Monday, 31 July 2017

If You Wish Upon Believing In Yourself

To amuse myself this vacation, I'm mainly taking in stuff that feeds my mind. (A refreshing break from daily trying to feed other people's minds.)  Learning more about stuff I like, mostly.  So, one of the many things I'm watching is a series of online lectures by a Tolkien professor, about Tolkien's writings.  Along with several other things, this is all further cementing in me a love of things classical and old-school, gently and respectfully deconstructed, rather than savaged and dismissed as harmful.

In a time when all that is old is being dismissed simply because it's old, and seen as part of Eurocentric patriarchy, I am determined to be the most useful and trustworthy of fatherly European figures in my classroom this year, informed and grounded and aware of things beyond the ken of presentist post-modernists.  Because it's so much easier to just say everything's shit, than to start to actually get to know your shit.  About something or other quite specific.  Because you can't know everything about everything, and it's not good enough that it's all somewhere on the Internet. 

Characters Of Good Character
One of the things that I noted, when dipping my toe in some Tolkien, was how much of his thinking was entrenched in that pre-WWI notion that adversity reveals and builds pre-existing character (or reveals the lack of it).  Character and virtue are honestly presented as germane and useful things without any hint of finding this view embarrassing or old-fashioned.  It's not just that having virtues is nice. It's that virtues work.

Nowadays we mostly look at vices instead, and call them “diseases,” quite often.  Or syndromes.  And we work to accommodate and accept them.  We let them limit us.  We "raise awareness" of them.  I hate to be positive, but there's something to be said for "working your strengths/virtues" rather than putting everything into accepting and feeling ok about your vices and weaknesses.

It's very compassionate to try to live in and view the world as a place where everyone's equal in some theoretical way, where no one's better than anyone else, but... history, psychology and law.  It's just not like that.  Some people are more this or that.  In any given setting, some people are more effective there.  Some people are, for example, generally smarter than most others, no matter how much we try to deconstruct how we recognize, treat and generally deal with the fact that the people we meet in our lives clearly run the gamut all the way from genius to profoundly handicapped.  

We want to say "everyone's smart in their own way," but nothing much really seems to support that, Howard Gardiner's entirely unsubstantiated but blindly followed, sacrosanct "Multiple Intelligences" theory, and "varied learning styles" ideology to the contrary.  Some people are smart in many ways and can also learn in just as many ways. Some people are borderline average in only one way, and very sub-par in every other way, and no attempt to change that does a whole lot.  Some people are below average in everything and don't seem to learn no matter what strategy is tried.

And this obviously isn't only true as to intelligence. It's true about everything. Some people are more physically fit in terms of cardiovascular health. Some people are stronger in their upper bodies and cores.  Some people are more emotionally stable in times of stress. Some people are taller than others.  Others are younger.  And there's hardly a virtue or talent that survives very far into extreme old age. 

We have what we have.  Right now.  Physically, mentally and psychologically.  Even, one could argue, in terms of moral character.   Some people seem to have come with a lot of it.  Others seem to have squandered it, or had their moral strength corrupted.  Is strength of character something that, if you don't "build" in children, then it doesn't happen later?  Or can it form later on, well past the formative years? 

Everybody's got to live in a world filled with others.  And hope is important.

Someone like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien probably never gave a second thought to the idea that one might find one's hope in the virtues of other people one trusts.  In their stories at least, the various characters' virtues (talents, affinities, strength of character) are essential to getting anywhere.  And a well-rounded moral character is important.  You can be as smart as you like, but if you're Saruman the White, your lack of moral character will take you and everyone around you somewhere very dark and treeless.

Contrary to popular misconception, Tolkien does not write wholly good or wholly evil characters.  All characters in Tolkien have great capacity for good or evil, and spend most of their time in the middle, the grey, the doubt, trying to make sensible choices and hoping not to be thrown in too far over their heads. Hoping their inner character will be revealed by adversity, and it will end up being more of a Faramir situation, and less of a Boromir one.  Most characters in Tolkien make mistakes.  Some get second chances. 

