Categories
Education

The Role of a Tutor

“Children are educated by what the grownup is and not by what he says.”

Carl Jung (Archetypes of the Collective Unconcious)

I’ve been a private tutor for the better part of 7 years now and I have to say that it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s also the thing I think I’m best at, considering that every semester my demand is overwhelming. Every semester, I connect with most of my students in a meaningful way and I’m often told explicitly that I’m the best educator they’ve ever worked with.

I understand I have a serious bias here. Of course I think I’m an amazing tutor! All the students that love me let me know and all the students that don’t go off and find another tutor. So I don’t really know what people think when they aren’t happy with my services. The thing is though, I’ve only had a handful of families over my 7 years of tutoring that decided not to work with me, and every time it was because of reasons unrelated to my competency.

Despite the consistent, positive, and generous feedback I get from my tutoring expertise I still struggle with believing that I, Christopher Mukiibi, know enough to tell people “the truth.” I’m constantly worried that what I’m telling people isn’t true, outdated, or foolish so I’m (maybe to a fault) always learning about the best ways to teach, connect with, and engage my students.

I’ve had educators who wasted my time, squandered potential, and didn’t take responsibility for their presence and I found that to be some of the most abhorrent behavior I’ve ever had to endure. Educators have the power to change the world and unlock the limitless potential of the future, if only they gave it everything. To say that I will measure up to that standard isn’t realistic, but I do try my hardest to strive for that ideal in every way that I can.

And here I am writing this post. My way of articulating what an excellent tutor is, what they do for their students, and how they conduct themselves. At least in the capacity that I can.

This piece, like many of my other pieces, is part of a bigger picture that I hope will enlighten the minds of the future, but I also want it to be a stand-alone piece that demonstrates one of the better parts of me.

A lot of people see tutoring as a cheap profession, but it’s serious and has detrimental consequences if done wrong. By the time my students see me, they usually have little faith in their educational institution. Once I step into their home and assume the role of tutor, the student will unconsciously associate me with the entire education institute. Suddenly, I’m no longer just Chris the Tutor, but I am their representation of the education whether I like it or not. What I am to them is what education is to them.

If I’m useless, so is education.

If I’m interesting, so is education.

If I’m deplorable, so is education.

If I’m admirable, so is education.

Who we are to others is always much bigger than we think.

So as a way to do my part, I’m going to explain the proper way a tutor must conduct themselves in order to ensure a better future with powerful and independent thinkers who have faith and respect for the institutions that have come before them.


Understand the Power

Most people don’t see a tutor as a position of power.

Unless you’re the student.

The student is aware that they don’t know enough and that the tutor probably knows the answers. There’s an innate power imbalance when a tutoring session starts, especially when the student doesn’t know the tutor very well and it’s up to the tutor to take responsibility for that imbalance.

A good tutor must be friendly and approachable. These people are vulnerable and we need to be able to provide the space for them to be vulnerable and wrong. The tutoring session cannot continue if the tutor hasn’t given the student an opportunity to show their underbelly, so to speak. The best way to do this is to focus on the relationships – get to know the student and who they are as a person. Likewise, let them know who you are. Connection is everything.

People work with people – humanize everything and move with ease.

Initiate Support

Students typically don’t like asking for help, especially if we’re dealing with boys. Asking for help is implicitly admitting that we’re wrong and don’t know what to do. Some students won’t even admit this to themselves, so it is up to us to ask them if they need help. The good tutor initiates support. Sometimes the students have no issues with this and you can just get down to brass tax, but if you see that the student is stuck and won’t ask for help, be the helping hand.

No one wants to feel vulnerable, and extending the helping hands makes it a little easier to deal with.

Personally, I make a small effort to have the students ask for help because it primes their minds to take in new information but I am sensitive to my student’s emotional states when I’m doing this.

Clarify the Task

Sometimes students don’t know what to do simply because they don’t understand the instructions. My first line of support, so to speak, is to clarify the task. I just ask the question in a different way, usually in simpler language. Most of the time the students understand the question when I ask it differently.

As a tutor, our job is to meet our students at whatever level they’re at and illuminate the path. In my post, Understanding Development and Mentors, I talk about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and it’s the tutor’s role to meet their student right at the edge of their competency, which is known as the ZPD. The ZPD is where productive tutoring happens, it’s where learning happens.

Provide Guidance with Questions

Too many tutors just straight-up give out the answers to their students.

THIS HURTS THEM IN THE LONG RUN.

Part of our learning process is suffering, pain. It’s one of the many tragedies of life, but it’s not needless. The negative emotion helps the information stick. The systems in our brain that we’re developed for negative emotion were originally used as a survival mechanism. For example, when we touch a hot stove we forever remember to never touch a hot stove because it was painful. If we just give the answer, the student may know it for the time being, but it won’t stay for the medium to long term. Searching for an answer can be a tough and painful process, but it’s where transformative learning takes place.

As a tutor, sometimes we may need to give an answer. Maybe the student won’t ever get the answer no matter how hard they try, that’s fine. It’s our role to meet them wherever they are, but we’re calling upon the highest parts of them. Most of the time, it’s best to lead them with questions. I try to answer their questions with questions.

