Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness.
That we think so well of untrained intuition is because (perhaps without realizing it) we are the troubled inheritors of what can be defined as a Romantic view of emotions. Starting in Europe in the eighteenth century and spreading widely and powerfully ever since, Romanticism has been deeply committed to casting doubt on the need to apply reason to emotional life, preferring to let spontaneous feelings play an unhampered role instead.
In our choice of whom to marry, Romanticism has counseled that we be guided by immediate attraction. In our working lives, we are prompted to choose our jobs by listening to our hearts. We are, above all else, urged never to think too much, lest cold reason overwhelm the wisdom of feeling. The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one.
When we speak of emotional intelligence, we are alluding—in a humanistic rather than a scientific way—to whether someone understands key components of emotional functioning. We are referring to their ability to introspect and communicate, to read the moods of others, to relate with patience, charity, and imagination to the less edifying moments of those around them. The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation.
Sustained shortfalls in emotional intelligence are, sadly, no minor matter. There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.
Our problem isn’t just that we are in the habit of shirking important ideas. We are also prone to forget them immediately even if we have in theory given them our assent. For this, humanity invented ritual.
Not coincidentally, it is also religions that have been especially active in the design and propagation of rituals. It is they that have created occasions at which to tug our minds back to honoring the seasons, remembering the dead, looking inside ourselves, focusing on the passage of time, empathizing with strangers, forgiving transgressions, or apologizing for misdeeds.
However, the best rituals don’t so much impose upon us ideas that we are opposed to but take us back to ideas that we are in deep agreement with yet have allowed to lapse: They are an externally mandated route to inner authenticity.
In the course of secularizing our societies, we may have been too hasty in doing away with rituals. An education system alive to the wisdom of religions would perceive the role of structured lessons that constantly repeat what we know full well already, and yet so arduously and grievously forget. A good “school” shouldn’t tell us only things we’ve never heard of before; it should be deeply interested in rehearsing all that is theoretically known yet practically forgotten.
What separates the sane insane from the simply insane is the honest, personable, and accurate grasp they have on what is not entirely right with them. They may not be wholly balanced, but they don’t have the additional folly of insisting on their normalcy.
The melancholy know that many of the things we most want are in tragic conflict: to feel secure and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be beholden to others; to be in close-knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of society; to explore the world and yet to put down deep roots; to fulfill the demands of our appetites for food, sex, and sloth and yet stay thin, sober, faithful, and fit.
To hear that we should understand rather than condemn, that others are primarily anxious rather than cruel, that every strength of character we admire bears with it a weakness we must forgive: These are both key laws of psychology and entirely familiar truisms of the sort that we have been taught to disdain.
Three decades devoted to the unhappy pursuit of wealth and status may turn out to be driven by nothing more or less than a forgotten desire to secure the attention of a distracted parent more interested in an older sibling. The failure of a fifteen-year relationship, a thousand nights of pain and fury, might have originated in an avoidant pattern of attachment established in one’s fourteenth month on earth.
In an ideal society, it would be not only children who were known to need an education. All adults would recognize that they inevitably required continuing education of an emotional kind and would remain active followers of a psychological curriculum. Schools devoted to emotional intelligence would be open for everyone, so that children would feel that they were participating in the early stages of a lifelong process.
It is logical that Socrates should have boiled down the entire wisdom of philosophy to one simple command: “Know yourself.”
For the skeptics, understanding that we may be repeatedly hoodwinked by our own minds is the start of the only kind of intelligence of which we are ever capable; just as we are never as foolish as when we fail to suspect we might be so.
We take the first steps toward maturity by determining some of the ways in which our emotional minds deny, lie, evade, forget, and obsess, steering us toward goals that won’t deliver the satisfaction of which we’re initially convinced. A readiness to mitigate the worst of our everyday foolishness contributes to the highest kind of emotional intelligence of which we may ever be capable.
