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Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Question of Self-Esteem: Remembering Judy Stevens...Rethinking Selves

Early in February we lost Judy Stevens - a valued and much loved member of wine women and philosophy. Judy is widely remembered for having co-founded Share the Warmth: an organization committed to providing clothing and food for Montreal's homeless, as well as much needed services for at-risk youth. Less known, perhaps, was Judy's sideline as a philosopher queen at wwp's regular Thursday night salons and philosophy club. Judy managed to combine a deeply spiritual sensibility with a beguiling sense of humour, and this made her contributions to whatever topic we were exploring at once profoundly insightful, at once an unexpected pop of delight. She moved between the deadly serious and the gently irreverent with astounding ease, drawing on the one to shed light on the other so as to bring a fresh perspective to the matter at hand. As a thinker, she was probing and generous and inquisitive. As a participant, she was engaged and engaging and just occasionally bemused. Her tongue-in-cheek commentary on Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology will never be forgotten. Likewise, her triggering of the great wine women and philosophy missing boots scandal, and her measured response to the chaotic hilarity that ensued. Among the many things I learned from Judy, what comes to mind at this moment are words of advice she gave me when I was starting up a new venture and feeling somewhat shy about asking people for support. "People like to help out," she said - drawing no doubt on her experience with Share the Warmth. She told me to think about it in terms of giving people the opportunity to do something they naturally wanted to do; not as something that would put people out. I think that Judy always thought the best of people, and her way of seeing the act of giving was entirely consistent with her view of humankind.

Paying tribute to Judy at last week's salon evening, this generosity of spirit was something that members were quick to point out. So too was the sense that, though physically absent, Judy still felt present - a warm and luminous presence that continued to light up her usual spot on the sofa. The poet Mary Oliver speaks of the end of life as offering one small but significant consolation: "Surely it is then that a person's character shines or glooms." Without a doubt, Judy's character shone and still goes on shining. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that this second session of our current series served as an introduction to the thinking of one Simone Weil (1909-1943) - a French philosopher, teacher and activist who Albert Camus once called, "The only great spirit of our times." Perhaps Weil's ability to see "every separation as a link" - a concept she referred to as metaxu - and to revel in the contradictions that this positing of absence as presence and presence as absence elicits, gave us an entry point into understanding the feelings we were having about Judy. Certainly, Simone Weil's deep investment in the suffering of others could be said to resonate with Judy's own desire to alleviate the malheur being experienced by the less advantaged of our city. And certainly, Simone Weil's parting words to her good friend, Gustave Thibon - that he remember her not with sorrow, but as one recalls a favourite book from childhood - could be something that Judy might have said. But there, I suspect, the parallels end. For whereas Judy's giving of herself in the name of a friend, a stranger, a family member, or a cause came across as life-affirming to all concerned, and that includes herself, the same cannot be said of Simone Weil's particular (some might say peculiar) brand of selflessness.

When Susan Sontag said of Simone Weil that she was "one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit," it is likely that Sontag's use of the word 'troubling' was chosen with Weil's proclivity for extreme self-denial in mind. From the time she was a very young child, Weil deprived her body of the most basic of needs. Giving her own rations away to WWI soldiers as a six year old, eschewing every bourgeois comfort she had been born into to demonstrate ongoing solidarity with the most disenfranchised members of society as an adolescent and young adult, Weil saw "embodied thinking" not so much as an acknowledgement of the body-mind connection, as a moral obligation to throw one's body out into the world. Once out there, that body became an experiential field: to be starved and scarred and overworked and underpaid not in the name of sacrifice - no trembling sacrificial lamb, Simone - but rather, in the the pursuit of truly knowing. This was a knowledge unlike that of most Western philosophers who, isolated from the people and left to reflect in peace, cast down their learned pronouncements from a lofty pedestal on high. On the contrary, Weil's was a knowledge that came of rubbing flesh with the real and turning affliction into concrete action into an embodied form of enlightenment. In her later years (not that late...she only lived to 34) a series of mystical experiences and with these, conversion to a strict if defiantly anti-church form of Christianity, led her to see these willful acts of deprivation as an "undoing of the self." While the Self was there, as Weil saw it, hanging around and blocking the light and taking up valuable room that might otherwise be filled with Knowledge, you were only a poor old sack of a thinking thing. But open that Self to the processes of decreation...Embrace the void and now we're talking! Or perhaps, not talking...Can an undone, decreated Self still talk? But hey, no matter. We're feeling that all-encompassing Knowledge pouring into us and filling us to brimming and wow, does it ever feel good!

