Read time: 8 minutes
When I was in my second year of high school, I read John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace as a requirement for my literature class. It’s a well-made coming-of-age novel, and it made it to the New York Times bestselling list when it was published.
However, I struggled with understanding it. The concepts, lessons, and ideas presented in the novel were just too advanced for me at the time. I can safely say the same for many of my classmates. Many of us struggled not only with understanding the novel but also with the subject matter as a whole. We had always had literature, but it suddenly became a different animal and came as a shock to us that year. It was something we weren’t prepared for, except for someone who read a lot. It was an all-boys school too, so you can imagine all the fart-level jokes and the delay in emotional maturity.
Both the subject and the novel introduced us to many concepts that were too advanced for our young minds. But at one point, when our grades were averaged, they were so low that it became an issue for the class to address. We had to call for an open session with our teacher. It became one of those cases where the majority of the class was just barely passing. I still remember having to ask our teacher to give me and a few classmates of mine a special project on the side so we could pass the class in one quarter and for me to still make it on the Dean’s List; otherwise, it would have brought dishonor to my family.
Class participation was crucial. During our classes, having the right insight was a must, and it felt like it was all-or-nothing. It was either we had the answers or not. If we didn’t have the answers and couldn’t participate, then we were more likely to get a low grade, even a failing one. Plus, we had those few classmates who were “answer hogs,” answering all the questions and leaving the rest of us with nothing to share. One of them is a good friend of mine, and many of us in the class used to tease him for it.
Even our parents got involved. I remember my mom, together with other parents, commenting on our literature that year during a school meeting with our teachers: “How can these boys understand this? They haven’t even had their hearts broken!”
To keep the story short, our teacher made some adjustments. Most of us made it through the year. But up to the end of the school year, I still had no clue as to what had happened. Even with the open session we had as a class, I couldn’t say anything, for I couldn’t articulate what was wrong. It wasn’t until college that I finally got some insight.
In retrospect, our teacher was not bad. Among other things, I found out that his style of teaching was actually very similar to that of many of my literature professors in college. So the insight I got was that his teaching style and the literature we had to study were just too advanced for us. I’m guessing the high school curriculum’s intention was to prepare us for college-level literature courses.
However, it’s true that many of us hadn’t even experienced the heartbreak necessary to understand the depths of human nature and its many nuances and complexities, let alone the lessons from a piece of literature such as A Separate Peace. This didn’t mean though that my classmates and I were incapable or that our teacher was bad. We were just young boys. The timing wasn’t right for many of us, and I was able to confirm this by seeing the exact same teaching style, resources, and methodology in college.
Granted, there are students who would have been able to handle what we had experienced, like maybe in another school, and we did have those few classmates who didn’t worry one bit about literature that year. Our disposition as a group just wasn’t ready for it. We can argue that perhaps it was the teacher. Perhaps we weren’t properly prepared. Perhaps it was the grading style. It’s debatable, really. I can also be wrong about the way things transpired since this was ages ago. However, the main lesson I got from the experience is this:
Getting or having something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s yours.
You can have books about quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, or gender struggles in the postmodern era, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to fully appreciate or understand the concepts presented in them. In my case, I couldn’t absorb John Knowles’ novel and neither could the majority of my class.
You can apply the same concept to other things, be it material possessions or relationships. Having something doesn’t mean you will be able to fully utilize it. Being with someone doesn’t mean you are actually with them. You can have enough capital to start and probably even sustain a business for a long period, but that doesn’t mean you have it in the bag and that your business will make it.
Similarly, you can inject kids with all the wisdom and knowledge in the world, but if they aren’t mentally and emotionally ready for it, then they just aren’t going to get it. You can gather and memorize all the best political opinions about a policy that you like, but that doesn’t mean you will be right; just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s true and will work with reality. You can get yourself all the stuff you think you need, but that doesn’t mean you will be better off for having them.
In the self-help world, we have this idea of learning and reading as much as we can. We have those self-help junkies who are obsessed with getting the next cool book on personal development. And yet, the lessons are never absorbed to the core.
Reading the novel A Separate Peace was a difficult one, but reading it now is relatively easy. It’s a book that addresses a lot of our rigidity when it comes to traditions and norms, or that sense of blind conformity, and our narcissistic tendencies to cope with feelings of inferiority, as symbolized by the main character Gene. While the other main character Phineas, famously known as “Finny,” is a young man of many talents who embraces uncertainty and represents challenging norms and traditions.
