"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Forward Progress

Forward Progress

Every weekday morning when I was in high school, my dad would burst into my room and wake me up by declaring, “Up and at ‘em, with a heart for any fate!”  It was an intimate routine, a regularly scheduled interval when he’d allow his affection and charm to pierce his reserved demeanor.

The ritual’s beauty was in its regularity, in how faithfully we observed it—my dad by barging into my room, and I by mustering an acknowledging grunt in a half conscious stupor. It always happened.  Whether the prior day’s events had affirmed or flattened my resolve, he always greeted me the next morning with the same refrain. 

I cherished the greeting because my dad imbued it with love.  But the statement’s substance also offered a lesson, one that lingered in the back of my mind for years, fuzzy and unrealized.

“Up and at ‘em, with a heart for any fate!”

High school wasn’t the happiest time in my life.  Maybe my dad knew that.  Maybe that’s why he made sure that the first thing I heard every morning was a call to focus on the future.  It’s a compelling mantra.  Forward progress.  Always.

After graduating from law school, I spent the past year-and-a-half living in New York City.  I was surrounded by friends and family, working in a job that differed subtly but distinctly from what I really wanted to do.  Then, an opportunity arose to transfer to my firm’s Hong Kong office.  I obsessed for weeks about the prospect, committed to go—then waffled internally, but finally resolved to make the move.  Right up until I left New York, I wasn’t sure it was the right choice.  I already had a lot to be thankful for.  I was comfortable.

Comfort can be sedating.  If you’re not watchful, it can breed complacency.  I had cultivated a pleasant existence, and constantly tended to the idea that it was enough.  Convincing myself of that story meant making my standstill feel like progress.  Even when I was most enmeshed in the fiction that I was content, the truth—that I aspired to more—incessantly buzzed like a mosquito by my ear.  I had to go.  In the end, choosing was easy; committing was not.

My dad didn’t coin the “with the heart for any fate!” quip.  It’s a reference to “The Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The line comes near the poem’s end:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time; 

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
Seeing, shall take heart again. 

Let us, then, be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
Learn to labor and to wait.

A daily recital of the entire poem would have made for an educational if unwieldy exercise.  Better to choose one line, my dad understood, exclaim it again and again, and eventually I’d get the message.  In the context of the poem, the line my dad lifted—“with a heart for any fate”—at first invites more questions than it answers.  What exactly was the lesson that my sleepy teenage self was meant to absorb?

Invoking fate is particularly curious.  Sure, the poem mentions God.  

Act,— act in the living Present! 
Heart within, and God o’erhead!”

But God only looms in the background.  God is overhead; He is watching, but it’s up to us to realize our full potential.  In heaven, God may save you from your sins if you repent. But on earth, lying prostrate before Him only leaves you trampled. 

Unlike Longfellow, most (though not all) of the  great existentialist thinkers were nonreligious.  But they understood as well as Longfellow did that reaching one’s full promise is daunting, urgent work.  Jean Paul Sartre wrote that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.  It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

You alone get to determine what pursuits will fill your life with purpose.  A person doesn’t start off knowing what those ends will be.  The process of discovery is itself a worthy, meaningful undertaking.  But the chase doesn’t always have to be as grand as Longfellow and Sartre describe.  Moving to Hong Kong definitely counts.  Getting out of bed and going to school can, too.

For the first week in Hong Kong, my body hasn’t been able to figure out where it is—somewhere over the pacific, probably.  The fatigue has acted like a tax on everything I do, like China has slapped a retaliatory tariff on my very existence as a part of the broader trade war. 

Now, at the end of my first week, I am determined to venture out.  A serenely cool evening has replaced the day’s humid fug.  The streets are full of potential friends basking in the reprieve from the heat.  I fight my natural instincts, which are pulling me towards bed with wine and a novel.  To overcome the allure of hermitage, I stare down my reflection in the mirror, and give myself what may be the saddest pep talk in history.

“David—you’re young(ish).  You’re attractive (enough, probably).  You’re funny.  So go be social!”

Newly brimming with confidence, I ask myself, “Should I bring condoms?”  Then I think better of it.  Let's not get carried away. 

So I go out.  The event is one for expats at a bar in Causeway Bay.  The venue is on the second floor of a shopping mall.  After a short escalator ride, I wait in line to collect a name tag and tokens to exchange for drinks at the bar (apparently actual currency won’t suffice).  Once inside, I am my version of social.   I don’t flit from group to group, collecting phone numbers and networking.  I suck down one glass of red wine, get another, take a deep breath, and strike up a conversation with an amiable young American.  He is a trader at Goldman Sachs.  Oh, thank God, I think.  I know how to talk to you.

He and I, standing by the bar, ease into a conversation about one of my favorite topics—financial regulation (no wonder I’m single).  As we talk, a waiter puts down a giant plate of seasoned French fries with a garlic aioli dipping sauce.  The fries are clearly meant to be communal, and I think, “We’ll just see about that.”  I’ve found one person to talk to.  I have fries and wine in ample supply.  I see no reason to move for the rest of the night, and I don’t.

Just days before, I think, left New York and I moved halfway around the world, only to end up in a similar place—drinking red wine while eating fries and talking to a banker.  Is this really what it means to branch out, to maintain forward progress?  Does it matter?  I am happy.  I am free.

David Will is a corporate lawyer based in Hong Kong. His writing has previously been published in the Hill, the Washington Examiner, the Write Launch, and other publications.

Cover photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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