Old Battles, Still Waged: Accepting ‘Defeat’ In Self-Improvement

Over the past couple of days, I have engaged in a time-honored academic ritual: the cleaning of one’s office. Old books, journal articles, student papers and blue books, random handouts from academic talks, conference badges–all fodder for the recycling bin. But I went further, looking for especially archaic material; and I found it in my graduate school notebooks. Scribbled notes from graduate seminars filled their pages; but much else too. In their pockets I found syllabi and handouts; and on their back pages, many, many notes written to myself during the seminar class period.

Some of these notes are simple reminders to myself: submit forms, pick up checks, finish reading etc. Yet others are financial calculations; in graduate school, I always lived on the edge, and frequent checks of my financial health were necessary. These, as can be seen, often distracted me even as I thought about metaphysics and ethics. And then, perhaps most poignantly, I find little injunctions and plans for self-improvement: eat more of this, eat less of that, run more, workout regularly, reading and writing schedules, smoke less or quit; and on and on. Sometimes I offer exhortations or admonitions to myself. These blueprints for a new me occur with some regularity; they represent a recurring concern of mine.

Those concerns and the ways in which I negotiate with them persist.

I still make lists of plans, I still draw up schedules of work and abstinence; I’m still struggling. Now, you can find the blueprints I speak of in my hard drive, tucked away into files; I don’t scribble them anymore.  But I continue to obsess over how I can get over this weakness, this flaw, this thing that is ‘holding me back’; I continue to obsess over how I can ‘change’ and ‘improve’ and be ‘better.’ When I see my notebooks, I see that I’m fighting many of the same battles that I used to fight back then; against distraction, anxiety, lack of discipline in my personal habits, in my ‘work ethic.’ I used to dream of transcending these, of moving on; it seems like I still am. Perhaps battles that have been waged this long are indicators of persistent failure on my part, a depressing thought at the best of times.

I’ve often written on this blog about the difficulties and myths of ‘self-improvement’; perhaps talk of ‘self-improvement’ is a sham, a distracting disturbance that does not allow us to become truly comfortable with, and accepting of, ourselves. Perhaps we have not reconciled ourselves to who we are. But perhaps that’s who I am, the kind of person who will always be obsessed with making these kinds of changes and ‘improvements,’ who will never make them, or never in the way that I want, but yet never accept ‘defeat’ or ‘get the hint.’ In that case, perhaps the best way for me to accept who I am, to ‘become who you are!‘ is to not disdain this activity of constantly plotting and scheming to escape myself. To engage in it is to be me.

A Familiar Sight, Both Pleasurable And Reassuring

My family and I have gone hiking on several occasions. While on them, a general pattern emerges–I normally walk ahead of my wife and daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, though she did walk for some short stints, at most times my wife carried her on her back in an Ergo carrier; now my daughter walks on by herself for the entire trail. In the ‘old days,’ my daughter often required some persuasion to continue; such persuasion was more charitably and kindly dispensed by my wife; as such, she became the primary caretaker during a hike. Moreover, because my daughter would not let me carry her, a straightforward manifestation of her preference of her mother’s caretaking, my wife also became the primary carrier and beast of burden. (Her child-carrying feats evoked many cries of admiration from fellow hikers who were battling the switchbacks in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the summer of 2015; my daughter was then three and a half years old, and weighed in at a hefty thirty-five pounds.)

And so, on the trail, we set off together, but a gap slowly emerges between the two ‘groups.’ As it grows, I stop to let my companions catch up; sometimes I cannot even hear their voices behind me, and though the silences and the calm of the woods and the slopes are especially calming and thought-provoking, I still hanker for the familiar pleasures of hearing my wife and my child talking to each other. Somewhere deep within me is buried the fear that we will lose each other; that my wife and daughter will wander off into some cul-de-sac; that the prudent thing for me to do is to continue to provide them close company. So I cease motion; I take off my backpack, and rest on a boulder or tree stump. I look back along the trail, waiting for them to hove into view. If the gap has grown, it may take a minute or two before I can hear them again; it certainly takes a while before I can spot them again. Sometimes they are obscured by the woods; sometimes by the curvature and the bends and twists and turns of the landscapes.

Then, finally, as I hear my daughter’s high-pitched voice grows louder, I see them emerge from the woods, make the turn around the bend, up the path, through the trees. They see me, and our expressions light up in unison; we are happy and, yes, relieved to see each other. Sometimes, having spotted them, I move on; sometimes, we all stop for a break. We swap stories of what we have seen and heard; we know we move through the same landscape but our experiences are quite different.

It never gets old; that complex feeling, when I see my wife and daughter reappear, of a quiet happiness tempered with a relief that has grown in response to the tiniest of terrors. Here, in the wilderness, we are happy to be with each other again–even if only momentarily separated. We realize, thanks to that particular and peculiar reminder that only the wilderness can provide, of just how much we mean to each other.

