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.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

Irène Nèmirovsky On The Failure To Recognize Failure

In The Fires of Autumn (Vintage International, New York, 2015, p. 186) Irène Nèmirovsky writes:

Mankind can only easily get used to happiness and success. When it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then does penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Indeed; so easy is it to get used to happiness and success that that pair of supposedly elusive and desirable entities can rapidly lose their allure once they are in our possession. We may even tire of them, find them oppressive, and seek relief in some kind of novelty, some kind of deviation. (Freud quotes Goethe in Civilization and its Discontents as noting that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days.”) As for despair, we are, after all, the creatures who can “bear almost any how” so long as we have “a why to live.” As Nèmirovsky notes, such a “why,” a hope, is sought by us almost instinctively; we seek to make sense of, ascribe meaning to, our misfortunes; we seek to make them explainable and comprehensible; we are reluctant to admit that the end of the road has been reached, that the rope has run out. Such maneuvers can indeed make our potential despair bearable; for instance, we may assign some reason, some cause, some purpose, to seeming disasters, and thus decorate our misfortune to make its appearance more palatable. Its true dimensions may remain hidden to us; we are, as existentialist philosophy realizes, meaning-creating and meaning-assigning creatures; true despair only becomes possible when we realize the absurdity of our situation in this world. Such endless evasion is not to be scorned; it enables tremendously creative and productive moves on our part. Poetry and religion and philosophy issue forth. The oft-told tales of returns from the brink of the abyss–of whatever kind, mental or physical–reassure us that sustenance provided by hope is not illusory, that it ‘works.’

Sometimes hope falters, unable to withstand the assaults of despair; the walls crumble, and our last ramparts are overrun. We are horrified by what awaits us, by the true dimensions of the pickle we find ourselves in. What then? Nèmirovsky leaves out our responses to this state of horror; but here too, we do not and cannot dwell too long. This recognition of the actual dimensions of our failure, our misfortune, is all too soon, I suspect, the spur for further discovery of hope. Even in this pitch-black chamber, we start to recognize forms and shapes by which we can begin to navigate and make our way about. Our missteps and our fumbles suggest to us that we are deluded, but we ignore these signals. This is not our resting place; we move on. Optimism begins where we have allowed pessimism its rightful place, allowed it its time in the sun.

Nèmirovsky is not describing a terminus, I think, but rather, the valley, in a series of troughs and peaks.

 

Polonius On The Necessity Of Authenticity And Self-Discovery

A Facebook friend asked on her timeline for some clarification of Polonius‘ famous lines in Hamlet, which he offers as–perhaps sententious–advice to Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

[Act 1, Scene III, 78–82]

Polonius here finds the roots of our dishonesty, our moral failures, in our inauthenticity: we are disingenuous in our dealings with others because, fundamentally, we are dishonest with ourselves. We maintain masks and put-on affectations in social interactions; we are comfortable in these maneuvers because we have practiced them with our own selves. We often ignore messages from within that inform us of who might be in favor of something else altogether: perhaps a dimly glimpsed and poorly understood vision of some socially desirable personality, perhaps some aspirational ideal that is not in concordance with our desired ends and aims and our actual capacities and talents.  It is a commonplace wisdom that the telling of one lie facilitates and makes possible the telling of many others. We lie frequently to ourselves about who we are, about what our motivations for an action or utterance are; we then go on to invent self-serving rationalizations intended for consumption by others. So we should expect dishonesty, double-dealing, backbiting, lying, and many other sins in a world whose actors and moral agents are not even honest with themselves; honesty begins at home. Cure a local affliction, much else follows.  Polonius then, is bidding us to do no less than to undertake a project of self-discovery as a means of ensuring greater honesty in our dealings with the rest of the world. Without those efforts we are destined to repeat our ‘local errors’ on a global scale.

Of course, Polonius seems to think that the authenticity we might derive from such discovery will automatically and necessarily authenticate our interactions with others. Of this, I’m not so sure. It seems possible to me that we might invent yet other reasons to be dishonest with others; we might find some of our ends realized by precisely such falseness. Our experiences have many shades and complexities to them; who knows how these might exert compulsion on us? But at least then, in those cases where we are dishonest with others, we will be transparent to ourselves; we will not be able to convince ourselves that we acted honestly when we did not. This has great value for projects of ‘self-improvement’; when we cast a retrospective glance backwards at our lives and sift through its events, looking for points of departure, we will be able to pick out genuine examples of dishonesty on our part, which may then serve as correctives for the future. Someone deluded in their dealings with themselves will already have covered up the past with layers of self-serving dishonesty, thus making correction and emendation impossible.

Unsurprisingly, as always, self-discovery appears fundamental and necessary.

Note: I realize that this is a charitable reading of a character Shakespeare intended to be understood a little less charitably.

Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

F. O. Matthiessen On ‘The Value Of The Tragic Writer’

In The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (Oxford University Press, New York, p. 107),  F. O. Matthiessen writes:

The value of the tragic writer has always lain in the uncompromising honesty with which he has cut through appearances to face the real conditions of man’s lot, in his refusal to be deceived by an easy answer, in the unflinching, if agonized, expression of what he takes to be true. The effect of such integrity is not to oppress the reader with a sense of burdens too great to be borne, but to bring him some release.  For, if it is part of the function of every great artist to transform his age, the tragic writer does so not by delivering an abstract realization of life, but by giving to the people who live in the age a full reading of its weakness and horror; yet, concurrently, by revealing some enduring potentiality of good to be embraced with courage and with an ecstatic sense of its transfiguring glory. Through the completeness of his portrayal of the almost insupportable conditions of human existence, he frees his audience from the oppression of fear; and stirring them to new  heart by the presentation of a heroic struggle against odds, he also enables them to conceive anew the means of sustaining and improving their own lives. Only thus can he communicate both ‘the horror’ and ‘the glory.’

These remarks by Matthiessen express quite succinctly, I think, the heart of the best possible response to the charge that the ‘tragic’ or ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ attitude leads invariably to nihilism. (It is visible quite clearly, for instance, in Nietzsche’s amor fati, in his ‘joyful pessimism,’ in his rejection of Schopenhauer‘s grim view of the insatiable will: the unflinching life is only possible if imbued with a refusal to look away from the particulars of our lot; it may be seen too, in Sartre‘s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’) The ‘heroic struggle against odds,’ the ‘ecstatic sense,’ ‘the transfiguring glory,’ that is present in the tragic writer’s vision of life suggests that there is a romanticism here too, one that will not be satisfied with the easy consolations to be found in systems that explain all, in ‘abstract realizations’ that render everything reasonable and comprehensible.

The tragic writer brings a new mythology to life, placing by dint of artful location, the reader at its center (you may, if you like, cast your mind back to Joseph Campbell at this point); our onward journey now bears the possibility of meaning, because we venture forth into physical and psychic landscapes that await our presence and interaction with them for further definition and clarification. This world is not ready-made, oppressing us with the burden of matters predetermined and foretold; it awaits ‘completion’ at our hands. And that notion of the self as creator, of itself, of the world around it, is the tragic writer’s greatest value; if he or she displaces divinity from the world, it is only to place it within us.

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.