Check for Understanding

Part of our role is helping the students understand the material, not get their assignments done. This can look different for different classes, but the main idea is the same. There are certain concepts that the student is responsible for knowing and it is the tutor’s job to assist in making those concepts clear for the student.

I usually check for understanding towards the end of sessions in the form of Active Recall questions. I try think along the lines of what is the main idea of the lesson and can the student explain it back to me?

Step Away, but Check Back In

This goes hand in hand with letting the students struggle through their work. It is the role of the tutor to help the students understand their concepts and part of that is letting them struggle on their own.

This would probably surprise many parents, but I spend a solid portion of the sessions just waiting for the students to get the answer or to work out problems.

I would try to have little tasks on my phone or tablet to work on so I don’t accidentally help my students more than they need to. (I do this more often than I would like to admit.) But it is crucial for the student to struggle through the work.

The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.

Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching)

The real masters of tutoring do (next to) nothing.

Teach Procedures and Concepts, Not Answers

Do not teach answers or particular questions. I would argue that it’s crucial for the tutor to be familiar with answers and particular questions, but it would be our role to teach the procedures and concepts associated with solving those problems.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

Teach a student a question and help him for a day. Teach a student a concept (or procedure) and help him for a lifetime.

Hands down, the most valuable thing I got from getting a degree in Chemical Engineering is learning how to solve complex and difficult problems. All the individual questions that I learned most definitely left my brain, but the concepts and procedures are still with me so I can solve similar types of problems.

Additionally, it’s much more difficult to forget a concept as opposed to answers to specific questions.

Encourage Contructive Habits

As tutors, we’re in a special position to influence our students in a powerful way. We aren’t teachers or their teachers, so the authority is slightly different. In my expereicne and many other tutors I know, students open up to their tutors in a special way and hold their opinion in high regard (as long as the tutor conducts themselves in a way that deserves that). On top of that, we’re providing support in a place where they have none so the students are more likely to take what we say as true.

This is a great privilege and responsibility and we should treat it as such. The good tutor encourages constructive habits like asking questions, attempting difficult questions, voluntarily taking responsibility, pushing themselves to improve, and many others.

Do not take your position for granted, be a force for good.

Be Compassionate Towards Their Struggles

It’s hard to do something well the first time. No one is good at anything when they first do it and we need to have empathy for that.

For tutors and educators, the material is literally easier to do because we’ve had the time to develop and strengthen the neural pathways necessary to run those concepts. If we’re learning it for the first time, we need to understand that we would also struggle regardless of who we are.

I often reflect back on the times when I struggle with certain concepts. 9/10 times my students make the exact same mistakes I made when I was learning a subject. This also gives me an edge in pinpointing their mistakes – they’re all the same one’s I made!

Admit Defeat, but Don’t Give Up

We have to be able to admit when we don’t know an answer, but we also cannot leave our students dead in the water. Have a bank of resources to refer back to when you don’t know something. This is much easier in the 21st century. I have a google drive folder with pdfs of textbooks, workbooks, lecture slides, and notes for all the subjects I specialize in. I also recommend connecting with other tutors in your area that are willing to help answer questions when you get stuck. Currently, I’m working on a resource bank on my website that educators and my students can use.

Promote Academic Honesty

Like I said earlier, tutors have a special kind of authority when it comes to academics. Our students look to us to learn what is right and wrong with academics. We have to take this role on with seriousness and responsibility. As tutors, we represent the institution of academics and the students are developing their relationship to the academic institution through us. This means how we approach our work will influence how our students will approach theirs.

Here’s where it gets serious, the way people approach their work (or anything else) also influences their relationship with themselves. The approach of their work influences how they know themselves and what kind of people they think they are. This decides which challenges people are willing to take or ignore, which ultimately decides their lives.

This may seem dramatic for some, but as I like to say we cannot fathom the impact of our actions. As tutors, we have to take on the responsibility of being the vehicle that people use to develop their relationships with not only academic institutions, but all institutions.

I’ve used my position to help students see that the whole system isn’t set up to hurt or control them. They can see this through me. Through my actions, I show them that there are parts of this world that actually have their back and want them to win.

With that said, plagiarizing is a weak move. Don’t give them work that they can turn in as their own. Turning in “bad” work is better than turning in fake work.

We can also promote academic honesty by discouraging dishonesty. Suffocating the behavior right when we see it is the best way from keeping things whole. I try not to encourage things that aren’t sustainable over the long term.

Lead Them to the Answer

People can only perceive what they can conceive. So just telling them the answer will be like talking to a wall. If we didn’t think of it, then we can’t perceive it. As tutors, we need to lead them to the answer. They need to see how the answer comes to be and why it’s important. Just giving the answer is like showing someone something that doesn’t exist.

Things stick with us when we come to the conclusions on our own.

I know I mentioned this in other sections, but I want to emphasize that this goes along with the idea that the tutor meets the student at their level of understanding and guides them through. This means waiting until the students get the right answer and rewarding them for hitting the mark. It’s okay to nudge them in the right direction, but telling them the exact answer never works in the long run.