Historical Amnesia And Stasis In Political Action

Over on his blog, and on his Facebook page, in response to a series of repeated claims stressing the uniquely dysfunctional and authoritarian nature of the present administration¹, Corey Robin has often made remarks which echo the sentiments expressed in the following:

We have a culture in this country that is relentlessly, furiously, ferociously, anti-historical. Whatever we’re going through, it’s always unprecedented. [on Facebook status]

The flip side of the ‘anti-historical’ regarding of one’s particular moment in time as being ‘unprecedented’ of course is a corresponding desire to believe that we are living through a historical moment–one that will be regarded as ‘historical’ by those who follow. The ‘anti-historical’ impulse is only directed at the past; for the present the impulse is  most definitely one that would like to write it, and crucially, oneself, into history. After all, what better way to make meaningful our lives, to grant them more significance, than to believe that the present moment is truly ab initio, bringing something to life ex nihilio? Put this way, political amnesia about the past becomes understandable as a kind of grasping for significance in the present, a refusal to believe that there can be meaningful novelty in the familiar–the study of whose particulars is likely to be far more revealing and edificatory than the hasty scramble to award it medals for novelty.

(A related, possibly converse, instance of this yearning was visible in the media reactions to La Affaire Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton–as it broke in early 1998. Those hyperbolic reactions made clear that Watergate had indeed cast a long shadow–especially as its associated mythology had anointed some ‘select’ members of the press as those who had ‘brought the administration down.’ Now, another possibly historical moment was upon the Republic and its ‘media corps’; which member of the media would ‘go down in history’ as the one who had broken the story, reported it to the nation, and finally, supervised the abdication of the old king and the coronation of the new one? Please dear God, let this happen on my watch; let me be written into the history books. Let me elevate the world-historical significance of this moment; in that act lies the existential redemption of my life.)

Thus a curious paradox of political action and resistance in the current moment: because we are so willing to grant novelty to the present, we confess ourselves puzzled and nonplussed and bewildered, cast astray and adrift. The stasis, in both thought and action, that results should be unsurprising.

Note: In a post on the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, I had noted:

Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is…extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump.

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

The Indispensable, Visibly Responsive Student

Every semester–with luck, in every class–there is one of them: a student whose physical expressiveness in the classroom acts as the wind beneath your teaching wings. There she (or he) is: eyebrows raised, smiling, astonishment or surprise breaking out on their facial features, experiencing ‘Eureka’ moments one after the other, informing you, with every word of your lecture, every point you make, every example you conjure up out of thin air, that you are on the right track, doing the right thing, bringing enlightenment to the masses, dispelling ignorance and gloom with your teaching. Sometimes, this student will not show, in their written assignments or their attendance record, a kind of uniform diligence in all the evaluative dimensions pertaining to student performance, but no matter; their most significant interaction with you is the most direct one, at the precise moment when teaching and learning seem to be proceeding in perfect unison and synchronicity, proof of which is being delivered to you, in real-time, by the student’s visible responses to your teaching.

I do not think I’m exaggerating the importance of this kind of student in the classroom; over the years, I’ve found that as I scan my students’ expressions in the classroom, I’m invariably drawn back to, and indeed, start to seek out, with varying degrees of awareness of my doing so, those expressions which offer encouragement to my solitary teaching self. I should, of course, already have made the classroom a group experience, but observing such reactions in one of my students helps me reach out further and work to make it so. Just like the bored and disinterested expression (or the endless clock-watching) can act as a disincentive to further teaching, the ‘connected’ expression keeps teaching going; it throws fuel on the flame.

This semester, I have students who encourage me so in all three of my classes; I’ve lucked out. In each class, as I begin teaching, as if on cue, without prior co-ordination or agreement, I seek them out. They respond, as they always do, and I’m off and running. So strong is this interaction that traces of it persist beyond the classroom; sometimes, when preparing for class by working through the week’s assigned reading, I catch myself wondering how that particular student (or students) will respond–given their prior inclinations–to a particular passage or point or argument. Sometimes, I look forward to their reactions with pleasurable anticipation; they have been so gratifying in the past that now, they serve to motivate my preparation for my encounters with them.

Learning is, as we have been reminded again and again through both theory and practice, a co-operative endeavor. My work as teacher is, as I have pointed out here before, incomplete without my students. In this dimension of their relationship with me, supposedly the most superficial by one reckoning, they provide yet more proof of that claim. They show me that I’m welcome in this space; that I would do well to stick around. And learn.