Psychology has built up a humbling array of tests that show up the presence of the unknown past and, with it, a tendency to impose—or, as the technical term puts it, to “transfer”—old assumptions and patterns of thinking on to contemporary reality. The best known of such tests, devised in the 1920s by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, presents us with groups of ambiguous images generated by spilt ink, upon which we’re asked to reflect without inhibition, expressing freely what we feel of their atmosphere and identity.
Early over-protectiveness inspired timidity and, around any complex situation, panic. A continually busy, inattentive parent was the catalyst for a personality marked by exhausting attention-seeking behavior.
We can tell that our imbalances date from the past because they reflect the ways of thinking and instincts of the children we once were.
For example, when they suffer at the hands of an adult, children almost invariably take what happens to them as a reflection of something that must be very wrong with them.
The character traits and mentalities that were formed in response to one or two central actors of childhood become our habitual templates for interpreting pretty much anyone. The always jokey and slightly manic way of being that we evolved so as to keep a depressed, listless mother engaged becomes our second nature. Even when she is long gone, we remain people who need to shine at every meeting, who require a partner to be continually focused on us, and who cannot listen to negative or dispiriting information of any kind. We are living the wide-open present through the narrow drama of the past.
We make our lives tougher than they should be because we insist on thinking of people, ourselves and others, as inept and mean rather than, as is almost invariably the case, primarily the victims of what we have all in some ways traveled through: an immensely tricky early history.
We lie by filling our minds with impressive ideas that blatantly announce our intelligence to the world but subtly ensure that we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of ignorance or confusion upon which the development of our personalities may nevertheless rest.
We deploy knowledge and ideas that carry indubitable prestige to stand guard against the emergence of more humble but essential knowledge from our emotional past. We bury our personal stories beneath an avalanche of expertise. The possibility of a deeply consequential intimate enquiry is deliberately left to seem feeble and superfluous next to the grander task of addressing a conference on the political strategies of Dona Maria I or the life cycle of the Indonesian octopus. We lean on the glamour of being learned to limit all that we might really need to learn about.
A defense of emotional honesty has nothing to do with high-minded morality. It is ultimately cautionary and egoistic. We need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our concealments. We cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut out large portions of our minds and end up uncreative, tetchy, and defensive, while others around us have to suffer our irritability, gloom, manufactured cheerfulness, or defensive rationalizations.
We may think of egoists as people who have grown sick from too much love, but in fact the opposite is the case: An egoist is someone who has not yet had their fill. Self-centeredness has to have a clear run in the early years if it isn’t to haunt and ruin the later ones. The so-called narcissist is simply a benighted soul who has not had a chance to be inordinately and unreasonably admired and cared for at the start.
In an emotionally healthy childhood, the relationship with our caregiver is steady, consistent, and long-term. We trust that they will be there tomorrow and the day after. They are boringly predictable. As a result, we are able to believe that what has gone well once can go well again and to let such an expectation govern our pick of available adult partners. We aren’t mesmerized by people who are offhand and frustrating; we don’t relish being punished. We can locate candidates who are kind and nurturing, and don’t judge them as weak or deficient for being so.
Bakhuysen wanted us to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in the face of apparently dreadful challenges. His painting implies that we can all cope far better than we think; that what appears immensely threatening may be highly survivable. All this the caregiver teaches, usually without reference to ships and Dutch art—just by their way of keeping on.
At its most basic, charity means offering someone something they need but can’t get for themselves.
We need charity, but not of the usual kind; we need what we might term a “charity of interpretation”: that is, we require an uncommonly generous assessment of our idiocy, weakness, eccentricity, or deceit. We need onlookers who can provide some of the rationale we have grown too mute, cowed, or ashamed to proffer. Even when they do not know any of the details, generous onlookers must make a stab at picturing the overall structure of what might have happened to the wretched being before them.
In ancient Greece, another rather remarkable possibility—ignored by our own era—was envisaged: You could be good and yet fail. To keep this idea at the front of the collective imagination, the ancient Greeks developed a particular art form: tragic drama.
