I’d been harassing him all the way home from school. A tough kid who had said or done something mean to me—enough to make me aggressively angry—then had the decency not to crush me when I defended myself. Only, his sudden passivity, whether from pity or humor, quickly built up my confidence. What had started as fairly courageous self-defense devolved into bullying of my own. With each stretch of the walk that took us toward both our houses during which I didn’t get a response from the tough kid, I gained some extra swagger. My friends were watching. I felt powerful. Righteous.
When we reached my house, a couple blocks from where he was going, I made a last display of bravado. I stood in front of the kid, drunk with the unfamiliar feeling of strength, and let him know I wasn’t going to stand for his kind of shit anymore. He wore a kind of weary expression. He seemed to understand he was in the wrong. As a parting shot, I flicked the bill of his cap with my finger and somehow saw nothing of the four or five punches he immediately delivered to my face.
Nothing robs one’s confidence like several quick punches to the face. I became quite agreeable. I approved the concept that we should just move on from this moment. Learn from it.
I went inside.
Confidence often has a kind of magic—when I believe a thing can happen, it much more often does. But when I really believe in myself and I end up on my ass as a result, that’s memorable.
In the case of my encounter with the tough kid, I bore out Darwin’s assertion that “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Many other smart people have been quoted saying similar things, yet confidence can spring from much more substantial roots. Success breeds confidence. Encouragement can take us even farther into self-assurance.
The encouragement can even be imagined. My brother Matt, a miraculous and confident singer, traces the emergence of his talent to a young moment in church when, after the congregation sang a hymn, a woman turned from the pew in front of him and said, “You have a loud voice.” Matt’s immediate thought was, “I am a singer.” That thought has never left him.
Confidence, valued as it is, can be elusive. My confidence seems to rise and fall throughout each day. I will think of my life, creative or physical or spiritual, and have zero confidence about prospects. I will feel caved-in and weak. I will then go swimming, dry off, and (sometimes) feel great. Sparky. Confident.
So one main source of confidence, at least for me, comes from feeling good. When I feel good, the feelings of assurance take over—my hips loosen while my eyes tighten up. I move through the neighborhood on the balls of my feet and with, I like to imagine, the great Ted Williams’ approach to hitting: “Relaxed but ready.”
When confident, I approach information without fear and surround it with myself and try to know it at the pace required. If I struggle to understand, I feel convinced that I will reach it eventually, or it was just bullshit to begin with. I mark the page and have a sandwich.
Getting older seems to undermine this feeling. We become afraid of our weakening, and each failure suggests erosion rather than difficult steps forward. If confidence comes partly from experience, these factors are locked in battle. We know more of what we’re doing as we simultaneously become aware of our own smallness. Brutal.
And confidence, prized as it is, can really be annoying. Confidence borders right up on cockiness, and we love to tear down the cocky. When Oedipus jams brooch pins into his eyes, we sort of feel for him, but dude brought it on himself, you know? People outside of New York fucking hated Reggie Jackson. I guess you’ve got to feel confident and pretend humility.
Annoying or not, I try continually to bolster my own confidence, to peer into its inscrutability and understand the recipe. I become so fixated on my inner self that I forget how much I rely on the vast network of people and culture that surrounds me for assurance. One life works within the spinning machinery of many lives. I forget this until something happens to tear down my confidence in our culture in general. When a vigilante shoots and kills a teenager and our system exonerates the killer, when many rush to the vigilante’s defense out of racism or fear or political motivation, I feel a deeper, less personal loss of confidence. I wonder then if the opposite of confidence, rather than fear, is shame.
“Infra-ordinary Moment,” a short story by Tanuj Solanki, focuses its sharp light on an unnamed couple with jobs in the business world. The man’s confidence in his ability to learn sparks a creative but probably impossible attempt to pick up French. Solanki’s precise sentences, and near-absence of plot mirror these two intelligent but notably shortsighted characters. The story’s great attention to detail with only a gentle furtherance of narrative speaks to the level, not entirely unkindly, on which we generally busy ourselves.
The way boys in a group can assault a girl’s confidence, and even a grown woman’s, propels Sarah Tatro’s poem, “Pack Animals.” In tight, focused, short lines Tatro evokes the sting of male teenage aggression, and discovers a dignified strength.
Isaiah Swanson channels a familiar and bigoted, uber-confident voice in his romp of a flash piece, “Glenn Beck Dictates Ideas For His New Novel The Easter Hat.” The voice is perfect and the piece, really funny.
Photo by The Hamster Factor