Contradictions in the Work

A woman, let's call her Nicki Klemweff, wrote to me with an interesting question about conflicts in my writings. I was originally going to answer with a quote from one of my favorite pieces of writing (Self-Reliance by Emerson). The quote goes:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with pockthread, do. Else if you would be a man speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a right fool's word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.

But as much as I love that quote, it doesn't answer her questions, and she had some legitimate questions that I could actually answer. Here's what she asked:

Dear Adam,

I study the information on your site closely because it has helped me so much. As a result, I have run across the following points I can't get clear in my mind. I know from experience that you do answer your email, and promptly at that. I am not in a hurry, but as time permits, here is what I need...

I need to have the following quote...

Let’s say you decide, “That’s just the way teenagers are.”

Is that a good explanation? Well, it’s better than, “I can’t make anything work,” but no, it is not a good explanation. Why? Because it implies that the situation can’t change until your kid is an adult. And that may not be true. It is a way of “accepting” the situation without feeling too bad about it. But it doesn’t help you accomplish your goal — having a good relationship with your teen.

...reconciled with:

Accept as natural the conflict between parent and child.

Also, I would very much appreciate having the following quote...

You can become more energetic in ten seconds. Simply start acting more energetic.

You don’t have to feel energetic to be energetic. A nice bonus, however, is that often when you act energetic, it will rev you up and make you feel energetic too.

In other words, act as though you were happy.

If you are angry and want to be calm, act as though you were calm. Do you feel weak and want to be strong? Act as though you were strong.

...reconciled with:

Being yourself is the absence of something, not the presence of something. It is the absence of forcing and restraining yourself. If you force yourself to smile when you don't feel like smiling, you're not being yourself. If you restrain yourself from crying when you feel like crying, you're not being yourself.

Thank you so very much,

Nicki Klemweff

Here's my reply:

Hi Nicki,

I am impressed! I have often thought that someday someone would notice these, and you are the FIRST one who ever has (and my web site has been online for ten years).

One of the problems I run into when trying to keep articles short is that sometimes I don't go into detail about the exceptions to the rule or the caveats. I read scientific articles quite a bit, and of course, they give you a lot of detail, which usually makes it boring or difficult reading, partly because there are so many exemptions and qualifications that the main point becomes hard to follow.

But for people like you who are really paying attention, here is a little more detail: For your first example, I have the word "accepting" in quotes because it is not really acceptance. It is really resignation. It is giving up on a goal you really want. And it is giving up on a goal you could actually accomplish.

On the other hand, some things just "are," like the natural conflict of interests between a parent and a child.

But just because your interests conflict doesn't mean you can't still have a great relationship with her or him. In fact, it is much easier to have a good relationship if you realize, understand, and accept the existence of that natural conflict. As long as you have control over your child, and responsibility for her or him, a good number of conflicting interests will be unavoidable.

Does that answer reconcile the issue for you?

Your second one is a little more complicated. First of all, I say "act as though you were happy," but that phrase is really a kind of shorthand (and therefore somewhat imprecise) way of saying, "experiment with different ways of breathing and walking, experiment with different postures, different looks on your face, different ways of talking to yourself, different ways of using your visual imagination — and use what you find to help you create the state of mind you want at the moment."

But there is another misleading and more fundamental element in this, too. We think "being ourselves" is a permanent thing, as if ideally you would learn to do that ALL the time. But being yourself is a tool like any other. Sometimes it's a good idea to use it, and sometimes it isn't.

If you were being mugged, for example, and you see a cop coming up behind the mugger, catching him in the act, you would of course be very happy, and if you were being genuinely "yourself" you would APPEAR happy, but if you did that, the mugger might do something dangerous, like use you for a hostage in a getaway. So you pretend nothing is happening. You'd probably use the tool called "poker face," right? And that would be an intelligent thing to do. Being rigidly and always your authentic self would be counterproductive.

Another example: Let's say you work in customer service. You handle complaints for a company. Someone calls and they're really angry and they say personally insulting things, which genuinely angers you. If you were "being yourself," not forcing or restraining, you would give the person a piece of your mind.

On the other hand, your employer has hired you to do a job. You have agreed to do that job. You represent the company. It is an obligation of yours to restrain yourself from lashing out and to force yourself to be pleasant. At that time, and for that circumstance, it is wise to choose NOT to "be yourself."

In other words, there are times to use the tool, and times it would be smarter to use a different tool. It depends on your intention. It depends on what you want at the moment.

When you want to be yourself — not for all time, but right now — you know how to do it. And when you want to feel better, you know at least one way that might work — to change your posture, breathing, the look on your face, etc.

By the way, you can change the look on your face in order to fool others into thinking you're happy so they think better of you, or you can change the look on your face as an experiment to see how it changes your feelings. These may be the same action, but they will feel quite different. Why? Because it depends on your intention.

Does that reconcile it for you?

I'm thinking of publishing this answer as an article just for the few, the proud, the intelligent who, every ten years or so, discover these inconsistencies. If I do, would you want me to use your name and quote your questions exactly? If not, I can summarize your questions in my own words and simply call you a "discerning reader." Let me know, and thank you for reading my work with so much commitment.

- Adam

Nicki's response was a good summary. Here it is:

Hi Adam,

Thanks to your concise explanation, I now see that...

"Accept as natural the conflict between parent and child" means: Realize that conflicts are to be expected as you go about pursuing your goal — a better relationship with your teen. (Helpful idea.)

Whereas, "That’s just the way teenagers are" means: Your goal — a better relationship with your teen — is unreachable. (Demoralizing idea, which was your point.)

Issue #2: You can become more energetic in ten seconds. "Simply start acting more energetic" means: Try mimicry as tool to toward pursuing your goal of feeling better. (Helpful idea.)

Whereas: "If you force yourself to smile when you don't feel like smiling, you're not being yourself" means: Pretending to feel cheery when you don't is not an effective way to pursue the goal of being authentic in a given situation. (Also helpful idea.)

I had to smile at your use of the term "tool" in your explanations. I have kept a list of my "slotras" on a document called "toolbox" for years. To me, this type of tool embodies the philosophy of self-help...not advice, but insights distilled from research and experiences. These can then be used as tools by an individual to HELP THEMSELVES live more effectively.

Thanks so much for your kind response,

Nicki Klemweff

Read more: Does It Ruin Your Mood To Be Authentic?

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