Be a Mentor

Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone could use more guidance. As a tutor, we have a unique position to offer that mentorship and wisdom. The good tutor has a desire to pass along knowledge that they would love to have known earlier. The good tutor suffers for the greater good, learning the material the hard way and teaching the lessons so other’s don’t have to.

If we can take on the role of mentor, our tutoring automatically levels up because now we aren’t just there for the student’s academic performance, but for the student as a whole.

Contextualize the Information

I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me “When am I ever going to need this?” This is a classic case of not understanding the context – how the information fits into the bigger picture of their life. Context is specific to every individual and how something fits into my life will be different from how that same thing fits into someone else’s.

The good tutor helps the student make this connection. They help them see why it’s important to educate themselves and learn what’s in front of them. The trick is framing the information in a way that is relevant to that particular student. In order to do this effectively, we have to know what the student is aiming at. What kind of life they want, what kind of things they want to do. When those goals are made clear, putting most things in context is fairly easy.

If a student isn’t clear on exactly what they are aiming for, I try to show them that their academic challenges are opportunities to develop themselves in the face of things they don’t want to do. Life, regardless of which path we take, is full of things that we don’t want to do and knowing ourselves as the type of people who can get shit done even if we don’t want to will give us a serious advantage in life.

Putting things in context will help us understand the why.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Go Deeper

The good tutor must be able to take each concept 7 times deeper than it needs to go.

There are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the student may not understand how the first method works. If that happens, the tutor needs to be able to explain the concept in a different way. The second is that the tutor needs to be able to learn and update new methods of problem solving when they encounter one. Both of these reasons require a deeper knowledge of the concepts.

The deeper knowledge also prevents us from simply memorizing different ways of solving problems or concepts. The deeper knowledge allows us to accurately synthesize the data so we can present the ideas in a way that our student can understand. Each students has unique perceptions and a deeper knowledge can ensure that we accurately communicate those ideas no matter how unique.

Own Your Presence

The good tutor takes responsibility of their presence. We own 100% of the feelings of our student and take it upon ourselves to moderate our behavior accordingly.

Sometimes we need to be tough, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to give the answer, sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes we need to speed it up, sometimes we need to slow down.

The flow of the session depends on the student. The tutor should be able to adjust to the needs of the student, not the other way around. Some tutors expect the student to form to their methods of teaching, but that creates resistance and unnecessary effort for both parties.

We can’t force a horse to drink, we can only lead it to the trough. But coming from a place of 100% ownership, we are able to think of solutions we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Be Flexible

The good tutor is flexible. We must be able to move and keep up with the student. Sometimes that means speeding it up, sometimes that means slowing it down. Either way we need to be capable of both.

Changing our teaching style to accommodate for their understanding is one of our primary roles. While, if possible, the primary role of the student is to open their minds and pay enough attention to understand the information regardless of how it is presented.

The good tutor is also easy going and not too rigid. Flexibility creates an ease which encourages an environment of growth and vulnerability. Additionally, flexibility can mean to be rigid when necessary as well. Sometimes structure could be the the environment we’re looking for.

Maintain Visions

The best tutors can perceive and maintain visions for their students, even if they can’t for themselves. Most of the time, tutoring is not a quick process and lasting results take a long time to see. The only way to see them is to maintain a vision of the long term. The good tutor sees this and holds it as the target even when the student is blind to it. When things get stressful, we shorten our time horizons which means we lose our vision for the future and stop moving towards it. If the tutor can keep this vision alive for the student during times of hardship, then the student is much more likely to actually reach their goals. The tutor needs to be able to see what the student cannot.

Maintaining a vision is the bare minimum to realizing a goal, but it’s hard to do on our own.

Focus Intensely

A good tutor can focus, knows how to focus. A tutoring session should never be limited but the attention span of the tutor. If it’s easier for the tutor to get off track than the student, then the student is better off working on their own.

Now if you have trouble focusing don’t think that you can’t be a phenomenal tutor. Focus and attention span is like a muscle and can be improved over time with tracking. When I first started tutoring I had to push myself to flawlessly focus for an hour, but now I can go 2-3 hours without an issue.

Pay Respects to The Before & After

A good tutor understands that the world is loaned to us from our children, but also given to us by our parents. So it is up to the tutor to embody gratitude to the ones who came before us and enrich ourselves with their greatest accomplishments and ideas, but also pay respect to the minds that come after us and nourish them properly.

If we can arm our future with the wisdom of the past, we make the world better.

The good tutor learns how to plant from the ones who came before and plant seeds so the ones who come after can enjoy beautiful flowers. I try to leave bits of knowledge so that the students can make good choices when the time comes. Most of the time they don’t make the good choice, but sometimes they do and that would not have happened without the seeds.

Match Their Efforts

The good tutor matches their student’s efforts. There is no use in trying harder than the pupil.

All of our victories are our own and we should not take that from them.

When we meet the student who is ready to give it their all, we rise up.

The tutor should never be the limiting reagent.

Track Their Cognitive Load

A good tutor is attuned to their student’s cognitive load. Cognitive load can be thought of as our brain’s processing power. As I mentioned earlier, a 1-hour session was exhausting and it usually is for the student too. Now I can do 2-3 hour sessions without even thinking about it, but I have to keep in mind that my students don’t perform at that level.