The real purpose of tragedy is not to teach us to be kind to fictional creations; it is to encourage us to apply a complex lens to the travails of all those around us and, crucially at points, to ourselves.
We should in our most impatient and intemperate moments strive to hold on to the concept of the weakness of strength. This dictates that we should interpret people’s weaknesses as the inevitable downside of certain merits that drew us to them, and from which we will benefit at other points (even if none of these benefits are apparent right now). What we’re seeing are not their faults, pure and simple, but rather the shadow side of things that are genuinely good about them.
The very same character trait that we approve of will be inseparable from tendencies we end up regretting. This isn’t bad luck or the case with one or two people: It’s a law of nature. There can, perplexingly, be no such thing as a person with only strengths.
It is always an option to move away and find people who will have new kinds of strengths, but—as time will reveal—they will also have new, fascinating, and associated kinds of weaknesses. Kindness is built out of a constantly renewed and gently resigned awareness that weakness-free people do not exist.
The story is a reminder of what kindness demands. We resent others with unhelpful speed when we lack the will to consider the origins of their behavior. The lion is in terrible pain, but has no capacity to understand what is hurting him and what he might need from others.
They have not got away with injuring us; their punishment lies in the pain they must be enduring in order to have such an urgent need to lash out. We, who have no wish to hurt, are in fact the stronger party; we, who have no wish to diminish others, are truly powerful.
They know too that what holds people back from evolution is fear and therefore grasp that what we may most need to offer those whom we want to acknowledge difficult things is, above anything else, love and reassurance.
At the heart of the shy person’s self-doubt is a certainty that they must be boring. But, in reality, no one is ever truly boring. We are only in danger of coming across as such when we don’t dare (or know how) to communicate our deeper selves to others.
When we dismiss a person as boring, we are merely pointing to someone who has not had the courage or concentration to tell us what it is like to be them. But we invariably prove compelling when we succeed in detailing some of what we crave, envy, regret, mourn, and dream. The interesting person isn’t someone to whom obviously and outwardly interesting things have happened, someone who has traveled the world, met important dignitaries or been present at critical geopolitical events. Nor is it someone who speaks in learned terms about the great themes of culture, history, or science. They are someone who has grown into an attentive, self-aware listener and a reliable correspondent of their own mind and heart, and who can thereby give us faithful accounts of the pathos, drama, and strangeness of being them.
There is a particular way of discussing oneself that, however long it goes on for, never fails to win friends, reassure audiences, comfort couples, bring solace to the single, and buy the goodwill of enemies: the confession of vulnerability. To hear that we have failed, that we are sad, that it was our fault, that our partners don’t seem to like us much, that we are lonely, that we have wished it might all be over—there is scarcely anything nicer anyone could learn. This is often taken to signal a basic nastiness in human nature, but the truth is more poignant. We are not so much crowing when we hear of failure as deeply reassured to know that we aren’t humiliatingly alone with the appalling difficulties of being alive.
We put so much effort into being perfect. But the irony is that it’s failure that charms, because others so need to hear external evidence of problems with which we are all too lonely: how un-normal our sex lives are; how arduous our careers are proving; how unsatisfactory our family can be; how worried we are pretty much all the time. Revealing any of these wounds might, of course, place us in great danger. Others could laugh; the media could have a field day. That’s the point. We get close by revealing things that would, in the wrong hands, be capable of inflicting humiliation on us.
Friendship is the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgment that one has offered something very valuable by talking: the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy, and anxious bits of us that renders us endearing to others and transforms strangers into friends.
We should stop worrying quite so much whether or not people like us, and make that far more interesting and socially useful move: concentrate on showing that we like them.
The good listener knows that we’d ideally move—via conversation with another person—from a confused, agitated state of mind to one that was more focused and (hopefully) more serene. Together with them, we’d work out what was really at stake. But in reality this tends not to happen, because there isn’t enough of an awareness of the desire and need for clarification within conversation. There aren’t enough good listeners. So people tend to assert rather than analyze. They restate in many different ways the fact that they are worried, excited, sad, or hopeful, and their interlocutor listens but doesn’t assist them to discover more. Good listeners fight against this with a range of conversational gambits.
