Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Gracious Self

The hard work of graciousness starts with following these two rules:

  1. Treat yourself the way you would treat others.
  2. Put your best foot forward - and then forget about it.

These two rules represent the personal foundation of a gracious person.  At their core, they address the self-acceptance and unselfconsciousness required for a person to engage the world with the empathy, kindness and charm that graciousness requires.  You must believe that you have intrinsic value, so that what you put into the world will be positive and well-received.

Treat yourself the way you would treat others.  This rule is by far the most difficult to practice.  Possibly the most difficult you will ever have to practice, particularly if you are a woman.  Most of us have the reverse down cold - we know The Golden Rule.  We know that the basic cornerstone for a civilized society is that we treat others as we would want to be treated.  But to actually treat ourselves the way we would treat others - for many of us, that is a struggle.

Few of us question, or are even aware of, our daily internal monologue.  Who questions the destructive thoughts that run through our heads on a never-ending loop?  Who knows us better than ourselves, so whatever we think about ourselves must be true, right?  But do we ever think to externalize these thoughts?  Would we ever say to another human being the things we say to ourselves?  Not likely.  We need to practice generosity and kindness on ourselves before we can project it out into the world.  We need to treat ourselves the way we would treat others.

Women are especially prone to this undercurrent of self-loathing.  Often we focus on what we perceive as the physical flaws that make us unlovable or subhuman, but we also extend internal critiques to include how bad a mother/sister/friend/worker/human we are. We constantly berate ourselves for not living up to externally-defined standards.  Externally-defined - not our own.  We are taught to believe that our good enough simply isn't.  That self-validation has no currency.  That we cannot define the contours of our own humanity.  That we must follow a predetermined path or suffer derision and wholesale societal rejection.  We will be alone.  We will be unloved.

These are high prices to pay for imperfection.  As a result, we live with insecurity and shame that robs us, our families and the whole of society of the best of who we are.  Because, of course, we know we don't measure up to these standards, no matter how hard we try.  Those who appear to succeed know more than anyone how fragile an illusion it actually is.  We cannot live this way and hope to achieve a life of dignity and worth.  So when we catch ourselves accepting and silently validating these beliefs within us, we need to consciously challenge them.

I'll give you a personal example.  I have recently put on a bit of weight and I am unhappy about it.  (There are more evolved women for whom this would not be a horrible, debilitating circumstance, but I am not one of them.)  While getting ready for work not long ago, I was having an internal dialogue with myself about what to wear that day -  I think I feel like wearing my pink cardigan today - Should I wear it with these pants? - No, they're a bit tight -  How about these? - Yeah, I think I can still fit into those.  I chose my outfit, put it on and looked into the mirror.  GOD, YOU'RE DISGUSTING!  The words were palpable - they had form, even though no breath had formed them.  They hung in the air of my bedroom, dissipating slowly, as if made of some noxious vapor.  I hadn't actually spoken the words out loud, but I was shaken, stunned, as if someone had shouted them at me with a hatred so intense that they could only desire my obliteration from the face of the earth.  It was so vehement, so shocking, it felt like a physical assault.  And those poisonous words of hatred, that were directed towards me, came from my brain.  From me.

And I decided, right then, that I wasn't going to tolerate the self-imposed abuse anymore.  I stood in my bedroom and said - out loud, this time, and with equal conviction:  You do not talk to yourself that way.  Ever.

It was a scary moment, but also very important, because I actually stopped and listened to my internal dialogue for the first time.  I was shaken out of my complacency and had to address the background noise in my head.  I was horrified that this was the sort of thing I was saying to myself - and I realized I was, daily, hourly.  Something that I would never tolerate someone else saying to me - or to any other human being for that matter - but because it was running though my own head, unchecked, I simply accepted it as truth.  It isn't.

