Desiderata 13

Desiderata 13

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 13th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

Desiderata is full of wisdom, but it holds some nuggets that are bigger and even more important than others. “Be yourself”, earlier in the poem, was one. This is another.

I know why the author speaks of wholesome discipline. Because, too often, the discipline we place ourselves under is anything but. He also exhorts us to be gentle with ourselves. Why? Because, invariably, we are not.

Like most of us, I have tried to improve in areas important to me over the years, and have given myself a hard time when I’ve fallen short. After all, there’s a lot riding on it, or so we think. We want to be successful in life, and can get discouraged when stubborn habits or weaknesses remain in spite of our best efforts. So we double down on them, and try even harder. Some of us just give up, but even then our inner critic doesn’t.

We’ve all have been told, by self image experts, to love ourselves, because we all too easily hate ourselves. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, and by the way, I don’t think they’ve got it quite right. Let me attempt to bring some clarification before we move forward.

I believe we already care deeply about ourselves – without exception. We care deeply enough to hate the things about us that stop us from living fulfilled lives. Subtle difference but I believe it’s important. We hate the things about ourselves that get in the way of happiness, and so we work on those things in an effort to fix them and then to be happy. The fact that some people punish themselves is a reflection that they believe punishment will do them good, that it will motivate them to change and be better people. It doesn’t.

That’s why any self-discipline must be wholesome. I want to change, but beating myself about the head and demeaning myself with my self-talk (“you idiot”, “how could you be so stupid”) doesn’t get me anywhere. Does it get you anywhere?

So why do we do it if it’s so unhelpful? I’m tempted at this point to pull up a psychiatrist’s couch and talk to you about your role models (believe it or not, your parents for the most part). But I’ll resist, and say for now that somewhere along the way you learnt that negative language is part of the way to fix things. Your thinking might go along these lines – “If I’m soft on myself, I’ll never change. Got to be tough, got to face up to it, grit my teeth, take my medicine. Saying “there, there, you poor thing” isn’t going to help me change”.

And you know, you’re right. We do have to be tough on ourselves. And self-pity isn’t really isn’t going to help. But sooner or later we have to replace the punitive self-language (and punitive behaviours) with a discipline that helps, not hinders.

And that’s a can of worms in itself. As I’ve said a number of times, this is no self help blog, it’s a sharing blog. I’m not going to state the “5 top things you need to do to overcome your negative self image”.

But I will point you in a general direction. Ask yourself the question “Are my internal attempts at discipline wholesome?”. Definition – “Wholesome – conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well being” (from Google search). “Wholesome – promoting health or well being of mind or spirit” (Merrimack Webster dictionary).  “Wholesome – conducive to moral or general well being; salutary; beneficial”. (Dictionary.com).

You might say your goal is to be wholesome. Desiderata suggests that your efforts to get there need to be wholesome too. Can you say that your attempts to improve are wholesome, or do they put you on a knife edge of achievement or failure? Not just the result, but the process. If you find yourself wrung out, angry at yourself, or even disgusted in your attempts to improve – it’s not wholesome. 

Something needs to change. Desiderata tells us to be gentle with ourselves. I can imagine many people muttering to themselves “That will never work”. The stakes are too high – failure hurts too much. Being soft isn’t going to cut it.

I think the only way we can swallow this is to recognise that being hard on ourselves hasn’t worked – and it never will. Or if it has “worked” then we continue to live with an inner monster waiting to pounce on us the moment we fail. No, we have to realise it doesn’t work, and only then will we consider other options.

Have high expectations, yes. Gird yourself for action –  yes. But what if it takes a longer time to change than you would like? What if in fact we never do change to the degree we want? We have to get the point of “So be it”. Never give up (and I mean that) but recognise that a longer or slower process may be, and often is, necessary. Patience with ourselves tends to take the edge off that inner critic. Try it.

Let me finish with a light hearted story about myself. I love desserts – have a real sweet tooth. Now that the kids have grown up, Linda doesn’t make dessert so often. That’s okay – I’ve stepped up to the plate instead. I’ve never really cooked much, but about a year ago I started making my favourite desserts. And to my delight, they turned out pretty nicely, so I have continued.

But I’m fussy – I want to make a great dessert. So when I eat my desserts, I talk like a food critic –“hmmmm, pastry is a little dry, filling is yummy but needs a little more (whatever)….”. Linda likes my desserts too, and joins in a little with the food critic thing as well. I end up saying “Next time I’ll (add less flour, make more syrup…)” and Linda shakes her head. She says “It’s a good dessert, why do you want to make it perfect?”.

I had to think about my answer for a while, and it wasn’t because I was being hard on myself. Not at all – I really did enjoy my successes, and didn’t hate my mistakes. But I wanted to perfect each dessert because I wanted to enjoy the eating of it even more. I want to take a bite and be transported as much as possible to culinary heaven (did I say I love food?). The whole exercise isn’t filled with dread (I must make the perfect dessert or I’m worth nothing!) – it’s simply a desire to enjoy as much as possible what I create. And if I stuff up a dessert, I’m only mildly disappointed – I don’t take it to heart. There’s always next time.

