Well. The point is…
As soon as I’ve said these three words I hesitate, there is a moment where doubt enters into the stream of my thoughts and I ask myself “What is the point?” This can set in motion a chain reaction which turns thought against itself in an endless series of questions about the validity, correctness or coherence of what I am trying to get at.
Get to the point. Explain yourself. The demand for explanations can completely disrupt my flow.
This is just one of many small ways that we are often asked to justify ourselves. Why is what I do of value? Who or what is it good for? How does what I do bring anyone closer to a desired goal? Even without being asked such questions, I often implicitly proceed from the attitude which they express: focus on the effects, show why doing something entails some personal or social benefit, vindicate how this is better then that.
The rush towards justifying or explaining ourselves has become routine in many of our (inter)actions, the normal way of proceeding. It is there in my feeling that I have to do something today on my day off, I must be productive in some way for this day to have any worth, I need to be able to tell myself my time was not wasted. If I am unable to justify something in this way I can end up feeling inadequate or worth less. This affects both small and large aspects of life in a deep way.
A big change in my life right now revolves around being at the end of a four year research project without having a new job or project to turn to. I am going through a very uncertain time which is both exciting and challenging because it will bring something completely new while it also brings difficulties in very simple terms. I am not that worried that I won’t be able to cover my basic needs but I don’t find the absence of a regular income an easy circumstance either.
So when I think of the future it is easy to begin with a justification of what I want to do. How can I demonstrate that my skill set is valuable to someone and what is the best way to convince people that they should hire me or fund my projects? The trouble with approaching my situation in this way is that “what I want to do” very quickly gets subsumed to a logic of justification: I start envisioning my projects as a means to an end. In this way the focus shifts from away from doing as fulfilling a passion to working to fulfill an external (imagined) criteria in order to be able to do what I am passionate about.
Underneath this itch for justification and explanations lies a culture of comparison. We learn to compare ourselves to others as soon as we enter school – if not before – and in this way we begin to judge our own worth in terms of others’ performance and criteria. We start to centre our effort around doing well in comparison with our peers. In the words of Krishnamurti this is a subtle form of violence which is at the root of hurt. When we compare we build an image both of ourselves (what we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to do) and of others (what we consider the measure of success). When this image doesn’t hold up with reality (or with someone else’s image) we get hurt. On the other hand when we successfully project this image onto the world it hardens. Our Ego is bolstered.
The trouble is not just that we create a world of winners and losers in this way but that we miss an opportunity to do what we do without a sense of limitation or urgency: to flow with life rather than wading through layers of reflections, projections and images. To proceed without justifying ourselves in someone else’s terms.
I think this is something most of us can recognise in one way or another. It is also something that has become so normalised that we accept it most of the time. Why shouldn’t I be able to explain what I do? In times of austerity/downturn/crisis/hardship, why shouldn’t I have to justify my project? Why should I receive something over others? Is it not right that resources go to those who best can use them? Shouldn’t I accept that I have to play by the same rules as everyone else?
The point here is not that there is no value in being able to explain something succinctly or that we should not explore the reasons why we do what we do. It is that when we demand an explanation of ourselves and of others we too easily remove ourselves from the flow of life and enter into a world of projections about who we are, what we do and why we do it.
If it is true that comparison is a deeply engrained habit which is pervasive in our culture we won’t be able to stop comparing ourselves all at once. We’ll catch ourselves doing it on autopilot and we’ll want to hang on to those aspects of it that make us feel good. That’s why having a community that can support each of our efforts is invaluable. A community where failing is ok and where there is no expectation that we will do things right from the beginning. Where we can help remind each other that much of what seems ‘normal’ is far from a healthy state of affairs. And that’s one of the reasons why I am excited to be part of this little dialogue circle.
There we go, an ‘explanation’ of how I ended up here in this space!
What does it mean to proceed without comparing? How can we help each other interacting in ways that leave the attitude of comparison behind? Is it possible not to have an image of ourselves and to avoid projecting that image on our surroundings? These are questions to keep in mind as we pick up the dialogue threads this autumn.