Start paying attention to your own internal dialogue and see what you're really saying to yourself.  But I tell you now, it can be hard to separate out what is genuine self-examination and what is cultural conditioning.  The culture we live in is very opinionated about how you should live your life, the sort of person you should be, and how you should look.  It comes drip by drip through media, friends, family and even total strangers.  You swim in it every day, and are constantly adjusting yourself according to its expectations, whether you realize it or not.

It can be hard to know just how hard you're being on yourself - maybe what you're saying is a reasonable critique of a genuine flaw? - so let me help you get a little perspective.  (This is going to sound a little extreme, so bear with me.)  Make note of what you say to yourself, and then compare it to Nazi propaganda about "inferior races":  they're short, fat and misshapen; their noses are too big and crooked; they have fat fingers; their eyes bulge; they have disgusting hair that is course and dark.  Et cetera.  And all of these physical characteristics make them bad people.  Fundamentally bad.  Subhuman.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Do you tell yourself you are a lesser human because of the flaws you have been culturally-conditioned to believe you have?   If you're feeding yourself garbage that sounds like Nazi propaganda on a daily basis, can you please stop now!?!

All of this was based on science, by the way - an amalgam of two (now-discredited) branches called Physiognomy and Eugenics.  Physiognomy was the science of measuring people's heads and faces to determine their inherent character.  Scientists measured the skulls of thousands of inmates in London prisons to come up with physical characteristics that determined moral and intellectual inferiority - although what they were actually measuring was the effect of generations of malnutrition and impoverished living conditions among uneducated people who had turned to crime for survival.  They believed that they could just look at a person's face and know whether they were inherently good or inherently bad.  Then comes the study of Eugenics, which was based on the idea of artificially accelerating the evolutionary process through forced sterilization, marriage restrictions and segregation - basically, prevent the "weak" from breeding with the "strong".  Put the two together, and you can pinpoint entire races that are morally and intellectually inferior based on shared physical characteristics and eradicate them completely for the greater good.  Why wait for natural selection to perfect mankind, when you can just remove the unwanted elements - Jews, Roma, the disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, etc. - through ethnic cleansing?  Just take them right out of the gene pool entirely.

I tell you this for two reasons.  First, we are not that far from Goebbels' Germany, and Eugenics was a worldwide phenomenon, not just something the Nazis practiced.  Unless you are very young, the North Carolina Eugenics Board was ordering the forced sterilization of US Citizens in your lifetime, the vast majority of whom were African-Americans.  Scary stuff.  But the point is, as a society, we are still trying to shake off the belief that certain physical features are inherently better than others.  Not just aesthetically preferable, but better.  That smaller noses are better than bigger ones.  That lighter skin is better than darker skin.  That tall, slim bodies are better than short, stocky ones.  That straight hair is better than course hair.  Non-Europeans obviously suffer from this the most, but we all use the language of it in our internal dialogues.  No physical feature that you have makes you bad or unlovable or subhuman.  Stop treating yourself like it does.  And look, if you catch yourself saying anything to yourself that Joseph Goebbels might have said about so-called "inferior" people, that's probably a good indicator that you need to ease up on the self-criticism.

Second, where humans are concerned, science isn't so hot.  The big scientific evidence we all listen to today is that people who are "apple-shaped" or overweight die sooner than everyone else.  And all those people need to do is eat fewer calories and exercise more and they can lose the weight and live longer.  Ergo, the only reason that people are overweight is because they are eating too much food, lazy, have no willpower and don't care about dying young because they'd rather sit around eating vast quantities of Taco Bell.  These people are morally inferior.  Subhuman.

We've heard this so many times, we believe it's true.  But there's not one scientific study that has been able to prove any of it.  Not one.

Is there a new study out that proves that you're a terrible mother because you're working full-time to pay for your child to have a first-rate private education?  Are you afraid you're scarring your happy, well-adjusted children for life by sending them to daycare?  Do you beat yourself up about it every, single day?   

The point is, don't trust other people, including scientists, to determine whether you are "good" or "valuable".  You are.  Accept ambiguity and the possibility that we can't know everything.  Not everything is within our control.  Trust yourself.  Believe you make the best decisions you can with the resources you have available to you, and none of them make you a bad person.

