I never wanted to believe that my Dad was stealing from his job as a road worker. But when I got home, all the signs were there.
I was brought up to believe that ‘rational’ thinking was the best, if not the only, way to get to the truth. Later I came to see that rational thought cannot, by itself, bring new knowledge; it can only confirm what you already thought you knew. This is because you cannot begin reasoning without taking certain ‘facts’ as given. The reasoning then becomes circular – ultimately ‘proving’ your original premises.
Nowadays it’s more widely understood that so-called ‘scientific’ thinking has been steeped in white Western male cultural ideas. We can almost chuckle at the idea that women in the 50s were seen to suffer from ‘suburban neurosis’ or that slaves in the American south who tried to escape had a disease called ‘drapetomania’.
As a child I believed what I was taught and went along completely with the discourses of the day. However, there were moments when my beliefs were shaken.
One was a class trip to the State Museum (of South Australia) to visit the Ancient Egypt exhibition. I was enthralled by the mummy caskets and the gold and lapis lazuli jewellery. A guide talked to us about the pyramids and said that much of the treasure had been lost because of grave robbers. My response was an uncomfortable puzzlement. All the treasures we were looking at had been stolen from the pyramids – weren’t archaeologists grave-robbers too? I could tell that the guide thought it was all right, because scientists who put things in museums were different somehow from other grave robbers. So I thought it must be all right too.
Another time we were asked to write a composition about how to educate the Aboriginal people to bring them up to the level of white people. (I can’t imagine such a topic being set nowadays!) I thought about it carefully and ended up writing two compositions. One gave ideas for introducing things gradually, such as starting with a hairbrush. The other suggested we just leave them be, as they were perfectly okay as they were. For the life of me I couldn’t decide which of my essays I believed, because the first one was clearly the ‘right’ answer as wanted by the teacher and the second was only some silly emotional idea that had come to me from the blue.
A lot later, in my first year of high school, our science teacher brought a brain to school in a jar. She passed it around and we all peered and joked, fascinated. Then she told us that it was a child’s brain. I was suddenly overcome with horror. Somewhere a mother was grieving for her child and here we were desecrating its memory. It was then that I realised that the scientific way of looking at things could make you completely blind to things that are really important.
We need to take notice of our instinctive responses and flashes of insight, for they give us access to knowledge that we cannot gain through reason alone.
If someone doesn’t trust you, chances are it hurts your pride. But when it comes to trust, I think people often get offended by the wrong things. I believe it is up to all of us, all the time, to prove ourselves trustworthy. Other people should never be expected to trust us without our having proved ourselves and we should never be offended when other people ask for proof or safeguards. In fact, we should give these without being asked.
Unlike most people, who get offended when others don’t show full trust in them, I personally feel offended when people fail to prove themselves trustworthy. For example, I am insulted when a shop assistant offers to print out my cheque and asks me to sign it first. To me, it’s courtesy to print the cheque before expecting a customer to sign it – to do otherwise is to suggest that the customer is a fool.
Similarly, I was once in a syndicate where each week one of us bought a lotto ticket on behalf of the group. When it was my turn, I always scanned the ticket and emailed it to the others before the draw so that they could check the numbers for themselves. When others failed to do the same, I felt insulted by their lack of respect. When I brought this up, they were offended that I “didn’t trust them.”
The idea that “there’s something wrong with you if you don’t trust me” is a strategy used by abusers all the time. When society goes along with the idea that the doubter is the one with the problem, it reinforces this form of control.
I would like to see a society where people are taught to prove themselves as a matter of courtesy, rather than one where people’s egos are bruised because trust is not automatically given.
Trust is of course a good thing, but it is meaningless if given blindly. Mistrust is the counterbalance that makes trust worth something.
A doctor and a lawyer are talking at a party. Their conversation is constantly interrupted by people describing their ailments and asking the doctor for free medical advice. After an hour of this, the exasperated doctor asks the lawyer, “What do you do to stop people from asking you for legal advice when you’re out of the office?” “I give it to them,” replies the lawyer, “and then I send them a bill.” The doctor is shocked, but agrees to give it a try. The next day, still feeling slightly guilty, the doctor prepares the bills. When he goes to place them in his mailbox, he finds a bill from the lawyer.
In 1974 Saudi Arabia was a fabulously rich country, yet its streets were piled high with rubbish. There was no garbage disposal system other than the goats that roamed the streets. The reason? “No self-respecting Saudi would ever collect trash.”[i] Being too proud to deal with their garbage meant that effectively the Saudis were left with cities that made them ashamed.
I think people are like that too. To become clean we have to deal with our own dirt; to be beautiful we have to face our ugliness. Pretending it isn’t there only lets it pile up for other people to see.
When we refuse to acknowledge our own failings, we cannot be genuinely compassionate, kind or trustworthy. The effort of keeping up the facade takes too high a toll; it will not allow us to truly connect with other people. In other words, trying to cover up our failings is a rather ugly trait.
