The cult of self-esteem

Some of my teacher friends may disagree with me, but I’m a tad worried about some of the lessons being taught to young children these days.

That’s because in practising today’s cult of building “self-esteem,” almost everything that a child does is absolutely, fantastically, incredibly, unbelievably just soooo fucking wonderful. As in the mother at Gatwick airport a few weeks ago: “Oh, you’re doing that soooo well, Thomas. Fantastic!” (To a boy playing with a little car and making an awful sound that I think was supposed to be a police siren.) Or, to her young daughter throwing a ball up in the air and catching it: “Honey, you did that so well. I’m soooo proud of you!”

Shit, I thought. Wouldn’t a simple, “Good work, keep it up” be enough? I mean, what are these poor children going to do for an encore?

Really, I never knew the word “so” could have so many syllables or that when it comes to virtually every one of a child’s activities there are only varying degrees of “wonderful”. But it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this. In run into it in shopping centres and supermarkets — all those places where young children often gather with their parents. It’s even happing in our schools too.

But there is something even worse than such excruciatingly effusive praise for every benign activity. There is, for example, the mother in a restaurant last week talking to a child who had finally stopped screaming demands and was now sitting still for a few minutes: “You’re doing very well now. Mummy is soooo proud of you.” Or, back at Gatwick, “Thomas, that was soooo nice to let Sarah play with your ball without getting upset. You’re just great!”

I am not a child psychology expert. Shit, I’m not even a parent. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that such worshipping at the shrine of self-esteem only builds a certain amount of self-centredness and a false sense of self — a real Tower of Babel — that can’t help but one day come crashing down around the child.

Case in point: a recent Reuters report noted that while today’s District of Columbia high school students rank at the bottom among students in the United States in mathematics skills, they are tops among the world’s students in how they feel about their mathematics skills. Well now, how the fuck is such a child going to feel when they can’t get a job after leaving school? I mean, it’s hard enough already even when you have a Masters degree!

It’s no surprise that some of today’s most popular child-rearing books instruct parents to criticise wrong behaviour but never the child who committed it. In other words, say to your child, “It’s not nice to say that to your sister.” But surely, separating actions from the child committing them teaches little ones that they are not responsible for their behaviour. And isn’t this the very thing, so widespread today, which cause great personal misery and societal dysfunction? Besides, how can a child not responsible for their actions then have an appropriate sense of satisfaction when behaving well? After all — when one extends the principle — if they shouldn’t be criticised when they behave badly, then neither should there be praise for a good performance! No wonder the children raised according to this cult of self-esteem seem so often to be the most tyrannical and unhappy of creatures.

Of course children can behave badly, or be unkind or selfish or rude, and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the child, to pretend otherwise. Rather than teaching them to separate themselves from wrong behaviour, isn’t it better for a child to learn how to guard against such self-destructive tendencies? Only then can they move toward that which they can honestly feel good about.

Of course, praise for children is very important and should be given whenever appropriate. Children have great inherent worth because they are the future. And a sense of honest self-esteem and of being loved unconditionally is crucially important to a child. But we do them no favours when we portray for them an unrealistic picture that is often either too easy or too hard to live up to.

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Chaos!

There’s a term they teach in psychology that is escaping me at the moment. Maybe you can help me out. It involves early-stage human development. A child reaches a certain age of maturity when they no longer believe that an object disappears if they cannot see it. That is to say, when a baby is very young, if you put your hand over its eyes so you disappear from its vision, it thinks you are no longer there. What’s that called? Object permanence? Something like that?

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Remember that movie Jurassic Park? It was a bit of a hit when it was initially released. Had dinosaurs in it. They were eating people. Remember now? Excellent. Now, philosophers and physicists surely had been discussing it for years, but until I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, I had never really paid attention to Chaos Theory. For those of you who are reading this on a stone tablet, Chaos Theory says that every action in the world derives from the randomness of any other action. Everything that happens affects everything else in the world in some infinitesimal way that grows radically as it progresses through nature. To paraphrase, a butterfly flaps its wings in Guatemala, and the flow of nature runs its course in response to that action — a moth runs away from the breeze created, which is then eaten by a frog it flew in the path of, which then is eaten by a pig, which is then ground into pork and eaten by a human who gets indigestion and in the midst of his pain accidentally steps in front of a cab and SPLAT. Every action leads to another action, which leads to another, which leads to another, so on. There’s a sequence in that Benjamin Button movie that explains it. Check it out below. But I’m not inventing the wheel here. You get it.

