Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.

How to Make Positive Thinking Work for You

When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy.  That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me.  I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.

I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics,  improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again.  I’d let my mind wander imagining her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied.  That was the positive thinking part of it.

Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen.  How could I overcome those problems and challenges?  Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics).  Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.

That was and is my version of positive thinking.  It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me.   It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.

Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things.  Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:

While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.

In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.

In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.  I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes.  At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place.  The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri.  I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics.  In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time.  It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.

Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful.  I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique.  But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals.  This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales.  I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees.  One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach.  An excellent coach, as it turned out.

Within about year, I’d turned myself around.  But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined.  The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation.  “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you?  I needs me fishing time!”

I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart.  Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all.  The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things.  You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times.  It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.”  I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.

I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me.  It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context.  The second thing, though, is pertinent.

Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”.  I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me.  Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.

By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal.  You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything.  Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”.  If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.

Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity.  I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities.  In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.

Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession.  That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day.   I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers.  I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment.  An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green.  Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn.  Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!

So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession,  you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it.   But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.

Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it.   I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try.  Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!

I Didn’t Learn the Truth Until I was Twenty-Two

During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only.  To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.

I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil  — that could move her to tears.  When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing.  Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions.  Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.

Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty.  But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance.  That is, I didn’t deny it had happened.  But I denied it was important or meaningful.

That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her.  I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.

Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.

One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four.  My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers.  My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.

Women back then had few job opportunities.  In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries.  Exceedingly few were in management.  Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.

After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in.  Her move was a strategic decision:  She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.

Her decision paid off.

When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom.  That’s how things are so often done in a small town.  Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.

The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.

By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.

Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival.  In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57.  Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less  than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.

One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken.   Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak.  One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know.  His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.

Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family.  I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours.  Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books.  For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.

Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes.  Few toys for Christmas?  That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary.  No family vacations?  Another frivolous thing.  No expensive foods?  Mom has no appetite for them.  And so forth.

Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned.  To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me.  I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.

The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts.  In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line.  But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.

I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members.  One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house.  The next morning, she made breakfast for us.

I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did.  Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.

Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning.  But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life.   What follows is part recollection and part re-creation.  However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.

Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.

“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it.  You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster.   She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up.  She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.”  I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on:  “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”

Someone asked why.

“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded.  Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice:  “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”

I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church.  Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.

Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves.  Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.

Still, I was confused.  What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this?  In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board.  In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her.  He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.

My older brother broke the silence.  “What did Bachmann do?”

“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied.  “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing.  But mostly he was one of those men.  What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays?  Male something…chauvinists!  I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.

“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse.  He was hot-tempered.  It didn’t take a lot to set him off.  And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained.  Arrogant, too.  But mostly he was a bastard.  A pure bastard.

“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”

“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”

“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job.  It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better.  And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.

“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job.  Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families.  It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started.  With talk.  Did you boys ever know any of this?”

We shook our heads.

“I know.  Your mother never told you.  She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.

“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job.  Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job.  But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board.  The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.

“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman.  Not even once.  Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”

I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief.  My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!”  And I’m pretty sure I  stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.

“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother.   And that was Bachmann’s greed.

“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother.  Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers.  You’d have been in serious trouble.  All four of you.”

After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”

“At least a few times each year!  But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town?  There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them.  Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”

Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today.  She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.”  We responded with our promises.

Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job.  But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones.  Mom was just as rational as she was stoic.  Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.

As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town.  That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.

But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people.  I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic.  Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.

Creativity and the Artist

a-guest-post-by-serafia-alhoNote to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

Serafia Alho is an amazing Finnish author and blogger who I have for some time wished would do a guest post for Café Philos.  Today, she has made my wish come true.  I am excited to post here a piece she’s written exclusively for this blog, and which explores in moving, almost poetic prose both the creative process as experienced by an artist, and the challenge to that creativity posed by the darkening clouds of our times. Please welcome her!

What does it mean to create?

To create is to experience pain: it’s a deep discontent with the world in its current state. To the artist, the only way to relieve that pain is to put everything aside and to focus all their skill and energy on mending it, either succeeding in their task or continuing to try until the magnitude of the task kills them. This is why many artists drink.