Sometimes parents just want to have the sessions go as long as possible, but the student is only capable of working for an hour. It’s our job as the tutor to recognize when the student is tired and stop the session if the student isn’t processing adequately. There is no use in pushing our brains to work when we’ve hit our cognitive load limits. All we get there are diminishing returns.


This was a pretty long list, but it’s not entirely comprehensive either. Like my other posts, this is full of methods and tactics, but what I want is for people to understand the principles behind them As so that they may create tactics that are more effective than mine.

Tutoring is a beautiful thing.

We shape thinkers. We open minds. We design the future. We help people realize their potential.

Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

The Hero of Heroes: The Osiris Myth & Attention

“Where you spend your attention is where you spend your life.”

James Clear

The Hero of Heroes

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with discovering what makes people win. I used to think what made someone good at one thing was different than what made them good at another, and while there is some truth to that, I’ve noticed that there are a few things that make people good at everything. It’s almost like a Pareto distribution of skills necessary for winning. There are a handful of skills and traits that we can learn which can help us get to the top of all the pyramids, so to speak.

While analyzing the “winners” of our society, I’ve noticed that they all possess certain trains to get to the top of their fields. What makes a successful professor is different from what makes a successful athlete is different from what makes a successful musician, or businessman, or mother, or soldier, or fashion designer…you get the idea. Each one of these people has developed themselves in the areas they need to in order to reach the top of their game.

Well, life is more than just one game, it’s a series of games.

So that poses the question, what are the traits and skills we need to develop to win the series of games?

In some ways, that’s different from what it takes to win one particular game, but in other ways, it’s also the same. That led to me looking for patterns, not only in successful people of my time but in the heroes of the myths of all cultures.

For generations, even predating written history, people have been trying to figure out this question and share their findings with the ones who inherit their world. They shared these ideas through stories of heroes that would display the traits and ways of being necessary for “winning.”

Let me give an example, Hercules is a kind, strong, brave, and persistent young man and because of that, the story ends well for him. When little boys are told the story of Hercules, they want to emulate his heroic qualities and be one themselves. Adults are happy to tell them this story because they know (on a subconscious level) that these lessons will help the children in winning the game of games, life. The same can be found in religious stories, ancient myths, and popular culture. The Avengers is a perfect example of this. Spider-man is my personal favorite.

So I started thinking, what if I analyzed what was common among all of these hero myths?

Will I find the skills needed for success everywhere?

I don’t think I know exactly what will make someone successful everywhere, but I have compiled some commonalities between the heroes in every story I’ve come across. This is a pretty big idea so I’m going to be going over each of them with their own blog post.

These series of posts will not be an exhaustive list of these traits and skills, but they are the ones that I’ve found to be most important. This post is going to focus on the power of attention.

Attention

Eye of Horus

This story has a similar arc to Disney’s famous The Lion King, one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ll be making various connections to The Lion King and it’s relevance to the modern world throughout the story.

This story is one of the oldest, but most elaborate and influential, myths of the Egyptian Gods. This is the Osiris Myth.

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It begins with the god Osiris, the King of Egypt, ruling a fair and prosperous kingdom. Osiris is extremely wise and well-liked by his subjects. He’s harsh with his judgments but fair with his punishments.

Osiris is analogous to Mufasa in The Lion King. They are both a representation of The Wise King archetype.

Osiris was married to Isis, the Goddess of health, marriage, and fertility. They had a good marriage and Isis was lovingly devoted to Osiris. Osiris also had a brother named Set, the God of deserts, disorder, and violence.

Isis seems to be the ancient Egyptian representation of the anima. Set is analogous to Scar from The Lion King. Like Scar and Mufasa, Set’s relationship to Osiris represents “the hostile brothers” archetype.

Set was jealous of Osiris and his power. He wanted to be the King of Egypt. Osiris knew his bother had these feelings but chose not to acknowledge them. Instead, he was willfully blind to his brother’s hostility. Set used his brother’s voluntary ignorance against him and killed Osiris. Set chopped Osiris up into little pieces and spread his body parts across Egypt.

These different pieces ended up representing the different districts in ancient Egypt and were thought to be the origins of their old borders.

Mufasa was killed by Scar because Mufasa did not want to see the evil in his brother. He chose to be willfully ignorant. Just like in The Lion King, Set was able to kill Osirus because Osirus didn’t want to see the evil in Set. This is one of the biggest lessons I took from this story: Willful ignorance is strong enough to take down a good, powerful, and wise leader. Or maybe the ancient Egyptians were trying to say that only willful ignorance is strong enough to take down a wise, powerful, and good leader. Either way, willful ignorance is destructive and the forces working against us will use our ignorance to catch us off guard. Choosing to not see the evil will kill us, maybe when others may need us the most.

Of course, when a king dies it’s big news and it’s not long until Isis finds out. She’s furious and goes around to each district gathering Osiris’s parts. Eventually, she finds his phallus and impregnates herself. Once she’s pregnant, she leaves for the underworld where she can raise her baby, the hero, Horus the Younger, away from the disorder and violence of Set’s reign.

