Why Honesty is the Best Policy

Why Honesty is the Best Policy 1
Image from Spotnphoto

In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.

Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.

“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.” 

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.

I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.

“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.” 

Charles Dickens

The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.

“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” 

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.

“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”

Leo Tolstoy

Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.

References

  1. Stuart Jeffries, Inside the mind of an actor (literally)

The Miracle of Finding Beauty in the Mundane

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Finding beauty in the mundane makes you appreciate life more. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect,” relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect,” and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro.” It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge to rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Finding beauty in the mundane obliges us to forgo our misguided judgments. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
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Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us how to find incredible beauty in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

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The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world; for finding beauty in the mundane. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

Why White Lies Aren’t as Innocent as You Might Think

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Image from postanonym

If somebody you dislike invites you to their house for drinks, is it morally acceptable to blankly refuse, ruthlessly stomping all over their feelings by doing so?

Lying is a near-universal sin among humans. As selfish animals for which some kind of personal gain is usually the priority, society would cease to function if nobody told each other the truth. Trade agreements would fail, employment would become untenable, and personal relationships would crumble like a squeezed croissant.

It simply isn’t possible to get along with each other unless we’re honest. And yet, white lies—those little deceptions that are usually for the sake of the recipient’s feelings—are considered by many as an appropriate and just action. Why upset someone unnecessarily when we can express a small white fib?

Though seemingly innocuous, white lies can be equally as insidious as their black counterparts, for a number of reasons.

Erosion of trust

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships, which when taken away, totters like an alcoholic during a bender, heading for an inevitable crash.

Any kind of lie, white or otherwise, comes with a risk of being discovered. If that happens, trust is diminished, weakening the relationship. Having a conversation with somebody after you’ve found out that they’ve lied about something is unpleasant, and soon enough, you probably won’t want them around at all. Every word that leaves their lips has become tinged with doubt; every action a little more questionable. Their once stellar credibility has been darkened.

Over time, lying destroys human connection, even when acted out of supposed beneficence. Every time you tell an obvious white lie, the person is forced to reevaluate how trustworthy you are, causing serious damage to the relationship.

While you may not want to form a relationship with certain people, lying to them is still a bad idea because they might squeal to others about your lack of authenticity, tarnishing your reputation. It’s tempting to make up a false excuse in response to the unwanted drinks invite mentioned above, but if the little white lie is recognised, your good social standing may be at risk, which is an absolute requirement for survival in our socially-driven species.

You’re depriving people of the truth

White lies can be imbued with arrogance. What makes you so confident that the recipient of the lie can’t handle the truth? Deceit takes away their freedom to make an informed decision about the matter concerned—it’s hardly fair that you make that decision for them, assuming the role of an unrequested parental figure. Their choice may be entirely different to yours.

As naturally subjective creatures, our understanding of the truth isn’t always accurate, but it’s a damn-sight closer to the truth than a lie. Though white lies can have the benefit of preventing hurt feelings, as adults we should be fully aware that life is tough, and sometimes pain is required in order to learn and grow. Lying to protect someone’s feelings is treating them like a child who doesn’t have the mental capacity to deal with adversity.

In addition to this, a person who discovers that they’ve been lied to might start regarding themselves as someone who doesn’t deserve the truth, instilling a destructive unworthiness in which they doubt their own ability to make decisions.

Lies persist

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

Mark Twain

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar”

Abraham Lincoln

White lies aren’t told and then conveniently forgotten. They remain for a lifetime. If you’re a consistent white liar, you’d better have an amazing memory, otherwise you’ll eventually be caught. Having to quickly remember and repeat lies can be a stressful experience; worse still, more lies may be needed in order to support the original, creating a gargantuan, sticky web that requires more and more work to maintain. Telling the truth requires none of this.

You’re acting like a fraud

“Every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive.”

Saint Augustine, The Enchiridon

We each have our desires and preferences, and going against them feels inherently wrongTruth, on the other hand, is like swimming with the current. Forgoing a white lie can be undoubtedly uncomfortable, but at least you’re acting in the way that is most agreeable to you; in a manner that is 100% you.

The soul that resides in your fleshy ensemble is beautifully unique, giving rise to one-of-a-kind expression and behaviour. Lies impede your originality, slowly turning you into a boring conformist, living a life that everyone else is happy with aside from you.

Lying also burdens us with cognitive dissonance, that disagreeable feeling we get when our actions don’t match our beliefs. Routine liars are likely to experience this unnecessary, guilt-ridden discomfort whenever they lie, with each deceitful sentence being accompanied by a jolly good bit of mental self-flagellation.

Self corruption

Bad habits are easily formed. One small white lie, seemingly harmless, leads to another white lie, eventually assembling an unstoppable 2-tonne snowball of destructive deceit. Indulging in wrong-doing becomes quickly comfortable, making other types of immoral behaviour effortless. Slowly but surely, your once grand character is warped into that of an unloveable scoundrel, with whom nobody wants to take on a lovely dinner date.

