Late Night Thoughts: Plumbing, Girl’s Diaries, Old Age, Real Men, and More

(About a 8 minute read)

Yesterday began bright and sunny.  Then in the afternoon, it began clouding over.  When the air chilled, the squirrels absented themselves, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Eventually, the wind rose and the grass rippled.  Pink blossoms of the redbud tree swayed against the greying sky.  A few drops twitched old leaves.  Then, for a half hour or forty-five minutes, no more drops fell.

Finally, the rain came in earnest.

It’s still raining now in the wee hours of the morning, a moderate rain.

◊◊◊

Mikolas was from Czechoslovakia, back in the day when it was under Soviet control.  He had managed to escape to West Germany, and then immigrate to the United States.

Some years after he came to America, his toilet clogged up around two in the morning.  Mikolas opened his phone book, and found a plumber who advertised 24 hour emergency service.  The plumber dutifully came out and unstopped Mikolas’ toilet with nothing more than a common plunger.

To Mikolas’ amazement, he received by the end of the month a bill for $50, which would be about $225 in today’s money.  Mikolas was struck by the genius of the man.

Consequently, Mikolas bought a plunger, and began advertising himself as an emergency 24 hour service.  Perhaps a half dozen times a month he would be woken up by a phone call.  “This is Mikolas.  How may I help you?”  If the problem was anything other than a stopped up toilet, he would say, “All of our crews are out on calls at the moment.  It will be a few hours wait.”  No one would want to wait.

But if the problem was a stopped up toilet, Mikolas would earn $50 that night.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, as I recall, a team of social psychologists undertook to study teenage girl’s diaries from the 1950s and 1990s.

They found many similarities, but also that the ’50s diaries significantly mentioned the girl’s concerns with self-improvement.  The girls were writing quite a bit about getting better grades, cultivating virtues, such as kindness, and developing their skills, such as sewing.

The ’90s diaries had a different focus.  Diets, body-image anxieties, cosmetics, fashions, and what the boys thought of them.

◊◊◊

It is arguable that advertising has a greater impact on culture these days than does literature.

◊◊◊

Slower thinking in old age?  Perhaps not!

A few years ago, a computer simulation of old and young brains by scientists at Tübingen University in Germany suggested that older people might be processing information as fast as younger people — but just more of it.  That is, as you age, you have more information to sort through before you can respond to something, which gives the appearance of thinking slower.

The study was conducted in 2014.  I have just now finally digested it.

◊◊◊

Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself you have built against it.  — Rumi

◊◊◊

“Failures” aren’t failures if you learn from them.  They’re progress.

It seems to me there is little or no progress in politics these days.

◊◊◊

My second wife was, on her mother’s side, a direct descendant of a samurai — or more properly, in her case, a bushi — family that had been hatamoto to the Tokugawa shogunate.  To call her family “samurai”, she told me, would be a demotion in Japanese terms.  They were bushi, warriors.

Her family of warriors had at one time owned most of the land that is now southern Tokyo, and they were still quite traditional in some ways, despite that her mother had married an American.

My ex-wife’s grandmother thought that her granddaughter should be raised as a traditionally as possible, and taught her many of the ancient attitudes, skills, and customs, such as what it meant to be bushi, and how to wield the ko-naginata, or women’s pole sword.  Since her grandmother was Tomoko’s primary caregiver growing up, Tomoko spoke no more than two dozen words of English until she was 16 and immigrated with her mother and father to the United States.

Tomoko — whose name was spelled uncommonly to reference the “To” in Tokugawa —  in many ways retained her grandmother’s teachings into adulthood.  Nothing made that clearer to me than the day I wrote my first poem to her.

Until then, I had written exceedingly few poems in my life, and I had kept none of them, so Tomoko had quietly concluded that I simply lacked any inclination or ability to compose poetry.  Then, about 12 years after we’d met, and two years into our marriage, I found my poetic voice.  Or at least, one of my voices, and I wrote a poem to her.

At the time, I was in the habit of buying her flowers on Fridays and having them delivered to her work, because she worked weekends.  So that Friday at the florists, I attached the poem to the flowers.  Then I returned to my business, and worked late until perhaps ten or eleven o’clock.  When I got home, I was shocked to find Tomoko had been crying.

