A few weeks ago, on our annual nerdy vacation at The Chautauqua Institution, we got to hear some really great lectures. Well, we always hear really great lectures, but this year I was paying extra special attention. I even took notes – yeah, I was serious about the nerdy vacation comment. As the weeks have gone by since we were there, it’s been interesting to see which ideas have really stuck with me. Some lectures seemed really great when they were delivered, but didn’t really have any staying power; others seemed kind of so-so when I was listening, but took root. One of the ideas I heard was both – it struck me at the time and it keeps coming back because I find it just so darned useful.
The speaker was Sebastian Purcell, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. His presentation was on Aztec philosophy as a a guide for happiness in the modern world. I admit I was skeptical, because the idea of looking to the Aztecs for guidance on happiness didn’t really fit with my limited understanding of Aztec culture. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The idea that got me was this one: The earth is slippery.
You’re like, really? That’s the big idea? That the earth is slippery? And what the hell does that mean anyway? What?
Yeah. That’s it. It was a core part of the Aztec worldview to believe that the world is slippery, which means we will fall down. We will make mistakes. Things happen that are out of control that will push us over. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes its our own fault, and sometimes it’s not. The earth is slippery. We can only take so many steps without risking a fall every now and then. Can you see where we’re going here? Professor Purcell pointed out that this idea meant that bad or unpleasant things that happen can often be chalked up to error rather than a lack of reason. In other words, sometimes stuff just happens and everyone makes mistakes no matter how hard they try, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how right their purpose.
Is this revolutionary? Well no, if we’re focused on the messages we explicitly give our children when they are hurting because they’ve messed up and we’re trying to comfort them, but ALL of the OTHER messages (that we give them AND ourselves) are pretty different aren’t they? The messages we send and receive say that the world is drowning in opportunity, that all you need to do is work hard enough (well, and harder than the person next to you), and you will succeed. This very American dreamy message is complicated. There’s an element to this lesson on perseverance that I am TOTALLY down with. Pursuing your thing doggedly is the best way to “succeed” at it – whatever “succeed” means. There’s also a dark side to our failure to really embrace the idea that the earth is slippery.
The dark side of not embracing the slipperiness of earth is that when things go awry, it is all our fault. When things don’t pan out, we are flawed. When we’re not achieving what we want, we need to reexamine everything from our actions to the very foundation of the dream itself. These are all versions of the big one, the giant yuck, the grandaddy of all self-abuse: when bad things happen, I deserve them because I’m not good enough. If the earth is not slippery, we fall because we are clumsy, careless, lazy. If the earth is not slippery, we fail because we are not determined, because we aren’t smart enough, because we are unworthy. If the earth is not slippery, our blame can only be placed on ourselves.
There are times we are at fault. There are times other people make things hard for us. There are times our institutions fail us. There are times when bad things happen that have nothing to do with our worth. There are times when things don’t work out. There are times when the earth is slippery. If we can just acknowledge that, we can get on with the business of our recovery, our work around, our new approach, our get back up and try again without the full on inquisition of our souls. Sometimes we fall because the earth is slippery.