War on waste

Just when I thought I knew enough about this…

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I’m not sure how similar your culture is to mine, but I’m guessing that most parts of the world have a strong emphasis on recycling and the dangers of plastic bags to our environment. I’ve been well aware of these issues for some time – in fact decades ago (the early 90’s?) Australians were first exposed to dramatic and detailed exposes of the desperate need for recycling and what we could do about it. But recently, to my surprise, I watched a 3 part series which rocked me now (and apparently much of our nation as well) almost as much as we were rocked back then.

More of that later. But for now, let me recount history as I remember it. It was only in the 1990’s that recycle bins came to be the norm here in Australia. Before then, all rubbish went into the same bins and into landfill. I’m not sure what was the groundswell behind it all, but I remember various documentaries that captured the nation’s attention. Everyone was talking about the needless waste of our planet’s resources, and, via TV, radio and newspaper, we were all exhorted to develop recycling habits. It was the era when recycled paper was born.

At first, if I remember correctly, we had elaborate suggestions of up to 5 different rubbish bins (or trash cans, as some of you might call them) – one for food scraps, one for glass, one for paper, and so on. Over time that has settled down to one normal bin for typical rubbish and one recycling bin for plastic, paper, glass and tin. I’m curious to know what recycling measures your country typically has in place.

Like most things, intensity of feeling can’t last for ever, and whilst recycling is a firm part of our modern agenda, the fervour that gripped our nation back then has settled into a more or less comfortable routine. But recently, the ABC aired a 3 part series called “War on Waste” – a fascinating and surprising look at the amount of waste that occurs in our Australian society. When Linda and I first decided to watch it, my feeling was one of interest but not much more. It didn’t take me long to become quite shocked all over again at the waste in our society.

The series is separated in 3 parts – the first episode deals with the waste of food, the second with the dilemma of plastic, and the third with clothing. And it wasn’t your typical sensationalist kind of documentary. The way the series was handled was simply brilliant (or maybe that’s just my Australian demeanour shining through). The presenter was relaxed, laid back, thoroughly non-fanatical but still sharp and to the point. No deep, dark music or disturbing “Star Wars” type soundtracks to remind you how ‘serious’ this all is, just a laconic, easy going Aussie who was a pleasure to listen to and even a bit humorous, whilst driving home lots of uncomfortable truths that most of us were unaware of.

For example , did you know that up to half (yes half) of our food is thrown away? It happens at the farms where produce that doesn’t ‘look’ just right is dumped and left to rot in piles; it happens at supermarkets where produce that is slightly damaged, or not moving off the shelves, or reaching its use by date, are dumped in bins; and it happens in our own homes, where food is bought, not consumed and then thrown out.

I don’t know if that’s news to you, but it was to me. In a prosperous nation like Australia, that ‘s an awful lot of food. Of course, there are charities and various groups at work to try and pick up this food before it spoils and redistribute it to the needy, but it is apparently still only a small percentage that gets meaningfully redistributed.

There’s a lot more to the series than just food, but I thought I would use that one issue as an example. I know that, depending on which country you are in, you may not have access to the series, but if you’re interested in checking it out here’s the link to it (not sure how long it will remain up for, but it’s there at the moment):

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/war-on-waste/

And just like in the 90’s (well, maybe not quite as strongly as back then) lots of people are responding to the show and it’s revelations. In our world of online participation, ABC websites are being inundated with requests and support for the various calls to action that are presented throughout the series.

So what effect has it had on me? Well, I’m not about to rush out and try and change the world (maybe that’s just my age showing). But in little ways, my wife and I are being challenged.

Though we were well aware of the dangers of plastic bags, we’re trying harder now to use even less, and are gathering up the ones we do have to deposit in special recycling bins available in select locations (apparently plastic bags and other “soft” plastics are difficult to recycle and require a different recycling treatment to normal hard plastics like soft drink bottles etc). We’re also seriously considering reusable coffee cups, as the disposable ones are not only very difficult to recycle but they are used in the tens of thousands every hour in Melbourne alone. I say ” seriously considering” because although we really don’t want to add to the waste problem, carrying around a reusable coffee cup is awkward, especially for us guys who don’t tend to use handbags. Apparently more coffee shops are accepting them now though, and I’m sure we’ll at least give it a go.