It was quite unusual for her to cry, and perhaps you can imagine some of the thoughts that immediately ran through my mind when she said she was crying because of the poem!  “My god, was it that bad!”, I said, trying to cheer her up.  However, she didn’t laugh, but began explaining to me something that in it’s own way shocked me even more than her tears.

I’ve forgotten exactly how she said it, but the gist was that she now regarded me as a “true male”, a real man.  That puzzled me, of course, because I was not in the habit of doubting my masculinity, and I had assumed she wasn’t either.  But when I got to questioning her, the truth came out.

In her mind, she had never doubted that I was most of the things she expected in a man of her own class, but since I had never shown any inclination or ability to write poetry, she had assumed I was lacking in the one thing left that was necessary to make me a “true male”.   A profound sensitivity to what it means to be alive.

For Tomoko, any old male could be, say, brave, because any old male could be dull enough to not feel the intensity of life.  How could you call such bravery “true bravery” when all it might amount to is giving up a life you don’t cherish enough anyway?  She had never doubted that I was brave enough in that way.  But in her view, it took a true male to be brave while yet acutely aware of being alive.  My poem had struck her as sensitive enough that I now qualified as capable of feeling life intensely.  That is, it wasn’t entirely the poem itself that had moved her, but the intensity of it.

All of this was such foreign thinking to me that my fascination with it almost overwhelmed my shock at realizing she had up until then thought of me as somewhat less than her ideal male.  I felt a little resentful that she hadn’t told me any of this before.  But that night proved to be the beginning of a change in our relationship.

Tomoko had experienced various forms of abuse during her childhood which had almost certainly left her with a nearly full blown borderline personality disorder.

She was brilliant, and would, say, do calculus problems in her head to stave off boredom during her idle moments, but she couldn’t control her volcanic rages.  There is no real cure for BPD, which involves permanent alterations to four areas of the brain, and back then, there was no effective medication nor therapy for it, either.

So her periodic rages never went away, but during the lulls between them now, Tomoko’s respect for me — which had, it turned out, been almost perfunctory by her Japanese standards — profoundly deepened, she displayed an openness to me that hadn’t been there before, and she even became, for the first time, wholly devoted to me.

I wrote a number of other poems to her after that first one, but none of them brought about any such unexpected revelations as that first.

Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Poets, Compliments, Change, Tragedy, and More

(About a 9 minute read) 

Boyd Stace-Walters (a self-described “worldly epistemologist and logician”, and an  occasional guest blogger on Café Philos) is quite right about the nature of poets, I think.

As he put it to me just days ago, “They can possess astonishing insights, turn the old and familiar truths into something new again with their heretical alchemy, but — alas! — they are fundamentally to the very last one of them irresponsible.

“You have only to conduct an experiment:  Simply put a dozen of them in a room together; tell them their chore — their obligation — their sacred responsibility, is to contemplate ‘truth’; throw in a case of wine so they will be content to stay in the room; then wait a few hours before you return.

“You won’t find they’ve formulated a single decent epistemology between them!  Not a one!  And not even with all that wine to lubricated the flow of logic.  Wasted that.  Far more likely they’ll all be naked and piled into a writhing heap, I dare say, more selfishly concerned with staying warm from their own body heat or something, than with a dispassionate inquiry into the nature of truth at all.”

I dare say Boyd Stace-Walters is right.  Scandalous people, poets.  Simply scandalous.

◊◊◊

Their dreams and visions poets take
And freeze them into words
To thaw the hearts and minds
Of men and women,
So they can be reborn.

Yet never ask that poets keep
A journal of their logics
For never will a poet stay
Nobly focused on such projects.

◊◊◊

The blogger known to many of us, and hopefully to Interpol, as “Mindfump” has published on the blog, 25,000 Light Years, as well as on his own blog, a rather dark post that intelligently analyzes his thoughts and feelings about compliments.

As it happens, he finds compliments to be highly problematic, and has very little praise for them.  The post is nevertheless a worthwhile read, I believe, for the frank and honest insights it provides into how compliments might be misused by those who  inflict them in bad faith, as well as how they might be understood by those who suffer from depression.

My own take on compliments is, so far as I know, as unique as it is wacky.  I seldom, very seldom, mean to flatter, curry favor with, or obligate someone by complimenting them. If I ever wish to do one of those things, I am knowledgeable enough of human nature to know how to flatter, curry, and oblige using far more effective means than compliments.