Horus the Younger is commonly depicted as a falcon-headed man because he represents attention. The agent of attention is born from the wise king and the anima. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Horus is raised in the underworld. To the modern person, the underworld has connotations of Hell or other terrible places but in ancient Egyptian mythology, the underworld was another dimension where the gods could watch the humans from afar. Horus, the agent of attention, is raised in a world separate from the one he will inherit. Similar to how children are raised in environments separate from “the real world.”

This is where the Osiris myth diverges from The Lion King a bit. In The Lion King, Simba (Horus analogous) “grows up” with Timon and Pumba singing Hakuna Matata, whereas Horus was raised in the underworld by Isis. Those are obviously different, but in some ways they are similar. Both of our heroes are learning the ways of the world in a safe haven away from the real burden of responsibility.

As Horus gets older, he learns the truth about his father. That Set usurped him and is running Egypt into the ground. Horus decides to return to Egypt, confront Set, and avenge his father.

This is like when Simba decides to leave Timone and Pumba to go take his rightful place as king. This is the quintessential coming of age story (at least for boys), a boy leaves his friends so he can go an answer the calling to be greater. Usually catalyzed by a woman, in Simba’s case, it’s Nala.

When Horus returns, Set tries to win Horus over the same way he did with Osiris. But Horus has something is father didn’t, the gift of true attention. With his attention, Horus could see Set for what he was, an agent of betrayal and malevolence. When Horus confronts Set, they have a great battle. Set tears out one of Horus’s eyes, but Horus ultimately defeats him in the end. Since gods cannot truly be killed, Horus banishes Set from the Kingdom.

This is one of my favorite parts of the story because it has so many of the lessons that make this story worthwhile. 1) Attention is the one thing that will give us a fighting chance against the forces of malevolence. 2) When we are confronting the forces of malevolence and disorder, we will get hurt in a serious way. 3) We’ll never truly destroy the forces that are working against us, we can only fight them off and make them leave temporarily.

Horus picks up his eye and returns to the underworld, where Isis had kept all the pieces of Osiris. Horus gives Osiris his eye, restores attention to the old corpus of wisdom, and together they both rule Egpyt into prosperity and peace.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh represented the union between Osiris and Horus. A good ruler needs to have the wisdom of the past as well as attention to the present in order to lead the people into a prosperous future. I think it’s great that Horus knew that to do what’s best for Egypt, he needed to give attention to the wisdom of his dead father. There is powerful meaning to be found in the journey of giving the attention of the youth to the wisdom of the old that runs deep within the soul of every human being. There are so many myths that depict that exact journey. It is not solely attention nor wisdom that will lead us to freedom and prosperity, but the union of both in a way that allows us to recognize and overcome the forces working against us.

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Attention is what’s needed to brings us to the top of every hierarchy and overcome the forces of evil, so to speak. This idea has been expressed through archetypal images and myths throughout history and cross-culturally.

What’s at the top?

I think the image on the back of the American dollar bill depicts this perfectly. Attention is the thing that is at the top of the pyramid, but it’s also more than that too. Attention transcends the rest of the pyramid, it’s almost as if the ones who are paying attention are no longer part of the rest of the pyramid. (I’ve noticed this to be true in my experiences as well.)

Attention is the thing that will take us to the top of every hierarchy and overcome the forces of evil, so to speak.

But why? Why does attention sit on top of the hierarchy?

I’m not sure if I’ve come up with the answer to this question, but one of the answers I’ve come up with is that with the power of attention we can plan for the unknown, create the future, avoid danger, and predict the future.

I believe this is a huge part of the reason why so many internet influencers (and the Kardashians) make so much money. When you harness people’s attention, you have the ultimate power. Our attention is the most powerful thing any of us has to offer. That’s why companies are willing to pay millions of dollars for advertisements and people will dedicate their lives to being famous. Attention is the real currency, everything else is illusory.

Paying attention to where we pay attention is critical for living a powerful and fulfilled life. When we pay attention to our minds, we can improve our mental health. When we pay attention to ur bodies, we can improve our physical health. When we pay attention to anything, we can improve it. What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets improved. Attention is the first step to all of that.

I recommend looking into mindfulness exercises and practices. Meditation is a fantastic way I try to train myself in paying attention to my mind and myself. There’s so much research today that grounds the value of paying attention to ourselves in hard science.

Pay attention to where you pay attention. It’s the most valuable thing we have to offer.

Categories
Education Lifestyle

The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2)

“Life is to man, in other words, to will, what chemical re-agents are to the body: it is only by life that a man reveals what he is, and it is only in so far as he reveals himself that he exists at all. Life is the manifestation of character, of the something that we understand by that word; and it is not in life, but outside of it, and outside time, that character undergoes alteration, as a result of the self-knowledge which life gives. Life is only the mirror into which a man gazes not in order that he may get a reflection of himself, but that he may come to understand himself by that reflection; that he may see what it is that the mirror shows. Life is the proof sheet, in which the compositors’ errors are brought to light.”