The two main characters develop a close friendship. However, Gene, due to his insecurities, grows suspicious of Finny, believing that he is trying to get in the way of him excelling in school with his constant adventures. Even though he is fascinated by and drawn to Finny, his insecurities and suspicions turn into jealousy. But Finny was just being Finny. He was just having fun, and Gene couldn’t stand it. Gene’s insecurities and jealousy caused him to see Finny as a threat to his sense of worth, certainty, and worldview. It came to the point where, while the two were on top of a tree branch, Gene jounced the limb of a tree that Finny was standing on and caused him to fall, shattering his leg. And from there, the story of guilt, shame, and forgiveness unfolds.
Revisiting the book was quite illuminating, and it makes me wish I were back in my second year of high school, killing it in the classroom and most likely being another answer hog. Back then, I had the book for months, but I didn’t fully get it. I didn’t understand what that separate peace was.
NARCISSISM AND HAVING
For the most part, the idea is to have, to get, or to take. We tend to see the world as just one big game where it’s all about taking and having. It’s normal to take or get things as long as they are congruent or aligned with one’s reality, but obsessively taking, getting, or having things without fully understanding their purpose or meaning is the definition of narcissism. Because the meaning is lost, having something just becomes a compensatory measure. It becomes just another superimposed layer or mask.
Narcissists, for instance, think just because they have something that makes them appear cool that they are cool, but in reality, they are not. They take opinions, knowledge, material possessions, or anything that can make them feel good because they believe that taking things builds them up. But it never does because they are externally driven, getting anything that can make them feel complete but in the end still empty from within, and lost in the illusion of having.
A known example of this illusion is parents spoiling kids and giving them everything, thinking it will make them grow, only to realize in the end that they have difficulty coping with any little hardship life throws at them.
This illusion has been predominant in our academic institutions as well, overdosing students with lots of knowledge as they memorize, memorize, and memorize but sacrificing critical thinking and empathic learning. They’re still under the illusion of having but not truly grasping. So when students are introduced to subjects that involve critical thinking or empathic learning like literature, they are shocked. And we have ourselves believe that our self-worth is equivalent to the grades we’re labeled with. But there’s just a right time for having or getting something, and it varies among individuals.
FINDING YOUR SEPARATE PEACE
As previously mentioned, in the process of getting or having things, be it material possessions, concepts, ideas, or relationships, the meaning can get lost. The core true self gets drowned by newer layers because it cannot properly integrate with them. And this is where the self gets fragmented and the sense of identity becomes compromised.
Narcissists, for instance, are only good at parroting things they hear or read about other people, and they don’t get the intrinsic meaning behind these things. They mostly conform to what is given. So when they are pressed to explain them, they aren’t able to fully articulate them. If they seem to do so, it’s based on diversion and omission. A narcissist’s growth is based on the false self, which is comprised of fragmented layers. Thus, the self is divided and the foundation is weak—the self-esteem is fragile.
Whereas if the true self is the basis of expansion, healthy integration takes place. New things are properly synchronized and compatibility is achieved in order for the self to be strongly unified. This is why truly developing begins with the true self. It begins with accepting yourself, flaws and all, instead of hiding them. Everything else is a side effect.
This is the conundrum of personal development: Taking or having things won’t resolve your insecurities or weaknesses, but by accepting them, you can truly work on them and improve yourself. Working on yourself doesn’t mean you just take in ideas from as many books as you can. It means being okay with where you are, accepting your limitations, and forgiving yourself for the things you aren’t able to attain, unlike narcissists who are obsessive and seek validation by comparing themselves to others just to feel secure.
And this is the same problem Gene, being the conformist that he is, faced in the novel; in spite of his own talents and accomplishments, his self-esteem was still lacking, causing him to envy Finny. He couldn’t see his own value as unique from everyone else’s. He ended up missing the bigger point.
A narcissist must constantly swim in a sea of validation to compensate for his feelings of insecurity because his true self is too fragmented to recognize and revive. He’s unable to develop and create value from within to secure a more stable form of identity and self-assurance. Thus, he can only rely on the external, which is mostly made up of temporary remedies. And since they are temporary, he has to keep on taking, like an addict seeking to satisfy something that can’t be satisfied.
He’s never content. He could never find that separate peace.
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