But I almost never feel a need for such nonsense because I have no one in my life I need to flatter, curry, or oblige: No boss, no wife, and my friends are a remarkably tolerant and accepting lot.   Yet, on the whole, I compliment people quite a bit.

One reason I do so is simply to signal to others — especially those who don’t know me — that “I mean no harm to you”.  But there’s a wholly more important (to me) reason I so frequently compliment others.  And that reason comes in two parts.

First — and this might admittedly be the wackiest reason for complimenting anyone that I myself have ever heard of — I enjoy figuring out positive things about people.  It’s even sort of a game that I play with myself.   The goal is to be spot on.  To be positive, but highly accurate.  I take pride in my ability, not to compliment people, but to see right into them.

I first started doing that — started looking for positives in folks — back when I employed people.  I noticed that I was at the time quite negative about my employees, that I saw their weaknesses much more readily than their strengths.

And I had the wits to recognize how that affected my bottom line.  In any leadership position, you accomplish far more if you assign tasks according to people’s strengths, than you accomplish if you don’t.  It’s almost just as simple as that.

So I realized that not seeing my employees in a positive light was very likely costing me dollars.  I solved the problem by carefully assessing each employee’s strengths in turn, and then memorizing those strengths so well that I could in an instant recite to myself at any given moment at least five work-related strengths for each person in my employ.

After leaving business, I retained that habit, and expanded considerably on it.  But none of that answers the question of why I bother to mention my assessments to others.   The short answer to that is: Because human lives are all too often tragic.

Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. –John Watson (the quote is often mistakenly attributed to Plato).

◊◊◊

Next time I’m in a bar — at some crucial moment in the evening — I want to lean close to whoever I’m with and then, as if confiding some deeply personal thing,  whisper, “The sciences are communal efforts to arrive at reliably intersubjectively verifiable facts and predictive hypotheses”.  Then lean back, wink at them knowingly and say, “But please keep that just between us”.  And then, abruptly change the subject.

◊◊◊

I like to meditate in nature, perhaps while overlooking a river or a lake.  Water seems to draw me into meditation.   Such settings make me often acutely aware of how transient is everything, every experience, whether internal or external.  And how so often things come and go while leaving no more evidence of their passing than a ripple in the water, or a bird in flight.

Yet, at the same time, the beauty of nature affirms life despite its transience.  Transience becomes then, not an occasion for regret or sadness, but the essence of renewal, rebirth moment by moment.

Clinton Lake Before the Night

I can see the setting sun
Burning colors in your hair.

There’s nothing we can do
To keep those colors there.

I can see the raven cross
The liquid changing sky,

And in my heart I know
We too must pass on by.

I will not make you promises
That life itself will surely break,

But I can be with you this moment
In these fires on Clinton Lake.

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About 40 years ago I was at uni studying (as one of my two minors) Comparative Religion.  One day, after class, my professor, another student, and I got into a discussion during which I said something that startled the other student.

He was taking Comparative Religion because he aimed to be a Baptist minister like his father someday.  And although I no longer recall now what startled him, I remember the dismay on his face and the aggressive tone of voice in which he asked me, “Are you a Christian?”  It was more challenge than question.

I can only suppose he had at some point that semester concluded I was a fellow believer.  What else could explain such a strong reaction at discovering the truth?  Before I could answer, our professor turned to him and said, “Paul is not a Christian.  He’s a pre-Christian.  His worldview is as if he’s not yet heard of Christianity. Try thinking of him as an ancient Greek with a tragic worldview.”

Now and then in my life, an older, more knowledgeable or experienced person, has said something to me that I sensed was true, but that I was clueless how it was true.  That was one of those times.  I could see our professor’s words puzzled the other student, too.  But at the moment, I was more grateful that they shut him up.

Today, I believe I can make a reasonably good guess what my professor had in mind.  For about a generation and a half, tragedy flourished in ancient Athens. I don’t specifically mean here tragic plays — although those were a significant part of it all — but more comprehensively, I mean the tragic worldview.

In a nutshell, the tragic worldview consists of the notion that humans have an inherent flaw, a flaw they can never fully escape, that tends them towards self-defeat and even destruction.

