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.

So why do you speak out?

I read an interesting (though awkwardly written) article recently, called “What are the implications of believing it’s impossible to alter other people’s beliefs?” I can’t remember how I stumbled across it – it may have been from one of your blogs, so if it is, thanks for pointing me in its direction!

Its premise is fascinating. According to the article there are two different groups of people when it comes to speaking about their beliefs. One group believes that others attitudes are unlikely to change, and are prepared to share their views simply as an opportunity to stand up for what they believe. The other group believes that attitudes can change, and have that as their motivation when they speak out. Interestingly, according to the article, those who don’t believe views can be changed are more likely to speak out than than those who do.

I have definitely been part of the latter group, those who speak out to change attitudes. As a result, most of my forays into public comment have been firstly an attempt to understand others points of view, agree where I can, and then present my view as carefully as possible, in the hope that reason might lead to discussion and better understanding. Facebook is the place where I have probably done this more than anywhere else, usually in response to someone’s post (and yes, I know its hardly a forum for reasonable discussion). I don’t think it applies to my blogs – they are more an attempt to share than speak out.

I have to say I have been spectacularly unsuccessful in getting anyone to change their mind. Those that do respond either agree with me already, or reply in narrow minded, judgmental ways, often insulting me rather than showing any interest in what I have said. I get the impression they didn’t even think about what I’d said at all.

This recently occurred when I responded to a Facebook post of a friend of mine. It was to do with Trump’s win (of course, what else are people talking about at the moment?) and there was no shortage of opinions. It’s irrelevant what I actually said, but someone I didn’t know gave me a caustic reply, showing (once again) they hadn’t read my comments properly or digested what I was trying to say.

I thought to myself, “I can let this go through to the keeper, or I can try a different approach”. So, I wrote a response, not caring if the person agreed with me or not. I took my time, worded it carefully, and then posted it.

I was happy with what I said. It was snappy, to the point, and way bolder than anything I remember writing before. It felt good, and I’m glad I did it.

To my surprise, the person replied with a more conciliatory tone, although they still managed to misunderstand me and certainly didn’t change their view. But because they were a bit softer around the edges, I decided to respond again, this time with my old approach, seeking common ground.

It took just about as much time to shape the second response as it did the first one, and an hour after I posted it, I decided to go back and read it again (I don’t know if you ever do this, but I do it all the time!). I found that what I had written was clunky, long winded and verbose. It said what I wanted to say, but not the way I wanted to say it.

The other person never replied again, and that was fine. But I mused for quite a while about the disparity between the two posts. Why was one well constructed and the other one such hard work to read? Of course, it could have been that I just wasn’t in the zone when I wrote the second piece, but I think it was more my attempt to reason with them that made it so drab. It was full of qualifiers and balancing comments to show them I was trying to understand their point of view. It was heavy going.

If that’s the real reason, then I have some thinking to do. With my first reply it felt good to just state my case. I wasn’t unreasonable, nor was I inflammatory. I made sure my comments did not smack of any personal attack. I attacked their argument instead, though it was definitely a sharp and spirited response. I didn’t care whether they agreed, and I didn’t expect them to.

So – what’s your motivation for speaking out? What do you think about all this and what has been your experience? I for one intend to apply this new approach to Facebook at least, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

Desiderata 9

More on being real

desiderata-9

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 9th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“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.”

Prior to this verse, Desiderata has exhorted us to “be yourself”. Then the author goes on to single out feigning affection as the thing especially not to do. That’s a big call. Why this one thing above all others? It makes me wonder if he had a bad experience himself and was particularly sensitive to this specific kind of deception. Is he speaking out of personal hurt, or does he really think that affection is the most important thing not to feign?

Let’s face it, lots of people feign affection. Either they don’t want to offend and so come across as friendly, or they want something and are trying to get into your good books. Think of a teenage kid who has got him or herself into trouble, and goes all smiley and cute/charming (never worked for me!) to soften the punishment or avoid it entirely.

