Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

tirralirrabytheriver

Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

LeavingAtlantaTayariJones

LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.

Free, Free, Oh So Free

“Freedom of speech” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the US. What limits does it come up against?

I’m not talking about free speech in terms of the first amendment alone. I’m also interested in what free speech means as a norm in various institutions and in civil society. And I’m not focusing on speech of low value (insults, childish name-calling, slurs); my concern is about the ability to hold a discussion on controversial topics, express a dissenting opinion, and ask an uncomfortable question, especially in forums that are meant for such conversations, such as a townhall meeting or a classroom.

This post is prompted by a book I’ve just read, The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, who took a six-month journey around the US, spoke to a variety of people, and reported his findings in what reads like a series of blog posts from the road.

There are observations he could have researched more or followed up on more deeply (though part of his approach was to let the various Americans he met explain things to him). I appreciated that he wasn’t trying to make anyone look stupid or ridiculous. He didn’t ask questions that were worded in a confusing way to trip people up. Usually he listened to an opinion and asked, “Why?” (What’s the basis for your belief? Why do you feel the way you do?). Or he pointed out the elephant in the room and observed people saying, “What elephant? No, that’s a housefly… maybe a swarm of houseflies… but not an elephant.”

Here are a few things that come up in the book, again and again:

Continue reading →

Recommended Reading: The Tyranny of Opinion

I recently read a book that would have been relevant before widespread Internet use and the advent of social media, but makes for even more urgent reading now.

TyrannyofOpinion

The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford discusses threats to freedom of speech beyond government censorship. Blackford focuses on coercion and conformity imposed by other powerful institutions and forces in society, including online mobs that foment outrage against offending individuals, often with abuse, slander, harassment, and serious threats, such as loss of employment.

I appreciate the book’s thoughtful discussion of free speech, including the question of what constitutes harmful expression, and how people have different ideas of what’s harmful. For example, most would agree that issuing death threats or inciting a mob to attack shouldn’t be counted as free speech. However, people may want to suppress speech that appears to undermine a set of beliefs they hold dear. Harm as a concept can get stretched from the threat of literal violence to feelings of upset, anger, or offense. How do we best determine the standards of harm for our society?

The book serves as a reminder of what free speech is meant to protect and why it’s important to uphold it as a general principle (and not limit it to a question of what the government permits). Are the following important to you?

  • The ability to engage in free inquiry, including questioning ideas and conducting investigations into different topics.
  • The ability to discuss various issues, including the pros and cons of public policies.
  • The ability to write, paint, and create other art. (Of course there have been controversies, including questions about whether a piece has artistic merit or is mere obscenity. But do you generally prefer to critique an artistic work, or do you lean more towards bans, threats, and harassment of authors and artists?)

There are challenges to upholding free speech, not least because people have a strong tendency to be tribal about it. (Even people who consider themselves free speech proponents are prone to tribalism; they’ll gladly defend one of their own, but not a political opponent.)

People are also prone to exercising coercion, imposing certain types of thought and speech on anyone who doesn’t conform. The book provides multiple examples of the way “offenders” are met not with well-reasoned critiques but with exaggeration, dishonesty, displays of moral outrage, and threats against livelihood, reputation, and physical safety. With social media, it’s easy to instantly whip up large numbers of people from all over to descend on an offending individual, and no facts or well-developed arguments are necessary.

Instead of reasoned arguments, people often rely on personal attacks and ascribe all kinds of evil intentions to someone who steps out of bounds. Discussing a 1994 article by Glenn Loury, Blackford writes:

Within a milieu of political conformity, anyone who speaks out on a particular topic in a particular manner will be judged personally. Meaning will be read into her manner of expression, and her arguments may never be examined on their merits. Questions about her data and her reasoning may well be set aside, and instead she will be assessed as someone who was willing to speak in that way, at that time, on that topic. This may reveal her as an apostate from her group, especially if its true believers are hiding whatever misgivings they have about the local orthodoxy. A likely consequence is that a group’s moderates and internal dissenters will be driven out of conversations, or at least be forced to keep silent about their moderate and dissenting opinions.

What happens when people are afraid to speak, express doubt, or question a group in any way? Along with festering resentment, stagnation sets in. Far fewer original thoughts, interesting proposals, or important questions get introduced. People’s capacity for critical thinking weakens, and they struggle more with how to construct a strong argument or evaluate evidence. (What need is there for critical thinking when you can engage in knee-jerk outrage?) There’s also more dishonesty, distortions, and misconceptions. For example, when non-conforming thoughts are severely curbed in a particular environment (such as a university), people might assume that the established, acceptable opinion on a certain topic is more widely held than it actually is, because no one is speaking out in disagreement or calling for greater nuance.

Towards the end of the book, Blackford offers suggestions for how to combat forced conformity and promote well-reasoned discussions and inquiry. Examples include recognizing propaganda techniques, resisting the knee-jerk impulse to join social media mobs, assessing other people’s words and intentions in as fair-minded a way as possible, pushing for changes in various organizations in terms of their speech codes or the reasons for which they fire someone, and facing down an outrage-fueled mob without caving in to irrational demands or abuse.

Another book I read recently, The Coddling of the American Mind, overlaps in some of its topics with The Tyranny of Opinion and also offers suggestions at the end for “wiser kids,” “wiser universities,” and “wiser societies,” including ways to protect physical safety and dignity while engaging in more robust discussions, self-reflection, and a principled stand against mobs.

I want to be optimistic, and I do see more people sharing concerns about conformity and the suppression of free speech and inquiry in ways that don’t involve government censorship. But what are the incentives for greater numbers of people to more consistently resist suppression, conformity, and an overly broad definition of harm?