The precise nature of that flaw is hotly debated among scholars, and I have my views of it, too.  I think the flaw is embedded in the nature of human intelligence.  The easiest way to describe it is, “We are smart enough to get ourselves into troubles we are not smart enough to get ourselves out of”.

To me, that’s a slightly superficial, but workable definition of the tragic flaw.  But do I really have a tragic worldview, as perhaps my professor was getting at?

In so far as I might actually know myself, the answer is yes, but with the qualification that it’s just one of a half-dozen or so worldviews that I shift between when trying to make sense of life and the world.

◊◊◊

Once I knew a woman people could not praise enough for her beauty.  Some would say, “She is beautiful!”, and place such huge weight and emphasis on their words that you felt they were trying to scorch the words on your brain with a hot iron in their enthusiasm to communicate.  And they seemed very much to mean both her body and her personality.

I knew her well enough to make a study of her, and I came to the careful conclusion that — if one were perfectly dispassionate about it — she was only a little bit above average in looks, but that she moved with such poise and grace you might never notice her more or less average features.

Yet, I also thought the full truth of her beauty lay beyond even that: She was mindful, you see.  She spoke to you with sheer attentiveness, an attentiveness that made you feel you were at that moment the most important person in the world to her, and that she cherished every second she had with you.  In the off-beat way in which I define “spirituality”, she was eminently spiritual.

What makes us feel someone is physically beautiful?  I learned from her that we can sometimes honestly believe a person is physically extraordinary because of nothing more physical than the impression left on us by her spirituality.

Be Yourself! A Guide From Why to How

(About a 30 minute read)

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:  “Zusya, what’s the matter?”

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché.  They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express.  I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.

It is also easy to ridicule clichés.  I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous.  “Be true to yourself” is no exception.  “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life!  If you’re like me, you have wondered at times:  Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference?  Well, you’re in luck!  Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95!  Simply call…”.   Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.

For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves.  Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”.  Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied.  Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent.  For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.

It runs deeper than that, though.  Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self.  For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self.   “Mommie,  I’m not like that!”

During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies.  The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self.  At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.

Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own.  It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.

During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums.  So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves.  These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying.  Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret of all.  When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.

Why be true to oneself?

But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age?  As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.  That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.

In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others.  And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills.  In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”

Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.

Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people.  I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around.  And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se.  I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.

Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.

What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. –Oscar Wilde

As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so.  One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves.  Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are.  I have written extensively on that issue here.  A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.

“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things.  Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things.  Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”.  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves.  If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.  ― Jim Morrison

Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others.  I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person.  Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself.  Then you start changing.  That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front.  In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.

Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge.  Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of.  We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth.  But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth.  If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!

Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest.  There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see.  Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage.  This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable.  (Consequently, I have mentioned them.  You can trust me to do things like that.)   I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.

What is the self?

It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to?   “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”

Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives.  In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person.  In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.  The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it.  It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.

In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion.  You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness.  The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese).  And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self.  As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”.  And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

The self,  simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.

But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves.  Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent  multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.

Is it possible to discern in all that mess a core or true self?

I think so.  What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.

A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth.  Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life.  The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.

Another example might be how consciousness basically works.  Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness.  For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority.  It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently.  On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”

The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie.  What?  I don’t rank a Brad Pitt?  There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works.  Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.

A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt.  Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives.  They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.

To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves.  That only seems to make sense to me.  We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us.  That are not traits of us.

What does it mean to be true to ourselves?

Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart

When I recall the appearance of various people in my life,  I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on.   But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.

It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it.  As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself.  “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!”  Shrug.  His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.

Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room.  We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it.   As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes.  Especially adult fakes.

We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car.  It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves.  Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Anything but contrary.

There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic.  But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them.  True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.

Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.

What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity?  For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself,  or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.

The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity.    Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:

  1. Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
  2. Unbiased processing:  Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
  3. Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
  4. Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.

There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic.  The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.

First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.

That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves.  I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves.  A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.

Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable.  For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact.  Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.

If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so.  Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be.  Then review the journal each evening.  You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided.  Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).

Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.

Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships.  This is more important than it might sound at first.  For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship.  Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile.  In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you.  You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.

Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.

  The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse

The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible.  Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity.  I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself.  Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”.  But I have  written more about that here.

Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves.  I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything.  At least not yet.  You are so lucky!

Fancy Summary

Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you.  However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.