Maybe it’s because affection, once it’s found to be false, hurts more than other forms of deception. But even then, it probably only hurts if you have already let that person get a little close. If I know someone isn’t particularly my friend and they all of a sudden turn on the charm, I can usually tell that they’re after something, so I’m not taken in. But it isn’t always that simple.

Recently, a guy who worked in the same building with me and got on well with me, moved on to another job, helping to build up a new electricity company. Although we got on well, (we seemed to hit it off on a number of levels) I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed my company quite as much as I enjoyed his. A few months passed, and he contacted me out of the blue. I was really pleased because I had missed our chats (though I tried to be pretty casual over the phone!) and after we chatted a bit, he said I must come over some time when I’m in the area to his new place of business. I’m on the road occasionally as part of my job, so I readily agreed and sure enough a few weeks later a window of opportunity opened up and I popped over to catch up.

When I got there, to my surprise he brought another guy into the room with him, someone new to his business. but who also knew a couple of people that I knew. I was expecting just to chat with my friend, maybe over a coffee and a bite to eat. Anyway, we chatted amiably for a while, and then just as I was about to leave, my friend asked if I wanted to switch my electricity across to his new business. I agreed (he had earlier offered me a great deal), and found out later that the new guy he had introduced to me was the one who would be the contact person on my account.

As I made my way home, a sinking feeling slowly came over me. I felt we had met under false pretenses, and it hurt a bit more because I had felt some connectedness with him in the past. And of course, surprise, surprise, I haven’t heard from him since then.

I must confess it hurts a little even now. And it makes me wonder, just a little, if he actually has any close friends. He is a private kind of guy with a lot of emotional baggage, but I wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this. Maybe it was because he was consumed by his business that he stooped to this level. Maybe he’s not even aware of what he has done. Maybe he thinks that he was just doing me a favour, even though none of that surfaced while he was inviting me over.

What happens to us when we feign affection? I suppose we become a little less real, a little less grounded. We are denying who we are, to some extent, by pretending be be somebody else. Affection is, in my opinion, a cornerstone to any long term relationship. Fake that, and just maybe you don’t have a relationship at all. People become disposable, and you become shallow.

Many other ‘deceptions’ might be forgiven – you might pretend to be smarter than you are, or richer than you are, or more athletic, or confident when you’re not, or more knowledgeable on a particular subject, or more relaxed when you’re really quite anxious. Chances are people can see through your subterfuge, and may (or may not!) still like you. But pretend to be affectionate, and once it is found out, people will leave you in droves.

Now, this can sound a little over the top. I’m sure all of us have got ourselves out of trouble by sucking up to someone, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence then we’re probably pretty safe (and really just a little bit human as well). But if it becomes something we routinely do, then we become known as someone lacking substance, not real, even if people can’t quite put their finger on it. My hunch is, though, that they probably can. Most of us can spot a faker from a mile off, just not all the time and maybe not straight away.

Feigning affection surely must hollow us out. We’re not being true to our own emotions, and over time we may lose touch with what we really feel. And that’s the tragedy. Maybe that’s why Desiderata goes on to say next “Neither be cynical about love…”, a comment we will unpack in our next blog on Desiderata.

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.

The abuse of power

More and more we hear of abuses within institutions

lock and key

Just recently another institutional atrocity was splashed across the headlines of our Australian newspapers and media outlets. Video footage was released of a young aboriginal in a youth detention centre being bashed, stripped naked, and strapped to some kind of chair restraint for hours. The video showed multiple events that had occurred over a long period of time.

Ill treatment of people in custody or under the authority of others is unfortunately commonplace. In recent times we have been reminded of sexual abuse not only by priests, but also in educational institutions and the defense force (notably against women but not confined to that). And of course abuse is not limited to sexual aggression.

What is it about institutions that makes such behaviour common? How can it be so prevalent that it has come to be expected, to be almost the norm?

I think it has something to do with power. When we are granted power over someone else, it is a potentially dangerous position to be in. There’s a saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The possession of it can work insidiously, much like the ring that Frodo had to carry which ended up corrupting even him, who was apparently the most incorruptible person in the story of the Lord of the Rings.

