Chiaroscuro and the Quest for Excellence

In continuation of the excellent discussion begun here and here (don’t forget to read the comments, they are quite interesting) this is a very long post fleshing out the dichotomy between our best and worst selves. I found myself thinking repeatedly of Erin’s comment:

For me, the history of things I did that hurt me or hurt other people or were not exactly hurtful but the expressions of me living down to my lowest expectations for myself – those exist as potential in me as much as the brightest glow of my aura. When i was in low places, the pain of being there existed because it was in contrast with what I knew was also possible.

I admit, this is the sort of personal struggle I deal with regularly, but I often think of it in very different terms, so hearing others talk about it throws my assumptions and paradigms into sharp relief.

In the last week I’ve read a number of accounts of trying to consolidate and come to terms with what they like and hate about themselves, and I think the hat tip goes to Spiral Songkat for her reference to chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is the highlighting of the most beautiful aspects of a painting portraying it against a dark background; it adds drama and depth. In the same way that stories are not very interesting if the main character is too perfect, our lives are pretty damn boring if the right way was always easy and obvious.

Franklin’s Everyday Excellence

I usually see it in terms of what I call the Benjamin Franklin quest for excellence. In his writings he outlined his flaws and faults, and then constructed a vigorous regime for overcoming them.

When I see the embodiment of my flaws in others, I feel a chilling sense of “there but for the grace of god go I.” The only thing I can see that makes me different (and even this might be wrong), is the mindfulness that by dint of conscious self-examination, every moment becomes a choice.

By choice I don’t mean listening to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other, but that by being outside of myself I suddenly perceive a spectrum of responses, each one, like a jazz riff, likely to spawn a different outcome.  And I think that the focus on personal excellence is a kind of overarching theme that compels me to act in an upright manner, even when I don’t particularly feel like it, even when I’m in a punitive or reactionary state of mind. Sometimes the only thing that makes me act with compassion is that I refuse to be at fault; so I act mindfully, even if I have to fake it.

Franklin’s method is useful because it creates protocol for when you’re not in your best state, and I like protocol. I always say, I like to know the rules, so that I know exactly what I’m doing when I break them. 🙂

Plus, when you’re in that state of self-examination, it’s  not too hard to turn that objective lense on whoever else is in the room and see if there’s something about their state of mind that you can be attentive to. I swear to god, I just want someone to show me a problem that can’t be solved by being more mindful. Seriously. Why should something so basic be so hard to teach; why should we all have to stumble over this fact individually?

The Negative Potential of Potential

I myself felt very triggered at Erin’s use of the word potential. It was fascinating. I realized that potential is a very loaded word for me since I’ve always been raised with the idea that I was capable of anything, and only my own laziness was holding me back from big things. It took me a long time to shake off the reactionary responses to that, but even now, apparently, the implication that I could be a dissappointing version of myself in my own mind and response to life was a coldwater bath to my psyche. Potential is still the whip and the carrot with which I drive myself.

When I got to thinking about potential, it made me think of tools; every tool can be misused, can be put to bad purposes as much as good ones, and it doesn’t change the nature of the tool at all. It’s said that when Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, he thought it would be a good thing; his brother hand died mishandling explosives, and he felt it would increase worker safety in mining and industry. When it became apparent that the primary use of his invention was warfare, Nobel was aghast at this misuse of the gift he thought he was giving the world. Using the enormous wealth he gained when people used his patent to make arms, he commissioned the peace prize to try in some way to balance the scales. In the yin/yang symbol, the dot at the centre of each half represents the seed of the opposite within. Nothing is wholly dark or light.

Raskolnikov’s Torture

At the same time as this self-examination can take up your whole life, a fascinating study in the nature of your personal philosophy, I don’t see any point in making it a life-or-death struggle: It’s not Crime and Punishment. It’s not the Picture of Dorian Gray. There’s no way to kill what’s mean and base about you, you can only use it to inform your choices.

When you think about it, it’s foolish to make that side of you “other,” the enemy. The house divided against itself cannot stand.

What arrangements have you made with your ‘dark side’? If you’d like to share, I’d love to hear.


7 thoughts on “Chiaroscuro and the Quest for Excellence”

  1. Chiaroscuro! Brilliant! and Exactly! This was so exciting to read!

    My passion for, curiosity about and eventually struggle with had a different origin – Born with a disability I was told both that I was a hero miracle angel face who could save the world with a smile or that I was a weak perpetual child always in need of intervention and independence was a dirty word and nothing was expected of me – alternating randomly and often not in direct response to anything in particular I was doing that made sense (for example, rolling downhill is often praised to be as impressive as when I also practice aerial silks at 30 feet in the air – impossible to gauge what the hell an ‘accomplishment’ is)

    Eventually I clued in that both perspectives were bullshit and had nothing to do with me as a person and I was insatiably hungry to see myself in the way someone with a taste for it would recognize chiaroscuro – I didn’t want to fine tune the painting itself exactly – I didn’t want to change how I was displayed, and I didn’t want to pick the bright parts or the dark parts because both were so needful to me. I wanted a better, finer – tuned appreciation of it all. ( the ‘I should be better, I don’t like this part of me’ stuff has always been transitory and part of the general confusion more than the driving factor) I just wanted to get the general idea of the bigger picture that was me.

    Cue mindfulness – you’re right – what doesn’t respond to mindfulness?

    Mindfulness makes me feel like I have a far more vast array of choices available to me the more I can appreciate what is involved in any given choice. I can also be neurotic about how I play that jazz – but both are part of the art of being myself.

    Some of my most favorite ways of seeing the world would be considered part of my darkness by someone wanting a different experience and that had a huge effect on my sense that my darkness wasn’t in the clearly unwanted category – it was just intimidating stuff. so I got brave. I found socially acceptable ways to express parts of it (or private ways), but empowering ways – therapy, acting, writing, singing the sounds of dark to *feel* the sensuality and beauty in there where it’s harder to see.

    In terms of ‘the deal’ I have struck – that’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out how to articulate lately – I’m thinking of trying to write a play about it….

    Loved this, Shanna.

    1. Thank you! Thank you for sharing. Isn’t this fun? I had such a good time writing it. It was already way too long for me to tie back around to what *I* find to be the kicker (at least it was to me, as a sometime control freak, I would look at the spectrum of possibilities and like chess, seek to maximize and manipulate circumstances to my advantage. It was exhausting and ultimately fruitless.)

      Any way, how this ties in so loverly with fallacy of control is that I can be mindful, but I don’t have to be omniscient, whatever I decide is good enough, the ultimate, but really only a meaningless ripple in the river of time. Whenever I get full of myself I just have a nice philosophical conversation with her about the nature of time.

      1. GReat tie – in.

        I hear about the exhausting and fruitless iterations of playing along at life – And I think how you distinguish the difference between mindfulness and omniscience is a great point – for some, being mindful gets taken over by the perfectionist as a survival strategy hoping to make it to omniscience and thereby opt out of death (metaphorically or literally) – and becomes the opposite of mindfulness but wears mindfulness’ clothing.

        And it also reminds me of an audiobook of Carolyn Myss and Clarissa Pinkola Estes talking about intuition and the mystical life and the point they explored around self esteem as they observed it in their edlers – were that these people were not afraid of the part of themselves that had the tendency to make a mess of things despite themselves. If anything they’d be inclined to take note, roll their eyes and say ‘oh there I go again doing that silly thing’ and then just get on with life…Self esteem wasn’t about thinking you’re so incredible only – it was not being afraid of *not* always being ideal.

        Like you said, it’s not a life or death struggle.

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