William James on self-esteem.

January 27th, 2008

Rivalry and Conflict of the Different Selves.

With most objects of desire, physical nature restricts our choice to but one of many represented goods, and even so it is here. I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a ‘tone-poet’ and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire’s work would run counter to the saint’s; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them. This is as strong an example as there is of that selective industry of the mind on which I insisted some pages back (p. 284 ff.). Our thought, incessantly deciding, among many things of a kind, which ones for it shall be realities, here chooses one of many possible selves or characters, and forthwith reckons it no shame to fail in any of those not adopted expressly as its own.

I, who for the time have staked my all on being a psychologist, am mortified if others know much more psychology than I. But I am contented to wallow in the grossest ignorance of Greek. My deficiencies there give me no sense of personal humiliation at all. Had I ‘pretensions’ to be a linguist, it would have been just the reverse. So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts. He is to his own regard as if he were not, indeed he is not.

Yonder puny fellow, however, whom every one can beat, suffers no chagrin about it, for he has long ago abandoned the attempt to ‘carry that line,’ as the merchants say, of self at all. With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success: thus, Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions. Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing the numerator. To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, this is what men will always do. The history of evangelical theology, with its conviction of sin, its self-despair, and its abandonment of salvation by works, is the deepest of possible examples, but we meet others in every walk of life. There is the strangest lightness about the heart when one’s nothingness in a particular line is once accepted in good faith. All is not bitterness in the lot of the lover sent away by the final inexorable ‘No.’ Many Bostonians, crede experto (and inhabitants of other cities, too, I fear), would be happier women and men to-day, if they could once for all abandon the notion of keeping up a Musical Self, and without shame let people hear them call a symphony a nuisance. How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young, – or slender! Thank God! we say, those illusions are gone. Everything added to the Self is a burden as well as a pride. A certain man who lost every penny during our civil war went and actually rolled in the dust, saying he had not felt so free and happy since he was born.

Once more, then, our self-feeling is in our power. As Carlyle says: “Make thy claim of wages a zero, then hast thou the world under thy feet. Well did the wisest of our time write, it is only with renunciation that life, properly speaking, can be said to begin.”

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4 Responses to “William James on self-esteem.”

  1. Chris Huston Says:

    If there were such a thing as a “cloud” library where one could save, “shelve” and keep organized pages like this, this would surely be in mine.

    What examples does history give us of those who have truly achieved renunciation? Mother Teresa? Gandhi? Jesus? Can today’s average person expect to achieve this seemingly monumental achievement? Certainly, I see the truth (indeed, freedom) in it, but my many selves recoil (naturally) at pursuing it.

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Chris.

    Your closing line lets me know that you get the point, but when you cite Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Jesus, it makes me think you’re talking about a different kind of “renunciation” than James is talking about in the quoted passage. Many high achievers in sports (Jordan, Armstrong, Bird, Clemens, Russell, West,…), literature (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Updike,…), music (Beethoven, Mozart, W. Marsalis,…), business (Welch, Branson, Jobs,…), and other areas have achieved the renunciation discussed here.

    Michael Jordan did not care if his teammates liked him. Lance Armstrong did not care if he was the most hated man in cycling. Larry Bird didn’t care about his lack of a social life. The writers listed went through many marriages, but never flagged in their devotion to writing novels. They renounced the things they didn’t care about to achieve greatness in the area that they did care about.

    That’s the renunciation at stake. And lots of average people do it by giving up on the pretensions (call them “dreams” or “fantasies,” if you like) that torment them in favor of focusing on what’s real in their lives.

  3. Chris Huston Says:

    Ah, yes. Definitely interpreted James through my own lens and missed his intent, though, as you point out only in kind. When I consider “true” (as I, probably inappropriately, labeled it) renunciation, I think of Luke 14:33, “…whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” To me, that’s the ultimate renunciation we are all called to and one that is particularly difficult. But I think it amounts to the same struggle — recognizing and abdicating certain comforts, luxuries, etc. for a higher prize.

    You use a term in your reply that highlights one of the confusions many of us have, I think, around following this kind of renunciation. In American and similar cultures we are brought up to pursue our “dreams,” but often — as examples like the “American Idol” show reveal — those “dreams” are *not* reality, but (to use another of your terms) fantasy.

    Often, even intelligent, discerning people can confuse the two or feel inadequate in distinguishing them. The dilemma being, “Am I just ‘giving up’ on a dream where persistence is required? Or is this a fantasy I need to relinquish in favor of the best reality available to me? And what is that reality?”

    Perhaps that’s an illusion, and we (by which I mean only to include myself, not you) use it as an excuse to avoid reality.

  4. Tim Walker Says:

    Interesting points, Chris. I do think that wisdom lies in distinguishing between the things we should actually work for (“dreams” in your terminology) and the things that we ought to leave in the realm of “fantasy,” either because we truly cannot attain them or because they’re not worth our while to try.

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