Reflections on Exhaustion, Self-Deception, and Intellectual Responsibility

I struggled with a topic to write about today, for a variety of reasons. There is no shortage of options: I’m taking two summer classes that could both use some good reflection, I just finished a semester where all I took was philosophy, and I’m currently reading some excellent contemporary literature in tandem with ancient Chinese philosophy. Plenty here to digest, I admit, but I’m really just exhausted, so those will be saved for another day.

I thought about comparing Confucius’ thoughts on ceremony with the Old Testament’s discussion of the Temple, adding to that a brief aside noting the similarities between Confucius’ beliefs about the importance of proper names with both Plato’s Republic and the famous burning bush from Exodus, but the post sounded like it deserves more time than I can afford, at the moment.

And, well, I don’t mean that I lack the physical time; in fact, I’d say that my class load is surprisingly light, considering. What I mean is the intellectual stamina to push forward. Even this post is taking me a long time to write, because I keep getting distracted. One of the first things to go when you get mentally tired is your ability to focus on intellectual activity. Procrastination sets in, and you convince yourself that you know how to accomplish whatever it is you are avoiding, and so it won’t take very long.

But these intellectual hoops that I force myself through have really taught me a great deal. A friend of mine recently wrote a paper that suggested that self-deception is impossible. I haven’t read his paper yet, but I have my doubts about his thesis, at least on a common understanding of the phrase. Regardless, it seems that I live out ‘self-deception’ pretty regularly, though perhaps simply noting that defeats the whole notion, like pulling the wrong block from a precarious game of Jenga.

What I find most odd about the intellectual procrastination that I am describing, at least in my experience, is this: I will often find and make time for non-essential (read: not part of my duties or responsibilities) mental activity. Conversations, both online and in person, often end up taking a decidedly heady turn when I’m putting off work; it’s as if I’ve got the energy to spend, but I don’t want to spend it where I should, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s the illusion of compulsion: I believe that someone is forcing me to act in a certain way, and then I buck against it, for the sake of the push back. Maybe there’s some underlying fear, or perhaps some hidden experience from my past that mirrors my current situation.

Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to my own exhaustion, and a crafty lie I believe I have told myself. Or, rather, an unnecessary truth, since telling it to myself happened to also make it true. You see, I seem to have convinced myself that the things I do for fun (including intellectual conversations, even heavy and weighty ones) are not tiring, whereas the things I do because I have a responsibility to do them (writing papers, reading textbooks, even writing blogs) are exhaustive. It’s an odd state of affairs, really. It isn’t as though I dislike the majority of the things that happen to be my responsibility, in fact I rather enjoy them; nor is it somehow outside of my responsibility to do robust mental work with my friends and family.

That is the trick, right there. Did you catch it? Here it is again: I am responsible to act and think to the best of my ability in all areas of my life, not just those that are formally “my responsibility.” This is why I spent a lot of words last week writing about tattoos, even though the topic hasn’t been covered in any of my academic outlets, aside from some blogs I read. In fact, I often find myself attempting to work out the complexities of language, theology, and philosophy, even through the ‘fun’ mediums of conversation, games, and Facebook back-and-forth.

I’m not really sure how to end a post that rambles about exhaustion, self-deception, and intellectual trickery, except to say this: let’s all remember that our responsibilities don’t stop with work, nor should our fun stop with friends.

Image via Flickr.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).