But it’s more than that, surely. I don’t believe everyone in positions of power become corrupted, and possibly not even most. For example, I know a man who worked as a guard at a prison, had to handle some of the worst prisoners. But he had a great heart and set up an organisation to work with troubled kids, attempting to instil hope in their lives. I’m sure he is not alone in being a kind man in a brutal environment.

Perhaps some abuses of power are due to frustration. People, frustrated by what is happening in their own life, respond excessively to an inmate (or school pupil) and their frustrations boil over to those  under their care. They are in a position of power and so they exercise it as a form of lashing out.

People in custody would hardly be role models of good behaviour. I can imagine that a smart mouth and a rebellious attitude could lead to excessive force in response. I’m not justifying that behaviour, just trying to understand it.

So we add a preoccupation with your own lot in life, coupled with frustrations based in your career or personal issues, coupled with power over others, an establishment that allows excesses to occur (even if that’s not its intention). Throw in some people who are difficult to deal with (whether a student, an inmate, an infantryman or subordinate) and there you have it – a recipe for disaster.

Even then, there still must be more to it than that. Does the priesthood or the educational system attract paedophiles? Maybe. Like firefighters – some of the worst arsonists are firefighters. They join because they love fire. Surely at least some teachers and/or priests take on those roles because of their repressed or not so repressed tendencies.

And maybe that’s more to the point. Institutions provide the breeding ground for people who, by reason of their character, disposition and personal demons, are attracted to that particular kind of power or opportunity. They may not even be particularly aware of the attraction. But they join up, and find that their circumstances allow them to act out their aggression, hostility, need for power, or sexual tensions.

There’s a lot of ‘what if’s here, – you can tell I’m just trying to make sense of it. But I do feel that I’m zeroing in on some of the more pertinent issues. Maybe they need to be refined or seen from another perspective, but I get the feeling that there’s some substance here.

So what is the solution? I have more questions than answers, but here goes…

In the end solutions must deal with the regulating of power. Perhaps another person has to sign off before a disciplinary action is taken (but surely this already happens?).  Or perhaps varying levels of discipline require increasing levels of authority, so that people further up the chain of command have to sign off on. But even then, such processes don’t often allow an objective 3rd party to speak. It becomes the word of the guardian against the guarded. And of course, there are abuses that occur behind closed doors and no-one knows what’s happening.

Perhaps a rotation of staff, moving them regularly from one position to another so that entrenched behaviours or pacts with other staff and authority figures (ie others who become complicit with the abuse)  don’t get the chance to firmly develop. Not sure how that would work with schools though….

I’m struggling here. But it truly breaks my heart to hear of institutional abuse in all its forms, because I would hate to be the one who was at their mercy. Unfortunately, institutions will always exist, whether they are initially set up that way or not. It seems to be the way of the world.

Pretty heavy duty blog (sorry about that). What are your thoughts on this topic?

Desiderata 8

Be yourself – it’s harder than you think

desiderata 8

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 8th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection”.

Surely all of us would agree straight away with this part of the poem. What more needs to be said? We’ve all heard that we need to be ourselves. Let’s just heed the advice and move on.

Not so fast. We need to ask, “if this is so obvious, why is it in the poem at all?” It’s because it’s so easy to lose sight of, and harder than you think.

“Be yourself”. That motto has to be the cornerstone of most of the self help books and advice that is on tap these days. The reason it is so pervasive in modern self help is because it’s in such short supply. Being yourself is hard to define, and even harder to live out.

Who are you anyway? Sounds like one of the questions a counsellor would ask you as you lie on the couch (just kidding – most counsellors don’t have couches). Are you what you do? “I’m a painter/architect/stay at home mum/policeman/analyst/stock broker/carpenter…… “. No, that’s not the answer.

Is it your social standing, your position in relation to others? A woman/man, son/daughter, wife/husband/single person/widow/divorcee, rich person/poor person, boss/employee, lover/guardian. I doubt it.

