The Inner Self vs. The Outer Self

Yesterday I listened to a podcast while painting a bathroom. This is the great thing about podcasts — they make you want to write blog posts. This particular one was “On Being” with Krista Tippett, and for the bathroom-painting episode, she was interviewing Seth Godin, who is hugely popular in certain internet circles, especially for his ideas and writing about authentic marketing.

Seth and Krista were chatting about how to get your message out, and who to connect to, and what makes that connection meaningful. If you want to know all the details about this, I recommend listening yourself. The super boiled-down version that I took away was: it’s not about how many people you connect to. It’s much more about connecting with the right people, with your tribe, and feeling part of that community.

This is not a new idea for me. I doubt Seth invented it (if he did, bravo!), but it’s at this point it’s widely dispersed on the web, and I’ve even written around the idea before. But something clicked for me this time. An analogy, or parallel, or metaphor (oh, the power of metaphor!), that I’ve experienced personally with the disconnect between the inner self and outer self.

Basically this: so often, we do work because we’re good at it, or because we think more people will like it, or like us. I do this all the time. All the time. And on the surface, it’s useful. It makes it easier for people to like us, it makes us relatable. These are great things! They contribute to meaningful relationships. But this bending of ourselves also has negative aspects to it. Over the long-term, it wears us down. It keeps us from intimately knowing our deeper selves. It allows us to repress things we don’t think will mesh well with everybody else, and I would argue, from developing a strong sense of character.

And for me, sometimes I do feel like I lack character. I worry that I’m boring. That by being some kind of meditation/mindfulness guide, I’m not supposed to have strong opinions about things, or at least not express those feelings. I love guiding meditation and leading mindfulness workshops, but I worry that I give the impression of being chill and passive all the time. Don’t worry friends, I am not always chill and passive!

Here are some things about me that are not encompassed by this mindful/deliberate internet persona I’ve somewhat intentionally created:

  • I love long, intellectual novels. Infinite Jest is my favorite book even though everyone says it’s pretentious. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are tied as my favorite Tolstoy novels, and I think Proust is a baller.
  • I’m often pretentious and arrogant. I think I’m right about a lot of things, even though I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself I’m not right about everything.
  • I’m a huge fan of Bernie Sanders, and consider myself to be a socialist. I think capitalism is evil, and exploits humanity’s most base tendencies.
  • Sometimes I care a lot about money and capitalism.
  • I don’t meditate everyday, and sometimes I go weeks without doing it at all. I do notice a difference in my life (things aren’t as good) when I’m not meditating regularly, but that isn’t necessarily enough to get me to get back in the routine.
  • I exercise a LOT (ideally twice a day), and believe that that is the number one most important thing we can do for our mental and physical health. Way more than meditating.
  • I keep meaning to see a therapist, but keep avoiding it.
  • I like getting absorbed in board games, and I’m good at them. Some combination of being competitive and good at math.
  • I’m good at math.

As you can see, this is kind of a silly list and the things are not a big deal. I doubt any of them are going to cause me to lose my “tribe.”

So, let me pose a question. What are the things about you that you repress, or don’t like to bring into the public eye? Why is that? Is that something you want to change? It’s not necessary to do so, but I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge and be aware of. There’s the mindfulness coach talking again…

Swirling Colors

Franzen: The Discomfort Zone and Farther Away

I’ve been trying to keep up a good amount of reading lately, but it’s been kind of tricky with all the other stuff I’ve got going on right now. I thought it would be fun to write about each book I finish, both as an exercise in remembering and processing. Here is the first.

Jonathan Franzen: The Discomfort Zone, “Farther Away”

The Discomfort Zone is the first Jonathan Franzen book I’ve read, and perhaps it’s not best to start with the memoir. It seems a bit early for him to be writing a memoir in the first place. The Discomfort Zone was published when Franzen was 46, so there is a lot still up in the air about what direction things are going and how recent events are actually shaping his life. That said, the sections on childhood are well developed, and they allow an interesting glimpse into what shaped the author. Perhaps the way to think about this is as Franzen: Part I.

The writing itself was quite good, though, and this is what kept me engaged through the (brief) 200 pages. Franzen comes off as being laid-back and open, but he is also insightful and pleasingly referential. It is refreshing to hear an honest account of the difficult years of coming of age. If you’re already a big Franzen fan, I’d definitely recommend the book as a way to get to know the author. Otherwise, not a great place to start. I suspect his other novels would have drawn me in faster. Freedom and The Corrections have been recommended to me by a number of people (including Oprah).

Since finishing The Discomfort Zone, I read an article by Franzen in the New Yorker titled “Farther Away”.  It’s a piece about solitude, boredom, Robinson Crusoe, and the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace. (As a disclaimer I should say that DFW is one of my favorite authors, so anything describing his psyche is bound to interest me. But they were good friends, and this is a touching recount of the immense difficulties DFW went through to stay afloat.) It’s a long article, but compelling and incredibly worthwhile if you can throw an hour at it (or and hour and a half if you read at my speed). It still felt like the Franzen I caught a glimpse of in The Discomfort Zone, but was written with a new level of maturity. He’s able to weave together these themes in a profound way, using each to accentuate the others. David Brooks named the piece the best of 2011.

Franzen’s discussion of boredom is particularly strong and is something I’ve been mulling over for the past couple months. Last fall, I read Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished manuscript, The Pale King. The work explores the life and connections of a character also named David Foster Wallace, and at some points is written as if to be a memoir. I don’t know if any of it is actually true, though I suspect bits and pieces have been drawn from his past. Wallace has such a capacity for imaginative description that it’s nearly impossible to know what could be true and what is 100% fabricated. The story revolves around an IRS processing facility, knitting together fragments from each character’s past with their current struggle to deal with copious amounts of boredom. The result is a series of vignettes, loosely tied together, still lacking some deeper connection or underlying theme. There was a lot left to be done on the novel, and Franzen suggests that Wallace’s discontent with this sprawling work was one of the many things that weighed on him as he chose to take his own life.

It is fascinating to hear a recount of what was going on behind the scenes for an author like Wallace, and also to see how Franzen reacts and responds to it. Their differences shine through not only in the way they write, but also in the way they’re able to talk about their writing processes and personal histories. Where Wallace is closed off and solitary, Franzen is open and honest. He writes frankly in The Discomfort Zone and “Farther Away”, and it seems that the ability to do so has kept him from the dark isolation that Wallace endured.