Apart from those specific things, we’re more alert to the issues and will see how that unfolds over time. Though there’s not much we can do about the waste in supermarkets and farms, we can choose to buy more of the ‘odd shaped’ fruit and veg available in some stores. Woolworths, for example, has an “Odd Bunch” line of fruit and veg that is exactly that – a deliberate choice to sell odd shaped produce, at a cheaper rate, that would not normally sell because it isn’t asthetically pleasing to look at. And though I doubt that we’ll join a picket line any time soon, there may be online petitions that we can add our signatures too, or politicians we might write to as part of a broader attempt to raise issues.

So that’s it for now. I’m pretty sure you can tell I’m no radical ‘save the world’ fanatic, but just a normal person who is being made more aware of just how ridiculous some things have become. I don’t want to see our food wasted, especially when there are so many starving in the world; I don’t want to see our oceans clogged with ever increasing levels of plastic; I don’t want to see clothing being worn once and thrown away (not quite so riveting to me personally, but an eye opening example of the incredible waste and misuse of resources in our throw away world).

Of course, it’s up to you what you do. Maybe you knew all of this already. Maybe you didn’t, but you’re already waging an effective war on waste. Or maybe you are neither of those things, but somewhere in between. I’m posting this in an obvious attempt to motivate others in the same way as I have been. I hope it motivates you too.

 

 

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.

Just who is in control of you?

The disturbing power of “others”

I’m not a particularly influential person. I’d like to be, but the reality is I’m not. Oh, I have some influence. In my role as a financial adviser I routinely help my clients in relation to their financial decisions, but occasionally I lose an existing (and otherwise happy client) to someone else who is no more competent than I but has greater persuasiveness – you know, the kind of person who can “sell ice to Eskimos”. I’ve also given up on the number of times I’ve encouraged clients to see a solicitor or an accountant, and they simply haven’t. And when I talk to my colleagues, they seem routinely to make such recommendations, and hey presto! the client follows their suggestion.

So why am I telling you this? I’m the sort of person who never gives up on trying to improve. So I thought I’d read a book recommended to me, simply called “Influence”, by Robert Cialdini. It was apparently a best seller many years ago, and because the book speaks about human nature rather than whizz bang sales techniques, if it was true 20 years ago, it’s probably still pretty relevant today.

I have to say its contents unnerve me a little, because it’s all about taking advantage of the largely unconscious human behaviours that we all seem to have just below the surface, and how to “trigger” them to our advantage. I have no appetite to control others. Influence, as far as I’m concerned, is not about control, but guidance that people take seriously. So, it hasn’t been an enjoyable read. But I do have to say it’s been a fascinating one.

Amongst many other interesting (and disturbing) character traits, the author speaks about a phenomenon called “social proof”. Now social proof is something most of us are surely already aware of – that our decisions are impacted significantly by the opinions and behaviours of those in our peer group, or in our racial group, or in our nation etc. No surprises there. But what is surprising is the extent by which our actions are shaped.

One particularly fascinating aspect of this is a phenomenon that goes by the wordy title of “Group inhibition of bystander intervention”. To put it simply, there is a tendency that the larger the group of people that witness an event (say a mugging, or a person in need) the less likely it is that anyone will do anything to help.

An example is given of a murder that occurred in the streets of New York in 1964, over a period of half an hour where a woman, Kitty Genovese, was attacked, managed to free herself and run away only to be attacked again and eventually die. What made this tragedy all the more mystifying was that 38 people in the street reportedly either heard or saw part of the altercation and did nothing. These figures have since been seriously disputed, and in fact one or two people did try to do something, but it doesn’t take away from the observations of human behaviour that arose from it.

At first, the outcry from this event was that city life had hardened the hearts of city people and led them to do nothing (one neighbour had openly stated they didn’t want to get involved). But when it was thoroughly investigated, a very different picture emerged. People actually weren’t sure why they had done nothing, and were mystified themselves. Researchers discovered, from this event and from other events (and clinical experiments), a pattern of human behaviour emerging. When we as individuals are confronted by an emergency, we often don’t know what to do. We look for clues in the behaviour of others – how are they responding to this? The very people we are looking to are themselves most likely feeling the same way, and look to us to see how we are responding. The result is that no-one does anything – because no-one else is! On top of this, if no-one else is responding, we don’t want to be the odd man out. We don’t want to be the drama queen that makes a big deal out of the situation.