That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed:  When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”.  This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love.  And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity.  When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.

In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self,  the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.

Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one.   Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here.  I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.

Thank you for reading!  Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post!  I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!

Tara Lyn: Leaning Into the Light

(About a 10 minute read)

At the time I knew her, Tara had but one passion in life: People.  Specifically, the people she personally knew.  I don’t recall her ever mentioning someone as remote to her as a celebrity or some other personage she’d never met, but she was just as fervent in discussing her friends and acquaintances as any newlywed is about discussing their beloved.

Indeed, perhaps the only really significant difference between a newlywed and Tara was that a newlywed tends to ignore any faults or flaws in their beloved, while Tara seemed incapable of ignoring anything about the people she was so fascinated by.  That’s by no means, however, to imply she was overtly critical of people.

As a rule, she was not.  Or at least, she appeared not to criticize people.

It took me awhile to catch on to her because she would say things about people, such as “Brian is so jealous of Sammy”, that I assumed meant she was judging them.  That is, I assumed she believed, as I did, that jealousy is a negative emotion, and that she must therefore on some level disapprove of it in Brian.

Gradually, however, I learned that Tara was oddly — quite oddly, when you think about it (for it is human nature to judge) — rather on the dispassionate side when it came to communicating her thoughts about people.  Almost as dispassionate, I sometimes thought, as a chemist reporting on the interaction of sodium and chlorine.

Of course, I’m sure she did in fact judge people.  How could she not?  But the fact is, she seldom expressed judgment.  She spoke of the commonplace and the outrageous in the very same tone of voice, the very same body language.  She could say — and this is a true example, near as I can recollect it now — “Danny hit Rene last night because she said something he didn’t like about his getting a job.” — and sound just the same as when she once idly mentioned that Rene and Danny were moving in together.

The one time I can now recall Tara actually expressing disapproval — if that’s what it indeed was — was when she told me about a young woman who, at the age of 14, had been raped by her step-father.  Tara ended her otherwise dispassionate account with something along these lines, “She was always telling jokes and laughing before that happened.  Then she kept to herself a lot, and never much laughed again.”  I have a fairly vivid memory of her saying that because it was so rare of her to express disapproval.  But she expressed it so subtly, so gently, that I think you would have needed to know her as well as I did by then to detect the disapproval in her voice.   Disapproval or sorrow, I’m still not sure to this day which.

Tara was one of those very rare people who seemed to more or less embody Spinoza’s statement, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”  She would not, however, have ever heard of Spinoza, and had I quoted him to her, her first question would surely have been, “Is he a friend of yours?”

She could show surprising general insight into people, even though she herself seldom spoke of people in general terms.  I once shared a poem with her that I’d written about a fictional “Kathy”.   After I’d read the poem to her, Tara fell silent, looking deeply perplexed.  “What do you think of it?”

“I don’t know.” Tara said.

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s just that I’ve never known anyone in my life like Kathy.  Did you make her up?”  I no longer have the poem to test it, but I’d wager eight in ten people would not have so quickly realized Kathy was a fictional character.

I hired Tara as my “secretary” in my final year in business.  “Secretary” was a bit of a stretch; she had almost no real secretarial skills; and she served instead as my data entry clerk.  That’s to say, I hired her with the expectation I could train her up right and whole to be a real secretary, an expectation she proved to have little or no interest in fulfilling, just as she had little or no interest in anything other than the people she knew.  I eventually resigned myself to her much needed help with data entry, for that she was willing to do, and do well.

Tara also resisted any urge I had to keep to a strictly formal employer/employee relationship.  A mutual friend once told me, “Tara says you’re more of an uncle to her than a boss”, and I had to admit, that was how she treated me.  There came a time, for instance, when she made a habit of calling me each evening in the office.  Around nine o’clock the phone would ring, Tara.  For the next forty-five minutes to an hour, she would fill me in on what everyone had been doing since she her last update during her working hours.  It took her that long because Tara so seldom, if ever, generalized.  Instead, she recounted details.  All the details.

It also took her that long because she quite often asked me for advice.  I once questioned her about that, and she replied, “You’re the only one who gives me good advice.  Everyone else just says things like, ‘Go burn his house down’, but you give me things I can really do.”  Which was ironic because, by that time, I had discovered that — of the two of us — Tara was the wisest.

