Today I considered taking a day off from my project. I thought that perhaps I am writing too much too soon, that none of my Facebook friends are clicking through — maybe they’ve ignored me enough that the algos are now hiding me. Perhaps I needed a day to let them discover me.
But then I thought about Montaigne in the early days of his project and considered his reasons for writing. It wasn’t about an audience, it was about him. The writing was purely an expression of his thoughts, it wasn’t a toy to amuse his cat. So, I complete my seventh day of the renewed project, and instead of resting, perhaps a diversion is more in order.
So far I have stuck closely to the solitude theme and I am not quite done with the subject. But Montaigne rarely spent much time focused on one thought and it isn’t doing justice to his style to focus too intensely on one area. So I’m going to move off on a tangent. Perhaps it will be a day trip, perhaps it will take longer. I’ll let the writing decide for itself.
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? For modern writers, that’s not even a serious question. There is no audience for moderation. Or to put in political terms, moderation may be popular, but it lacks an enthusiastic base.
It is unsurprising where Montaigne lands on this matter:
You can indeed, using artifice rather than nature, make your journey more easily along the margins, where the edges serve as a limit and a guide, rather than take the wide and unhedged Middle Way; but it is also less noble, less commendable. Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one’s place and draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding.
Nearly 20 years ago, a man who I consider my mentor — one who was responsible for landing me a few of the most important jobs of my early career — told me that I resembled the Leonardo DiCaprio character in “Catch Me If You Can.” He also said that I bore a strong physical resemblance to DiCaprio, which I probably should have just taken as a compliment, but I saw rather as foolish flattery that made his whole theory suspect. I was, in fact, a bit offended by his comment. The character of Frank Abagnale Jr. was a con-man and a fraud, and I did not think of myself that way.
But perhaps my mentor was on to something and his gentle scold/flattery stuck with me for many years. He probably was aware that I was in the workforce several years before I formally acquired my bachelor’s degree. I let it sit two credits short of graduation requirements for a few years before finally doing the work, then went a few more years before settling the bill with a university so that my credits could be transferred and applied, my diploma finally issued.
Beyond this one devious act which I for the most part got away with, I started to notice a personal tendency to cut corners, go around normal chains of command and succeed with flash over hard work and substance. Abagnale pulled off his con jobs by impersonating pilots, doctors and lawyers. I made a career by appropriating the voice and writing style of political and business leaders. I had never been a governor, mayor or CEO, but through speechwriting, I had impersonated all of them effectively.
A few months ago, I sat with a therapist and discussed my mentor’s insight and what I took from it. I walked her through the hard work it has taken me over many years to become more authentic and less manipulative. A few weeks ago, that same therapist decided to terminate my care, without much explanation, but she made a point in wrapping up our therapy of re-raising the “Catch Me If You Can” reference and asked if maybe there was an element of it in the work we had done together.
I don’t really know what she was getting at, but I do know that at some point, my therapy with her became a farcical mess. Instead of trying to solve real life problems, sessions became about managing our relationship, and sometimes about a group therapy that I was attending and the therapist in charge of that. I joked to friends that the only real reason I was in therapy was to deal with the stress of therapy, but that’s exactly how it played out from January to early March. My therapist pointed out that I was triangulating her with my group therapist, which was true. I became so confused by my therapist’s statements and reactions that I felt the need to ask other therapists what it might mean. But at the same time, she was triangulating me with a supervisor, which explains why she would periodically begin sessions with odd theories that sounded nothing like what we had discussed in the room. She never told me that she was required to report to this supervisor under her limited license. Well, she never told me until the final session, that is.
My therapist also seemed to exaggerate her experience, talking about clients she has seen for many years and a whole range of long-term therapy relationships, none of which were possible under the limited license that she acquired in only September of 2019. In all likelihood, there is a honest explanation for it all. The most likely scenario is that she left practicing years ago to have children and only recently restarted — and for some reason had to start at the bottom.
Part of me, however, wonders if her story was more similar to mine, that she brought up “Catch Me If You Can” as a breadcrumb of confession to help me find my circumstance a bit less confounding. This led me to watch the movie again for the first time in 18 years, where I found no obvious clues about my therapist, but recognized just how similar Abignale’s story was to mine — not so much the career part, but the family dynamic. The way Frank interacted with his charming but disappointing father and narcissistic mother, the way he tried to bring them back together and behaved like a surrogate dad to his own father, that was my story. And I also recognized that the Tom Hanks character, who not only pursued and caught Frank, but eventually hired and tamed him, was a wonderful analogue for my mentor. He saw the Leonardo DiCaprio character in me because he also noticed the Hanks character in himself.
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.
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.