In February I was introduced to a man, a successful man by any standard, a man called Rupert (and naturally by “introduced,” I mean I heard him talk about himself on Radiolab for three minutes). Rupert is your average 71-year-old podcast guest, probably, except for one thing: He has gone almost his entire life knowing nothing about science. I mean it. I mean it as someone who failed earth science once and biology twice. (I never got around to failing chemistry but I’m confident I could, if given the opportunity.) Rupert could not fail science, because he never took a science class — and in my unscientific opinion, it may have been the best thing to ever happen to him.
Rupert is accomplished in his field: He spent time as a journalist and editor for the Economist, then as the Bank of England’s Deputy Governor; he’s published several books on economics. But until last year, Rupert had never heard of the periodic table. He didn’t know he was a mammal until his wife — a scientist, I shit you not — told him so. (“I thought she was [calling me ‘mammal’] as a term of abuse,” he recalls, jovially.) Rupert narrates his scientific discoveries like a kid with a card trick. Here’s something you’ve never seen before!, except most of us have — but have we, though? Have I?
What struck me about Rupert’s story was not that his Zimbabwean boarding school rewarded the “clever” kids with classes in Greek instead of science, and it’s not the irony that his wife probably knows more about the subject than two handfuls of average adults. It’s that, after studying science for the first time at 71 and realizing his affinity for it, Rupert doesn’t sit there crafting narratives about all the things he could’ve done with his life had he known sooner; he doesn’t bemoan the time wasted. He’s just happy to know now.
And of course, the time wasn’t wasted; he just spent it doing other things. Who knows who he would’ve become if he hadn’t? Another path might have produced a man with the inclination to simply stick to what he knows: the sort of man who, in his formative years, fashions an identity and constructs a lifestyle and proceeds to spend his mature years a prisoner to both. To exhibit curiosity — to try new things, explore alternative ways of thinking — would be an admission of not knowing it all, and this sort of man was taught, either directly or through social osmosis, that knowing it all is the cost of entry for his existence. So when he fails to rise to this impossible standard, he cannot admit as much: Admitting to an imperfect performance of his assigned role would call into question his very right to exist. If he is the provider and the knower and the enforcer he has a purpose, a reason to live — even if it’s not the reason he would’ve chosen, personally — and so ceasing to question and dream is an act of self-preservation more than anything else. To cope, the man denies his human propensity for growth, instead accepting what he believes are unchangeable circumstances and writing off his sovereignty as sacrifice. And then he dies.
I’m glad this was not the fate of Rupert.
I began to write this essay if not with a destination, then with a purpose: I wanted to tell people about Rupert. That was seven months and 10,000 scrapped words ago, and I have come to realize there are simply too many levels to this thing, too many takes. Rupert is proof that it’s never too late to find a new source of awe/ that when you find something you love, you don’t care how silly it makes you look or what other people think about it/ that perhaps everyday life is full of untapped passion, and should I be excited by all the potentialities, or depressed that excitement is not my default?/ that the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, keep us looking for fulfillment in the familiar, because we don’t know who we are outside of it and, for the most part, we’re too afraid to find out.
For months, one of the five astrology apps on my phone has observed that “it’s been difficult for [me] to pay attention to things other than the deepest parts of [my] psyche.” True. But before that, it was difficult to pay attention to anything besides what other people thought, wanted, expected, needed. Other people’s needs seemed, to me, so pressing and fundamental to their wellbeing that I was almost grateful to not have my own — or at least, I was grateful to have actively denied their existence.
My self-perception has always been that of observer, conduit, helper — something separate from fully human. And I don’t mean that in a special or spiritual way, more in a down for whatever, I have no needs way. But I’m beginning to see that I was using this unconscious narrative to spare myself from the dirty work of self-reflection. If I had no needs, I didn’t have to be proactive about fulfilling them. And if I’m merely reacting to my circumstances, to the needs of those around me, well, it’s clearly not my fault when things don’t turn out the way I hoped. Or when I get hurt. It’s not even my fault when I hurt someone else; it’s simply self defense.