So, with the murder in the street, people didn’t respond because they thought maybe it wasn’t that bad and because no-one else (to their knowledge) had responded either. Maybe it was a quarrel between lovers, and if someone intervened they would just get shouted down, or if the police were called, they would get annoyed because their time was being wasted. It wasn’t because the onlookers were hard hearted. As a matter of fact, research into this phenomenon has shown that when onlookers are in no doubt of the problem or danger, they are much more likely to take action.

I find this aspect of human nature both fascinating and disturbing, that we as human beings could be so dictated by our social context. How many times have you or I walked down the street, noticed someone in apparent trouble, and felt awkward or unsure about doing anything because others were also just passing them by? I unfortunately can confess to this. The same research that documented this phenomenon also showed that a single individual, noting the plight of someone else, is much more likely to respond if they are on their own, than if there are others present.

There are very good reasons why we are social animals and why the opinions of others count. I think it would be foolish to assume that peer pressure is always bad. It just “is”. But it concerned me to realise just how controlled we are by it. This kind of influence is so powerful that it would be hard to resist. But surely, once we are aware, we must choose how we will act. After all, who do you want to be in control of your life, yourself or the madding crowd?

The book “Influence” is actually a fascinating read if you want to be amazed at the unconscious predictability of human behaviour, as it unpacks many other surprisingly strong traits of human behaviour. If you can stomach its cringeworthy application to sales, I do recommend it.

Openness, and why it’s not easy

“Sometimes he was such a construction of his own carefully constructed censorships and restraints he didn’t know whether there was any longer a creature named Bern Cameron (Invader, C.J. Cherryh, Daw Books, 1995, p.330)

When I read this sentence I was so struck by its eloquence that I thought it was worth writing about. The book itself, by the way, is a good read but nothing amazing, so I don’t think I need to provide any background to it. The statement stands on its own two feet.

Fact is, we all construct how we present ourselves to the world. It’s necessary, though some might work harder at it than others. Despite the encouragement by some to “let it all hang out” or “tell it like it is”, the reality is we choose carefully what we reveal and what we don’t. And we need to.

I have noticed that blue collar workers tend to be more upfront than white collar workers. Not quite sure why, but it might have something to do with them not having to climb a corporate ladder. They tend to tell it like it is, sometimes to their detriment. I had a plasterer who did the work for our renovation a few years ago, and although he was a pleasant enough fellow, he had no problem poking fun at some of the work I had done myself. Not a good thing to do to a customer, and I haven’t exactly enthused about him to others as a result. And I have heard similar stories from some of my friends, of tradies belittling them.

Now of course it’s not all bad. As a matter of fact I find it mostly refreshing being around such people, and I have the good fortune of having a number of them as friends. Perhaps in white collar circles we are so used to having to work with different persons or groups that we learn to smooth over our personal opinions, in order to make the deal or complete the task or keep the client. It may also be true that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more likely you are to hide your opinions and real self more and more. There are more and more people you have to keep happy and working with you, not against you.

But let’s just think of the cost for a minute. I don’t think white collar workers are the same at home as they are at work, but I do think that ingrained behaviours spill out into other parts of our life. Hence even outside of work, those used to hiding their feelings and opinions on the job may well find that they still do so to some extent at home or with friends.

I’m in a moderately corporate kind of job, and certainly have to keep my clients happy, so I suppose I’m pretty used to masking my feelings and softening my opinions in order to do my job well, keep my clients and build my business. That’s perhaps why, recently, I was quite impacted by a guest speaker at one of our conferences, a guy by the name of Peter Sharp.

Peter’s mission in life is to encourage people to trust enough to connect with one another. He does this by staging a number of provocative events in public, videoing them and then putting them up on YouTube. 

There’s no doubt his antics are popular, as evidenced by how many of his videos have gone viral. His most recent one was staging sit-ins in public places where people were encouraged to simply sit and stare into a complete stranger’s eyes for one minute. The video is quite moving, though the  sceptic in me is a little bugged by it, as it is a highly polished piece of work with that background music that is supposed to make you all touchy feeley. I instinctively react against things that are trying to pull my heart strings, and his videos do feel like a lot of others that I have seen. With one important exception – I get what he’s trying to do, and I like it.

In line with my comments about white collar workers hiding their true selves at work, my favourite video clip from Peter is one where he, dressed in a business suit in a busy business district, wanders into a public fountain and starts to dance to music, ripping off his tie and jacket and just freely dancing though sopping wet. It’s completely staged of course, but that’s okay. Others (most of them actors but not all) jump into the fountain and dance along with him.