Arthur Schopenhauer (The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; On Human Nature)

Beyond Creation

In my post, The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 1), I talk about how many of us fail to recognize the significance of the relationship with ourselves, the different aspects that make up this relationship, and how we can use this knowledge to turn our biggest enemy into our biggest ally. It’s difficult work, but doing it is worthwhile and enriches our lives in a beautiful way.

However, utilizing the knowledge of the relationship with ourselves is more than just creating ourselves. It is also accepting and not avoiding ourselves. Meditating on our flaws, contradictions, and inconsistencies, then embracing them. What I’m suggesting is deeper than “self-love“, especially since that term has been bastardized in the modern world.

Taking on the responsibility of developing an integrated and healthy relationship with ourselves is a form of true love and acceptance of all that we are, in our beauty and catastrophe.

The more I write about this topic, the more I discover how much I cannot cover in these blog posts, so I’m going to hone in and just focus on one section of this idea. This post is going to focus on the archetypically negative side of ourselves. The sides of ourselves that many of us like to reject, ignore, and avoid at all costs.

Existence is the positive, the good, and the light. But it is also the negative, the bad, and the darkness. To be a human being is to understand that both the good and bad lies within our soul. Pretending that we are only good (or that we are not bad) ignores half the story and, more often than not, causes more harm than good.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago)

The human mind is commonly compared to a horse and it’s rider. The horse being the unconscious mind, and the rider being the conscious mind. It’s the rider’s job to direct the horse to a desired goal, similar to the conscious mind to the unconscious mind.

From what I can tell, our psyches are more than one horse and one rider. We have many horses and it is our moral obligation to pay attention to our horses and how they may act. Similar to how people are responsible for their pets.

If we cannot comprehend that we’re dangerous, then that horse is without a rider, so to speak, and it’s free to cause as much meyhem as it will.

We have horses that we purposely try to reject, ignore, and avoid. Since these horses are usually archetypically negative, they are commonly conflated with pain and suffering. However, the structures of suffering are built right into existence and we must learn to contend with it or we’re doomed to chasing phantoms forever.

“Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.”

Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)

Good Children and Repression

“When one tries desperately to be good and wonderful and perfect, then all the more the shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive. People cannot see that; they are always striving to be marvellous, and then they discover that terrible destructive things happen which they cannot understand, and they either deny that such facts have anything to do with them, or if they admit them, they take them for natural afflictions, or they try to minimize them and to shift the responsibility elsewhere. The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil.”

Carl Jung (Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930–1934)

A fantastic example of repression are in children who consider themselves “good.”

Good children can be spotted as the ones who finish their homework early, are a little shy, always try to help their parents, and maybe even have neat handwriting. Good children strive to be perfect and on most measures may even match up with these extraordinary expectations.

The real insidious danger of the good child lies in other people not thinking anything is wrong with them. From a surface level analysis, it’s easy to conclude that there isn’t anything wrong with these kids. Adults will shift their focus, and attribute most of the problems to children who are causing conspicuous trouble, even though a little trouble is necessary for a healthy psyche.

Since good children are always doing what’s expected of them, they constantly repress their own desires and inner feelings.

This can be from a number of reasons.

Maybe a parent is depressed and overwhelmed. The child notices this and believes that this parent can’t take anymore trouble. So the good child does everything they can to make sure they aren’t the source of anymore trouble, ever.

Or perhaps one parent is a violent angry perfectionist who explodes at any behavior that’s less than perfect.

No matter the reason, a need for excessive compliance is not natural or healthy and should be treated like the danger it really is.

When a child develops a need for excessive compliance, they become over encumbered with secrets and repress their inner wants for the sake of complying with others.

This repression could take the form of psychosomatic symptoms like twitches, sudden emotional outbursts, excessive bitterness, or irritability. The child may not even be able to identify the reason for the psychosomatic symptoms because they have such little familiarity with their own feelings.

The good child does not have access to the privilege of other people being willing or able to tolerate their imperfections. A privilege necessary for a mentally healthy child.

Good children typically do not have the privilege to express their negative emotions and still be loved or accepted by people around them. In a situation like that, it’s no surprise that someone could conclude that the only way they’ll be accepted is through acting good all the time.

The good child may grow to believe that their personal wants and desires are inappropriate.

This causes a detachment from their bodies and emotions. People like this have a difficult time forming healthy relationships with others later in life. Or, as a response to the repression, the good child may give in to their inner desires too much creating a whole new pathology.

Adult life is full of moments when we need to “break the rules” or act in ways that may upset people. Good children end up having issues as they get older, because they tend to follow the rules and try not to upset people. Without either of these abilities, the good child is damned to a life of mediocrity and people pleasing.

The dangers of repression can take many different forms and don’t just apply to good children. Aiming to understand the shadow sides of ourselves is the path to proper maturity.

Proper maturity involves a deep integration of our less than perfect sides as well as our dark sides. Accepting ourselves in our beauty and catastrophe is crucial to building a strong foundation for the relationship with ourselves.

Establishing a Foundation

Human beings are creators through Logos. We create our lives through our speech. We invent worlds and stories through our conversations and live in them. Most of the time we can’t tell the difference between our conversational world and the “real” world. We build relationships through conversation and the relationship with ourselves is no different.