And yes, there were some inconsistencies there: some screeching paradoxes and knobbly contradictions. But Simone Weil reveled in all of that: she loved a question that coughed up incompatibilities and an answer that propelled you back to the drawing board. What mattered - the cornerstone of all her thinking, in fact - was that you were paying attention: immersing yourself in the world and taking it all in and allowing it to flow through you and leaving no small detail unseen. Weil saw the state of paying attention as the only true state of Grace. To give the world, to give anybody, your undivided attention was, for her, "the rarest and purest form of generosity." And perhaps that is why she couldn't be a body herself: a body with all its pesky demands and earthly needs that only served to divert her own and everybody else's attention away from the task at hand, which was to pay attention. Perhaps that is why, with all her attention so keenly focused on the horrors of WWII and the question of how to rebuild a new kind of Europe when - if - the atrocities ever ended, she was unable to devote any time and energy to being a tubercular body in need of sustenance in a sanitarium in Ashford, Kent in 1943. That she opted to hold on to a principle rather than save her Self probably makes little sense to most of us today. But it must have seemed to her that the world itself had lost all its principles, and that the pact she had made to herself while working for the Free French in London - that she would eat no more than the meager ration allotted her compatriots in war-torn France - was just not up for negotiation. There are so many ways to be a body, to be a Self. For this most uncompromising of witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit, a way that most of us find troubling was probably a straightforward case of amor fati. After all, this was the philosopher who saw the self-directed annihilation of our  "I" as our only "free act"; the philosopher whose bare bones conception of the Self was one of pure and simple mutuality with a much bigger world.

As for all those other ways of being a Self, and in particular a Self that esteems itself, we proceeded to take a quick tour of self-esteem's journey into popular psychology: from its acquisition of a bump on the head in phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim's (1776-1832) early mapping of an individual's psychological attributes; through William James' (1842-1910) unpacking of the hierarchical "I-self"/"me-self" relationship and with it, the understanding that remains today of self-esteem as "the collection of an individual's attitudes toward oneself"; to German developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (yes, him again!) with his attaching of the boy-child's attainment of self-esteem to his mastery of the tools and technologies associated with the adult world around him, and his success as a measurement of his competence (a case of "industry" over "inferiority") when it comes to demonstrating the acquisition of these particular skill-sets.

Naturally, we called upon a couple of feminists to set Erikson right. Psychologist Carol Gilligan (b. 1936) took him to task not only for his initial erasing of girls from this schema, but for his subsequent framing of a girl's development of Self as a product of her intimate relations with others and, in direct opposition to her male counterpart, as successful if and only if it privileged connection over separation. Just how self-esteem is generated within such a conception, not to mention how whatever is generated is rated in a world that posits autonomy and individuation as the markers of True Selfdom, are questions to which we, if not Erikson, paid considerable attention. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), for her part, made us see the benefits of being left out in the cold when it comes to any such developmental schema and their real life manifestations. The choice is ours: we can buy into what de Beauvoir calls the "ready-made" world of "the serious" - that industrious adult milieu into which Erikson's self-esteem-bent boys are busily muscling their way; or we can be free - making ourselves a "lack of being" and "casting ourselves out into the world" in order to live not as Slaves, but as fully realized Selves. If we're opting for the latter, then its girls and women - not wanted on the voyage, anyway - who have the least to lose and the most to gain in taking that precarious if ultimately life-affirming route.

Still mulling over the practical implications of inhabiting a cast-out Beauvoirian 'lack of being' Self, we turned finally to Hannah Arendt's (1906-1975) contention that the only Authentic Self is a Public Self - the one that each of us presents to the world and to which the world, in turn, responds. So much for nurturing your inner child and wishing that people, if only they knew the real you, would totally get what you're all about. Given that what people see and hear is what you really are, says Arendt, you had better be sure that what is going on in the inside is entirely consistent with what is going on on the outside. That, for Arendt, is what it really means to be 'true to oneself.' That, for Arendt, is the bedrock of every encounter you will have in the world, and the basis of your self-identity in that world. If, when you speak and act, you are misunderstood, you have to keep hammering away until what you think and what others take to be your thought are the same; until how you believe you should act and how you are actually acting out there in the world are the self-same thing. It's your responsibility as an Authentic Self, this ongoing process of putting it out there and getting something back by way of a response and then putting it out there again...and again...and again. Selves change as a result of this dynamic process. So too do relationships. But the inner you and the outer you are indistinguishable: they are always an in sync Self.

Which is just about where we were when time ran out and we agreed to treat those hard working in sync Selves of ours to a much needed cup of tea. We'd been so busy expanding our sense of what it is to be a Self in the world that we had never actually got to the point of working out what esteeming one of these revamped selves might look like, much less how it might respond to being assessed as high or low. Sure, we shared a cackle over the stand-out title on the topic down at the local book store - Self-Esteem for Dummies. But beyond that, we'd barely scratched the surface...A glossing over of which Hannah Arendt would no doubt approve! We'll be picking up on a few of those self-esteem strands left dangling next time we meet. And then - fully armed - we'll wade out into the murky waters of shame.