But choosing not to act in your own self-interest is still a choice; it’s a choice to let other people decide the course of your life. I didn’t understand that, just like I didn’t understand that repressing your needs is not the same as not having any. Just like I also didn’t understand that ignoring one’s inner life does not make it disappear; rather, what needs to be addressed will simply find new, seemingly inexplicable forms of expression.
When a man intellectually builds a wall around himself, it does not affect what is outside the wall; it merely prevents the man from seeing what is outside and it distorts the structure of the whole. We try to understand life by limiting it and categorizing it, primarily on the basis of our intellectual prejudices and emotional predispositions. But all too often, we wind up merely limiting ourselves; for what is, no matter what we say about it, is. — Stephen Arroyo M.A., Astrology, Psychology, and the Four Elements
We’ve all been in the company of an obviously angry person who has trained themselves to smile, an insecure person for whom superficial attention is as life-sustaining as oxygen. All of us are constantly negotiating with people who are, to varying degrees, not dealing with their own shit. And we have compassion for some of these poor souls, cluelessly walking around all inside-out, their repressed emotions seeping from their pores; no one chooses to be that way, you know? Such a shame, tsk tsk. But then there are similarly troubled people to whom our response is one of primal disdain or disgust, even cruelty. Because that person, specifically, they did choose to be this way, and they do need to get their shit together. Don’t they understand the burden they make everyone else shoulder? That we can’t show them trust or love or respect, because we know it won’t make a difference, anyway? We don’t want to feel this way about anyone, of course, but this particular person really brings the worst out of us. Why waste on them even an ounce of compassion?
Well you can punch a mirror all you want, but don’t be surprised when you’re the only one bleeding.
In other words, what we can’t (or won’t) accept about ourselves, we see clear as day in others. Take the beginning of this essay. I wanted to praise Rupert for leaning into his joy, and I did. But then I start to passive aggressively suggest, somewhat inexplicably, that there’s something inferior about people — men in particular, I wink — who can’t just be wrong about themselves, even if being wrong means being happy. Sure, I express some faux-compassion for these dudes by chalking it all up to a misguided act of self-preservation, but my seething contempt for the archetype is obvious.
After reading that paragraph dozens of times, though, I had a question for myself: What on earth does any of that have to do with Rupert? What became obvious to me as I wrestled with the direction of this essay was that the hypothetical know-it-all I’m judging, the person sacrificing happiness for a false sense of security, is me. The person who’s been clinging to her idea of herself? Me again. The spicy hot contempt is coming from inside the house.
What we can’t (or won’t) accept about ourselves, we see clear as day in others.
At a certain point, you have to have a sense of humor about these things. It is kinda funny that we try to repress our “negative” emotions as though they won’t just find another out: panic attacks, stress dreams, rants about people you don’t respect because they have the same exact limiting beliefs you do. Most of us walk around completely oblivious to the issues we’re wearing like spinach in the teeth. And it’s kinda funny that if we only saw ourselves as human — that is, operating within complicated-yet-predictable schemas; that is, not all-knowing; that is, of the universe, not simply floating around in it — we would probably learn our lessons a lot sooner, and with a lot less bloodshed. Maybe we’d even have time for new hobbies, like studying the periodic table.
But people don’t want to be human, they want to be right. I wanted to be right. Not about everything, or even most things, but definitely about myself. Paradoxically, I could not be right about myself (or anything else, really), because I didn’t understand myself — my motives, my needs. I refused to acknowledge the parts of me that were incongruent with my self-image. I was a caretaker because it felt good, I thought, not because being needed helped me justify my own existence.
What I’m learning is that a person who believes their needs are not important will have trouble making sense of their own thoughts and behavior a lot of the time. That’s because their thoughts and behaviors are acting in the service of meeting needs they don’t know they have. This is why we pick fights with someone we love when what we really need is reassurance, why we offer unsolicited advice when what we really need is to feel useful, or heard, or superior. What I’m saying is, we don’t need to be aware of our needs to get them met. We just need to be aware of them if we don’t want to mislead people — ourselves included — in the process.
