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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Committee

“It helps to resign as controller of your fate.” - Anne Lamott

"Sortes meae in manu Dei sunt." (My fate is in the hands of God) - Philippe Aries

Surrender is such a sweet word.  In my case, it's more of an aspiration than a reality.  Having spent much of my life as a foot soldier for international capitalism (French, not American, for the most part), vestiges of that mentality remain.  If you aren't a success working 8 hours a day, work 12.  If you are having trouble balancing your dwindling departmental budget and the long list of tasks required by management, just keep staring at the spreadsheet into the wee hours of the morning and surely a solution will come to you.  (If you are still in that world, I heartily recommend Bonjour Paresse by Corinne Maier.  Dilbert works, too.)

Powerful conditioning at work here and it was only after being slammed by two life-threatening events (alcoholism and cancer) that I began to see that there might be another way to approach life - an approach beautifully summarized by Reinhold Neibuhr's Serenity Prayer.  Yet finding the right balance between the things one can and cannot change (between acceptance and right action) is, well, tricky.   And it's the small everyday stuff that can tip one back into insanity - trying to control the uncontrollable and falling into the If-I-just-try-a-little-bit-harder trap.

The trap is there in every project, no matter how small.  Painting my front porch, for example.  Three days of poisonous chemicals, two days with the sander breathing dust and after five days of work,  looking at it and only seeing how imperfect it still is.  And if you think it's bad when I'm painting, believe me it's about a hundred times worse when I'm writing. 

The sign of incipient insanity (or how I know I'm channeling my inner control freak) is something I call The Committee and Ms. Lamott calls radio station KFKD.  I doubt I could better her description, so here goes:
"Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on."
I don't know about you but the part of me that loves to write, to dance with words, to play with ideas, just shrivels and dies in the din. Working harder or longer doesn't help here because the cacophony cannot be caged.  The more I say "I will", the more the voices in my head reply, "Really?  What makes you think that?"

At this point I think that you, my dear reader, have probably determined that I am either suffering from depression or writer's block.  Guilty as charged on both counts.  Or, to look at it another way, The Committee has taken over and it's direct democracy in there - everyone has an equal voice and nobody has anything worth saying.

How to restore order?  I don't.

The Committee derives its power using the classic tool of all dictatorships of the people - isolation.  To survive it must be a closed system where its tenets cannot be tested against another reality.  So instead of fighting the voices that want to make my world very small, I'm letting them deliberate in some dark corner of my mind while I go out and find other voices to listen to.

For me that means less writing, more reading.  Not with the intention of writing anything specific or of beating The Committee up with fresh ideas, but haphazardly - whatever takes my fancy at the moment which could be a steampunk romance novel, a classic of the Western Canon or (something I just discovered) fiscal sociology.

All good stuff.  Or at least I haven't read anything yet that I really regret having picked up. On the contrary, I'm finding some real gems (other perspectives) in unlikely places. What a pleasure it was to pick a book randomly off the shelf and discover a really fine essay by C.S. Lewis about why modern people should read ancient books.  I will leave you with a few of his words and I wish all of you a very restful Sunday.
"Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characterstic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook-even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides might be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united - united with each other and against earlier and later ages - by a great mass of common assumptions...
None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truth we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds..."

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Write your home bound friend. Post a photo. Tell us how beautiful she is. Tell us about her spirit. Yeah, will take photos for pancakes.

Blaze said...

Victoria, you and I realized yesterday how bizarre our world has become when we were chatting across an ocean and across cultures between Canada and France about academic papers on Eritrean diasapora taxes.

With that kind of topic for long distance conversation along with other challenges in your life, it is not surprising you may be feeling out of whack.

“Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass...It's about learning to dance in the rain.”
― Vivian Greene

You always seem to find a way to dance in the rain.

Christopher Perez said...

It's a very strange feeling to have honed one's skills to survive and thrive in a (in my case, American) corporate culture, only to realize these skills might not apply elsewhere in life.

As a somewhat extreme example of what I'm trying to say, I worked with someone who ran his family using the tools and techniques outlined in The Toyota Way. This is a manufacturing efficiency approach that some US corporations are currently using to identifying areas ripe for downsizing and then "fixing" whatever they've broken after a layoff. It seemed so terribly cold and aloof to me. Efficient? Maybe. An example of living life to it's fullest? Hardly. How do you fire your own child for not being as "efficient" as possible? I can't imagine how the man's wife could still be married to the bastard.

After being forced out of corporate life (too old, too expensive, knowing too much about how things really worked), my tendency is still to rise (somewhat) early, to shower, and to get on with the day. I still sometimes look for a "reward" for my continued "hard work." In short, life remains rather too well structured.

It seems life doesn't need to be lived like this. I see that some of the Parisians we live around have a different cadence for life. Significantly (to me at least), they put money in a different place on their hierarchy of What's Really Important.

There has to be a different way. I wonder if I'm too old to learn new tricks.

multiculturalmeanderings said...

Given your ongoing prodigious output, think you are being too hard on yourself!

I have been forced to slowdown given my cancer but have found a new rhythm, that without the adrenaline rush from being busy, gives me satisfaction.

But it is a change.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Mike, Thank you for the notes. Am still trying to catch up on my email (I am woefully behind).

@Blaze, We have the most interesting conversations. Who would have thought 2 years ago that we would find THAT sort of thing scintillating? :-)

@Christopher, Exactly! Looking for the "reward" for being virtuous. Anne Lamott has another good quotation about that which goes like this:

"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."

The last job I had (which I really hated) I had to fire a bunch of people. Did they do anything wrong? No. Was the company broke? No. Was it hard (legally) to fire people in France? It was actually pretty easy.

So why?

Some of them were older workers making "too much" money. Others could be replaced with cheaper contractors. In some cases management didn't like their attitude and so on and so forth. Not one of these people got canned because they weren't doing their job - on the contrary some of them were positively heroic in their efforts for the company. It was all about the company becoming more profitable and upper management looking efficient. There was nothign any of these folks could have done to save their jobs. It simply was not within their control. That experience made a HUGE impression on me.

@Andrew, I know that adrenaline rush well. :-) Do I miss it? Not sure yet....