Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

on self-esteem

I used to say that being happy was not what is important. I instead felt that doing something meaningful is what really matters. This was a stringent philosophy, I suppose, because it presupposed in some ways that the two concepts are distinct--happiness and meaning. In addition, the problem with this philosophy arises because as with many such philosophies, the philosophy is expressed in words.

I am not one of life's confident people overall, although as time goes on I find myself behaving sometimes as if I were one of the confident people. I rather like the self-help and New Thought books that suggest that if one just acts as if one were confident, then one will eventually become confident. I like this philosophy because it is mildly pithy, essentially tolerant of the shallowness of people ('we are what we pretend') and, most of all, because it is most simply expressed in that Rodgers and Hammerstein song about whistling a happy tune: "but when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well".
But the 'problem' of self-esteem probably deserves a bit more thought than self-help slogans and show tunes.

I meet too many people with extremely low self-esteem. I should modify that--I meet too many people with extremely low self-esteem whose external circumstances nonetheless arm them with the skills to achieve a great deal in life. But, really, how many is "too many"? Is it really wrong to have low self-esteem? My instinct is that self-confidence is a good thing, and that low self-esteem is a barrier to achievement. I am anything but wise on these issues, though--maybe low self-esteem is the grist in one's personal oyster, which one must grind upon to create a pearl. If this is true, though, I think that such grinding may be good, but sometimes one has to open the oyster and let the pearl out.

I know people who are set back by low self-esteem. I meet so many talented, capable, indeed brilliant people, who "can't" because they "know they are no good". Sometimes they "can't" because they "just can't". People wonder why so many second-rate people "can" in life. My theory is that some people are so second rate that they don't realize that they "can't". In this theory, a corollary is that one should embrace one's inward "second-rateness" so that one fools oneself, like in the musical, into thinking that one actually can.

Mediocrity frequently brings with it the grace of audacity. I've known second-rate talents whose sheer chutzpah propelled them to great heights, while superior talents "couldn't" do it "because they just couldn't". But how does one scale the heights of self-doubt and just do?

I don't really know the answers. I do know that sometimes it is easier to live in the question than it is to seek out answers. I know that some people I admire a great deal fail repeatedly, but show their grace in the way they keep picking themselves up and dusting themselves off and making another run. After all, the great thing about Don Quixote is that he actually charged the damn windmill. How many people look at the distant windmill and just wish to charge it? Is it really safer to be quixotic, but unwilling to use the lance?

I think that self-doubt is a powerful emotion. It can be life-saving, as in the cases when conscience catches oneself in the midst of a potential error. But sometimes these emotions--self-hate, self-restraint, self-immolation-- become deceivers. It's so much easier to build a castle filled with halls of mirrors, in which one can bewail the mazes in which one is trapped. The alternative, after all, is failure. But sometimes I believe we are all fated to risk failure. After all, we all risk the ultimate failure, when the game is over, and, depending on one's belief system, one heads into another plane of existence, or the clock just runs out.

I think the difficult thing about a "yoga of action" (always loved that concept) is that in order to be active, one must risk compromise. One must risk failure. One must recognize the skills one has. Worse, one must recognize that one is not the final arbiter of the skills one has, and place oneself in the crucible of risk. One must focus on pragmatic goal achievement, and learn skills that one does not need to merely daydream. One must occupy one's time with unfamiliar tasks, which leaves insufficient time for proper agony about one's fate. One is faced with imminent danger that one might change, evolve, succeed, fail, and in general face new experiences. It's so much easier to just agonize, and never choose.

I believe that this New Year I will refrain from any conventional resolutions. I would like instead just to live in the moments I've created. Although I've spoken in terms of "success" and "failure" in this post, I'd like to live my life in terms of "this task ahead" and a focus on each thing I'd like to do. I do not pretend that I know the right paths ahead; I only know that I must seek the path step by step. It sounds a bit grandiose, as I write it, but I really want to stop living in the agony and start living in doing things. I've got to be willing to make a mistake or two, because in many ways I don't really know what I am doing.

I wonder sometimes if it matters if I "love myself" or "hate myself". I am lucky enough that I don't live with much day to day misery, but I am not sure my emotions are always my best guide to what I am doing right. I believe that I have a sense which is deeper than emotion that will help me. Perhaps I can call this sense "true conscience", though that seems a bit melodramatic.

If an Angel of the Lord appeared to me (or if I won the Powerball lottery, which apparently confers similar gifts), and offered to give me one grace, I would ask for the grace to transmit to others a simple phrase. That phrase is "you can". If I could go from person to person, and wave my arms in some appropriately mystical way, and say "you can", and cure people of self-loathing and get them moving to realize their potential, then I would do so. All those human potential gurus who wish to sell one six hundred dollar seminars miss the point in so many ways, but they have one thing right--it is very important to believe that one can and must do what one dreams. I tend to be very conservative in terms of risk-taking, and very pragmatic about things like paying one's bills and earning one's living. But ultimately, I believe that we are all filled with dreams and visions. We are all prophets of colorful visions and awe-inspiring mists (although if my journal-writing imagery does not improve, I feel that I shall turn us all into early edition gameboy adventure games). If I could bottle "I can" like tomato soup, then I would.

The sense of "I can" is a dangerous, if gratifying, friend. One tries to do things with that sense, only to learn that one "can't", and must do something else. One has to risk failure, and, worse yet, one often has to risk finding out that success is not all it is cracked up to be. But I think that one's inner feelings are so often based on one's childhood, one's hormonal mix, and one's adrenaline levels. In extreme cases, these are medical issues. But for many of us, the "I can" is just a matter of being willing to do, and to fail. It is in doing, even in failing, that one lives. I am not saying "being" is unimportant, and I am not saying that one is what one achieves. But I rarely find that serene people who just "be" are inactive. Often, they are the most active.

I'm most sympathetic to the most basic self-doubt--"I think I can, but what?". But really, here is the point at which one must most live in the moment. At some point, one must cease the daydreaming and take the steps to do what one wishes to do. If one wishes to write, one begins doing so, page by page. If one wishes to cure the ill, one signs up for the first courses in the program to do so. If one is unsure of one's calling, but sure one wishes to help in some way, then one helps as one can, and reads up on how to help more. We live a long time. If one career is wrong, one trains for another. But one does not just sit and bemoan the fates.

For me the great challenge is to play my cards. I dealt myself an interesting hand. It's not got as many face cards as I've hoped, but there are some real potential winners here. But I have to play this hand, and not just daydream about the hands I could have dealt instead. I am not sure about self-esteem or self-love, but I would like just the simple "I can" to focus on this hand.
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