Beauty as Self-Transcendence

“Beauty as Self Transcendence,” Bob Ryder


Frederick Buechner: If you lose yourself in your work, you find who you are. If you express the best you have in you in your work, it is more than just the best you have in you that you are expressing.

Nobody – Emily Dickenson
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Proverbs 12:15 – Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.

Early in my first year of college, I ran up against the limits of my aptitude for chemistry and biology, or at least the limits of my interest in those subjects.  Fortunately, at the same time I stumbled onto a talent for behavior science.  I quickly changed my major from pre-med to psychology, and suddenly I was successful in academics in a way I’d never been before.   I got good grades, fellow students came to me for help with homework, and I was a teaching assistant for a course in advanced statistics.  Some of my professors complimented my work now and then.  Still being quite immature socially, I let the success go to my head.  So it makes me smile now to remember a class assignment that took the form of a competition in which I and my classmates were to train rats for a specific task.  Each of us were to use what we knew of operant conditioning to train our assigned rat to press a lever as many times as possible in 60 seconds.  As I said, a bit of success had gone to my head, so I approached the assignment arrogantly, taking it as a chance to show off.  When the time came for putting our rats to the test, I knew my rat would win and I was obnoxious about it.  My rat came in last by a wide margin – barely paid attention to the lever at all.  The winning rat was trained by the student in class whom I figured was least likely to win; a young woman I considered (hold your nose for this) not at all “in my league” academically.  Everyone else in the class was delighted both by her victory and the chance to rub my nose in my arrogance.  I had it coming.

What made the difference, as it turns out, was the clear headed-awareness of my fellow student – Miss “Not in my League” – that the subject was indeed challenging for her, and her willingness, therefor, to ask the professor for help and to follow instructions carefully.  I, on the other hand, ignored signs that things weren’t going in the right direction as we went through the training process over a couple of weeks, and I outsmarted myself with a ridiculously complicated training plan.  “Keep it simple!” was the advice our professor offered over and over.  “Let the rat tell you what’s working – the rat is never wrong.”  Being full of myself, I paid that advice no heed.  I used complicated reinforcement schedules and flashy stimulus discrimination strategies that might have looked impressive on paper, but they didn’t translate at all to a rat who was oblivious to my genius.  It was humiliating, and I didn’t take it all that well.  But looking back on it now, it was the best learning experience I could have asked for – it should have happened to me more.

Have you ever been “full of yourself?”  What came of it?  They say wisdom comes with age.  Maybe that’s true sometimes, although it’s certainly not a given.  When it happens though, at whatever age, wisdom comes in no small part as we learn to get out of our own way, as we learn the power of humility, the beauty of getting over ourselves.  Comparing what I know and understand now at 56 with what I knew and understood (or thought I knew and understood) at 16 and 25, at 33 and 43 and 50, the difference I notice is how much information and perspective and beauty has always been available to me that I simply missed for posturing like I had the answers or that I was smart enough to figure things out on my own.  There was so much I could have learned and experienced and shared if I hadn’t been preoccupied trying to make an impression.

Part of the inspiration for this reflection is an interview published by the organization “Intelligence Squared US” – a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that produces an ongoing series of Oxford-style debates between panels of experts examining important issues with the goal of promoting civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive public discourse.  The moderator is John Donvan of ABC News, and he recently conducted an excellent interview with Chris Anderson, the curator of TED Talks.  I want to share a few really useful observations Mr. Anderson made about the nature of sharing ideas that all say something about the possibility of transcending the limitations we inflict on ourselves and one another with egocentric thinking.  The first is derived from a question Mr. Donvan asked about the wide variety of topics that TED Talk speakers explore.  Paraphrasing the thoughts of quantum physicist David Deutsch, Mr. Anderson said this…

“You can’t really understand the world unless you know context.  You can be deep in your own trench, but unless you come out from time to time and see how your trench connects with the thousands of other trenches that are out there, you don’t really know what you’re doing or why it matters.”  “The idea of multidisciplinary knowledge is much more than just a freak synergy between technology, entertainment and design (the elements of TED), it (applies to) all knowledge.  Some of the biggest “aha” moments in history have happened from people sparking off of each other and seeing something from a completely different field.  It’s surprising that software coders learn a lot from artists and creatives, and vise versa, but they really do.”  “I’m making an argument for being ready to invest some time understanding at least the key elements of what other people are doing, because it shows you how what you’re doing fits into the world.”

