I am taking lessons in Greek. Yesterday, just before my tutor arrived I had the early flutterings of a panic attack. I smoked a cigarette, but it only exacerbated my symptoms.
It seemed an unusual cirumstance. As often is the case when I let myself down– when I fail myself– I tried to understand: what’s underlying my distress? These are the conclusions I reached.
1. “the usual”
I had been consistently overexerting myself physically and absorbing a surfeit of sun– a surfeit of fun, as well. All of the above are only the life I aspire to lead but when I combine them with insufficient sleep and too much caffeine, the garden of my mind more readily sprouts the thorny, climbing blossoms of panic.
2. “fear of the unknown”
Certainly there is an element of unfamiliarity to the dynamic of “getting tutored” — a phrase which sounds to my ear like a euphemism for either sodomy or substance abuse. The time since I left school can be measured in not just years but decades.
Something close to 90% of my political education has come via conversations. In some cases these were with people I dated, in some cases with friends or even relative strangers. Some of the most valuable were multipolar conversations to which I personally contributed nothing or near it, merely absorbing what others said. I would always rather learn than instruct, but I’m also used to either the somewhat collaborative medium of conversation or, in dynamics where there is a clear expert, a gentler, more relaxed “skillshare” type of environment. The intensity of getting tutored, while exhilarating, is new.
I hated school. I hate school as it exists in the U.S. If I say I particularly hated teachers, it’s worth noting that, as with most students, they hated me first. Mine is a hatred born of lived experience, an earned rather than adopted position. I will admit I’ve been willful my whole life, but I wasn’t poisoned against these various institutions and institutional roles until I encountered them– until they began to systematically crush and assault and humiliate me.
I wish I could bravely prepend “try to” to the forgoing trio of mean verbs, but it would be mendacious to reduce their efforts to an attempt. They succeeded. They broke me and it took me many years to construct from rubble and scrap the powerful engine of war I presently pilot.
Knowing this, it’s not so strange that a return to pupildom would “trigger” me. While my study of Greek is invaluably rewarding, I would also characterize it as a difficult and fast-paced class in which I am the student called upon to answer 100% of the questions. This is a stressful state of affairs independent of what a sympathetic third party might call my scholastic trauma.
4a. “reversion to helplessness”:
threat to the constructed self-savior-self
I’m regrettably unused to situations where I feel as clueless and incapable as I have in these early weeks of Greek instruction. Although I try to welcome humbling experiences, it’s become clear to me that back in the dank mists of adolescence I addressed the bouts of cosmic terror I underwent as echo effects from various disempowering interpersonal experiences in part by building a selfhood that centered capability.
While this manufactured selfhood is as brittle and illusory as any other– meaning that it both deeply is and deeply isn’t true– I think it was a strategy I used to convince myself that I was no longer weak and thus no longer would or could be preyed upon. This has, I write with relief, proved self-fulfilling: it’s largely worked.
While it behooves me to be careful around some of this language lest I sound prescriptive or dismissive of the challenges others face, I basically psychologically reprogrammed myself out of a sense of my own victimhood, tapping my effectively inexhaustible well of other-directed violence to understand myself as being no longer a subject of fear but its object.
This doesn’t mean I’m not buffoonish or pathetic or repugnantly weak in various ways, only that these particular realities no longer interfere with my pursuit of my goals as consistently and insurmountably as they did.
Accordingly a return to helplessness, to childishness, is psychologically challenging, enough so that even writing the phrase “a return to helplessness, to childishness” makes me want a cigarette.
4b. “reversion to helplessness”:
loss of the name-spell
I think that I’m someone who relies on relative so-called mastery of language as a means to narrativize and thus control my experiences, or anyway my understandings of my experiences. This is one of the oldest and most powerful magics, the magic of naming: when we give something a name, we assert (at least to ourselves) our control of it. This is, for example, why deeply insecure and fundamentally, wretchedly weak people are drawn to science and its horrific drive to describe, to plot and graph — and thus enslave — the universe’s every particle and possibility.
When I am asked a question in an unfamiliar language, even if that question is just someone asking me what I’d like to drink, and I’m unable to understand and/or summon the words to describe what it is I’d like to drink, I experience the thaumaturgic-nominalist version of the quintessential dream experience wherein one tries to scream but can make no sound, or strikes at an enemy with punches lacking any force.
It is a profound disempowerment to be robbed of speech in this way, of the power to name.
coda: useful advice?!?!????
While I scruple to avoid ever writing anything of any use to anyone else, a colleague with whom I was broadly discussing the above (my text messages on that occasion forming the germ of this blog entry) said something wise and I think valuable: any time she picks up a new instrument or new song, she warms up by playing something she knows how to play well. It loosens her up, “but also reminds me I’m capable bc one time I didn’t know how to play the other stuff either.”
I guess my frantic attempts to stave off a panic spiral by articulating what might be its root causes are an example of this: using the name-spell to ward off fear of losing the name-spell. It also applies more generally since sticking my head up my own ass is one of my core competencies and something I’ve mastered through assiduous practice.