Becoming Ambivalent: How Faithful Efforts at Self Improvement Will Inevitably Challenge Every Notion You Have of What it Means to Improve

Question Everything

We in the developed world are fiercely driven towards success, perfection, certainty, and youth. Tons of self help gurus assault the market with their ten easy steps to arriving at this promised land where you will finally feel improved and can then rest. It’s a dogged madness which mostly feeds the pockets of those self proclaimed gurus and not the deepest hunger of ours. It’s folly masquerading as sanity. It’s a world turned inside out and upside down.

Before jumping on the self help bandwagon, why not begin by asking a few questions ~ not of the guru, but of ourselves: “What does it mean to self improve?” “What am I hoping to improve?” Or, better yet, “Who is the me that is seeking improvement?” This type of inquiry could be the beginning of a more sincere and fruitful journey and may actually scratch that deep internal itch we have mistaken for a desire to self improve. Be forewarned: it’s not that in this new quest we suddenly discover that to improve is the wrong goal (so we can be freed from effort), or that to succeed at something is unspiritual (so that we can relax our ethics), or that to be certain about something is delusional (so we can be sloppy in our relationships), or that to be youthful is immature (so we can let our bodies go).

Truth is, nothing is certain or prescribed either in the path to self knowledge or its expression. We cannot ever capture the whole truth of who we are with certainty or by seeking a box we can fit in and then stamp “improved.”

Educate Yourself

There is a growing tribe of us disruptors in the self help market place seeking to reorient the focus of our personal development and clarify what is truly improvable and worthy of our efforts. For example, the postmodern philosopher Ken Wilber does a beautiful job describing and exploring an integral theory of everything. Adult developmental theorists such as Robert Keegan map the process of our human capacity to grow beyond either/or thoughts and us/them behaviors to become a self that is able to hold complexity, diversity, and ambiguity with maturity and humility. Neurobiology is demonstrating unequivocally that our minds are reflected in our brains and vice versa. Because the brain is malleable and has tons of unexplored territory, the science corroborates the notion that we actually do have, built in to our physiology, a capacity to grow up, become more inclusive, and hold a more expanded view of ourselves and of the world.

So, be discerning. There is no reason to get caught in the rat race of self improvement if what we’re yearning for is to be more loving, more present, more real, and more wise. The only reason you might already be in it is that you have been seduced. No shame in that. Maybe you are confused. Maybe you unconsciously took on the belief that more success, more money, more fame, or more beauty will bring you more joy because you haven’t yet taken the time to question that supposition. Maybe it’s because you are too busy following the crowd and racing to keep up. Is it possible that you disregard every signpost that tells you otherwise because you’re afraid that, if you give it the attention it may deserve, you will fall behind on your self improvement goals? Is it possible that for you it’s more likely you will beat yourself up and say you are not trying hard enough, or have not found the right guru, or are in some way not worthy.

I call bullshit.

You are worthy.

You are capable.

You may simply need a course correction.

What if it were true that our drive towards improvement is a misdirected longing to be more fully expressed and engaged in life? What if the way to be more authentically yourself, content and deeply happy, does not reside in improvement at all, but rather involves a reorientation of how you are understanding what it means to be human?

Stephen Jenkinson

From his new book Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble

Turn again to the great treasure, that story that is the family tree of words, the etymology of what has come to us in English. We have this word ambivalence, and we know what it means to us now: something like “indecision,” or in a stronger form ”paralysis,” that comes from being pulled in incompatible directions. Never understood as any kind of strength or competence or ability, we are warned away from ambivalence at an early age and experience some real anxiety whenever it comes to call. Ambivalence is something of a moral failing in a time of certainty addiction and heroism.

That is a recent meaning. Its constituent parts track the change and give us something of the existential lineage of the word. We have the prefix ambi-, which is one sense meant “both” or “pertaining to both.” But its older meaning is closer to “around.” So you can see that the prefix doesn’t calculate or count. It is a relational word, and it signals something spatial, and it registers something like “plurality,” like “the consequence that rises up from diversity, something that rises when you move around the possible and the impossible things.”

And then we have valence — a word used most often now in physics, but whose Latin origin means “strength,” and which gives us the word valour. This signals something like “the proclivity or capacity by which something or someone can be recognized.” If you employ the poetics at the soul of the language granted to you at birth and that have probably slowly eroded during your formal education and encourage these two words back towards each other in semantic reunion, a little revolt in the fiefdom of your certainty gets underway.

Ambivalence is “the capacity to entertain a diversity of possibilities or tendencies at the same time, without recourse to the premature and often unnecessary decision to vanquish plurality for the sake of certainty.” In other words, the etymology tells us that ambivalence has, for the balance of its semantic life, been a skill born of being a child of a diverse world, not an affliction born of weakness of character or a lack of self-awareness.

Images courtesy of Jakob Owens and Vanessa Bumbeers from Unsplash.

 

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