Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change— for it is the truth I seek, and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance.
Following on from my contemplations of the impact of our ego and pride on our ability to accept change in our lives, another trend appears to emerge from the same cycle. That trend relates to our need to be significant in the lives of those that influenced our lives at a point in time when our identity was still being formed. Significance takes many forms and is hardly limited to just being able to play a meaningful role in the life of another. That is the easy part. You either find that acceptance or you don’t. If you don’t, you feel rejected and betrayed and you choose to hold on to that as a defining moment, or you choose to let it go and move on.
The more difficult part is when we don’t play a meaningful role any longer in their lives, but still desire to be perceived more positively by them. This is significantly more damaging than the previous scenario of rejection because we pretty much set ourselves up for failure in the process. The less meaningful our role in someone’s life, the less likely we are to influence their perception of us. Worse still, it assumes that they still care about how they perceive us. In other words, we still assume that they notice or care about our development and progress in life.
Problem is, more often than not, they don’t. More often than not, they’ve moved on and we’re still stuck in a moment in time that has long since become insignificant for them. They’ve either made peace about it, or chances are it probably never meant as much to them as it did to us. And so we set out on that hamster wheel trying to turn it faster than we did the day before hoping that someone will notice the improved performance, while not realising that the sum total of their interest is really just whether or not the wheel is turning. But we assume that their interest must be more than that because of the gravity we placed on the influence they yielded in our lives. That’s a burden of responsibility on them that only exists in our minds and probably never even occurred to them.
So we have choices. Several choices. We could impose ourselves in their space, bare our souls, and hope they reciprocate and appreciate so that our struggle to please or impress them receives some validation. Or we could recognise that maybe the emphasis of that experience may have been exaggerated in our own minds because we had nothing more significant as an influence in our life at that time. Or, we could let go of it all and simply focus on progressing our development because it’s taking us in a direction that we consciously choose for ourselves, regardless of the past experiences that may have prompted us in that direction. Most don’t even consider the last option because of how fixated they are on meeting expectations that are formed only in their own minds.
Given how blatantly destructive this cycle can be, I’m compelled to believe that there must be something more that drives this behaviour. More than just the fulfilment of an aspiration rooted in a past relationship or past lifetime. I think that something more is related to our need to be recognised for what we achieve. It’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest. If no one is around to witness it, its fall from grace is meaningless. There is no regret or sympathy, or even a simple recollection of its moments of glory when it stood tall and provided shade and beauty. Fortunately for us trees are beautiful independent of our appreciation of them.
The same is true for people whose focus is internal rather than external. They are not driven by validation, but rather by contribution. Conviction to serve because it resonates with their principles, rather than desire to be celebrated because it resonates with their ego. I guess the point is, the more we need to be recognised for the struggle we’ve endured, even if that struggle is simply a figment of our own imagination, we will find reasons to emphasise the remnants of that struggle at every turn until someone validates the strength it took for us to rise above it in spite of the gravity of it. That validation becomes ever more significant to us when we allow ourselves to be defined by the events of our lives, rather than our contribution towards the lives of others.
Self-worth. It’s the one thing that drives us to do the most destructive things, mostly to ourselves before we do it to others. Those that fight the realisation of that low self-worth most fiercely are the ones that become more abrasive and abusive towards others around them. Those that succumb to it without feeling worthy of overcoming it recede and become mutes in the landscape of life. They are the placeholders among us. They are available to be solicited but do not themselves actively contribute. Their inclusion in such solicitation is what appeases their ego enough to give them reason to continue restraining their individual expression from fear of reducing their chances of being included. They are constrained in their thinking and focus their efforts on fulfilling expectations falsely believing that they are serving a greater good, while in reality are too afraid to serve independently.
When we go through life waiting for our struggles to be recognised, to be seen as the walking wounded, or the ones that survived, we become defined by that survival. We become survivors. Survivors don’t enjoy the sweetness of life. They simply enjoy the deferral of death.
There’s a few quotes that come to mind this morning that I doubt the truth of. One of these is the claim that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. This is a lie. It is a lie of the worst kind because it sets an expectation that is unrealistic.
Those experiences that ravage us most doesn’t strengthen us when we survive it, it strengthens our defences. Like Abraham Lincoln said, as adults we grow to expect that things won’t work out the way we want them to. This is not a sign of strength but rather a sign of tampered reality. Each time something hurts, a dream is eroded. What was previously enchanting will suddenly become taunting because holding on to an utopian ideal leaves us feeling naive and incompetent at times.