What he is doing is stepping outside the confines that we put ourselves in, that most of us get suffocated by. And that’s the way of the world. I don’t think the answer is in throwing those protective measures away, but that doesn’t mean we have to be dictated by them all the time.

There’s a reason why we don’t dance on a train (another of his videos). We’re going somewhere, for a start, and we may tired or preoccupied. There’s a reason why we don’t look everyone in the eye, because we don’t want or need to connect meaningfully with everyone. (And if we did dance in the train every day it would become meaningless after a while anyway).

But to step out from behind our masks and our fear, just often enough to remind ourselves how human everyone is, to allow ourselves to touch others and be touched by them, is surely a wonderful thing. Surely it fills us up, even if we have to go back to some kind of routine and even if we do have to maintain some degree of separateness from others. Just maybe we allow ourselves to feel a little more, to trust a little more, to be a little more vulnerable. Vulnerability can actually be a very beautiful and disarming thing.

Of course, our self censorship doesn’t just apply to our job. Some of us censor ourselves mercilessly because we are terrified that the real self will be repugnant to others – we censor ourselves because we just want to be liked. In the process we make ourselves, sadly, beholden to the opinions of others, and we become again trapped inside a facade.

I was a much more outspoken and demonstrative person in my youth. I was also socially extremely clumsy and shudder now as I remember some of the insensitive and totally inappropriate things I occasionally did. ( I’ve forgiven myself for the things I simply did not know how to do, but I do still cringe a little!)

Maybe that’s why over the years I have become more reserved, because “When in doubt, take the safe option”. But inside I am anything but reserved! The challenge is how to stay in touch with who you are in the midst of managing how you relate and work with others. A healthy self image is obviously a huge boon, but those of us who are still working on that have to do their best to still stay true, at least on the inside, with the real us.

And of course all this vulnerability with others can also give others a chance to stab us in the back (or in the front). So…. we need to know when to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and when not to. But let’s at least allow ourselves to ask that question “Can I reach out, can I open myself up, can I make myself vulnerable, even just for a little while?” No doubt we will learn over time when this is a good idea and when it isn’t, but let’s be prepared to learn. I think our lives and the lives of others will be enriched as well.

And maybe every now and then, just like Peter Sharp danced in the fountain, we will let our hair down, experience freedom, and refresh our own souls.

Desiderata 11

desiderata11

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 11th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

In a world that worships youth and vitality, it’s very common to see those of us who are older try to hold on to what is young. Being in my late 50’s, I can certainly relate. On this topic, Desiderata has some gentle, but necessary, advice for us.

I know myself I have tried to minimise the effects of aging. Some people say I look young for my age, and I certainly try to stay fit. I go to the gym regularly (have done since my late 30’s). I’ve always been slim, but since my mid forties have had to actively watch what I eat in order to keep weight from packing on. My hair has slowly been thinning for 15 years now and I’ve been able to get away with a ‘semi’ comb-over that didn’t look like a comb-over, but in recent times that’s exactly what it’s looked like and has had to go. I now keep my hair pretty short and it looks fine – it’s just a different look.

I’ll confess I have struggled a bit against aging (those of you who read my blog have noted my occasional comment on this). I don’t want to accept that there are some things I can’t do anymore – I’m a little bit in denial (but only a little, because at least I know I am). I’m very good at not giving up on something, which on the one hand is commendable, but on the other hand is not good if you are putting off the inevitable. And there is nothing so inevitable as aging.

This is where Desiderata comes in – the author gently exhorts us to “take kindly the counsel of the years”, and surrender gracefully. Lovingly put. It’s unwise to resist the inevitable, and even though we shouldn’t just ‘give up’, there is a certain dignity in recognising one’s limitations.

It need not be an abrupt, heart wrenching capitulation.We shouldn’t package ourselves up for the nursing home just yet, but at the same time we shouldn’t try to be a young person all over again. Even though I fully intend to do as much as I can, both physically and mentally, I should still take stock of climbing ladders for example (I’ve read that people over 50 are less able to balance properly and ladders need to be approached with caution). That’s just wisdom.