We’re being selfish

Though lying is often distressing, telling white lies can also be extremely uncomfortable, because you’re revealing a potentially unpleasant truth to the recipient. We might selfishly decide that we’re prefer the discomfort of the lie over the discomfort of the truth.

The truth might also have drastic, life-changing consequences, which we’re not willing to undertake. Consider the wife who has long fallen out of love with her husband, yet continues to declare her love for him daily, because she doesn’t want to destroy his feelings or face the reality of a painful divorce. Though this is perhaps a little extreme to be classified as a white lie, some part of the deception is to protect the husband’s feelings, while deterring an agonising breakup. She’s selfishly lying in order to achieve her own purpose.

Society suffers

Honesty is the glue that holds society together, and lying the crowbar that can pry it apart. We learn what’s acceptable from others, so each lie becomes tacit approval to copy the behaviour. With enough people lying, nobody can truly trust anyone, and society crumbles into non-cooperative anarchy, Mad Max style.

Given the complexity of our world, it can also be difficult to predict the full effects of a lie. Every situation contains a plethora of factors and outcomes that cannot be determined and calculated by our paltry brains. A small white lie might result in detrimental long-term effects that can’t possibly be guessed.

**

Lying, white or otherwise, can have far-reaching and devastating effects on our lives. The only time that lying is acceptable is to deter a serious, immediate threat to somebody’s life, as when an axe-murderer asks whether you’re hiding their intended victim, or when a ledge-skirting, suicidal stockbroker asks you whether their life is worth living. Aside from these extreme and (hopefully) rare situations, it’s better to tell the often uncomfortable truth.

White lies are a short-lived solution, with the potential to diminish your integrity, and the integrity of society as a whole. Honesty, though difficult and requiring a good deal of courage, is truly the best policy.

Laughing at your flaws will make you happier

bruce-tighe-752957-unsplashPhoto by Bruce Tighe on Unsplash

With each passing year my boobies get a little bit bigger, which isn’t great because I’m a man.

That right there is self-deprecating humour, and as a Brit, it’s baked into my very core. Brits and Australians are masters of self-deprecation – spend time with the peoples of either country and you’ll quickly become accustomed to laughing at yourself, whether it’s poking fun at your wobbly midriff, the blinding shiny bald patch where your hair used to be, or your frequent and complete lack of intelligence.

“I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” — Augusten Burroughs

Poking fun at ourselves is an effective way to get people to like us. Nobody appreciates a high-and-mighty narcissist who never puts a foot wrong. Our flaws are what make us human, and putting them on display can be a way to communicate that there’s nothing wrong with being imperfect. Pointing out my stupidity to somebody with doubts about their own intelligence might help to put them at ease – the abject horror at being discovered as a bit dumb becomes slightly less terrifying, because it’s a trait shared by others. This is similar to the idea of imagining your psychotic boss wearing fancy pantaloons, as a way to make him appear foolish, rather than fearsome. Self-deprecation can remove the menace from the menacing.

A study from the University of Granada last year found that those who jokingly point out their own flaws have high scores in psychological well-being. Life can be tough – directing gibes at our oversized snout adds a silver lining to an otherwise painful fact. It may look like a rejected zucchini, but at least we can laugh about it. They also found a relationship between self-deprecating humour and personality traits such as kindness and honesty.

Ursula Beermann (University of California) and Willibald Ruch (University of Zurich) found that self-deprecating humour is linked with increased levels of optimism, and better moods. It literally has the power to make us happier.

Laughing at ourselves also reveals a loveable humility and self-confidence. Yes, we have some glaring deficiencies, but we also have the courage to not only display them, but shine a light on them. This willingness to show embarrassment can help to build trust with our fellow chimps. Bullies have nothing to work with if we’ve already pointed out our amusing flaws.

“I finally have the body I want. It’s easy, actually, you just have to want a really shitty body” — Louis C.K.

Must be about time for you to start slapping insults on yourself, right? Tread carefully, because self-deprecation can be destructive unless discharged under the right conditions.

Your gibes must be based in reality

Self-deprecation can only work if you’re being honest. Brad Pitt making light of his gruesome face just doesn’t work. The girls in his audience will be confused as fuck.

Stephen Hawking declaring himself a kung-fu champion does work, they’d probably high-five him if he wasn’t so delicate.

You need to find the joke funny

You must find your self-deprecating joke genuinely humourous. There’s little benefit to calling yourself fat if you’re saying it through bared teeth and clenched fists. This is just taking an axe to your own self-esteem. There’s a difference between lightly taking the piss out of yourself, and unhealthy self-hate.