If the Ring does anything, it reveals the moral character of not only Boromir and Faramir, but even people like Gandalf and Galadriel.  Tom Bombadill (and if he is to be believed, Faramir, in the book, as opposed to the movie) are the only characters who don't seem to have to struggle to have enough moral fibre to avoid succumbing to the corruption of the Ring.

And it really isn't all simply about repression in Tolkien.  Self-control is only one moral virtue, after all.  In terms of character, you get what you get, just like you get better or worse sight and hearing and intelligence, and you can make the most of it, or damage and squander it.  If you lack strength of character, perhaps you’d best not be left along with a palantir.

Old-school Virtues
Some virtues in particular, some features seen in characters with strong moral fibre in writings like Tolkien's, seem to have been lost today.  Seem to have faded.  Even hearing the terms "character" and "moral fibre" make one expect that one's sainted Aunt Hattie is talking about the past and how no one wears gaiters anymore.

So they're becoming lost and faded.  Lost as in, their meaning has changed to something lesser, or they are viewed today as simply not terribly good or important anymore.  Spoken of a problematic, too, when taken to extremes.  Faded as in they no longer shine so clearly in people's mind's eye as important and worthwhile. 

Any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice, of course.  But any virtue that is utterly lacking is guaranteed to be a problem. For everyone around. Surely that is self-evident?

As a virtue, pity is an important one for Tolkien, writing in the 30s and 40s. Pity as in empathy. Not the same thing as condescension and feeling superior.  Just the good old putting yourself in someone else's shoes and feeling their situation second-hand.  Frodo and Bilbo alike could (should?) kill Gollum, but they don't, because they can see themselves in him and identify with him to some degree. They start to feel how easy it would be for them to end up where he is one day. 

And it affects their actions.  Makes them doubt themselves when they are tempted to "mete out justice" too hastily.  Makes them listen when Gandalf says maybe they're not the ones to do that.

But today, "I don't want your pity!  You're not better than me!" is what we think of when we hear the word "pity."  It seems like something only priggish, superior, arrogant people might feel. Like pitying someone is a really bad thing.  An insult.

But Bilbo and Frodo aren't motivated by feelings of superiority to Gollum when they pity him.  For one thing, they feel how terrible it would be to live his life.  Pity as in "sympathy coupled with a wish to not make things any worse."  For another thing, they know that, having had their character eroded, corrupted, and infected by the One Ring, they might end up doing not even as well as Gollum has, considering how long he's been exposed to it.  They have a realistic measure of their own potential to fail.  This is an old-school virtue that used to be called humility.

Humility in the sense of attributing one's own success and position partially to things external to one's own choices, talents and work.  It takes humility to know when you've been lucky.  To know when one has done well partly because it was easier for one to win through than it generally has been for others.  Humility is often coupled with gratitude, understanding the role that other people and things have played in helping one succeed. It is about not attributing one's successes solely to being a uniquely special individual.

That's what humility does as to one's attitude about the past and present.  As to decision-making affecting the future, humility can produce prudence, which warns one when it is wisest to stop and not act. It indicates where the borders are.  What too far might be and what might happen if one goes too far.  When prompt, decisive action isn't likely to work out well.  Prudence can involve knowing one's own limits, the limits of others, and the true complexity of a given situation.

Prudence and humility absolutely fly in the face of our ubiquitous "believe in yourself, the only one holding you back is you, you can do and be and get anything you can imagine in your own special little head!" doctrines.  They let us know when the best thing to do is to wait or do nothing.  Prudent, humble people do not "leap in where angels fear to tread."  They are given too much wisdom by their prudence and humility.
In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir (in the books far more than in the films) is prudent and humble.  His elder brother Boromir had looked to "show his quality" by impulsive, strong, decisive acts of bravery, eventually daring to overstep his limits and in so doing, breaking the Fellowship.  Their father Denethor is also lacking the prudence and humility to stay within his own limits as Steward (not King) of Gondor.
Faramir is very different.  He shows the quality of his character as being one that almost rivals his elder brother's in terms of virtues like courage and strength and decisiveness, but he has the prudence and humility to know when to step aside.  He knows not to take the Ring from Frodo and present it to his father Denethor, not to try to wield it himself, and finally to support, rather than question, it being taken into Mordor and destroyed by people much smaller and weaker than himself. He knows it's not his call.  (He also knows that his failure to interfere will have consequences for him, which consequences he is willing to reap, being of strong enough character to need to do things that way.)
The One Ring aside, Faramir thinks Gollum should be killed for everyone's safety, but even lacking pity for Gollum, he has the humility to defer to Frodo's decision that Gollum will not only be allowed to live, but that the little bling junkie will serve as Frodo's guide into Mordor.  A less prudent, less humble man (like Boromir) would have taken this decision into his own hands and ordered Gollum killed, robbing Frodo of the chance to do things how he sees fit.

