Sunday, 16 March 2014

A life of Compromise

We all want  a life of balance, balancing the difficult responsibilities of profession and personal, but invariably erring on both sides.
The term ‘compromise’ is open to many meanings and understandings.
 When we compromise in a relationship, the connotation is that we are prepared to sacrifice certain personal preferences in favour of maintaining good will with others. It may be regarding trivialities such as movie or restaurant preferences, or perhaps even more complex issues such as where to live. In this context ‘compromise’ is seen as the mature and positive road of action, where the ‘relationship’ takes precedence over personal likes and dislikes.
There are times where the term ‘compromise’ is used in the pejorative. It means to fold on certain issues, to sacrifice not your personal preferences, but rather your core values. You compromise who you are, often to satisfy superficial social and societal demands. We compromise our integrity for popularity, our core values for financial gain.
A life of balance is one of compromise- but which kind of compromise are we referring to?
We would prefer that it be the former, but perhaps it’s the later.
Throughout history we see our greatest leaders, entertainers, sportsmen often fall short in other areas of their life. On the other hand the best family men and women seldom make the headlines.
Even Nelson Mandela, by his own admission, failed as a father and a husband.

These cases are not ones of coincidence, but rather of design. 

Compromise in life necessitates that we accept the principle, that in order to reach our full potential in one area of life demands that we capitulate in another. Our professional success and impact cannot be coupled with communal leadership and parental excellence.

Something has to give.

I am not suggesting that you can’t be good at all of the above, rather that you can’t be YOUR best at all of them. Every hour at the office is an hour less at home and vice versa.
What is balance? It is accepting defeat in one area of life in order to maximise success in another.
Perfect balance is mediocrity and perhaps mediocrity is OK. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that balance is the best of both worlds. It’s the acceptance of defeat.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Happiness is (only) for the undeserving

Whenever someone returns from a lengthy journey, recovers from an illness or survives a life-threatening situation, it is customary for the individual to make the following blessing:
הגומל לחייבים טובות שגמלני כל טוב
“Who causes good things to happen to those liable and causes only good to happen for me”
The blessing is often recited together when receiving an Aliya and always in front of a minyan. The crux of the blessing is that “I realise that I am undeserving of the kindness that I have been the recipient of.”
The blessing is a replacement of the original Thanksgiving offering that features in this week’s Parsha, where an individual, feeling a great sense of appreciation to Hashem, would offer a sacrifice as a token of that appreciation.
In the world of positive psychology, the correlation between appreciation and happiness is almost the main thrust in the study of the science of happiness.
The concept of appreciation is NOT saying thank you! It is a sense of being an undeserving recipient of kindness. The need for the term ‘undeserving’ is crucial, because as long as we believe that we deserve or are entitled to something, we will struggle to show any real sense of appreciation − because we believe we have earned it.
In truth, there is very little that we deserve in life. We didn’t do anything to ‘deserve’ to be born. We didn’t do more than others to ‘deserve’ our good fortune of health, love, family or prosperity. They are gifts.
We live in an age of entitlement. People talk of rights, not privileges; expectations, not responsibilities; demands, not allowances. Misery, in contrast, is the sense of not getting what we believe we deserve, of life not living up to our expectations.

The Thanksgiving offering, or blessing, is coming to the realisation that we are undeserving of the kindness we’ve received − and that should make us truly happy.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ambitions for our children

There is, I believe, a natural desire on behalf of parents to give their children every opportunity to grow and develop. The very notion of parenting necessitates some level of sacrifice on the part of the parents in order to open new doors for their children, doors that for many parents were shut due to familial circumstances. Their children will have the best education, primary, secondary & tertiary.
Although this ambition itself is worthy of analysis, it may be that the dreams of the parents are being lived through the children, I am rather perplexed by another less mentioned, and possibly ignored ambtion.
That our children become "Better;more ethical, more patient, more kind, more charitable & more moral than us".
Surely that is just inconsistent?
Our children's future, if we are to attempt to direct it is some way, should be pointed in the direction of making more of a contribution to the world than we have....