This is a fun little pop theory. It suggests that the decisions we make on this earth are somehow relevant, that whether or not we decide to stay at home instead of going to the pub on a Friday night actually means something. It’s perfect for our day and age. We feel important. This is a level of significance I do not always want.

When I moved to London years ago, I was just a regular guy with dreams of the big time. I have made many decisions in my life since I moved here, many of which were on the level of “Do I go out drinking tonight, or do I not stay up and watch late-night Channel 5?” But if you subscribe to this Chaos Theory business — which has always made a great deal of sense to me, I’m sad to report — then, well, you start to think that the world might have been a whole lot better place had you not existed. And that can’t be good.

The Journey of Self Discovery is something you’re supposed to do when you’re young. It’s perfectly natural. Who knows shit about themselves when they’re 21? I made certain decisions because I was immature, or because my priorities were all out of whack, or because I thought I was something that I wasn’t, or just because I’d eaten some bad pork. Unfortunately, those decisions have ramifications, and they ripple outward, and next thing you know, you’re hit by the bloody cab. Or someone else is.

Last year, I looked at the way I was a year before and thought how incredibly stupid I was. The year before, I did the same thing. A year from now, I will think about how stupid I am now. It is an endless cycle. It is difficult to deal with. Will there be a point that I just become normal? That I’m just as wise in 2014 as I was in 2013? Man, I hope so. But I doubt it.

It is a fundamental element of the human condition that we are unable to truly understand the hurt we have caused others until we feel the same hurt ourselves. That until we’ve hit that point where we question everything and what we mean and what we do and what the fucking point of fucking all of fucking it fucking is… we understand nothing. We are only out for ourselves, and hopefully you’re not caught up in our endless loop of shit.

Dammit. This is a blog. This is something that people should want to read. They want a tale. I’m supposed to be telling you a story that entertains you, makes you laugh, or enlightens you, or sheds light on your own thoughts in a way that helps you understand that you’re not alone, that other people think that too. I’m not sure I’m doing that right now. I think I’m just typing what’s on my brain in random patterns that do not connect to anyone who would have absolutely no idea of the banal drudgery of my daily existence. Maybe I’ve just had too much to drink. I think I have. This is probably senseless to you. You don’t know the details. You just know you clicked on the link, and then it’s “Entertain me, motherfucker, entertain us!” OK. Fine. You want my fucking blood? You want my soul? You want me to rip it all out so you have something to keep you occupied while you enjoy your fancy coffee on a Sunday morning? You want the truth? Fine!

I realised today how much I had hurt someone. A while back. I hurt them without truly realising what I was doing. I was caught up in my own brain, because that was the way I was then. (Shit, it’s probably the way I am now; I just recognise it more than then.) It was something I had to do for me. I needed it. I’m sorry, but I hurt them. But the action of hurting them then sent them in this direction, and I went in this one. And this happened to them because of it, and then this did, and then this did. They felt this way about themselves, and they reacted in this way and then that made them feel this way, and next thing you knew, many years had passed. I didn’t realise what I’d put them through until I was put through it myself. And then I saw them again, and I was reminded of it all, and how this was a whole big fucking mess of my own creation. And then I felt bad. Real bad.

Is that clear enough for you? No? Well then fuck off, go read something funny.

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I’m not even sure this makes any sense. Forgive me. I guess my question is this: If we made a poor decision in the past, can it not be made right? Is it impossible to correct the mistakes of yore? Is it too late? How much has an object changed when we look at it again after someone takes the hands away from our eyes?

Seriously. I’m asking you here. Give a brother a hand. Because I don’t know. Forget that stuff I said earlier, about the coffee, and the whole “entertain me” business. I was just lashing out. I didn’t mean it. I really like you. You’re a nice person who pets kittens and gives to charity. Please, help me out. I’m really a good guy. Honest. I swear.

The Beauty Of Sadness

We live in a society obsessed with the concept of happiness. We’re constantly prodded with questions: Are you happy? Why not? Why don’t you do something to make yourself happy?

