Tag Archives: nonattachment to views

Freeing myself to write honestly by not publishing now

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

When I write nonfiction, such as this text I am writing now, I become a character in the text. What the narrator “I” says here in this text are things that Matt Hagemann himself means. What I write and mean takes on a power, a legitimacy, because I, Matt, a living person of (hopefully) respectable reputation, said it.

However, everything I say or write also may change what you, the reader, think of me as a writer and also as a person. If I say outrageous or inflammatory things, you may think poorly of me (and you may even seek to discredit me or get me fired from my job, as has happened to some people).

Fiction writers and poets, by the way, have the “poetic license” to separate their creating selves from their narrating selves. This frees these writers to say terrible things in their characters’ voices and not have this necessarily reflect on the writers themselves, but also, what these characters say does not have the force of a claim made by a real person.

So, when I publish a text that I claim to be nonfiction, I am aware that I’m tying this text to my reputation. So the safest thing would be to say nothing at all. I could be a consummate professional and never say anything controversial.

And, really, I’m starting to think that that’s not all that bad of a way of living. I have written before about how I’m learning to not express my opinions in certain situations. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how what I have to say, at any particular moment, may not be all that valuable or useful. I have moments of wisdom, but also moments of arrogance, egotism, and worse. The world may be a better place if it wasn’t so easy to express ourselves to, essentially, a world-wide audience via the Interwebs.

And perhaps this is a rather obvious sort of insight, but I’ve long felt that my opinions were valid and useful and interesting to others. (This may be a personality flaw encouraged by my liberal arts education and by my family’s practice of frequent debates, and also by my self-confidence encouraged by my male-privilege!) For a while after college, I thought that the ideal writing job for me would be as a news columnist, where I would get paid to tell others what my opinions were.

Now I’m glad that I didn’t overexpose myself in that way. After all, it’s very easy to say or write things in the present that I would later come to regret. I’ve been noticing in myself lately how, when I read something that questions or criticizes something I believe or value, I’ll react almost instinctively with a self-righteous urge to defend or promote my own views.

But I am holding myself back more lately from actually responding. I’m getting better at seeing criticisms as merely alternate views, views that are not necessarily any more correct than my views, and that my views are not necessarily correct, either. The world may be ultimately unknowable, and so all ideas may be inadequate. Thus, I can let go of conflicts I’d start by opposing others’ ideas.

I remember reading something about the Buddhist idea of “nonattachment to views,” that one did not need to hold onto certain ideas or attitudes, because the holding on made one suffer. But lately I’m also thinking that it’s not just that I’m attaching to views, but that views are attaching to me, and I don’t want to define myself by my views.

So what I’ve realized lately is that I am less interested in expressing my views in public. I still have ideas, opinions, judgments, etc., but by writing them in my journal rather than blogging about them, I am able to keep from attaching these views to me. I would prefer to be seen as someone who doesn’t have strong opinions — I’d prefer to be seen as just a person — rather than being seen as “that liberal” or “the radical teacher” or “that crazy son of a bitch.” (Maybe there is some wisdom in that old Disney line, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”)

But I do still express myself in my journals. And sometimes these journals are interesting. But I don’t want to publish things that I feel strongly about now, because I might not feel strongly about them later. If what I write is valuable in a timeless sense (and I hope it is, because I’m not interested in writing news or news analysis or in being the first person on the Internet to make a certain clever joke), then it’ll still be valuable weeks or years from now, and I can write down my ideas now and edit them later. Letting time lapse is a great way of knowing what it is that I really WANT to publish.

And even if an idea seems interesting to me once the urgency of its newness has passed, I don’t necessarily want to defend or promote the idea. I’m not trying to sell something here. The idea should speak for itself, and so I don’t really want these ideas written by a Then-Me to be associated with Now-Me.

Of course, that’s not fully possible, but one idea I’ve had is that the separation in time between the writing and the editing not only gives me the perspective I need in order to edit, it also creates separation for the reader. What I wrote 20 years ago is clearly not the product of who I am today. This allows me to edit and publish my nonfiction with a little bit of the distance that the fiction writers enjoy. I can treat my old writings as those of the Then-Me character (who doesn’t need to be as suave and wise as I’d like to think I am now!), and those writings don’t directly reflect on Now-Me.

