Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 47. Motion of confidence (Part 2)

QA 47. Motion of confidence (Part 2)

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On March 5, 2014
  • confidence, interdependence, John Dewey, love, philosophy cafe, relation

Last week’s philosophy café offered another conversation about confidence. As noted before, confidence has two levels. One is conditional: the conscious trust in one’s abilities or worth, developed through experience and familiarity (“or entitlement”, as someone pointed out, referring to the social confidence of private-school girls). The other is what John Dewey described as “unconscious faith in the possibilities of the situation”, or “the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do”.

One man, I’ll call him Anthony, spoke about a friend he’d had in his twenties who led the two of them on rigorous mountain hikes. One day they were in a cave, swimming across an underground lake, when the friend became hypothermic. Suddenly, the one who had been happy to follow had to get both of them out alive. Anthony told us he did what he had to, towed his friend back across the lake and then found the way out. He said he didn’t know how he did it, but he has never since doubted his ability to meet whatever comes along.

Someone astutely noted that Anthony didn’t become confident that day; the confidence was already there when he needed it. We agreed that this kind of confidence is inherent. But do we need to pass a test to make it our own? What if Anthony had lost his head? It sounded like that wasn’t even a possibility for him, which may be the real fact of confidence. As someone else said, “confidence is when you don’t abandon yourself.”

We spoke about how confidence can be undermined, particularly in Western culture. Children learn to doubt themselves when they are taught to measure themselves against various benchmarks of achievement. When confidence in oneself – in one’s self – is broken, one strives to find security outside: in another person, in bravado (fake it ’til you make it), in accomplishments and accoutrements. This is where we go astray.

Security is to confidence as pleasure is to happiness. There is a qualitative difference, and amassing the one won’t get you the other. Confidence doesn’t depend on minimising risk, and happiness doesn’t depend on the absence of pain. Neither confidence nor happiness can be willed into existence: the more we strive, the worse we feel.

Confidence is inherent but we have to keep faith with it. Keep faith with faith itself, with our capacity to trust ourselves and our world. That doesn’t mean it’s all going to work out. We’re still going to suffer and die, and so will everyone we care about. Confidence lets us live with that, straightforwardly.

We also have to keep faith with each other. Confidence is deeply relational and we read it in each other intuitively. I can support another person’s confidence by trusting them – not blindly, but with clear-sighted confidence. By lending support when and as needed with care and respect. By being trustworthy myself. Confidence is inherent; it grows with love.


1 Comment

David Glidden
I wonder whether confidence is innate. Perhaps it is more like what Aristotle termed the inherent capacity to have the capacity. I have met students and adults who lack all evident confidence, at least in certain central areas of their lives. Somehow it had been stripped away or never developed into an actual capacity. As it happens, I have undergone two confidence building experiences similar to the one you describe. Both were a result of backpacking in the mountains. In both cases I was hiking with an experienced companion, one an accomplished mountaineer; the other a father-figure to me. In each case, an emergency arose, and I had to take over leadership. The mountaineer had a sudden onset of appendicitis; the father-figure underwent hypothermia in a snowstorm. I was shocked by the urgency of the situation and had to step up to save us. It revealed an inner strength I had never known was there. These experiences changed me, but not in every aspect of my life, unfortunately: only as a hiker in the wilderness. I think the same sort of thing happens to war combatants and is similarly limited and perhaps limiting.

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