Outrage and tribalism are powerful and attractive. The self-righteous thrill, the malicious glee, or the power trip of fomenting or joining a mob appeals to many. Engaging in more critical thinking and self-reflection is difficult, and the rewards aren’t usually immediate. Evaluating evidence, waiting for more evidence, withholding a knee-jerk opinion, making the effort to truly understand someone with a different political point-of-view, and conveying another person’s point-of-view honestly – all of that takes mental effort and a commitment of character.

You can say that one of the rewards is a strengthening of your integrity and self-respect. But to what extent do people care enough or even associate those qualities with the ability to sustain a civil, honest discussion? It’s also much less risky to keep your head down, especially if you aren’t wealthy, well-connected, or powerful. A major pushback against mob mentality and excessive restrictions on speech will need to come from thoughtful, influential individuals and from large numbers of people who support them – people who don’t agree with each other on all topics or share all of the same beliefs.

Here’s another excerpt from the book. It can serve as a call to action, pushing for a return to traditionally liberal values, which are necessary to maintain a certain kind of society. (If this kind of society is sufficiently important to us, we’ll try to keep those values alive.)

… principles such as secular government, free inquiry and discussion, and the rule of law; values such as individuality, spontaneity, and original thinking – have wider cultural resonance if only we take the trouble to explain and advocate them. When we override these principles and values with supercharged anxieties about identity and offence, we throw away what made liberalism attractive in the first place.”

Dickens Depicting Terrible Child Education

One of the best things about Dickens is his description of places. Even his better characterizations depict a person as a landscape of crags, folds, and crumpled postures.

I’m in the middle of one of his novels, Dombey and Son, and so far one of my favorite descriptions is of a school for boys run by the respectable Doctor Blimber. Blimber takes the young sons of wealthy families and forces on them a grueling study schedule that relentlessly stuffs knowledge into their brains until they risk becoming stupid or deeply depressed. (The head boy, a Mr. Toots, loses the ability to form coherent thoughts.)

Dombeyson serial cover

By Bradbury & Evans (Christies Auction House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens compares Blimber’s little school to a “great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work” –

Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

The boys are also compared to sad birds making cheerless noises in the house:

… and sometimes a dull cooing of young gentlemen at their lessons, like the murmurings of an assemblage of melancholy pigeons.

The descriptions are funny, but at the same time, Dickens is depicting a depressing environment and its unwholesome effects on the children and teens who are trapped in it.

Even though every moment of their day is scheduled and, for the most part monitored, the boys are neglected. Their needs and their individual temperaments, talents, and inclinations don’t matter. (Dickens is setting himself against a blank slate type of attitude, where every child starts out more or less the same – and, if the teacher wishes it, can be squeezed into the same shape.) They lose their spirits. Learning isn’t learning; it’s a steady force-feeding with thick, flavorless food. Their parents don’t seem to mind, because attending Doctor Blimber’s school is the expected thing to do. It’s respectable.

Doctor Blimber knows how to prepare kids for life, so that they enter adulthood mentally and/or emotionally crushed and ready to discharge whatever tedious duties are laid before them. Only, he would never see it that way. He would see it as cultivating their minds on their path to a respectable adulthood.

Just to end this post on a modern note – a recent article from Fast Company talks how U.S. schools often fail to prepare kids for college. A major issue is how kids receive assignments that aren’t sufficiently challenging. The emphasis is more on funneling the kids through to the next grade than on teaching, particularly teaching them to think critically and creatively and to persist on challenges. (Of course, cramming knowledge into them Blimber-style isn’t the answer, not least because it doesn’t teach creativity or critical thinking.)

James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

The tiring “sparkle and crackle” (a post inspired by North and South)

I ruminate. I like the connection of that word to “chewing the cud,” because it’s a slow process, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside. (Sometimes it doesn’t yield much either.)

I have moments of sparkle and wit, especially when I’m feeling comfortable in a conversation. But I shy away from arguments that are mostly about showing off, where there’s a demand for rapid responses and the collapsing of complex issues into seemingly clever soundbytes.

I don’t like competition in discussion. I don’t like the vocabulary of ‘owning’ or ‘slaying’ or ‘destroying’ someone in an argument. I’m not a fan of conversational theatrics. I see discussions as a slow, cooperative process. Partnering up with someone for rumination, with space for silence and taking a breath.

What does any of this have to do with North and South, the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell?

I just posted about North and South on this blog, and how I appreciate the way the author portrays personal and societal upheavals.

There’s also a passage in the book that struck me with how well it captured conversation that’s mostly about showing off. Margaret Hale, the novel’s main character, is at a dinner party in London observing some of the guests:

Every talent, every feeling, every acquirement; nay, even every tendency towards virtue, was used up as materials for fireworks; the hidden, sacred fire, exhausted itself in sparkle and crackle. They talked about art in a merely sensuous way, dwelling on outside effects, instead of allowing themselves to learn what it has to teach. They lashed themselves up into an enthusiasm about high subjects in company, and never thought about them when they were alone; they squandered their capabilities of appreciation into a mere flow of appropriate words.

Gaskell wasn’t writing specifically about arguments here. But I recognize the style of conversation she was describing in this 19th-century novel. Too much energy dissipated in flashiness: retorts, quips, showing off. Then the fireworks show ends, and the night sky seems empty, and people turn their eyes away from it.

I used to like the sparkle more when I was younger. As I get older, what I like best is straightforwardness, uncomplicated pauses that are comfortable (and not a sign that you’re “being owned”), and the ability to hold up an issue and ask questions and examine it from different angles without needing to deal with snide remarks or being immediately labeled for not coming up with the correct words or opinions.