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Every Child A Prophet

Like many other proud parents,  I post my child’s latest ‘wise pronouncements’ as my Facebook statuses, trusting they will evoke favorable reactions–mainly guffaws, and some flattering assessments of her precocity–from my friends. Kids do, after all, say the darndest things; and if we can soak some up the reflected glory for being responsible for bringing such a delightful child to the attention of this ‘ol world, well then, we are all the better for it.

Why do children’s pronouncements strike us ‘the darndest things’?

Incongruity, of course–the heart and soul of all great humor–has a great deal to do with it. We associate some words and pronouncements with the much older among us; to see them deployed by humans-in-training cannot but fail to evoke some surprised reactions; we associate some kinds of claims and statements and judgments with very particular sorts of social states of affairs, mostly serious; to see them wrenched out of those and deployed elsewhere, perhaps in the midst of an episode of lighthearted playing and rumbling is to encounter the drastically out-of-place; we associate the speech of children with tiny voices, fractured verbs and tenses, and attention to the ‘trivial’; to see it deployed for an arsenal of portentous words and statements, speaking of matters cosmic and spiritual, is to be exposed to radical disjunctures with the ordinary. We realize that the child is–among many, many, other things–an adult in training, trying on words and concepts for size, testing them to see how they work in conversations and social settings. Sometimes those trials take place in unexpected venues with unexpected audiences. We cannot but be surprised and amused.

The child is, always, a new observer of our time and place, and so, it is able to bring a new perspective to bear on what it experiences. These encounters bear the potential to produce poetic responses; we are made to see the world anew by the child. (This claim is an exceedingly common one to be made by parents; non-parents do not have the same response to a child that is not theirs; the binding of the parental relationship with a child seems to make possible the receptivity to this new vision.) The aphorisms that our children produce for us are often original; they often sparkle with the glint of truth that is supposed to be the heart and soul of a great aphoristic claim. We are aware that the resultant poetic claim might be lacking the requisite intention–under some theory of art–to make it a genuinely creative and innovative work of art, but we brush past that pedantic worry and let ourselves succumb to its power in any case.

Most fundamentally, I think, there is hope in our reactions to the child’s nascent wisdom. We are aware of adult follies and wasted potential; we are infected by disillusionment; we sense the possible novelty that lurks in the child, that promises and threatens to make this world over again, to set it, finally, right. We cheer, in welcoming anticipation. Every child a prophet indeed.

Imperfect ‘Acquaintances’: Our Companions In Life

In Journey Without Maps (Penguin, New York, 1936:1978, p. 28) Graham Greene writes:

There are places when one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common: he may be cheap but he knew Annette; he may be dishonest but he once lodged with George; even if the acquaintance is very dim indeed and takes a lot of recognizing.

Greene wrote these words in response to his encountering Orient Express–an undistinguished, “cheap banal film” that was the cinematic version of his Stamboul Train–in Tenerife, and which forced uncomfortable introspection:

It had been an instructive and painful experience to see it shown….If there was any truth in the original it had been carefully altered, if anything was left unchanged it was because it was untrue. By what was unchanged I could judge and condemn my own novel: I could see clearly what was cheap and banal….There remained a connection between it and me….even into a book of that kind had gone a certain amount of experience, nine months of one’s life, it was tied up in the mind with a particular countryside, particular anxieties; one couldn’t disconnect oneself entirely, and it was curious, rather pleasing to find it there in the hot bright flowery town.

Given Greene’s inclination to flirt with the spiritual and the transcendent in his writings, he invites a more ‘cosmic’ reading of the claim quoted at the beginning of this piece.

One ‘place,’ of course, where ‘one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common’ is this world, this waking life. We are lonely, cast adrift from birth; we, strangers each and every one of us, need fellow travelers through this strange land. We clasp the hands of those we encounter, hoping for succor, for companionship; on birth, we had been fortunate enough to find parents, our first acquaintances, shepherds that helped us navigate the many shoals through which we had to pass. Later, we sought friends; then, lovers; hoping to find partners for our various journeys. The ‘memories in common’ here are shared remembrances of that terrible loneliness which we have known which we sense will never desert us, and which afflicts others too; we sense a need like ours exists on the ‘other side’ too; the companionship we offer will be gratefully accepted too. There are flaws and blemishes here in our possible companions beyond counting but we are willing to take them on board; for the monumental ‘task’ at hand, many imperfections will be tolerated and looked past; there is just enough familiarity here to serve as the foundation for a lasting relationship. It need not be a lifelong one; company till the next station will be good enough.

Note: Our need for companionship of any kind may, in the right circumstances, be exceedingly great; explorers of all stripes who have been forced to travel alone will even hallucinate companions during their extended sojourns. Memorably, during his famed 1953 pioneering ascent of Nanga Parbat, the Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl spent the night standing upright on a icy rock ledge some twenty-five thousand feet above sea level; at night, his backpack became his ‘companion’ and protagonist for extended conversations.