Advice to Clever Children

Extract from Celia Green, Advice to Clever Children
(IPR 1981, reissued Oxford Forum 1999)


There is a kind of being identified with one’s life that I came to call centralisation. In many of its forms it clearly involves everything being related to some central factor.

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At first I found it very difficult to define. When I had it most nearly in focus it seemed to me that it was something to do with accepting the responsibility for one’s life, something to do with feeling identified with it, and something to do with a sense of purpose. If you took the point of intersection of those three things, as it were, all in the most abstract sense, maybe you had it.

But I found it, with my life as it was when I first came up to university, terribly difficult to get back into this position.

For one thing, there was now no congruity between the social view of one’s position and one’s own, so one felt as if one had to re-establish this before one could feel identified with one’s life again. At first sight a life in which one had to be entirely opposed to the social view of oneself seemed to be something one disowned. So (and of course this is what people encouraged one to regard as the only way of tackling the problem) if one could force oneself to work, however negative work had become, maybe one could start in patches to get some sort of positive feedback, and gradually the positive feedback system could be re-established. But to turn a negative feedback system into a positive one is a very difficult matter; at least, I found it so.

So then I came to think: it is no use thinking that one will be identified with one’s own life when one no longer has to consider the possibility of the ultimate crunch between oneself and society, because all one’s energy is engaged at keeping at bay the awareness of this possible crunch. So suppose this can’t be averted; if they tell one one isn’t good enough to do research, will one believe it?

Of course I had been brought up to know that social outcasts who believed they had great abilities were the ultimate objects of derision and contempt; and it is easy to persuade intelligent and idealistic people that it is virtuous and objective to believe criticisms of themselves expressed by persons in authoritative positions.

So I found the conclusion horrifying. But if that is how it is, that is how it is, I thought, and there is no use pretending otherwise. You will certainly go on doing research, however bad they tell you you are, and however bad you actually may be.

And, furthermore, you must give up any hope that any of them will ever come to understand anything about you, because trying to think that the things they say and think about you bear any relation to anything that is actually the case is only taking up energy and dragging you into impossible positions.

Curiously enough, this seemed like a great loss; as if I was jettisoning for ever any possibility that any social recognition could ever mean anything to me. Which, actually, I was, because to get anything out of social praise you have to stop thinking for yourself and think of the source of the praise as ‘a professor’ or ‘a reviewer’ and hence at least slightly numinous. However, later the loss came to seem not very great.

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To be centralised you have at least to accept the possibility of finding yourself alone against the world; this is logical in a way, because to know your own mind you evidently have to let it tell you things, and you do not know what it will tell you until it does. So it is impossible to be sure that it will not tell you that everybody else is up a gum-tree.

It may be noticed that there is no way centralisation can be made compatible with the dependence on social guidelines required of the modern individual. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and if the human race offers you a mess of pottage it is necessary to think carefully whether perhaps the price being required of you is your birthright.

A sense of responsibility (in my sense) is related to a somewhat analytical attitude to what, in fact, one is being responsible for.

Here, the transition from normal to centralised psychology may appear paradoxical. It is only by an extreme narrowing down of one’s area of responsibility that there is any possibility of accepting the responsibility for perceiving the existential situation as it actually is, and the shocking enormity of the position in which one finds oneself.

People normally regard as their ‘area of responsibility’ a great many things about their own psychology which are not under their own control, other people’s psychology, and even the state of affairs in the world. For example, people are encouraged to feel responsible (in this sense) for the fact that not everyone in the world is well fed.

To be more autobiographical, I was encouraged (in fact positively brainwashed) to believe that I ought to feel responsible for not being able to work under conditions which were most forcibly, and most obviously against my will, imposed on me by other people.

It is actually necessary to realise what is not under one’s control before there is any possibility of responsibility (in the existential sense).