Strength doesn’t come from surviving betrayal, or surviving heartache or loss. If that were the case, each betrayal would drive us further from wishing for death rather than closer to it. Strength, for me, has always been an active choice based on hard earned realisations about the nature of people. The only thought that has ever kept me sane throughout the insane morbidity of life has been this:
Your actions are a reflection of who you are, not who I am
This single thought has made it possible for me to drag myself out of the doldrums on more occasions than I care to remember. Strength does not come naturally. Weakness does. Being weak, run-down, and listless requires no effort at all. So the next time someone tells me that what doesn’t kill me will only make me stronger, I’ll ask them very politely to pick a finger.
Some clichés are clichés because people were distracted by the clever use of words rather than the truth embodied within it. The point I really wanted to make in this post was that each time I pick myself up after being knocked down, not only do I have to consciously choose to move beyond it, but lately I’ve realised that every untoward incident in my life has caused me to be that much more sensitive to the innuendos that are often a prelude to my next life’s lesson. Again, the choice to restrain myself from acting pre-emptively under such conditions does not come naturally, but demands a level of mindfulness and conviction that is often not easy to realise.
It then stands to reason that what doesn’t kill me does not make me stronger. Instead, it informs my tolerance levels relative to my capacity. That tolerance level is what makes me brittle because each time I approach it, I get that much closer to snapping. When I’m not aware of it being breached, I do snap. But when I’m mindful of it I find it easy to compose myself realising that the tolerance level is based on the accumulation of experiences up to that point, and is not specifically the current experience that threatens to tip me over. This is usually the sobering thought that keeps me composed when everyone else is ready to justify why snapping would be understandable.
What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It simply makes you more brittle.
I always assumed that the key driver that prevented people from making the changes in their lives that they knew needed to be made was a lack of courage. That lack of courage I always assumed to be the result of fear to embrace the new while giving up the comfort zone or the dysfunction that we’ve grown to cope with. But after an interesting discussion with an undefined acquaintance yesterday I realised that there may be another dynamic to all this that I failed to notice. That dynamic is the issue of pride. Pride is what keeps most of us stuck in ways that we know are sub-optimal in our lives, but we stubbornly persist in our ways because backing down is so strongly associated with failure.
I think in that lies the key to understanding the influence that pride has on our convictions. Convictions, I’ve always believed, is a reflection of priorities. That which we place more emphasis on will receive a greater investment of energy, while everything else will fall in line behind that. So if the way we’re perceived by others is a higher priority than the way we find contentment in our personal space, then it stands to reason that we will nurture those behaviours that sustain that perception rather than make the adjustments that will give us peace. Say hello to chronic ailments and mental disorders. But I’ll leave that rant for another time.
The cycle doesn’t start/stop there because the question then arises as to what it is that influences the priorities that we choose for ourselves? The fact that these priorities are a result of an evolutionary process as we grow and is most often not a distinctive thought process that we experience consciously implies that we’re mostly unaware of these priorities that drive us. I guess in this case priorities are pretty much the choices we make in life. When those choices are well-informed, they serve us well. When they’re not, they drive us towards nurturing perceptions rather than substance.
The underlying drivers that prompt us to make these choices are our beliefs in our ability to be successful in the choices we make. More simply stated, if we are confident we’ll be successful, we’ll be more inclined to pursue the change or the improvement. But if we doubt our ability to reach that goal, we’ll compensate by finding distractions or excuses as to why it’s not possible or important for us to pursue it. That’s where that pride factor comes in. The more proud we are, the less likely we’ll be to expose ourselves to situations where failure is a real possibility. The only time we pursue such ‘risky’ endeavours is if we believe that the repercussions of not doing so would be more severe than the repercussions of failure, which brings us back to the issue of priorities.
If it’s more important for me to maintain the façade I created about the perception of success that I think others hold of me, I will sacrifice relationships or rights that others have over me, because fulfilling those rights or maintaining those relationships is not as important to me as being perceived as a success. Success in this case is not limited to material targets or wealth, but can also relate to simple things like being seen as independent, aloof, or righteous, to name a few examples.
