The Difficulty of Self-Renewal

In a reply to my previous post on “Springsteen’s Nebraska,” my colleague, Jennifer Imsande, pushed me to think deeply about why Springsteen was “… willing to self-renew, to let go of an identity or process that might have worked brilliantly yesterday, but needed revising in order to meet to new visions” while many people are not willing to self-renew.

Jennifer goes on to suggest a reason why many cling to their notion of themselves, by quoting Helen Vendler from her book “The Breaking of Style,” in that “putting off an old style:”

perpetuates an act of violence…on the self. It is not too much to say that the old body must be dematerialized if the poet is to assume a new one…The fears and regrets attending the act of permanent stylistic change can be understood by analogy with divorce, expatriation, and other such painful spiritual or imaginative departures.

Comfort and Sorrow

One song of Springsteen’s that resonated with me is “Glory Days.” The lyrics are about people who cling to an identity that worked in the past, but is not their present. This identity is both their comfort and their sorrow. Springsteen confronts this in himself when he writes:

Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight
and I’m going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days

Springsteen presents the dilemma:* many get both comfort and sorrow while “trying to recapture a little of the glory of.” For better or worse, the current self is a known self. As time moves forward, a person’s identity can become wrapped up in the “current” self which is slowly becoming the “glory days” self. The farther in time a person is removed from their “old body,” the more they may try to “recapture a little of the glory of” instead of making the choice to dematerialize.

Much as the boiling frog is unaware of the impending peril because of the slow increase in the temperature of the water, many people are unaware of how they cling to their old selves because the time between now and then happens slowly. In addition, the devil we know is often less fearful than the one not yet met. The new self could be worse than the old one. There are no guarantees.

Pleasant Numbness

Many may scratch their heads wondering why someone who’s current self is not all he or she wants remains in bondage finding solace in the “glory days” instead of seeking a glorious present or future.

How many scratch their heads if the person’s life is one of pleasant numbness?

The “pleasant” part of “pleasant numbness” is a situation where things are not hateful. In fact, things may be pretty much okay. Pleasant, in other words. An example may be a job that pays decently, has a good office atmosphere and offers a good quality of life. Pleasant.

The “numbness” part of “pleasant numbness” is the malaise or complacency a person may find him or herself in even though the situation is pleasant. An example may be a job that pays decently, has a good office atmosphere and offers a good quality of life, but is missing something and the individual senses this on some level. The problem is the inability or unwillingness to identify the “something.”

Pleasant numbness is perhaps the most vexing state to be in. If a person’s life were bad, job were miserable, relationship were poor, etc., the support group for this person may be more likely to understand the person’s desire for self-renewal. If a person’s life falls into the realm of pleasant numbness, then the support group may be less likely to understand or support the person’s desire for self-renewal because “things aren’t all that bad. Why mess your life up?” Complicating this possible lack of support is the self-doubt the person likely feels for similar reasons. Maybe the malaise is not so bad after all?

How may this state of malaise or complacency be overcome?


What if self-renewal were not so much an “act of violence” on oneself as it were the granting of permission to let go of the old self? I do not mean to suggest this is any easier to achieve than deciding to destroy oneself, but I do find metamorphosis to be more appealing than destruction. Besides, how can a person truly destroy his or her self such that no trace of the old self remains to influence the new self?

Even with granting the permission to let go, a person often feels the need to figure out where to go next. Jennifer also quoted Tony Hoagland‘s observation that:

the resources required to reconfigure a talent are quite distinct from the ones required to discover a first way of [doing]…To revise artistic direction requires not the lunging, half-ignorant zeal of the beginner, but a knowledgeable unmaking, a cold self-assessment and slow reconception.

Why does self-renewal have to be “a knowledgeable unmaking?” Why not choose the “lunging, half-ignorant zeal of the beginner?” This may be a false dichotomy. Perhaps, finding the sweet spot along the continuum is one of the challenges of self-renewal.

This line from Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” indicates* zeal is a better choice than any other spot on the continuum: “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun. Oh but mama that’s where the fun is.”

A “knowledgable unmaking” would avoid looking into the sun while the “half-ignorant zeal” would stare straight into the sun because the fun in self-renewal is the edge. The fun is the lunging. The fun is the zeal whether half or fully ignorant. The fun is the energy of the glory days and not the days themselves.

The fun is the metamorphosis, the process of self-renewal.

The difficulties in self-renewal are:

  • time passes slowly
  • the known versus the unknown (devil or not)
  • pleasant numbness
  • malaise or complacency
  • the focus on what the next version of ourselves should be instead of the process
  • the undefined process (i.e., “lunging, half-ignorant zeal of the beginner”)

The difficulty of self-renewal is choosing whether or not “to look into the sights of the sun.”


* I am not suggesting anything about what Springsteen was thinking when he wrote these lyrics. My thoughts are the result of what his lyrics mean to me.

One Comment

  1. Chris Godsey said:

    Hm. I guess my life experience and intention to follow something like Buddhist principles lead me to believe the direct opposite of Vendler’s belief that self-transformation is self-violence: seems to me that it’s much more self-violent to ignore, deny, or resist change that’s constantly happening whether or not we want it to.

    That whole concept of “identity” is so problematic and seductive.

    January 27, 2014

Comments are closed.