Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.

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Taking a chance on love

The stories of Toni Kurtz and Brian Guest remind us that risk – whether at work or play, at home or abroad – is part of life itself; an enhancement, rather than something to be avoided.”

– Editorial, The Independent, 2010

In the old days when I used to buy the paper, I would often keep clippings of articles that made an impact on me. I’d place them in the back of my journals or in a keepsake box. I take great pleasure in digging them out, re-reading them and reminding myself of the lessons they teach.

Today’s quote is from an Editorial in the Independent entitled, ‘Making life worth living’, which is probably my favourite paper-clipping. It recounts the courage of two individuals: Toni Kurz and Brian Guest, both from different eras, both encountering different challenges. Toni Kurz led a group of climbers to make the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, Switzerland in 1936. They all perished in the attempt, with Toni, dying of exhaustion, suspended from a rope just 15ft away from rescue. Brian Guest was a campaigner for the protection of sharks, and four years ago he disappeared off the coast of Western Australia, falling victim to what was believed to be a shark attack.

Whenever I feel fear or whenever I feel like life is passing me by, I return to this clipping. Recently, I have been returning to it in the context of love.

This time last year, I took a chance on love. I crossed the Atlantic to be with someone I came to love. We had been old friends who had met in the Caribbean many years ago. He came to visit me in the autumn of 2012 and our friendship turned into courtship. The downside is of course, he lived in America. But I decided to throw caution to the wind and visit him, because I knew that the regret of taking this chance on love (and it not working out) would never be as great as the regret of not giving it a try in the first place.

A little under ten years ago, someone else took a chance on love. A Dutch man had decided one morning to take the train from the Netherlands to Paris, to surprise a girl whom he had become enchanted with four months before. That girl was me.

By no means do I want to compare my stories to the heroism of Toni Kurz and Brian Guest. But courage comes in many forms and cannot be compared. As the philosopher A.C Grayling in his book ‘The Meaning of Things’ writes:

Ordinary life evokes more extraordinary courage than combat or adventure because both the chances and inevitabilities of life – grief, illness, disappointment, pain, struggle, poverty, loss, terror, heartache: all of them common features of the human condition, and all of them experienced by hundreds of thousands of people every day – demand kinds of endurance of bravery that make clambering up Everest seem an easier alternative.”

Some would say that there is no greater risk than the risk of love. For many of us, romantic love is what gives or adds meaning to our lives; it is the glue that keeps us together, or that binds us to the living. It can take much courage to take a chance on love, especially since the reward can be so great, and yet the loss so devastating.

Taking a chance on love does not need to be as dramatic as flying across the Atlantic, or taking a spontaneous train ride to Paris. It can be as simple as telling someone how you honestly feel about them, even if you are aware of the risk that they will not reciprocate your feelings.

Taking chances, assuming risk is part of what makes life worth living. It takes courage; not only in doing the act itself but also in facing the consequences. But along with courage comes freedom: freedom to follow your heart and – if it all goes horribly wrong – freedom to let go and move on. In this way, the return already far exceeds the investment.

Your love keeps lifting me higher

“When I sing, I am taken out of the mundane world into another place – and it is always a pleasure to return to that place.”

– Michael Bourke (from a case-study in ‘Flourishing’ by Maureen Gaffney)

One of my absolute favourite things to do is sing: I sing when I cook; I sing in the shower; I sing in front of my computer screen at work. I love it.

I was an active singer at school, being part of the school choir and occasionally singing my own songs for music class. If I felt inadequate in other areas of my life or even in music (I always felt a bit rubbish at playing the piano, for example), I knew that I could sing.

During most of my twenties, I did far less singing. I never properly found an outside opportunity to sing. I thought that choral choirs were too stuffy, serious and much better suited to an older generation. What I wanted was a choir that did traditional and modern pieces. I wanted a full range (or near enough to it).

But it wasn’t solely that I found it hard to find a suitable, easy-to-get-to choir in London, I also felt like I could not spend the time being part of one. My working hours were split between work and studying, my free time was spent commuting or preparing for classes. As I have written previously on this blog, London living was hard, and I did not have enough energy to expend it on something I really loved doing.

What a mistake that was! What I have learnt about passion is that I should never forgo, suppress or give up on what gives me great joy in life. I believe that part of the reason why I felt so unhappy at times living in London was because I wasn’t in a choir. And science has shown that singing in a choir is one possible secret to happiness. The author Stacy Horn does a brilliant job of describing the wonderful effects and release singing in a choir has on your brain, body and well-being. She says that it doesn’t matter if you can’t sing well as long as you can carry a tune, which according to the BAFTA and Emmy award winning choirmaster Gareth Malone, anyone can.

Since moving to Brussels, my return to choir-dom has been gradual, first in a choral group at work to now in a choir at one of the music schools in the heart of Brussels. My choir is a mix of students and non-students, young and old(er), Belgian and other nationalities. We sing a range of music, from Bach to the Beatles. Our choir director is charismatic, vivacious, motivational and not to mention funny. The rehearsals are filled with laughter and energy. It is my dream choir.

