Thursday, March 10, 2016
A Question of Self-Esteem: Remembering Judy Stevens...Rethinking Selves
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.
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.
at 10:22 PM