There is [a] kind of conduct that in my experience can give one the strength to carry on in turbulent atmospheric conditions; even to thrive in the most discouraging historic circumstances, as now. I’m thinking of self-enrichment — not financial but let’s call it cultural or intellectual or experiential self-development as both a means of flowering and of fortitude, and as an end in itself.
Self-enrichment is an antidote to despair
By Stephen Kessler
Kindness, generosity, altruism, good works and volunteering never go out of style. Selfishness, belligerence, ruthlessness, vanity and corruption have unfortunately proved through the centuries to be endemic to the human condition (in Western civilization at least). The quest for self-improvement — spiritual, physical, professional, athletic, artistic — is a perennial theme of personal growth. The instinct to seek better conditions is what drives migrants to pursue the prospect of new lives in countries far from home. All these human traits and behaviors are evident almost everywhere at all times.
There is another kind of conduct that in my experience can give one the strength to carry on in turbulent atmospheric conditions; even to thrive in the most discouraging historic circumstances, as now. I’m thinking of self-enrichment — not financial but let’s call it cultural or intellectual or experiential self-development as both a means of flowering and of fortitude, and as an end in itself.
Self-indulgence gets a bad rap. We indulge ourselves when we commit ourselves to doing what we love. We lose ourselves in the act of engagement, and with luck the result is something useful or beautiful whose existence improves things in some small way. But it is in the process that we are enriched by our absolute engagement with the task, whether writing a poem or drafting a business plan, composing a symphony or designing a home, building a cabinet or cooking dinner. We are learning as we go; we are building experience and sharpening our skills; we are finding pleasure by solving problems. This is the kind of self-indulgence that benefits more than ourselves.
And let’s hear it for narcissism, whose original meaning has been perverted in its appropriation by clinicians to describe a certain kind of personality disorder, and in its contamination by sociopathic individuals who give it a bad name with their bad behavior. I’ve written before of the myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth whose arrogance is softened by the sight of his own reflection. Although he drowns mistaking himself for another — which is also a parable of the hazards of infatuation — he is saved from a lifetime of meanness and is immortalized as a flower. Today’s pathological narcissists are unable to see themselves in the other, or can see themselves only in the reflection of others’ admiration. They never soften into empathy and can only be gratified at others’ expense.
When I think about what we’re in for in the coming months and years of extreme weather, endless wars, economic turmoil, legal drama, political chaos, social agitation and psychic pain, and wonder what I can do about it, the best thing I can think of is to live as if every minute counts as a chance to do something of value and to appreciate each moment of grace I’m afforded, or can create. In my line of work that has mostly involved using my practice as a reader and writer to enrich myself with tradition and try to transmit that richness in some form that may be of use to others — you, for example — either by revealing something you never thought of before in quite that way or raising uncomfortable questions that cause you to rethink your assumptions or simply providing a bit of interesting entertainment, as I can’t solve anyone else’s problems, change public policy or change the world.
Self-enrichment, for me (and it’s obviously different for different individuals), has come in the form of studying and writing about some artist or author, or gardening, or indulging myself in the pleasures of live music or in conversation with accomplished people from whom I can learn something new. The inspiration I feel, or strength I gain, or delight I take in and from such experience makes me feel less bad about the bad news in the media and gives me the courage to continue without illusions but with an affirmative sense of the present moment and the promise of the possible.