Lessons From Stories: James Joyce’s Dubliners & The Necessity of Action

James Joyce was a novelist, short story writer, and poet. His short story collection, Dubliners, is comprised of fifteen stories all of which depict and explore the Irish middle class in the 20th century. A common theme that runs through these stories is of inaction. Where the characters wish to live a different, more fulfilling life but fail to take the necessary steps in order to achieve their dreams. This is exemplified in the stories “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Eveline.” Joyce’s ability to capture realistic human behavior is one of the reasons why his writing has lived on. The failure leaves the characters frustrated and disappointed with life. A common occurrence in the everyday life of many people who wish they had acted differently in the past so their present could be more satisfying.

In the story, “Two Gallants,” we follow the characters, Corley and Lenehan. Both men are frustrated and disappointed with their lives. Corley wishes to be respected, to be a man of power. Lenehan tells us how Corley was “Fond of delivering the final judgment,” and how “His conversations were mainly about himself.” But Corley doesn’t have the abilities to earn this respect so he is left to trick and charm women into fulfilling his needs. This is shown at the end of the story where it is implied that he convinced the girl he was seeing into stealing money from the family she worked for.

Corley is almost an archetype of the kind of person we need to look out for in our lives. The selfish individual who uses his cunning to trick people. Someone with enough charm to manipulate the actions of others. He is also only focused on the short-term gain which will unlikely break the cycle of disappointment. Such action only brings temporary relief, something many of us can relate to with our own experiences.

Lenehan, on the other hand, has his own frustration which stems from how his life has turned out.

This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to sit down to.

These thoughts are easy to recognize and empathize with because most of us have had something similar to them. However, it’s not in the simple connection with these thoughts where the lesson is derived from but rather the actions of Lenehan prior to these thoughts and after which reveal the truth about human behavior. Before, he is simply walking around, wasting time, buying into the schemes of his friend. Directly afterward, Lenehan meets two friends and he spends time talking to them and telling them how the previous day he was with another friend, drinking and having a good time.

This action is also recognizable. The repetitive routine which kills your time as you get no closer to your dreams. Lenehan is unhappy with his life, he recognizes this fact but he doesn’t take any steps to improve it. Rather, he gives in to the feelings of self-pity and says that this “Experience had embittered his heart against the world.” Although he adds that there was hope left, it’s hard to imagine how long that will last if he doesn’t bring about change in his life. This goes for anyone who wishes to improve their lives. The longer you wait, the more concrete your foundation becomes and harder it is to break free.

The inability to undertake action is also seen in the story “A Little Cloud.” This story contrasts two figures, Little Chandler, who is the protagonist and Ignatius Gallaher. The story shows how the inactions of Little Chandler leave him envying the life of Gallaher. Gallaher is a poet and he travels the world, something Chandler wishes he could do. However, Chandler relies on two false narratives to ease his disappointment with life.

First, Chandler claims that if he had really wanted to, if he had truly dedicated his mind to the task, he could also write great poems. He believes that he could write “Different moods and impressions he wished to express in verse” however, he is too shy and timid to do so.

Secondly, he believes that he isn’t like Gallaher because he is married and has to take care of a wife and child. While Gallaher is still single and is able to travel to different cities and enjoy life.

If you wanted to succeed you have to go away.

With such thoughts he consuls himself and gives himself an excuse to why he isn’t a poet. When in reality, it’s the lack of ownership and action that has resulted in his unfulfilled life.

Such excuse-making is common in everyday life. It’s a coping mechanism in order to keep your self-esteem high. By having outlets to blame, we can then avoid the true reality of our failures. However, in this manner, we also forgo any hope of growth. This is also seen in Chandler’s story. He has just been dreaming and hoping for that magical one day where everything will work out for the best. Instead of taking action, he lives passively and so, his character doesn’t grow and his life doesn’t change. While, Gallaher took the risk, put his work out there to get criticized, figured his way out and now can live his desired life.

