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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Writing, Reading, and Listening to Yourself

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your home for martial arts studies, rhetoric, and Tae Kwon Do. If you missed it last week, I finally debuted the third tiny tiger lecture! Be sure to check out that series and leave me some feedback so I can continue to improve future videos.

This week is a continuation of the kind of content I posted two weeks ago, a genre I lovingly refer to as "autobiographical self-help." In a nutshell, if you haven't figured it out already, I struggle with depression. This usually manifests in cycles of high productivity and energy followed by periods of apathy, sloth, and general woe.

General Woe. Salute.

Much of the way I live my life is an effort to maximize and extend these happy/manic periods and to mitigate the dangerous effects of the apathetic ones. If you see me wake up early, it's not because I'm a morning person, but rather, I understand that with more time in a day I can be more systematically productive, something that helps me feel happy. Similarly, if you see me in a Tae Kwon Do class or at the gym, it's not always because I want to be there. I can't begin to count the number of evenings I've dragged myself to the dojang in hopes that taking a class would help me feel better than I did before.

It usually does, by the way. I can't recommend martial arts enough for anyone struggling with mental or emotional health. This will definitely serve as a future source for academic research.

This is all to say that I'm constantly dreaming up new methods for keeping myself in a state of contentment. This doesn't always mean happy or highly energetic--no one can be that way all the time. What it means for me is that I'm looking to find an emotional place that I can call my center, somewhere between the extremes of my personality. This is a place where I feel confident without being cocky, my self-esteem is high but not so high that it blinds me to my faults, a place where I can handle bad news without walling myself up, retreating, running...going numb.

I've learned a lot of these techniques through martial arts, like the questions I ask myself derived from the eight principles of palgwe. Others I pick up from my own teaching practices in the writing classroom. Today's technique is some combination of the two.

Today I want to talk about the act of writing to yourself.

Six months ago a made a decision that was really personal and REALLY difficult for me. I decided to give up a vice to be able to better pursue my goals in Tae Kwon Do, academics, and in my social life. Because I knew it was a difficult choice, I decided to sit down and write myself a letter explaining why the choice was ultimately correct. When I finished, I hung the letter on my wall so I could see it every day. For a while, I read it daily. And, for a while, I put the vice down completely.

Recently, however, I've slipped back into old bad habits. So I decided to re-read the letter this week. It was chilling. Never have I read something so moving, so honest, and so resonant...because never have I read something so specifically written for me. It made me realize that I do have the power to make the same choice again, to motivate myself toward a healthier lifestyle, one where I exist more in that emotional center instead of either end of the spectrum.

I won't reprint the letter in its entirety (because it's 4 my eyez only) but I will share some of the rhetorical moves therein. I hope this helps you consider some of the ways you might write to yourself.

The first paragraph starts off as a kind of disclaimer. In short, it says that I'm not a "wuss" for writing a letter to myself, that, in fact, "you're practicing what you preach and that's admirable."

Right upfront the letter takes a complimentary stance. This is something that will remain throughout the document. In this way, the letter can be read as a source of motivation, something uplifting in times of doubt.

The second paragraph makes this explicit in saying "I'm writing this in an effort to be kinder to you, my future self." That concept, I feel, is really important. The letter sets up a clear speaker (my past self) one who is and will always be different from the reader (my future self) because of multiple material markers, problems of embodiment, time, maturity, etc. But, the writer and reader share some inextricable qualities, similarities that will never disappear. For this reason, my future self can read this letter six months later and feel that the writer was sincere in his extension of goodwill to the audience--it makes it easier to trust the reader. This trust is necessary because, without it, I would be hesitant to believe the writer when he says "you is kind, you is smart, and you is important." It makes it easier to believe the writer when he says that he has been those things, will continue to be, but that I, his reader, will outshine him in all categories.

Still creeps out Tanya every time.

So far the letter has made moves to justify its own existence, validate the reader and the writer, and to inspire the audience to be better than they were before. The next section moves beyond the fluff and compliments to address the reality of the situation.

The third paragraph starts by reminding the reader that he doesn't need any of the many vices he uses to help him escape. "There is nothing to run from. You live alone and you get lonely. You're single and you seek companionship. You have stress and seek release. You have fears and anger--this is all OK. There is nothing wrong with you."

By addressing the root causes of depression head on, the letter attempts to remove any taboo around these subjects and simply treats them as a natural, normal part of life. This is important because, too often, we allow ourselves to create anxiety surrounding what we identify as our inequities. But, if we simply allow ourselves to be flawed, to accept our issues as something we must constantly work on, then it can help alleviate some of that meta-stress that keeps people in the vicious cycle of self-loathing.

Once these tendencies have been normalized, the letter reminds me of the things that I do that make me feel happy, healthy, worthy, and secure. It's probably no surprise that Tae Kwon Do, teaching, and helping others made my list. I encourage anyone interested to make sure they include this section. This is a practice I learned from cognitive behavioral therapy that allows people to better engage with the many things that make them happy and to keep those things more in the forefront of their minds. The method described in The Happiness Hypothesis involved writing three specific things that make you happy on a sticky note every day and posting that note in a high visibility space. I have many sticky notes in my apartment...

Finally, to conclude today's post, I'd like to share the last section of the letter in full. This paragraph is one that I'd like to offer to anyone willing to listen. It's advice that we all need to hear at some point or another coupled with a reminder that's easy to forget. I hope someone out there somewhere finds this helpful--if not, tune in next week for something different :)

"Don't run from your talents. Don't hide your light. Don't set traps for yourself. Stick to your goals and commit to balance. I love you, your family loves you, your friends love you...plenty of near-strangers love you! Don't forget, that love is your strength." STB 1-22-19

As always, thank you for reading.


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