Some compulsions are easy to recognize as destructive — say, gambling. A compulsion like caretaking is more difficult to see as destructive, because we assume the self-appointed caretaker is coming from a place of selflessness. Helping others can be selfless, but if it’s a compulsive behavior, if we help to the extent that we begin to neglect our own needs, it’s usually about something else. I’ve been aware of my own caretaking proclivities for a while, but before this year, I was living in a state of “precontemplation” — the first stage of change. It’s an ignorance-is-bliss type zone, where the lie-yourself-to-sleep lives. You don’t yet perceive your behavior as problematic enough, disruptive enough, to justify the effort of changing. You may even convince yourself that the only thing standing in the way of your happiness is other people, their resistance to the change they so obviously need. If only they had the courage.
If only you had the courage.
That’s what I thought when I finally realized my “caretaking” smelled a lot like codependency. And my codependency? That was borne of the belief that I was only useful, valid, allowed to exist if I were serving some external purpose, meeting the needs of others — as I perceived their needs, of course. It was a belief that encouraged me to manipulate people I love (because I thought I knew what was best for them) and to manipulate myself (because I had to justify tending to the needs I assigned to others while fervently avoiding my own). Author of Codependent No More, Melody Beattie, describes counseling a group of codependents early in her therapeutic career: “…I saw people who felt responsible for the entire world, but they refused to take responsibility for leading and living their own lives.”
As I toyed with the idea that I was using the problems of others to avoid addressing my own, the driving forces behind my seemingly selfless behavior began to reveal themselves for what they were: a complex and unconscious attempt to justify my own existence. I was not a victim, a blank slate, a martyr. I was not the light chasing away the dark. I was simply unconvinced of my inherent worth, unaware that the way in which I set about proving it was doing more damage than good for everyone involved. I was simultaneously removing the opportunity for others to work toward their own self-actualization and ensuring I didn’t have the inner resources to work toward my own. Eventually, I came to realize that I was as lacking in perspective as those I took it upon myself to save.
I understood for the first time that people are not necessarily evil, but possibly deluded and definitely unconscious.
And I felt dumb and scared. But then, relieved. Because it took being so, so wrong about myself to remember that I am exactly like the people I thought I was helping. Subject to my own biases and narratives, like all the others. Living behind a wall of my own creation, like all the others. Not at all complete, not at all needless, not at all capable of saving anyone but myself. Once I could see just how ordinary I was — how resistant to taking responsibility for my emotions, my resources, my life — I began to empathize with others in a new way. I understood how a person — even an intelligent person, a “working on it” person — could genuinely be unaware of the needs their behavior is meant to fulfill. I understood for the first time that people are not necessarily evil, but possibly deluded and definitely unconscious.
To contribute in any kind of meaningful way, one has to look at oneself. We tell ourselves this is a frightful undertaking, and besides, there are more interesting places to look. People with bigger issues — and we have just the remedy! We don’t realize just how disempowering it is to spend our lives attempting to solve problems that aren’t our own. Because when we fail — which we inevitably will, as our brilliant solutions are based on our own experience, perspective, and personal history rather than those of the problem-haver — we wonder why our help was not good enough, why we were not good enough. Certainly, we’re not good enough to help ourselves. But the most helpful thing we can do for others is develop the courage to do just that: to look at ourselves, see our own issues clearly, take ownership over our lives.
The following is excerpted from the first episode of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth:
BILL MOYERS: Unlike the classical heroes, we’re not going on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And in doing that, you save the world. I mean, you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting it around and changing the rules and so forth. No, any world is a living world if it’s alive, and the thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find in your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself, it seems to me.
It’s possible we all know this on some level, and definitive that it’s easier said than done.
So where to begin? For me it started with the realization that no one knows how to be me, except for me. As Leo Buscaglia sagely reminds us in his book Love, “You are the best you. You will always be the second best anyone else.” And the “best you” is a bar only you can set. Imagine? Because I didn’t. I certainly crowdsourced and outsourced the particulars of my existence to various friends, boyfriends, strangers over the years, asking for advice or feigning confusion like the answers weren’t already swimming in my gut. It was an inefficient way to live, but it gave me an out: someone to blame when things didn’t work the way I wanted them to. I’ve tried everything you suggested, see? (Everything except believing I was capable of answering these questions myself.) I see the error of this now. Had I met Rupert before he discovered science and he, for some belligerent reason, asked me what was missing from his life, I highly doubt I would’ve suggested he hire a science tutor. How the hell would I know what Rupert needs?