The good listener knows we benefit hugely from encouragement to elaborate, to go into greater detail, to push a little further. We need someone who, rather than launch forth, will simply say two rare, magic words: “Go on.”
The good listener is, paradoxically, a skilled interrupter. But they don’t, as most people do, interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original, more sincere yet elusive concerns.
When we’re in the company of people who listen well, we experience a very powerful pleasure, but too often we don’t really realize what it is about what this person is doing that is so welcome. By paying strategic attention to our feelings of satisfaction, we should learn to magnify these pleasures and offer them to others, who will notice, heal, and then repay the favor in turn. Listening deserves discovery as one of the keys to good meals, late evenings—and good societies more broadly.
We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are frustrated; only when we first believed ourselves entitled to a particular satisfaction and then did not receive it.
Furthermore, it is a psychological law that those who are most attracted to calm will almost certainly also be especially irritable and by nature prone to particularly high levels of anxiety. We have a mistaken picture of what lovers of calm look like if we assume them to be among the most tranquil of the species.
Typically, lovers of something are not the people who already possess it but those who are hugely aware of how much they lack it—and are therefore especially humble before, and committed to, the task of securing it.
Romanticism believes that true love should involve delighting in a lover’s every facet, that it is synonymous with accepting everything about someone. The idea that one’s partner (or oneself) might need to evolve and mature is taken to be a sign that a relationship is on the rocks: “You’re going to have to change” is a last-ditch threat and “Love me for who I am” the most noble of cries.
Reflecting on the history of Romanticism should be consoling because it suggests that quite a lot of the troubles we have with relationships don’t stem (as we normally, guiltily, end up thinking) from our ineptitude, our inadequacy, or our regrettable choice of partners. Knowing the history invites another, more useful idea: We were set an incredibly hard task by our culture, which then had the temerity to present it as easy.
We need to replace the Romantic template with a psychologically mature vision of love we might call Classical, which encourages in us a range of unfamiliar but hopefully effective attitudes:
This is because we don’t fall in love first and foremost with those who care for us best and most devotedly; we fall in love with those who care for us in ways that we expect. Adult love emerges from a template of how we should be loved that was created in childhood and is likely to be connected to a range of problematic compulsions that militate in key ways against our chances of growth. Far more than happiness, what motivates us in relationships is a search for familiarity—and what is familiar is not restricted to comfort, reassurance, and tenderness; it may include feelings of abandonment, humiliation, and neglect, which can form part of the list of paradoxical ingredients we need to refind in adult love. We might reject healthy, calm, and nurturing candidates simply on the basis that they feel too right, too eerie in their unfamiliar kindness, and nowhere near as satisfying as a bully or an ingrate, who will torture us in just the way we need in order to feel we are in love.
Annoying characteristics almost always have their roots in childhood, long before our arrival. They are, for the most part, strategies that were developed for coping with stresses that could not correctly be processed by an immature mind.
We are ready for relationships not when we have encountered perfection, but when we have grown willing to give flaws the charitable interpretations they deserve.
Our partners aren’t uniquely damaged. We just know them a lot better than the exciting stranger. Our partner suffers from the disadvantages of incumbency: of having been in our lives for so long that we have had the opportunity to be patiently introduced to the full range of their inadequacies. Our certainty that we might be happier with another person is founded on ignorance, the result of having been shielded from the worst and crazier dimensions of a new character’s personality—which we must accept are sure to be there, not because we know them in any detail, but because we know the human race.
So, what do we do with what we perceive as their weaknesses, the problems and regrettable aspects? The Greek idea of love turns to a notion to which we desperately need to rehabilitate ourselves: education. For the Greeks, given the scale of our imperfections, part of what it means to deepen love is to want to teach—and to be ready to be taught. Two people should see a relationship as a constant opportunity to improve and be improved. When lovers teach each other uncomfortable truths, they are not abandoning the spirit of love. They are trying to do something very true to genuine love, which is to make their partners more worthy of admiration.