Happiness seems almost to have become a product. Our highly industrialised and celebrity culture has taken lifestyle branding to a level where many of us have internalised the images we see to the point of viewing our lives and experiences through a media filter. As one character in the movie The Joneses explains, “If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.” This mediated view of our lives then begins to define our concept of happiness.

The consequence of this is a disconnect.  The media-fuelled ideal of happiness leaves little room for exploring our other emotions and truly connecting with others and the world around us. Sadness and other “negative” emotions are perceived as unnatural and malignant. The melancholy are often treated as ‘abnormal’ and encouraged to do whatever it takes to stop them feeling that way. Sometimes this means using anti-depressant drugs or other substances to physically change their mood.

True, we all want to achieve our ideal of happiness. True, also, there are those with genuine emotional problems who need clinical help and even medication. But what about those people who embrace and experience the full spectrum of emotion? Do their life experiences — which may provide joy but also supply pain and suffering — make them better people? Do all our emotions not have equal validity? If so, why are we so down on being down?

Some years ago, I was lent a book called Swallowed by the Snake. It compared dealing with sadness to an old Indian story of a village that was being terrorised by an enormous snake that continued to carry off its inhabitants and eat them. A young man went into the jungle with just a knife and a bag of rice. He was swallowed by the snake but rather than fight it, he allowed himself to get accustomed to the darkness and confinement of the snake’s belly — and slowly cut off pieces of the snake from the inside until he had worked his way through and into the light.

What I gained from the story was that there is no real quick fix, no way to fight sadness. All we can do is work through it. Only then are we truly able to appreciate the beauty and treasures of those moments of happiness that came before and since. The French poet Louis Aragon expressed it thus:

Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.

So it’s not merely the moments of sadness or happiness that define our lives: it’s the conflict and opposition that does so, and how we respond is what brings out our real character. Sadness, after all, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all taste it — relationships turn sour, possessions get stolen or lost, loved ones die. Loss is the inevitable consequence of attachment, so if we are unwilling to feel the extent of our emotions we build walls around ourselves. Subconsciously, we know that forming a new attachment could bring us future grief, so we avoid real connection.  Instead, we accumulate wealth and possessions or learn to be impressive in other ways to attract false friends, but it doesn’t address the problem.

Living consciously through sadness and finding its beauty gives us the courage to be open to the world and all its hidden dangers. It’s the fear of uncomfortable feelings that causes so much anxiety and depression. Embracing our emotions and learning not to resist them or judge them allows us to process the events of our lives.

This often gives us the opportunity to recognise our inner strength. Out of sadness we can be inspired to be better. Not that we should actively seek it out, of course, or revel in being morose. In fact, it’s understandable to recoil. But when the low moments of our lives do come, we could also grit our teeth, bear the trauma and say, “Yes, I will grieve. Life is unfair. Now let me figure out what I can do to ease the pain.” That may involve reaching out and connecting with others. As we do so, we encourage and fit into each other’s lives. Thus, in adversity, satisfaction can be found in relating to and serving one another, building relationships either temporary or lasting, and finding a useful role to perform. We dig the trenches together.

Some of the worst experiences of my life have always been made into fonder memories when I think back to those with whom I shared those moments. Maybe it’s the Shackleton phenomena (the British explorer stranded with his men on the South Pole) — even in seemingly hopeless scenarios, there can be beauty and heroism in a shared struggle.

The thing is, we’ve been taught to hide our sadness from others, and eventually we learn to hide it from ourselves. So we never learn the skill of simply experiencing it for what it is and letting it take its natural course — it pulls at us all our lives, driving us to try harder to achieve our media-driven ideals of happiness, when all the time the sadness is there, waiting for us, offering us an alternative path which allows us to go with the flow of our emotions, instead of resisting all the time.

If we follow that path, the inevitable discovery we make is that our emotions dissipate and integrate as we allow them to be. From that follows peace of mind, which is the real reward, the real happiness we crave.

Many of us mistake the absence of sadness, or the presence of excitement and external stimulation, for happiness. But the real thing is a much deeper thrill — that of being truly alive to this cruel but beautiful world.

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. –  Carl Jung