hmm- finding out that the self isn’t easily defined negatively or in opposition to a host of things. to say that doing so is merely akin to discovering a sculpture by chipping away at extraneous marble is horribly misconceived; the sculptor arrogates the right to decide what is not needed simply because he already has a firm idea of what is. the temptation with defining yourself negatively occurs because it is the path of least resistance. the act of distancing is intrinsically safe, because you can’t and won’t be judged for what you don’t purport to place any value in. i am not an athlete, hence it doesn’t matter (except maybe in a cursory impressionistic sense) that i have dull reflexes and abysmal motor coordination, etc.
but as you continue on in this way, you must eventually find that the selfsame anonymity that swaddled you will swallow you whole. the ease with which dissociation can indemnify you from judgment clearly extends not just to the things you genuinely don’t care about, but even to those you merely don’t think you deserve to care about. those who like me have pretty much always belonged to ostensibly monolithically “elite” bands of people constantly run the risk of conflating identity with quintessence, of assuming that excellence is the necessary standard because it is the only standard, of thinking that performing at any lower standard inevitably strips the activity of all meaning or, what is possibly worse, relegates it to a “hobby”. once you begin to accept for yourself that this is the case, it ceases to matter that you don’t belong to any discrete group of “elites” any more, or that nobody is specifically or overtly influencing you in this manner – it sticks, like an axiom, and makes you tuck away the parts of you that you might justifiably have been proud of at one time, and before you know it you’re left with nothing to go on with, visibly less than the sum of your parts.
probably the only way to escape this paradox of apersonality is pretension: a painfully cognizant repudiation of the self. inevitably there’s a very thin line between bad-pretending and good-pretending, but the least that should be said i think is that pretension is value-neutral – any value judgment must be laid, if at all, upon the objective of the act of pretending and not the act itself. i don’t think i can express this much better than Lewis, who in any case planted the thought in my head:
What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.
(cs lewis, Mere Christianity)
i don’t suppose that the act of pretension necessarily cures the fear of mediocrity, but i think it could only be healthy to bear in mind that mediocrity is often a necessary precondition to success of any sort.