Until just a few years ago I imagined that we should be able to generate our own self-conception rather than letting other people’s opinions determine who we think we are. I think this fantasy was fueled by my somewhat lowly status as an adjunct professor and a delusion that one could be self-sufficient, at least in this regard. René Girard points out that the illusion of autonomy and self-sufficiency is the ultimate hubris and god fantasy. With the supposed death of God suggested by people like Feuerbach, we have been encouraged to adopt God’s prerogatives and qualities for ourselves; to be autonomous, creative, original, self-sufficient, omniscient, omnipotent. How many characters in movies are effectively omnipotent and omniscient? The baddies’s bullets never hit their target, the hero navigates his way through an unfamiliar building or city and never ends up in a blind alley.
The Bourne Identity, a movie I rather enjoyed, unusually avoided this fantasy to a limited extent and made a point of Jason Bourne using a fire emergency map to find his way and even read a street map during a car chase. The truth is that we are weak, limited and dependent. Imagining that you can take God’s qualities for yourself is the sheerest madness.
Other people effectively function as mirrors, among other things of course. Just as we look in the literal mirror to get some idea about what we look like, other people reflect back to us their conception of us. This makes us vulnerable to their distortions and agendas. They can flatter us in order to manipulate us or they can engage in character assassination. Fortunately, we can usually identify these two extremes, but only because they differ from what we are used to hearing about ourselves.
You could never come up with the idea that you are smart, intelligent, athletic or good-looking if no one ever communicated through their body language, their gaze and their words that you possess these qualities.
The New Zealand of my day had such an infatuation with professors that they were at the top of the social pecking order along with medical doctors. Each of us knew that it was useless to aspire to such a position unless one had been told what a superlative and ecstatically bright lad one was from literally the age of three.
We are mimetic creatures and one of the things we imitate is the opinion other people have about us. This makes us vulnerable but it’s a fact of life and part of the unchangeable human condition. We are indeed vulnerable and that’s the end of it, God fantasy be damned. We are changed by the company we keep. Plato makes a point of telling us to be careful who we spend time with.
This fact about us makes jobs that involve dealing with other people emotionally challenging. The mirror held up by students for their professors, for instance, has all sorts of built in distortions – often rewarding behavior on the part of the professor that is harmful to the students themselves.
I find myself changing as the mirror changes. I am funny and interesting at one moment and humorless and boring as the students respond. Girard describes a triangle of subject, mediator/model and object. We think we desire the object directly, but actually we imitate the desires of the mediator/model. The object is desirable because someone else appears to be desiring it. So too, in the classroom, if the other students (mediators/models) seem to think the professor (object) is funny and interesting then so he or she becomes. The professor’s actual performance changes depending on this mirroring effect – just as a comedian will get in the flow and rhythm if the audience is enthusiastic or the comedian will ‘die.’ They ‘kill’ or ‘die.’ These terms reflect the intensity of the experience. All professors have both killed and died.
A mentor is someone who mirrors back to you tremendous potential. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We human beings do have tremendous potential but we often don’t get the needed encouragement.
Mentors differ significantly from the self-esteem movement. Mentors don’t tell you how fantastic you currently are. They hold up a distant goal and express confidence that with hard work you can achieve it. To tell someone that they are already fantastic is demotivating. What more is there to do than continue with one’s already existing awesomeness? Don’t tell someone ‘good job’ when it’s not.
In “The War Against Boys” by Christina Hoff Sommers there is an anecdote of a teacher given the worst class in the year group. During a visit to the principal’s office, the principal leaves and the teacher sneaks a look at a folder containing her students’ records. She sees that their IQs are astonishingly high. She realizes that the worst class is the worst because they are not being challenged enough. She immediately raises her standards, the class turns around and is transformed. At the end of the year the principal asks the teacher how she did it. She responds that she snuck a look at their IQ numbers. The principal responds that those were their locker numbers. Her mistaken belief turned into a mirror and her students responded accordingly.
I have been shocked at how certain male friends and former friends have come to resemble their wives. One of them has a very poor relationship with his wife so the ways in which he came to resemble her intellectually, politically and morally were astounding to me. (We’re no longer friends because of this.) I’m assuming that, as he unconsciously sought the approval of his wifely mirror, his attitudes, once different from hers, gradually changed to match them. He did express several times how tired he was of being a freak among the people he spent time with. If that’s what the mirror says…
We aren’t self-sufficient or autonomous and to pretend otherwise can only cause harm. Yet it offends our vanity to think of ourselves as dependent in this way and it is vanity that stops us from recognizing this dependency.
‘Ye shall be as gods’ is the satanic ethos. The fact is that we are limited, finite creatures and as such we are to be pitied. We are needy and dependent with no omnicompetence. Because of this we have failings and fears. The things that we are afraid of often appear ridiculous to other people. I was in my thirties before I realized this. It’s easy to be contemptuous of other people’s fears because they are
frequently unfounded, but most especially because we are not afraid of those particular things. Thus, the fear appears stupid and unreasonable.
At one point I was afraid that I would never gain decent employment. My wife was afraid that she would never be published. My wife had a supreme confidence that if she were parachuted anywhere in the world she would be able to find a job, so my weakness seemed pathetic and contemptible. I had no particular fear of publishing, so her fears seemed unreasonable too. It dawned on me that each of us has things they can’t do or feel fearful about and this is simply the result of our finitude. We are not God. So, in an application of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, we must take a charitable view of other people’s weaknesses, just as we hope they will be indulgent concerning ours. If we fail to realize this, we will end up hurting the people we love. Relationship experts say that the most poisonous and destructive emotion in a romantic relationship is contempt – much worse than anger or even temporary hatred. This I believe – since love involves respect and admiration.
Be charitable concerning your loved one’s fears and limitations as you wish them to be charitable concerning yours.
I should add that my wife’s good opinion of me aids my mental health to no small degree.
My mother used to express contempt that my father did not like to engage in conversation while backing the car. I felt defensive about my father as a child. Now, as an adult, my thought is – what you’re really saying is that you couldn’t just shut up for twenty seconds! Give the guy a break!
I recently heard a woman on a podcast talk about her fear of flying. As per usual, those of us without this fear are prone to consider it silly. She attended a group therapy session to address these fears. At the group therapy people were asked what specifically scared them about flying. One person said that they were afraid the wings would fall off. The woman on the podcast expressed her total contempt concerning this fear – though in the telling of the story the woman recognized the injustice of this. She was not afraid the wings would fall off. How irrational! How unreasonable! They actually design planes so this won’t happen, don’t you know? She was afraid of turbulence which to her mind seemed a much more reasonable and justified fear. This anecdote is a fascinating insight into the lack of charity that may be displayed by people suffering from very similar fears. If your fear is not about exactly the same thing all fellow feeling can disappear and contempt arises.
But this contempt is just contempt for finitude and limitation; for being human. No matter how accomplished someone is, there are things they are no good at. Contempt violates ‘do unto others.’ We ask for understanding for ourselves while asking for god-like qualities in others – a bad faith double standard. Pride begets shame. We assume godliness for ourselves with minor and forgivable imperfections and express our horror concerning the deficiencies we observe in others, trying to hide the obvious parallels. We are ashamed of our failing and limitations but only because we have assumed the prerogatives of gods.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.