The Fifth Estate recently told the story of Shyria Shah, the Nepali-Canadian woman who died this past May while making her descent from Mount Everest. She was one of three climbers who died that weekend, the others being a 61 year-old German doctor and a 44 year-old Korean man. Last week’s avalanche there left nine dead and three unaccounted for, one being a cardiologist from Québec City who was among the missing. The fatalities this year have already broken the all-time record of 15, set in 1996, with 41 dead so far.***
Two ideas have been coalescing in my mind: one is the idea of hubris – the Greek word for overweening pride – and the other is perfectionism, that self-condemning way of thinking that leaves no room for error. Here’s a more detailed definition of hubris:
In its modern use, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance; it is often associated with a lack of humility, though not always with the lack of knowledge. An accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek society. The proverb “pride goes before a fall” (from the biblical Book of Proverbs, 16:18) is thought to summate the modern use of hubris. It is also referred to as “pride that blinds”, as it often causes one accused of hubris to act in foolish ways that belie common sense. In other words, the modern definition may be thought of as, “that pride that comes just before the fall.”
The analogy of falling is apt when one thinks of hubris. The death toll at Everest, for example, provides a grim and literal template for it: climbers are falling to their deaths in record numbers. While many have a profound need to conquer the world’s highest peak, a significant number don’t have the experience or good health to accomplish it. So they fall to their knees, dying of exhaustion and hypoxia, or they fall into crevasses, or as it happened recently, they fall from the sky in turboprops of questionable vintage. The fact that a disproportionate number of doctors – those ultimate high achievers – are drawn to the risk of Everest, tells us that not only is pride involved, but perhaps fantasies of invincibility are too.
However, there are others who are falling and dying and they are not those glorious souls making the trek skyward. I’m talking about stressed out university students jumping to their deaths. It’s a form of suicide that has some university administrators taking extraordinary measures:
…construction workers at Cornell University began installing steel mesh nets under seven bridges around campus. They overlook the scenic gorges for which Ithaca, N.Y., is known; in early 2010, they were the sites of three Cornell student suicides of a total of six that year…president David J. Skorton acknowledged these deaths are just “the tip of the iceberg, indicative of a much larger spectrum of mental health challenges faced by many on our campus and on campuses everywhere.” (Macleans,Sept. 6, 2012)
In two earlier articles, I included TED talks given by Brené Brown, the Texas researcher who studies shame. I read an ebook of hers, The Gifts of Imperfection, because I wanted to get a better grip on a troubling phenomenon — related to my ideas about Everest — that in recent years seems to be intensifying. More specifically, I want to know how to deal with students who are being hectored by their own inner voices, voices that keep telling them to try harder even when they succeed, that keep telling them failure, even on a small scale, is not an option.
I imagine these voices are quite active in the minds of those generally polite students who hurl vehement arguments at me when they discover I won’t be publishing class averages for each assignment. It’s there in the minds of other, less polite students, who groan and roll their eyes when I tell them they should only compete against themselves.
Their disappointment with me isn’t the problem: it’s just difficult to watch bright students look defeated when they discover they didn’t score the highest in the class. It’s hard too to see the faces of those students who score below average on assignments. It’s as if those shameful scores fossilize in their minds, take away hope, and prevent them from improving. I often have to remind students that school is a place where you come to learn, not where you show up performing like a ready-made expert.
I’m not sure they’re listening, however. The high achievers are too busy following their grades online; the others, I suspect, are busy just trying to muddle through. It’s sad because this emphasis on grades is robbing all students of something very important: that childlike awe, so necessary for learning, is being replaced by anxiety, as is the pleasure and joy brought about by accomplishing something worthwhile.
Postscript: Excellence is a subjective and unstable term, one I will be looking at more closely in Part 2. Watch for it next weekend.
*** I am including the 19 (mostly climbers, apart from crew) who died this past weekend while on a flight from Kathmandu to the Everest base camp.
Tags: Perils, Perfectionism