Part of our problem is not just accepting the limitations of our bodies. I think we have a myth, propogated by society, that youth is where life is at its best. I don’t think that’s true. We’ve all heard stories beginning with “if I could be young again I would…”, but almost always they add in “if I knew what I know now”. Well, there’s the thing – a young person doesn’t know what you know now, and they can’t. That’s the beauty and the fragility of their world. In your world now, the beauty is in your wisdom, is (hopefully) in the rounding out of your character, perhaps also the size of your bank balance, and the fragility for you is unfortunately your body.

We face a different world when we are older, but in some ways it is a better world. My wife and I now have the time and the resources to go on trips overseas. With the benefit of wisdom and our lived experiences, we make decisions about things more easily and confidently than we did as younger people. 

In my line of work I come across a lot of clients who are retired or about to retire. It’s not uncommon, once they’ve retired, for many of them to say “I don’t know how I ever found time to work, I’m so busy doing things!” They’re involved in charities, or helping with grandkids, or going on holidays, or enjoying golf, or gardening, or reading, or visiting friends and family.

Of course, not everyone is in that category. I’ve also known people who didn’t want to retire because they dreaded knowing what to do with themselves once they stopped work. The person whose business I bought several years ago sold it in order to retire, but in handing the business over he went through extreme anxiety, and only a year later he bought another small business just to keep himself busy. One of my clients was forced to retire a few years ago because the business was relocating interstate, and at the age of 72 he reluctantly accepted his redundancy package. Whenever I visit him he looks at a loss to know what to do with himself, and he tries to find all sorts of ways to keep me there for a longer chat, because he’s lonely.

So, old age has its faults and obvious downsides but isn’t automatically a terrible thing. It’s just different. But in our youth filled western environment, we hear all about Botox, face lifts, hair transplants (for balding men) and a smorgasbord of potential beauty enhancers, designed at least in part to stave off the effects of aging. We might look younger (emphasis on the word “might”) but our bodies are still older on the inside.

I don’t really want to go out to night clubs anymore, or have all night rages. I do wish I could still play footy, but not massively. I don’t really want to go through the hassle of finding a life partner again (though I know of course some of you at my age are doing just that). I don’t really want to go through having babies and small children again (though I look forward eagerly to having grand kids). I do wish I had the energy of a younger person, but in reality I don’t need that level of energy anymore, because I don’t have to face raising kids or working extra long hours to impress the boss or get ahead. If necessary, I can take my time to get things done.

It’s simply a different world, a different phase of life for people who are more than half way through their life. But it really is a “surrendering gracefully the things of youth”. I think we do actually need to surrender them. Lets not be too eager to do that before our time, but when that time comes, most of us make a conscious decision to let go.

I don’t want to try and be something that I am not (that theme again, which runs right through Desiderata). If there is something you or I want to do, I think the best approach is to say “Do I really want to do this? Am I being foolish in trying to do something that my age simply will not let me do?” If the answer is yes and then no, then I say go for it.

It’s not up to someone else to tell you to act your age – they can of course, but you have to be the one to decide if there is wisdom there or not. Unfortunately, unless they know you really well, they’re more likely to categorise you and try to limit your decisions by their notions of what an older person can do.

There are men in their 80’s still pushing weights at the gym, there are women of the same age still working in charities, there are people of both sexes writing, painting, giving, sharing. Older age can be full of so much activity, enjoyment, and fulfilment. What more could you ask? Let the young people enjoy their youth – and let yourself enjoy the life that comes with your advancing years.

Interestingly, we are seeing more movies and shows these days featuring old people in lead roles, where they are not trying to be anything other than old. And I think (and ladies you can tell me if I’m wrong) there has been an upsurge in fashion for older women. Perhaps our culture is finally allowing older people to carry themselves with dignity, and be comfortable with who they are.

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 outrage culture

o-yelling17-facebookSource of photo: https://emperorstillwearsnoclothes.wordpress.com/category/uncategorized/

I was listening to someone on the radio yesterday who used the phrase “outrage culture”, referring to a typical knee jerk response common today about real or perceived injustices. I felt there was a lot of truth to their comment, and want to dig into it a bit more.

How often have you read or heard the word “outrage” in connection to something? It’s so common that the word has somewhat lost its meaning, and to be honest, almost has the opposite effect on me now. I end up thinking somewhat cynically “So what are we supposed to be outraged about now?”

Like any word that comes easily to mind, maybe there are a whole range of other words that would be as, or more, suitable. In my opinion, when people lazily pick the word ‘outraged’ they inadvertently lock themselves into the feeling that comes with the word, whether it’s justified or not. So, to me the choice of words is very important from an emotional rather than a semantic point of view.

