Tuesday, October 9, 2018

3 a.m. All right, I’m ready – I think – to resume our conversation of the other day.

Let’s talk about competition


Competition, as in – different forms of the same experience. Different meanings of the same word. Different aspects of the same character trait in various circumstances.

Is this why I was led to reread American Son, about John F. Kennedy, Jr’s life, just after reading those biographies of his famous grandfather?

There is an immense amount to be learned by reading biography, only recognize that what you may learn is bounded by what you are when you read it.

Sure, we’ve been over this ground before. If you can’t understand, it doesn’t matter if it is spelled out in so many words, you won’t be able to read what is right there. Then, if your vision clears for whatever reason, you’ll see all sorts of connections that had escaped you previously.

That is why any fixed form – books, videos, anything static, as opposed to living – has the potential to function as a continuous

I started to write “Rorschach test,” but that isn’t quite it, is it?

Well, a continuous active spark, say. The same book will not be the same book if the mind that encounters it has new abilities to connect different dots.

Even just writing that, another track of my mind is connecting the very different experiences of three generations of Kennedy men. Looked at strictly in terms of Joe, Jack, John, it is striking.

The outsider having to push his way onto the stage; the insider finding a way to turn is advantages into a productive arena; the son of an icon (and an equally iconic mother), having to function within the claustrophobic bubble.

Yes. As I say, I hadn’t thought of them together in just that way. We naturally think first of Joe, then at least Jack and Bobby, if not all the other brothers and sisters, and then the focus gets blurred by so many cousins in the third generation.

Any focal point will rearrange the context a subject is seen in. So let’s look at three men whose lives spanned about a hundred years, and see what their lives can be made to tell us about this one focal point of ambition.

[Interestingly enough, they started by saying we were going to discuss competition; I didn’t even notice the bait-and-switch until after the fact.]

Joe’s years were 1888-1969; Jack’s, 1917-1963; John’s, 1960-1999. As you say, about a hundred years.

When reading of someone’s life, it is natural to see it as if it were more focused, more one-pointed, less internally contradictory and confused than, say, one’s own. But it doesn’t happen that way, that is merely a trick of perspective-imposed-after-the-fact. Even the most single-minded of lives contains inner tensions, as even the most coherent compound being is going to be more complicated, more multiple, than any unitary being.

I know “coherent” isn’t right. What is?

Congruent is closer. Harmonious, something like that.

So, take Joe Kennedy’s life. He didn’t lead his life (on a 3D level) knowing what he was going to accomplish! How could he? Would you try to predict your grandchildren’s lives, or how those lives could be shaped by your actions? He knew that he wanted to produce a secure economic foundation for his family and their children. Beyond that, he instilled in them his drive, his valuing of success, of striving, of growth personal and external.

At the same time, his day to day life was something of a cross-current, particularly his first half-century. He didn’t go to Harvard thinking of his children’s future, when he hadn’t even produced them yet. He didn’t think of establishing a dynasty during World War I when he had only the two boys. He didn’t try to calculate the second-generation effects of his careers in the movie business, or the stock market speculation, or his offices under Roosevelt.

I get the impression that he did, actually – consider the effect on his children of interacting with Roosevelt, I mean.

That’s just ambiguity of words. Our meaning is that he fought his way day by day; he didn’t execute a master plan. Yes, he considered whether he should or could do this or that, given what it might do to young Joe’s political future, for instance. There were things he could not do, lines he could not cross, enduring wrath he dared not incur, lest it all rebound on young Joe in later years. But the very example demonstrates our point. Young Joe didn’t have a future. Any long-term planning Joe did try to do was so much wasted effort, in that sense. The fact that it eventually redounded to Jack’s advantage (and sometimes to his detriment) was just what happened; it wasn’t, because it could not have been, in Joe’s planning. Nobody plans their life in that sense.

Joe’s life had a couple of givens, [which together constituted] the pole star he navigated by. He wanted financial security, then acceptance socially, then scope for his many executive talents, then a firm and unshaken and unshakable emotional rock which was his wife and children and, eventually, grandchildren. If you don’t understand this interconnection of these things within him, you don’t understand the man. And, we would say, he understood them. He knew what was important to him, and he pursued it.

So what could you accurately and perceptively say about his ambitions? They were clear, driven, unconflicted (that is, they reinforced each other) and successful. The things that tended to undercut them – the philandering, his carping at Roosevelt (which of course got back to Roosevelt and hurt his chances with him), his defeatism in the face of the Nazi challenge, his areas of blindness in assessing other people’s motivations, his penchant and talent for making enemies with long memories – none of this can be made into some master plan; it is just how the various strands that together comprised Joseph P. Kennedy played out in practice.