Don’t target what you want to change, and can be changed

Like me, your favourite kind of self-deprecation might be about your weight, which you aren’t entirely happy with. We can lose excess weight through diet and exercise, so this type of self-poking is just illuminating our own laziness. It’s using self-deprecation as an excuse not to get off our arses and exercise – why make an effort if I can just learn to laugh at it instead? Control is the key factor here – if you’re taking the piss out of something that you can change (and want to change), you might consider diverting your efforts to the thing itself. It isn’t quite as simple as “I want to change this so I will,” some things are fucking tough, but the point still stands. This kind of self-deprecation is just taking the easy way out.

On the other hand, if you’re never going to embrace the #gym4life attitude and want to accept the eternal presence of your man-boobs, laughing at yourself will probably help you achieve that goal.

Be cautious of your environment

Egalitarian societies such as those in Scandinavia are a great place to be self-deprecating – arrogance is to be dispelled so that people are on a level playing field.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” – Japanese proverb

In contrast, highly competitive countries with clear and approved hierarchies are a harmful place for self-deprecation, as it can be easily mistaken for under-confidence or low self-esteem, bestowing a competitive advantage.

Don’t do it if you’re marginalised

If you’re a black person living in an inherently racist society, it’s not a good idea to joke about your own colour, as you’re just communicating your acceptance of the status quo. Racism is (obviously) an awful thing – laughing at it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to be racist.

Hannah Gadsby – a gay, Australian female comedian – puts it perfectly:

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour, and I don’t want to do that anymore… when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins… it’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” – Hannah Gadsby

**

Laughing at ourselves can be a great way to take the sting out of life, with the potential to make us more loveable, and relatable. This can only be effective under the right conditions though – there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-hate. Walk the tightrope carefully, with a good deal of humour and honesty, and you can add a little light-hearted cheer to our often serious world.

Now, I’m off to the shops to get myself a bra.

YES – the ultimate weapon in life

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Why live, if we’re going to die?

This was a key question for Albert Camus, a handsome, Nobel Prize winning French philosopher. Camus believed that death steals the meaning from life – what’s the point of living if all that awaits us is a cold, worm-infested grave? God is dead, and an eternal afterlife is longer a possibility. Without religion to save us, how can we live with the pointlessness of existence, with the absurdity of it all?

Lyrical and Critical Essays is a volume of essays in which Camus explores this fundamental question, shedding further light on the ideas expressed in his novels.

While travelling in Italy in 1937, the following reflection encapsulates the problem that Camus was wrestling with:

“Italy, like other privileged places, offers me the spectacle of a beauty in which, nonetheless, men die.” — The Desert

What is the point in such beauty existing, and for us to experience that beauty, if it’s destined to be forever lost? How can we muster the strength to go on in the face of our inevitable death? Camus experienced undeniable natural beauty, but bristled with anguish at its meaninglessness. Things happen, we experience them, and then we die. Metaphysical significance cannot be found in anything.

“The air grows cool. A foghorn sounds at sea. The beams from the lighthouse begin to turn: one green, one red, and one white. And still the world sighs its long sigh.” — Between Yes and No

We’re on a perpetual merry-go-round, with the same tired tune from the same tired speakers, crushing us into relentless anguish and despair.

“His fever sings. He walks a little faster; tomorrow everything will be different, tomorrow. Suddenly he realizes that tomorrow will be the same, and, after tomorrow, all the other days. And he is crushed by this irreparable discovery. It’s ideas like this that kill one.” – Irony

Camus found his answer to the meaninglessness of life in a tenacious, immutable acceptance of our sorry condition. We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so rather than wallowing in anguish at our situation, why not just accept it? This acceptance is a form of rebellion against the merciless impotency of existence — I’m going to die, but fuck you, I’ll accept it nonetheless.

“At this extreme point of acute awareness everything came together, and my life seemed a solid block to be accepted or rejected. I needed a grandeur. I found it in the confrontation between my deep despair and the secret indifference of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.” – Death In The Soul

The battle between Camus’ despair of the futility of life, and the indifference of the world, amounts to a decision between acceptance or rejection. Between living fully, or throwing your hands up and committing suicide.

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” – The Myth of Sisyphus

Why live, if we’re going to die?

Affirming every aspect of our lives won’t necessarily lessen our despair, but we shouldn’t want to lessen our despair, because this is also a part of life to be accepted. Fantasising of another life is a tragedy – our own can be dazzling with the right perspective.

“For if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have.” – Summer in Algiers

“I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

One cannot remove the negative from life without also removing the positive. The negative can only be identified because of the existence of positive. Take away despair, and you must also remove its natural contrast: joy.

