Montaigne is famous for his skepticism and many of his essays include a variation of the phrase “what do I know?” It’s possible to trace his changing opinions on scores of matters across essays written years apart. But one thing Montaigne never did was write an essay directly challenging one he had written before.
My guess is that Montaigne simply considered a previous finished essay done and forgotten. It’s the approach I have taken to my 107 essays written in 2011 — I have revisited them sparingly since then and have only read a few in the course of preparing this project. And I think it would be a waste of time to rewrite or reconsider any of them at this point. They are snapshots in time.
Yet, I feel compelled to take on one of the essays I recently completed, the one I entitled “Catch Me If You Can.” To date, it is the most widely read of my new essays, owed in part of the fact that one of my readers apparently checked in and re-read it 16 times. I don’t know what to make of that. Should I be concerned for that reader? I’m hoping it was a computer glitch or perhaps a cat hitting a refresh key.
There’s nothing technically false or misleading in the essay. As an intellectual effort, I’m rather proud of it. Perhaps that’s the problem. This was an essay created with an audience in mind. It was designed to demonstrate that I faced up to a recent challenge, learned valuable lessons and moved on. It’s what old school rappers would call fronting.
What’s missing from the essay is emotional truth, which I wasn’t even aware of until I watched another movie, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” That 2019 film, currently available on Hulu, was so emotional bare, brave and honest that it made me feel ashamed for my previous essay. I could imagine a version of ‘Portrait’ where Marianne looks back and sees her love affair with Heloise as a long act of procrastination and evasion from the real work at hand, which was capturing her subject’s essence and putting it on canvas. It might have even been an interesting character study. But it would have been a lie.
I’m going to do a really weird thing now and, instead of quoting Montaigne, quote myself. Maybe I anticipated the emotional evasion I was about to attempt when I wrote this:
Once you have dedicated yourself to Montaigne’s approach, you have embraced his solitude and are playfully alive in his examination of personal folly, you inevitably reach a fork in the road. Do you express yourself in moderation or do you take an edgier approach?
In fairness to myself, I took many chances in the essay — publicly admitted some youthful mistakes that I had never done before. Furthermore, all but the final two paragraphs were an accurate description of my most recent therapy experience and the confounding mental state in which it left me. But those two paragraphs need serious re-examination. First this one:
In the end, my therapist did leave me with one last useful insight and maybe she had rewatched the movie recently and saw elements of my personal life in the story too. I still admire her work. And I believe my last therapy relationship ran upon the rocks because I did not, to paraphrase Montaigne, find my place and draw a line. Our relationship danced on edges and boundaries and seemed to revel in its foolish pointlessness. There is a bit of the folly that Montaigne writes about in there, and perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge that most human of tendencies to avoid work with play.
Yes, it is fine to say that I should have found my place and drawn a line. It was a professional relationship designed to help me deal with long-term challenging issues, most of them based on emotions and life-long behavioral patterns created to cope with them. But that is like saying Marianne’s task was painting a portrait of Heloise. It’s technically true, but it misses everything important. Marianne’s task was to bring Heloise to life, to break through her emotional defenses, at great personal risk to them both.
And that’s what happened in my therapy as well, and I have not shown enough gratitude to my therapist for being brave enough to crack through my emotional walls. What I called “foolish pointlessness” in my last essay was, in reality, the real work that needed to be done. I needed to feel my yearnings and observe the empty spaces. None of the supposedly important practical work of therapy would have any meaning without a clear expression of the emotional need for change. I tried to give myself a bit of a break in that final sentence — so kind of me — but I failed to see that the only play that took place in the relationship were in moments devoted to anything other than what was happening in the room. But I shouldn’t call it play — it was pointless drama, and in truth, not the slightest bit fun.
But still, that paragraph isn’t terrible — a bit off-target, perhaps, but not dishonest. It’s the final paragraph that is the reason for this essay. It sounds like I’ve prepared a speech to demonstrate I’m ready to be released from a psych ward:
What Montaigne says about moderation, however, in his final and greatest essay On Experience holds great wisdom for me. Striving towards flashy rewards, whether in an early career where corners are cut, or in therapy where playacting a fake relationship takes precedence over working on a real one, might give an adrenaline rush for a time. It is not a sustainable way to live, however, and is not a real way of using your inner world and solitude effectively.
Reading this, I become genuinely angry at myself. “Playacting a fake relationship” — is that really how I want to remember the experience? Forming this attachment was risky for me. It offered no hope of eventual reward, not without warping it into something completely different from what my heart yearned for. Voicing my feelings to my therapist took courage, the type of courage people around me have told me my entire life not to show. Keep your feelings to yourself, be strong so others can feel safe and secure, don’t put yourself in a position to be hurt. I had to fight through all of these voices. And it wasn’t fucking playacting.
Then I called it an “adrenaline rush.” I don’t remember any of those highs. What I do remember were daydreams of contentment and belonging. It wasn’t about a quick fix or acting out frustrations, I knew better than to describe it that way. It just sounded easier for serious people to understand and nod, declaring that I had made good use of the experience.
The last sentence focuses on a sustainable way to live. As if I really had the answer to that. I should know better than to write something so haughty. How can I use my inner world and solitude effectively? It’s a great question and I try to examine in on this site every day. But I can’t pretend to have answers.
One thing I do know is that there’s a false ending to my recent experience. It declares that it’s perfectly fine to dismiss the last six months and walk away to the next experience with nothing more than object lessons on what to avoid. Hang some paintings on the wall, listen to some music, and dull any emotions that the experience might evoke.
I don’t know a lot about how to live, but I can state definitively, that’s a really sad ending.