But Frodo knows far more than Faramir about the Ring and Gollum both, having attained a fair bit of experience with them.  Because of this, Faramir is humble enough to act in the knowledge that he himself, though the wisest, bravest, mightiest warrior of Gondor, needs to step aside and let frail little Frodo go on, taking Gollum and the One Ring into Mordor and beyond his control.  This even if he doesn't understand and disagrees with Frodo's decisions.  Part of strong character is not needing to impose one’s will on someone else, even if that person is lacking one’s strengths and resources.
Boromir had been a very different man.  At Rivendell, Boromir had warned that one doesn't simply walk into Mordor to destroy the Ring.  But really, Boromir isn't being humble and prudent when he argues against the coalescing plan of the Council of Eldrond.  He has a whole different thing going on.  He is focused more on "showing his quality" by coming back to Minas Tirith to hold up his hand, upon which he is wearing the One Ring, to be used as a weapon against the Enemy.  He is not humble enough to know that, though he may know more than most people about fighting Mordor, he doesn't know anything about magic, or rings of power.  Boromir's lack of humility causes him to act imprudently, and he shatters the Fellowship as a result, making Frodo need to scratch Boromir off the list of allies and defenders, and put him right at the top of the list of immediate threats to the outcome of their quest to destroy the Ring.  A more humble Boromir would have been less of a danger to the quest.
Nowadays though, the word "humility" makes us think of humiliation, of feeling bad about ourselves in a time when we are told to believe in ourselves if we want to succeed.  Humility is seen as folly, in other words.  As a bad idea.  Something that would fuel timidity, hesitancy and passivity (often seen as a weakness), if indulged in too much.  Not healthy.  It is thought to come with shame, a known tool and manipulative tactic of Religion, which we are too wise to be fooled by anymore, material rationalists to a person.  

And how are modern folks taught to deal with shame?  By denying it, mainly.  Not thinking about it.  Putting it from our thoughts.  Feeling ashamed and awkward about having felt it.  Pretending it isn't in our hearts.  In other words, repressing it.

Where Sigmund Freud wrote that repressing urges made people sick, we now seem to be counselling young people to repress their fears, their shame, their hesitancy, and other feelings that people are tempted to label "negative."  To focus on "the positive" only.  That they need to push "negative things" aside/inside/behind.  If they want to get anywhere in life, anyway.  "Don't dwell on the negative. Move on.  Focus on the positive."  Just as if you can walk away from something that's inside you.  Just as if you can flee and hide from your own shadow.  More on Carl Jung later.

Shame Isn't a Virtue
Let me say emphatically that shame isn't much use, most of the time. It doesn't help.  Not like a nuanced, balanced self-knowledge does.  In fact, shame isn't even terribly effective at stopping people from going ahead and doing things they will later feel ashamed of.  It can often function merely as the coin with which one pays in future for present joy.

Now, there is such a thing, even nowadays, as sitting down and having regular conversations about one's established, long-term vices.  Groups like AA either work or they don't, partly based on how much self-knowledge and reflection occurs.  How many epiphanies are allowed to trickle in.  Good, bad, indifferent.  

Shame doesn't help at AA either.  Shame is kind of a hammer, when what is required is more of a screwdriver or scalpel.  Shame often provides almost no understanding of whys and wherefores, and simply overloads the emotions in the moment without anything being learned for later.  And it's usually too broad.  If you tell yourself and others simply "I'm a terrible person" or "I just generally have an addictive personality" or "I'm the worst friend/husband/father ever," you're kind of avoiding getting down into it and figuring out what specifically is really going on and what's really required to better things, or at least make them stop worsening.   

