-Part of you is dreadfully sad. You have this deep well of sadness in you. When you are motivated to do something that succeeds, you notice and hold that achievement. I am wondering what happens when you don’t, whether you judge yourself or care for yourself and feel the disappointment.
Of course I would like only success, and failure, sooner or later, makes me withdraw. “We tried that once and it didn’t work”- I have noticed people not trying something a second time when trying again seemed worthwhile to me, and I notice that I stop trying too. I could not bear yet another failure, so I stopped. Trying was too painful, but I needed to be screaming before I acknowledged the pain, and by then I could not try again.
-We can see the positives, achievement and celebration and success and doing is very much our culture, but not so good about seeing the other side of things, or fearing trying again, failing again. Fail better, said Beckett’s Krapp, showing the difficulty of it. I dwelt on this until we met again two weeks later. What stops me feeling the sadness, or the pain, is my anger. My anger is directed inwards, at me. What do I have to be sad about? I demand, disdainfully, contemptuously. It is like my other internal conflicts- the anger pushes down, the sadness pushes against it, I exhaust myself but do not move.
Richard Rohr wrote Your life is not about you– the ego at the centre of the Universe. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it. I thought, The spiritual lesson is learning the opposite of what you believed- I was worthless, not the centre of the Universe at all. Learning the different aspects of truth- my value as a unique being, my ordinariness as one among billions- I need a different corrective to the one Rohr administers.
What does the anger say? I sympathise more with the anger (as it is righteous, with something soft and weak). I am proud of it, so I bring it into consciousness and accept it. It seems appropriate. My anger tries to be stoic, accepting trouble and keeping on (except that it fails at that). I admire stoicism: Marcus Aurelius was seeking the Good Life, was the moral philosopher whether talking of getting out of bed or facing death. And my anger denies the sadness- go away and stop bothering me. It blocks the sadness from consciousness. Stop whining! it commands, and the whining becomes quieter though no less effective as a block to action.
The anger is inside me now, the anger is me, though it may be learned from the culture or the family, from voices outside. I don’t remember it, particularly, as an outside voice, condemning me- perhaps I learned it from others’ example.
Then I find the sadness, and I want to process it. I have the idea that if I could simply feel the sadness it would have told me all it needed to tell me, I would have learned from it all I needed to learn- not Don’t do that! but Take care doing that. And I have the idea that I am simply coaxing the sad part of me- I will listen to it for a time then say, that’s enough time now, come on- wheedling- coaxing- now take action. At which the sadness or the sad part digs its heels in again. It’s too painful right now. Rest a while more.
The anger is me. The sadness is me. Consciously I am more in the anger because it feels right, and it feels effective. Kicking my own backside was my way of motivation. Get on with it. It did actually work, for a while, it got me out of the house, going to work, achieving some things. Now if it works, if I get out of bed because I kick myself, I am wearied by it, it is heavy, an effort, it gives no joy. Anger and sadness are in stalemate.
-Where is your agency? she asks. Where’s the rest of you? I see your appreciation of culture and awe and beauty and there is something in you which wants to go and appreciate these things.
Well, that was my social training. My Dad showed me that culture required effort. We listened to Bartok string quartets expecting not to enjoy them- for them to be so alien, so complex, that my first feeling would be distressed boredom. Then with concentration and repeated listening the drama of the work, its progression and feeling, would reveal itself. I had this experience aged about 14 with The Silmarillion. I struggled through it, and found it weird, and the third time I read it I enjoyed it. Now I have The Mirror and the Light. It has huge sales, and I imagine more people will buy it than read it because they do not appreciate the effort it requires; but it will reward that effort. I am re-reading Bring Up the Bodies, knowing the characters better than I did. Its sequel is a 900 page novel which will be worth savouring.
In the same way I walked up the stairs in the National Gallery with a stool, because standing still too long is uncomfortable for me, turned right into the first gallery, turned left to the first painting and sat in front of it. That Veronese is fabulously beautiful. I retain it in my mind, and think of the legend of St Helena. And it is an effort. I need to concentrate, and I need to go and seek it out.
The anger is conscious, the sadness comes to consciousness. Partly it is an intellectual exercise, working out what might be there, partly it is trust in you as the expert who sees sadness in me, and partly it is inklings of feeling, peeking out from the woods, or surfacing briefly from the depths.
The anger is directed inwards, against myself, because I am weak and without status. If my anger is expressed outwards I will be squished. I got this from my family, and perhaps from their experience as human beings in the pecking order. I am at the bottom of the pecking order. Well, when I am sucking up to this admin worker, Oh, you lost a stone! How strong willed you are, how determined! What an achievement! Rather than about time, you’ll ruin your knees otherwise you fat slattern.
I have value only for what I can achieve, rather than in myself. So I need the opposite of Rohr’s lesson. I don’t blame my parents, it’s sins of the fathers, just the situation being passed on, like a mother rabbit bending to lick her kits, and the rabbit parasites march down her nose and onto them. It’s just what happens.
-Where is your agency? she asks again.
I have desire without action. I passionately want to be seen. And I want not to be seen, to hide away at home. My friend said it was as if I wanted to blend into the background in the most eyecatching way possible, which he might have wanted for himself. One of the best ways of hiding in plain sight is the steady achievement of the quiet efficient worker, who does what is expected.
-When do you feel these things rather than intellectualise about them?
When you talked about my sadness I felt irritation. Feeling the sadness- it’s too much to bear in consciousness, and I need to intellectually accept that, it’s part of the process of unearthing it.
-That does not feel real. It feels like an intellectual exercise.
Well, yes. I am acting. I can only say that within several sets of quotation marks, and you can hear the quotation marks in my voice- but I am acting myself. That is what I want to say to you, perfectly sincerely, and I can only say it as an act.
-What stops you being as opposed to acting?
Lack of practice. Uselessness and inadequacy. A deep lack of trust, in myself and in the world. Those are the things that come to mind immediately.
-Is the better self totally intellectual?
No. But the feeling self, anger and sadness, is tied in such knots I can barely perceive it. Or there are feelings flooding through me, and I cannot speak them. I might type or write them.
-Does this practice, of seeking art, music and literature out, and working on them, apply to anything else?
It applies to ideas. I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Implicit Bias in order to understand implicit bias better. I found it a struggle. I want to understand. I’d like to walk down the street buying stuff, but I can’t see how to get to there from here. I want to meet people and get to know them, and I do, sometimes, talking to people with different experiences to see through their eyes. People learn what is fun by convention, then do that for fun because they don’t know any better, but by exploration we might find something rewarding.