On Fear of Success
Speak of the Devil. . . .
Reverse Grandiosity & Other Delights
Felt the hand of justice
Telling wrong from right
Threw me out upon the street in the middle of the night
Pneumatic fingers nearly had me in their vice
Not begging you
I’m telling you
You won’t break me
You won’t make me
You won’t take me,
Under blood red skies
You won’t break me
You won’t take me
I’ll fight you under
Blood red skies
“Under Blood Red Skies”
The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote something to the effect that intellectual activity operates on a principle of retreat and advance – prior to emerging into worldly activity, a thinker must first retreat into himself, into a state of recollection and meditation, of review, of wonder and confusion. Most of a thinker’s life is spent in an interior world to which no one is privy, which no one else can directly visit. A private Hell, a private Heaven.
Every minor advance, each creative insight or significant (or even insignificant) idea is preceded by a long retreat, a long, dark, dead cold night of the soul. In my own productive life, these “silences,” as I call them, can last weeks or months – in a few cases, a year, year-and-a-half, and two years. Especially after some sort of protracted battle in which I wear myself and my will paper-thin, the retreat can be messy and prolonged.
All that to produce a few sentences or a few drawings and paintings next to no one sees, usually. And when they do see them, many people are appalled or frightened or just confused. That drives me deeper into the Silence, considering the worth of my offerings . . . and the quality of my audiences.
I suffer from a bizarre form of what I term “reverse grandiosity,” to top it off. It works like this: I actually fear success and go to great lengths to assure total failure. Why? I was considering this today at length. In my youth, I encountered many people in positions of authority and worldly success who abused their positions and power. They made others miserable with their capacities. The greater the ability, the more far-reaching the power, the more horrible their control was over the lives of others, and their actions caused many I knew, and myself, great pain.
You Could Do Worse Than Listen To Judas Priest
I keep thinking of people from school years: The band director who physically assaulted me during practice one night because he thought I was making noise – it was the guy in front of me; the assistant principal in high school who spent two years trying to either get me to quit or have me arrested, and almost succeeded in making me drop out – eventually, the school superintendant had to threaten to fire him to get the man to leave me alone.
My parents – monuments to torment in their own right; the religion of my childhood that fought itself red in tooth and nail to tear my mind out. Knowledge that pillars of the community were child molesters, that I knew people who had suffered, and that no one gave a damn and that the community worked hard to keep secrets to save the guilty from punishment. A small town governed by willful ignorance and prejudice and unmerited popularity. All of that and much more hammered at me and clawed away softer parts of myself and drove me deep into that place, the Silence.
And in the Silence grew a perverse Fear: If I ever succeeded at anything, I might become one of Them – I might lose my own soul and hurt others, manipulate them, control them, ruin their lives just because I could. So, any time I came close to “success,” I tended to collapse or walk away or push everything so far I had to be shut down.
My first and last gallery show was in 1991. People liked my art. I never showed it again in such a venue. My political and philosophical writing took off in my hometown in he early 2000s – I began influencing people; for four-and-a-half years my columns were passed around all over the country on some sort of underground circuit and I received all sorts of positive mail that surprised me. I quit responding to mail to discourage positive response – I was never quite certain what to do with it. My writing in the paper became increasingly angry as I sweated out every ounce of displeasure with my hometown with which I could reasonably hope to get away. The editor abruptly quit carrying my column. It was like a knife to my psychic guts.
The Silence followed.
I wrote a few things online in a place and fashion no one would ever read them and all but went quiet for a year-and-a-half.
I did well as a philosophy instructor at the university level for about 4 years. My students enjoyed my classes and learned from me. I influenced many lives in a positive way. So I quit before I actually became good at doing that.
Somewhere in the back of my mind is the black thought that, if I try hard enough, I will actually be very good at something and wind up recognized. People will listen to me. What then? For most people that would be a happy thought, akin to telling them they stand a fair chance at winning the lottery if they just put in a little sustained effort in any area they chose. For me, it is almost nightmarish – the idea I could wind up with people listening to me or looking at my art and taking me seriously . . . it is something I crave till it starts to happen and then – then I fall apart. I am terrified I will wind up with power and authority – then I will misuse it and do something stupid and harmful to others with it.
Is this because I am secretly demonic, an evil person, quietly wishing to do wicked things to my fellow man? Do I sit up late plotting my revenge on humanity? Hardly. It is because I don’t ever want to do anything like that to anyone and my life’s experiences have shown me it is far too easy to walk all over others once one has power: Maybe it’s better just to never attain power and respect and responsibility in the first place and avoid the possibility of screwing up?
Maybe I don’t want to identify myself with the stench of the actions of that abusive old band director and the martinet assistant principal, my neglectful parents, and that corrupt, lying town? To take on responsibility and respectability is somewhat like putting on their costumes, taking on their roles. Would I perform their parts in the play any better than they did?
Writing Is Good, Clean Fun
So I keep retreating. Re-thinking, re-imagining how to succeed, re-visioning what success would look like if married to integrity and care for others. Then I go back into action – and pull back the moment I might actually pull it off.
Is there a fear of success? Not on any phobia list I can locate. But there is Rhypophobia, “fear of filth,” and Kakorrhaphiophobia, “fear of failure” -- what I experience is somewhere between these two things: I am afraid I will be made filthy by failing, which, in my warped mind, equals “succeeding” in the eyes of the world. Success = failure + filth.
And that, my friends, is a recipe for insanity and weird behavior. This is probably Generation X Disease: Go watch the movie “Fight Club,” or read the novel – it is all about the fear of actually succeeding, of actually getting others to take one seriously; it is about what Gen X fears would happen if it became powerful, if it woke up and did what it is capable of doing.
Better to go into permanent premature retirement, maybe. Maybe.
I’m unsure how to overcome this and I’m unsure if it’s wise to attempt to do so. My life thus far has been a long, sustained meditation on this one problem: How should I live and live well without stepping off the wire’s width of decency provided by fear of becoming too important in my own mind? I am safe in the Silence, but I get little done. When I get much done, I worry I am on the verge of betraying my own values and becoming someone I am not.
As usual, no answers to be found here today. Just questions. Hard, strange questions in a hard, strange world. And, as old Socrates said just before the Athenians killed him, there’s no harm in asking questions.
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