To them, every day is another wrestling match against the giant known as imperfection, and they’re constantly troubled by their inability to realize their vision — tormented by the feeling of muteness that comes with seeing something, but being unable to translate it to any other living being. Sometimes what they’re trying to achieve presents itself to them like a mirage in the middle of a desert — possibly attainable, but so intangible that only the foolhardy set out to seek it. Yet they do, because they have no other choice than to do so.

Art is fueled by emotion, and a member of the audience can catch a glimpse of that, however fleetingly, when being faced by an artwork. It is what we look forward to in art, and though the receiver only rarely gets to experience the full force of what the artist had to endure for the work to get completed, we always wait for it and when it happens, we call it Great Art and celebrate it long after the artist is already dead — often consequentially marring it in the process of doing so. True art does not rely on historians or tour guides to explain itself to us: it imposes itself on you, grabs hold of you, and speaks for itself. That ability to bypass our defenses is exactly where some of the struggle of the artist stems from. How can a single human expel all that emotion? What sort of exorcism is required to drive the artist’s passion into a form that fittingly represents the thing itself, in a similar fashion an idol represents the divine manifestation of a being — not becoming the spirit, but being of the spirit, inextricably linked yet completely separate?

Some artists are born with the genius of being able to capture the essence of a thing simply by looking at it. However, most artists are forced to spend years training their hands, their eyes, their mind to bend to the task of shaping the unwilling materials they work with: partly reality itself, partly the human psyche, partly their chosen mediums like clay and paper. One single brush stroke holds within a thousand hours; one book carries a lifetime. The craft allows no cutting corners: there is no deity handing down ready-made artworks, and the effortlessness we associate with inspiration is nothing but a lie, designed to cloak the ugly mundanity of the time the artist spent unskilled, unnoticed, and mocked. We prefer to see the divinity, and take joy in perceiving the artist as something of a mystic: not quite human — and somehow not quite deserving of being one.

We think of art as cheap, perhaps because emotion is a renewable resource, and so are artists. We’ve become so desensitized to the thought of creation as an act of destruction that we think nothing of it when an artist breaks. Neither does the act of creation have any inherent value to us — only a completed artwork has meaning. The artist him- or herself naturally never thinks like this, nor would it be possible for him or her to. They know that most of the emotion, the underlying value of experiencing art, the emotion that elevates great art to true art, is burned up in the very kiln that makes the artist. The audience only ever sees what comes out from the oven, and they have no interest in the shards and pieces making up the bulk of what’s needed to create single artwork.

What then is an artist to do when their source of creative fuel is suddenly overtaken by an even greater emotion, one that chokes or even cripples them with such a force that even creation itself suddenly loses all its meaning? It does happen — it has happened — it’s currently happening all over the world when millions of people have had to face the looming sense of doom that is the US presidential election.

Best-selling authors have had to ask their publishers to move their deadlines. Projects are stalled, professional creators drink themselves to sleep. All their motivations suddenly in ashes, the small insignificancies in life they’ve set out to express suddenly uprooted by the very real, and very visible, wrongs going on right under all our noses. To some, it’s felt like the destruction of the world as they’ve known it.

Art grows best at the edges of life, not in the rocky ugliness of unbending realism, and so it’s no wonder so many creators are grinding to a standstill. The conventional advice given to artists in times of hardship is to integrate it into their creation: to ingest it, stem and all, and to keep creating whatever happens. In that sense, artists are the shamans of the modern day: they take upon themselves the poison that others are unable or unwilling to face, and through doing so they bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and share it with the world.

But it’s a risky business, being a shaman. Although they alone are said to have the skills to travel to the Underworld, not all of them come back from there. It is a terrifying feeling when your work suddenly loses its meaning, especially if that work is only half complete. The feeling of importance is not a voluntary act, and it leaves us artists with only one of two options: to toss out the artwork out completely, or to change, to drink the poison despite knowing some of us are never coming back. Time and again the birth of new art movements have been in parallel with the turning points of history, and maybe this time will later be remembered as the starting point of a yet to be explored form of human expression, one that better reflects the sense of alarming immediacy now coursing through our social media.

Pain will always flow with and from creation. May some day, when time has passed, only the beauty be remembered.

Being True to Yourself and Marriage

The notion that one should marry for love is a recent invention.   Only about 200 years old even in the West, where it originated.  Younger still in other parts of the world where it is still catching on.

