Usually not long after we finish the final sentence of our final character identification, the mind asks itself, ‘How do I know if I’m doing it right?’ This question might arise even prior to that point, after any individual character identification: ‘What I wrote just now didn’t feel right to me; how do I know that I wrote it in a useful, or ‘correct’ way?’
In a manner, these questions themselves testify to the ‘rightness’ of that which we’ve written, since all they really prove is that we’re feeling vulnerable. Having disassociated from the story of our lives—and the story of perfection—and written our way into the stories of a series of characters, this moment sees us recognizing ourselves as far from the balcony on which we once safely stood, and instead on the field which, to our minds, represents so much danger. Out here, we could be seen by someone else, someone who is not playing our game—which means we could be ridiculed, thus worsening the story of our lives to which we will return.
In this mode of vulnerability, then panic, what we often find ourselves doing is returning to and attempting to ‘correct’ the work we’d just finished, resulting in a sort of mania that does nothing but enervate our work and stagnate its progress. For example, we might go back to a character identification and decide that it’s all well and good until this particular paragraph, but at this paragraph, everything derails—and we might feverishly write and rewrite this paragraph, finding that nothing we produce meets our hidden criteria of ‘rightness’ in order that we can call the character identification ‘good enough’ and move on.
Here is what’s really happening in this situation: we’re afraid to move on, because doing so means recognizing that we already have some power—and know some things—which will mean we have a certain degree of responsibility as to how we behave in our lives. At the subconscious level, our mind knows that having run through a series of character identifications without hiccup, we must know something about human nature, and if this is the case, then that knowledge will certainly apply to us as well. As such, we see ourselves as standing on the precipice to true wisdom—which always carries with it the burden of teaching, healing, and fidelity to principles—and we reel at the prospect.
I call this whole state of being ‘the high horse,’ a place where we tell ourselves that we don’t know what we know, that we haven’t been doing things ‘right,’ and flee our responsibility, except that we do it under the guise of actually being very certain of something. What we’re certain of, is that we’ve been doing things ‘wrong,’ that there’s some sort of ‘external’ standard out there which could validate us.
To see this whole dynamic in action, as well as how to move beyond it with grace, let’s examine a time when I was stuck on the high horse, as well as how I shifted myself beyond it.
I’d been writing character identifications on ‘The Great Gatsby’ at the end of my reading process on that book, and had written on every character but Gatsby himself. When I got to the titular character, however, I noticed that nothing I ever wrote seemed ‘right’ to me: this was because it always seemed that I wrote the Gatsby identification in a frantic, heightened state, rather than ‘dropping in’ to my gut and self in the manner of all the other character identifications I’d written for that book.
One other giveaway stood out in particular, and it’s worth noting because it’s a common one. Rather than keep myself grounded in the perspective of Gatsby in this character identification, as I had in others, each time I mentioned the character, I also subtly demarcated him as different from myself, Jackson. In other words, rather than write sentences of the form ‘I, as Gatsby,’ and continue them from that perspective, I would write ‘I, like Gatsby,’ which told me upon second reading that I was drawing a distinction between myself the writer and Gatsby the character, a trick to avoid whatever conclusion I would draw about myself through fully identifying with the character. This appearance of language which distinguishes us from the characters about whom we write is a clear indication that we’re fleeing to our high horses, and it’s one that will tend to happen especially when we’re new to this practice.
Recognizing that I stood on my high horse with respect to Gatsby, the next step was to ask myself why. To get at this deeper, more subtle reason, I wrote out the following prompt—‘What I fear will happen if I write my way into Gatsby’—then a bulleted list of five answers below that. Obviously nothing physically consequential would happen to me through ‘authentically’ completing the character identification, but just as obviously this is what my mind, in its state of fear, believed about the act; why else would I endlessly stall while doing the writing about Gatsby, or create false distinctions between him and myself in the finished product?
