Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Life Lesson: Self-esteem does not come from anything that can be taken away.

"If you don't live by the praises of men you won't die by their criticisms.”

I’ve been on a self-improvement quest recently, both inside and out.  I’ve spent considerable time analysing the issue of self-esteem.  What builds and sustains self-worth?  Why is it important for a healthy and fulfilling life?

I don’t think many people question its importance.  It’s evident how a lack of self-confidence causes people misery, leads them to make bad choices, and to place unnecessary limitations on themselves.  My partner of 13 years suffers from low self-esteem and I have observed his pathetic, desperate attempts to fill that void with frustration and pity.

I currently ride a green horse who lacks confidence.  He naturally gravitates to the person or other horse who radiates confidence and makes him feel secure.  With people, sometimes bravado will cover for a lack of deep-seated confidence but you can’t fool a horse.  He will only trust me if I trust myself.

Like most worthwhile things in life, self-confidence has to be earned.  In the U.S., we value self-esteem so highly that children are raised in an environment where everyone is a winner, everyone gets a medal, everyone is awesome.  It’s all very fake and it is creating a generation of young adults who feel an unmerited sense of entitlement and who are facing a rude awakening in the real world.

These parents and teachers who are trying to instil self-esteem in children with unearned accolades have it backwards:  Self-confidence does not come from praise, from never saying one child is better than another at anything.  Self-confidence is built internally.

Self-esteem does not come from anything that can be taken away.

Your job, your car, your house, your possessions, your money, your looks, your physical or mental prowess, your partner, praise and admiration from others….all of these things can be taken away.

What can’t?  Your personal qualities like honesty and integrity, your values, your kindness, your discipline and hard work, your empathy.  In short, your character.

Anything else is a castle build on sand.  When the waves hit it and wash it away, there is nothing left.

To use an extreme example, prisoners of conscience sometimes survive because they know that, even if they are vilified in the world around them, spit on, despised, lied about, they know that they are acting in accordance with their values.  Most of us won’t face such trying conditions, but the point is that building our self-confidence on personal qualities and behaviours that are *completely within our control* is the ONLY way to achieve genuine self-esteem.

If you have low self-esteem, trying to fill the void where it should be can become your sole objective in life.  The constant care and feeding of a fragile ego leads to a powerful self-absorption.  You end up a slave to a ravenous monster who controls you, who demands more and feels sated for less time.  You got the degree?  Now get the job.  You got the job?  Now get the raise, the promotion, the car, the house, the hot spouse, the perfect kids, the perfect body…..and on and on.  There is nothing wrong with wanting any of those things; the problem comes when your sense of self-worth is attached to whether you have them or not.  We’ve all seen rich, gorgeous, successful people who hate themselves.  Why, we think, they have everything you could want in life.  What could be missing?  The answer is character.

It’s a cliche that you can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.  But, like most cliches, it holds truth.  If you don’t have self-esteem, you can’t respect anyone who cares for you.  And you cannot love someone whom you do not respect - including yourself.  You will also be looking to the other person to increase your self-esteem — to make you feel good about yourself from the outside.  It works — temporarily.  But nothing on earth - NOTHING - replaces character.  And nothing is more attractive than character.  Someone who demonstrates genuine empathy, who lives by their own strong values, who is honest, who behaves with integrity, is truly and deeply attractive.

Any other kind of attraction  - built on looks, accomplishments, money, hero-worship, anything not an intrinsic personal quality - is fleeting and superficial.

Let’s say a woman loves a man who invented a life-saving vaccine.  She doesn’t love him because of the success of his invention or the money he made or the prizes he won or because he is famous or respected.  You can’t love someone for those things.  She loves him because of his dedication to helping others, his empathy and concern for the people that are suffering from whatever his vaccine prevents, for his hard work, for his integrity.  All of those qualities would be present, and just as attractive to her, even if he never succeeded, never received money or prizes or praise.

I’m not saying it’s easy to develop self-esteem.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no-one will find out.  Honesty can be challenging when lying to yourself and others will provide immediate gratification.  Living by your values can be tough when you want people to like you.  Building muscle in the gym is easier than building character.  Empathy is hard because we are inherently selfish creatures; it has to be taught, learned, and practiced.  So do patience, and discipline.

