Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

Iris Murdoch On Interpreting Our Messages To Ourselves

In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:

Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]

Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)

We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.

The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.

Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

Social Media And Envy

Of the many states of mind I fear–trust me, there are many precincts of my mental spaces where I fear to tread–I dread envy the most.  And a prime domain for the evocation of envy is social media: it is where, after all, your ‘friends’ and those you ‘follow’ let you know how wonderful their lives are, how loving and sensitive their partners, how accomplished their children, how many books and essays and articles they have published, how productive their writing and reading day has been, how well-traveled and fed they are; we feel indirectly slighted when praises Y but not us. I’m guilty of all of these forms of behavior, and I do not doubt for a second that I’ve irritated and vexed many by my behavior in turn; with probability one, many of my ‘friends’ have stopped ‘following’ me, turned off by the content of my posts; my apologies to one and all, including those whose timelines I cannot bear to look at any more. I’ve often thought of departing from Facebook and Twitter, and only really stay on so that I can have a place to post links to my posts here; but if I leave, I do not doubt that it will the fear of envy and the memory of some particularly debilitating attacks that will have made me pull the trigger.

The damage that envy does to relationships–friends, lovers, family, co-workers–is, I think, quite well-known. That damage is especially pronounced in competitive fields of endeavor; academia is one of them. This is not as strange as it might sound; advanced education, no matter how abstract or philosophical, offers little by way of defense against the assault envy mounts on our mental ramparts. Moreover, jobs are scarce; those without secure employment envy those with; in turn, the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones may spend their time fretting they have not published enough, in the right places, gotten praise from the right quarters, attained the right kind of recognition, and so on. If you are afflicted by impostor syndrome, social media is a very bad place to be. Sporadic reassurances that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome are of no help when the vast majority of your daily diet consists of various species of trumpet blowing.

Envy is corrosive, an almost instantaneous killer of self-esteem; it damages one’s relationships with those we are envious of; we resent them, and worse, we may come to seek distance from them so as to prevent a recurrence of the emotion. In these moments, we forget the wisdom in George Orwell’s remark that “Every life, when viewed from the inside, is a series of small failures.” Those we envy are quite cognizant of their own failures and would not recognize our perspective on their lives; we, in our turn, fail to recognize their flourishes of triumph as quite possibly their attempts to beat back the ever encroaching doubt that one’s life is an irredeemable failure. The chief cause of our existential unhappiness, as some wise person once put it, is that we imagine others to be happier than they are. And social media, of course, is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are. Envy follows in our wake.

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 Clock-Watcher’s Punch In The Gut

Last Monday, as I taught my graduate seminar on The Nature of Law, one of the students in attendance turned to look at the clock: we still had some forty-five minutes to go in a two-hour meeting. As I saw this, I experienced a familiar feeling, one that, as usual, temporarily, if not visibly, incapacitated me, tempting me to call a halt to the proceedings right there and then. I didn’t, of course, but neither did I just get over it. (I’m blogging about it, am I not?)

I taught a university-level class for the first time, as a graduate teaching assistant, almost twenty-seven years ago. Thirteen years ago, I became a full-time member of the teaching faculty at Brooklyn College. All of which is to say: I’ve been teaching a long time. But no matter how old that gets, the clock-watching student always manages to cut through the haze and deliver a punch in my  gut. Some look left and right, some look back over their heads at the clock behind them. Doesn’t matter; they all make me feel the same way.

At that moment, I stand accused of a particularly devastating combination of pedagogical and personal sins: I am boring; I have failed to make the subject matter interesting enough. My pride is buffeted: I am not a riveting performer, entertaining and educating in equal measure; I’m not like those great teachers I keep hearing about who keep their students spell-bound and rapt with attention, sometimes keeping their uncomplaining and adoring brood in class well beyond closing time. Clock watching students seem to inform me, rather unambiguously, that their time could be better utilized elsewhere, that whatever it is I’m selling, it’s not worth their hanging around for it.

Little of what I have written above is ‘rational’, of course. Students are human beings and tire, just like I do. In particular, attending a night-time class is always onerous after a tiring day spent elsewhere, perhaps reading and writing dense material, perhaps working a full-time job. Sometimes clock-watching can be instinctive; we are used to the idea of calibrating our progress through the day with frequent consultation of our time-keepers. Classes are held indoors, and with windows granting access to what might be a more salubrious outside, who wouldn’t want to check on how long it will be before the frolicking begins? (This is especially germane now, here on the East Coast of the US, as we recover from a brutal winter and enjoy a glorious spring that has sent temperatures soaring into the sixties.)  Lastly, it is not as if all my students are so engaged in clock-watching. One or two out of twenty or thirty might do it; is that so bad? You can’t really please all the folks all the time.

And then, of course, there is dirty little secret that many students are well aware of: their teachers also watch clocks. They too want to be done subjecting themselves to this experience, which no matter how inspiring and edifying at its best moments, always carries just a tinge of terror: that unshakeable feeling that your ignorance, instead of your wisdom, will soon be on display.