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

You're never 'Welcome'

Most people share a common self-assessment, that they are basically good.  We strive for the title of being considered a mensch, and many would hold that it is the value that trumps all others. 

But how does one earn the noble title?

Ordinarily it is by purely doing good deeds for, to or on behalf of others.  The more altruistic the deed, the nobler the doer.  The more anonymous the performer, the more pious the character.

This mindset has to change.

Selfless good deeds need to be replaced by conditional assistance. An offer of free-help needs to be replaced by indebtedness.
But the debt is not owed to you, it’s owed to society!
People live with a paradigm that may have been historically true, but it has lost its relevance in modernity. It is natural and rational to expect that  kindness be both graciously received with a sense of gratitude. We often hope that the recipient of that kindness also feels a natural need to be similarly kind to others. “If I am kind to you, you’ll be kind to others” goes the logic.

This is both idealistic and unrealistic.

People may intrinsically want to help others and share the kindness, but the self-absorbed nature of modern man usually denies him doing so. We have become so disillusioned that it has become sufficient if the kindness is merely acknowledged.
What society needs is a sense of obligatory responsibility towards the greater good.
How is this done?
By making people translate the benefits that have received from the society into a quantifiable, or at least qualifiable, debt that needs to be repaid.

We need to attach strings to our favours. Gone are the days of altruistic kindness; nowadays every random act of kind comes with baggage and a price tag- the price is the obligation to pay it forward.
The next time you help someone out- when they do thank you for your efforts- DO NOT say “You’re welcome”!

By letting people ‘off’ easily, we relegate an opportunity that was there to impact the world as merely an isolated deed- to be forgotten in the passage of time.

Instead of “You’re welcome” now say “I am glad that I could help you, but you have to promise me to ‘Pay it forward’ ”. “Quantify the help I gave you; put a dollar figure on it and find someone to give it to. “
Even better, make it a condition to helping them in the first place.

This seemingly trivial condition creates a joint vision and a potential movement towards making a real change in the world. My act of kindness lives on beyond the initial deed, not because of natural reciprocity and appreciation, but rather because of my having demanding that people make a difference in the world.  

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

...and the pursuit of arbitrary & fruitless goals

These thoughts were prompted by:
What motivates explorers to venture into the unknown?
This is my dilemma- on the one hand I have enormous admiration for the accomplishments of selected individuals. The glory of the human form being capable of achieving feats, that require enormous  physical strength as well as psychological determination and courage, is nothing short of marvellous.
On the other hand I often feel that the substance of those accomplishments are trivial and arbitrary. They lack no intrinsic value, other than the accomplishment in and of itself. This I find not only pointless, but it is a waste of my time, in following them, and their talents in pursuing such fruitless tasks.
For clarity, I am not specifically referring to sports. The modern sporting arena is more a form of entertainment through the means of athletic endeavour than an intrinsically important activity for mankind and civilization in general. The stadium of today is more comparable to the cinematic experience than it is to real life.
I am specifically referring to are those superhuman feats, triumphed by unbelievably talented individuals, which are completely meaningless to everyone except those involved in the mission.
Rowing a boat across the Atlantic, hiking across Antarctica, climbing Everest, sky diving from space etcetera etcetera etcetera.
To be fare, there are people who use such extreme activities as a means to raise money or awareness of noble causes, which can make the actual 'event' a means to a nobler end. It appears, however, that more often than not, the altruism of the 'athlete' is more of an afterthought than a guiding principle.
But what about those people who do it just for sake of it? Is the fact that humans can endure such difficult circumstances and accomplish such feats enough merit to warrant our interest, our respect and our admiration?

I suppose my frustration lies in the missed opportunity. If people could use their talent in the service of world, rather than fuelling their own egotistical and existential hunger, how beautiful might the world be?