One clever person came up with the idea “it’s who you are when no-one’s looking.” Sounds good to me, but chances are most of us are too confused to know who we are even when we’re alone. About the only difference is that we drop the pretense that we masquerade around others. Admittedly there are a few people who are supremely self confident and comfortable in their own skin – hence they probably have a good idea of who they are. If you are such a one feel free to skip this blog!

For the rest of us, it is a genuinely tough thing to know who you are, let alone let yourself be it. I remember a young man said to me once “I hate who I am, so how can I just be myself?” When he dropped his attempts to please others, he was left with someone he didn’t know and didn’t like.

I trust you’re getting the picture. This phrase “Be yourself” is the single most recurring theme of Desiderata. If you read back through the previous posts, you will see how often the author’s advice comes back to protecting who you are and not losing sight of it.

I’ve been around for a while, and I think I know a thing or two on the subject. I’m not the best role model for self acceptance, but I’m all I’ve got, so I’d like to explain a little of what I’ve learnt.

I’ve got my share of weaknesses and foibles. This is not a confessional and I don’t intend to go into detail here, but I dare say as you read my blogs you’ll get some idea of what I am talking about (because I do tell on myself every now and then). And I have worked hard to overcome things that I haven’t liked about myself – had some successes and some failures too. And I don’t intend to stop now. But one thing I have learned – I know my limitations and I won’t hate myself because of them.

What’s the point of hating myself? It won’t change me – it won’t change you. It will only get in the way. Now you’d think that just accepting your weaknesses would mean you’re on the road to overcoming them. Well maybe – but maybe not. Accepting your weakness means just that – it’s there and it’s unlikely to go away easily. There are some things I’m just not good at, and some of those things I really, really wish I was good at. But I’m not. And though I’m open to growing and improving, I have come to accept that some things are not likely to ever change.

That means when things go wrong in some areas, I don’t get upset. I don’t set myself up for failure by trying to do something that I know I can’t do. Now that sounds a bit defeatist, and I don’t want to encourage that kind of attitude, but all I can say is that when the time comes you’ll know the difference between ‘giving up’ and having the wisdom to know not to expect too much in a certain area.

I’m reminded of an episode from the British TV series “Doc Martin”. He’s an irritable, easily upset person with atrocious people skills who happens to be a brilliant doctor in a small town. Someone in the village actually falls in love with him, and he with her (genuinely), but she eventually finds him impossible to live with. Cut a very long story short, she ends up deciding to stay with him because she loves him and accepts his oddness. Doesn’t try to change him. Doesn’t set him up by expecting him to do things she knows he just can’t do. Accepts that he loves her, and she loves him, and if they’re an odd couple, so be it. (See episode 6 of Season 8 if you’re interested).

Being yourself is no easy feat. And regarding the young man I spoke of, I can so easily understand his frustration. How hard is it for a young person, who so wants his life to be successful, to accept some things about himself which will most likely inhibit at least some of his life goals, but find peace in the rest and just get on with it?

I should say that just as I have accepted my flaws, I have also accepted what I’m good at. I won’t brag about them, and certainly not here, but when the occasion arises I have no trouble saying I’m good at something. And for the most part (maybe not always) I do so without pride. I am who I am. I’m good at this – I’m not good at that.

I haven’t addressed the second part of the quote -“Especially don’t feign affection”. It intrigues me that the author has singled this out more than anything else, but I’ve run out of room with this blog, so we’ll stop here and pick it up next time.

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.

Are you too cool for the Olympics?

I was chatting to one of my friends recently when the topic of the Olympics came up. He clearly wasn’t interested, and disdainfully referred to the whole thing as a form of jingoism.

I’d heard of the term, but didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. Among other things, it means to have a sense of superiority regarding one’s own race.

Now, my friend is a pretty alternative lifestyle kind of guy – kind of anti most establishment things. He’s a muso, just like me, and whilst we have lots of things in common (we love similar movies, shows, and artists) we have our own points of departure on things. And that’s okay.