Of course. men and women have fallen in love with each other through-out history.  But only recently has it become predominant in some cultures to marry for love.  Two hundred years is so recent in historical terms that we can consider the notion as still in its trial stages, still very much an experiment.

Despite marrying for love still very much being an experimental thing, all sorts of myths have grown up around it.   I believe one of the most damaging of those myths is that you should only marry for love, and not for anything else. If you do, things might still work out for you, but I think the odds of that are less than if you also take other things into consideration.

I think one of the most important “other things” you should take into consideration is how your anticipated partner in marriage feels about your being true to yourself.

Being true to oneself is, in my opinion, crucial to a happy, meaningful life, despite that it’s so difficult to accomplish that almost all of us only accomplish it imperfectly.  Lucky for us, we don’t need to be perfect at it; we just need to achieve it to a significant degree.  But that is especially hard to do if our partner disapproves of who we are, and perhaps even actively opposes our efforts to be true to ourselves.  So I’m of the opinion that we should be very sure our anticipated partners will accept, support, and affirm who we are.

Of course, if someone is genuinely in love with you then it should be pretty much a given that they accept, support, and affirm you as you are — but unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Indeed, there are a number of reasons someone who loves you — or at least seems to — might not accept you.   Perhaps the single most important reason is a wee bit difficult to explain, so please bear with me.

So far as I can see, there is more than just one kind of love.  In fact, I believe there are at least four that can occur between sexual partners.  And three of those — the three most common — can at times be problematic when it comes to accepting others as they are.   I call those three: Erotic love, romantic love, and attached love.

Erotic love is basically sexual attraction.  It’s quite common — and I think a cultural prejudice in the West — to dismiss erotic love as “not true love”, but I prefer to acknowledge it.  When we love someone in this manner alone, we tend to ignore everything about them that has little or nothing to do with sex.  Because of that, there can be a great deal about the person that we do not accept, but which we are unaware of not accepting. I suspect most of us who love merely in this way alone are wise enough to soon realize the fact, and avoid marrying someone solely out of erotic love of them.

Romantic love is more problematic.   When we romantically love someone, we are almost guaranteed to idealize them, to put them on a pedestal, and not quite clearly see any incompatibilities they might have with us.  Romantic love tends to last a few weeks to a couple years or so, and people who get married while it still dominates their view of each other can sometimes discover after romantic love wears off that there are actually quite a few fundamental things about each other that they do not accept.

Attached love is, in my opinion, the most problematic of the three.  It comes about as a profoundly deep bond that forms between couples who’ve been together for awhile.  Unfortunately, that bond can — and often enough does — form between people who fail to fundamentally accept each other.  They may be intensely in love with each other, but they do not fundamentally accept each other.

There are a number of other reasons someone who loves you might not accept you as you fundamentally are, but I believe the fact each kind of love can cause its own kind of trouble to be among the most important reasons.   It therefore seems to me wise to be very careful to marry someone who accepts, supports, and affirms your authentic self. I will tell you that, in my experience, there is no loneliness on earth greater than the loneliness of a person whose bed is made with a man or woman that rejects their fundamental self.  It is a dozen times better to live alone, than to experience that kind of loneliness.

But what happens if you do manage to marry someone who loves you — the real you?

Well, if you love them in return then congratulations!  You’ve won the lottery!  Not just the marriage lottery, but the at least equally important being-true-to-yourself lottery.  Perhaps there’s no better word for what can happen next than “magic”.

A mutual love like that can bring not only happiness but inspiration.  I think most of us are unaware of just how suppressed we are.  We are so accustomed to being suppressed that we scarcely notice in our hourly lives how frequently we censor, repress, and inhibit ourselves.  This quite often takes the dual forms of (1) our trying to be someone we are not, and (2) our trying to hide who we really are, in order to fulfill the expectations of those around us.

Trying to be what we are not, and hide what we are, emotionally deadens us.  But because we are so accustomed to carrying around that dead weight, it astounds us if and when it is ever lifted from us.  A mutual love based on accepting each other as he or she is can — and very frequently does — ease that weight at least a bit (and sometimes quite a bit!).   When that occurs, we not only become happier with our lives and ourselves, but magic can happen.

