Saturday, June 09, 2012

How'm I doing? Fear of Failing

Ever since I can remember, fears of incompetency have tripped me up. Of course, touting successes, like showing this photo, is a typical way to compensate.  What you can't see was the egg on my face when my PowerPoint presentation on "Big Tent Buddhism" went over the time limit and I had to dump several crucial concluding slides.  At previous Day of Vesak conferences organized by my university, I had chuckled at the academics struggling to time their erudition to an unyielding clock, and this year it was my turn to fail.

Proposing a paper on Buddhism was an act of hubris.  I am not an expert or even a scholar of Buddhist Studies, and my meditation practice lapsed long ago.  Here I was, included with notable Buddhists from around the world, professors of Pali, founders of retreat centers as well as leaders in academic associations devoted to uncovering the foundational teachings and geographical spread of early Buddhism.  But in addition to fearing that my incompetency will inevitably be exposed, I possess a foolish sense of bravado, the vain expectation that following my curiosity will somehow be recognized and appreciated.

At the end of my truncated presentation, a monk stood and directed a question at me.  Because of my poor hearing and his accented English, I barely understood him.  I think he wanted to know if, in my understanding of changes in Buddhism to accomodate modernism, I considered Theravada Buddhism, the nominal practice in Thailand, to be modernist.  Most Thai Buddhist believe their religion to be the real deal, what the Lord Buddha intended.  So to argue that it's historical and has changed over time is akin to heresy.  I didn't want to offend, and I wasn't sure of his intentions, so I mumbled a completely inane response.  Incompetent!

More than 2,000 monks and lay people from 80 countries attended the Day of Vesak celebrations that took place at my campus and at the UN headquarters in Bangkok.  For some reason it was billed as the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment, although the Thai year now is 2555 in a calendar which begins 543 years before Western dates (and the same anniversary was marked last year as well; perhaps this will be the 26th century of his awakening).  If you want to download my obviously inadequate [insert ironic gesture] paper, click here.  If you want to read a pdf of the entire book of papers presented in my panel on "Unifying Buddhist Philosophical Views," download by clicking here.  You can check out other publications from the Day of Vesak 2012 conference at this web site.

So what is it about incompetency?  When I was a boy, I was lousy at sports.  In order to hide my incompetence, I sat out the games.  I loved music and played the clarinet and alto sax, but feared I could never be as good as the musicians I admired, so I sold my instruments and gave it up.  As the married father of two children, I refused to go camping with my family because I feared that I would be incompetent in the forest, unable to build a fire or erect a tent successfully.  I quit jobs I was good at because I knew that eventually I would be revealed as a pretender.  In school I took a seminar in environmental issues with Marxists sociologists who trashed my naive enthusiasm for a spiritual ecology, pointing out my ignorance and confirming my feelings of incompetence.  Going for a Ph.D. in my 50s was idiocy and the dissertation I produced, although accepted, was clearly incompetent.  What was I thinking?  Let me be clear:  I have been incompetent at many things in my life, most notably relationships with those I love.  Failing for me is no fantasy.  I'll save many of the details for my posthumous autobiography.

There are more than enough explanations for feelings of incompetence: lack of self-esteem, a tyrannical inner critic, fears of the judgment of others, ad nauseam.  It's an inside job.  The obviously self-confident people I meet daily could well be faking it.  You never know.  If you think you're not good enough, no amount of awards, compliments or praise (not to mention certificates like the one given me above) will suffice.  You're always trying to please an irrational taskmaster.  One defense against inadequacy is to be merciless in one's judgement of others, a trait I struggle to suppress.  It's reported that the Dalai Lama could not understand what Westerners meant by the problem of self-esteem.  My Thai wife finds this topic puzzling.  She says I think too much, and too much of my thinking involves worries.  Mai pen rai.  Chill out, dude!