You are a good person, and you are trying the best you can.  It is enough.  Believe this, and give yourself permission to exist exactly as you are.  If you want to be gracious, if you believe that a society of gracious people makes for a better world, then follow Ghandi's advice and be the change you want to see in the world.  Start your journey towards graciousness by being gracious to yourself first.

We must treat ourselves the way we treat others.  We must be kind.  We must be generous.  We must learn to love what is good about ourselves and overlook our perceived flaws.  Are there people in your life who love you?  Imagine what they would say to anyone who would say to you what you say to yourself.  Stand up for yourself against the noise in your head.  You didn't put it there, and it isn't based on reality.  Recognize that there are many institutions in this world that benefit from eroding your sense of power and worth.  They try to take it, because they want to sell it back to you - and you're double-paying for something that was already yours for free.  Don't give it away without a fight.

I realize that this is easier said than done.  For some of us, it is as easy as putting down the fashion and gossip magazines.  Others will need help from their church or a therapist.  But I think, for a lot of us, the first step is to listen for that inner bitch and really examine what she's saying.  Reject outright the nasty judgmental stuff that is tearing you down, and address the things you are genuinely displeased with and would like to change.  Graciously.

In the next post, I'll address the concept of Unselfconscious Grace, or How to Put Your Best Foot Forward, and Forget About It!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Does It Mean to be Gracious?

Could anything be more delightful than a gracious person?  How lovely the world would be if everyone aspired to being gracious, instead of wealthy, famous or powerful.  Gracious is more than good manners and etiquette, but also, in a way, something less.  It's almost minimalistic in its simplicity.  I think of etiquette and manners as codes of behavior - as things that are formulaic, things that can be taught.  To be gracious is an art.  It is the art of being considerate of others at all times and in every situation.

Graciousness, at its most advanced, is good manners gone rogue.  The gracious person doesn't need to worry about good manners and proper etiquette - it is intuitive, like breathing. Adhering to particular manners and proper etiquette at all times is not always gracious, and the gracious person knows when it is best to abandon them.  Sometimes people use manners and etiquette to make people around them look bad or seem unsophisticated.  This is not gracious - it is rudeness and snobbery.  When manners harden into formality or a way to elevate oneself at the expense of others, this is not gracious.

The gracious person is warm, welcoming and always looking for the opportunity to elevate others instead of themselves.  Because they are comfortable in their own skin, the gracious person does not constantly engage in self-aggrandizement; they do not feel the need to assert their superiority over others.  Instead, they constantly search for opportunities to make those around them as comfortable as possible.

If you are gracious, then your aim should be to make the day of anyone you interact with more pleasant rather than less, even in the most imperceptible ways.  No matter how bad a day a person is having, a person does not have the right to make other peoples' days less pleasant because of it.  Personal difficulties are just that - personal.  They are not an excuse for being unpleasant with strangers, family and friends.

To be gracious requires empathy and a determination to use that empathy in your dealings with others.   It requires an ability to differentiate a difference of opinion from an unjust one, and know which one to respect and which one to stand against.

Graciousness does not require wealth or a distinguished bloodline - although, to embrace it elevates you the status of princes among your fellow man.  I have met homeless people whose graciousness in difficult circumstances left me speechless and boorish elites living in luxury and ease whose behavior left me equally so.

So why write a blog on how to be gracious now?  We are living in a world where class systems have exploded, and where those with money, fame and visibility are no longer living under the concept of noblesse oblige - that privilege entails responsibility; that leadership, reputation and respect within society must be earned; that the advantaged have the duty to help the less-advantaged.  It is my belief that if we choose to embrace these ideals - to be gracious with one another - that civility and a greater gentility might return to our public and private lives.

The premise of this blog is that we are all the noblesse, if we chose to behave nobly - with grace, with honor and with empathy for our fellow man.  Forget politics, money, class and religion - choose to be gracious with everyone.  This blog will explore what it means to be gracious today.