Experience

In this phase of the project, I have devoted a lot of space to the Presidential election, so you might expect me today to recap last night’s historic shit show. Actually, I didn’t even watch it and I warned you here yesterday not to do so. Instead, I tried to make sense of a French Marxist polemic for my other blog, with minimal success, then did some tech housekeeping on this site. While doing that, I did something I’ve somehow avoided for the last nine years, I re-read the final essay in my original Montaigne Project entitled “On Experience.”

To my astonishment, many of the central issues that I’ve addressed in the blog this year were touched upon in that essay. A quote that formed the centerpiece of my “Catch Me If You Can” essay, focusing on moderate versus edgy behavior, was examined in that piece. So too was Friederich Nietzsche’s Amor Fati paradigm and, most strikingly at the end of the piece, some very personal remembrances of my late father that echoed what I wrote over Father’s Day weekend. My first thought when reading it was, have I just been spinning my wheels this year, going back to narratives I had already settled?

Then I realized, no, the subjects nine years ago might have been the same, but a very different person wrote that piece. That person was, quite honestly, bullshitting his way through terrain both intellectual and personal. His knowledge of the source material was new and mostly on the surface. His therapy work was in its early stages. He was very comfortable musing about ideas, but his personal anecdotes were bloodless and shallow. I say this not to condemn that guy’s finished work and the effort it took, but rather to show some self compassion for the mirror image project I’ve been engaged in this year, one that at times I have approached with a great deal of self criticism.

This has been an interesting year for us all, but in a very unique way for me. I have been engaged all year in Operation Vulnerability. Step one of Operation Vulnerabilty was becoming more comfortable being emotionally open and honest with people. Step two was growing to accept being regularly kicked in the head for doing so. The thing about being more vulnerable is that everyone loves the effort in the abstract, but absolutely hates it when that vulnerability ends up affecting them and shaking up their own feelings and preconceptions. I’m sure it’s an exaggeration to say that this blog has just as many hate readers as fans, but on days when it ventures into more personal terrain, it’s very close to being true.

This has led me to take a wild zig-zag approach to subject matter, very much unlike the 107 day freight train that was the original project. I have altered and taken down a number of posts. I’ve argued with myself. I’ve questioned openly whether posting some of this stuff was nothing more than doing therapy in public, which is probably just as bad an idea as it sounds. The self compassionate answer to this is, consider the context. I had effectively begun both stage one and stage two of Operation Vulnerability when my therapist abruptly terminated me and people suddenly vanished from daily view and interaction.

So I invented Stage 3, be vulnerable without a clue who might relate to or accept it. And so, I was very honest about how much pain I was in, even though I had very little understanding why. Unable to talk about family dynamics with someone I trusted, I brought up painful old memories on the blog, stirring up quite a bit of controversy with fellow Conleys. Most of all, I kept returning, over and over, to the interpersonal relationship that kicked it all off.

Many months later, I now see that there was nothing all that special about that relationship and my feelings while it was going on weren’t terribly deep or unique. The difference is, I suddenly found a context where expressing those kinds of feelings was safe, non transgressive, and welcomed. And that made me feel — wow — I actually like telling people what I think about them and not holding back or disguising my motives. The irony, of course, is that those feelings ultimately weren’t as safe to express as I thought, and ended up affecting relationships beyond the consulting room. If you want to know how that felt, and continues to feel, consult step 2.

That returns me to 2011, with it’s safe, happy ending to my relationship with my dad and it’s concern that finding a narrative for your life will inevitably feel inauthentic. Given how reflexively inauthentic I was at the time — and said so explicitly in other essays of that series — there’s no mystery why I would feel that way. I was incapable of revealing myself honestly at the time. I hid behind other people’s ideas and false personal insights.

So, here we are in the last day of September, and this new iteration of the Montaigne Project has now exceeded the original in length, with no plan in my mind to wind it down soon. I’ve become more at peace with the sad, tortured personal pieces that vanished from the blog. They have no good reason to return here, but may be useful to me yet in a fiction project.

Most of all, I’m not going to apologize for the process that led me to where I am now, secure in my belief that I approached Operation Vulnerability sincerely, did nothing intentionally damaging to anyone along the way and came to numerous important insights as a result. I’m glad that this work, as painful as it was, allows me to look back at the old me and think that I’ve outgrown him in a way.

In another nine years, I hope another version of me looks back on this project with equal bemusement. That’s what personal growth is all about and its, ultimately, the only way to escape spending your life in your childhood room — or worse, someone else’s childhood room.

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