Unfortunately, under the sway of Romantic ideology, most of us end up being terrible teachers and equally terrible students. That’s because we rebel against the effort necessary to translate criticism into sensible-sounding lessons and the humility required to hear these lessons as caring attempts to address the more troublesome aspects of our personalities.
The good teacher knows that timing is critical to successful instruction. We tend automatically to try to teach a lesson the moment the problem arises, rather than when it is most likely to be attended to (which might be several days later). And so we typically end up addressing the most delicate and complex teaching tasks just at the point when we feel most scared and distressed and our student is most exhausted and nervous. We should learn to proceed like a wily general who knows how to wait for just the right conditions to make a move.
It seems one can change others only when the desire that they evolve has not yet reached an insistent pitch, when we can still bear that they remain as they are.
Sex in which two people can express their defiling urges is, for Proust, at heart an indication of a quest for complete acceptance. We know we can please others with our goodness, but (suggests Proust) what we really want is also to be endorsed for our more peculiar and dark impulses. The discipline involved in growing up into a good person seeks occasional alleviation, which is what sex can provide in those rare moments when two partners trust one another enough to reveal their otherwise strictly censored desires to dirty and insult.
One can deliver a complaint with some of the nonchalance of a calm teacher who wants listeners to learn but can bear it if they don’t because the information can always be conveyed tomorrow, or the next day.
But people don’t have affairs because they are able to meet attractive others; they have affairs because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners.
Few things are more properly romantic (in the true sense of the word, meaning conducive to love) than highly honest conversations in which we have an opportunity to lay bare the particular ways in which our partners have disappointed us.
We’re carrying around wounds that we have found, understandably and inevitably, hard to articulate. Perhaps the complaints sounded too petty or humiliating to mention at the time. The problem is that when they fester, the currents of affection start to get blocked and soon we may find that we flinch when our partner tries to touch us. This prompt provides a safe moment in which to reveal a set of—typically entirely unintentional—hurts.
We end up lonely because there is something important about who we are that our partner appears not to grasp or, so we can conclude, does not even want to take on board. But this lack of interest is rarely malevolent; it is usually more the case that there hasn’t been a proper occasion for exploration. The feeling that one person knows another is the constant enemy of long-term couples. Our partners may understand us well, but we still need patiently and diplomatically to keep explaining things that remain unclear between us.
Beneath the surface of almost every argument lies a forlorn attempt by two people to get the other to see, acknowledge, and respond to their emotional reality and sense of justice.
We may, furthermore, not have grown up with a sense that our dissatisfactions ever deserved expression.
We might have become masters in the art of not complaining and of accepting what we are given as the price of survival and of protection of those we loved.
People don’t change when they are gruffly told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they—almost always—already know is due.
We don’t make this argument explicitly to ourselves, but a dark instinct in our minds experiences our partner’s upbeat mood as a warning that our uncheery parts must now be unwelcome.
The better move, if only we could manage it, would be to confess to, rather than act out, our impulses. We should admit to our partner that we have been seized by an ugly fear about their happiness, laughingly reveal how much we would ideally love to cause a stink, and firmly pledge that we won’t. We would all the while remind ourselves that every cheerful person has been sad and that the buoyant among us have by far the best chances of keeping afloat those who remain emotionally at sea.
When we are in difficulties, what we may primarily be seeking from our partners is a sense that they understand what we are going through. We are not looking for answers (the problems may be too large for there to be any obvious ones) so much as comfort, reassurance, and fellow feeling. In the circumstances, the deployment of an overly logical stance may come across not as an act of kindness, but as a species of disguised impatience.
If two people were being properly “logical” in the deepest sense of the word—that is, truly alive to all the complexities of emotional functioning—rather than squabbling around the question “Why are you being so rational when I’m in pain?”, the person on the receiving end of superficial logic would gently change the subject and ask, “Is it possible I’ve hurt or been neglecting you?” That would be real logic.
