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

(About 7 minutes to read) 

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.

“A Poem to My Younger Self” by Rebekah Blake

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

I am pleased to post for you a poem by Rebekah Blake, who is a blogger at Who I Was.  Rebekah says she usually blogs about “unrequited love and heartbreak” but decided today to compose a poem on a different subject for International Women’s Day.  As it happened, the subject she chose is one near and dear to my own heart:  Being true to oneself.  I hope you enjoy her work as much I do!

A Poem to My Younger Self

When I was growing up
I thought I had to choose
Between picking fights or ladylike
Pretty pinks or shades of blue
So I wasn’t like the others
Feeling proud in my unique
Playing into the façade
That girls are something weak
But I want to tell my younger self
Some things that I have learned
There’s no wrong way of being you
And womanhood has no points to earn
Whether you’re sweatpants and Starbucks
Or dressed ready for a fight
Seek first to understand
Before you argue to be right
You still have a ways to go
And more mistakes that you will make
But if you admit when you are wrong
You’ll find the spark in you awake
To be true to who you are
And kind to the truth of others
You’ll find that women are strong
No matter their shape, size or color
One day you’ll stand in unity
With sisters by your side
Knowing this is what we need
To be a woman in this life.

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.

One Reason We Oppress Ourselves

In some conversations, topics change so fast that the conversation itself is more than a wee bit like a time-lapse movie in which a whole 24 hour day rushes past you in just a few minutes.  Such conversations can be fun or exasperating, depending on your mood.  Yesterday evening, I was very much in the mood, and my friends Ami and Karina were obliging me with a rush of ideas.  Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

At some point near the middle of the conversation, Karina stated that, “Ben Franklin never said, ‘Some people are dead at 25, but not buried until 75’, even though that proverb is often attributed to him”.

Karina’s remark prompted Ami to say, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”.

And, naturally, that got me thinking about black raspberry ice cream.

Of course, on the surface, Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought might appear to have nothing to do with each other.  Indeed, I must admit I can see how people other than Karina, Ami, and I might be put in danger of being driven insane trying to figure out the link between them.

But the three of us are in no danger — if only because we each are already so thoroughly maxed when it comes to insanity that we cannot be driven any further in the direction of it.   In fact, the link between Karina’s statement, Ami’s remark, and my thought is actually a tight one.  And the rest of this blog post will drive you just as bonkers as the three of us already are safely reveal to you how very tight that link is.

My small hometown didn’t have a proper ice cream store until I was about ten or eleven years old.  Until then, the only places you could find ice cream were in the two grocery stores, and they sold only the most popular flavors: Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.   This cruel and intolerable situation was relieved when an ice cream shop obviously devoted to saving my childhood opened up near the edge of town and began selling about a dozen flavors of frozen joy.

However, when I made my very first trip to the store, I was confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: I had not expected such a multitude of choices; I was completely overwhelmed; and I could not make up my mind which flavor to buy.  In the end, my mother rescued me by suggesting the black raspberry.

Never before in my life was I so convinced my mother was a genius than the moment I laid tongue to the black raspberry.  The flavor seized me and I was instantly enthralled to it.   In fact, I liked it so much that I never risked trying any of the other flavors the shop sold due to my mere suspicion they couldn’t possibly be as pleasurable as the black raspberry.  My relationship with the ice cream ran even deeper than that, however.

Most of know how something can become, not just a thing we like, but a part of us.  It’s a curious trait of our species that we can self-identify with just about anything, whether that be some tangible object like a car, a favorite sweater, or a flavor of ice cream; or it be some intangible thing like a political ideology, an idea, a religion, or even the roles we play in life of someone’s son, daughter, friend, wife, husband, etc.  That is, we frequently — indeed, we routinely — define ourselves as in part this or that thing.  Sometimes we say, “Those shoes are so me!” — and mean it.  I did exactly that with black raspberry ice cream.  I not only liked it, but I came to think of it as a part of what made me — me.

