Valjean Clark

Assumed vs perceived limitations

I’ve been reading a lot of history about the American West recently. One book in particular, Angle of Repose, changed my perspective of what limitations really exist when making major life choices.

Angle of Repose is domestic fiction, but it is based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, an American author and illustrator of the American West. Mary was raised on the east coast, but comes west with her husband Arthur, a mining engineer. In Angle of Repose, Mary is called Susan, and Arthur is called Oliver. I’ll refer to them by the names they are called in Angle of Repose, since I haven’t read Mary’s actual letters.

During the the early years of their marriage, Susan and Oliver have three children. During that time, Oliver is getting his footing in his career and taking various mining jobs. The early years of their marriage seem quite chaotic, at least to me, writing this in the 21st century. Oliver and Susan spend a significant amount of time apart due to the conditions of some of the jobs Oliver takes. As a result, their first child, Ollie, spends years away from his dad. Furthermore, on two occasions, Ollie is left with Susan’s parents for many months so that Susan can live with Oliver in these mining towns. And keep in mind that this is the Victorian era, and Susan was considered a “Victorian gentlewoman”.

I imagine for most modern Westerners, Ollie’s childhood seems shocking. I was certainly surprised at the decisions Susan and Oliver made, at least initially. But then I realized how freeing it was to read this.

Before reading this book, if you had told me “it’s totally fine to have a kid and then have that kid live with your parents for a year because you take a career opportunity in a location where you cannot really raise the kid”, I think my reaction would be skeptical and more negative than positive. I definitely would have thought that this is an irresponsible series of choices - why have a kid if you weren’t at a stable point in your life to raise one? I also would have wondered how this might affect the kid. Would this affect the kid’s bond with the parents? What if you do not agree with the choices your parents would make during that year? Perhaps I would have even sought out studies on the impact of extended child-parent separation when children are young, if such studies even exist.

Now of course, if Susan and Oliver would never have stabilized, if they had abandoned some or all of their kids for more extended periods, especially as they had more children and the children grew older, it would be easier to say that they were just bad parents and there is nothing to take away from their story. But their lives did stabilize (hence the book’s title “angle of repose”).

There is a lot of advice in modern discourse around how to optimize every aspect of your life, from health to parenting style to finances. Some of the advice is really great, based on solid scientific findings, etc. But, similar to my recent thoughts on metricizing, I’m realizing how this optimization mindset constrains the landscape of what is possible in life. There’s no way of coming to some kind of “scientific” conclusion about the ideal choice to make in Oliver’s position. He’s early in his career, he has a kid, and early career opportunities require risk-taking that aren’t compatible with bringing a kid along. It’s not ideal to not be around his young child, but should he pick a different career because of it? These are impossible questions to answer purely from the perspective of optimization.

Since I was young, I’ve sought wisdom and knowledge to fill in my understanding of the world, to prevent repeating mistakes from prior generations of my family, and to be less awkward and different than the people around me. In my 20s, this led me to scientific theories and findings, self help books, and frameworks. In my 30s, I’ve turned to stories, memoirs, and history, and I feel like I’m getting a lot more out of these.

I’ve finally realized something that should have been obvious to me long ago: there are no rules, effectively. There never have been. There are customs and norms, but nobody adheres to any norm or rule perfectly, not even a Victorian gentlewoman. Certainly nobody’s life perfectly reflects the frameworks described in self-help books. The point of life is not to optimize everything or to avoid all mistakes. It’s to live! To try stuff, to follow interests. It’s to make imperfect decisions, and then make more imperfect decisions. Not to say personal growth is not important - it absolutely is, but it seems to me that seeking out personal growth, be it via self-help books or therapy or something else, has to be a good fit for the person trying to grow. I imagine the advice in a book like Grit, with its prescription of goal hierarchies, is useful for some people, but not everyone.

This realization, and this post in general, is definitely more about me learning to shed my worldview that was perhaps too focused on growth and optimization at the cost of exploration, adventure, and pursuit of organic interests. Though I don’t think I’m the only one out there thinking about these themes.

Stepping back, this was kind of an odd post to write. It felt really great to write in my journal, but a bit stilted to explore in a blog post that will be read by others. Basically, I’m trying to say “look at this story about a Victorian era woman who moves out west, the Victorian era is so notoriously strict, but look how unconventional the choices they made are, even today, and things turned out just fine for her and her husband, maybe it’s worth reflecting on assumptions I have about life, wow I guess a lot of assumed limitations in life are really just perceived limitations.” Maybe this is one of those blog posts that should have just been a tweet.

In any case, if you got this far, thanks for reading!