Has that indisputable realisation of fooling yourself ever crushed you? Feynman famously put that in plain view: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
This time, a painful awakening struck me while reading How to win friends and influence people – I’ll post a book review in a few weeks and try to explain what got me to that worrisomely titled book, and why a philosophy student would ever dare to read pop and self-help genre. There is a need to justify my readings in a way, even though I consider the act of choosing them to be wildly personal.
So, the chapter dealt with how precious the act of sincere appreciation is for the development of relationships. You know, those kind of plain truths abhorred by deviant intellectuals. I was not reading with voracity, neither was I calmly absorbed by Carnegie’s anecdotes – I was judging with subtle contempt. Since I deem curiosity towards one’s feelings to be one of the most fruitful sources of self-understanding, I drilled down to find its possible source. Reminiscent of the days of Vedantic digestions, here came the argument, clear and daunting at the same time, against being kind:
I won’t make any compliment to you, because I don’t want to inflate your ego. You know, people change, and if you get attached to the nice things I tell about you, you will suffer when they’ll end. Therefore, I won’t be responsible for that bubble burst.
“Oh well, listen to this yogic-like, patently misanthropic, line of reasoning!”, I told myself. Where did that come from?
In those circumstances, one looks for reasons to reshape his narrative. That is both a creative and a discovering practice, I believe, for on one hand he engages in a kind of self-reeducation to refine his habitus, while at the same time he looks for reasons that he still holds and may need revision. Honing one’s thinking passes through the recognition that we believe our logic to be ultimately sound and noble; it is as though the perception of what’s good changes while we operate on that aleatory stuff – Aristophanic clouds – named thoughts.
The creative act came into play with a recognition that sounds fearsome for those who aim at influencing others: I don’t have any control over what other people decide to do with my words. Sure, I can and should strive to present them in a way that would most likely elicit the response I’d like to be causing; ultimately though, acts of speech or writing aren’t unilaterally powerful, they are rather made so by people who listen and act on them. But then, what about compliments? How are they going to inflate someone’s ego? The only way I can make sense out of this nowadays connects with being responsible, i.e. that making insincere praises may in fact contribute to overstate the self-perception of the recipient, with following (possible) delusion. That is not entirely straightforward either: if adopted as a Kantian maxim, I may avoid to incite a young boy from even trying to do karate, because I don’t see a potential Bruce Lee within him – and that is bad. The thing is, we know so little about each other at first sight that we would not dare to speak for years before we would be able to utter anything of profound honesty, and the fact that we eventually get to know each other proceeds from those very approximate conversations. The whole idea of knowing how to back up every word with justifications (something that Schopenhauer would have considered absurd and false, being rationality a mere consequence of will) sounds as a mere pretension, and brutally ignores the open nature of conversations – if they are deemed to be called so.
Furthermore, that projection on outside egos may well be a bitter reverse-engeneering: we may avoid praise not to lower our perception of self, as if appreciation was a scarce resource to keep for oneself, ignoring how it actually creates value only through sharing.
Then comes the discovering part. When I tell anyone something nice, I create a small, little bond: what would I do with it? Responsibility violently represents itself, entering from the backdoor. After I praised my neighbour’s raincoat (what a colorful, cut to fit raincoat you have!), I don’t have any obligations toward him. Fears of obligations turn out to be far-reaching projections, that short-sighted distancing from the present moment which has been so well described by many: it is as though one is preparing himself for the eventuality of that relationship to turn bitter, to catch oneself wishing of never having admired that raincoat. Mental acrobatics on display.
There was some meat to the bone, in the end – I felt right away that I had to ruminate on a last remark:
by complimenting someone, you are picking her out of the crowd.
The attentive reader has noticed that I switched to the feminine pronoun, but anyone really can use the sex to which he (she/they/them) is predominantly attracted to. I feel that appreciation toward someone I like is somewhat more complex and muddled, and being someone who hates gaffes (working on that), I find myself overthinking about the next sentence. Needless to say, spontaneity goes to the drain. You look like you’re lying, when in fact you are nervous. Being truthful is an ability that needs to be trained… by acting truthfully: as Aristotle rightly put in his Nicomachean Ethics, there is no virtue without virtuous action. In fact, in linking praises with truthfulness I assume that the best sketch of sincerity saves us right from the start, by placing ourselves among people who positively respond to who we are, rather than to who we want them perceive us to be. There is a sophistic objection here which sounds somewhat like this: how do you pull allegedly true and secondary selves apart? Leaving philosophical responses aside, each of us usually has a grip on what “true self” means to her, or at least has observed how behaviour has changed in response to those words; I deem that ordinary meaning to be clear enough to cut through the objection, for this little excursus at least.
We act in the world and produce consequences – willing or not, polarising people around us. If you care enough, let them decide on impressions of a strivingly sincere individual, so that you won’t take part in dynamics to which you don’t belong. This is the best I would wish for everyone.
I probably have skipped dozens of opportunities to show genuine appreciation and feel happy about that, not to mention those who missed that act of kindness at the receiving end. But that’s not the end of it. As those of you who know my nerdy side may have understood, I try to help myself with technology as well. Just set up a new journal entry – “showed sincere appreciation” – on the habit tracker Way of Life, yes, now on my way to bring a thin slice of additional kindness to the world around me.
Also published on Medium.