No, she didn’t know she was wise, but she was.  And she was wise in a very special way — a way that is often neglected or under-valued by Westerners. For we in the West so often think of wisdom as something shown through a person’s words.  So far as I recall, the closest Tara ever came to saying something that might pass as wise with many of us was perhaps when she one day told me, “Boss, I don’t worry about doing the right thing or the wrong thing like you do.  I just try to do the best thing.”

Somewhere in his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mentions that the Inuit word for “wise person” literally means, “Someone who makes wisdom visible through their actions or behavior”.  The word has nothing specifically to do with what a person says or doesn’t say, except as that might be accounted a part of their overall behavior.  Rather, the emphasis is on visible actions (and perhaps equally telling moments when one chooses not to act).  Tara, I came to believe, was a wise person in the sense of the Inuit word.

It was quite a long haul for me to arrive at that conclusion about her.  For one thing, I had to overcome my prejudice that wise people spout wise sayings.  The thought that a wise person might not say many wise things at all was simply foreign to me.  Another prejudice I needed to overcome was that someone who routinely asked me for advice might actually be wiser than me.  But when I finally got around to observing how skillfully Tara appeared to be negotiating her life, as compared to how clumsily I seemed to be negotiating my own, it revolutionized my understanding of her.

For instance, at about midpoint during the year I employed her, Tara’s boyfriend abruptly decided to cheat on her.  Tara spent all of three days and nights crying on her couch, waiting for him to come home.  Then she had, as she put it, the revelation that, “I was doing no one any good, least of all myself, by feeling sorry for me”.  With that, she picked herself up, and returned to her circle of friends.  The ache was not over for her, nor were any of the issues involved resolved.  But she was firmly set on getting on with her life, come what might of the boyfriend business.

I doubt Tara had ever heard of — or at least had absorbed — the expression, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”, but no one had to have told her that, because she lived it.  Not just when her boyfriend cheated on her, but in one manner after the next.  Tara could drop an emotional burden as spontaneously as a child can let go of a grandparent’s hand to run play on a swing.  I believe the metaphor of a child is correct because hearts as resilient as hers usually belong either to children or to sages.

But was Tara really a sage?

I do not think she would compare with the Buddha, nor even, perhaps, with a few other people I actually know.  I saw her falter more than once; that is, I saw her do something I regarded as foolish, sometimes terribly foolish.  But it seemed to me that each time she faltered, she picked herself up, and made the best of her new situation.  Sage or not, I am fairly certain she was at the time I knew her, wiser than me.  Yet, only if you looked at, not what she said, but at what she did or did not do.

Barry López again:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

I mean it as no criticism when I say that Tara would not have fully understood Lopez’s words.  She wasn’t educated well enough to entirely grasp what Lopez might mean by “finding darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself”, for instance.  And life’s “great pressing questions” never seemed to me to cross her mind, at least not in any abstract way.

But Tara was as level-headed, as dispassionate as anyone I’ve known when it came to seeing people as they are, seeing both the light and darkness of them.  And she was surely empathetic, although I’m not certain that her empathy often rose to the level of compassion.  It might have, but I just don’t know.  She did, however, in so many ways, “lean into the light”.

I never discovered even a hint of malice or cruelty in her.  She was forgiving perhaps to a fault (unless one understands her willingness to forgive as a refusal to emotionally cling to things she had no control over).  She strove to tell the truth when talking of the one thing that really mattered to her, people.

Her circle of friends and acquaintances included many people whose behavior can be clinically described as “dysfunctional”, people full of petty hatreds, foolish envies, habitual cowardice towards the more powerful, and just as habitual bullying towards the less powerful then they; people who never seem to value what they have, nor ever get what they want.  Tara lived in that world, but she was not of it.  It did not turn her.

Instead, she was to some remarkable degree true to herself, albeit not like a stone, but like water.  She didn’t oppose things that were not her, she flowed around them, under them, or over them.  I would not call her a sage at the time I knew her, more than twenty years ago, but I would not be at all surprised if I’d call her that today, should we ever meet again.  Last I knew, she was married to a man she loved and the mother of six children.

What is Spirituality?

(About a 9 minute read)

The word “spiritual” annoys some people.