“There is no love of life without despair of life.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“But if we give up a part of what exists, we must ourselves give up being; we must then give up living or loving except by proxy. Thus there is a will to live without refusing anything life offers: the virtue I honor most in this world.” – Return to Tipasa

“In the difficult times we face, what more can I hope for than the power to exclude nothing and to learn to weave from strands of black and white one rope tautened to the breaking point?” – Return to Tipasa

There’s nothing for it but an unbridled acceptance of everything that happens to us, and by existing in this way, we’re rebelling against the absurdity of our human condition. Shunning the world does nothing to alter its uncompromising indifference; only affirmation can provide us with the determination to continue living.

“If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver. Let those who wish to turn their backs upon the world. I have nothing to complain of, since I can see myself being born.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

Camus found unending solace in natural beauty, and the sensual abilities that allow us to receive the world. Awareness of every spectacular triviality was enough for him, despite their lack of meaning. Simply experiencing the world was the point.

“What counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.” – The Desert

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.” – Nuptials at Tipasa

Only by living honestly, by accepting our absurd condition completely and without restraint, can we expel the terror of our impending doom. Our efforts should be placed on the body, in our ability to perceive and appreciate the awesome wonder all around us. Only there can meaning be found. Bitter, often uncomfortable, but meaning nonetheless.

“The immortality of the soul, it is true, engrosses many noble minds. But this is because they reject the body, the only truth that is given them, before using up its strength. For the body presents no problems, or, at least, they know the only solution it proposes: a truth which must perish and which thus acquires a bitterness and nobility they dare not contemplate directly.” – The Desert

“It is not surprising that the sensual riches this country offers so profusely to the sensitive person should coincide with the most extreme deprivation. There is no truth that does not also carry bitterness.” – Summer in Algiers

What we need most of all is the fearlessness to accept everything that comes our way, good or bad. We must positively affirm every experience – open our arms to receive it, and be consequent rebels.

“The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death.” – The Wrong Side and the Right Side

“There are some people who prefer to look their destiny straight in the eye.” – Between Yes and No

Why live, if we’re going to die? Because life can be spectacular with the right attitude. We’ll experience everything that is thrown at us — joy, agony, depression, hope, lust, love, ambivalence — and by accepting all of it, we’re rebelling valiantly against the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence. Only through acceptance can we truly be free.

The dangers of approval

1_fpjROQBti3jtZUmoScYb2wPhoto by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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The folly of impressing others

1_dh1MZwNdUYAvXa7xyTu-wwPhoto by Aiman Zenn on Unsplash

In Western society, a great deal of concern goes into our appearance. The inescapable advertisements that bombard our senses (supposedly up to 5000 a day) are filled with the kinds of celebrities that marketers have decided we want to be like. They’re promoting the idea that if we buy a cologne, we could be as chiseled and perfect as Mr. Depp. The skincare product that costs a day’s salary will almost certainly make you as desirable as the flawless Cheryl Cole.

It’s absurd, of course. The fragrant liquids that we slather onto our faces will not remove the additional chin that we’ve spent years acquiring. We’re being sold an unattainable reality, completely removed from the truth, and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Standards of beauty are set by those who want to sell us something, not by people who have our mental health in mind. They’re giving us what we want, and not what we need.

How do we prevent this from affecting our self-esteem, when it’s so ubiquitous? The answer may lie in a 2000-year old philosophy called Stoicism.

The Stoics believed that you shouldn’t worry about anything outside of your control. This includes how people feel about the way you look. While it’s important to fit in (you can’t go around dressed like a chicken and not expect some roadblocks), it’s utterly meaningless to try to impress, because you can’t control people’s reactions to you. If somebody is rude enough to point out that your nose looks like a pickle that has been rejected by the local supermarket, it isn’t the insult that has caused hurt, it’s your judgment of it. Such a comment is merely the words of an idiot to a Stoic, because they have decided to place value only in what they can control: their reaction. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare

Being able to suspend your judgment in such situations seems superhuman. Even Marcus Aurelius, once Emperor of Rome, and one of the most famous Stoics, struggled every day to adhere to his own philosophy. His Meditations is an insightful and compelling personal diary about his life as a Stoic, and the difficulties he faced.

The idea seems based on solid ground though, despite its demanding nature. Consider how many of your behaviours are influenced by wanting to impress others, and what your life could be like if it were no longer a factor? You could look and act however you wanted (to a certain degree), provided it wasn’t causing others harm. You’d have a more peaceful, less anxious mind. There’d be a great deal more honesty about you. The people who you choose to spend time with would value you for the person that you want to be, not who society thoughtlessly applauds.

The sentiment is echoed by countless others. Michel de Montaigne, a refreshingly forthright French Renaissance philosopher, encourages us to be more like the animals: totally comfortable and ignorant of ourselves, and how we appear to others. Further East, Confucius believed that:

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.” – Confucius

So the next time you find yourself engaged in something that is purely to impress, take a moment to realise your mistake, and remember to let go of that which you can’t control.

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