We know that we live in contradiction

28Jan16

“We know that we live in contradiction” Albert Camus wrote in his magnificent meditation on strength of character, “but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it.” One of the most pervasive and perennial contradictions pulling the human spirit asunder is our yearning for greatness, which coexists with our chronic propensity for self-doubt.

Eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in debate over a topic that he knew well. But perhaps he wasn’t himself on that evening — a bit self-conscious, distracted, worried about looking foolish. When challenged on some point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of cobbling together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party.

Once outside, on his way down the staircase, Diderot continued to replay that humiliating moment in his mind, searching in vain for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found it. Should he turn around, walk back up the stairs, and return to the party to deliver his witty comeback? Of course not. It was too late. The moment — and, with it, the opportunity — had passed. Regret washed over him. If only he’d had the presence of mind to find those words when he needed them.

Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote, “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.”

And so he coined the phrase l’esprit d’escalier — the spirit of the stairs, or staircase wit. In Yiddish it’s trepverter. Germans call it treppenwitz. It’s been called elevator wit [or] afterwit. But the idea is the same — it’s the incisive remark you come up with too late. It’s the hindered comeback. The orphaned retort. And it carries with it a sense of regret, disappointment, humiliation. We all want a do-over. But we’ll never get one.

[…]

Most of us have our own personal version of this experience. After interviewing for a job, auditioning for a role, going on a date, pitching an idea, speaking up in a meeting or in class, arguing with someone at a dinner party.

But how did we get there? We probably were worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; feeling powerless, and also consenting to that feeling; clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat. That’s how we got there. Before we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded.

Read the full article here

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