In one the most poignant tragedies of my childhood, the ice cream shop went out of business in a couple of years, and black raspberry disappeared from my town and my life.  I became a bitter, disillusioned addict in withdrawal, wandering the asphalt streets, haunting the graveled alleys of my town, living only for the memories I somehow managed to survive the closing.  But the story doesn’t end there.

A few years later while at uni I came across black raspberry again.  At first I was delighted to find it being sold in a campus shop.   That delight passed quickly though.  I discovered that my tastes had changed.  The flavor no longer grabbed me.  Indeed, it seemed surpassed by chocolate or even vanilla now.

Yet — once I rediscovered it — I kept ordering it!  Then one day, while licking a scoop of it, I had a moment when it all became clear to me: Though I no longer much cared for the flavor, I had self identified with it, and giving it up was just a bit frightening to me — as if it would mean giving up part of myself!

For reasons I don’t know, that day’s insight has never dulled in my mind.  It’s as fresh to me today as it was when it first jumped into my head.  So, the other evening, when Ami said, “I think we often limit ourselves by saying something is uncharacteristic of us”, pretty much my first thought was how well her remark tied into my experience of for a while limiting myself to black raspberry at uni even though I had by then become bored with it.

Of course, Karina’s remark that, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”, also struck a chord with me.  The problem of unnecessarily limiting ourselves as a consequence of self-identification would be a very minor one if we only did it with a few things here and there, and those things were relatively unimportant to our quality of life.  But we do it routinely, and with myriads of things.  If we are not careful, we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way.

Yet, why does it happen?  Why do we oppress ourselves in that way?

I believe the best way to answer those questions is to make a study of the human self.  And by the “self”, I mean the psychological self, for each of us is not just a physical self, a body, but a psychological self, and it is our psychological self that identifies with things.  What, then, is the nature of this psychological self?

It seems to me that it is no mere accident that the psychological self identifies with things, but that it is its very nature to identify with things.  It can be thought of as always seeking to define itself in terms of its relationships to the things — both tangible and intangible — of this world.  It is important to recognize that it can perform that identification both positively and negatively.  That is, we can define ourselves positively — like I did — as being in some part and way my fondness for black raspberry ice cream.  But it is conceivable that I could have under other circumstances (say, I was repelled by the taste of it) defined myself negatively as being in some part and way a person who doesn’t like black raspberry ice cream.  For instance, a great many people identify themselves as not just “a progressive”, but also as “not a conservative” too.  So, I think the first thing to recognize about the psychological self is that it is always seeking to identify itself in terms of its relationships with things.

A second thing to recognize is that it is always trying to maintain and preserve those relationships.  That is, it can be thought of as wanting them to stay fixed pretty much just the way they are.  Typically change is threatening to the psychological self unless — and this is key — the change in question amounts merely to an aggrandizement of it.

To illustrate, suppose you took up studying Hinduism and quickly came to think of yourself as “someone who is studying to become a Hindu”.  It is doubtful in those circumstances that you would feel threatened by learning more and more about Hinduism.  After all, what you are learning does not contradict your image of yourself as “someone studying to become a Hindu”.  Instead, it expands on that image, it aggrandizes it.

But now suppose you pick up a book on Islam and you come across a passage in which the author asserts that Islam is the one true religion, and that all other religions are false, including Hinduism.  Now you might feel threatened because the author’s view contradicts your image of yourself.  The psychological self readily embraces new things and changes that aggrandize it, but just as readily rejects new things and changes that diminish it.

But if all this talk of the psychological self happens to be true — and that’s something for you to decide — then why does the self behave as it does?

I believe the psychological self is essentially a defense mechanism.  More precisely, it functions to identify or define that which we should defend in order to survive.  This might not be so easily seen if all you’re thinking of is the self identifying with a scoop of ice cream.  A scoop of ice cream is certainly not all that important to our survival.  Why would we need to identify with it?  But the self identifies with much else, and much that is key to our survival.

