Signal Virtue: Me, Myself, and I

Virtue: Am comfortable alone

Describe an experience: Please write a short story (approximately 1,000 characters) about a time in your life when this positive trait or virtue contributed to or created a situation that had a positive impact on your life.
There’s a reason I find it hard to think in stories. Stories involve other people, and I spend most of my time alone.

Not completely alone. Like a good medieval scholar, I have a dog, who sleeps while I’m reading or writing, barks at every hint of intrusion, and is ecstatically happy to go outside and chase the squirrels in our backyard while I watch Jordan Peterson videos on my iPad.

But mostly I am alone, except when I take my dog for a walk or, during term, when I have to teach.

I have spent whole years of my life almost completely alone. The years I was working on my dissertation. The years I was working on my second book. (While I was working on my first book, I had a year--nine months--at the National Humanities Center, which was stressful as much because I wasn‘t able to work on my own as because I was anxious about getting tenure.)

But here’s the thing: I rarely feel alone. It’s not just my dog. It is the conversations that I am having with all of the authors I am reading. These are my friends: William of Newburgh, Rupert of Deutz, Honorius Augustodunensis, Philip of Harvengt, Alan of Lille, Richard of St. Laurent, Conrad of Saxony, Servasanctus of Faenza, Hildegard of Bingen, Anselm of Canterbury, Francis of Assisi, Paschasius Radbertus, Jan Mombaer, Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Barker, Northrop Frye.

I have hundreds and hundreds of friends whom I could tell you stories about. Except that for me, the story is always the same: “One day I was reading, and I realized...” With the variant: “One day I was writing, and I realized...”

I think my life is very exciting. You should see me when I have just figured something out. I am bouncing around with as much glee as my dog when she has sighted a squirrel.

At which, I start barking: “This is so cool! This is so cool! This is so cool! It changes EVERYTHING!”

And then I do feel alone, because I want there to be somebody to share my joy. Other than my dog Joy.
Alternative outcome: Write a short paragraph about what you might have done differently in that situation, so that it might have turned out even better.
I check my email a lot. And my Facebook feed. I am kidding myself if I think I don’t miss conversation. I am also kidding myself if I think I am alone as much as I should be to do the work that I want.

Like my dog, I am easily distracted by squirrels. Like my dog, I also have a hard time finding people to play with me who don’t go on the attack or try to make the game about them. (I have had to protect Joy more than once on our walks from dogs who come after her, particularly in pairs.)

“Be careful who you share good news with,” Professor Peterson says.

This is the real struggle that I have: I like talking with people about the books that I read and write. Almost too much. My students tell me they find me somewhat intimidating when I get excited about an idea or argument. Like my dog when someone comes into the room.

Is the answer to get out more or is it to spend even more time alone?

On the one hand, I could use the time that I spend alone more productively--or more contemplatively. It is easy to kid yourself about how much you are working. It is also easy to spend your time trying to distract yourself from thought. For example, by checking Facebook or Professor Peterson’s Twitter feed.

On the other hand, I need to practice articulating my thoughts in person so that others can push back, help me think more clearly. I do this a lot in the classroom, but I find it hard to press there with the ideas that I am currently writing about. Class is about the things the students need to practice, not me.

My son says I should write more in the margins of my books, like the medieval scribes. He is sitting next to me now, mirroring me. He says it will help me see myself more clearly in the mirror of my self-authoring.

Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda described the Virgin Mary as such a mirror, in whom she was able to see herself as the image and likeness of God. It is what I want, after all. To see myself as Sor María saw herself, rapt in contemplation of the Divine.
Guidelines for general improvement: Now that you've thought about how you might have improved things even more for yourself or others in that particular situation, please think about this virtue in more general terms. How could you work on capitalizing on this positive trait in general, so that you or others that you care about benefit as much as possible?
How does Professor Peterson put it? Our capacity for articulate speech is what makes us divine. When we speak truthfully, it is the Logos speaking through us.

Sor María has a wonderful description of her experience encountering the Trinity in abstractive vision:
To my understanding was given a new light, which illuminated it and infused into it a knowledge of all things in God, and of his operations as they are in themselves and as they are known and seen by God, according to the measure of his communication. It is a knowledge of light, holy, sweet and pure, subtle, penetrating, sure and agile, causing love of good and hatred of evil. It is a breath of the power of God and an emanation of a most subtle light, which acts as a mirror for my understanding.
Last night as I was driving home from fiddle class, I heard Professor Peterson talking about a similar vision that he had while working on his sculpture The Meaning of Music and listening to Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony
He described being rapt in contemplation of the patterns in the music and something like the heavens opening to him and a divine presence descending upon him and filling him and asking him if he would like to be as he was at that moment for the rest of his life.

I want that experience. It is the reason that I spend so much time alone, reading, thinking, writing, seeking. But I have not had it.

Perhaps I distract myself too much. Perhaps I do not trust myself to be able to sustain it. Perhaps I am terrified at the changes it might bring. Perhaps I have had it--and refused it out of fear.

Are my book-friends my refuge--or my escape? I did have an experience something like this when I finished the revisions on my forthcoming book. I had been writing about Sor María’s vision of the Virgin Mary.

“Sometimes,” she told the inquisitor Antonio del Moral, “when we look into a mirror, we may observe something new. When we look at Mary--as into a mirror--we know the Most Holy Mother participated in our redemption by taking the flesh of the Son of God into her womb."

And for a moment I knew.

--From Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring: Virtues program.

Images: My office on campus, ca. 2012. Kaleidoscope from the YouTube version of Duncan Trussell's interview with Jordan Peterson, at 1:14:08 roughly speaking.

References: Sor María’s vision of the Trinity: Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, Mystical City of God, trans. George J. Blatter as Fiscar Marison, 8 books in 4 vols. (Chicago: Theopolitan Company, 1914), 1:36. Sor María's testimony before the inquisitor: Marilyn H. Fedewa, María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 186-87.

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