Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Making peace pacts with the adversary within

"So I turned the radio on I turned the radio up
And this woman was singing my song
The lover's in love and the other's run away
The lover is crying cause the other won't stay
And some of us hover when we weep for the other who
was dying Since the day they were born well
Well this is not that
I think that I'm throwing but I'm thrown
And I thought I'd live forever but now I'm not so sure
You try to tell me that I'm clever but that won't take me anyhow or anywhere with you
And you said that I was naive
And I thought that I was strong"--Lisa Loeb

Before we got married, my wife and I had the conventional set of meetings with the Presbyterian minister who ultimately married us. He was a nice guy. One thing he did was administer one of those standardized tests from which one draws great inferences about people's inner beings. I recall that my test came out with a low score for that elusive thing called "self-esteem". This did not surprise me, at the time or now. I've never had much self-esteem.

I wonder sometimes if low self-esteem serves an evolutionary function of some sort--does it make its sufferers more on the defensive, capable of competing effectively, or conversely, does it help cull the herd by making some people give up? I don't know. But I do know that finding ways to compromise with that inner "not good enough" voice presents a challenge for me which consumed my attention for some 43 years now. I think that for some people, the struggle with low self-esteem sets in during teen years, after childhoods free of self-doubt. But from my earliest memories, I have always had those predictable feelings--not attractive, not smart enough, not kind enough, not capable enough. I think perhaps that's why I've always cultivated in myself an ability to stand outside those feelings and accurately observe. It's not so important, sometimes, whether I imagine that I'm doing the right thing--it's important that I perceive and do the right thing.

I have a "wordly" streak in me that suggests that if I had had more self-esteem, I might have had a more successful career, a more active social life, and ultimately be a better person. But I've found that worlds of my friends with low self-esteem do things that people with more self-esteem cannot do. The man among my friends most capable of having a fling with anyone he chooses throughout my life, despite any particular lack of the conventional things society considers "attractive", has less self-esteem than almost anyone I know. Many financially successful people I know use their low self-esteem as a goal to goad economic ambition. Most truly great trial lawyers seem to me to be attention-seeking in light of some inner inadequacy feeling. I think that the key with low self-esteem is to learn to live that one cannot trust one's subjective evaluation of oneself.
It's daunting, not trusting oneself, but what can one do with feelings when feelings lie? In some ways, "trusting oneself" becomes a misnomer, because one learns to actually trust one's self, and merey mistrust the feelings that one has no worth.

Of course, "low self-esteem" is such a commonplace. I can only think of a few people that would describe themselves as having "normal" self-esteem. But here I refer to less the situation of whether "low self-esteem" exists, than to the problem of how to achieve one's goals when one feels so badly about oneself.

I like those various positive thinking religions which arise from 19th Century New Thought ideas. They all depend, more or less, on the notion that one's mental attitude can change reality. Now, I'm firmly agnostic on the issue of whether a positive attitude can bend a spoon. But I fully believe that a goal-oriented focus, one day at a time, believing that focus can make a difference, is the only way to approach anything. I know people whose lives change because they set and achieve goals, even though they feel so inferior inside.
I guess that the departure I have with the "Unity/Religious Science/Christian Science" folks is that they devalue the sheer value of inner transformation with their insistence upon outward effects of positive thinking. I think that if someone who feels badly can nonetheless make forward progress, that's a miracle alot better than turning Welches into cabernet.

I think that negotiating a separate peace with oneself is so important and so useful. But I don't live under the illusion that I'll wave some wand, make a pact within, and all my feeings of inadequacy will disappear. Instead, I feel that my inadequacy must be placed in the mix, exploited for its useful portions (I think my sense of humour largely depends on how inferior I feel), and then worked around.

I think that one problem that has existed forever is that the "things of this world" tend to devalue all aspirations of any dignity. From the right which is now the mainstream, the message is "bigger is better, selfishness is good, rhetoric substitutes for true connection, money matters". But from the attractive and yet insidious left, the additional negative of "anything one does that causes one to make money or show ambition is a shameful act of being co-opted into the system".
It's worse than "you can't please all of the people all of the time". Now you literally can't please anybody. If you succeed on your own terms, you're undoubtedly a failure to someone else.

I used to think that fellow Ricky Nelson was awfully selfish when in the song the main thing he realized at his garden party was that "you gotta please yourself". But now I realize that one must develop one's own values, because so many other folks want to press theirs on your like one of those scrapbook stamps that makes a hole in the paper.

So I see the negotiation within of peace in our time as so important. I've given up believing that I will see myself as handsome or good. But I adopt wholeheartedly as an article of faith that I can go on anyway. Although maudlin show tunes carry their own danger, I do like the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from "The King and I", called "Whistle a Happy Tune", because it has that great line "and when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well". I don't really see life as self-deception all the time. But I do see a lot of feeling like "okay, I have these very palpable faults, but now I'm going to get x done anyway". It may be one of those unstable peaces, but I'm hoping it's a peace with dignity.

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