Monday, April 25, 2011

Becoming lesser

A few weeks back I was feeling disappointed and mildly depressed about the course an old friend's life has been taking. Nothing dramatic or bad has happened--I just expected something more or different from him as a person and a personality. I chatted about this experience with a few people, trying to figure out whether I should be disappointed, or why it mattered to me at all. Part of an email from Victoria both summed up and illuminated what I was feeling. She wrote: "Persons often don't become their better selves. Lives aren't structured like those of bildungsroman protagonists. People stagnate, become lesser versions of themselves."

Huh! I thought. That's right. Sad, but right. I walked around thinking about this idea for a couple of days, and then, because I don't have a commonplace book wherein I inscribe Wise Sayings, I posted that sentiment (in quote marks, but without comment or attribution) as my Facebook status. I hate it when people do this sort of thing--post vague declarations that seem to demand concerned follow-up questions--but I liked Victoria's formulation and I figured no one would be interested enough to comment anyway.

To my surprise, I got a flurry of responses, most of them negative. Even after I'd provided some limited context and explained that I believe quite strongly in the potential for personal growth, but that it's useful to be reminded that not everyone chooses to pursue their own potential, I still got pushback from people insisting that I was denying personal agency; that everyone does grow, even if it's not in the ways we expected; that there are different kinds of success; and that it's ridiculous to hold someone else to our personal ideas about their potential.

None of this commentary was hostile--a lot of it seemed anxious, and eager for everyone to come to some consensus--but the experience startled me. I consider myself as optimistic as any American about the human potential for growth and change, and as flexible as any creative-class liberal in my definition of what counts as success or provides personal fulfillment; I don't regard stepping off the career fast track or becoming a stay-at-home parent as evidence of stagnation. But you'd have to be a moron not to recognize that some people shrink rather than grow over time, becoming less rather than more mature, open, generous, or interested in the world around them.

It's hard to know whether my interlocutors' comments were about deeply-held philosophical objections (or even more shallow ones: every day, in every way, we're getting better and better!), or just an anxious response to the life stage at which many of us now find ourselves. When your life has always been a series of goals--getting a degree, getting a job, getting promoted, finding a partner, buying a house, having kids--it's hard to know what to do with yourself once there are no more goals (or once the goals feel less necessary, or come more slowly, or aren't yet visible on the horizon). If there's no Next Thing we're focused on, or if there are no penalties for not achieving it, will we just stagnate? Have we already failed to live up to someone else's idea of our potential?

These are understandable worries, I think, but they miss the point. Growth and progress aren't measured by easy external markers. They're measured what you think and do and feel and how you relate to the people and the world around you.

Which means that maybe I am wrong to feel disappointed in my old friend; we're no longer close enough for me to know what's going on in his head or his personal relationships. But I'm not wrong to believe that we're capable of becoming lesser as well as greater, or that we should bear this possibility in mind, if only to guard against it.


Meansomething said...

This is a really interesting post, thanks. I'm reminded of what my grandmother used to say: "People don't change; they become more so."

squadratomagico said...

I think you are quite correct that people can become "lesser," more narrow in their horizons and lifestyle; and like you, I find it fascinating that your fb post encountered such resistance to the idea. I suppose there *could* be other things going on -- perhaps your friend is going through a period of restricted purview temporarily, and will become more expansive again later; or perhaps you, as a friend, generously saw more potential in him than was ever truly there? But since you know who you are talking about, and I don't, I assume your analysis is simply correct: the friend changed for the lesser. That's an interesting observation to make, and possibly sad (depending, I guess, on how he feels about his life.)

Flavia said...


That's a nice way of putting it. I do believe that people change, but not necessarily in dramatic ways (and certainly not on demand or on a schedule)--but the underlying personality remains the same.


The question of potential is so vexed, isn't it? It's always likely to be at least partly projection, and in that sense it's unfair to be disappointed in someone for not becoming more fully the person who existed only in your own mind. But I think that sometimes we do catch people on a cusp, where they could go in one of several ways, and it's not wrong (even if it may still be somewhat selfish!) to feel that they could have been someone different.