Taking all this back to the opening thoughts, the correlation between the perception of failure if we back down, versus the pride of not wanting to be seen as a failure explains why it is that even in the face of overwhelming odds, we sometimes hold on to behaviours that we know are detrimental to our wellbeing. When the motivation to move forward is greater than the motivation to maintain the façade, that is when conviction will triumph over cowardice. However, I guess if we really wanted to, we could argue that conviction in maintaining the façade is what drives that behaviour as well, so it may be safe to say that conviction can be misguided if pride steps into the equation. And pride, as we know, is a result of focusing on what others think of us rather than being true to what we think of ourselves.
Perhaps conviction is more accurately associated with the latter, as in how we perceive ourselves? Pride prevents honesty in that introspection process because if we perceive ourselves through the eyes of others, we immediately curtail perspectives that may uncover flaws that we know will detract from that perception. This thought process is exhausting. I think that’s a pretty accurate reflection of why most people avoid it, and as a result, why we have so few that act with meaningful conviction and so many that behave like attention whores or victims to society. I suspect there isn’t much difference between the two.
I once heard that you’re never lonely if you like the person you’re alone with. Sounded simple enough, only to discover that most people I know don’t like who they are. Obviously that self-loathing or dislike is rarely displayed overtly, but that’s only if you don’t know what to look for. However, that’s beside the point. On a trip I undertook from Johannesburg to Cape Town yesterday by car, I found myself contemplating what it means to be just me, by myself, without distractions, or definitions, or perceptions to meet. It was interesting.
I realised that the quiet moments are never quiet. What the mouth restrains the mind shouts out loud. My mind drifted to past relationships that I abandoned and relationships that abandoned me. But interestingly though, there was no bitterness attached to the memories. It was simply recollections of events that passed. Events that add to the compilation of moments that personify my life, but hardly ever defining moments. I gave up the ghost of the past a long time ago. It wasn’t difficult to do. I just stopped investing in it.
So this journey by car, almost 14 hours straight, with no one but my thoughts and some nostalgic tunes to keep me company, allowed me moments of pause that is otherwise not possible in the daily clutter of life. It wasn’t a matter of leaving life behind, or trying to escape the race. It was more a moment intended to take a breath. A deep breath. Time to reflect, or not to reflect. Time to allow my mind to travel its own path without deliberation or purpose. It was then that a sobering realisation dawned on me. What was it that defined who I am today?
Surprisingly, I found the radio or the music I had selected for the trip to be an intrusion quite often. In fact, so much so that even the sound of the icy wind howling outside proved to be a distraction when I turned down the audio. But the intrusion was not a harsh one. It wasn’t so because it resurrected unwanted memories or anything like that. Quite the contrary, it imposed on my quiet time with me. Those tunes and noises prompted a response. It demanded attention. I didn’t want that. I wanted time for solace. Time to reflect on whether the path I am travelling is a good one, or the path that I have travelled was in vain. It was time to take stock, but not deliberately so. Perhaps, all this simply prompted me towards considering whether or not there is purpose to being me.
But even such considerations were not entirely the focus of my thoughts. There was no specific focus. That was the beauty of it. I had the soft nagging of deadlines in the back of my mind, but not loud enough to prevent me from stopping to find beauty in the gravel by the roadside. Beauty that is ignored because we’re always too busy with important things, like living up to expectations, or maintaining specific appearances. The bee at the side of the road didn’t care that no one was looking. In fact, after shoving my phone up close to capture the moment, it didn’t seem to care that I was looking either.
But clichés aside, there is a more important truth to all this. A few wild flowers or straggling bees in an abandoned space is not what lent that space beauty. Nor did it detract from it. It simply was that way, independent of my appreciation of it. The fact that I found a moment to pause for long enough to admire and appreciate it in its natural state is what afforded me that moment of beauty. But such appreciation did not alter that scene in any way. Whether I appreciated it or not, it was still true to its nature. Perhaps in that is the life lesson I needed to take.
Doing what I need to do, independent of affirmation or consequence, should not taint my intent behind doing it. The value or beauty that I choose to offer the world should not be based on how I want it to be received, or how it is appreciated or reciprocated. Instead, it should simply be an expression of me. An expression of the sum total of my life’s lessons that inform a more sincere offering without remuneration. But it still did not answer the question that begged a definition of who I am.