Now, I know that making desserts is hardly live or die stuff. For many of us, particularly those in their aspirational years (teens to forties?) we desperately want to achieve happiness, whatever that looks like for us. But the principle is the same. Can you enjoy your successes? Learn and move on? Recognise that you’re doing your best and that’s what matters? Can you be gentle with yourself?

This is a longer blog than normal, and I feel I could say so much more, because learning a wholesome discipline is not easy, and I failed spectacularly as a younger man in this regard (still learning now, of course). I haven’t stopped in my desire to improve, and I don’t think I ever will. But I am more patient, I enjoy the fruits of my labour more for what they are than for how others will perceive me, and I think that helps my self-discipline to be more wholesome as well.

Maybe for you, my illustrations don’t really help. Maybe patience, for example, isn’t enough, or it’s beyond your reach right now. But whatever it takes, find a way to make your self discipline less accusing, less judgemental. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.

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When fair arguments are in short supply

Brain

There seems to be a dearth of people who actually think these days.

Wow, provocative statement. Who am I to think I am among the elite? Because of course, I do regard myself as a thinker, and I’m seriously frustrated by what appears to me be a lack of ability by others to sift through rubbish and find the truth.

Because there is a lot of rubbish these days. Fake news might be relatively new, but false arguments and smoke screens have been around for a long time, along with the tendency that people pay attention to what they want to believe, and ignore what they don’t want to believe.

At regular intervals, I dialogue with my friends/contacts on Facebook. And regularly, I despair that anyone is prepared to think. Now don’t confuse what I’m saying – I didn’t say I despair that people agree with me. That’s not the point – but that they don’t think.

Any of you with any experience of Facebook are probably about now shaking your heads and saying “Why would you expect anything other than that on Facebook?” For you would know, as I do, that to attempt rational discussion on Facebook is akin to banging your head hard against a brick wall, repeatedly and at regular intervals. Point taken – I agree, though I’m probably still going to bang my head again every now and then.

But what undid me recently was a dialogue I had with someone who I respect. They are intelligent and knowledgable, and we agree more than we disagree on things. I would describe him as left wing (but not extreme) whereas I regard myself as centre-left. I also personally don’t believe in demonising those I oppose, and will try to apply fairness and logic to their point of view, and even to arguments raised against them. My friend, not so much. I have yet to see him grudgingly agree that an opponent has been unfairly treated. But I can assure you, no matter how bad your opponent is, you can’t believe everything that is said against them.

I’ll try not to bore you with too much detail of our dialogue – just enough to create a frame of reference. Our PM, Malcolm Turnbull, recently announced changes to the Australian citizenship test, and to be frank, it sounds to me like he is trying to emulate Donald Trump a little, in order to appease some hard right wingers here in Australia. I’m pretty sure my friend would agree.

He (my friend) posted a video provided by a prominent activist group in Australia, showing Malcolm struggling, very badly, to try and answer a question about the test. The question had more to do with the administration of the test than its content, but the post linked the (very embarrassing) answer to their view that the PM couldn’t defend the test against the accusations of racism.

Well, full marks for amusement and poking fun, but zero in terms of accuracy. I made a comment to that effect, and all of a sudden it was on for young and old. My friend strongly defended the group and its reliability as a source of information, which surprised me.

I thought it was a conversation worth having, so I went on to state that the activist group who made the post often made posts and videos that were light on truth. They were no doubt very effective in cutting through to their audience, but I could not trust them to be a reliable or reasonable source of information. What surprised me again, was that my friend ending up dodging the issue and restating his conviction that the citizenship test changes were racist, a point that I had had no real problem agreeing with in the first place.

I hope I haven’t lost you in all that description! But it does bother me that groups can post videos that are inflammatory and inaccurate (even if I agree with their point of view!) and that intelligent people can’t see it. They don’t want to look for the truth, or if they do, they are not prepared to critically examine the evidence.

That makes me wonder if I am a bit of a freak. Am I being too clever for my own good? Am I splitting hairs? Should I just go along with the crowd if I agree with their point, but don’t agree with how they get there?

There is another friend I have, who is probably smarter than me, certainly knows a whole lot more, and is excellent at separating a good argument from a poor one. But even he recently threw objectivity out the window about a guest who appeared on a respected intellectual TV panel (“Q and A” for those who are interested). He basically ranted against Q and A for having an ultra right wing individual on the show, when firstly, the guy didn’t say anything provocatively right wing, and secondly, if he had, didn’t he have as much right as a left winger to have his say? Q and A should, and does, have varied views and opinions represented on its panel.

So I‘m a bit flummoxed. It seems to me that the vast majority of people, no matter how smart they are, just gravitate to one point of view and then stay there, taking pot shots at the other side. If that’s true, then we’re all in for an increasingly bumpy ride. Hang on folks – polarised communities and points of view are likely to be the norm, and here for a long time.