My goal is to be less like the hesitant Basil (played by Alan Bates) and more like the fearless Zorba (played by that magnificent non-Greek Anthony Quinn) in the film version of Nikos Kazantzakis' wonderful novel, "Zorba the Greek."  Zorba, you may recall, was the master of failures.

I can at least report that as I hurl down the slick slide of aging, it has become easier to thumb my nose at the fear of failing.  What people think of me -- and isn't that at the root at the feeling of incompetency? -- is less important.  I'll never be that handsome devil, the intellectual giant or the author of paradigm-changing work.  It's all over but the shouting, and the dancing.  And that's just fine.  Hubris is a human thing.  We reach beyond our capabilities and most of the time fall flat on our face.  I can handle that.  The important thing is to go for it, to conquer our greed, anger and delusion as the people here are doing by shooting at symbols of what holds us back, according to Buddhist teaching.

The big news at the end of May was that I finally renewed my work permit for a fifth year after four arduous trips out of Bangkok to the Ministry of Labour office in Ayutthaya near my university where they carefully scrutinized my documents and found errors.  The Thai bureaucracy is Byzantine to the max.  The nearly three-month summer vacation has ended and the new 16-week term began last week, but only 4 of the 28 enrolled students showed up.  Good thing, too, because some of the classrooms were missing desks and chairs and a woman was mopping the floor in one where my afternoon class was to meet.  Working in a Thai university requires infinite patience and flexibility, something I'm slowing learning.  The term schedule is not yet fixed and students last week had not been told what classes they were taking (which partly explains the absences). There are no projectors for PowerPoint and video in the rooms I've been assigned so I was told to take another (not sure if the other teacher knows this).  I'm still waiting to hear if I'll be teaching graduate students in linguistics on the weekend closer to home, or when their term begins (not all students have the same dates).

Last night Nan and I celebrated the 3rd anniversary of our first date.  She wanted mashed potatoes, and we found them at the new location of Bourbon Street Restaurant & Oytster Bar near Ekamai bus station. She had lamb chops (not common in Thailand) with her potatoes and I had salmon with pasta. On our first date, after coffee, we went to Sizzler's because she said she liked farang food.  Sometimes she makes me an "American breakfast": scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon or sausage (hot dogs), with toast and jam.  The atmosphere at Bourbon Street was conducive to our celebratory mood, with classic rock and soul on the sound system.  Outside the soi was jammed with Friday night traffic and it took us over a half hour in the taxi just to get to the next major street.

I've quite been busy lately; besides the Vesak conference, six months in preparation, I met with members of the Buddhist Psychos to resurrect the discussion group which hasn't met since last September, watched an excellent Argentine film, "Un Buda," at the International Buddhist Film Festival being held this weekend at Central World, and attended a meeting on "Lese Majeste, Rhetoric and Dissent" at Sulak Sivaraksa's center which featured the revered engaged Buddhist, historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson, columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, and "zenjournalist" Andrew MacGregor Marshall via Skype.  Video of the evening is now on YouTube.  The room at Sulak's compound was packed with mostly young Thais and a sprinkling of expats.  The Psychos are planning to meet later this month at a restaurant in Silom where the topic up for discussion with be the relationship between Master and Disciple, or teacher and student.  Nan's summer school ends with a final exam tomorrow and during her week off we're planning three days of relaxation and sun (rain permitting) on Ko Samed, our favorite getaway destination.  I don't expect the issue of my incompetence will arise at all.

And finally, a photo of my university where the instructional schedule might be late but the new rock garden looks great.


Stephen Cysewski said...

The little boy in "The Emporer's New Clothes " has been my role model, it has helped...not the truth, just what I see.

fragmentary results said...

Self-confidence is tricky and the internal critic eats away at most "successful" people, I would guess. Putting aside the issue of extreme innate talent (such as gifted musicians), somehow, I figured out early on that *most* of those who are the top of their fields or acknowledged as successful in some way, are no different than me, they just were in the right place or said the right thing or just worked harder. So I work harder.