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The paradox of popularity

We live in a world that praises individuality as long as it conforms to the societally acceptable norm- "popular individuality" oxymoron?

But surely being an individual is, by definition, being different to all other people. You think differently, you feel differently and you believe differently. If our experience is identical and our faith common- then we have chosen to reject our uniqueness in favour of a shared and popular system.
To be unique and individual means to be lonely. I am not saying that that being lonely necessitates being alone, on the contrary I can feel lonely in the presence of others, but rather that loneliness is an inevitable reality. But one need not be frightened of loneliness, even if it connotes and arouses negative images,  it is in fact the mere corollary of individuality- my uniqueness necessitates that I am lonely in my experience.
Through this loneliness I can arrive at my own conclusions as to what energises me, what motivates me and what inspires me.
That is not to say that I cannot share experiences with others, it's just that no one can really know me, or understand what I feel and think.

Popularity on the other hand, whether it be popular literature, popular culture or even or especially popular philosophy, is, again by definition, palatable to the masses. It is the acceptance or desire for acceptance amongst the broad populace, or at least within a specific group of the population. Popular culture denies the individuality of the experience in favour of conformity.

To make myself clear, I am not pitting these two ideas up against one another as dichotomous entities, but rather seeking to understand and define them.

There is a time a place to express individuality, but more often than not we best seek to confirm to popular opinion and practice. Each person needs to find their own balance.

The crucial message is this, one cannot find or express one's individuality by latching on to a popular trend. 

Individuality isn't popular, it can't be.

"We are all individuals and we all think for ourselves" - from Monty Python's The Life of Brian

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The day our sadness began, and it's only getting worse.

Positive psychology, the science of happiness, suggests that happiness is a relative construct rather than an objective position. The pleasure I gain from my possessions, job and family are all dependant on how I perceive others' lives and their objective happiness.

In other words, if I surround myself with miserable people my life would be pretty good- not only perceived as good but I would actually be happier.
To expand upon this theory the logical conclusion would be that my misery is proportional to the kind of company that I keep. If I surround myself with happy people, my life will be more miserable rather than happier. (A bit counter-intuitive)

If you were to take a few moments to consider the people closest to you, would you consider their lives and lifestyles idealistic? Most probably you are well aware of the most dysfunctional aspects of their lives- broken relationships, unruly kids, economic ruin and personal insecurities.They are not unique, we all struggle with our demons- but it is only with those that we know well that we can appreciate the demons and struggles of others.

Throughout our history our relationships seldom ventured outside of our shtetl. Everyone knew everyone else, as well as all their dirty laundry- envy was less of a problem for their was little to be envious of.

Even when we look to pictures of the 'olden days' we seldom feel any sense of jealousy and wish to go back to those times.

People seemed depressed and their lives unmistakably plain.
But something changed, and through that change was born an era of depression and low self esteem.
That change was the invention of the 
instant photography.

The reason that people had such dull expressions in old photographs is that you had to sit still for a very long time in order for the exposure to take hold. It is virtually impossible to freeze frame a smile for 15 minutes, thus sober and sombre poses were almost unanimously accepted.

Instant exposure photography allowed us to flash a cheezy smile at every opportunity, whether standing at the entrance to Disneyland or Alcatraz.

So instead of seeing sad depressed people in pictures, we see people appearing to be having a great time. Everyone is happy and having a blast. The most important detail is missing from the picture, its context.

Facebook has added insult to injury, now it is not only people I am close to who appear to be having a marvellous existence, even shallow acquaintances are living a blissful life- just look at their photos.
There is invariably a discord between people's Facebook status and their actual private lives.

My personal reality cannot possibility come close to the perceived reality of others. And thus a generation of misery is born out of the success of social media.
It would follow that the chances are that the more Facebook friends you have, the more miserable you will that's a sad thought.

Perhaps the best solution has been suggested by columnist Oliver Burkeman, and that's to subtitle our pictures with the statement "Just remember that this person is barely holding it together".