I’ve always maintained a romantic notion that stated that I choose not to be defined. I think that ceased to be just a notion yesterday. In fact, probably a long time ago, but yesterday it became a conscious un-subscription from that notion. Definition by definition implies a final state. It implies a completed form, or a finite outcome. I am not yet final. I am not yet fully formed. I will never be fully formed and therefore will never subscribe to a specific definition. Except when I take my last breath. At that moment, and only at that moment, will the sum total of my life’s experiences declare my final definition, and only against that will I be judged.
By those that consider the whole of me, I may be judged fairly. But by those that remain invested in only a single moment of time from a distant memory, they will only be able to judge an abstract moment of what I lived. Their fixation on me, and inadvertently on their own singular moments, will rob them of the beauty of the whole because they opted to remain defined from fear of the belief that they may not be able to exceed what they have already achieved. Some remain rooted in a moment that defined their insignificance, and the fear of discovering that they may be even less significant than that prevented them from being more.
The time I spent with me yesterday is time that is rarely experienced by most. Not because I am better, or more capable, but simply because the saturation of fear and self-loathing defines more souls than life itself ever did.
I am me. And I am not yet complete. I am not a work in progress, nor am I a commodity for sale. And I am yet to be defined.
Too often we consider the hardships of our lives to be the trials we endure. Trials, however, are relative to our perception of what our true goals are in life. In our aspirations to be successful, or more accurately as is true in most cases, to be perceived as successful by others, it’s easy to be distracted into believing that that perception is in fact the goal. If the higher priority is how I’m perceived, and the lesser priority is what convictions I am loyal to, it stands to reason that I will lose sight of my convictions and find myself to be unfulfilled when the taste of success brushes my palate.
I struggle to speak plainly these days. I think this struggle is related to the audience that I have become aware of. I miss the days when I was able to quietly contemplate the fascination of life without a need to articulate, share it, or worse still, get affirmation for it. The more I exposed my thoughts and philosophies to others, the more I attracted like-minded individuals into my space. At first this offered comfort given my need to be sane. Sanity, for me, was determined by whether or not the logic in my head was relatable to the people that I perceived as having normal and clutter-free lives. Little did I know it was all a mirage.
I once read that if everyone were to throw their problems into a pile for everyone else to see, we’d all reach in to take our own problems back, because the problems of others will seem that much more daunting. Perception is probably the true currency of human engagement. We polarise towards that which appears to reflect our struggles or aspirations, assuming that our perception of the same defines its purity as well. These are the mirages we create for ourselves, especially when we’re so outwardly focused that we forget the ‘why’ that exists internally only.
It is the same ‘why’ that is lost when we find success in a public setting. Setting out to change the world is a goal we set when we’re not popular because that isolation often gives us a raw view of everything we think is wrong with the world. That perception changes as we begin to access the niceties. The trinkets that feed the ego and extend our spheres of influence, leading us to believe that changing the world is suddenly possible, and not just an angst-driven dream of a teenager. But soon after this realisation dawns the realisation that in order to continue influencing, we need to remain relevant. Unfortunately, that relevance was spawned from the success we enjoyed when our isolated thoughts became mainstream to those around us. That is the fork in the road right there.
The struggle that I struggle to articulate this morning is that remaining focused on the change I hoped to inspire in the world becomes increasingly difficult as the popularity and its fruit grows. Suddenly I find myself distracted by the subconscious desires I held as a child when I saw the popular kids being smothered with attention and acceptance while I remained the odd one on the outside of the circle peering in. The thirst that went unquenched for so long is suddenly blinding in its fulfillment. It’s akin to that moment when breaking fast on a hot day and taking that first sip of ice cold water. The struggle of the entire day of going without food or water instantly dissipates and is quickly replaced by the intense satisfaction of being able to trace every droplet of relief as it ran through my body fulfilling a need that is so base in its nature, that no amount of success or attention could surpass it at that moment.
Sad then to note that the innate desires that went unfulfilled can so easily overtake lifelong convictions in a moment of acceptance. Acceptance by the same groups that we once saw as part of the problem. The attention whoring that goes with success is ironical. It’s the rise to fame that in fact becomes our fall from grace. But it’s a fall that only we can recognise internally, but rarely do we allow it to be on show externally.