The lack of action is also present in the story “Eveline.” In this story, a young girl named Eveline has fallen in love with a sailor and wishes to leave with the boy. However, instead of her accepting this call to adventure, she refuses it.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt hims size her hand:

‘Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would down her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

‘Come!’

No! No! No! It was impossible.

Her refusal to accept this new life was due to the promise she had made her deceased mother. The promise is that she would look after the household.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to god to direct her, to show her what was her duty.

It’s this duty she felt she owed that stops her from taking action. It’s the same kind of commitment many of us feel we owe other people that act as a barrier to experience our own life. It’s also our own insecurities and nerves which cling to some possible excuse to not be uncomfortable, to not go into some unknown path. But by doing so, we limit the possible experiences we can have. Just as Eveline cuts off this adventure with her love or how Little Chandler stays dreaming about being a poet while he works an office job or how Lenehan fails to make any progress in life. It’s the inability to make an uncomfortable choice that forces these characters to live lackluster lives. Lives which can be empathized with by many readers.

However, if we were to act opposite of these characters then perhaps we can get closer to achieving fulfillment ourselves. Lenehan dreams but has no plans to improve his situation. He repeats his bad habits which have lead him to dislike his situation. So, if we were to plan the course of our life for the next month or two months or however long, that will get us going down our desired path. Along with the recognition of bad habits which comes through self-reflection. Little Chandler, on the other hand, has excuses as to why he isn’t living his preferred life. These excuses deny ownership and responsibility. By taking on ownership we also take on the ability to have an effect on our life. We can overcome being timid and shy and take action in this manner. While, Eveline is afraid to experience life, to be uncomfortable and so, she falls back to pleasing other people rather than living her own life. Sometimes being selfish is good. To put yourself before others in order to live your own life. This can be difficult, especially when you have to disregard the opinions or wishes of your loved ones. However, opportunities don’t come around often and they certainly don’t wait around for you. If you wish to be fulfilled then that uncomfortable decision must be made.


Reflections On The Need To Be Aggressive

Aggression has many negative connotations to it. When you think of aggression you might think of recklessness, unintelligent, lacking self-control … aggressive behavior can be seen as a character flaw. This can be true. I am not talking about simply aggressive behavior, however. I’m more interested in implementing an aggressive mindset.

This notion comes from Jocko Willink‘s book Discipline Equals Freedom (I have covered ideas by Jocko in a previous post). When I read the short two and a half page passage on aggression I began thinking about two things: being passive and being active. In writing, being an active writer is not only encouraged, but it is almost a rule, as far as there are any rules when it comes to writing. Active writing is one where the character is doing something instead of things happening to the character. The latter being passive writing. Jocko is essentially speaking about this when he talks about keeping an aggressive mindset at all time.

You don’t want to be helpless, not in control, waiting for things to happen to you. That manner of existence is riddled with uncertainty. It is hard to imagine how, living in such a way, one can ever reach his or her goals or dreams or be prepared enough to take on some opportunity that will push them up the right path.

Instead of a passive existence, one has to be active. Aggression is not bad if used correctly. Being aggressive comes with being prepared. At all times. Ready for what comes at you. Ready to go after what you want. With an aggressive mindset, you don’t wait for the last minute to do something. You don’t wait for some opportunity to pass you by before changing. You don’t wait for others to improve your life. Waiting does not belong in this mindset. You are instead, actively seeking improvement, betterment, organizing and disciplining yourself and what you can control so that you are always ready and acting.

Far too many times I’ve been passive. Waiting at the last moment to study and getting mediocre marks because of it. Waiting too long to start sharing my thoughts and writings. Waiting for the right moment. Too many times I have considered something unlikely to happen without making an attempt at it first. There must be some fear of rejection or disappointment behind this passive way of existence.

Having lived in that passive manner, I know it gets one very little out of life. Being active on the other hand, being aggressive at all times, striving to take what you want, comes with a will to win rather than just a hope of participation.

