Full House - Stephen Jay Gould

I asserted at the outset of this blog that my focus in embracing failures excluded ‘tragedies’ which are truly disastrous events for which even the boldest silver linings seems like paltry compensation for the pain and loss entailed. Nonetheless, I recently read Stephen Jay Gould’s superb book ‘Full House’ (‘The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin’) and at the outset he talks about his cancer (from which he eventually succumbed in 2002) with a message I think suitable to the themes here. He protests against the insidious effects of the ‘positive attitude’ pressures that often abound in these terminally ill diagnoses…

“We must stand resolutely against the unintended cruelty of the ‘positive attitude’ movement – insidious slippage into a rhetoric of blame for those who cannot overcome their personal despair and call up positivity from some internal depth…No button reading ‘positive attitude’ protrudes from our hearts, and no finger can coerce positivity into immediate action by a single and painless pressing. How dare we blame someone for the long-standing constitution of their tendencies and temperament if, in an uninvited and unwelcome episode of life, another persona might have coped better? If a man dies of cancer in fear and despair, then cry for his pain and celebrate his life. The other man, who fought like hell and laughed to the end, but also died, may have had an easier time in his final months, but took his leave with no more humanity.”

Actually, the entire subject of the book is a form of embracing failure. The ‘failure’ for the stunning and powerful process of ‘evolution’ to actually account for any form of ‘progress’ in the natural world. He debunks the notion that ‘survival of the fittest’ necessarily leads to the divine destiny of human supremacy and the triumph of ever more sophisticated life forms. On the contrary, he makes a powerful argument that the most successful being to ever exist on the planet Earth is the bacterium.

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