There has never been a more irritated description hurled at me than one denoting pretentiousness. At numerous junctures in my life, it is this very sentiment that I’ve tried so desperately to hold away. Pretentiousness implies self-importance. Pretentiousness implies a sense of superiority. Pretentiousness implies an entire host of negative qualities in a person. And eventually, this flawed perception of me bled into my own self-image, ironically and simultaneously the harbinger and caveat of low self-esteem.
To me and myself, who is gingerly grasping at straws to find reassurance, it has become important to understand which stained-glass window I am being viewed from. Could there be any legitimacy to the idea that some people simply view the world as a reflection of themselves? I believe so. It isn’t difficult, after all, to identify where this criticism of me stems from: my own tendency to criticise, probe and analyse.
I have realised my own obsession with truth. Not the manner of truthfulness expected of us with others, but truth with the self. A truth that seems the purest of all, and a truth that overwhelms with an almost maddening sense of liberation. This truth was exceedingly important for me to find as an isolated child who neither understood myself nor other people. Motivations were difficult to discern, cognitive dissonance perplexing and sheer irrationality utterly incomprehensible. But my innate nature, that of being and feeling human, was structured in as much a complex manner as that of anyone else’s.
This is unsurprising in retrospect. This realisation was also what spurred my habit. I have possessed an aggressive resistance to dogmatic thinking for as long as I can remember; my mother even notes with exasperation that my favourite response to demands as a toddler was: “Why?” It did nothing to help my unpopularity later in childhood, where I would occasionally respond to the furious rendition of a disagreement from a friend with suggestions that they could view the situation differently or that they themselves could be the problem as opposed to simply offering sympathy.
I irked the patience of teachers by my incessant refusal to accept statements from them at face value. After all, it made no sense to me to blindly trust authority or age. I could believe factual statements by someone who was seemingly qualified or the judgement of an individual that I trusted, but to simply accept blanket statements about people or religion or life seemed to be an error. Today, even more so, I am far less willing to take to heart the opinions of one health professional or two, as opposed to the outcomes of the entire body of research in that field. That seems the only logical course of action — surely, this is not that bizarre.
My rejection of the tendency of some to lay down principles as undeniably true was never coloured with disrespectful intentions — rather, it simply came from a place of sheer curiosity. I was far less concerned with the accuracy of beliefs as opposed to the consistency of those beliefs. After all, my own irrational emotions and behaviour that was ultimately self-damaging seemed to arise from the very same inconsistency. It became my own belief that irrational thoughts and inconsistent beliefs maximised suffering to unnecessary levels. The real problem, however, arose when I began to attempt to prompt others to think in the same manner. Perhaps even as a child, I was an unconscious advocate of the Socratic method — even if it was simply viewed as annoying by literally almost everyone around me. Then again, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock and die, so he hardly could’ve been viewed much differently.
When my world became bigger — and I started to meet new people, more people and very, very different people — this dramatically changed. I met many more individuals who took the same joy out of discussion that I did and it opened up so much more opportunity. But this only solved part of the problem. Pointing out cognitive dissonance or flawed thinking on a personal level in regards to the individual or their relationships seemed to end far more disastrously at times than simply doing the same for points of disagreement about politics.
Somehow, in the former, I even felt immense guilt. A lack of willingness to consider different perspectives and respond to them thoughtfully in discussion in now almost universally seen as a sign of immaturity. But when it was on personal grounds, I only seemed to be faced with labels of insensitivity and pretentiousness. Many times, I was met with an insurmountable amount of defensiveness.
The only problem with this was that I genuinely did not think myself better than anyone in any way. I did not mean to sound patronising. I could not understand why I could sometimes come off this way. After all, I was only voicing the things that I would tell myself. I only wanted others to experience the same liberation that seemed to come with seeing the worst of yourself, the ugliest and the bitter. But the glee I seemed to find in this was not mirrored in the eyes of many others.
My excitement even amidst the heavy-hearted nature of receiving criticism about my personality flaws did not seem to be a common experience. To me, constructive criticism was a way of evolving. I am proud of my evolution and my journey. Over the years, there have been things I’ve improved in myself. My cowardice, my extreme emotionality, my shyness, my hypocrisy and somewhat my messy nature. I am still trying to work on countless others. But the ones I still don’t know how to deal with are my apparent pretentiousness and my pride.
Because I undeniably am very proud of the way in which I try to see the world. In a malleable fashion, tolerantly and in an open way. I am proud that I constantly strive towards self-improvement. I think there are many other valuable qualities to be found in people, and it is certainly not a loss in anyone’s life to do without this, but I also don’t see how encouraging it is harmful.
Then again, maybe that in itself is a self-protective mechanism for me. Maybe I see that as the thing most worthy in me and consequently cling to it for dear life as some kind of perverse life raft. The only conclusion I can reach is that some people have minds that are open to this and some do not. Both are valid ways to live, think and feel. Perhaps the real answer is letting people arrive at those stages of self-reflection at their own pace.
After all, at certain times in my life I may have not been quite so receptive either. I still choose to try this approach, albeit as gently as possible, when I see people overwhelmed by bigotry and prejudice. But for personal mishaps, I should learn to acknowledge that it is neither my responsibility nor my business and leave it alone. In both cases, there is only so much one person can do. My issue of ‘pretentiousness’ may even lie in the fact that I can even be somewhat pushy at times.
Aligning with my personal philosophy means that those are things I can improve on, too. Aligning with my personal philosophy, a dogmatic enforcement of anti-dogmatism might in itself be a paradox — which gives me even more to think about. There might be a great deal of value in simply accepting things for what they are and who they are at times, as opposed to constantly striving for something more or better. After all, as Kundera said: “There is no perfection, only life!”