TITLE: Pretending AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 30, 2011 11:05 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Kurt Vonnegut never hesitated to tell his readers the morals of his stories. The frontispiece of his novel Mother Night states its moral upfront:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Pretending is a core thread that runs through all of Vonnegut's work. I recognized this as a teenager, and perhaps it is what drew me to his books and stories. As a junior in high school, I wrote my major research paper in English class on the role fantasy played in the lives of Vonnegut's characters. (My teachers usually resisted my efforts to write about authors such as Kafka, Vonnegut, and Asimov, because they weren't part of "the canon". They always relented, eventually, and I got to spend more time thinking about works I loved.) I first used this sentence about pretending in my eulogy for Vonnegut, which includes a couple of other passages on similar themes. Several of those are from Bokononism, the religion created in his novel Cat's Cradle as a way to help the natives of the island of San Lorenzo endure their otherwise unbearable lives. Bokononism had such an effect on me that I spent part of one summer many years ago transcribing The Books of Bokonon onto the web. (In these more modern times, I share Bokonon's wisdom via Twitter.) Pretending is not just a way to overcome pain and suffering. Even for Vonnegut, play and pretense are the ways we construct the sane, moral, kind world in which we want to live. Pretending is, at its root, a necessary component in how we train our minds and bodies to think and act as we want them to. Over the years, I've written many times on this blog about the formation of habits of mind and body, whether as a computer scientist, a student, or a distance runner. Many people quote Aristotle as the paradigm of this truth:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
I like this passage but prefer another of his, which I once quoted in a short piece, What Remains Is What Will Matter:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly.
This idea came charging into my mind this morning as I read an interview with Seth Godin. He and his interviewers are discussing the steady stream of rejection that most entrepreneurs face, and how some people seem able to fight through it to succeed. What if a person's natural "thermostat" predisposes them to fold in the face of rejection? Godin says:
I think we can reset our inclinations. I'm certain that pretending we can is better than admitting we can't.
Vonnegut and Aristotle would be proud. We are what we pretend to be. If we wish to be virtuous, then we must act rightly. If we wish to be the sort of person who responds to rejection by working harder and succeeding, then we must work harder. We become the person we pretend to be. As children, we think pretending is about being someone we aren't. And there is great fun in that. As teenagers, sometimes we feel a need to pretend, because we have so little control over our world and even over our changing selves. As adults, we tend to want to put pretending away as child's play. But this obscures a truth that Vonnegut and Aristotle are trying to teach us: Pretending is just as much about being who we are as about being who we aren't. As you and I consider the coming of a new year and what we might resolve to do better or differently in the coming twelve months that will make a real difference in our lives, I suggest we take a page out of Vonnegut's playbook. Think about the kind of world you want to live in, then live as if it exists. Think about the kind of person you want to be, then live as if you are that person. -----