Another compelling point he highlights is, “Don’t go in asking what you can get from the audience, but what you can give them.  Think of your talk as a gift.”   He elaborates,

“It’s such a trap that people naturally fall into.  They’ve got up before the audience seeing it as an opportunity, saying, ‘This is my big moment to make a name for myself.’ People see through that so quickly, and it actually turns the audience against you.  So ironically, the best way to get something from a talk is to explicitly try not to.  It’s to figure out, ‘What can I give.  It’s such a miracle to me that in a few minutes an idea – a little pattern of electrical information in your head – can escape from your mouth into the ears of people listening and literally rewire their brains and potentially change what they will do 20 years from that moment.  That is an astonishing phenomenon that that causal chain can happen.  And so what you give really matters.  If you can successfully pull that off, and give someone a new concept, a new way of seeing the world, a new idea, and do so in a way that is motivating them to do something with that – wow!

One more point that really stood out from the interview derived from a phenomenon that both Messrs. Donvan and Anderson experienced from their respective organizations.  One of the results of both TED Talks and Intelligence Squared Debates is that audience members often change their mind about a topic, which both of them see as an especially challenging and valuable experience.  Speaking about his observations of audiences’ experience during and after Intelligence Squared US Debates, he says this…

We have speakers on the stage, we frame it as a good spirited competition.  Our founder, Robert Rosenkrantz, wanted to raise the level of public discourse – and especially the use of reason and critical thinking – in front of a live audience by having two teams test and challenge one another’s ideas.  The audiences’ role is critical for us because we ask them to vote before and after the debate.  We treat it as an exercise in persuasion, so we give “victory” to the team who persuades more people from the other side in a percentage point terms.  So critical to that is that people sat in the audience and changed their minds.  People took it in and changed their minds, doing their own critical thinking while watching critical thinking take place on the stage.  I love to go after every debate out into the hallway where the audience is pouring out and just chat with people – or sometimes just listen – and I hear people saying, “I changed my mind on that, and I never thought I would do that.” What I find interesting about that is that there’s a sense of exhilaration and almost liberation from it, because my personal sense on this is that it’s hard to change your mind, it’s embarrassing to change your mind.  It’s hard to say, “I was wrong,” or, “I didn’t know enough.”  But that once you take that leap there’s a wonderful feeling that comes with it…

Mr. Anderson – “It’s actually a huge mark of honor to change your mind in response to persuasion.  It’s what the world is crying out for right now.  It’s something that you never once see on a cable news show or whatever, because that is point scoring, not persuasion.  We have to listen to each other enough to give ourselves a chance to be persuaded.  It’s the biggest gift someone can give you.  If you are misaligned with reality in some way, and you have been all your life, and someone can show you that and fix that, that is the most unbelievable gift.”

Donvan – “Isn’t it hard, though, to have to admit that your wrong?  Nobody in our audience has to admit that they’re wrong – it’s a secret ballot if they want it to be.  But don’t we all find it hard to listen to the other side, not just because of the habit of tribalism, but because the prospect of possibly being wrong is hard to take?”

Anderson – “It definitely is hard.  It’s hard to be uncomfortable.  I think one of the biggest pieces of wisdom I’ve tried to take on board is the power of embracing discomfort.  It’s really important.  It’s the clue that there is something afoot.  Often it’s the process of embracing discomfort that will take you on a journey of progress.

The title for this reflection is “Beauty as Self-Transcendence.”  I almost called it “Beauty as Getting Over Yourself.”  But the point I’m aiming at isn’t self-negation.  I’m not asking you to think of yourself as unworthy or sinful or less important than others, individually or collectively.  What I’m saying is that there’s value in knowing who we are and what we might be good at without needing to trade on it as a substitute self-esteem.  We’re each beautiful in our own way.  We each have our perspective and skills and talents and potential that are intrinsically valuable regardless of who notices.  Cultivating those gifts for their own sake rather than for vanity can be the process that takes us where we’re supposed to go.  It’s the very act of soliciting admiration that obscures one’s beauty and limit’s their potential.

The value in gathering wisdom or knowledge or technical competence or artistic ability or whatever asset one might acquire isn’t in accumulating some critical mass to the point where you can now regard yourself as complete or worthy.  It certainly isn’t about displaying what you know or what you can do for the sake of attracting admiration.  Wisdom is understanding what to do and what not to do with your talents.  It’s about seeking truth for its own sake, and sharing it for the benefit of others rather than for the possibility of glory.  In college, I turned a talent for studying psychology into distortion and interference.  I might have been able to process a certain kind of information, but I wasn’t much of a person – not much of a friend or classmate, not much of a brother or son, not much of a roommate.  At 56, it occurs to me that what I might know or understand isn’t as interesting as what I don’t know or understand yet.  There’s more potential for making progress through curiosity and exploration than making a business of what I know or can do.  So I invite you to think about how your sense of who you are can give you a foundation to participate in the world, or how it might be an obstacle to exploring and sharing your potential.