I am usually a little bit nervous on the first day of classes. It’s weird, because after the first year of teaching, when things went fine, I expected that feeling to…go away? But it comes back, every year. I just have this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach right before I start my first lecture, like, maybe I’ll just forget everything about how to lecture, or maybe I don’t actually know things about philosophy, or whatever, and so I have my weird tricks (like making sure I’m wearing my glasses so I look smarter, even though I mainly need them for reading things at a distance).
This year, obviously, is much weirder. Because there isn’t a traditional first day. Instead of that meaning I had less nervousness, it meant I was more nervous during the entire procedure of preparing my class (spread out over much of the summer) and then, while recording my lectures, and then during the day and a half between uploading the lectures and when students could actually view them, and then between when they became available for students to view (6:00 am on a Sunday) and when students might actually start viewing them (I don’t know, like 3:00 pm or maybe Monday afternoon). I was torn between sending the videos to people to get feedback and worrying that the feedback would be useful in a way that meant I would have to actually re-record the lectures.
Anyway, in my history of early modern course, we’re starting with Descartes’s Meditations (after a brief discussion of a poem by Cavendish to talk about my hobby-horse of early modern genre). So, in addition to being full of self-doubt (which has gotten a bit better since I shared my lecture videos with my mom, who seems to like them), I’m also thinking about the hyperbolic method of doubt.
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, advocated what I usually introduce to students as a form of spring cleaning for your mind. This is a flawed analogy because spring cleaning is—allegedly—done every single year while the meditator suggests that this process should really only be done once in your life. It would perhaps be better if I went in the whole way on a Marie Kondo/Kon Mari method analogy, since, as I understand it, if you do that right, you only need to do it once, and also since, when you do regular spring cleaning you—and by “you” I mean “me, and almost everyone I’ve ever met”—typically hang on to a lot of stuff that you should get rid of. But when you go through the attic of your mind and use the meditator’s cleaning method it is more of a “rip out everything you can possibly remove and see what remains” approach.
So, I have taught the first meditation roughly seven thousand times (this is “hyperbole” in a different sense—or well, I guess in the same sense, but for a different purpose), and every single time, I have to make sure of several things: we distinguish Descartes (the author) from the Meditator (the narrator), we make it clear that this is just a preliminary stage of ground clearing before we re-establish a bunch of things that we know (the meditator is not a skeptic for very long!), and most importantly: at no point does the meditator believe that an malevolent deceiver exists! The deceiver (or “evil demon” as everyone will refer to this hypothetical deceiver, despite the absence of even hypothetical demons from the text itself), never has to be more than a whiff of possibility in order to do the work that the meditator needs, which is, roughly: be a source of doubt.
And here is where I realized something that I am sure someone else has, somewhere else, already noticed: the structure of the first meditation does a great job of echoing the feedback loop reverberation of self-doubt and anxiety. Which is, of course, something I’m focused on a lot lately. So, the following is a bit less of interpretation of Descartes and more of me noticing a weird parallel between the first Meditation and anxiety-induced self-doubts. In other words, it probably reflects more on me than on Descartes.
The meditator (who is definitely not shy of listing their own limitations and flaws), notes that they have been a lazy lump and had this huge project they’d planned to do and basically waited as long as possible to get started with it (a feeling I’m sure many of us can sympathize with), and says, “but look, I guess since I’ve dragged my feet for this long, I can’t just do an okay job, I have to try and make something genuinely lasting and worthwhile, and I have to do it all now, in the next six nights.”
So the first part of the project is for the meditator to notice that they have made mistakes in their life. And instead of taking the Julia Child/Mr. Rogers lesson from this, we are about to embark on a journey to the center of tearing ourselves down.
So, we start by focusing on actual real mistakes we have in fact made. Sometimes we believe false things. The example I use is the situation where you see someone across the street who you think you recognize and it turns out to be a stranger and you thought they were waving to you, but actually they weren’t and you are very embarrassed (not that this ever happens to me). Okay, but that’s just a small mistake and it’s easy to put that in a box and cordon it off. It’s not like I make big mistakes like forgetting whether I’m sitting or standing, or wearing pajamas to the office or whatever. But, worries are good at creeping in. So, you move to the dream hypothesis. “Sure, you don’t mess up by forgetting to wear clothes to the office, but sometimes you have nightmares where you forget to wear clothes to the office, and you can’t always tell when you’re dreaming.” Well now we’re really good and freaked out. And beyond that, if there were someone really powerful trying to deceive you, you’d probably be making mistakes all the time! The only way to be safe would be to refrain from believing anything.
What I hadn’t realized before starting to think about it just this week, is that the actual pattern of thinking that happens next is basically like textbook cognitive distortion of that not-such-a-big-deal mistake into catastrophic proportions, where you then allow your entire worldview to become consumed by hypothetical worries about fictional mistakes you have no actual reason to think you are making.
So, when I think back to how hard it was to actually get started on actually doing my video lectures for my online courses, it’s not that I thought an evil genius was determined to make my online course fail, just as the Meditator doesn’t believe at any point that there is an evil deceiver bent on tricking them about everything. For the Meditator, it is a cognitive exercise, to test the certainty of the beliefs they are depending on in order to determine what the foundations of science should be. But for me, it was this spiraled up anxiety about the ways everything could go wrong with my class this term.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t even have well defined worries about what would go wrong. It just mattered that the worry was there. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t believe the worry would happen. Like Descartes’s evil genius, this worry is so clever, it can get around its’ own non-existence. I’ve been focused on the issue of planning my class, because that’s something that I had to do, and which I froze up on for a while, and then was more stressed about doing than I wanted to be, as a result. But this is something that seems to happen to lots of people I know, with all sorts of things that we do in our lives.
And for me, while writing this essay, the part that was interesting (for me, at least) was noticing that the paralyzing worry didn’t need to be something you actually believed in. The process seems to be that just thinking about the possibility of some of these big worries really can freeze us up sometimes. And the solution to it doesn’t seem to be deciding that the worry is impossible. If this last seven months have taught me anything it is that I probably was far too confident about which things were certain to happen, and vastly undercounted which things were possible.
It feels like I should end with a note about how to defuse the paralyzing power of these lurking demons (fine I give, I’ll call them demons), since it’s not about convincing yourself they aren’t true (you don’t need to believe them for them to have power over you), or denying that they are possible (they might well be possible). But I don’t have that, really. In my case, it was the impending deadline that shook me free. I saw the start of the term looming and got myself to ignore the anxiety and worry that way. But, that’s not a general lesson. Deadlines are not a cure for anxiety. They aren’t even a reprieve. So, I don’t really have a conclusion to this essay worked out yet, but if I do, it’ll probably be a whole separate essay, rather than something I can just tack on here. I guess the main moral of this story is that preparing for this semester has really changed how I think and feel about the first meditation.