Saturday, June 24, 2017


I find that confessions, particularly public ones (i.e. not from a person directly to his/her spiritual ideal and/or made through a priestly intermediary), have a strange performative aspect to them.  You are confessing to an audience, so things quickly become unclear.  How much is genuine looking for forgiveness and how much is to salve one's conscience (or even to "embiggen" oneself) in a relatively painfree way?  It's the same sort of thing with the humblebrag, which operates on two levels.  Currently, most advice columnists are saying that confessions that will hurt another person should be avoided, though of course there is a large grey area (with others saying that without a confession some people cannot change their ways).  In my view, confession without genuine contrition is fairly pointless.

I'm thinking about this, as I have just finished St. Augustine's Confessions, and I'm about to start Rousseau's.  I obviously haven't read them, but many people seem to think Rousseau's confessions are kind of pointless, since he basically seems to be bragging about what he has done and that his confessions are just further feeding his ego.  Augustine's confessions are a bit different, where he seems to be offering them up and saying effectively, look at my example and avoid my sins, but even if you falter, you can still be saved...  Not that there isn't still quite a bit of egotism going on throughout Augustine's Confessions.  I did find it fairly tough slogging with one of the high points being the famous line "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet." 

What is not as publicized as well is that the confessions proper stop at chapter 10 and then he spends the last three going over the first chapter of Genesis tackling such issues as what did God do before he made the heavens and the earth.  I suppose this was very much on his mind, since it was puzzles like this that made it hard to convert skeptics, such as those trained in Greek philosophy.  I wasn't that interested in chapter 11 and chapter 13 was pretty unbearable, but chapter 12 was surprisingly interesting as he got into a discussion of the nature of time and wondered whether time was constant and eternal.  For instance, if a day is measured by the movements of celestial bodies and then the bodies are sped up, then does the unit of time change or not?  While Augustine ended in the wrong place (Einstein has shown that indeed the perception of time is relative to one's frame of reference), it was still a deep question.  I think it is a shame that a man with such an inquisitive mind should have ended his days pushing a dogma that ultimately discouraged reason and promoted faith in its place.

I don't feel like completely unburdening my conscience, though I can confess I treated my brother badly growing up, at least part of the time.  We fought quite a bit, at least until I hit high school.  I think more than anything I was very tightly wound up and he was an easy target for aggression.  I also regret that during high school I learned saxophone (his instrument) and mastered it quickly, causing him to give up the instrument.  In this particular case, I wasn't trying to show him up, but I really needed to learn saxophone to be part of the high school jazz band.

In general, I had boundary issues and wanted my friends' toys (pre-high school) and sometimes (often) didn't respect proper limits.  It's possible that I didn't really change my ways until after university.  I sometimes still cringe when thinking about things I did growing up.

I have gotten slightly better over the years, but while younger I needed everyone to know just how hard I was working.  I also usually wanted to be the smartest person in the room, though it was ok if I was the only one who knew it.  (I suppose I might as well admit that I don't really care about prizes or work certificates if I don't have any respect for the people giving the awards.  I only really want recognition from people I consider my intellectual peers.)  Now that I am older I usually try to deflect rather than going on and on about something I am interested in and/or am doing but seems designed to make me look smarter than everybody else.  That said, I still let it drop at work that I was reading Darwin and Freud.

Probably the worst academic thing I ever did was to run a survey but not return the results to the people who had gathered the data for me.  Basically, life overwhelmed me.  We had our second baby and decided to move back from England to Chicago; I just couldn't find the time to process the data and get it back.  Even up to a year later, I could have swallowed my pride and apologized for the unreasonable delay and gotten back to them.  And I just couldn't face up to it and get it done.  But this ended up being a self-inflicted wound, since now (10 years on) I don't have the right to do anything with the data, even though it could have resulted in an interesting paper or two.  After this move, I did somewhat drag my feet on wrapping up the documentation on a work project, which cost my former company some money, so I regret that as well.  On the whole, I was much better about picking times to leave companies so that I didn't leave them in the lurch.  Also I didn't finish up two book reviews for academic journals nor did I return the books, though this was a lesser issue, and I no longer feel as much regret as I once did.  There are plenty of other projects I never finished, but none of them was an actual obligation that I shirked or failed to deliver.

These days I certainly feel uncharitable towards people who don't share my core values and political beliefs and sometimes I do wish them ill.  However, I don't actually feel contrite about it (at least at the moment), so I don't see any prospect for changing any time soon. 

That's as deep as I am willing to go.  No more confessions for at least another week.  On to Rousseau...

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