We cannot be entirely wrong, there are surely genuine virtues to hand, but the primary error of the crush is to ignore the fact that life will in important ways have twisted us all out of shape. No one has come through completely unscathed. The chances of a perfectly admirable human walking the earth are nonexistent.
Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying a specific kind of dissatisfaction we can bear rather than an occasion to escape from grief altogether.
This is what can make unrequited love so vicious. By denying us the chance to grow close to the beloved, we cannot tire of them in the cathartic and liberating manner that is the gift of requited love. It isn’t their charms that are keeping us magnetized; it is our lack of knowledge of their flaws.
The cruelty of unrequited love isn’t really that we haven’t been loved back; rather that our hopes have been aroused by someone who can never disappoint us, someone whom we will have to keep believing in because we lack the knowledge that would set us free.
When we spot apparent perfection, we tend to blame our spectacular bad luck for the mediocrity of our lives, without realizing that we are mistaking an asymmetry of knowledge for an asymmetry of quality: We are failing to see that our partner, home, and job are not especially awful, but rather that we know them especially well. The corrective to insufficient knowledge is experience.
At the best moments of childhood (if things went reasonably well) loving parents offered us extraordinary satisfaction. They knew when we were hungry or tired, even though we couldn’t explain. We did not need to strive. They made us feel completely safe. We were held peacefully. We were entertained and indulged. And even if we don’t recall the explicit details, the experience of being cherished has made a profound impression on us; it has planted itself in our deep minds as the ideal template of what love should be. As adults, without really noticing, we continue to be in thrall to this notion of being loved, projecting the best experiences of our early years into our present relationships and finding them sorely wanting as a result—a comparison that is profoundly corrosive and unfair.
The love we received from a parent can’t ever be a workable model for our later, adult, experience of love. The reason is fundamental: We were a baby then, we are an adult now—a dichotomy with several key ramifications. For a start, our needs were so much simpler. We needed to be washed, amused, put to bed. But we didn’t need someone to trawl intelligently through the troubled corners of our minds.
The parent knew absolutely what was required in relation to basic physical and emotional requirements. Our partner is stumbling in the dark around needs that are immensely subtle, far from obvious, and very complicated to fulfill.
Secondly, none of it was reciprocal. Our parents were intensely focused on caring for us, but they knew and wholly accepted that we wouldn’t engage with their needs. They didn’t for a minute imagine that they could take their troubles to us or expect us to nurture them.
Furthermore, our parents were probably kind enough to shield us from the burden that looking after us imposed on them. They maintained a reasonably sunny facade until they retired to their own bedroom, at which point the true toll of their efforts could be witnessed (but by then we were asleep). This was immensely kind, but did us one lasting disservice: It may unwittingly have created an expectation of what it would mean for someone to love us that was never true in the first place.
The source of our present sorrow is not, therefore, a special failing on the part of our adult lovers. They are not tragically inept or uniquely selfish. It’s rather that we’re judging our adult experiences against a very different kind of childhood love. We are sorrowful not because we have landed up with the wrong person but because we have, sadly, been forced to grow up.
It is ultimately no great sign of kindness to insist on showing someone our entire selves at all times. A dedication to maintaining boundaries and editing our pronouncements belongs to love as much as a capacity to show ourselves as we really are. The lover who does not tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” divulges information so wounding it cannot be forgotten, is no friend of love.
The capacity to compromise is not always the weakness it is described as being. It can involve a mature, realistic admission that there may—in certain situations—simply be no ideal options. And, conversely, an inability to compromise does not always have to be the courageous and visionary position it is held to be by our impatient and perfectionist ideology. It may just be a slightly rigid, proud, and cruel delusion.
