Conflicting Interests: What Happens When You Want What You Don’t Want

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Study. I thought I’d learnt my lesson, but here I am again yearning to return to the unreal world of deadlines and demands, arguments and ideas. Am I mad? No, just human. For although I couldn’t wait to finish my undergraduate degree, I waited twenty-five years to do so. Indeed, I was in such a hurry to get to the end of it that, in the end, I didn’t want it to end.

I’ve been reading David Lodge’s A Man of Parts, a novel about H.G. Wells. An avid womaniser, ‘Wells’ holds contradictory views about sex – for him it is ‘just fun’ as well as being a sublime spiritual experience – and Lodge has him explain this inconsistency thus:

I oscillated between those two attitudes to sex without ever reconciling them – but that’s the human being for you. We’re a bundle of incompatible parts, and we make up stories about ourselves to disguise the fact. The mental unity of the individual is a fiction.

Incompatible parts, conflicting interests – this goes a long way towards explaining why, now and forever, I want what I don’t want.

I’ve been training at work, you see. Cramming so that I can take on a new role in the near future. All the thinking and note-taking has sent me back a year or two, to a time when I was studying from home, while helping my working wife raise our two kids.

It was the best time of my life, despite the stresses and strains. And why not? I spent most of my time reading, writing and thinking about the finest things life has to offer: literature, history, philosophy. When I wasn’t deeply depressed or drowning in self-doubt, I was happy, oh-so happy. And when I graduated, in 2014, I was happy, oh-so happy.

Now, though, the light has gone from my life. Yes, I have kept on ‘reading’ and ‘writing’, but I lack the guidance, encouragement and criticism that comes with formal study. Without these things, I am – to my great shame – lost.

I have attempted to explain this to myself once before, in a short piece entitled ‘An Uneasy Ego’. Here it be.

Into bondage we are born – this much is known. But whom do we serve?

‘It may be the devil,’ Bob Dylan intoned, ‘or it may be the Lord.’ True, I suppose, but not true enough. For, in reality, we have a second master: damnable Self.

Whose?

Why, mine or thine own. For years, I have sought to serve the former – myself. Alas, I have failed to do so well, and my higher needs remain unmet.

Why?

This is a sharp question, and it needles me. Am I, perhaps, a poor servant? Nay, I think not; for, at times, I have served with success. Am I, then, a poor master? Yes, almost certainly so.

Any man who would be master must dominate and control his menials. I do neither for long; my thoughts are unruly and my passions headstrong. In short, I lack self-control. Also, I do not dominate my selves, of which I, like you, have many. In short, I am rarely myself.

The rub, Maud? That an uneasy ego makes a good servant but a deplorable master.

What happens when you want what you don’t want? You seek help – from your masters. For me, that means I must go back to ‘the books’ and to those who can teach me to read and write them better.

Postgraduate study is horrendously expensive and time-consuming. It’s not as costly, though, as life without learning.

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