August 23, 2010
A Case of Mental Courage
By DAVID BROOKS
In 1811, the popular novelist Fanny Burney learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia. She lay down on an old mattress, and a piece of thin linen was placed over her face, allowing her to make out the movements of the surgeons above her.
“I felt the instrument — describing a curve — cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator who was forced to change from the right to the left,” she wrote later.
“I began a scream that lasted intermittingly during the whole time of the incision — & I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still.” The surgeon removed most of the breast but then had to go in a few more times to complete the work: “I then felt the Knife rackling against the breast bone — scraping it! This performed while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture.”
The operation was ghastly, but Burney’s real heroism came later. She could have simply put the horror behind her, but instead she resolved to write down everything that had happened. This proved horrifically painful. “Not for days, not for weeks, but for months I could not speak of this terrible business without nearly again going through it!” Six months after the operation she finally began to write her account.
It took her three months to put down a few thousand words. She suffered headaches as she picked up her pen and began remembering. “I dare not revise, nor read, the recollection is still so painful,” she confessed. But she did complete it. She seems to have regarded the exercise as a sort of mental boot camp — an arduous but necessary ordeal if she hoped to be a person of character and courage.
Burney’s struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.
She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness.
In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.
This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days. Capitalism has also undermined this ethos. In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.
In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.
But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.
The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics. Many conservatives declare that Barack Obama is a Muslim because it feels so good to say so. Many liberals would never ask themselves why they were so wrong about the surge in Iraq while George Bush was so right. The question is too uncomfortable.
There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.
To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.
Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.
Thank you Diane ! My physiological reaction to reading this piece - in its entirety, is very interesting on many levels. I cringed. I felt ill (weakened and woozy; my ears started ringing; my heart rate increased dramatically). This definitely hit a chord...or should I say...bone.xxoo