Making sense of personal experience is hard. When it isn’t hard, I fear self-serving simplifications, even when such narratives cast us in an unflattering light. Traumatic events in our lives operate below the surface, like the riptide that drags you away from the course you’re sure you are navigating. You can put a rudder at an angle to match the pull on your sea-kayak, to run true to your intentions. In trying to see how life-events drag you, some form of self-examination – unpleasant though that is to many raised in a peculiarly buttoned-up English culture, layered with conventional ideas of masculinity – can aspire to fulfilling an analogous purpose. Like the sea-kayak’s rudder, this is not a permanent or guaranteed solution: it needs ongoing monitoring and work. In many contexts, this is the work that people undertake with a therapist, as psychoanalytic work seeks to strip back those self-serving narratives1, and ready us to see what tides are really pulling us, often again and again, to the rocks on which we find our lives crashing.
But therapy is not the only way. Here I draw from my own halting attempts at understanding specific events in my own experience, and locating connections to a set of wider cultural discourses, which, despite my background as a philosopher and religious studies scholar, has led me to engage with the reflective process of auto-ethnography. In Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject,2 Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner assuage concerns about only capturing a partial picture, and bias, by reminding us of how arrogant it might be to imagine that we do some kind of academic work that wasn’t partial, and didn’t to some extent include the actors and author. They say it in conversation, and they say it well. These are hard words to heed for those of us who were trained to think of good academic work as that in which the author and their views are invisible. Nonetheless, in any human, discursive discipline, we are not wrong to be highly suspicious of what Judith Butler calls: “the postures of indifference and dispassion which have in various modalities conditioned philosophical thinking.”3 If we need further reassurance of the disingenuous inauthenticity of those who sneer at the appearance of the personal, at the value of an openly situated epistemic position4, we can also remind ourselves of paragraph 5 of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
they display altogether insufficient honesty, while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched on. They pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self-evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic (bracketed section on mystics omitted) : while what happens at the bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event – they are one and all advocates who do not want to be regarded as such, and for the most part no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, which they baptize ‘truths’.
Rather than basing my piece on interviews and field notes then, like a good sociologist might, I want to revisit something I wrote in August 2016, based on events in 2012 and 2013. The blog post was Getting High in the Low Countries5. As friends will recognise, more than I did at the time, I was trying to put my most serious life-event of recent years under a jokey title that let me hide my anxiety in plain sight. In the blog, I thread the story of my stroke in 2012 with an account of the fundraising climb I did in 2013. The primary conceptual reflection in the piece related to, but didn’t name, a sense of vulnerability. The reflexive arc, such as it is, in the piece begins with hoping to use the sponsored ascent as a full-stop, a way of saying “phew, that was scary but now I can move on with life.” The heart consultant in Oxford, who supervised my procedure to limit further risks said, in my final meeting with him to “go away, forget the device is there, and the whole business”. He is a world–renowned heart doctor, but he isn’t much of a head doctor. The arc ended with a reflection, as we travelled back from climb, that life doesn’t deal in summative punctuation:
The climb was memorable because it was a trip, a spectacle, a dramatic event, but I was wrong to think of it as a something I could use to close off, to bracket out, the fear and loss of control that my illness had brought me. As we sat on trains and planes back to the UK, and the adrenaline faded, I was struck that safety is only ever relative. The unpredictability of life is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but the inevitability of change, of the mutability of what we take as stable is something we’d be wise to acknowledge, before it leaves us dizzy with vertigo, while stood on solid ground. I’ve heard it said that old age is no place for wimps, but it seems middle-age can also be pretty hazardous terrain.
No full stops. Thinking back to writing the piece, and how the end emerged, I have consulted my drafts for the piece (back up all your data – you never know when you might want an old draft on an old article). The idea of the piece being about sitting with a sense of unsafety, being comfortable with an emergent awareness of the inevitability of change, was not in the early drafts. My memory now, traitorous though memory often is, is that it was an idea that emerged as I tried to make sense of where the writing was headed.
