Just read an article on George Eliot in The New Yorker, in which, among other insights, the author Rebecca Mead finds no evidence that a quote often attributed to Eliot was actually hers. It is:
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
Seems to have been actually a mistake made by a greeting card company after all. Mead calls it “an appealing notion,” one of those that many of us would like to believe, but concludes that Eliot would never have said such a thing, because she believed the opposite, that it is always too late to become that which we might have been, for that would have been determined by different choices, the opportunity for which is gone forever. So in that sense, I suppose “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” would be more apt. And she was always conscious, it seems, of the challenge of fully living one’s life and using one’s opportunities and gifts rather than being like some moth-like creature that was “too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” She was describing one of her characters, the one with whom she most identified.
I wonder how many years of good writing, or formative writing that later might have produced even better writing, we have missed due to George Eliot’s sometimes failing to launch. And all the connected events, other people’s choices, even, that failed to bring about the advent of her major works until she was thirty-six. Criticism, lack of encouragement, or just inattention does not feed the soul of another. How thankful we can be that her lover George Henry Lewes had the sense to encourage George Eliot in her writing. And I always feel particularly grateful for a man who in centuries past saw intellectual and communication gifts in a woman, when so many were blind to the possibility, or afraid of it.
In the word encourage is the root coeur, French for heart. Encouragement is a touch to the heart that strengthens, ignites, makes something more possible and likely. What is the something? The development and expression of true self and its gifts. Not by standardized testing tests that purport to indicate strengths. Not by grades of any kind, but by observing, telling people what they do right, helping them try new things, cheering them on, sincerely and in the way they can receive it, which may be very subtle. I suppose a few people have natural drive or some other compelling motivation, but for most of us, there’s no substitute for encouragement.