The Sum Thing

I love stealing stories. This story is stolen.

old-young-holding-handsWhen he was young, my friend’s brother went to their grandfather and said, “I want the something.”

“What exactly do you want?” the grandfather asked.

“The something,” the boy replied.

“What does it look like?” the grandfather asked.

“You know, the something,” the boy said.

Then, much to his credit, the grandfather asked, “Do you know where it is?”

“In your office,” the boy said.

The old man and the young boy retired to the office where the grandfather held up thing after thing to no avail until he produced the calculator. At this, the boy nodded his head vigorously and held out his hands to receive the sum thing.

I often look for the sum thing in life, the experience or theory or explanation that will make everything add up, that will impart meaning to even the most drib drab days, the most miserable failures, the most painful losses. I don’t think it exists. In fact, I think it’s bad for us, like eating too many Twizzlers, because it keeps us living in future tense rather than present. It puts both hope and contentment (not to be confused with complacency) always just out of reach.

My spirits don’t exactly rise when I acknowledge that nothing waits around the next bend to transform my life into a complete and sensible and beautiful whole. A rather scary alternative presents itself: I create my life, which will likely come out messy and haphazard and undisciplined and wildly inconsistent and may, for all that, still be beautiful.

We don’t need to take on this life creation alone, though. If our lives belong to us, they are ours to share. We have friends, family, and communities to help us. We have grace. When all else fails, we have Ben and Jerry’s. And who knows, if we stop focusing on an unattainable totality, we may discover we like what we’ve made.

10 thoughts on “The Sum Thing

  1. On stealing and the individual talent (since T.S. Eliot seems not to have said ‘Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” Exactly.)
    One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

    Eliot, T.S., “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood, New York:, 2000
    (I got this essay online thru my university library but it should be somewhere on the web. Let us be surprised: it is under copyright dispute.).


  2. So often people have wanted me to be the sum thing–the teacher, the savior, the beloved–who makes, forces, their lives “into a complete and sensible and beautiful whole.” They have cast about and I have cast about and both of us proceed merrily to disquiet. So maybe a question is how to listen to requests for the sum thing without letting either myself or the asker put contentment out of the purview of where we each stand on our own two feet. I don’t know; I just know perhaps the other side of the search for the sum thing.

  3. I had Ben and Jerry’s tonight. What does that say? 😉
    The sum thing for me happens in split seconds between the shift of consciousness from sleep to waking or the reverse (but I usually don’t remember the epiphanies that sprout when I’m falling asleep). So it’s like a solar powered calculator with an automatic shut off so short that you better hurry and put to use the sum you just came up with.

    Did I just say something?

  4. Yes.
    I’ve been wanting Ben and Jerry’s for two days, but yesterday they didn’t have my favorite flavor and today I only had $2 in my wallet. : )

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