We can suddenly be inspired to fulfill ourselves by turning a talent we before didn’t even recognize that we had into a new skill.  Or we can find it remarkably easier than ever before to express a positive character trait, such as kindness.  Life problems that once nagged us can become surmountable or even insignificant.  Almost needless to say, our confidence and self-esteem can take flight and soar.  The full list of potential benefits is a long one.  Sometimes these things are fleeting and transient — but sometimes they turn into lasting changes.  Even when transient, they are worthwhile to experience.

Being true to yourself — or being authentic — is a difficult thing to accomplish.  Very few of us accomplish it perfectly, but both our happiness and sense of purpose or meaning in life can crucially depend on the extent to which we do indeed accomplish it.  Authenticity can be made extraordinarily more difficult to realize by a partner who opposes our basic nature.  But that’s not the only reason one should be careful to chose a partner who accepts, supports, and affirms who we fundamentally are. Another — perhaps even more important reason — is to reap the benefits of loving someone for themselves who loves us for ourselves.  Those benefits, even when fleeting, are perhaps among the most powerfully life enhancing and life affirming experiences we are capable as humans of having.

Do Men and Women Complete Each Other?

I’ll be up front about this.  I think the notion that men and women complete each other can be pushed too far, even though it does seem to have some truth to it.

In favor of the notion, I can recall some wonderful feelings of completeness I’ve had during sex, and sometimes those feelings reverberated for hours or even a few days afterwards.  So maybe there’s that sense in which men and women might complete each other.

I also recall thinking that my partner’s talents and skills somewhat rounded out my own.  In some cases, she had a strong aptitude for things I wasn’t much inclined towards.  And vice versa.  So there’s another sense in which men and women might complete each other.

Of course, I’m not talking about the seemingly related issues of whether men and women compliment each other or are compatible with each other.  I’m only talking about this one notion of whether they complete each other — of whether they make each other whole.  And I think that can be pushed too far.

For instance, I’ve heard the argument that, because men and women complete each other, men and women cannot be complete or whole in themselves.  To be polite, that argument seems to be based on a naive lack of experience with being complete or whole.

A friend of mine once told me, “If you really need someone else to feel complete, then you are too needy for a relationship in the first place.”  I don’t entirely buy into her radical attitude, but I think it might have some truth to it.  At least, I’ve known some pretty needy people who always seemed to be mentioning how much they required their partner for themselves to feel whole. And the same people were often too jealous or possessive to have a healthy relationship.

Another argument I’ve heard is that, because men and women complete each other, homosexuals cannot.  That seems quite a stretch.

I see no reason why two homosexuals cannot feel the same sort of emotional completion that I have felt at times with my partners.  And I see no reason why they cannot have the same balance of talents and skills that I have at times had with a partner.

The last argument I’ve heard is that men and women complete each other in the sense men are the head of the family and women are their helpmeets.  If that’s how a couple genuinely wants to work things out between them, that’s their business, but I think it pushes it too far to say that only that one arrangement can complete a man or woman.

Besides, what’s there to really differentiate that sort of “completeness” from the working relationship of, say, a male executive and his female secretary?

So, why I think there might be some truth to the notion that men and women can complete each other, I also think that notion can be pushed too far — and often enough has been pushed too far.

But what do you think?  Am I onto something, or are these just some more of my late night thoughts that I ought to have torpedoed out of the water before they left their berth?

Accepting Ourselves, Accepting Our Lives

Our entire life — consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.

— Jean Anouilh

The Death of Self-Esteem

Helen’s face launched 1000 ships, and I used to think that was impressive.

But that was before I heard that a single bad idea — just one bad idea — had launched 15,000 scientific and scholarly studies.   Fifteen thousand?  According to some quick calculations, it would take over seven years to read a stack of 15,000  studies — assuming you could read one each standard business hour.

In 1969, Nathaniel Brandon published a paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.”  He argued that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”  His ideas soon became the hot new thing in education, and they launched the self-esteem movement.

The now dead self-esteem movement.

Killed by 15,000 arrowsThose 15,000 studies show that high self-esteem (.pdf):

  • Doesn’t improve grades,
  • Doesn’t reduce ­anti-social behavior, and may even facilitate bullying,
  • Doesn’t deter alcohol drinking or drug abuse, and may even encourage it,
  • Doesn’t reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, and
  • Doesn’t make a person more likeable or attractive to others.

