other hand, letting go of the idea of the perfect playthrough still scares me, and still feels like a betrayal of so many past iterations of myself. I think I’m there in my head, my heart still has a ways to go.

I don’t know what’s on the other side of that belief, I can’t even imagine what it might feel like to move through the world without that drag. A quality I admire, though, is the courage to look at what is, to remove the filters and fears that adjust reality to suit us. I am not afraid to look at myself, and that’s the truth. Going back to the question, I wish I had just said, “Yes.”

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