On the other hand, acknowledging our mistakes and wrongdoings instantly changes us. We become humble, honest and open to true connection with others. If we are guilty of an exceptionally serious misdemeanour, we might feel extremely ashamed or racked with guilt – perhaps appropriately so. The worse you have behaved, the harder it is to admit – but the more powerful and life-changing that confession is.
As a counsellor I have worked with people who have done terrible things, but I always admire the fact that through counselling they are honestly trying to become better people. To my mind, just the fact that they are trying actually does make them better people.
This doesn’t mean going around telling people how bad you are; that’s just another way of getting stuck with a label. It’s a matter of quietly accepting your past and present self with all your imperfections and genuinely trying to do better in future. To me, that’s what makes a person beautiful.
Lem: ”I got fired from my job as a bank guard.”
Clem: ”That’s awful. What happened?”
Lem: ”Well a thief came in to rob a bank. I drew my gun. I told him that if he took one more step, I’d let him have it.”
Clem: ”What did thief do then?”
Lem: ”He took one more step so I let him have it. I didn’t want that stupid gun anyhow!”
A local Greenpeace office realized that the organization had never received a donation from the town’s most successful businessman. The person in charge of contributions called him to persuade him to contribute. “Our research shows that out of a yearly income of at least $500,000, you did not give a penny to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”
The businessman mulled this over for a moment and replied, “First, did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?” Embarrassed, the Greenpeace rep mumbled, “Um, no.”
The businessman interrupts, “Or that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair?” The stricken Greenpeace rep began to stammer out an apology, but was interrupted again.
“Or that my sister’s husband died in a traffic accident,” the businessman’s voice rising in indignation, “leaving her penniless with three children?!” The humiliated Greenpeace rep, completely beaten, said simply, “I had no idea.”
On a roll, the businessman cut him off once again, “So if I don’t give any money to them, why should I give any to you?”
Studies have shown that people who become paraplegics after an accident are only slightly less happy a year later than they were before the accident. By the same token, big lotto winners are back to their previous happiness level within a year. When something big happens, good or bad, people soon become accustomed to it. Yet we often act as though we can’t face the prospect of change.
Think of all the people in history, and all who are living now. Such a huge disparity in living circumstances. We can’t imagine living without running water or electricity, yet most people on this earth have lived that way. Nevertheless, we are filled with horror at the thought of personally having to go without our wide screen TV, or our morning coffee or any of a host of luxuries we enjoy every day.
We seem to be wired to hold on to what have, to the point that we can be terrified of losing it.
This fear of losing our financial security or material possessions can keep us trapped in demoralising situations. Probably more people stay in unsatisfying jobs and relationships than take the chance to be free, if it means a risk of financial loss.
Yet those who do take that chance discover two things. First, you can get used to having less money and be just as happy as before. And second, it’s the inner changes that you make – the ones that change how you feel about yourself and your place in the world – that create lasting change in your happiness level.
Everything is relative. To answer a question like: “How happy are you with your life?” we cannot answer without comparing our situation with some point of reference. If that point of reference is how much poorer we were three years ago, or our unfortunate friend who has just had heart attack, or the plight of refugees in Syria, we are likely to say we are, and actually feel, very happy with our lot.
However, if we compare our situation with someone who has more money, looks or status than we do, or how much more we think we should have achieved by our particular age, we are likely to feel dissatisfied.
Many of the most miserable and unconfident people I have worked with in counselling were beautiful young women at university who, by most people’s standards, had everything going for them. Their problem was that they constantly compared themselves unfavourably with others. This destructive mental habit caused them to focus only on other beautiful young women and to fail to notice anyone who wasn’t in their league. If on a rare occasion a classmate had put on weight or said something silly, they felt temporarily superior to that person – a rather ugly response.
Making comparisons that assess people into better or worse than yourself stops you from being the genuinely beautiful person you could be and is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
Instead, cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. We are all human, fallible and prone to suffering. A non-judgmental approach helps you understand other people and promotes kindness towards them.
And practice gratitude for all that you have. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you remember that things could be so much worse than they are, you will feel far happier.
When something bad happens, many people’s first reaction is “Why me?” This is not a genuine question but a rhetorical one; it’s a statement that what happened was unfair and undeserved. As long as we stay in this place of complaining that things are not as they should be, we remain stuck and unhappy.
However, happiness researchers once did an experiment in which they asked people to write about a painful experience in their past. Those who were asked to write about how the event happened reported feeling more miserable after recalling the event. Not surprising – they had dredged up and re-experienced the whole thing.
But those who were asked to explain why the incident happened felt better afterwards. The reason seems to be that they approached the task with a different thought process. Rather than emotionally re-experiencing the event, they used their intellect to try to understand what the causes were. This had the effects of: a) making the event more specific to a set of circumstances rather than something that could happen any time; and b) gave them ideas about how to avoid it happening again. In effect, the exercise helped people learn the lessons inherent in the experience.
There is never a definitive answer to the question ‘why?’ An event has thousands of antecedents, any of which can be deemed as a cause. But often we can point to specific factors that might make sense of why something happened. If these factors are within our sphere of influence, we can determine not to let them happen again; if not, we can decide to simply accept them.
So next time you find yourself asking, “why me?” try seriously attempting to answer the question.