Friday, February 15, 2019

"What One Can"; Or, Self-fulfilling Prophecies Unpacked

by L DeSilva-Johnson (writer), Brooklyn, NY, January 28, 2008


Consider the verb "can" -- let us consider this deceptively simple phrase, turn it slowly over in our brains and on our tongues, and find its full flavor. It's a tricky one...

"I shall have no illusions and do only what I can."

I first came upon this phrase a few months ago, tucked deep away in fairly dense text, nearly lost in the muddle of it all. At first glance, it is deceptively simple. We understand it. We consider illusions. We consider what we "can" do... but wait. Read it again.

"I shall have no illusions and do only what I can." Hmmm.

Despite myself, despite the author and the book and the context (of no consequence here) the phrase took a liking to me. Or perhaps my mind was ripe for its planting.

In either case, I didn't invite it in. I didn't notice it, choose it, and make it my own. But slowly I have come to repeat it over to myself and others. Why? Well. In brief, I've come to see it as the ultimate mirror of sorts, as we go about our day:

It's the marriage of giving ourselves a break with kicking ourselves in the ass. It's being hard on ourselves while taking it easy. It is all things to all people... ok, but I'm getting away from myself. How so? and, why do I care? well... to understand and live by this phrase requires a certain accountability for one, and that to yourself. (Ultimately, the only gauge of any worth, but that puts the cart before the horse, as they say, as we start to understand "illusion"...)

So. Let's deconstruct the little guy:

"I shall have no illusions..." What's an illusion? Asking this of others I get, often, "fantasy," "dream," "the imaginary," and so forth. All abstract concepts. But how do we function in relationship to the illusory? Are these abstractions of our making or someone else's? And, importantly, are these positive concepts? How or how not?

I speak frequently about the idea that we formulate "narratives" for ourselves that allow us to function as members of society. We verbalize these out of necessity so that we can "communicate" with one another -- but what happens when we do this? On the one hand, in order to communicate we drop evocative or sensory components of experience, by necessity, in order to make "discourse," or the verbal language in which we participate.

At times, both to "explain" to ourselves and others what "happens," we pre-verbalize without speaking, ie, we "think" discursively. We can experience and perceive without verbalization, but once we "put into words" our experiences or ideas, we have created a version of them that changes its origin as soon as/as many times as it is uttered.

When someone else receives/repeats the information, it follows, there is fall off, ie, it loses some of its original "meaning," in as much as that was linked to the person of origin's perception/history/background/knowledge basis/etc...

You're thinking, "I thought we were talking about illusions?" and so we are: when we begin to verbalize, and utilize "words" not of our making we are playing into the reinforcement of mini-illusions (and sometimes huge ones). When you explain to yourself what is happening in your "marriage", ie, you are getting "divorced," that word looms large in your head, and it comes with its own illusory baggage, that it picked up like a comet through the atmosphere. It doesn't come clean. And the more you repeat it to yourself and others, the more it reifies/makes real that illusion. In turn, you are relating less and less to a non-named experience, ie: that which you are living and perceiving.

By naming/the creation of narrative, we create an illusory experience, and sell both ourselves and those experiences short. To use the example above:

You are getting a divorce. You are all mixed up in paperwork and the official version of the story. Perhaps it isn't "final," and therefore you are "separated." Perhaps you still live together after the divorce. Or consider another situation. You were never "married," but you lived together for a decade, and bore children together, and now are living seperately.

The fact is, we need to understand "divorce" (and all its accompanying paperwork) so that we can function, together. Otherwise, we would be living in chaos. However. These needs of communication and functionality start to hurt us -- far more than they organize us -- when we use them as crutches and daggers, as tools to legitimize actions and emotions.

And this is the key to the "illusion" part: how are you being hurt by your narratives? what stories do you tell yourself in order to legitimize what you do and how you do it? This can mean, "work is stressful," in which we tell ourselves that we are so tired we couldn't have possibly done that other thing we needed to do. On the other hand, it can also mean, "Hey -- I have to give myself a break! I see myself as superman/woman and I am having the tendency to slack off because I'm overworked." You are probably doing everything you can and more, sometimes, (while giving yourself a hard time about it because of your unrealistic illusions) and at other times, providing yourself with reasons why you can underperform (which you are likely to feel guilty about later, which in turn probably feeds the continuation and re-telling of the same "reasons," or, narrative illusion.

I believe it was in this same book (since you asked, it is not self help but rather French philosophy) that it suggested we are not responsible for our emotions and impulses, only our actions. Frankly, our terrible habits are not terrible in and of themselves. They are little flags that point out our illusions to us, little signs that help us know what we can and can't handle, on many levels.

So -- how can I "do only what I can"? Well, it involves a lot of self-criticism. Give yourself a hug. You can't do or be all things for or to all people. The fact that you can't do something perfectly all the time doesn't mean you shouldn't do it at all -- who's expecting perfection? and what does that mean? and who does that serve? But at the same time, think about the little lines you give yourself when you give into things you know you shouldn't... all the while considering whose "shouldn't" that is anyway, yours or someone else's!!!!

It's a consciousness thing, y'all, a consciousness thing. Giddy-up.

About the Writer

L DeSilva-Johnson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on "What One Can"; Or, Self-fulfilling Prophecies Unpacked

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By Lady D on January 28, 2008 at 08:43 pm

Good article, though a little too heady for me at the moment. The old phrase " thoughts are things" comes to mind.

Our lives are but a projection of our thoughts. It is the learning to think differently that is the trick.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on January 28, 2008 at 11:14 pm

thanks guys -- it's good for me to hear, for instance, that it is "heady" - I think a challenge I am trying to address is to bring a philosophical critical thinking element to the quotidian/lay-audience. Any thoughts/suggestions? I think there is a tendency all too often to shrug off philosophy/theory/etc. as part of some effete/intellectual/elitist thing to avoid and resent... do you agree? isn't this totally throwing the baby out with the bath? sometimes when I write about these topics I wonder how/if to change my language as to counter the tendencies that may be deeper in me than I realize, ie: regarding vocabulary, phrasing, or the like... thoughts?

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