Wanting it all

One of the recent battle cries of popular psychology, along with the egregious and overblown ''Me first!'' has been a defiant ''I want it all!'' Usually bellowed into the startled faces of fellow members of a ''consciousness raising'' group, this formula has been hailed as the open sesame to fruitful functioning.

And I can testify that as an exercise in self-expression it is not without benefits. Applied judiciously, especially among those of us who live largely amid abstractions rather than in the thick of social exchange, it can mitigate excessive reserve and temper exaggerated asceticism. But as a total credo for living, assiduously promoted by books on Powerm and Winning Through Intimidationm, it is not only an obstacle to the maturing process but can plunge its adherents all the way back to infancy.

For it is babies, not grown-ups, who rattle the bars of their cribs when denied some favorite tidbit. A mark of the adult is the willingness to accept material limitations, to recognize that no single life can embrace the multitude of experiences available to humankind: climb all the mountains, chart all the seas, master all the arts. A concert career at the piano will probably preclude unearthing archaeological mysteries in the Australian bush. We have to make choices, seek out the ways we can best contribute to the universal scheme. That may entail abandoning some early goals, even giving up some cherished dreams in order more effectively to pursue others.

What prompted these musings was a serendipitous tuning-in last summer on a radio interview with the actor-entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. Said Davis: ''I have finally arrived at a kind of serenity. I accept the fact that there are some things I will not attain in this life, some parts I will never play.'' Had he dreamed - I am guessing - of one day dominating the center court at Wimbledon, or of donning Othello's robes in a dressing-room at the Aldwych? If so, he was willing to let the dream go. Not, he made clear, merely to repeat past triumphs - a practice anathema to any genuine artist - but that he might better explore those directions offering promise of further growth. This he could do least wastefully by recognizing the boundaries imposed by time and circumstance. Almost anything was within reach once one renounced the compulsion to do everything.

My own initiation into these simple but at first blush alarming realities began some thirty-odd years ago. At that time, my heart was set on the musical theater (in which I had heady visions of myself as a Brooklyn-bred Noel Coward, a multifaceted practitioner of melody, lyrics and jaunty dialogue). I had just gone through a long and exhausting adventure with a musical production that had been slated first for Broadway and then for London, but had been repeatedly derailed by difficulties of casting. A wise friend invited me to dinner. ''You must understand,'' he said, ''that regardless of its merits, your work may never see the light of day.''

I rejected this counsel out of hand. Unthinkable! To expend so much effort, and arrive at the very brink of production -

''Things may still fall into place. If they don't, your talent can move elsewhere.''

Things didn't; but it took some time for me to absorb his point. Eventually I moved on to other labors: in broadcasting, films and books. Although the early scar still lingers, producing an occasional twinge when I attend a bad musical that somehow has managed to get on the boards, mostly it is forgotten.

Since then I have had frequent reminders that, in the parlance of the baseball dugout, ''you can't win 'em all.'' Firmly imprinted in memory is the afternoon in Cairo when, practicing tennis with a fellow-correspondent, I slapped a couple of forehands at him in quick succession. He tried to handle both bouncing balls at once, and connected with neither. ''Onem story of my life, '' he commented wryly.

Making choices is part of the human condition. For years I oscillated between the never-never landscape of Hollywood and the rugged fact-hunting terrain of journalism; then between public service and the private satisfactions of writing. Much as I relished global web-spinning on behalf of the United Nations Appeal for Children, I had to acknowledge an even deeper need to speak my piece individually.

So I wrote a book - the true story of a twentieth-century soldier-turned-philosopher - and promptly found myself at another crossroads. Should I continue with straight biography, or venture into the tricky realm of the biographical novel? I opted for the gamble, and discovered that my subject, the painter Whistler, had had his own struggles on this score, and had ended up systematically narrowing his creative framework. No palette, he felt, could accommodate concurrently anecdotal trivia and the elusive twilights of the Thames. Since boundaries were inescapable, he preferred to establish his own. Was he sending a message across the decades to the newly liberated woman who feels a challenge to prove herself simultaneously on all fronts, as wife, mother , business executive, gardener and first violin with the local orchestra?

For myself, the acceptance of choices-within-limits brings more blessings than regrets. Freed from the tyranny of ''wanting it all,'' I find that I have all I need: books and friends, the beach at sunrise, the towering silhouette of the Santa Ynez mountains. And I can make the most of where I am now. Living at a more measured pace, a trot instead of a sprint, one perceives more of the native scenery. And more of people, too. There is time to savor and to serve. It is not absolutely necessary, I am learning, to consume life fiercely; a fresh mango is quite as tasty when sliced up and eaten at leisure - and with much less peril of biting into a rock-hard pit.

As a writer my work goes forward, but on a smaller scale. If the 400-page novel and two-hour screenplay languish on faint back-burners, there is room up front for theater and music reviews, a regional magazine column, children's verses - and essays like this one.

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