As Victoria wrote in this same email, "we meet people at different times in their lives. Sometimes, what begins as a minor character quirk, suddenly grows, outpaces all other qualities, each developing at its own pace--some finished, some discarded, others not begun--and becomes a huge, metastasizing mass in a personality. Perhaps that quality was barely discernible [at first], but has grown and solidified [in the years since]."

But I also like your generous suggestion that some people hit a plateau, or regress for a while--but it needn't be permanent.

Dr. Koshary said...

Intriguing. I am also optimistic about people's potential, but recognize that some people don't improve or grow, but go bad or shrink. I have to suspect that the flurry of rebuttals you saw on FB came from some serious personal anxieties, by people who felt deep down that they were indicted by your quotation. People always want to have a omnisicient, teleological viewpoint on stuff other people say on FB: "I know everything about this, and therefore I am somehow outside the reality that this universal thought comments upon."

Psycgirl said...

Can I introduce a bit of a different view about the disappointment?

I don't think there is any point debating whether it is right or wrong for you to feel disappointed - you already do feel disappointed.

Sometimes friends' choices are disappointing and that's okay :(

Anonymous said...

I agree about "becoming lesser," and it occurs to me to add a complication: for my part, anyway, I can see where I have allowed myself to "become lesser" along one or more indicators or axes, while "growing better" along others. I'm recently forced to revisit those uncomfortable indicators along which I have been willing to diminish, because that diminishment actually hurts people I care about.

So, there's that. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Dr. Virago said...

I remember that FB thread, and almost commented on it, but I don't think I did ultimately.

Anyway, there are definitely people who stagnate or become "lesser" versions of themselves. I "unfriended" an ex-boyfriend on FB for just that reason. In the almost 20 years since we dated, he has not changed one bit, and it was starting to depress the hell out of me. For some people, not changing might be a good thing, but in his case, what were youthful quirks and energies in our early 20s -- and part of what attracted me to him then -- were just pathetic in his 40-something self. I think Meansomething's grandmother's wisdom definitely applies here -- he became "more so" with a vengeance, and it bummed me out so much I had to stop looking (hence the 'unfriending').

In other words, I understand the disappointment, whether right, wrong, or neutral.

Anonymous said...

But let's remember that personal becoming is not a linear progression. I felt for a few years that I had became a lesser version of myself (hello, grad school!). There were just things that I couldn't control going on around me. But I like to think that I have come roaring back now that I've moved onto a new place and phase of life.

So maybe there is a place for hope and patience in all this?

Flavia said...

These later points are all good ones. I especially think Anon 12.11 is right that such judgments require a long perspective--just as messed-up behavior in the wake of a dramatic life change (losing a job, getting a divorce) shouldn't be taken as evidence that the person has truly and fundamentally gone off the rails, so can periods of seeming stagnation sometimes be ascribed to temporary external circumstances. And God knows, I was a stunted and miserable version of myself while I was in grad school, too!

I'm also interested in Anumma's point. I agree that we often sacrifice one kind of personal growth in the service of other kinds. . . but I'm not sure that this counts (according to my made-up, idiosyncratic definition) as becoming lesser. If you're suddenly pouring all your resources into child-rearing, for example, instead of spending your time volunteering at the local independent cinema and supporting rising artists or something, that might be a sign that your world has shrunk and that you have no interests outside of your precious darlings who can do no wrong. But raising kids might instead be mind-expanding, causing you to take an interest in totally new issues and ideas and engage with the world in fuller and more open ways.

But when, as in Dr. V's case, the stagnation has lasted for nigh on 20 years--when there's a well-established pattern of immaturity, poor choices, etc., or when what was charming and appealing (or even just forgivable or ignorable) at one stage of life wears less and less well at later stages--well. Then it's just sad.

Flavia said...

Ahem. I meant, when in the case of Dr. V's ex-boyfriend. Dr. V. herself has not, to my knowledge, followed such a depressing course.