And its fine, of course, if you’re just not into sports, or just not into the Olympics. Could be that it bores you to sobs, and that you’d rather watch paint dry, or for some other reason its just not your thing. But when my friend said it was jingoistic, that was a judgement call on the event itself. And it made me ponder…

I think I understand where he’s coming from. A lot of flag waving zealots taking pride in trouncing anyone else who is different from them. And there would be some people like that, for sure. But is that typical? And obviously patriotism also has a field day with the Olympics (he’s no fan of patriotism either, and if by that he means a similar form of extremism, I would agree). But does the Olympics have to be that? Is it so wrong to take some pride in our country, and can you do it without being a bigoted racist?

There’s been no shortage of humorous put-downs of the Olympics. I saw a video on Facebook by a guy who’s very good at taking the mickey out of things, and he was having a field day taking aim at the Olympics. I thought he was pretty clever and that he also had a few good ideas as well (no better way to tell a truth than disguise it with comedy). One of his points I really agreed with – whilst I love to see athletic excellence, I do sometimes worry about the lengths that people will go to, and what they will do to their bodies in order to excel. Is perfection worth anything, at any cost? I have mental pictures of them in older age proudly displaying their medals while gazing at them from a wheelchair.

It seems that it’s cool to mock the Olympics. I’m not super cool, but I’d like to think I’m a little bit cool(!) and I don’t buy everything about the Olympics either. But if you set your mind to disliking it, you simply won’t see anything good whether it exists or not. My mate, I reckon, has set up a ‘straw man’ about the Olympics because he thinks it’s not cool and is looking for an excuse. I don’t buy it.

When I’ve looked at the Olympics events in the last few days, I’ve searched for anything that could be regarded as jingoistic, but for the most part I just haven’t seen it. About the only thing that comes to mind is the retort that Mack Horton, one of our swimmers, gave to Sun Yang, a Chinese swimmer, labelling him a drug cheat. And even then I put that down to intimidation tactics rather than an attempt to prove racial superiority (it turns out that although I and many others were unimpressed with Mack’s comments, there may have been more to it, and he may not have been quite so callous as we think).

The Chinese response to Mack Horton could also possibly be viewed as jingoistic, as they mercilessly attacked him online and in any way they could. But, at the risk of sounding racist, I would have to say “That’s China for you”. And by the way, I still don’t see it as jingoistic – rather a defensive response from a nation that is extremely sensitive about how it is perceived.

From a national pride perspective, I enjoy the wins that our athletes achieve, for sure. But I also take joy in seeing superb athleticism and certainly don’t begrudge other nations winning their gold medals, even at our expense. In fact, if they have won in a particularly amazing manner, I am just thrilled to have been able to see it. And I’ve noticed that our own commentators are similarly exhilarated when they see an amazing win from another country.

So what do you think? Am I missing something? If we ignore the fringe dwellers (those who use any excuse to go nuts and big note themselves, their team, their country) is the Olympics something to be proud of, and to watch with respect?

I’m going to enjoy it. I’m not going to get sucked into any saccharine form (or angry raging form) of patriotism, I’m not going to pour scorn on other nations, and I’m also going to have a life while the Olympics is on. But I fully intend to oooh and aaahh when I see something that really blows me away, and take pleasure in the wins that our young men and women achieve on behalf of Australia.

Life’s too short. Let’s enjoy what we can.

When being positive is negative

Plus-minus-equals

The drummer in our band is a really nice guy. Friendly, outgoing, genuinely caring, and pretty upbeat. He also doesn’t read my blog, so I’m going to use him as an example of something that I don’t always find helpful.

The thing is, he is such a positive kind of guy, that after every gig, he always says “Well, that went well!”. And, broadly speaking, he’s not far off the mark. I would far prefer that kind of comment to someone bagging everything we did and pointing out every little mistake we made. But the reality is, there are sometimes things we just simply need to work on, and I can’t rely on him to help pinpoint those things. As a matter of fact, his attitude actually works against improvement.