Most people wouldn’t tell their child to lie as much as they can to get what they want. Many of us know, either from personal experience or otherwise, that lying is a terrible long term strategy. If we were to catch someone lying to us, it would be upsetting and we wouldn’t be as willing to trust them in the future. We also know that if we were caught lying to someone else, they would feel the same way about us.

However, there is one person whom we don’t mind lying to and I bet you can guess who it is…

Ourselves.

Healthy relationships are built on honesty. In order to have a healthy relationship with ourselves, we must be able to be honest with ourselves. Honesty is a solid foundation that must be established first before any relationship can be built. If we try to build a relationship without honesty, sooner or later it will all come crashing down.

Honesty comes when we choose to stop lying to ourselves, but in order to do that we need to understand why we lie to ourselves.

We lie to avoid pain.

We love to lie about all of the problematic aspects that take tremendous effort to alter including but not limited to, our careers, relationships, health, habits, or ideologies.

It’s easier to attempt to elicit sympathy from others and ourselves than be honest with our inadequacies. The truth is we could change these things about our lives, but we lie and say we can’t. The best part is no one can call us on our bluff because we are lying to ourselves! Modern people have learned to avoid responsibility, even though adopting it provides us with meaning.

We lie to think well of ourselves.

We lie to not feel inadequate.

We lie because we are angry with people we are supposed to love and the matters we are angry about are petty.

We lie because it’s easy.

We lie because telling the truth makes us responsible.

We lie because if we don’t it will be ourselves holding us back and nothing or no one else.

As long as we understand the drives within us, then maybe we could see past the lies and look at our lives honestly. While the lying satiates us in the present, we will be forced to deal with the truth later. We can choose to confront our lies willingly, or let them take us unexpectedly when we are older. When we confront them willingly, we prove ourselves to be braver and establish a solid foundation to build the bravery upon. That bravery now has the freedom to grow into something much bigger.

No matter which choice we make, it will be painful. The idea that freedom is on the other end of suffering is a tragedy. Everyone deals with their own tragedy of life in their own way and lying to ourselves isn’t the only trick up our sleeve. This can be different for each individual and I recommend looking into methods of coping with the tragedy of life. I wrote a little bit about other methods we use to deal with our own tragedy in my post Proclivity for Comfort.

Here are some of the popular maneuvers that we use to lie to ourselves:

Distraction & Addiction

This can look like porn, news, drugs, work, etc. I go a little deeper about distraction in Proclivity for Comfort.

Manic Cheeriness

Repressed sadness can often display as intense happiness. The rejection of negative or sad emotions is so deep that we don’t let ourselves feel any sadness at all resulting in an overly happy affect.

Irritability

Being irritated is a fantastic indicator that something is wrong. However, general irritability is a cover up for unspecified issues. Honing in on elevated articulation is key for combating general irritability.

Denigration

Destructivly critiquing ourselves or others. Any fool can tear something down, but it takes substantial effort to critique then offer a solution. Most of the time, denigration is misdirected energy. Talking shit helps no one, focus on what really needs fixing.

Censoriousness

Being over critical of ourselves or other people is another sign that we are misguiding our efforts. Usually, it’s easier to find the mistakes in everything else, rather than fixing the fault where it really matters.

Defensiveness

Defensiveness comes when we have something to prove. We only feel like we need to prove something if we feel like what we are isn’t what we would like to show. If we understood what we are, accepting both our strengths and weaknesses, then maybe we would lose the need to prove we are more than what we are.

Cynicism & Dispair

These come with the loss of naïveté. When we first encounter more chaos than we can process, we inevitably lose our childlike view of the world. Suddenly, not everyone is a friend and life is no longer fun and games. While it’s easy to ride that train straight to Hell, true wisdom and freedom comes from integrating our childlike wonder with our newfound understanding of malevolence and destruction. Keep the child alive in us, but let the adult really run the show.

Utilizing Anxiety

“We should not try to ‘get rid’ of a neurosis, but rather to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is.”

Carl Jung (Civilization in Transition)
Enlightenment through Anxiety – Big thanks to Academy of Ideas

Before we get into using anxiety to our advantage, let’s discuss why we get anxiety in the first place.

“The distinctive characteristic of the human being, in contrast to the merely vegetative or the merely animal, lies in the range of human possibility and in our capacity for self-awareness of possibility. Kierkegaard sees man as a creature who is continually beckoned by possibility, who conceives of possibility, visualizes it, and by creative activity carries it into actuality.” 

Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)

Human beings have a special capacity to project possible scenarios into the future. We can think about how events could play out without actually having to act them out in real life. A lot of this type of processing happens in our prefrontal cortex, I talk about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind. This gives us a huge advantage when it comes to survival and undoubtedly a huge contributor to our reign over the animal kingdom.

But it’s not without a price.

Choosing which potential projection to bring into reality is how we create our lives, but it’s also one of the sources of our anxiety. In this way, humans must contend with their freedom like no other animal must. We ask questions that other animals cannot ask themselves. Which potential reality is best for me? Which potential reality will bring me danger? What do I do about potential threats in the future?