But there is no substitute for character.  You’re just feeding the monster if you try to build your self-esteem with anything outside of your control.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Where you were isn't as important as where you want to be

Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and there is a popular hashtag on Twitter to mark the occasion: #WhereWereYou. Many of the responses are from younger Twitter users who report that they were in school, but a few responses are sobering:

"Watching on the street just a block away. These words ring in my ears "Mike, Those are people!" as we saw objects fall..."

"I was about to get on plane to bring poll numbers to White House. It didn't include a single question on terrorism or security."

"High up in my midtown Manhattan office. Associate ran in said TV showing WTC burning. I turned, looked downtown, and saw hell."

"A paramedic colleague jumped in his car from CT and drove down to help. He didn't come back."

"Walking to my office in the South Tower when the plane hit. May not be writing this if I was on time to work that day."

"I don't care about ‪#WhereWereYou, you're still here. Sep 11 isn't about your personal tale but about those who aren't here to tell theirs."

That last one raises a question: Why do we care where we were, where others were? Because geopolitics changed that day? Because it was the defining moment for a generation? Yes, to both of those reasons, and it makes us feel involved, connected to a horror show we felt powerless to ameliorate. All of our lives were affected by 9/11, but most of us were helpless spectators to apocalyptic destruction happening in front of us on live TV. Our trauma cannot compare to those directly involved, but the event shaped our politics, our attitudes, our outlook, in ways that still echo today, however muted by time.

So, I'll play:

At the time, I worked for a French company. We had a videoconference, in French, that morning with the head office in Paris. Just before I left my desk for the meeting, I saw on CNN that a plane had hit one of the WTC towers. I assumed it was a small, private plane and I hoped no-one had been killed. I remember thinking that it was early enough that the office the plane crashed into might have been empty, and if the plane did not immediately burst into flames, they might even be able to get the pilot out alive.

Although my French was decent, following and participating in a business meeting in French took a lot of concentration and I thought no more about the plane until building security came in and said we had to evacuate, that we might be a target. I should add that my office was on the 20th floor of Rockefeller Center – the famous 30 Rock, with the ice rink and the huge tree every holiday season. The floors below us were occupied by NBC, who were subsequently targeted with anthrax by mail. I never received another piece of post that hadn't been opened and examined, and I worked there for another year.

Somehow we were made to understand that the plane had targeted the WTC deliberately, and other landmark and government buildings were being evacuated around the country. I remember trying to explain to our French colleagues why we had to sign off so abruptly, but it was very confused. We walked down 20 flights of stairs and regrouped in a conference room at another office owned by the company, in a nondescript midtown office building on 6th Avenue that was not evacuated as a potential terrorist target.

At this point, there was a feeling we (meaning the U.S.) were under attack with no sense of how many more planes had been hijacked and where they were headed. My work colleagues and I tuned into CNN on the big screen in the conference room. Someone brought in the sort of food trays that are served at meetings, which we ignored. My boss's boss had a brother who worked at the Pentagon and she was desperately trying to reach him. She later learned that he was in his office when the plane struck, which was luckily on the opposite side of the building from the impact.

My boyfriend at the time, Hugh, was doing temp work. His current temp assignment was at the WTC. No mobile phones were working – signals were jammed from the volume of calls. I used the conference room landline to try to reach him without success. I know it sounds strange, but I was worried but not frantic. It was so surreal, so hard to take in, that I simply could not believe that he could have been harmed. My coworkers and I saw both towers fall in real time on the news and it felt like watching a movie – it was simply too much to absorb that we were seeing thousands of people perish, live, at that moment, just down the street from us. The adrenaline was pumping, making for an altered state of hyper-awareness that felt more like riding a roller coaster or watching an action movie than being in a real life warzone. I think it's a protective mechanism, our brains don't take in the emotional side at first so that one can function until the immediate crisis is over.

By coincidence, my father was visiting for a yoga event. The class he was attending started at 5:45am, so he had made a habit of going back to my flat for a nap afterwards. I phoned him and woke him, told him to turn on the TV. He didn't believe me at first. When I convinced him I was serious, he asked me what channel. Since I never watch TV, I didn't know what channel CNN was. I remember patiently explaining to him that there was a sticker on the back of the remote that listed all the channels, although it had been worn almost illegible, when he said, "Never mind; it's on every channel."

I then called a friend, a college professor that I thought might not have heard. It seems silly now, but I didn't yet realize that people in classes, people in their homes and offices with no radio or TV on, would have been informed. He knew, and he was worried about his son, who was also temping in NYC. He doubted he was temping at the WTC that day, or anywhere near it, but a parent cannot help worrying. I told him I didn't have any word on Hugh and I knew for certain he was temping in the WTC. I had seen both towers collapse. My friend had nothing to say – what can you say in that situation?

