Kyla Houbolt, "Be That As it May"

For me, "you are your own worst enemy" ties to a deeper process of self-knowing, so deep I thought the advice useless once upon a time.

Kyla Houbolt, "Be That As it May"

Welcome! More content soon, but I have to get to the bookstore first

I understand that we're overwhelmed with news and commentary, so I'll try to just share one thing. I got a lot out of reading it, and I think you will too. Jonathan Katz looks at the saying “Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it” and reaches an important conclusion:

That is not to say, of course, that you can’t learn anything practical from history. You can learn a ton: how we got to such and such a point, what events other people might be remembering at any given time, etc. But history is a lousy guide to the future, in large part because we often have no idea in real time which precedents apply.

It's that last sentence which has me wondering—how do people think they know what lessons apply when? What built the idea that history is just our moral assumptions playing out in front of us?

More on that later. Below, I have a commentary on an incredible reflection by Kyla Houbolt. Her short poem "Be That As it May" got me thinking about how we take our own advice, how we can be receptive to being better while also not making as much progress as we should:

Kyla Houbolt, "Be That As it May"

It's weird how advice works. Or doesn't work. Regarding my own betterment, the "miracle" question goes to good places. If I ask myself, "if I didn't have this problem, what would I be doing?", I get an answer or two that's immediately actionable. I change things, build some momentum, use more of my resources, see what's next.

But there's advice which is at least as valuable and necessary, and it does not work the same way. No easier solutions, no quick changes. For me, "you are your own worst enemy" ties to a deeper process of self-knowing, so deep I thought the advice useless once upon a time. It's not that I have some incredibly inflated idea of myself or that I'll blame everyone else for everything wrong. It's more that I'll accept my mediocrity as "just the way things are." Even doing reflective exercises won't cause change, because I simply don't see what's wrong in the first place. "You are your own worst enemy," I realize now, means I have to see how others live life and appreciate more radical possibilities of change. It took quite a bit of time to understand this.

One bit of reasoning that didn't help me, though it contained some truth, was the notion that different people respond to different pieces of advice. The trouble with this statement is what underlies it: maybe all self-help is the same, the goal is that people start making changes. That's not true. That self-help sounds generic, I think, is because preaching of any sort gets repetitive, especially preaching to yourself. But to consider a situation I've seen a few times, it is possible to be less angry, more patient, and still so ignorant as to be dangerous to others. Different sorts of advice are necessary for recognizing and solving different problems. It's up to us to make it personal, build what's unique and good.

Kyla Houbolt's "Be That As it May" dramatically illustrates "you are your own worst enemy." "Off a cliff / like falling / is how I hang on," she opens, telling us not much later that she and the cliff  "invent each other:"

Be That As it May
Kyla Houbolt

Off a cliff
like falling
is how I hang on
and the cliff would
crumble without me.
We invent each other.
Never say never, they say.

I let go.

I remember what I was like in my twenties and thirties. I'd see myself clinging to my disappointments and complaints, pretending like I needed my problems. And I'd probably nod that yeah, "We invent each other." There's no way I was going to change then. Problems were the one thing I felt gave me attention. In one or two cases, I was far from wrong in that judgment.

I feel like we can talk about a committment to change, or working on bettering ourselves, and those things can be helpful. I also feel like good advice takes time. Houbolt's directness works. Literally, she's confronting a cliff. Nothing but an edge, only given existence because we're hanging from it. What does it take to realize this thing isn't anything? That it's self-created nonsense?

We all know people who are going to yell at others, thinking they can break the spell binding them. That bullying stupidity is easy to spot and condemn. It's harder to believe that some people are working on themselves and are going to need a bit of time. I know someone right now who's making a lot of progress. They're much more patient, they are reaching out to others and using more of what's available to them. Before, there was a pronounced tendency to complain, get angry, and then do the minimum as circumstances got worse. Still, they can be horribly dismissive of what others go through. There isn't a firm sense yet that others have it rough in different ways, and that the solutions they try should deserve respect.

The big takeaway I have from this poem is, not surprisingly, "you are your own worst enemy." It is cliche, dry, and needs to be understood a thousand different ways before I can say I understand anything. The incremental progress is not so incremental, though. I remember when life was nonstop anxiety and unrelenting nervousness. Breaking through to a moment of clarity was a godsend. And, helpfully, easy to repeat.