Personal growth can be a mountain with an ever rising summit, a nearly level plateau where status quo reigns or a stagnant swamp that holds little but fetid decay. Each of us has activities in which we participate where we strive for mastery, engage solely for low-key entertainment or that we muddle through without thought or engagement.
As finite beings it is impossible for us to have a broad scope of interests and also to shine brightly in each of a multitude of activities in which we engage. We all have areas of talent where an activity or thought comes easily to us as well as inherent valleys that make personal mastery difficult if not impossible. I work-out regularly but lack both gross and fine motor coordination which, try as I may, precludes me from ever being a gifted athlete.
The key component of that statement is the, “Try as I may.” Recognizing that we all have predispositions for a range of activities while acknowledging that other items escape the scope and grasp of our talents is not defeatist, it is a simple understanding that as unique people some are blessed with one set of gifts while others have a different set.
What each of us is capable of is striving for excellence. Acknowledging that we have obstacles that make ascending to our summit a challenge is a different proposition than is settling for sitting in our swamp because we decide that the barriers to our climb may make our ascension more difficult than we are willing to attempt. Working to create the best we that we are capable of requires the effort of a mountaineer while sitting in our swamp leaves us lying in the gutter. We may not have control over the gifts and burdens with which we start our climb but it is we who decide whether to begin the upward trek or to settle for a stagnant existence.
Even though a higher percentage of the world’s population can read and write than at any previous time we simultaneously find the mastery of literacy to be declining in our world. It would be easy to blame this decline on the ascent of video that computers, television and portable devices make ubiquitous but the problem has its roots in the dumbing down of information. Information has been made more accessible for a number of reasons. One reason is an educational paradigm shift that facilitates a reduction in school failure. By making examination of subjects superficial we create the false mind set that knowing the basics about something somehow makes us expert in the field. We live in a world where easy, glib, superficial introduction and examination of a topic trumps difficult and thought provoking analysis. It is a war of inclusion versus elitism and inclusion is winning while mastery is the battle’s collateral casualty.
This observation really hit home about ten years ago when I purchased a book written by John Christopher. Mr. Christopher was a writer of science fiction for what is now called the tween market and in the early 1970’s his work captivated my middle school years. I found his plots intriguing, the characters engaging and I read and purchased eight books that forty years later I can list from memory.
One series of his books was, “The White Mountains,” “The City of Gold and Lead,” and “The Pool of Fire.” I loved these books as a child and when I stumbled across his prequel, “When the Tripods Came,” I snatched it up in eager anticipation of a satisfying return to my youthful love. The first three books were published in the 1960’s and the prequel in 1990. “When the Tripods Came” was dreadful.
It was so dreadful that I reread the originals to compare my youthful memory with my then forty plus year old reality. The trilogy was fun, entertaining and challenging while the prequel had been dumbed down. Because of the emphasis on success at the cost of mastery the publishing world discourages the use of mind stretching vocabulary or advanced imagery. In our goal to have everyone succeed we have removed the barriers to our summit climb and installed an escalator to the top. The problem with this is that the journey makes reaching the summit meaningful and memorable while a task that requires neither effort nor contemplation has little value. We can’t grow if we don’t stretch.
John Christopher’s 1990 book is not an aberration, it is the new normal. If we compare beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary’s books from the 1950’s and 1960’s to her latter work we find far shorter chapters, a simplified writing style and decidedly less challenging vocabulary. An icon of children’s literature was forced to change with the times and emphasize inclusion and reader “success” at the cost of her readers’ growth.
Elitism is not a dirty word and absolute mastery is an unreachable muse that should be fed and allowed to flourish. I unabashedly admit to being an elitist, but that is spelled with a lower case “e.” None of us can be great at everything but each of us can try to be better than we are. After all, if we’re not trying to climb the mountain we are likely to be sinking in the swamp.