About quarter past twelve, on another phone check, my father told me that Hugh was home. At that point, I left the office and walked home. I always walked the 50+ blocks to and from my office, but all public transport was shut down and the streets were crowded with people, some milling around uncertainly and some trying to get home on foot. I was training for the NYC marathon at that time and I had a painful groin pull that had given me a limp. I don't remember feeling it the whole way home.

It sounds horrible to say this, but I have to be honest and report that there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere all up along Broadway. It was a gorgeous sunny day, clear blue sky, 70s, that felt like summer at its best. Stores were giving away food and beverage to people walking by, and everyone was being really nice to each other. As I said, the shock, the adrenaline, kept the full knowledge of what was happening down the street from sinking in yet. People simply could not take it in and did not know what to think, but they were on their best behaviour. New York is a city of neighbourhoods, and those neighbourhoods can be close-knit, with good people who help each other.

When I got home, Hugh told his story: His train went past the WTC stop and let everyone off at the next one. This is a frequent occurrence in the NYC subway, "due to a police incident", so Hugh's only feeling was of annoyance that the walk back up from the following subway stop was going to make him late for work. When he emerged onto the street, it was to see the towers smoking, crowds screaming and running, and cops herding the emerging subway riders east, away from the WTC. He walked north, skirting as far east as he was forced to by cops and crowds. At one point, police were directing everyone down the steps into the City Hall subway entrance. He had a strong instinct not to get trapped underground but he was herded down with the crowd. When he saw the station and the platform were a solid sea of people, survival instincts drove him to fight his way back up the stairs to the street, right into a huge cloud of dust – the first tower had just collapsed. He made his way north, past people white with dust, floating pieces of paper landing on him, to Houston Street. There he saw a woman with her hand over her mouth screaming "Oh my God, oh my God" over and over and pointing downtown. He looked back in time to see the second tower collapse. He then walked home, well over 100 blocks.

We got take-out and camped in front of the TV. I called local hospitals in the evening, to see if I could go give blood – the feeling of helplessness, of wanting to do something was overwhelming. (The Onion captured this feeling well in its now classic 9/11 coverage). But the hospitals were overwhelmed with offers to donate and were advising people to stay home. The grim truth was that there were no survivors needing blood. Medical staff not on duty had raced to emergency rooms to help cope with the casualties, who never arrived. They were also refusing volunteers on site. Unless you had Red Cross or other formal disaster relief training, you weren't allowed south of Houston Street.

My office – indeed, most of the city – was shut down the next day. The building where my father's yoga event was being held was turned into a makeshift morgue, filled with charred body parts waiting to be matched with missing loved ones. My dad, Hugh, and I walked in the park, and went out to a cafĂ©, just to get away from the TV coverage for a few hours. But there was no relief. The smell from downtown permeated the air and served as a constant reminder. The TV was now listing names of the missing, showing photos, interviewing crying relatives. The scale of the death, the vague numbers of passengers and office workers, were now being replaced with individual names and faces and life stories. The NY Times ran bios of each victim, every single one, over the following weeks. Nothing seemed to matter; everything paled in relation to the scale of the senseless loss of life. The news reported the search for the missing, the dogs sniffing at the smoking rubble, the hope fading. They hid rescue workers for the dogs to find because they were getting depressed at finding only body parts, no living victims.

The following day, we went to an Indian restaurant downtown and saw the memorials to the missing, those now iconic street corner collections of candles and photocopied pictures. It is gut-wrenching to recall even 14 years later.

My father's flight was cancelled, but eventually he got home. Work resumed at the office, albeit with the anthrax scare keeping us all jumpy and leery of our formerly beloved landmark building. I put off running the marathon until the following year, ostensibly due to my injury, but also because my heart was no longer in it. It seemed so selfish, a petty goal in the face of the loss so many had suffered. But I did run it the next year. Life went on. 9/11 became something we now talk and think about only on its anniversary, when the names of the victims are patiently read aloud, a process that takes many hours, to let their relatives know they are not forgotten.

