“Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.” (Lisa M. Hayes)
When I first encountered George Eliot’s Middlemarch in my undergraduate days—a book that among much else explores the ideal we aspire to versus the real we attain—it was Dorothea Brooke who intrigued me. A young woman all fired up to reform the world and save humanity, Dorothea (after an unfortunate marriage choice and other muddles) must ultimately settle for doing good in a hundred smaller ways. Eliot doesn’t disparage Dorothea for what she fails to accomplish, but pays homage in the closing lines to her unwavering resolve to help people:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Recently, revisiting Middlemarch via the excellent 1994 BBC miniseries, I found myself drawn to Tertius Lydgate, the doctor determined to reform the haphazard (and hazardous) medical practices of his day. He, too, suffers an unhappy marriage, and his bent to self-righteousness doesn’t endear him to the local medical establishment who are jealous of his intelligence and ambitions. In summary, he fares less well than Dorothea:
Lydgate’s hair never became white. He died when he was only fifty … He had gained an excellent practice … His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.
I had forgotten this part of the book, or it had slipped off my Teflon-coated twenty-something self. Lydgate’s harsh appraisal of his life surprised me. He endures much, accomplishes much, and is generally a very admirable character. That he regarded himself as a failure saddened me. Where did such a negative self-assessment come from?
The Beginnings of Negative Self-Chatter
When I was a first grade teacher, I learned a number of things:
1) You cannot possibly repeat yourself enough;
2) You must always be in two, preferably three, places at once;
3) Take note of who the miscreants are on Day 1, then win them over.
But the most profound thing I learned was that somewhere between the end of kindergarten and the middle of first grade, we begin to measure ourselves against others, and to form a picture of where we fall on the human continuum. We start to judge our abilities, and those judgments are not often kind.
This ability to assess situations and people, to form judgments is developmental and necessary. If we couldn’t distinguish between the trustworthy and the unreliable, between a safe course of action and a dangerous one, we would not survive long. But its corollary is that we
often rank ourselves and our efforts against heroes past and present—Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai—and conclude we are inferior. I saw brilliant kids falter as they began to realize other kids were brilliant, too, and I understood the question they silently asked: Just how much more brilliant, and what does this say about me?
Reconciling Our Ideal and Real Selves
Like Dorothea Brooke or Tertius Lydgate, we each harbor an ideal self. Someone who makes their mark on the world in some profound, indelible way. The scientist who discovers a cure for cancer. The lawyer who takes on the big corporate interests and scores a game-changing win for environmental legislation. The writer whose novel brilliantly reveals the truth of our times. The teacher whose passion for learning changes the lives of her students forever. Our ideal self embraces the challenge, works tirelessly, brushes off setbacks, laughs in the face of adversity, and is beloved by all who champion the good.
If this seems an exaggeration, consider the thousands of films and books that feature a protagonist who against all odds takes on the impossible challenge and succeeds. We are drawn to these stories because in their characters’ indefatigable courage and devotion, we glimpse our best true self.
But the movie/book invariably ends and we’re back to real life in real time. A world where meals need fixing and kids need caring. Where cars break down and furnaces die. Where our control is limited and our efforts often go unremarked. Where the best-laid plans fly right out the door. And rejection truly hurts.
In this world, the rose-tinted glasses are off and we bump up against our very human limits not infrequently. In this world, we are not always so kind to ourselves. How could I be so stupid as to miss that opportunity? Only an idiot would have done that. Everyone else knows how this works except me. We threaten to kick ourselves for being too slow, too timid, too naïve, too lazy. Like my first graders, self-accusation follows self-assessment, and doubt follows both. But does all the negative self-chatter actually bring us closer to who we hope to be, or does it just bring us down?
Try A Little Tenderness
Writers, let me assure you, have ample opportunities for negative self-talk. We must constantly convince strangers who never asked us to write anything to look at what we’ve written. To read our short story, our novel, our screenplay. Most of them don’t, and many won’t even respond. We work in solitude, producing a product that is always subject to subjectivity itself. Your book is brilliant on Tuesday, godawful on Wednesday. Thursday, you salvage what you can, dump the rest, and continue. Any serious writer will vouch for the fact that the writing life is a constant zipline between ecstasy and despair. They will also tell you that they never quite “get it” the way they envisioned it. The ideal remains in the mind. The real is what tumbles out on the page. Yet somehow, out of this maelstrom good books are born. Sometimes, even great books.
Like the lives of children teachers do change. Like the lives of people biologists and doctors do save. Like the social injustices lawyers and activists do right. Maybe we don’t always stop the bad guy, win the girl/boy, and save civilization, but we are better than we know.
Last week, I found this card in a store: Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love (Brene Brown). The words surprised me in their resonance. As if their author understood my struggles, knew my vulnerabilities, and was kindly urging me to give my heart a rest.
Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love. Maybe we just need to cut ourselves some slack. Stop lambasting ourselves for all the ways (we think) we fall short, and begin counting all the ways we succeed. Offer ourselves the kind words we would offer a colleague, our children, a friend.
Eliot tells us the world regarded Tertius Lydgate as a man who “had gained an excellent practice,” a man whose “skill was relied on by many paying patients.”
But Lydgate only saw that “he had not done what he once meant to do.” Pity.