I suspect that I have said much without saying anything at all. The struggle to articulate becomes stronger as I find my philosophies embraced. The need to recede echoes louder than ever. I must withdraw from the charade before I become one with the mirage. If this is the angst I feel with such a small dose of popularity, how much more vacuous must be the existence of those that actively court such popularity instead?
I find it strange when I encounter people that are convinced that only once they understand why they made the mistakes they’ve made will they be able to move forward in life. Or worse still, why they were treated the way they were, only then will they expect or demand better. The irony in this is so blatant that it’s like not noticing the air you breathe until someone suffocates you. Funny how this thought process is equally suffocating and stifling to those that subscribe to it.
Why then do we insist on knowing why before we’re willing to take the next step? I mean, we wouldn’t be able to tell that we were treated badly or that we made mistakes unless we knew the opposing truth to it, right? In other words, the moment I know that I want or deserve something better, it means I know what I don’t want. Again a blatantly obvious truth that most miss. So the question then arises as to why it is that we choose not to act on this knowledge?
Some of it I think stems from a social conditioning that suggests that if you didn’t come up with the answers when you were sent to your room to reflect on your bad behavior, then you remain in the naughty corner until you do. That might work until you reach the age of independent thought, but the moment that age is reached, that excuse or crutch falls away. As usual, to best demonstrate a point we must take it to an extreme, so let’s consider the following scenario.
If I place my hand on a hot stove, I know I will burn. I also know that in future I don’t want to burn, unless you’re a twisted sadist, in which case your problem is much bigger than this. Actually not, but let’s chat about that another day. Anyway, so it doesn’t make sense for me to continue to place my hand on that hot stove simply because I am not yet fully familiar with the mechanics or chemistry that causes such burn to happen. So in future, I will either use tools or apparel that will prevent me from burning because I still need that hot stove, or I will find a safer means to heat my food, like a microwave perhaps.
Simple analogy, but apparently not so simple to implement. I think the difference between this and life is also simple. We don’t ever have hope that the hot stove will be able to heat our food if kept cool. So we have no expectation of the nature of the stove to change, or the need for heat to be different. So I guess we could either choose to eat cold or uncooked food, which is distinctly unpleasant at most times, or we adapt our approach to get what we want without harming ourselves in the process. Imagine what it would be like if the food thought it was unworthy of being heated when the stove was cold? Or maybe it would taste better if only the stove would heat it without getting so hot? Or maybe the stove could see how beautiful all the little ingredients were that made the food such a wholesome meal and it would heat it more gently and appreciate each grain of salt and each curry leaf for the struggle they went through to get there?
Seriously though, we get caught in a cycle that causes us to resent ourselves for not being worthy of better, of hoping that the aggressor would be kinder because we can absolutely see with total conviction how capable they are of such kindness and how beautiful they will be in the process, and most importantly, we’re afraid that if we let go, we may not get anything better or at all to replace it.
It all comes down to self-worth. If we don’t believe we’re worth more, we’ll find reasons to resist making the changes we need to make because we’re unlikely to reach the point when enough is enough. At some point we became convinced that unless we have the answers for the past, we cannot progress into the future. What rubbish! The moment we know better from worse, we can make a choice for better. The moment we allow ourselves to experience better, we’ll automatically realise why worse was not good enough. All we need is to know what is preferred, but not always do we need to know why it is preferred.
The way forward is really simple, but requires courage. Do the right thing for the right reason at the right time and everything will be just fine. Stop. That conversation you just started in your head about how do you know when it’s the right time, or what the right reason is, etc., just stop it. That is the circular drivel that keeps you grounded in the past. Focus on the present. And that means that you don’t focus on how you’re perceived, because how you’re perceived requires a projection into the future based on your past experiences, which means you are not present. So let’s try again, focus on the present. Yes, the moment in which you are acting or making a decision to act. In that moment know what you’re feeling and know what outcome you desire. If your decision contributes towards that desired outcome, do it. If not, who are you trying to appease, and are they important enough to appease?
I suspect you just started another internal conversation about what if you see their importance and that you’re hoping that by doing what you think you need to do they may just realise how important they are and therefore it makes it important to appease them…exhausting, isn’t it? It’s a simple process to achieve better, but self-doubt which is spawned by a low self-worth makes it seem impossible.
You don’t always have to know why. You just have to know why not. Start there. The rest will follow. Let a stove be a stove and stop hoping for it to be something else.