So, whilst a positive attitude is always a good thing, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true about positive comments.

I’m a proud dad, and I want to do everything I can to build up my kids. And they know that too. Which means they are tempted to disallow my opinion on something about them, because I’m their dad, and of course I “would say that”. Well, they are mostly right. I don’t want anything I say to have the effect of discouraging them. But I also know that if I don’t tell them the truth, my ability to shape their lives has just gone out the window.

One of my daughters is doing a creative writing course (Graduate Certificate if I recall correctly). Recently she handed something in that she had had to rush, and wasn’t too sure about it. To my surprise she asked if I would read it (up till now I have seen none of her work, and I think that’s the way she likes it). So I told her that I would, and that I would give her an honest opinion.

And I did. It turns out it was a good piece of work. I made sure I pointed out all the good things about it, and then made a few comments about what I thought was missing. I made sure she was aware that I was comparing her writing to accomplished authors (because that’s mostly what I read!) so she would not feel disappointed by my critique. I emailed her my comments (she doesn’t live with us) and waited, a little anxiously, for her response.

To my relief, she told me that my comments were pretty similar to her opinion, so I don’t know that I opened any new windows of insight for her. But I did help her to consolidate her own opinion, and just as importantly for me, it strengthened her belief that she could rely on me to tell her the truth.

Do you ever wish that people would tell you what they really thought? Oh, not about everything (that’s never going to happen, and you probably wouldn’t like it if they did), but about things that count. And of course, although you want the truth, you do hope that it will be delivered graciously and with the least possible pain.

Just today my brothers came over for a family get together. They’re musos too, and I decided to play them a mixdown of a recording I was working on. It was still in the early stages but good enough to play to someone. What surprised me was that, as they listened (very intently I might add) they began to make comments about how this was too loud, or that was too soft, or that it needed more bottom end and so on. I hadn’t asked them for their opinion and was somewhat taken aback by their frankness. But it didn’t sting, and I realised that they were totally at ease with what they were saying – there was no vindictiveness or judgment (though they were undoubtedly judging the piece, and at a high level too). Though I became slightly defensive after a while, I realised they were giving me valuable feedback – feedback I will most certainly use.

I know that people want to speak positively in order to build up others. But parents who have nothing but praise, kids who get awards for absolutely everything, friends who always say you were great at something (those contestants for music shows who just can’t sing have friends who have a lot to answer for), in the end are really doing the opposite – setting their loved ones up for a fall.

And being overly positive can also be really boring, sickly sweet, condescending or just plain infuriating. I was talking to someone recently who was complaining mildly about something (can’t remember what) and I made some broadly positive kind of comment. She rounded on me (not angrily though) and told me not spout all that positivity garbage. And she had a point, although I don’t think I am one to spout platitudes.

In fact, I try pretty hard to be positive but not naive. I hope you can tell from my posts that I am not interested at all in fake confidence, in cheesy slogans, or even in dogged  adherence to positive thinking. If something really does suck, I’d like to think that I would admit it. And that’s my goal, whether I achieve it or not – to be real, and, by being real, that I might just be helpful. I hope that’s what keeps my truthfulness from hurting or crushing people. I’m not sure I always succeed.

Actually, I know I sometimes fail terribly. My determination to tell the truth doesn’t always go according to plan. Unlike my drummer friend, I too easily see the things that need fixing. My goal is never personal – I absolutely never want to hurt anyone. But we musos are temperamental creatures, as are most artists – you criticise my work and you are criticising me. And I’m the same. Although I want to hear the truth, my skin isn’t as thick as I would like it to be, and I do sometimes wonder how I would feel if my guitarist friend said to me some of the things I say to him!

Oh for a diplomatic sense of balance – knowing when to keep your mouth shut, and how to finesse a situation so that the truth comes out with minimal damage.

What about you? What’s your take on this? How successful are you in telling the truth in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary hurt? Or perhaps you find that, in your desire not to offend, you hold back on information that could actually help, if you only knew how to deliver it.