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.

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.

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.

On Not ‘Interfering’ With Others’ Self-Conceptions

Sometimes, when I talk to friends, I hear them say things that to my ears sound like diminishments of themselves: “I don’t have the–intellectual or emotional or moral–quality X” or “I am not as good as Y when it comes to X.” They sound resigned to this self-description, this self-understanding. I think I see things differently; I think I see ample evidence of the very quality they seem to find lacking in themselves. Sometimes, I act on this differing assessment of mine, and rush to inform them they are mistaken. They are my friends; their lowered opinion of themselves must hurt them, in their relationships with others, in their ability to do the best they can for themselves. I should ‘help.’ It seems like the right thing to do. (This goes the other way too; sometimes my friends offer me instant correctives to putatively disparaging remarks I make about myself.)

But on occasion, I bite my tongue. I have heard this assessment too many times from this person. My previous interjections and interventions have had no effect. They are caught up in this conception of themselves; when they look in a mirror they know what they see–or want to see. And this recalcitrance of theirs makes me wonder whether my swooping in on from high will have any efficacy, and even more fundamentally, whether it is even warranted or desirable.

My friends are complex creatures, as all humans are. We encounter diverse personas in them, tips of icebergs we too often mistake for the not-visible mass that lurks below the water. They have constructed their selves over an extended period of time. Its components have been assembled by a process whose details are unknown to the rest of us. The self-assessments they offer me are their glimpses of this self, and they are part of this ongoing process of self construction. But my view is a partial one, occluded by all kinds of boundaries and barriers–physical and psychological. I do not know what role is played by this kind of self-assessment in their psychic economy.

Perhaps they use this kind of lowered ranking of themselves as a spur to improvement, as a warning against complacency, as a spark that lights some fuse. Perhaps making this concession, here, to a nagging doubt that they have entertained about their self-worth, allows them to offer more inflated assessments of themselves in other domains, ones in which a more exalted rating enables more of their lives’ ends and purposes to be realized. As therapists–and their patients–are fond of saying, we are the way we are because in some shape or fashion this is how we choose to be; this is what works for us, even if not for others. Some value of ours, even if it is not one esteemed by others, is preserved by so doing. Perhaps there is a payoff visible to my friends who talk thus, even if not to me.

And so, I wonder if I really should rush in to interfere with this project underway, a unique and distinctive one.


Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Falling Off the Wagon

I had a bad week. Starting Friday April 18th, my brain went on the blink. In the following nine days, I only blogged twice (instead of my usual daily schedule), went to the gym only three times (instead of my scheduled seven times), read no books, and only entered into minor bouts of editing. I had thought I would take a small one-day break from my regular schedules, but it became much bigger. I was ‘unproductive’ in all the ways you can imagine; I did not take care of body or mind; I let them come asunder. This was a falling off the wagon, a derailment, a stumble and fall on a slippery peel I placed out for myself.

Today, I’m back in the library, my hands are back on a keyboard, the book I began reading more than ten days ago is in my backpack, waiting to be finished. (I returned to Albert Einstein‘s Ideas and Opinions on the train ride into Manhattan today.) I will go to the gym again today evening–my workout clothes, like that unread book, are in my backpack too–and attempt to resume my progress on the bench press. And after a week of eating enough sugar to induce coma in a small army of toddlers, I am back to trying to eat healthy again. (Broccoli and sausages in a lunchbox in, you guessed it, my backpack.)

Over the past nine days, as I stumbled about, desperately conscious I was not on the straight or narrow, and neither sinner nor saint for being so, I thought about the metaphors that came to mind to describe my ‘fall’ and wondered how it had come to be. I had let myself get too tightly wound, I had become too anxious, I had not blown steam off; when release had presented itself, I had seized the opportunity. I found relief of a sort, but it came accompanied by anxiety and so was not terribly palliative in the end. Strangely enough, I had to return to the scene of my trials, to come full circle, before I could begin to find redressal from my newly acquired affliction.

If all goes well, over the next few days, I will experience a familiar sensation: the easy euphoria produced by making up easily made up (and lost) ground. And then, I will find myself in a familiar space, where progress slows, frustration builds, and the temptation to lose a wheel or two will become stronger than ever. This kind of work, this returning again to the written word, to pages in paper and electronic form, can and will do that to you. (Because a book manuscript completion and submission is at hand, I dread a familiar nausea that awaits me over the next few weeks.) Perhaps, then, I will return and read this post as fair warning of the misery that awaits me were I to succumb to the temptation to take another ‘break.’