Let me give an example. In another life I was a counsellor in a drug rehabilitation program. It was back in the days where serious qualifications for such roles were not of paramount importance (these days I wouldn’t get past the first interview). Nevertheless that’s where I was for a few years, and I remember dealing with one client who used to say “that’s shocking” about just about everything he heard or that was happening around him. I remember chatting with him about this, and wondered aloud with him if there were a range of other words he could use, because surely everything is not shocking. Just maybe if he used less emotive words, he might end up feeling less aggrieved about things than he was. 

Because you see, the words we use shape our perspective.

I am not getting any younger and neither is my wife. But I have noticed that she increasingly exclaims “Oh I’m just getting old” whenever something comes up that she has forgotten or can’t relate to. I’ve said to her a few times “Yes we are getting old, but don’t talk yourself into an early grave!”. I must admit I am in a bit of denial about the whole age thing, but if I refer to myself often enough as ‘getting old’ I’ll start to think that way, and I honestly don’t see any benefit in that. My body tells me often enough how old I am – I don’t need to underscore it!

Words have power. They shape not only what others hear, but also what we think as we say them. There are probably lots of words that we misuse or misapply, but this post is about outrage, so let’s come back to that.

People are outraged about everything or so it seems. Outraged at increasing taxes, outraged that someone is getting a raw deal, outraged that they are getting a raw deal, outraged that laws stop them from doing something, outraged that laws allow some people to get away with certain things. Maybe outrage is an emotion people prefer to feel rather than powerlessness. Maybe outrage comes easily because our disposition is already an angry one, and an event or circumstance allows us to boil over in outrage about something that is actually unrelated to our discontent.

It certainly feels good to be outraged. I’d rather feel outraged than powerless. But it’s pretty hard to maintain the rage, because it takes a toll on our body. So if I get outraged about this for a minute, then outraged about that for a minute, then outraged about something else for a minute, maybe I’m letting off steam rather than really have a rock solid conviction about anything.

Of course if you are genuinely outraged about something you have every right to use the word, but seeing it’s been trashed so ruthlessly, perhaps another means of expression is needed.

So what other words could we use? And what other words would allow a range of expression, rather than full-on outrage? (I know this next bit is a little condescending, especially for those of you with terrific vocabularies, but please bear with me – I’m simply trying to make a point). Here are a few similes to anger and outrage, grouped loosely in varying levels of intensity, though I’m sure you could think of many more:

Mild: Concerned, disappointed, worried, apprehensive, upset, annoyed, dissatisfied, disturbed, pained, piqued, put out…

Strong: incensed, angry, offended, indignant, aggrieved, affronted, resentful, vexed…

Intense: shocked, furious, seething, riled…

So, let’s try it on for size: I am concerned, worried, apprehensive and disturbed by Trump’s recent win. Some of you may feel stronger emotions than that, on either side of the political fence. Are there other words you can use other than ‘outraged’ that focuses and sharpens how you really feel?

I am disturbed, furious, vexed, affronted and riled by the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. (Yes I am actually outraged too, but for the reasons already stated I don’t see much point in saying that).

I would like to think that most of us are really not as outraged as we think we are, or not about so many things. Or perhaps we haven’t looked closely enough at a situation to really know the facts, and have gone off half cocked because it feels good to do so. If we allow the facts (rather than Facebook memes) to filter through we may just be not so outraged, even if we are still concerned.

One final thing, and I say it carefully. I’m all for standing up for rights, particularly the rights of others. But sometimes we are trying to be so empowered that everything becomes an issue, when perhaps we should be a little more grateful and a little less determined to have our way. You can see why I want to be careful here. I don’t want oppression in any form to thrive, and we need to stand against it. But in our individualistic society we might end up seeing everything through a distorted lens of self and rights and see injustice and oppression where there is none.

Life is full of things that are fair and unfair, good and bad, reasonable and unreasonable, tragic and heroic. Let’s think twice before jumping on the bandwagon, beating our chests with righteous indignation, and have a closer look first at the facts. Then if it deserves our concern, let’s give it the right amount of attention and energy, and save ourselves, and others, the ignominy of being wrong or guilty of a beat up, or of diluting the meaning of a word that should still be used,  if perhaps more sparingly than it is.

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.