On one level at least, I think people do want to be the best version of themselves, but what does that mean?
I think it can mean so many different things. To fulfill one’s potential, to have a positive impact on the world, etc, etc.. But where does such a drive come from? I suspect mine is partly founded on a dissatisfaction – a feeling that I will never be good enough – but this won’t be the case for everyone. There are some people who are satisfied with themselves, and are still motivated to enact positive change on themselves and in the world. Another factor for me is the belief that I do have something specific to offer; a blend of core values, tendencies and preferences that motivates me to learn to understand others and to mediate understanding between people.
I am a determinist – I do not believe in libertarian free will. I’ve always insisted I am not a fatalist – given my desire for change, fatalism would entail a high degree of internal conflict! But there is a lingering fatalism in the way I think about character. I want to believe that Schopenhauer is wrong; that leopards can change their spots. I want to believe that there are interventions – meditation and psychedelic therapy for example – that really help us to become the better people we want to be. But do I believe it?
What does it mean to be better? Many have tried to explain this in words, and I will continue to do so elsewhere. We can feel in our bodies when we are being a better version of ourselves. What I feel, when I tune in, is a conflict between my desire to accept myself and others the way they are, and my desire to criticise, deconstruct and improve. I feel it very keenly in my heart, in my face, and up through my limbs.
Acceptance of any kind is replete with paradox. Rogers highlights the paradox of self-development; that in order to change, we must accept ourselves. But another paradox precedes this; learning to accept oneself is in itself a profound change in one’s mode of being. Acceptance is, therefore, an incredibly difficult achievement that demands an ongoing cycle of mind gaming.
I believe my academic interest in universities and morality stems from my personal interest in self-improvement. I recognise how tightly I cling to the possibility of such improvement, and I wonder how much it relies on a lack of acceptance of myself and others, and/or is hindered by it. The mystery is made more complex by my line of work; running CPD programmes for teachers. My professional existence is underlined by an imperative to be better.
A pearl of wisdom came to me recently while in a deep meditative state: ‘Stop fighting. Listen.’ I guess the main reason I find listening difficult is because I have a naive impulse to show the world how much I know, and an assumption that I can’t do that by staying silent. But this impulse isn’t constant or insurmountable; often I can and do listen. What does listening feel like? It feels like I don’t have anything to prove. It feels Erotic (in the Greek sense); an enrapture, a delight in what the other person is saying. If that isn’t there, then I am probably not really listening.
Hence the resonance I feel when I read Newman on the Idea of the University, and Gadamer on philosophical hermeneutics. There may not be such a thing as human nature, but I feel like this is my ‘better’ nature; to listen, to be enraptured, and to try to understand. When I’m doing it, I feel it, and it feels right. That’s what it means for me to be the best version of myself.