There’s a Chinese saying that it’s better to cry in BMW than laugh on a bicycle. And I know the instant reaction is to say that’s crazy because our culture, the most decadent and materially obsessed in history, clings desperately to cliches about the simple life.
But I think the metaphor has value. If you’re trying really hard for something, your job, your band, your ceramic kitty collection, then you’re going to be stressed a lot more than someone who isn’t trying at all. And you might not see all the improvements you’ve made because all you can see is the ones haven’t.
And it isn’t about stopping to smell the roses or appreciate what you have. I keep a copy of The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow (PhD) on my desk as a constant reminder, great achievements come from great strain. I don’t think life should be about avoiding hard times it should be about conquering them.
When it comes to external things like bands, relationships, ceramic kitty collections, it’s possible to see how far you’ve come. When you’re working on yourself though it’s a bit tricky. If I slip up and I’m rude when I don’t want to be, or I get drunk and feel like I embarrassed myself, it’s easy to feel that I haven’t accomplished anything in all my years of desperate effort towards self-improvement. Because the band exists even when we’re not playing music, we’re still a thing in between shows, we don’t cease to exist at the end of one show and come back into existence at the start of the next. And we can record music that will be around forever, always available, alive, frozen in time, for whoever may find it. But I won’t. In my struggle to be a Good Person and build a satisfying life there’s no such thing as in between shows.
And that’s an apt metaphor because I do think most people view the sum of their self as show for others. People act as if what they show to others is more true than what they do privately.
I had an argument with a friend a long time that I still think about constantly. It started because his mother found out he smokes. He hid from her when he started in his teens and just continued to do so into his mid-twenties. So when she found out she got upset and he told her that he didn’t really smoke and he never wound again. Which he in no way intended to do. And in his mind it was the Good thing to do because he protected his mother from being upset. In my mind of course this was pathetic. Hiding the truth of something doesn’t make it untrue and it doesn’t change the consequences.
This is where my habit of Negative Utilitarianism comes in handy. I think the easiest way for my mother, or anyone’s mother, to have a son that doesn’t smoke is by not smoking.
Because even if your mom doesn’t know you smoke, your lungs still do, cancer still does, and that’s what mommy dearest is actually concerned about.
The mental equation is: He loves his mom and doesn’t want his mom to have a son who’s a smoker. So he creates a disconnect between his ‘self’ and ‘her son’. And he takes comfort knowing that she’s comforted by the false belief. Ergo the story of himself is the story he’s telling her. It’s odd that we live in a time preoccupied with self-esteem and an epidemic of narcissism and yet what people care about most is how others see them. I guess because mostly we use other people as mirrors. If so-and-so thinks you’re a Good Person then maybe you are. And that feeling is so important to people that their willing to lie to get it. And to self-excuse that lie.
Ultimately though I think it takes more effort to go on denying the urge to improve than to just start trying. It’s why people find an escapist outlet like drinking, drugs, or collecting ceramic kitty dolls. There’s a scene in King Of The Hill where Hank tells Bobby to bury his feelings. Bobby says he can do it but it makes him feel sick and Hank says, “That’s fine. Just bury that feeling too.”
In my usual excessive amount of youtubing I’ve been watching a bunch of stuff on self identity and I think the point I’m making is illustrated by this one on the Narrative Self. But it seems that for a lot people it’s not the story we tell ourselves but the story we tell others that gets used to build a sense of identity.
And yeah I’m telling the story-of-me to you right now. What’s important is it’s the truth. Of who I am, not who I want you to think I am. And that I take the time to investigate ideas, to be a moral detective, and not just be one more person on the internet trying to broadcast as much themselves as possible in the hopes of feeling like they matter.
I get it, we all want to have a good identity and we want it so badly we’re willing to lie for it. So you can choose to live that lie and swallow your feelings about it, or you can take on the struggle of trying to become your ideal self. And I think the first step of that is to be honest. Always. With yourself and about yourself to others.
Then the second step is to find some balance so you’re not obsessively self-reflective, putting way too much effort into not being escapist and therefore sabotaging the basic ability to have fun. The annoying thing about being self-aware is being self-aware of just how very self-aware you are. You snowflake, you.