NOW I IMAGINE that as you go about your day to day affairs that a selection of your pursuits, ambitions and desires are met with rebuttals and dissuasion from that thing inside your head. A vague name, but rightfully so – the word ‘conscience’ doesn’t really do the job; suffering from the same ailment as ‘spirit’, there seems to be too much inherent moral goodness implied. The voice, however, in many cases is indifferent, and is what can only be described as a witness to our actions. It, like us, is well aware of our intentions, wants and desires – so when our behaviours and choices run contrary to these, the voice is always sure to pipe up and let us know.
The insecure among you, myself included, naturally come to the conclusion that this voice, this internal critic, and judge, is a condition afflicted upon the weak alone; that the strong and prosperous among us, the ones glimpsed through the Instagram mirage, are spared this affliction and instead tap into a wellspring of confidence and sure-footedness the likes of which we can only dream.
Of course, this belief is nonsense.
Socrates, one of the finest men to have ever (possibly) lived, referred to this inner voice as his ‘daemon’ – an otherworldly figure that acted as a guide throughout his life, visiting him through a voice that only he could experience. But this spectre wasn’t unique to him, nor the insecure. When the veil of superiority is pulled aside, the common internal battle is revealed to be not reserved for the weak, but rather common to all; the politicians, celebrities, Instagram sensations, the kings, the queens, the emperors and the dictators – their superiority has all the reality of a circus mirror. Without exception, all have that quiet, persistent and all too human voice that whispers that they ‘aren’t enough’ and they will soon be exposed to be the same fallible mammal that they reign over; an expose, which for the aristocratic, is historically never a bloodless affair.
In the culture of appearances, it’s easy to be deceived. As I stated in the beginning, if you take a keen eye to any day of your life, I think you’ll find yourself dogged by shame and offered a platter of missed opportunities to regret. No doubt these experiences are followed by swift self-assessments, sour emotions and promises to do better next time; a striving against ever feeling this way again – a resolve to avoid or conquer. But what if this is something that cannot be overcome, cannot be defeated, cannot be avoided, and in fact is as much a part of us as an arm or leg?
Consider perhaps, that maybe this conflict within is essential to life – which, in fact, thrives on conflict itself. Consider that these droughts of happiness and contentment aren’t affirmations of your inferiority, but in fact just living. I’m often desperately insecure, brutally self-conscious and agonizingly self-critical. And yet, I’ve done plenty that many would claim are acts reserved for the confident. I’ve also done plenty that were weak. In both instances, the feeling was the same.
At the heart of all us, there is a lack, a thing we feel is missing – maybe a sense of loneliness, or worthlessness or lack of belonging; a feeling of being ‘out of sorts.’ But this is a necessary evil. The rhythms of this feeling and its internal spokesman act to thrust us towards connection, towards others, and towards the striving that will achieve our desires. The theatre of battle in our heads is less a sign of how worthless we are and more a constant reminder of our slightest missteps, the slightest incongruences between our thought and action – a repeated call to realign the compass and take charge of our life’s direction. Like the greatest of friends, it offers the most painful of advice – which is often exactly what we needed to hear.
When we truly aren’t enough, it tells us exactly that.
But there’s a growing resistance to this all too human ally. You needn’t be a sleuth to determine who among you cannot withstand the batterings of the eternal, internal opponent. Look no further than the surge of social movement and outcry that gave rise to identity politics. No longer is the fight yours to wage, but now its societies as well. You’ll forgive me if I throw in the towel on that one. I’m sure there’s a scale-skinned politician who can fight that cause for you. But of course, this new effort to shape the world into a cushion is a Sisyphean task. And rightfully so, the world is no cushion, and the hammer blows of your internal world cannot be parried or countered by society. Outside you may prosper, but inside you’ll be a bloodied heap. The inverse of this dark truth lies at the heart of why men like Primo Levi or Viktor Frankl, who, trapped in the heart of our species most foul fratricide, learned that the internal battle is the one that counts.
Nietzsche wrote of his Superman – the one who had overcome man. But his Superman doesn’t even approach possibility. There is no bridge from Man to Superman. There is only man, trapped in a battle against himself. The idea that Man, the eternal condition of suffering and conflict both external and internal, can be overcome misses the point. You don’t strive to defeat what you are, you strive to listen and figure out where it is you want to go, and how you aren’t getting there. There is no life where you’ll be free from your own inner voice – there is no life where it will cease to be critical. There is no life where it will be bereft of reasons to berate. It will always be there, and it will always be on the attack – because that is precisely the thing that keeps your moving. Comfort spells stagnation, and stagnation festers a slow death. To the well-lived life, the internal battle is the sage companion and the one you cannot do without. So in those moments when you feel beaten down and lost, try to remember:
This suffering is essential. This self-criticism is necessary. Neither can be overcome or avoided – and they never needed to be.
I hope, if nothing else, I can inculcate in you that.