So then look at Jack in that context. He loved his father deeply, was emotionally dependent upon his approval, so tried to live by values that perhaps his particular makeup would not have led him to in different conditions. Resenting yet resigned to – and taking advantage of – his status as second son, he laughed his way through a long irresponsible boyhood. That is – and don’t assume he was aware of the psychological factors involved (Are you aware of your own hidden mainsprings) – on the one hand, an endless succession of life-threatening illnesses to be coped with, and overcome, and ignored, and even taken advantage of; an absolute inability to conform to the expectations of his demanding parents, or boarding school authorities; a desperate need to contend with his healthy, handsome, seemingly assured-success of an elder brother, a contention always lost and always renewed, until he produced a book (Why England Slept) and suddenly put the elder brother in the shade, then became a war hero and, de facto and unintentionally, prodded the elder brother into a self-destructive mission in an attempt to regain his supremacy. He didn’t plan any of that; he reacted to circumstances. Then, once the elder brother was out of the picture, he had to assume the burden of being the eldest son, or let down his father. And that, he could not do.

Joe had provided his children the advantages he himself had never had. He had intended to use them for the benefit primarily of Joe Jr’s ambitions. Gradually, he refocused them on Jack, when he realized that Jack was overcoming the challenges of grave illness and the consequent temptation to lotus-eating. But if Joe’s money, connections, skill, and drive were in Jack’s service, Jack’s drive nonetheless followed his own nature, not his father’s. He had never had to think about earning money (which is as his father had intended); he had never had to force his way into circles unwilling to accept him; he lived in history quite as much as in contemporary affairs – indeed, for him there was little difference between the two subjects. His drive to establish his own family, even to get married, was not like his father’s, either. That is to say, it would be easy to over-estimate how Jack’s ambitions mirrored his father’s.

They didn’t; the two lives and their circumstances were too different. Indeed, making the circumstances different was what Joe’s ambitions were all about! Jack made his way with the aid of all his father had done, but he made his way, not his father’s. It was Jack, not Joe, who admired Churchill, for instance. That may be a trivial example, but it is not without meaning.

Then, move on to John Kennedy, Jr. Again his circumstances were molded by what his father had accomplished, but look at the difference. John’s life was lived within the context of an iconic extended family. He didn’t have the experience of a father’s guidance and support. His mother had to be both parents for him, which provided a very different kind of boyhood and adolescence. John had his father’s looks and brains but not his father’s physical challenges. And unlike his second-son father, he was the only son of his famous father and mother, and lived uncomfortably within the perpetual bubble of other people’s reactions to whatever that status aroused in them. In such condition, how could his ambitions be the same as his father’s or grandfather’s? If Joe had had to elbow his way in, and Jack had come into political life “sort of sideways,” John found the opportunity to begin at the top always there, and that did not necessarily make his life any easier.

In all three cases, ambition was clearly valued, considered a positive rather than a negative trait. But equally clearly not only the goals, not only the means, but the nature of the ambition was different as the men were different. How could they not be?

Eighty minutes. Are we near an end?

Ambition, like any other trait, has positive and negative connotations and manifestations. That should be clear enough. it manifests differently, less because of so-called external circumstances than because the internal man is different. We know it doesn’t look that way, but think. Joe Jr. and Jack could never have faced the same circumstances, because they were so different from each other, linked and even bound to each other, but struggling within the bonds. As one changed the dynamic, it affected the other. And after Joe Jr. was killed, Jack’s life changed in ways he would not have been able to predict, because who he was and what he chose to manifest changed. Your lives are not nearly as externally driven as they seem to be; neither are they as consciously determined as you usually think they are.

And that’s enough.

Not quite sure where we went, nor why we went there, but thanks for all this. Till next time.


3 thoughts on “Ambition

  1. This is fascinating food for thought to me, so I hope they’ll have more to say about ambition/competition.

      1. I was a 13-year-old campaign worker for Kennedy, passing out bumper stickers in super market parking lots, and for some odd reason, got invited to the inauguration, making the veteran campaigners none too happy. I also shook Kennedy’s hand when he spoke in Houston. Who could forget him? So your post is interesting on that account. But also, I think maybe we’re ambitious in ways we don’t always recognize, triggered by family experiences and others, and driving us when we don’t know it and might even deny it. Your generational tracing of Kennedy ambition and drive is so engrossing. “Your lives are not nearly as externally driven as they seem to be; neither are they as consciously determined as you usually think they are.” That takes us to some core things.

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