So instead of validating myself by presuming to know what other people need and forcing it upon them, I’m attempting the simpler, more boring task of figuring out what I need. That requires listening to myself, understanding which of my own behaviors I can and can’t justify. Knowing it’s all subject to change. Knowing it never ends. It’s overwhelming and yet, it’s the only thing I was born to do. And ultimately, I have the right equipment. Not only can I do it, I’m the only one who can — and I’m the only one who can determine whether I’m doing it well or not. If I do me well, I know, and if I fail myself, I know that, too. One really starts to feel the limitations of external validation at this point, the futility in trusting other people to know what only you can know. Other people mean well, but they are still other people, with their own questions to answer.
So maybe I’m drawn to Rupert because he is evidence that participating in the lifelong process of knowing, and forgetting, and finding yourself, again and again and again, is an adventure, not a punishment. He is evidence that the world is full of smaller worlds, and one or many of these worlds may be just the thing to bring us back to who we are. Rupert is proof that, at any time, we can become reanimated, interested in new things — “new” being subjective, dependent on what we have individually chosen to overlook. After listening to Rupert give science the sliced-bread treatment I was like, should I take another look at the periodic table? Of course the periodic table could be geometry or astronomy or the five stages of grief or birds or calligraphy or guitar, which is sort of magical, isn’t it?
That’s how I feel on the good days. On bad days, my awareness of life’s potential, and my potential — yours, too, by the way — is annoying. Yes, everything is fragile yet enormous and of course it’s all overwhelmingly beautiful and intricate and perfect in a way that’s sometimes hard to explain without getting all mythological about it; even nature itself is life-affirming isn’t it, with its rainbows and mountains and bullshit. But on bad days, it’s like, okay, I get it. Okay, I am a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck and so is everyone I love and supposedly this in itself is a miracle and I know I could choose to be grateful, astounded, humbled but today this speck is disintegrating, this speck’s invisible, this speck is just a fucking speck like all the others and it can eat three balanced meals a day and sleep with its iPhone in another room for its speck-health and it can make itself vulnerable to its speck lover in careful, incremental ways, healthily, always healthily, or it could do none of those things and who would notice? It’s a speck, what difference does it make?
One of our many gifts as humans is the ability to change our minds.
The thing is, the bad days used to outnumber the good and I can feel that trend reversing, now. Rupert is not the catalyst for that, but he’s an example of it. Some version of Rupert could’ve been too proud to acknowledge this gap in his understanding of the world. Another version might’ve discovered his proclivity for science, but chosen to spend his remaining days mourning the time lost. And yet another version could’ve shared his newfound joy with his inner circle, but been too ashamed to talk about it on a podcast. Instead, Rupert acted like the version of myself to which I aspire: the one who knows it’s never too late to start. The one who sees opportunities for growth where I previously saw failure, loss, hopelessness. I still feel those emotions, but I know now that there’s always a counter-argument to my malaise, a reason to be grateful. When I want to feel better about being a speck, for example, I read Carl Sagan describing a photo of the Earth, as seen from outer space:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
One of our many gifts as humans is the ability to change our minds. I would never call it easy; for me it took drugs and counseling and conversations and books and music and solitude and Rupert and perhaps most difficult of all, honesty, to admit that there’s a beauty for every ugly and that what I see and experience is, mostly, a matter of focus. To admit that I’m not helpless, but to try to have compassion for myself in the moments when I still need to believe that I am. Learning to have compassion for my mammal, human, speck self has been its own challenge, but you know what they say. It’s a process.
I’m glad Rupert has someone who will tell him he’s a mammal. I forget myself, sometimes, and it would be nice to be reminded when I start to act like something I’m not. Honey, you look like a horse in a tuxedo. Sweetie, you’re like a tiger doing taxes. Baby, stop trying to skip over the growling, mauling, thrashing parts. You’re only human.