Work and Fun, the “Chinese parents” would see a connection where there may be none

Every day  the thoughts of others provoke thoughts of my own. Reading the written words of others rather than by listening is how I expand my own vision, my own world. Of course it didn’t have to be that way, but long ago words on paper, rather than words on air, became my principal means of interacting with the world outside.

And it’s true that from one day to the next I hear little or nothing that excites or interests me. Kind of over and over again, throughout the day, or at least when I’m out and not home surrounded by my books with the ideas of others, what I hear mostly is what I would call the words of the girl at the check-out counter, her “Have a good day.”

Now as I think about it I suppose the very first time her words were said, or at least the very first time they were said in my hearing, I might very well have responded favorably and said to myself, “Well, yes, I’ll try. Thanks very much. We should all make that effort to have a good day.” But of course these words, like most if not all words that are repeated endlessly, have long lost their freshness and meaning.

Now let me move on to words on paper where I’m most at home, my preferred means of communication with others. I read about two weeks ago, like many others I’m sure, Amy Chua’s WSJ op ed piece, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.  And like many others I enjoyed the article, and was particularly struck by these words of the author:

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work,…”

My first response was yes, the Chinese parents are right, because right now I’m teaching myself the calculus and most of all I have to work at it, and right now it’s not “fun” at all. And already I can sense that as I become more knowledgeable, and at some not too distant time in the future, as I become fluent, my enjoyment of the calculus will grow correspondingly, and I look forward already to at that time having fun.

But also almost right away I questioned the wisdom of the Chinese parents. Did they really know what they were talking about? For, as I said to myself, what about sex, eating, roughhousing, play, all the kinds of things that kids seem to enjoy doing, well before their being “good at them,” in fact probably while even being terrible at them.

I think of my own grandchildren and all they can’t do, and the obvious clear enjoyment on their faces even when not being able to do something, missing the basket, for example, with the ball, the ball with the bat, and other such things, and laughing about it, and yes, having fun.

Although this is not, probably, true of all activities, probably not true of learning to play a musical instrument. For from the sounds coming from the violin in the hands of a beginner it’s hard to imagine that she could be having fun. There is certainly no fun in listening to her play. A drum may be the one exception to this rule concerning most if not all musical instruments, that being why, probably, so many kids are beating on drums rather than playing flutes and cellos.

Furthermore is it always the case that when you get really good at something you most enjoy it?

What does the NBA star, Shaq O’Neal enjoy most, being an immovable low post just outside the paint, at which he is an expert, alongside, say, Dwight Howard, another low post expert, vying with Shaq with elbows and knees for the very same post space? Or being, probably for the first time in his life and without a clue as to what he should be doing or how he should be acting in a brand new situation where he is no expert, such as while recently a visitor to Harvard Square, and while there being a kind of moving high post, or, given his size, almost a monument, and while all the time surrounded by admiring and fascinated Harvard students who just want to experience this man up close?

In other words the newness, the freshness of some activities, such as this visit to Harvard Square, may be the very best that we will ever have of them. The young married couple would look at you as if you were crazy if you told them that the things happening between them would get even better than that first week, that they couldn’t yet really know what true marriage was all about, let alone know that much about what they were, or could be doing in bed.

So conclusions to what Amy has to say about what the Chinese parents believe? There are a couple that come to mind.

I would agree first of all that it is the truly rare person, no less rare than a Mozart or Einstein (in neither of whom we ever felt or saw any work behind the achievement) who can be good at something without hard work.

But then again most of us, even when we work hard at something, never get really good at it. I think of the number of things I’ve worked at in this life and the few of them, if any, that would get me the “really good at what he’s doing” designation.

And my other conclusion. Whence comes the fun, the enjoyment from what one does? For the fun may have absolutely no relation to the work that has gone into the preparation. Fun is probably not at all a function of the work.

In fact, fun, enjoyment, all that sort of thing, may not be things we can by our efforts and planning, by our hard work, make happen. And ultimately real enjoyment, perhaps the highest form of fun, may be more like grace, coming or not coming to us regardless of our own efforts to enrich our lives.

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