The completed exercise looked as follows:
‘What I fear will happen if I write my way into Gatsby:’
- I’ll learn that I’m writing the book for someone other than myself
- I’ll learn that I’ve tried to escape my inheritance
- I’ll learn that my starting capital, is not my own
- I’ll learn that my gifts are disingenuous
- I’ll learn that I’m a criminal—I’ve stolen things from others and am not giving them credit
Here as in our founding exercise of antipodiatry, the key mechanism taking place is neutralization: there is something about myself I’m unwilling to see—and that Gatsby will show me—and this is why I write the Gatsby identification in a frantic, inauthentic way. As soon as I show this unwillingness to myself, as well as its object, the unwillingness dissipates; the magic of this exercise is that it exposes our own worst fear to ourselves in order for us to see that it really isn’t so bad after all.
However, there is often another step in completing our journey from our high horses, back onto the ground from which we can usefully engage our work in literature, and it’s one I discovered in the context of this difficulty with Gatsby. Coming back to the Gatsby identification having completed the above high horse exercise, I found that I nevertheless persisted in writing the identification in a harried, throwaway fashion; frustrated, I cast aside the work altogether, considered that my pursuit on my theory of literature as a whole might be a failure, and forgot about the project for a period of a few days.
After that period, magic happened: without really knowing why I suddenly felt called to write the Gatsby identification, took to my desk with a pen in hand, and wrote the identification in a clean, fluid manner and a single take, and instantly knew it was done. As always when we write from the heart, I felt lighter and happier having done the writing, but not in a way that doubled as a ‘high.’
What had happened in the intervening period between when I completed the exercise above, and finished the actual writing on Gatsby? Most simply, my mind had had sufficient time to forget its fears, the most humbling aspect of our process in getting off our high horses and also the one that most reminds us of our humanity.
When we want to finish the work that we’re doing, we tend to tell ourselves that it’s ‘stupid’ to be distracted or fearful, which really means that we ‘should’ be able to burst through without experiencing things, that we ‘should’ execute perfect performance. As such, we rightly deserve the designation of being on our ‘high horses:’ we believe that we’re perfect, that any hiccup that occurs is an experience reserved for others, and that we should be able to get over quickly precisely because we’re different.
By instead taking time to distract ourselves from a project after we’ve experienced a hurdle like this, the message that we send ourselves is that we’re human, fallible, and as such, we slide off our high horses and back onto the ground which we were formerly so afraid to enter. This is the paradox of the high horse: precisely when we think that we ‘shouldn’t’ be atop it, we fortify our positions exactly there; and as soon as we admit that the high horse is right where we belong, we find ourselves back in the place we intended to go.
To reiterate, there are three key steps in resolving a ‘high horse’ dilemma, and it’s obvious that they can be applied to numerous situations above and beyond our process of reading literature. They are:
- Recognize that you are on your high horse. This will usually be clear from your desire to return to and ‘redo’ previous work rather than go forward, to what’s really scaring you—or from distancing mechanisms such as the linguistic one discussed above.
- Ask yourself why you are on your high horse through the exercise delineated above. The question here is the following: ‘What do you think will happen if you _____?’ As you write out your five responses to this question, let go of any judgement toward yourself for these fears; they are just that—fears—and it is human to have them.
- If necessary, take time after completing your exercise before continuing to do the work which you had stalled out on, waiting until you authentically want to. This allows for your courage—as much a human capacity as fear—to reassert itself, and also confirms that you do, in fact, believe you are human, and thus needful of time to process things that happen to you.
Having disassociated from the story of our lives and the intertwined story of perfection, then written our way into characters from literature through a series of character identifications, and finally having ‘righted’ ourselves from our high horses through the above exercises, we are now ready to do the seizing of wisdom that is the essence of our process of reading literature: we are ready to admit that our ease in identifying with characters other than ourselves, signifies that we must know something about the human condition, which means that there is knowledge at our fingertips which we could apply to and thereby improve our own and others’ lives. As such, we stand on the precipice of teaching and healing, that apotheosis of human potential through which, paradoxically, we start to transcend our humanity. Such is the oddity of the high horse: it is both the place where we experience how fallible, deluded, and easy to knock from our perches we still are, and the place where we see the superhuman abilities that this same awareness gives us.
As with all other exercises discussed in this blog, if you would like to experiment with high horse awareness about either something you’re reading, or an event or impasse in your own life, you are welcome to share below.