Mocking people who compromise is, of course, emotionally very handy. It localizes a problem that it’s normal to want to disavow. It pins to a few scapegoat couples what we are all terrified about in our relationships: that a degree of sadness may just be an intrinsic and unavoidable part of them. Wiser societies would be careful never to stigmatize the act of compromise. It is painful enough to have to do it; it is even more painful to have to hate oneself for having done so. We should rehabilitate and honor the ability to put up with a flawed fellow human being, to nurse our sadness without falling into rage or despair, to reconcile ourselves to our damaged appearance and character, and to accept that there may be no better way for us to live but partly in pain and longing, given who we are and what the world can provide.
In a better world, our most serious goal would be not to locate one special lover with whom to replace all other humans, but to put our intelligence and energy into identifying and nurturing a circle of true friends.
Marriage is a giant inhibitor of impulse set up by our conscience to keep our libidinous, naive, desiring selves in check. What we are essentially buying into by submitting to its dictates is the insight that we are (as individuals) likely to make very poor choices under the sway of strong short-term impulses. To marry is to recognize that we require structure to insulate us from our urges. It is to lock ourselves up willingly, because we acknowledge the benefits of the long-term: the wisdom of the morning after the storm.
At their best, relationships involve us in attempts to develop, mature, and become “whole.” We often get drawn to people precisely because they promise to edge us in the right direction.
The truth about us, on the basis of which self-improvement can begin, only becomes clear over time. Chances of development can increase hugely when we stay put and don’t succumb to the temptation to run away to people who will falsely reassure us that there’s nothing too wrong with us.
The point of marriage is to be usefully unpleasant—at least at crucial times. Together we embrace a set of limitations on one kind of freedom, the freedom to run away, so as to protect and strengthen another kind, the shared ability to mature and create something of lasting value, the pains of which are aligned to our better selves.
Good children become the keepers of too many secrets and the appalling communicators of unpopular but important things. They say lovely words, they are experts in satisfying the expectations of their audiences, but their real thoughts and feelings are buried, then seep out as psychosomatic symptoms, twitches, sudden outbursts, sulfurous bitterness, and an underlying feeling of unreality.
There’s a type of underconfidence that arises specifically when we grow too attached to our own dignity and become anxious around situations that seem in some way to threaten it. We hold back from challenges in which there is any risk of ending up looking ridiculous, but these of course comprise many of the most interesting options.
The root cause of impostor syndrome is an unhelpful picture of what people at the top of society are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we can’t imagine how equally flawed the elite must necessarily also be underneath their polished surfaces.
The solution to the impostor syndrome lies in making a leap of faith and trusting that others’ minds work basically in much the same way as our own. Everyone is probably as anxious, uncertain, and wayward as we are.
No one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant. We sense the need for a great deal of admiring attention when we have been painfully overexposed to deprivation.
Both Romantic and Classical orientations have important truths to impart. Neither is wholly right or wrong. They need to be balanced. And none of us are in any case ever simply one or the other. But because a good life requires a judicious balance of both positions, at this point in history it might be the Classical attitude whose distinctive claims and wisdom we need to listen to most intently.
We should develop the sort of confidence that emerges from understanding a basic fact of human psychology: that we’re all very prepared to accept the less than perfect, if only we can be guided to appreciate it with skill, confidence, and charm.
Though we may long to share the inner circles, too often we seem able only to hover with others around the outer ones, returning home from yet another social gathering with the most sincere parts of us aching for recognition and companionship.
What replaced religion in our imaginations, as we have seen, is the cult of human-to-human love we now know as Romanticism, which bequeathed to us the beautiful but reckless idea that loneliness might be capable of being vanquished, if we are fortunate and determined enough to meet the one exalted being known as our soulmate; someone who will understand everything deep and strange about us, who will see us completely and be enchanted by our totality. But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.
Winnicott’s crucial insight was that the parents’ agony was coming from a particular place: excessive hope. Their despair was a consequence of a cruel and counterproductive perfectionism. To help them reduce this, Winnicott developed a charming phrase: “the good enough parent.” No child, he insisted, needs an ideal parent. They just need an OK, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, sometimes grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother.