America’s fractional self-esteem

According to William James, arguably one of the most insightful students of the mind, certainly since his own time, self-esteem can be represented as a fraction, with one’s pretensions in the denominator, and one’s actual successes in the numerator:

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Thus, one can increase self-esteem either by increasing the numerator by increasing actual successes, or by decreasing one’s pretenses to greatness.  It was James’s claim that both self-satisfaction (high self-esteem) and self-abasement (low self-esteem) are intimately related emotional primitives.  The barometer of self-esteem could wax and wane seemingly due to various organic causes from day to day, but in non-pathological cases, it was overall subject to personal dispositions toward pretense and reality-based, objective outcomes.

James explains:

I, who for the time have staked my all on being a psychologist, am mortified if others know much more psychology than I.  But I am contented to wallow in the grossest ignorance of Greek.  My deficiences there give me no sense of personal humiliation at all.  Had I “pretensions” to be a linguist, it would have been just the reverse.

Yes, William, agreed.  Should anyone ever best me in chess or kindness, I would be stricken with flu-like symptoms for weeks.  Should anyone lift a greater mass above his head, dash a faster 200 meters, or write more elegant verse than myself, I would be stunned and withered.  But these would not crush me forever, or deliver a fatal blow.  In each individual are many possible selves.  Our self-esteem is not based on all of those possible selves, but just on ones we truly back ourselves to be.  Thus, the only mortal blow for me, my Achilles heel, so to speak, would be if anyone created a more aesthetically pleasing floral arrangement.

I was fortunate to teach Norman Mailer that his self-esteem was far less dependent on boxing than on writing.  The man could take a punch, and it wasn’t until after executing a double-backward sommersault and landing against the fence that he finally acquiesced to the notion that pugilistic excellence was an ego-driven myth he had erroneously adopted for himself, before eventually deciding that “ego” was “okay,” but something one wants to hang on to rather loosely, lest one’s pretensions drive one into bruised madness and debility, at the expense of one’s true mastery.

And as it is with individual pretension, accomplishments, and self-esteem, so it is too with nations and their pretensions, accomplishments, and self-esteem.  So, in case we need to learn the hard way (like Norm), let us examine a few examples of our current pretenses and accomplishments to see how we are stacking up, fractionally speaking.

                       *        *         *

Historically, we are a nation of immigrants.  Some of my own ancestors came over on the Mayflower, some via the Port of Los Angeles, some through Ellis Island.  We pride ourselves on this, and the French once awarded us one of the most giant magnificent trophies based on our openness, just because they love ideals, I guess.  Our pretensions to openness and liberty are a defining emblem.

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It is one of our greatest pretensions to love our Liberty so much, because we view it as an inalienable right of humans to be free of oppression and violence, that we defend it with swaggering macho while flying upside-down at Mach 2 flipping off the commies for fun to provide the oppressed with the freedom they so justly deserve.  Ow!  Snap me with a towel, Iceman!

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All of this is part of our humungous humanitarian complex born of Enlightenment ideals.  Simply seeing others in distress causes us deep anguish such that we cannot cast a cold eye and walk on.  No.  We must do something, something noble, and on a large scale.  We are like the poet who must prepare a clearing in the woods for a great display of emotion from which others will learn simply by virtue of their astonished affect.

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So far, James’ model holds up quite well.  However, being a bit of a psych buff myself, without James’ pretensions to greatness, I have to question James’ fractional model of self-esteem, insofar as it might suggest that self-esteem is purely a relational function between numerators and denominators.  Is it not possible that we could include some absolute standards for self-esteem that might impinge upon the relational aspect?  For example, consider the case where our “pretension” is now to expect, at the populational level of expectation, “uncontrolled drowning,” whereas our additional successful outcome is “controlled drowning?”  Mathematically speaking, we have:

Self-esteem = controlled drowning/uncontrolled drowning

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Would having such a generally low-set bar for one’s pretensions not affect one’s self-esteem, even though one has exceeded one’s expectations by adding an element of control?

I don’t bring this up to disrespect William James, of course.  I’m just sayin’, it’s something to think about in future editions.  In the meantime, I will let James describe the circumstances that obtain when one has lost the ability to rightly perform the necessary mathematics of self-esteem:

This whole complex of symptoms is seen in an exquisite way in lunatic asylums, which always contain some patients who are literally mad with conceit, and whose fatuous expression and absurdly strutting or swaggering gait is in tragic contrast with their lack of any valuable personal quality.

–William James

Indeed.

And as a postscript, for those who have repeatedly failed to internalize the concept of hubris, I leave you with our friend, Thomas Carlyle:

I tell thee, blockhead, it all comes of thy vanity; of what thou fanciest those same deserts of thine to be.  Fancy that thou deservest to be hanged (as is most likely), thou wilt feel it happiness to be only shot: fancy that thou deservest to be hanged in a hair halter, it will be a luxury to die in hemp.

Oh, my.  Indeed.

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  2. somewhere

    I’m trying to figure out what part.  I think it is the various selves, or in Castenada’s case the building up of levels of self, conquering your fears, beginning with bugs and working your way up.

    Internal successes of sorts all helping you to gain a sense of self.  

    Your line about lowering the bar makes think of all the times Bush laid out excuses as to why he wasn’t acting on important issues.  Constantly changing his supposed role so know one could pin anything on him.

  3. of success varies both culturally socially and individually. In my life success and it’s achievement has progressed or regressed? and it’s definition along with my professional and personal goals, ambitions, perceptions and values. Too static these shrinks.

    In the dime stores and bus stations,

    People talk of situations,

    Read books, repeat quotations,

    Draw conclusions on the wall.

    Some speak of the future,

    My love she speaks softly,

    She knows there’s no success like failure

    And that failure’s no success at all.

    • Valtin on November 21, 2007 at 6:08 am

    Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

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