I am reminded here of the time Jiddu Krishnamurti met a tiger.  He and a few friends were traveling in a car through a forest in India when they came upon a tiger in the road.  The driver stopped the car, and the tiger began to prowl about it.  Krishnamurti’s window was open, and as the tiger passed beneath it, Krishnamurti — who at that moment happened to be in a meditative state in which he was selfless — spontaneously moved to reach out and pet the tiger.

Even Krishnamurti himself later admitted that it was fortunate one of his friends immediately leaped to pull back his arm and then roll up the window.  The incident illustrates the importance of the psychological self.   Without it, we would not defend ourselves against many — perhaps even the overwhelming majority of — the threats and dangers we face in life.  We might still have our defensive reflexes — such as reflexively ducking when an object is thrown at our head, or throwing our arms up when a tiger is actually charging us — but we would lack an ability to imagine threats to us: To see in the non-charging tiger who is at the moment merely passing peacefully beneath our window a potential threat to our selves.   In order to conceive of something as a threat to us, we must first and perhaps foremost have some notion of an “us”.  That is, some notion of a self.   By identifying and defining what is us, the psychological self functions as a key component of our self defense.

To be sure, its functioning is by no means perfect.  For one thing, it so quite often causes us to defend when no defense is actually needed.   I think nearly everyone knows at least one or two touchy people who have some nonessential image of themselves that they nevertheless defend as vigorously as if their lives depended on it.  I once knew a woman who so self identified with the brand of cigarettes she smoked that I one day inadvertently brought her nearly to tears by saying nothing more threatening to her than, “I have never been able to stand the taste of cigarettes, including your brand.”  From what she said to me next, it was as if I’d slapped her.

The psychological self, then, by functioning to define our self images creates the self that we will strive to preserve and maintain, while allowing that self to change only in ways that aggrandize it.  Although this is a vital, albeit imperfect, component of our defense against dangers to us,  it can turn on us oppressively if we are unskillful in coping with it. When that happens, we can become as inflexible in our views, attitudes, routines and behaviors as stone, rendering us ridged, insensitive, and uncreative when meeting the challenges of life, and unable to seize upon those challenges in order to develop ourselves in new, perhaps unforeseen ways.  In short, we become the tyrant of our own lives, our own oppressor.

Your thoughts?

The Limits of Being True to Yourself

Like most Americans, I devote far too much time to thinking I’m a grizzly.

Grizzlies are a solitary species who can survive by themselves without the aide of any other grizzlies, and — as the world knows — most Americans believe themselves to be rugged individualists who can survive alone without the aide of any other Americans, excepting only the 90% of their lives when they can’t.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I was born resenting authority, social pressures to conform, the powers of both the government and the uber-wealthy, and leash laws for dogs.  I have only grudgingly come to an understanding in middle age of the legitimacy of many of the claims society makes on us.  But I still rebelliously ask, “Why must it be this way?”

Of course, the short answer to that question is: Human nature.  Some pretty conclusive science shows that our brains are to an extent hardwired to deal with living in groups, and there is even a theory now that the very size of our brains is an evolutionary result of social living.  Annoying as it might be to us wannabe grizzlies, the evidence is substantial that we are a social species.

Yet, the recognition that we are a social animal can be taken too far, for we are not even close to being as social as some species.  Mole rats and honeybees are both far more social than us.  No, humans are more like an improbable mix of social and solitary animal.  That mix is the root of much conflict.

History shows a perennial tension between the rights or claims of society and the rights or claims of the individual.  Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  During most of that time we lived in relatively small, more or less egalitarian groups of hunter/gathers.  Those groups left no historical records, but from what might be known of them by studying the last very few hunting/gathering groups left on earth, they not only tended to be egalitarian, but they also leaned towards individualism.  There wasn’t much difference in power or authority between people.  Everyone had a voice in group decisions.  And even leaders could not typically compel people to follow them, but usually had to persuade them  to do so.