Aggression can be friendly if used right. Aggressive mindset can bring order and control in your life. Formulate plans. Implement plans. Go after what you want and take a risk or two. Deal with rejection if that is the outcome of your aggression. Improve yourself from that point so the rejection is less likely to come again and go after it once more. Always being in attack mode because all I know is the other side of the coin is not pretty. Rather be aggressive than passive.

Bruce Lee On How We Can Improve Our Life Through Action

Only actions give to life its strength, as only moderation gives it its charm

Many of us are dreamers, we sit around all-day imagining the different lives we could be living, thinking of what our lives could have been or the opportunities we let slip by because we were too passive. It’s because of this passivity that we find ourselves living a life that we don’t necessarily enjoy. Perhaps if we had acted, been more aggressive in our pursuits, our lives could have been enhanced.

Our lives are then weakened by our passivity and even our character suffers when we don’t act.

Action is a high road to self-confidence and esteem. Where it is open, all energies flow towards it. It comes readily to most people, and its rewards are tangible

Confidence often comes from us remember something we have accomplished. When we look back in our past and think of the scenarios that required us to go just beyond our perceived limitations. It is these scenarios that give us confidence and help build our self-esteem. Sometimes it’s as simple as reminding ourself that “I have done X before, so I can also do Y”. Yet, one can only accomplish anything through action. The more things we achieve and overcome the more our confidence builds. So, if we want to improve ourselves and our lives we must act, we must be aggressive.

However, we can sometimes be bogged down by the large picture when we think about acting. Perhaps you want to run a marathon but can’t even run a mile at the moment so you think it’s pointless to even try. But once again, Bruce Lee advocates acting instead of self pity.

Our grand business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand

That marathon will seem daunting if you keep thinking about the 26.2 miles. Instead, we must turn our attention to the action at hand, which is to build ourselves up to run one mile. After that point, we can turn towards two miles, then 3, 4 and so on.

At the end of the day, whatever it is that you want from life will not be handed to you. Nobody is going to present you your dreams on a silver platter, no three wishes or a magic wand. No amount of daydreaming or thinking will change your current situation.

All you have is yourself and your ability to act.

The end of man is action, and not thought, though it be of the noblest. In this world there are a lot of people who cannot touch the heart of the matter but talk merely intellectually (not emotionally) about how they would do this or do that; talk about it, but yet nothing is ever actualized or accomplished

We shouldn’t be one of those people who just talk about it. The easiest way to not be that person is to simply be active, be aggressive, be about action.

 

Book Reference: Bruce Lee Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living

 

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Reflections On Self Doubt

Self-doubt is crippling. It handicaps us from being ourself because we lack faith in our own ability. Self-doubt raises thoughts of failure, humiliation, causes us to fear being wrong, made a fool out of because all of these are real consequences of independent action. Due to this, we go from being an individual to being a conformist. We start to conform our nature in order to fit a mold created by other people. This is a protective measure. We rather embrace the opinions of others, the beliefs set upon us, act in order to meet the expectations of strangers, behave and think how we are told to behave and think and in doing so we stay safe, comfortable, without the risk of being hurt. Self-doubt is an overprotective mother who shields her child from any harm and raises soft, weak children.

By giving in to the emotions brought on by self-doubt you strangle your own identity. Often times this strangulation, this suicide of the self comes because you think you are not worthy. It is so easy to see the power and strength in other than to see that in yourself. So easy to see why you are wrong and others are right than to trust your own intuition. Following your own feelings can lead to harm so you rather just act in a way that is already destined, a blueprint to copy, a safety harness holds you and you can pretend to be “free”, pretend to be “yourself” as you act out the commands of others. Self-doubt leads to such a scenario.

Trust and self-doubt go hand in hand. When we don’t trust ourselves, we begin to doubt ourselves and this doubt leads to the conformity of our individuality. When we trust ourselves, doubt is erased and we have the opportunity to be an individual.