Søren Kierkegaard, renown Danish philosopher, suggests the escape from a life of passivity, stagnation, or mediocrity lies in our willingness to attend, what he calls, The School of Anxiety.

Kierkegaard believes anxiety has two sides to it.

One side is demonic and can ruin our lives. This is the side we traditionally think of when we think about anxiety.

The other is constructive and guides us towards a development of the Jungian Self. Anxiety can act as directions in the journey of circumambulation.

Most people advise to follow one’s dreams, Kierkegaard advises to follow one’s anxiety. Avoiding and rejecting our anxiety leaves us blind and frozen. Our anxiety gives us a glimpse into which possible scenarios we ought to take. Anxiety can tell us what to direct our energy towards. It lets us know what we really find important.

“The capacity to bear anxiety is important for the individual’s self-realization and for his conquest of his environment. Every person experiences continual shocks and threats to his existence; indeed, self-actualization occurs only at the price of moving ahead despite such shocks. This indicates the constructive use of anxiety”

Rollo May (The Meaning of Anxiety)

As May suggests, moving forward through our anxiety is the way to a greater version of ourselves. Greatness lies on the other side of anxiety, as long as we are willing to push ahead.

Unfortunately, much of the common attitude towards anxiety is to reject or avoid it. Having anxiety is seen to be a problem that we “shouldn’t” have and feeling negative emotion has been made to be “bad” & “wrong” in modern society. This is because the constructive elements of anxiety are not easily visible to the masses.

This rejection and avoidance are so deep that some people would even claim to not desire a greater life. When our comfort and security are more appealing than the anxiety that lurks in the unknown, resignation of this nature becomes common practice. This is precisely why the trap of passivity, stagnation, and mediocrity lies in the rejection of anxiety.

When we refuse to move into the possibilities which make us anxious, we sentence the side of us seeking self-realization and a greater life to death. This isn’t a clean death either, it’s slow and sloppy. Repressing this side of ourselves breeds a violent shadow and I would go as far to say that it is like repressing the will to life itself. The tension within ourselves created from willingly seeking self-realization or circumambulation is what gives our lives meaning and stimulates the deepest parts of ourselves.

In order to access the constructive parts of anxiety, we first have to understand that we can always take action, even if we are enveloped with anxiety.

Believing that we have to get rid of our anxiety before we can act puts us at a serious disadvantage for a couple of reasons. It facilitates procrastination and it can lead to a serious dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Holding on to the idea that we need to remove anxiety to act makes us weak.

The next thing we need to understand to access the constructive parts of anxiety is understanding that no one can do this for us except for ourselves.

Realizing that nothing in my life was ever going to change unless I did something to make it change was one of the most anxiety-inducing, but empowering realizations I’ve ever had. I was able to switch my Locus of Control. This realization helped me see the constructive side to anxiety.

The possibilities which stress us out are precisely what we need to pay more attention to. The anxiety is an opportunity to exercise our divine abilities, it’s the call of the hero’s journey.

“One of the most important [revelatory] moments is when the client grasps that no one is coming. No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better. The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless. We may feel if only I suffer long enough, if only I yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen, but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one’s life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades.”


Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014)

Enhancing our levels of articulation is another constructive and effective way of coping with anxiety. We experience anxiety when we find ourselves in too much chaos. When things don’t work out the way we expect, our brain responds by trying to prepare for whatever potential danger is lurking around the corner.

Let’s say we’re pre-med, but we get an F on a test. When we recieve that F, we are thrown out order into the domain of chaos because we aren’t sure what the F symbolizes.

Did we just get one question on the test wrong? Did we just forget to study a concept? Did we not properly learn the prerequisite material from the last class? Do we need to change our lifestyle choices? Are we incapable of learning this information? Are we not good enough to get into medical school? Are we too stupid to take this class? Are we even good enough to pursue anything bigger than us?

It’s easy for these questions to spiral out of control, because we don’t know exactly where the error lies. Maybe we just forgot a concept, but maybe we might not even be cut out for our goals at all! Anxiety comes from our mind trying to prepare for all of those scenarios at once. Our threat detection systems in our body are put into overdrive and that makes it difficult to do a lot of things. However, once we specify what we are able to prepare for, the anxiety immediately begins to subside. If there was some way of knowing exactly where the error was, then there’s no need to prepare for everything all at once.

Enhancing our levels of articulation helps us direct our energy towards something definitive, which keeps anxiety at bay, rather than letting our minds run while trying to plan a new career path, prepare for a panther attack, and an alien invasion all at the same time.

We will constantly have to choose between avoiding or moving forward. What will aid us in moving forward isn’t wisdom, intelligence, or even new information. It is the integration of the Jungian Shadow. Creating a relationship with ourselves which captivates the sides of ourselves we tend to reject, ignore, and avoid will provide a steady mechanism that can impel us to act even when our reason tries to stop us. Sometimes our instincts are wiser than our evolved executive cognition. Accepting the sides of us which yearn for chaos gives us the advantage in utilizing our anxiety.

Life is too short to not take the bold risks a fully lived human life requires.

“For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is – to live dangerously!”

Friedrich Nietzsche (The Gay Science)