All of that began to change about 5,500 years ago when the first complex, hierarchical societies were invented in what is today Southeastern Iraq.  Now you have distinct, hereditary ranks in society: Royalty, nobles, commoners.  And you also have the invention of alarming, new ideologies justifying the ranks.  These ideologies almost always take the form of “The social order was created by the gods, and the gods want us to stick with it”.  In general, these complex, hierarchical societies have tended throughout history to lean unpleasantly towards the social conformity side of human nature.   Which is a mild way of putting the fact that, for the most part, they have trod very heavily on individual human rights.

Of course, the rights of the individual are crucially important to anyone concerned with being true to his or herself.  The tragedy has been not merely that complex, hierarchical societies have trod heavily on human rights, but that they have for the most part done so unnecessarily.   For instance, in many times and places, cheerfully suggesting that the ruler was an imbecile could easily get you murdered by the government.  And it still can in some places.  But today we have many examples of societies that somehow manage to endure and even thrive despite the fact nearly everyone in them is absolutely convinced their rulers are imbeciles.  Criminalizing such things, and murdering the people who indulge in them, is not only immoral, but unnecessary to protecting the social order as well.  Yet overall, doing so has been largely the norm for complex, hierarchical societies.

So are there any limits to being true to yourself that your society can legitimately impose on you?

Well, I think there are two general areas in which your society has a right to impose limits on your being true to yourself.  First I think it has a right to require you to be socially responsible even if that means you can’t always be true to yourself.

By “socially responsible” I mean that your society has a right to obligate you to (1) respect the rights of others, and (2) to cooperate in promoting the general welfare.  Basically, that means (1) that you cannot abridge someone’s rights merely because you would be true to yourself to do so, and (2) you cannot dodge your obligation to help in promoting the general welfare merely in order to be true to yourself.

To give examples: Your society can demand that you do not steal from someone, and thus deprive them of their property rights, even though stealing from them would be a case of your being true to yourself.  Furthermore, your society can demand that you pay taxes to support public schools, since public education promotes the general welfare, even though paying taxes might in some cases deprive you of money you could otherwise use to more fully express yourself.

Second, I think your society also has a right to require you in some circumstances to be environmentally responsible even though that might mean you cannot always be true to yourself.

By “environmentally responsible”, I mean your society has a limited right to obligate you to help create or preserve a livable environment not just for yourself and other humans, but for other species as well.  I say “in some circumstances” because I can imagine how giving your society an unlimited right to compel you to help create or preserve a livable environment could easily result in tyrannous acts.  “By the way, your government has decided to demolish your house and return your land to its natural state.  Please vacate by Saturday.”

So, to my thinking, those are the two general ways that society can legitimately limit our right to be true to ourselves.  Of course, it is endlessly debatable how they should be applied in practice.  But then, what isn’t endlessly debatable these days?

Every society has an image (and most often more than just one image) of what is an ideal human.   In all too many complex, hierarchical societies the ideal for the elites has been notably different from the ideal for the commoners.  The elites are encouraged to be true to themselves; the commoners are encouraged to suppress themselves in the interests of maintaining the social order.

At times in ancient Greece, the ideal for an adult male elite was to become a socially responsible individual.  That is, he was expected to fulfill certain obligations to his polis, or city-state, and also to develop himself as an individual in order to live a full and happy life.  Today it seems possible to build on that ideal by expanding it to include everyone — man or woman, elite or not elite — and adding to it an obligation to not only be socially responsible, but also environmentally responsible.  The tragedy is, as always, that governors, the uber-rich (who often own the governors), and other elites too often oppose the realization of such ideals for selfish reasons.  Hence, a perennial theme of human history has been — and perhaps always will be — the tension between the individual and society.

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.

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.