What I can see now, and what I don’t seem to have realised at the time is, how much I was channelling my scholarly background. My doctoral work was on Buddhism as represented philosophically by the Pali Canon. Meditating on, and learning to cope with, what the texts call anicca is central. Anicca is often rendered as ‘impermanence’, in the sense that nothing persists indefinitely, or without change. As we find in the Alagaddupama Sutta,6 all phenomena, all that exists, is in flux:
You may well take hold of a possession, O monks, that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition. (But) do you see, monks, any such possession?” — “No, Lord.” — “Well, monks, I, too, do not see any such possession that is permanent, stable, eternal, immutable, that abides eternally the same in its very condition.
When I wrote the blog about my stroke, I had been working on these texts for over a decade. I now wonder if my throwaway lines about learning to live with change were almost like a reflex. An arrogance. Of course, the riptides were more complex and treacherous, and that the cost of seeing anicca in reality was a sense of exposure; a sense of vulnerability. What I didn’t see then, was the way that psychological adaptation to change wasn’t the thing, it was ongoing change in my psychological adaptation that was the thing; the one that would catch me unawares. This resonates with some recent work I’ve been involved in, related to ideas of resilience and vulnerability.
With that in mind, I want to flag just how overpoweringly alluring the narrative of resilience and grit was to me, during my recovery. Since my mid-life induced, only-partly-ineffective-mortality-awareness-avoidance rituals of exercise started in my late 30s, I have read stories of grit. Running literature, and sports literature more widely, is awash with stories of using sport to ‘bounce back’ from trauma, adversity and anything else you care to mention. In distance running, for example, you really do, learn to be more comfortable with moderate physical discomfort than middle-aged male academics are often exposed to in the rest of their lives. But thinking this makes us especially well prepared to respond to medical frights/experiences seems spectacularly muddle headed. Our lack of physical discomfort is not the norm, anyway, but a function of privilege. Manual jobs involve tolerating this kind of thing all the time. Many women experience substantial regular physical discomfort during menstruation. People who live with (dis)abilities or chronic pain will be all too familiar with discomfort, at the very least. So, let us not overly lionise the familiarity with physical challenge that certain kinds of exercise gives. It doesn’t make one uniquely placed to ‘push on through’, ‘bounce-back’, or [insert cliché here].
In addressing these seductive narratives, a further risk is that I might sense that my academic privilege is like an immunisation against buying into too much self-deluding bullshit. Yet that kind of thinking, of believing you stand outside the material you write about, as already alluded to with reference to Butler and Nietzsche, is when you really lie to yourself – when you become your own worst enemy.
Thinking more about how we then navigate this pull, this nagging tide, which drives us towards a self-aggrandising narrative that I bounced back, and was somehow superlatively and heroically resilient, is important. What makes it hard though is that well-meaning people frequently tell us how resilient we are, or how impressed they are with our ability to bounce back, and it feels good. After the shock of having our illusions of self-determination wrenched away by illness, it gives us a little of that back. A little of it may be a good thing, may help us stabilise our tilting kayak, but like so much that satisfies us, it can be hard to see that a lot of it is not good. It is problematic in that it implies that those who didn’t recover as well, or as quickly, or go and run a sponsored marathon, just didn’t try hard enough, or don’t have the ‘right’ kind of character reserves. If we fall for the “if I can do it, anyone can” line, we really blind ourselves to the reality that many, actually, can’t, and we can’t ever be privy to the full suite of reasons why that might be the case, and we might want to tone down the all-conquering hero narrative, before someone sees through it anyway.
Another reason to hold off on the resilience discourse, and our buying into it, is that our perception changes. We may feel gritty and tough as we stride across a finish line, cheered on and hoping to have left our troubles behind us, but vulnerability isn’t as simple as that. In 2014, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score recounted the way trauma survivors are affected by their experiences, and how we as a society might find better ways of treating them. It is a challenging book, and the trauma suffered by those he works with dwarfs what I, or I suspect many readers, can even imagine. My medical misadventures are removed by orders of magnitude from the torture victims and neglected children he writes about; but the title gives us a clue to his powerful central thesis. The reality of what has happened to people will not be denied by them figuratively dusting off their hands, and thinking that some arbitrary activity is the end of it. I may have felt that I had adapted to change, taken more seriously some Buddhist ideas, and moved on, when I closed that blog post. I was wrong.