“In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly (source).”

The Most Significant Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance

If the reports are true that the self-esteem movement is dead — and I am only repeating here what I’ve read — then it will be interesting to see whether folks also reject a closely related concept.  The concept of self-acceptance.

Although self-esteem and self-acceptance are by no means the same thing, they seem to be closely entwined in a lot of people’s minds.  So if one of them gets thrown out, maybe the other one will too.   And that would be folly.

The biggest difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance is that, while self-esteem is not necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal, self-acceptance is necessarily based on a realistic self-appraisal.  It’s possible for self-esteem to be out of whack with reality.  There is no rule that says you must be highly intelligent to possess wonderfully high esteem for your intelligence.

On the other hand, you can truly accept yourself only to the extent you are realistic about yourself.  If I accept that I’m a genius, but I’m actually the village idiot, then I am not truly accepting myself.  To genuinely accept myself, my acceptance must correspond to the facts.

That is quite a significant difference between the two things.

Who Are Your Friends?

If you want to know who your truest friends are, you should ask yourself who encourages you to accept yourself as you are.  For it is all but the very mark of true friend that he or she encourages that in you.   Yet,  most of us have few friends of that caliber.

We seem to need them, though.

One Reason Why We Do Not Accept Ourselves

There appear to be several reasons why we do not always accept ourselves as we are, but I will only discuss one here.

The single most forceful reason seems to be the one noted by Jung: Accepting ourselves can be terrifying.

Perhaps we now and then try to take advantage of those we love, or who love us.  Maybe we are arrogant, or maybe we are more foolish than we wish to be. Sometimes it is nothing others think we should worry about, but which disturbs us.  And sometimes it is something that would destroy our social standing with everyone but our truest friends — if it got out.  How often in our lives have we wanted to kill someone?  How often have we wanted someone’s possessions?

To completely accept oneself is like completely accepting nature.  You do not accept nature when you accept only the beauty and not the stench.  Nor when you take sides with the fly against the spider, or the spider against the fly.

A while back, my friend Don was on his way to work when he noticed a commotion in the timber beside the road.  He pulled over and watched as a doe frantically tried to distract a black bear from killing her fawn.  The bear had two cubs to feed, and the doe was unsuccessful — her fawn’s life ended that day.

When I asked Don what he thought of it, he didn’t say it was right.  He didn’t say it was wrong.  He said he felt awe, humility, and an acceptance of his own mortality.  To accept yourself is sometimes more difficult than watching a bear tear apart a fawn to feed her cubs, but the principle of refusing to condemn remains the same.

A Persistent Myth About Accepting Yourself

It is a myth that accepting yourself — even your so called darkest side — leads to acting on your every impulse.  We are taught that we must condemn certain feelings or impulses or we will end up acting on them.  But that appears to be nonsense, and we would see it as nonsense if we were not too afraid to look.

Humans sometimes use condemnation to control themselves — even though it is a relatively ineffective means of self-control (e.g. why are we so hypocritical?).   But more often we use condemnation to control others.  It’s one of our ways of manipulating people.

You’ll find it easier to accept yourself if you do not condemn others.  And easier to accept others if your do not condemn yourself.

Yet, it is possible that no one but your truest friends will accept that you do not condemn your “darkest impulses”.  The rest of the world is reluctant to give up that means of manipulating you.  Yet, if you are a healthy person, you will discover you have plenty of reasons not to act on that impulse to steal money from your aunt’s purse — even without condemning your desire to do so.  You will feel empathy for your aunt.  You will have compassion for her.  You will not wish to do an unkind thing to her.  And so forth.

Liberation

There can be a remarkable feeling of liberation that comes with simply accepting yourself.  It is not the liberation of one who has decided he or she is free to pillage, but the liberation of one who is no longer wrestling with him- or herself, who is no longer wasting energy on internal feuds.

I doubt self-acceptance ever catches on as a movement in the way that self-esteem did.  And if it ever were to become popular, then it would quickly be made into a slogan for why you should join the Army, buy this or that car, or vote for a scoundrel.

All the same, it seems to me that when someone says they don’t like life, then about half the time, the root cause of their dissatisfaction is an unwillingness or an inability to accept themselves as they are.