Annoys them like the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to practice her lines by the emotionally dim light of a single candle in her impoverished, but charismatic attic apartment, so that she rushes to the window, furious now as a Trump tweet, and ready to throw her shoes at the cat, but instead in the darkness trips on the lethally upturned edge of her oriental carpet, a gift of her mothers, then falling, falling, falling her head hard on the window ledge, splits open her skull: Death in the night.

Annoys them like that.

Or maybe it really annoys them, if you know what I mean.

Perhaps the reason it annoys them is because the word so often refers to vague, intangible things that are hard to grasp or get a feel for.  Then again, on different tongues, the word means different things.  When you hear someone talk of their spirituality, it can be very frustrating or even impossible to sort out what they might actually mean.

That can be annoying.  Just as annoying as the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to…   Oh, never mind.

So I decided to take a brief look around the net to see what definitions of “spirituality” I could find:

  • A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, typically involving a search for meaning or purpose in life.
  • The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material things.
  • One’s sense of awe, wonderment, and reverence towards nature or the universe.
  • Self-transcendence achieved through the recognition of one’s connection to the All.
  • One’s freedom from the illusions of the self.
  • The search for meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
  • Our innate drive to evolve, to improve, to learn, to continuously grow, to push our boundaries, reach our full potential.
  • A drive to live a life authentic to one’s truth, cultivate virtues, and expand one’s consciousness.
  • Seeking happiness and peace internally, within oneself.
  • Moving beyond the sense of being a person, an individual, and merging with god.
  • Serving people, uplifting them to make a difference in their lives.
  • Finding the answers to questions like, “Who am I?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What else is there?”

Those dozen definitions came up after a brief search.  One scholarly article I came across stated that an apparently more thorough survey than mine had found “twenty-seven explicit definitions of spirituality that showed little agreement between them”.

The sheer number of explicit definitions might be important in light of the fact that somewhere around 80% or 90% of all intellectual arguments are the equivalent of two people arguing over how far they can “throw a ball” while one of them is thinking of a baseball, the other is thinking of a gala dance, and neither of them is aware they are talking past each other.

By the way, that’s not just my opinion.

Back in pre-internet days, a couple of philosophy professors got curious how many intellectual arguments are actually no more than semantic disputes. Borrowing their methodology from the sciences, they studied the issue and discovered that (as near as I can recall now) the figure was around 80% or 90%.

Given the many definitions of “spirituality” I would not be surprised if any arguments over the nature of it were even more often semantic than those figures.

When I think of all of the above, it sure makes me want to pile on with my own definition of “spirituality”.  After all, if there are at least 27 explicitly different definitions already, and those definitions are likely to cause more idle semantic disputes than all the exclamation points used by the world’s total teenage population within any given year, then why shouldn’t I get in on the fun?

Besides, starting another round of semantic arguments looks to me even more entertaining on the face of it than sitting beneath some poor actresses’ window making cat noises — which is what I usually do for fun.

So here’s what I mean by the word “spirituality”:  A person’s spirituality is the manner and extent to which they deal with their psychological selves.

What do I mean by that?  Hell, why am I asking you, dear reader?   I should be asking myself that question!  Ok, then.  Here’s what I mean by that.  First, by “psychological self”, I mean our “I”, our “ego”, our normal waking consciousness.  Those three terms have somewhat different meanings, but I see the psychological self as a sort of combination of all three concepts.  Looked at as the I,  it is who we think we are.  Looked at as the ego, it is the psychological function that provides us with the sense of self that we can then defend against threats.  Without that sense of self, we would not know what to defend.  And looked at as normal waking consciousness, it is the thought process.

I most recently went into much greater detail as to what I consider to be the psychological self in a post, One Reason We Oppress Ourselves, and there is little reason in repeating myself further here.

The fact that our noble species of super-sized chimpanzees has a psychological self provides us with many benefits, but also with many challenges.  The most notable benefit is, as I just mentioned, that it allows us to identify and respond to certain kinds of threats we might not otherwise be able to identify and respond to.  Again, I go into that in much more detail in my earlier post.  Among the many challenges, on the other hand, are these:

  • Seeing threats where there are none.  Which can easily result in anything from unnecessary touchiness or defensiveness to outright violence.
  • The inherent drive of the psychological self to preserve or maintain the status quo, to stay constant and the same, can lead to a relative inability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes to changing circumstances, new information or facts, or different and better perspectives.
  • It’s inherent drive to aggrandize itself (in so far as that is compatible with maintaining stable sense of self) can create or at least inflame all kinds of excesses, such as greed, lust, gluttony, arrogance, and so forth.  That is, it always wants more than it actually needs, so to speak.
  • It’s tendency to be fascinated with itself can lead to self-absorption, self-centeredness, and narcissism.