It was Hannah Arendt, Holocaust survivor, who said that if we (in her case, Germans) are all guilty, then no one is.  She wanted actual Nazi war criminals to be actually punished for specific things they actually did personally, rather than all of the Germany simply saying "Whooops!  We were all wrong. Very, very wrong. We collectively share the blame."

Shame is like that.  If you decide to imagine for a dark evening that you're terrible in almost every way, you won't actually need to identify your biggest problem.  That thing that, if improved, would bring about the most dramatic improvements.  Instead, you cuddle up cozily with some generalized, short-lived, overwhelming shame pressed to your bosom until tomorrow.

Today shame is seen mainly as the arch-enemy of self-esteem, which we seem to believe makes the 21st century world go round the way love used to.  (The old-school virtue of love has long been heavily downgraded to mere tolerance, of course.)

But thousands of years before the 1950s, a very different virtue from "self-esteem" was where people put their faith, hope and trust.  It wasn't even self-acceptance they trusted in, which virtue seems more foundational and important than valuing (having esteem for) yourself. Self-acceptance might even represent a prerequisite to self-esteem.  But before self-esteem was crowned king, we prized self-knowledge. It was what all the thinking and writing and learning seemed to be about.

All this was before we discussed "fake news" and long before we thought there really was such a thing as a "negative fact" or "violent statistic."  We were willing to just know stuff.  Even if we thought it was "negative," which although it sounds very absolute and objective, mainly just means nothing loftier than "stuff that makes me feel yucky in my tummy."

Dealing With "Negative Facts"
The 20th century was fleeing self-knowledge so quickly, upon tossing out religious approaches to spirituality, wisdom and psychological health, that Carl Jung had to step up.  People wanted to feel good about themselves and their lives without taking a very close look at them or learning about them or working to improve them in any way.  They'd had enough of priests and confession, after all.  They'd had enough of choices mattering in any larger narrative.  They’d had enough of the past mattering.

Into this climate, Jung presented the idea of the shadow, a part of one's self he claimed was composed of the various real things that one wouldn't deal with.  (Often real things about one's own self.)  The shadow was the part of that self which Jung claimed was an unopened black box to everyone.  The part one might think of as "negative," though one really hasn't dealt with it enough to know much about it.  It's the part we don't want to know about.  The part we won't deal with.

(I was quite probingly asked, not too long ago, what it actually means to "deal with" realities.  It was a thinly-veiled way of challenging my view that it's very important to deal with "negative" facts/realities, rather than ignoring them and trusting them to stop being real when one stops looking at them. 

I was flummoxed at first that this was even under debate.  All I could think of was that to "deal" was to accept and behave as if real things were real, rather than pretending, denying, lying and avoiding thinking about them if we don't like them.  But we're taught that reality is whatever we imagine it to be, so long as what we imagine to be real doesn't invalidate anyone else's existence and represent violence to them and hurt their self-esteem, especially with "negative facts.") 

And the shadow, Carl Jung's best-known contribution to modern thought, isn't terribly popular right about now.  There aren't too many self-help books and seminars and retreats out there this month which mention it.  Oversimplified, again the shadow is simply the idea that, if something is real, but you don't like it, and so you cast it into the dark corners, thrust it behind you where you can't see it, that all of that stuff will continue to be real and do things back there, in the shadows, out of sight.  It will form a collective or body of reality in there and continue to be active.  That it will follow you around everywhere all of the time.  Your shadow.  The thing Peter Pan needed back.  Your psychological junk drawer.  A place where incredibly useful stuff is often found, in a time of need.  Like chargers for things.  And adapters.  And batteries.

Hope Comes From? wrote in a time when it wasn't terribly odd to imagine that for his hobbit characters, hope might come from, while recognizing the existence of Nazgul and orcs and Mordor far beyond the borders of the Shire, in navigating a path right to and through them.  To deal with the present situattion. To live to see a more hopeful future situation in which to live.  For everyone.  Even if this meant sacrifice.  (Another old-school virtue that's fallen on hard times.  Tolkien served in the First World War.  He lost friends.  This was bound to have an effect on him.)

