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 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.

Notes On Meditation Practice – II

Meditation induces two interesting forms of self-consciousness that do not arise during the actual sitting itself. They are, rather, ways of regarding the practice of meditation as it meshes with the rest of the meditator’s life.

First, the meditator is self-consciously aware of the fact that he is one. The normal, ongoing processes of identity formation and maintenance now include the attribute, ascribed to oneself, “engages in a meditation practice.” This is not innocent; for better or worse, ‘meditation’ carries certain connotations with it. These include, at the least, dimly perceived and understood stereotypes about the kind of person who does meditate, and why they might do so; by becoming a meditator, some of those stereotypes become ways of regarding yourself.  For instance, shortly after I began my practice, I found myself kicking off what looked like turning into a heated argument. As I did so, I felt curiously abashed and undignified, and a thought, unbidden, came to me: this was not how those who engage in meditation practice are ‘supposed to behave.’ I was supposed to be one engaging in a practice that induced calm and dignity, but here I was, squabbling like a child. Overcome by a sudden awkwardness, I retreated from my previously grimly defended position and began winding down the argument. I wanted to retreat from this zone of my loss of composure. This has not always been the case; on many occasions, I have blundered straight into the heart of a meltdown, and emerged with very little of my former grace intact. But that new perspective on myself has not gone away. It remains, lurking on the edges of my consciousness of myself, reminding me I now engage in an activity supposed to be changing me and making me into a new person.

Second, meditation is self-indulgent and the meditator knows it. Forty minutes a day is ‘too much’ to spare; none of us, especially here in this city, have that time to spare. As such, the very act of sitting down and shutting out the world’s demands feels like a supremely, virtuously self-centered action. You deny the world its claims on you–even as you carry thoughts about it into your mind, and yet, for those twenty minutes, remove yourself from its embrace. The awareness of the sheer subversiveness of this act–in a world-context in which there is an unceasing demand for our time and attention–is a liberation. It brings with it a curious sensation of power; to step away from this world feels like an empowering act, an assumption of agency in a situation where we are used, all too often, to bemoan the loss of ours. This awareness too, becomes part of our identity; it becomes an attribute to ourselves; it changes who we think we are.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. Sitting in meditation, with a regular practice, makes you a meditator; that change, by itself, without any other extravagant claims, is a significant one.

Note: The first post in this series is here.

Naguib Mahfouz On Forgetting And Habit

In Naguib Mahfouz‘s Autumn Quail, Isa, the corrupt bureaucrat whose long, slow, and painful decline after a purge following the 1952 revolution in Egypt the novel tracks, brings back Riri, a woman of the night, to his home. The next day,

He woke up about noon and looked with curiosity at the naked girl sleeping next to him. Recollections of the previous night came back and he told himself that as long as oblivion and habit still existed, everything remained possible. [Anchor Books, 2000, pp. 374]

Many a student of human nature is puzzled by the subject of his study. Why do humans behave as irrationally and self-destructively as they do? Why do they hurt the ones they love? Why can they not learn from their mistakes?

Perhaps because they forget; perhaps because they are compelled.

If memory can be so constitutive of identity, then forgetting gives us the chance to make ourselves anew. Forgetting ensures pain and joy once experienced are consigned to the past, and cannot act as guides to the future: they cannot inhibit, they cannot impel us to repeat a once-experienced pleasure, they cannot make us shrink from the venue of an older disaster. The burnt child fears the fire, but the forgotten fire provides no instruction for action when a flame is encountered again. Then the child becomes the moth; our expectation of its behavior is reconfigured. We may too, pass by a previously experienced domain of pleasure, now strangely reluctant to sample its joys again; we have already buried, pushed out into oblivion, memories of our times within its confines. We carry on, unaware that we have foregone an opportunity to experience that which once enthralled us so. This blithe ignorance may take us elsewhere, toward experiences and interactions, which are provocative of novel responses from us.

Habits, conditioned and impressed, sent deep into the innermost recesses of our being,  continue to drive us on too. They may become more than mere regularities in behavior; they may appear as instincts, innate and congenital. We may mark out zones of catastrophe, and expect no one will venture into their precincts, but the persona habitually conditioned to push open its doors and enter will continue to do so. And habits may send us, again and again, long after the shocks and the pleasures of the new have worn off, seeking old exaltations and ecstasies, hoping they will be as productive of joy as they once were. The resultant inevitable disappointment, so clearly visible to the observer, and which should seem to act as inhibitor, does not have that effect; the habitual commissioner of acts continues to do so long after all assessments of his actions as reasonable have ceased.

Forgetting and habit send us on into this world as a curious mixture of the new and the archaic. Such a creature is curiously open to possibility while simultaneously entrenched in older ways of being. The interaction between the two can be productive of much that might appear initially implausible.  ‘Everything remains possible’ indeed.

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.