A long time ago, in an Irish town far, far away, there was a tiny little swimming pool. It was a Friday afternoon and in this pool there frolicked the excited and heavily chlorinated attendees of a little primary school. I was among them. Even though the pool was small, we were small, so it seemed large and more than adequate for an afternoon’s entertainment. Suddenly, amid the giddy shrieks and laughter there was a charge of panic that pierced the air. A younger classmate, a non-swimmer, had dropped herself blithely into the deep end and was proceeding to do what non-swimmers do in the deep end – drown. Our hysterical and fully clothed teacher launched herself heroically over our heads (less impressive now as I recall the actual dimensions involved) and plunged to the girl’s rescue. The wide-eyed teacher carried her to safety and once she had caught her breath told the girl how dangerous her actions had been. The girl looked at her serenely and said “it was a good job I could swim then.”
Even then, at such a tender age, I thought to myself “what an eejit, she’s deluded.” And yet she was probably the only one who went home that day not feeling a little shaken by what had happened. Her belief that all would be well had insulated her not only from fear of failure but also from the aftermath when the unforeseen, and in her case, the unseen, had taken place. The notion of not succeeding had not been entertained by her therefore it was not part of her reality despite it having been a part of everyone else’s reality. This is not an example of someone succeeding against the odds but rather depicts the power of self-belief – what we believe to be true about ourselves is an extremely powerful force in our lives. As far as the girl in the pool was concerned, she was saved not by our horrified teacher but by her own innate brilliance.
My question is this: does her feeling of security deserve less credibility than the teacher’s certainty of disaster? Now, I’m not talking about the ‘facts’, I’m talking about the ‘feelings’, the convictions of the individuals involved. Distilled to an essence of belief I am not sure they wouldn’t cancel each other out. Maybe we can conclude then that what we believe to be true, is true…for us. And that then is surely enough to shape our reality. I touched on truth and reality earlier this year in a classically-themed post here but today I’m more curious about starting points that continually bring us back to the same place, especially when that place is somewhere you’re sick of being.
We all have beliefs about ourselves. What we are good at. What we are bad at. What we care about. What makes us angry. What side of our personality people like. What they like less. We act and make decisions based on these beliefs. Informed decisions? I suppose so. I don’t like seafood, I’ll avoid the paella. That guy’s a pain in the ass, I’ll pretend I didn’t see him. I don’t want to wash the dishes, I’ll cut off my hands with an axe. They think I’m funny, I’ll tell some jokes. I’m open-minded, of course the neo-Nazis are welcome to move in next door!
That sort of stuff is all well and good and more or less takes cares care of itself, probably because the stakes are relatively low. Informed decisions are easy in that case – do you take sugar in your coffee? No, thank you. But what sort of information do we receive from our subconscious? I was asking myself this question recently as I’d been struggling with a particularly sticky bout of depression that just wouldn’t quite release me from its grip. It wasn’t a full frontal assault, it was more a prolonged period of guerrilla warfare that kept leaving me reeling just as I thought I’d made safe ground. Nothing dramatic, just short, sharp punches to the back of the head every time my equilibrium threatened to recover. It’s hard to see clearly in those circumstances as your senses are in disarray making impossible any trust in your perceptions.
Anyway, recover I did. Recovered I have. When the dust had finally settled I realised that for some time I have been labouring under the opposite conviction of the girl in the swimming pool. Quite simply, no matter what evidence was in front of me to suggest otherwise, I had been telling myself “all will not be well.” Why did I believe that? This sour resignation had overtaken me and was discolouring my every glance at the future’s horizon. I needed to assess my psyche’s engine room to see what the hell was going on because this negativity was running contrary to one of my longest-held convictions about myself – that I am a positive person who believes in recovery.
That might sound a strange admission in the context of a discussion involving depression but they are not mutually exclusive. Most of the time I am a balanced, resilient individual with a healthy outlook on life and the world in general. When I get depressed I see it as a perversion of my normal mind, a poisoning of the pool I am drinking from. Sadly it’s a very potent poison that eradicates all traces of positivity and light that typically inform who I am and what I believe. I have become better at breathing through it and accepting it without responding to the urge towards self-harm or self-destruction. I trust it will pass because that is what history has taught me.
So, the post-match analysis. What did I find in the engine room? No trauma or repressed episode, simply this: I am less than. That was my revelation. I am less than. I have been telling myself this for as long as I can remember. It’s a strangely insidious thing. Quite a mediocre form of self-loathing but effectively debilitating nonetheless. I feel obliged to add that I have frequently flayed myself with far less tepid indignities but this little epiphany has been quite resonant. As I articulated it to my wife I understood for the first time the real significance of a self-fulfilling prophesy. I have believed this about myself for a very long time and it keeps bringing me back to the same place. What form does this ‘less than’ take? Here are some simple examples:
- I am an actor. But I’m not a real actor.
- I am a writer. But I’m not a real writer.
- I am a karate practitioner. But I’m not a real karate practitioner.
- I am a swimmer. But I’m not a real swimmer.
- I am a teacher. But I’m not a real teacher.
- I am a photographer. But I’m not a real photographer.
The list could go on and on but I’m sure you understand. If the subconscious starting point is that you are only pretending then there’s a certain inevitability about you not fully committing to your desired endpoint. How can you expect a fully fledged emergence if one part of you never leaves the shores of self-doubt? Even as I write this it feels like a very adolescent insight but so be it. At least now I have some more information to play with before I make my next decision.
I suppose if we’re around long enough Time will eventually reveal us to ourselves. I have become accustomed to pursuing this self-knowledge a bit more aggressively. There is a traditional martial arts axiom that has become part of received military wisdom – First know yourself, then know others. That is how it was expressed by Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate and he in turn took it from the legendary Sun Tzu, who put it in slightly more elaborate terms:
When one knows the enemy and knows oneself, one will not be in danger in a hundred battles. When one is ignorant of the enemy yet knows oneself, chances of victory or defeat are even. When one knows neither the enemy nor oneself, each and every battle will surely be perilous.
– Sun Tzu, “Offensive Strategy,” The Art of War
This strategy can be a bit tricky when your enemy lies within but it is no less worthy of your attention. Your enemy is the one who likes you where you are. They can see you. They know you. Maybe consider changing what you believe about yourself so the next time the enemy comes looking you aren’t even there.
Do you succumb to self-fulfilling prophesies? What beliefs keep bringing you back to the same places?