I get a sense that much resilience discourse operates conceptually with a hard barrier between ‘me’ and the ‘world’ that I have to navigate, like naïve Cartesian dualists. But ‘the body is keeping the score’, and whether we choose David Hume, or Buddhist ideas of anatta [not-self], we should resist the easy idea that ‘we’ are a stable, hard-bordered reality. Who I am/was is always a shifting thing, as I change over time, but any kind of drastic, or unexpected, experience represents, whether we discern the process or not, a quickening of this. The person I became doesn’t choose to feel vulnerable, or fail to be resilient enough. What began to crack through my sense of having ‘put away’ this episode was the way it was inscribed into me. My sense of vulnerability didn’t feel, for some time, as a phenomenon that I would name as ‘vulnerability’. It manifests as slightly (or more honestly, very) over-anxious attention to health symptoms, into a dread fear of not ‘doing things’ (whatever form that might take), and into a discomfort with, and inability to fully enjoy doing nothing.7 My agency then is not in choosing whether or not to ‘man up’ to my experiences and face them down. The body and brain isn’t scared of the laughable posturing of my masculinity. My agency is, I guess, both limited and reactive. I probably need to have been open and honest about feelings. Growing up as a boy in the 1970s didn’t leave me spectacularly well equipped to even admit that I had feelings, of course, as our broader culture conspired to remind us that boys didn’t cry, or feel. Well, as I am writing this for a public post, on the open wild-west of the internet, I might be getting over that a little. It has only taken almost 50 years.
What I am not trying to do here is to claim that my health experiences gave me any special insight; there was no halting epiphany, and I remain as suspicious as ever of the narrative of transformative sudden awakenings. As I age, ever more friends have had ‘cardiac incidents’, oncology experiences, losses, and traumas of their own; the idea that these are inherently instructive doesn’t seem persuasive. Everything can be learnt from, but I am not so inspired by the inspirational posters of Tumblr to believe that life teaches us anything at all. And yet, although we may be tempted to see our academic work as placing us outside the narratives we critique, there is also a temptation to believe that just because we don’t share an approach to understanding our experiences in a certain way, such framings are to be sneered at, or disregarded entirely. There are good reasons why some find ‘grit’ narratives useful in coping with life, and as such it seems crucial that when we engage in critiquing such narratives, which both offer reassurance yet serve to reinforce neoliberal understandings of the self, we need to retain a level of generosity to the ways in which we all try and make sense of our unfolding lives. I have also sought to steer away from this veering into becoming an overly self-indulgent exercise in narcissism8, but I’m not best placed to judge the extent of my success. Nonetheless, what I have tried to outline is how the ongoing ambush of my expectations by reality, can at least be profitably refracted into trying make sense of the social relations that such mediations always end in.
- As a young philosophy student, I first began to make sense of how we find explanatory mechanisms for our problems, which seem plausible but mask deeper causes of which we are faintly, or less faintly, aware, but ashamed to admit to ourselves and/or others, through the Jean-Paul Sartre play Huis Clos (No Exit).
- Ellis, Carolyn & Bochner, Arthur. (2000). Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject. Handbook of Qualitative Research.
- Butler, Judith, Subjects of Desire. p.1.
- The notion of ‘standpoint’ in feminist writings on epistemology is explored by, amongst others, the late Professor Pamela Sue Anderson who uses it in her work on feminist philosophy of religion.
- Originally posted on the climbing blog Holdbreaker at https://www.holdbreaker.com/blogs/news/short-climbing-story-3 – though I link in the main text to my repost, as this blog seems to have intermittent availability.
- Sutta 22 of the Majjhima Nikaya collection. The quote is verse 22. The whole sutta is at https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.nypo.html
- This was a skill that in my early 20s I excelled at.
- I’ll save that for Instagram.