To my mind, then, our spirituality can be summed up as the manner and extent to which we deal with those (and other) challenges, as well as deal with the benefits of the psychological self.

For example: An old acquaintance of mine, Chuck, once walked in on his wife and his best friend in bed together.  Twenty years later, Chuck still hadn’t gotten beyond it.  He spoke about it in such fresh terms that, for the first two weeks he and I worked together doing light carpentry, I was under the impression that it had all happened sometime within the last six months.  I also discovered that not a day could go by without him making at least one reference to the event.  But far worse, he had generalized from his wife to all women, and was absolutely certain that every woman on earth was either disloyal, or capable of becoming so at the slightest opportunity.  You could not reason with Chuck about it.  These were views and convictions that he clung to as firmly as if his very life depended on his holding them.

Of course, I would not say Chuck’s ego was the sole and only cause of his problems.  It’s possible he suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, but if he did, then it was a peculiarly focused disorder, because Chuck was pretty much normal in every other respect that I was aware of.  On the other hand, Chuck’s problems fit the pattern I’ve come to recognize as behaviors associated with the psychological self.  As I see it, the event and all that surrounded it had become a part of Chuck’s self-identity, his sense of who he was as a person, and hence his willingness to go to extraordinary lengths preserving it.

It is along those same lines that I would describe Chuck’s spirituality.  That is, I would say that his ego was attached to the event in much the same way as some Buddhists would speak of “attachment”.

It seems to me, some people not only have more and stronger attachments than others, but that they also seem to be less skillful at dealing with them than others.  For instance, Chuck’s view of women seemed to thwart him from finding women who would not betray him.  That is, it became, so far as I know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Chuck and I worked together on and off for about three years or so.  Most of that time, there was no woman in his life.  But twice, for relatively short periods, he found someone.  Both of his flings ended when he discovered the women were cheating on him.  Perhaps he was just unlucky, but I got the impression he might have seen a woman highly likely to be loyal to him as something of a threat to his self-identity, and then passed them by for women he could “better relate to”.

What made Chuck’s behavior unskillful was that he was working against himself.  On the one hand he would tell me he wanted to “settle down with someone”.  On the other hand he seemed to pick the most unlikely candidates for it.

Einstein once remarked that, “The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” It is not entirely clear from the context in which he made the statement exactly what he meant by “self”, nor what he meant by “liberation”.  But Einstein was at least a little familiar with Buddhism, so his notions of those things might have been informed by Buddhist ideas of them.  I myself am sympathetic to Buddhism, albeit I’m far from considering myself a Buddhist.  Instead, I consider myself God’s gift to women, something no Buddhist would ever do. I do not believe however that many Buddhists would entirely agree with Einstein, for I do not think many Buddhists believe human worth depends on how liberated a person is.  If that’s the case, then I agree with the Buddhists: Chuck’s basic value as a human is equal to my own — as well as to all the world’s other folks.

Liberation from the self might be the spiritual goal of many people, especially, I think, in the East.  Yet for me that personally seems improbable to the point of near impossibility.  Others might obtain it, but I do not suspect I will.  So for me the ideal is to wear my self as lightly as I can.

By that I mean to deal with, as skillfully as I can at any given moment, my psychological self.  Naturally, I do not intend my definition of “spirituality” to replace the other twenty-seven plus definitions on the internet.  I am not arguing that my definition is the defi….

Umm…please excuse me a moment, there’s a cat howling outside my window.

No, wait…that sounds exactly like that annoying actress who lives next door to me.  She’s always doing that!  Making cat noises beneath my window like some pathetic fool idiot or moron.  And only because I started it all last fall.  Damn her!

Before I grab my shoes, I must ask, so how do you personally define “spirituality”?  What does the word mean to you?  Your opinions, observations, notions, wisdom, and generous donations of catnip are most welcomed!

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

(About 7 minutes to read) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, what is our core nature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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