Sometimes you need to sacrifice stuff, need to get off the couch and go deal with scary stuff, in order for there to be any hope at all.  One does not simply lie on the futon all month and hope to reap huge benefits.  And we want hope.  Life's not much fun without any.  And where is hope to be found?  For Tolkien, there was hope that one's character (not created by one's own self) proved up to the tasks before it, there was hope in the mercy, generosity, pity, help and grace of others one had found and formed close bonds with, and there was even hope in some kind of Overarching Thing that was temporarily foiled by chaos and evil, and validated by order and nature. Something transcendant.  God, Luck, Justice, Karma, the Cosmic Balance, Humanity, Britain, Science, Reason, whatever.  Something that one could raise ones eyes to look at and navigate by, like a star.  (A star is a more useful aid in navigating than "yourself."  Precisely because it is outside, beyond and above you.)

Unlike Tolkien, his creations Frodo and Bilbo don't have faith in a monotheistic creator figure looking down on them with an unfolding narrative in mind.  But they do feel that some things are meant/fated to happen and that other things aren't.  Gollum "has a part to play."  Bilbo is "meant to" find the Ring.  By something/someone other than Sauron.

So that's three levels of hope:
  1. Hope in one's own character being enacted in one's choices,
  2.  Hope in the allegiances formed with others,
  3. And hope in some inspecific fate or destiny (or "doom" it is even called sometimes, as in Mount") that makes some endings natural and desirable, and other endings cataclysmic, abominable and unnecessary.  (Or boring, wasteful, foolish and stupid.)

If this is a game, it is clearly possible not only to win it or lose it, but also to break it entirely into pieces and kick the bishops under the bookshelf.  Very tempting for a 90s nihilist.  If I'm not guaranteed to win, or it might take work (or worst of all, an attention span) I'll smash it all to bits and say it's just dumb anyway.  A waste of my all-too-precious time.

Hope largely comes from what you put your faith in.  Disney movies did not, in the twentieth century, so much teach or instill 20th century virtues, as echo them back at the people who held them, in a form they would accept.  So, in Pinnochio, America was not quite going to accept "If you place your faith in an ultimate power (doesn't matter where you ow-er)." But this can be worded "If you wish upon a star" so as to eat one's cake and have it too.

Religious people pray to Something Transcendent and put their faith in that Something possibly helping, and they derive hope from this.  Superstitious people (like religious people, but with no willingness to adhere to any real structure or logos) literally wish upon things like dandelions and stars and thus satisfy their immature but deep and primal psychological need to find hope by investing faith in something.  In anything.  In people. In communism.  In women.  In karma.  In science. In eating gluten-free.  In essential oils and crystal therapy.  In a new money-making book. In social justice. In a political party.

You don't need God if you have an ideology in which to put your hope, faith and trust.  It will do exactly the same thing for you, psychologically.  And you don't even have to grant it a personality or care what it wants.

Disney's Pinnochio came out before Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings.  And in the decades that followed, that "If You Look Above, Up, Out and Beyond Yourself For Hope..." attitude changed. And many things were lost. And things faded.

With no real discipline devoted to self-knowledge, the Path to Wisdom  Positive Feelings progressed right past the path of self-acceptance, far beyond the isle of merely holding one's self in high esteem, and traveled all the way to the summit of Believing In Yourself.

For some, this is a common sense, baseline reality. Just the mundane fact that if you flat out disbelieve in your chances at anything, you are not likely to succeed.  But for many, the message encoded into countless 20th century films is "Never mind knowing yourself, especially the weaknesses, vices or other "negative facts." Never mind taking too close a look at what you're up against; that might just discourage you.  Never mind knowledge, wisdom or awareness.  Just blindly believe.  Not in evolution, progress, society, people or anything that might sound religious.  Believe in yourself. Generally.  Because you're special and smart.  In your own way. If you only believe."

If you want to know what you have faith in instead of God, look to the quarter from whence you draw hope when you really need some.  And that's it/him.  That's God for you.  That's what you pray to when the night is dark.