Friday, Jun 6. 14 § Leave a comment
The primary error of the crush lies in overlooking a central fact about people in general, not merely this or that example, but the species as a whole: that everyone has something very substantially wrong with them once their characters are fully known, something so wrong as to make an eventual mockery of the unlimited rapture unleashed by the crush. We can’t yet know what the problems will be, but we can and should be certain that they are there, lurking somewhere behind the facade, waiting for time to unfurl them.
How can one be so sure? Because the facts of life have deformed all of our natures. No one among us has come through unscathed. There is too much to fear: mortality, loss, dependency, abandonment, ruin, humiliation, subjection. We are, all of us, desperately fragile, ill-equipped to meet with the challenges to our mental integrity: we lack courage, preparation, confidence, intelligence. We don’t have the right role models, we were (necessarily) imperfectly parented, we fight rather than explain, we nag rather than teach, we fret instead of analysing our worries, we have a precarious sense of security, we can’t understand either ourselves or others well enough, we don’t have an appetite for the truth and suffer a fatal weakness for flattering denials. The chances of a perfectly good human emerging from the perilous facts of life are non-existent. Our fears and our frailties play themselves out in a thousand ways, they can make us defensive or aggressive, grandiose or hesitant, clingy or avoidant – but we can be sure that they will make everyone much less than perfect and at moments, extremely hard to live with.
Maturity doesn’t suggest we give up on crushes. Merely that we definitively give up on the founding romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of relationships and marriage has been based for the past 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can solve all our needs and satisfy our yearnings. We need to swap the Romantic view for the Tragic Awareness of Love, which states that every human can be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us – and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. This is a truth chiselled indelibly into the script of life. Choosing who to marry or commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for, rather than an occasion miraculously to escape from grief.
A caustic view of crushes shouldn’t depress us, merely relieve the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon long-term relationships. The failure of one particular partner to be the ideal Other is not – we should always understand – an argument against them; it is by no means a sign that the relationship deserves to fail or be upgraded. We have all necessarily, without being damned, ended up with that figure of our nightmares, ‘the wrong person.’
Romantic pessimism simply takes it for granted that one person should not be asked to be everything to another. With this truth accepted, we can look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of life beside another fallen creature, for example, never feeling that we have to spend all of our time with them, being prepared for the disappointments of erotic life, not insisting on complete transparency, being ready to be maddened and to madden, making sure we are allowed to keep a vibrant independent social life and maintaining a clear-eyed refusal to act on sudden desires to run off with strangers on trains… A mature understanding of the madness of crushes turns out to be the best and perhaps the only solution to the tensions of long-term love.
Tuesday, May 13. 14 § Leave a comment
By David Brooks
The current issue of The Atlantic carries a fascinating summary of “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The essay runs through the evidence suggesting that women tend to have too little self-confidence. When asked how well they did on tests, women tend to estimate that they got fewer answers correct than they actually did. In one British study, a business school professor asked students how much they would deserve to earn five years after graduation. The women’s estimates were 20 percent lower than the men’s.
It’s interesting to read the evidence as a guy, especially if you’re a self-aggrandizing pundit who covers politics and public life. I almost never see problems caused by underconfidence, but I see (and create) problems related to overconfidence every day.
Much of the recent psychological research also suggests that overconfidence is our main cognitive problem, not the reverse. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes an exhaustive collection of experiments demonstrating how often people come to conclusions confidently and wrongly. When asked to estimate if more murders happen in Detroit or in Michigan, most people give higher estimates for Detroit even though every murder in Detroit also happens in Michigan.
Dan Ariely’s work shows how consistently we overpraise our virtues and rationalize our faults so we can think too highly of ourselves. Most of us call ourselves honest. But, in fact, most people regularly cheat in small ways, when the situation is right.
So my first reaction when reading of female underconfidence is not simply that this is a problem. It’s to ask, how can we inject more of this self-doubt and self-policing into the wider culture. How can each of us get a better mixture of “female” self-doubt and “male” self-assertion?
But my second reaction is to notice that people are phenomenally terrible at estimating their own self-worth. Some Americans seem to value themselves ridiculously too little while others value themselves ridiculously too highly.
The self-help books try to boost the “confidence” part of self-confidence, but the real problem is the “self” part. The self, as writers have noticed for centuries, is an unstable, fickle, vain and variable thing. Hundreds of years ago, David Hume noticed that when he tried to enter into what he called his most intimate self, he always stumbled on some particular perception or another. He never could catch himself without a perception of something else, and he never could see himself, only the perception.
When you try to come up with a feeling for self-confidence, you are trying to peer into a myriad of ever-changing mental systems, most of them below the level of awareness. Instead of coming up with a real thing, which can reliably be called self-confidence, you’re just conjuring an abstraction. In the very act of trying to think about self-confidence, your vanity is creating this ego that is unstable and ethereal, and is thus painfully fragile, defensive, boasting and sensitive to sleights.
If you want to talk about something real, it’s probably a mistake to use a suspect concept like self-confidence, which is self-oriented. It’s probably a better idea to think about competence, which is task-oriented. If you ask, “Am I competent?” at least you are measuring yourself according to the standards of a specific domain.
The person with the self-confidence mind-set starts thinking about his own intrinsic state. The person who sees herself as the instrument for performing a task thinks about some external thing that needs doing. The person with the confidence mind-set is like the painfully self-conscious person at a dinner party who asks, “How am I coming across?” The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is serving a craft and asks “What does this specific job require?” The person with a confidence mind-set is told “Believe in yourself.” This arouses all sorts of historical prejudices and social stereotypes. The person with an instrumentalist mind-set is told “Look accurately at what you have done.”
One of the hard things in life is learning to ask questions that you can actually answer. For example, if you are thinking about taking a job, it’s probably foolish to ask, “What future opportunities will this lead to?” You can’t know. It’s probably better to ask, “Will going to this workplace be rewarding day to day?” which is more concrete. If you are getting married, it’s probably foolish to ask an unknowable question like, “Will this person make me happy for 50 years?” It’s probably smarter to ask, “Is this person admirable enough that I want to live my life as an offering to them?” You can at least glimpse another’s habits here and now.
Similarly, if you start thinking about your self-confidence, you will just be inventing a self-referential story. It’s probably easier to go through life focusing on what specifically needs doing, rooted in a set of external obligations and criteria and thus quieting the self.