Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
The Dark Side of Potential
03/13/2014Posted by on
I was lucky in a lot of ways as a child: I had two parents who loved, nurtured and instilled a love of learning in me; we lived in an affluent neighborhood with a good school; I had certain gifts from nature and nurture that we call above-average intelligence; and finally I had access to books through ownership and the well funded local library. As a result, I was reading five or six grades above my level. I knew this because on the back of every book a schoolchild was going to get their hands on they printed the suggested reading level. Between school, personality, and my parents I had gotten clear signals that being smart was good, and being smart had something to do with your age and your grade levels, so I was quietly pleased with being an advanced reader.1 On top of that, throughout elementary school I was the fastest reader in my class. At some point, second grade I think, the class was split, or tracked, into two reading groups. One track was for the advanced readers, and the other track was for the normal readers. 2 So you can imagine my personal disappointment and filial shame when I was tracked into the normal reader group.3
While I was an above average reader, I was a considerably below average writer – not because of a faulty grasp of words, sentence structure, and the rules of grammar; but because I had terrible handwriting. As a direct result, the teachers could not read what I wrote on the response sheet proving I had read and understood the assigned material and kept me in the regular reading track.4 Their assumption, was reasonable: I was just going to have to learn how to handwrite better, and all that would take was a little motivated learning at grade level. Reasonable, but completely wrong. There were numerous obstacles between me and handwriting success5 but the simple truth is that merely being bright and motivated doesn’t mean everything is a simple and easy application of a modest amount of willpower. None of that mattered to my parents, my teachers, or me. We had the obvious answer: I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
This was neither the first or the last time I had fallen short of lofty but reasonable expectations, nor even the first time I had internalized the reasonable, but entirely wrong notion that every academic failure is a moral one. Some of you are nodding along, a few of you have a joke about Asian parenting, but the rest of you are probably confused as to what I was supposed to be guilty of. I was guilty of failing to live up to my potential. More to the point, I chose to not live up to my potential. I didn’t want it hard enough. I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t have the discipline. I was lazy. Or so the narrative went. And that is the dark side of having potential, everyone naturally expects you to live up to it and is oh so very disappointed when you do not. This hurt a little at first. Then I internalized it entirely, and it hurt a lot.
Now, let me zoom out a bit, because there is not a lot on the internet that is more nauseating than smart people whining about how hard it is being smart. The dynamic I’ve been writing about isn’t painful because I was smart and people put me under pressure. The dynamic was painful because I internalized a pervasive belief that I could do anything (academically) I wanted, and by a necessary consequence I internalized a pervasive cultural belief that every way I fell short (academically) of expectations was a personal failing. No one had to tell me that, and I never asked. It was the unspoken shared answer to the unasked question.6
In fact, “belief” is a deceptive word as applied here. We’re used to the idea that a belief is a positive act, a deliberate exercise of will. Instead think of belief as a habit of the mind. Habits can be cultivated but many if not most simply accumulate over time and become hidden in plain sight to the habit holder, only to be discovered later. Likewise, the way we talk about culture is deceptive – external collections of art, history, rules, ideas, narratives and symbols associated with a tribe or organizational entity. Instead, if beliefs are habits of the mind, cultures are usefully thought of as countless interconnected habits of the mind, a complex whole many times larger than any one of us , fully made by us and very nearly invisible. There are good habits, bad habits, and neutral habits, and some of the bad habits masquerade as good ones.
This is, by the way, why religion is so important. Religion is a sort of culture and it is the sort of culture that asks the hardest questions and plays for the biggest stakes.7 That makes religion special, but not that special. It makes mental habits cloaked in religion much more powerful, but no more or less likely to harm. As much as it hurt me to internalize a cultural belief that my academic failures were moral failures, at least I never believed that my bad health or my lack of fabulous wealth was a personal failing.
There are people who believe that being sick or poor is the direct result of their own failures, even though often they do not realize that is what they believe. Instead, you’ll hear it phrased something like this: “When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.” Lest you be confused that this is a metaphorical, eschatological, or soteriological blessing Joel Olsteen is actually pretty clear what his whole theology comes down to, “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty. It’s God’s will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt.” What Olsteen is peddling is the prosperity gospel, a very American theology associated with televangelists and many of the megachurch preachers. 8 The theological sins of the prosperity gospel are discussed elsewhere on the web, but I want to draw your attention to the necessary implications of the prosperity gospel. The formula goes roughly as follows:
- God loves you
- God wants you to have health and wealth
- God answers prayers of those with sufficient faith.
Sounds great, right? A source of great comfort in dark times. With faith and/or prayer, an otherworldly being will swoop in and solve all your problems. So let’s say that you’ve been believing hard, and somehow you’re still unemployed, and you’re still sick, and you’re still suffering.
- You’re sick and poor
- God answers prayers for health and wealth by those with faith
- You’ve been praying
- Conclusion: you do not have sufficient faith.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me provide you with another quote of Olsteen’s: “I realized that worry, fear, and wrong thinking are not simply bad habits. They allow the negative to come to pass.” Whether from explicit logic or implicit, a message of hope quickly becomes a message of condemnation. You’ll see versions of this message everywhere when you know to look, the Oprah-peddled The Secret is the same thing packaged as New Age self help, business books and peppy social media image memes. Dark cruelties are the shadows cast by the seemingly positive messages and uplifting narratives we tell about ourselves.
In day to day life thousands of catchphrase-friendly ideas are peddled to us, dressed up to suit the occasion. Whether a paean to supernatural forces for church, a slapdash nod at neurochemistry for the science blogs, or a plagiarized platitude from a friend, we are surrounded by ideas that promise if they were your beliefs they will unlock your great potential. Which is great, except it makes defeat only more crushing. It is relatively easy to pick apart bad ideas when they come alone in syllogism friendly formats – but in truth we all believe many thousand times more things than we are aware we believe, for good and for ill. Culture is a pervasive force – a mostly invisible web of meaning that is simultaneously intangible and indestructible, as invisible and as vital as the air we breathe. Even in an atomized age and place, the gossamer strands of cultural ideas still constrain and guide individuals in ways that are hard to understand.
Which is a long way of saying that ideas matter. Sometimes the question isn’t “is this belief true?” nearly as it is “if this belief is true, what else does it mean?” How many of the ideas that we hold fast to as salutary are slowly poisoning us? How many of the advantages of seemingly positive thought come at a delayed cost? But, just as there is a dark side to having potential, there is a light peaking from the shadows of difficult beliefs. Beliefs that are hard can lead you to happier ground, sophisticated thought can keep you steady when life has fallen away.