When I sing in the choir, I experience flow. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of deep engagement in an activity, in other words, losing yourself in what you are doing. The psychologist Maureen Gaffney describes in her book ‘Flourishing’ that when someone is in flow, their mind is “completely and effortlessly focused on the next move. The experience is poised at the sweet spot between conscious (but not effortful) concentration and being on automatic”.

“Singing reflects the innermost of your soul,” my Dad said to me most recently. In fact, his words provided me with inspiration for this week’s post. Gareth Malone says that the choir is an expression of something that is deeply personal and that is deeply human. When I sing, I often reach a state of ecstasy: my mind is empty; I am wholly and completely lost in the moment; my sense of time has altered. I feel like my true self has come out to shine. In the choir, I sense that I am part of something bigger than myself. We breathe together, we work together, we play together, our hearts may even beat in synchrony. It is said that singing in a choir is likened to a spiritual experience. Amen to that.

I may have convinced you to join a choir. But even if singing is not for you, here is my hope for you: that whatever interest, hobby or work that reflects the innermost of your soul; that lifts you higher and higher (as the song goes) – you keep doing it.*

*Lawfully and the “highs” are natural, of course.

January

A year from now, you’re gonna weigh more or less than what you do right now.”

– Dr Phil

For the last seven years or so, I have written in my journal on New Year’s day, or as close to it as possible. I start this ritual by reading what I wrote on the previous New Year’s day. I then take stock of what has happened over the past year and compare it to the previous year. In my journal I reflect on this process and I then make resolutions for the New Year. Except for last year; that journal entry ended up being some irrational rant about the trials and tribulations of romantic love – the subject for a future blog post.

So I actually did no stock-taking, no comparing and no resolution-listing. I began 2013 with no expectations of the coming year.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Because I made no resolutions, I had no demands or targets to meet. I put no pressure on myself to be a better person, to be more loving and charitable, to strive in my career or even to be in a relationship. I did not reminisce about happier times or ruminate about regrets, which is something I would often do in my stock-taking – comparing – listing ritual. The first of January 2013 was very much another ordinary day.

The F**k It philosophy talks about how plans and goals can be troublesome. One reason for this is that they can keep you too rigid and inflexible, and – to an extreme – chained to something which instead of bringing you satisfaction, may end up bringing you the opposite. In her book ‘Flourishing’, clinical and academic psychologist Maureen Gaffney states that a key element to living a flourishing life – that is a life that has meaning, that brings out our best selves, that makes us happy and positive – is to have three life projects, preferably one that relates to work, the other to family or friends and the remainder to a personal interest. A life project is bigger than a mere goal, it has to be something that fits with our values and emotions, and is something that we freely choose to do, rather than it being an obligation. Gaffney advises that life projects do not need to be big, noble nor public.

In order to choose a life project, Gaffney sets out the following criteria:
– It must be freely chosen;
– It must have meaning to us;
– We must believe that it is achievable;
– We must set goals in relation to it;
– We must dedicate enough time and effort to achieve these goals;
– We must have adequate resources to pursue it (like commitment and drive);
– There must be a reasonable chance that we can achieve the goals in the specified time.

Last New Year’s day, I made no goals, not to mention life projects. And what resulted was a year where I achieved many things, some of which I have spoken about on this blog. I began reading Gaffney’s book a year ago and was extremely put off by the idea of having life projects. I much preferred the F**k It philosophy, it seemed to work for me.

I returned to ‘Flourishing’ again during this Christmas. I was less daunted by the thought of having life projects, probably because I had already started some unwittingly: writing this blog is a life project for instance. Another life project was my decision to eat more healthily and lose weight, thus prompting me into learning how to cook well.

To me, the F**k It philosophy and ‘Flourishing’ are not mutually exclusive. I think it’s important to leave space to be flexible and open to new ideas, as ideas of life projects may not come to mind straight away and neither should they be forced. I guess however the two can be contrary to one another – having a life project is about having a sense of control whereas the F**k it philosophy is about giving up control and going with the flow.

In the end, we must work out the best way to provide meaning in our lives. And I think that if we do set ourselves goals or projects or resolutions we must do so from a healthy starting point. Giving up chocolate or signing up to the gym because of guilt or feeling bad about ourselves should never be the driving force for achieving any of the above. This is because the motivation is focussed on the negative, rather than the positive. We are doing things out of punishment, not love. And because of this, the likelihood of us accomplishing our goals, resolutions, targets or projects are small, hence making us feel worse about ourselves.

Resolutions don’t have to start this week just because it’s the New Year. They can start whenever it feels like a good idea. Or like me last year, you don’t have to have any and you can just see where each day takes you. If there are things that you would like to do or achieve towards the good life, I encourage you to go for it! But go easy on yourself, take your time, leave lots of space and listen to yourself.

I wish you a wonderful start to 2014.