Sunday 12 March 2023

Getting beyond embarrassment, and pretentiousness...

It is my impression that many who have communicated their philosophy of life, have been more or less seriously impaired in this work by a kind of embarrassment: a fear of damaging their social status and self esteem because of saying or doing something.

This embarrassment leads to an attitude of guardedness, defensiveness - the embarrassed Man develops a continual self-filtering of communications to try and avoid spontaneously revealing something that might be used against him, or might lead to him being rejected. 

Such embarrassment can blend with attempts to impress others - with pretentiousness; but it can also be found in an almost purely negative form by a sense of inhibition. 

This is so common as to be normal - yet when it comes to the communication of matters of the greatest depth, embarrassment can provide a formidable barrier to generating what ought to be as clear and comprehensible as possible - or else it probably will not be understood.

When I consider some of the influencers and 'mentors' who led to my Romantic Christian perspective; I can see that William Blake was a Man who was free from embarrassment, and who communicated in a spontaneous and bold fashion - apparently without caution against being misunderstood, or mocked.

Another of this ilk was William Arkle; who seems unconcerned about making an impression, who seems unguarded in his attitude - and whose communications appear to flow without going-through a filter of caution. 

A third 'William' of this type, is Bill Ryan of Project Avalon; who is unembarrassed about revealing and discussing his strange experiences with ETs - and many other unusual subjects - without regard for how such comments will strike other people. 

Bill Ryan (although not a Romantic Christian) is helpful in understanding this, because I knew him some forty-seven years ago; and can therefore recognize that his candid spontaneity seems to have been characterological, innate - a gift of nature. Yet a gift he still retains at the age of seventy. 

And I think the same applies to Blake and Arkle - they were 'made this way', from childhood, presumably from birth - yet also they 'stayed this way', throughout the stresses and temptations of their long lives. 

Therefore; the achievement of the Three Williams has the quality of retaining that which was, in origin, a natural confident unguardedness.

There are far more examples of writers whose work is hampered by - greater or lesser - degrees of embarrassment. 

One is CG Jung; who was mostly a confident and bold thinker; but who would (again and again, as he approached his conclusions) back-away-from the direction of his reasoning and the implications of his thinking; exactly as if he had suddenly become embarrassed, and feared the effect of his words. 

For Jung; this negative tendency to take away with one hand what had just been given by the other, was exacerbated by a positive desire to impress people, a pretentiousness. He would back-away from clarity and honesty, partly so as to impress others, and gain the rewards of higher status. 

But embarrassment can impair communication even among those who are wholly lacking in any pretentiousness; such as Owen Barfield. 

By all accounts, and confirmed in his writings, Owen Barfield was a very modest man - although with a great inner strength that was generated by intellectual mastery, deep thought, and inner confidence. 

Yet I find that Barfield's ability to communicate clearly is impaired by what seems like embarrassment - a diffidence at expressing anything that might seem like boasting, a reluctance to speak simply about the deepest matters of his understandings - such as the nature of God, God's nature and purposes. 

Just as Barfield approaches his conclusions, again and again he veers off into defensive abstraction - or excessive brevity - so that his argument is set out with meticulous clarity, but the final 'answer' is ambiguous, unclear, difficult to understand.  

The writer Charles Williams was someone who was remarkably unembarrassed in all social situations - even when mixing with the rich, prestigious, and famous; but also one who pretentiously desired to impress people. 

His life and work were both impaired by this pretentiousness: because it led to a strong element of play-acting, and indeed dishonesty, in his social relationships.

While in Williams's poetry, theology and novels there is a strong element of deliberate obfuscation and obscurity - a striving to appear profound.

Well, we are what we are - at least to begin with; and only a few of us have been blessed with unselfconsciousness. 

But character is a beginning only - and innate disposition can either be corrupted by choices made and habits developed; or it can (to some extent) be overcome by effort and practice. 

For myself; I had an original disposition somewhat the opposite of Owen Barfield and more like that of Charles Williams; in that I did not suffer much from embarrassment (i.e. negatively, I did not much care about how other people might react in a negative sense); but I tended towards pretentiousness - (i.e. I positively wanted to impress people - or, at least, some people). 

This was an obstacle to communication - because anything is an obstacle to communication that interferes with the primary desire to communicate. 

On the one hand, we cannot help the way we are; but on the other hand we are here (in this mortal life) to learn. Part of this is learning about ourselves. 

Often, our strengths are the obverse of weaknesses; but by recognition and striving we can move in the right direction. 

Conversely, by failing to recognize and acknowledge our defects; the modern world has a strong and pervasive tendency to corrupt people, to encourage people to ignore their deficits and instead regard them as strengths. 

Thus (as we sadly observe among family, colleagues, acquaintances and friends), however they start-out, most people get worse.

And these applies even to those who are innately and naturally Good. 

Thus the originally confident and unembarrassed child becomes a self-conscious and peer-group dominated adolescent - and never goes beyond this... 

While the 'show-off' child becomes the pretentious adult; more concerned about the impression created and rewards obtained than making actual achievements.   

These are among the lessons of life that we need to learn - and we can learn them from our own experience, and also by sympathetic yet honest understanding and critique of the lives of others.


T said...

Thank you for this post! I had a notion of this weakness in myself, but this made things explicit and brought a lot of clarity.

I wonder if you have any advice on what striving against this looks like?

Just understanding the problem is very helpful, but if you have similar light to shed on this aspect I'm all ears. A contrary virtue perhaps?

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - I suppose that each must find his own solution - but the main point is to decide how important it is to communicate clearly as the priority, and if it IS of sufficient importance; then trying to make the necessary sacrifices.

Bill Ryan said...

Bruce, this is Bill Ryan here, the very same. :) Thank you so much for your very generous mention.

You're astutely correct about my lack of embarrassment in discussing what I feel are important issues. I strive for rigour if at all possible, inasmuch as any opinions I share are usually carefully covered with caveats where needed. But I'd suggest that in our complex and multilayered modern world, the truth, whatever that may seem to be, must be discussed with as much intellectual honesty as we can all muster.

Richard Hoagland, an insider who used to work for NASA and has been fiercely critical of them, has famously stated that "The truth is different at every level". At the highest levels of the administrative and governmental pyramids that preside over the lives of every one of us, perceptions (correct or otherwise) of the "truth" may be very different from those held by the man or woman in the street.

And, far beyond the scope of this simple comment, what the person in the street believes to be "true" may be very much prescribed for him or her by those with powerful interests to keep the real truths protected and concealed from view.

My apologies for going slightly off-topic here -- but I do confess I'm not embarrassed to do so. :)

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks Bill!

As I said, I think your original lack of embarrassment about speaking what you believe to be true was a gift of character; but the fact you have stayed that way is a consequence of many choices you have made over the decades.

Others I have known who began with your gift of confidence, made choices to do what was expedient, what others would find acceptable - and ended by conforming to the prevalent untruthfulness of the mainstream - and mostly self-blinded against reality.

Those who have 'normal' levels of embarrassment, of even hyper-embarrassment or shyness, may need to make uncomfortable or stressful choices that may go against their natures in pursuit of truth.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that 'normal'/ common embarrassment can get in the way of 'doing the right thing' - especially of expressing truth clearly; and this may need to be recognized and acknowledged as a personal flaw - *then* it may be possible to compensate for it.