If I were to write and publish as Now-Me (as I’m writing and publishing this post), I would feel a need to present myself as a reasonable, intelligent, well-spoken, professional sort of person. This presentation of self is basically the creation of a persona of me, not the full me. It’s basically impossible to reveal the fullness of my expression, and I’m not sure anyone really wants or needs that (for example, how interesting are most people’s self-presentations on various social-media platforms?). While some artists are praised for revealing themselves, for being “honest” or “raw,” I’m not sure most people can really live like that — I feel that I’d be less honest if I were publishing in real time). If I wrote my daily journals on a blog, I’d be self-censoring to a great extent. I gotta have privacy in order to be free, and then I can later edit my writings for the benefit of my readers — while protecting the professional career I need now to keep myself fed, warm, and writing!

My promise to the American people: No new opinions!

So, it’s been brought to my attention that I may not be the most sympathetic of characters — but only to those who know me and see me on a regular basis.

I’m not always the best with my “people skills,” which, you know, makes my living with and working with other humans somewhat fraught. I’ve been told that my behavior reminds some of my acquaintances of Sheldon’s, but I don’t think I’m that obtuse and unaware of others’ annoyance with me. I’m usually aware of it, but I can’t always prevent it. In my head, I’m more of a Leonard than a Sheldon.

If I’ve not annoyed or angered you in some way, you may not want to meet me — instead, just continue admiring my humble brilliance from a distance, reading my one-sided monologues and witty comments. It’s quite possible I’m a more-interesting person through the medium of the written word than I am in person.

It’s also possible I’m not that interesting here either.

I don’t, you know, DO much stuff that’s worth writing about. I don’t travel much, or have a cute child (but I do have a couple homely ones! — sorry, just joking), or climb the corporate ladder. I live a life of my mind — which is pretty interesting to me, but not so great for the people to whom I try to explain my ideas. I get it — the world’s got plenty of ideas, not everybody wants or needs to see my side of things. They’ve got their views of things, of course. And just because I strongly express my opinions about things doesn’t mean, you know, that others actually want or need these opinions.

So, I’m making a resolution in honor of my upcoming 40th birthday: I will try not to share so many of my opinions with my colleagues and others.

I get it. Opinions are pretty common, almost everybody has them, and announcing my opinions seldom improves those things opined about. Also, I’ve been voluble about my opinions for quite a while now, and I think I ought to outgrow them. Instead of being that opinionated young guy, I’d rather be that wise old dude who knows stuff but doesn’t go around announcing what he knows.

I know that this will take a while. I’m sure I’ll still sometimes give my opinions when they’re not asked for, as I build a habit of trying to withhold these opinions. But I’m just realizing that many of the things are low-value things that don’t really matter, that just don’t need to be added to the intellectual world.

I’m not gonna shut up completely — especially in writing this blog. But even here, I try to think about stuff, rather than just stating and arguing for my opinions. I try not to criticize things I dislike, although I know that sometimes being critical of an existing idea can help me arrive at a new idea. But I think I’d rather just ignore stuff I don’t like and just think and write about stuff I do like, stuff I do think is worthwhile, etc.

For instance, I have a tendency to criticize dumb TV ads and terrible local-news story-segues. But, I’m thinking today, why even bother reacting? I mean, maybe I feel like I’m protecting myself from dumb ideas, but I could just ignore these dumb things, letting them go, rather than criticizing them, thereby annoying my wife when she watches TV with me.

Maybe ignoring things is better than attacking things. Maybe I can spend less of my attention, my mental energy, swatting down low-quality things, and instead focus my thinking on ideas I actually am interested in — or, frankly, save my energy and not think at all, which sometimes I need, too.

Update:

Opinions are reactions to seeing/perceiving things. But for most things, we don’t really need to react to them. Things go on whether we react or not. The cold weather continues whether I want it to or not, and I’m not sure most social situations are all that more influenced by my opinion than the weather is.

When I talk about letting go of reactions/opinions, I’m thinking in terms of (my limited understanding of) the Buddhist idea of non-attachment to views:

apart from the actual content of the views, a person attached to views is bound to get into disputes with those who hold opposing views, resulting in unwholesome mental states for the winners as well as the losers…

and

attachment to views implicitly involves attachment to a sense of ‘superior’ & ‘inferior,’ and to the criteria used in measuring and making such evaluations..[but as the Buddha explains] any measure or criterion acts as a limitation or bond on the mind

Source here.

Update 2 (Even updater):

Since writing the above, I’ve also been reminded of the idea of opinions expressed in this dialogue (from Charlie Wilson’s War):

Gust Avrakotos: There’s a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse… and everybody in the village says, “how wonderful. The boy got a horse” And the Zen master says, “we’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, “How terrible.” And the Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight… except the boy can’t cause his legs all messed up. and everybody in the village says, “How wonderful.”

Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

And I’ve also thought that it’s not just Buddhism that questions the value of making judgments, but also Christianity:

7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?