So, perhaps the issue is not to stop doubting ourselves but rather, start acting in a manner that produces trust in our own ability. To stop is negative. To act is positive. One is passive, the other is active. In life, we must be active.

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers and benefactors, obeying the almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark. (Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self Reliance)

Reflections: On “It Never Is As Good As It Can Be Done”

Action involves a level of acceptance that what you are doing is not as good as it can be done. The act of action takes away from the ideal thing that was in your mind and leaves you with something that is an inferior form of that thing. This truth can be unsettling for you still know what it could have been and yet, you have to make peace with what it ended up being.

I struggle with this in my writing all the time. Those perfect sentences or scenes in my head can’t be replicated by the pen. With each word and each sentence, the ideal form of the story changes and by the end of it, the act is in some ways a failure. Failure to create perfection that only seems to exist in the mind.

Yet, you have to keep acting. The writing still must be done. Next time, you hope to step closer to that ideal vision or the ideal form of the story and you fail again and the time after that take another step closer.

I feel like this is in many ways what my life has been about. Acting on the vision of perfection which becomes more imperfect with each action. However, the opposite of this is not ideal either. Inaction and just dreaming. That will lead you nowhere but where you are right now and I must move forward.

As Rudyard Kipling said in his poem If, “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim”, avoid these complacent acts and you may step closer to becoming a man.

So, there must be action. With that comes the acceptance of imperfection. With imperfection comes the knowledge that you can do better. With this knowledge comes the second act, an action that sets to improve on the previous attempt.

As Kurt Vonnegut puts it, “So it goes”.

Endless attempts to create the forms that don’t exist in this world. You reach into this other world where these forms exist in the hopes of pulling these forms to this world but all you get is torn piece of cloth or fading memory of the form at best and usually, it’s even less. Yet you have a simple understanding of something greater that exists and you have to make do with this and attempt to create your own perfection.

The quote “it never is as good as it can be done” is not a pessimistic one. It’s optimistic. It says you can get better, to do better, you have improvements to make and it’s a lifelong truth, a companion that stays with you and at the end of it, it gives meaning to life for it makes you live, create and take action.

“Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. [A good novelist] must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. . . . The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” (William Faulker)

Reflections: On Anxiety

I don’t feel it often but when it comes, the feeling is undeniable. It is this deep nervousness inside of me. In the pit of my stomach, inside my core, this feeling that tries to tell me, that makes me feel, that it won’t be alright. Things will not work themselves out. The downward spiral will not curve back up. I feel that and it increases the pressure and the weight of anxiety until my thoughts are filled with my past mistakes, past failures and how nothing is different now, you have not changed, and that my future will also be filled with the same actions.

I’m glad I don’t get it often. Some people have to live with this feeling every day and I can’t even imagine how to deal with that. No wonder there is an increasing demand for prescription drugs or that getting drunk is a past time for people or that psychiatrists never go out of business. I don’t know how to deal with crippling anxiety but the small dosage I get, I believe I know where it comes from.

Inaction.

A few days slip by where I do not do what I am supposed to do, what I know I should be doing and that’s when I feel it. Its as if my body is telling me, reminding me that I am messing up. That I am not being the person I want to be. The feeling is almost a warning signal, flashing yellow sign accompanied by a loud horn, telling me that I am getting to close to the edge and that I should turn around and get back to the path. Or at least this is how I perceive it to be. My perception is strengthened by the fact that when I do act in a meaningful manner, the feeling goes away. Also, when I have productive days, from morning till night, that feeling never comes.

To some people that feeling is a motivator and I can see that in some way. For me its a reminder. For others, however, it is damaging, unrelenting, never ceasing force that crushes them. That’s another perspective. Things are not as bad as they could. They can get worse. If you do not act, things will get worse. Perhaps then so will my anxiety.

The small dosage is enough for me. I don’t want more. The cure, for now, seems to be action. So action is what I should do.