I don’t think of him often, only on days like today. You know those days. The kind you spend looking more inside than around, wondering where all the time is going and why everything seems to be leaving you behind. Those are not fun days. In the words of the teenager who lives on the corner, they’re “the sucks.”
I had a day like that today. It was all the sucks. And like I often do, I thought of him.
I’ve been conducting an informal survey over the years that involves everyone from friends to acquaintances to strangers on the street. It’s not scientific in any way and is more for the benefit of my own curiosity than anything else. I ask them one question, nothing more—Are you doing what you most want to do with your life?
By and large, the answer I usually get is no. Doesn’t matter who I ask, either. Man or woman, rich or poor, famous or not. My wife the teacher has always wanted to be a counselor. My trash man says he’d rather be a bounty hunter (and really, I can’t blame him). A professor at work? He wants to be a farmer. And on and on.
Most times that question from me leads to questions from them, and in my explaining I’ll bring him up.
Because, really, he was no different than any of us. He had dreams. Ambitions. And—to his mind, anyway—a gift. The world is wide and full of magic when we’re young. It lends itself to dreaming. We believe we can become anything we wish; odds, however great, don’t play into the equation. So we want to be actresses and painters and poets. We want to be astronauts and writers and business owners. Because when we’re young, anything is possible. It’s only when we grow up that believing gets hard.
He wanted to be an artist. I’m no art critic and never will be, but I’ve seen his paintings. Honestly? They’re not bad. Better than I could manage, anyway.
His parents died when he was young. He took his inheritance and moved to the city to live and study, hoping to get into college. The money didn’t last long, though. Often he’d be forced to sleep in homeless shelters and under bridges. His first try for admission into the art academy didn’t end well. He failed the test. He tried again a year later. He failed that one, too.
His drawing ability, according to the admissions director, was “unsatisfactory.” He lacked the technical skills and wasn’t very creative, often copying most of his ideas from other artists. Nor was he a particularly hard worker. “Lazy” was also a word bandied about.
Like a lot of us, he wanted the success without the work. Also like a lot of us, he believed the road to that success would have no potholes, no U-turns. No dark nights of the soul.
He still dabbled in art as the years went on. But by then he had entered politics, and the slow descent of his life had begun. He was adored for a time. Worshipped, even. In his mind, he was the most powerful man in the world. Because of his politics, an estimated 11 million people died. I’d call that powerful.
But really, Hitler always just wanted to be an artist. That he gave up his dream and became a monster is a tiny footnote in a larger, darker story, but it is an important one. He didn’t count on dreams being so hard, though. That was his undoing. He didn’t understand that the journey from where we are to where we want to be isn’t a matter of getting there, it’s a matter of growing there. You have to endure the ones who say you never will. You have to suffer that stripping away. You have to face your doubts. Not so we may be proven worthy of our dreams, but so our dreams may be proven worthy of us.
He didn’t understand any of that. Or maybe he understood it and decided his own dream wasn’t worth the effort. Painting—creating—isn’t ever an easy thing. That blank canvas stares back at you, and its gaze is hard. That is why reaching your goals is so hard. That’s why it takes so much. Because it’s easier to begin a world war than to face a blank canvas.