My memories of the event matter only to me, and not even to me so much anymore. #WhereWereYou and other "never forget"-type memorials are meant to help us avoid repeating horrors in our history. This is not a political essay, but I think it's safe to say that the U.S. response, and subsequent destabilization of the Middle East, have made the world less, not more, safe. It might be more useful to start a hashtag #WhereWillYouBe to begin a dialogue about the world we want to live in, the safer, kinder world we had hoped to create in the initial global goodwill that blossomed after 9/11.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Social mobility, social welfare policies, and the myth of the American Dream

One question I get every day is why is the U.S. the only developed country without universal health care?  A related question is why is the gap between rich and poor increasing?  & why does the U.S. have such a different attitude towards the poor than the rest of the world?  This is but a cursory answer, and it begins with a little comparative history.
In Europe, there was an almost total lack of social mobility prior to the 20th century.  The socio-economic class into which you were born completely determined your opportunities in life.  This was understood by everyone rich and poor, aristocrat and commoner.
In the U.S., (leaving aside for our purposes legal discrimination based on sex, race, etc.) the class system was formally abolished.  Everyone was entitled to 40 acres & a mule and, if you worked hard enough, you could pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  A boy born dirt poor in a log cabin could become president.  A barefoot child laborer could rise to become factory owner and robber-baron capitalist.  It is the myth of the American dream.
Now think about what attitudes toward poverty are shaped by these two scenarios.  In Europe, poverty is an accident of birth, so the poor deserve help to level the playing field.  And Europe has created social welfare programs that were designed to overcome socio-economic barriers.  The problem in the 21st century is that those barriers are long gone.  It has been nearly 100 years since people were forbidden to attend university if they hadn't been born into a high enough class.  Even the heir to the throne in Great Britain has married a commoner.  But the attitude that there is nothing you can do to better yourself persists and it is a problem that Europe needs to sort out, along with immigration, but that is another post entirely.
In the U.S., the myth that the playing field is level, that everyone has an equal chance to succeed if they work hard enough, has resulted in a blame-the-poor mentality.  There is a belief that, in this land of opportunity, it is your own fault if you are poor, so why should people who have worked hard for their own success help you?  This is why there is universal health care in every other developed country except the U.S.  Americans blame the poor for not being able to afford health care and other necessities.
In the post-war era, when the social welfare programs that we do have in the U.S. were launched, there was a temporary shift in attitude because of the Great Depression and WWII.  There was a shift in Americans looking to the federal govt. rather than the states to solve problems because the problems during the Depression were too large for states to handle individually.  The frontier had closed at the beginning of the 20th century, the population was increasing, and urban slums filled with poor immigrants working for obscenely low wages in dangerous working conditions were growing during industrialization.  As the population urbanized, we went from a self-sufficient agricultural economy to a dependent urbanized one -- i.e., instead of producing what they needed to survive, people worked for wages, which they spent to buy these necessities.  Living in crowded conditions near employers, they could no longer produce goods for themselves, so they became dependent upon wages.
All of these things (closing of frontier, immigration, population increase, urbanization, industrialization, Depression) led Americans to take a more European attitude towards poverty, that it was not laziness on the part of the poor, that the playing field was not level with equal opportunity for all.  There was also a different attitude towards women working outside the home.  So-called welfare was originally meant to support widowed and abandoned wives with children, who were expected to stay home with their kids.
Now, fast forward to the 21st century.  These social programs were created before most people living today were born.  There are families where succeeding generations have been born to mothers on welfare.  There is an argument that dependence upon social welfare has become a way of life rather than a temporary safety net for the truly needy.  Those who oppose aid to the poor, including universal healthcare, believe that the playing field is now level, that those in poverty are simply too lazy to work and earn money for themselves.
The reality, of course, is that the playing field is far from level.  A child born into an urban ghetto with failing schools and gangs does not have an equal chance of financial success as a child born into a middle-class suburban community with good schools and Scouting.
Most of the debates between proponents and opponents of social welfare policies dance around this central ideological difference, but it is simply that those who oppose helping the poor believe poverty is their own fault and those that favour helping the poor believe that their socio-economic circumstances are beyond their control.  & n'er the twain shall meet.
The way to end poverty is not to continue the social welfare programs of the past (most of which have been updated already) but to look at the root causes and address them with a "teach to fish" not "give a fish" model of assistance.  But that is not going to happen as long as society is split in where it places the blame.  As I always say, you can have your own opinion but you can't have your own facts.  Both sides need to come to the table with the same set of facts before meaningful discussions about solutions can occur.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Book Review: Year of No Sugar by Eve Schaub

Eve Schaub and I have a lot in common. We are both 40-something writers who have adopted Vermont as our physical and spiritual home.  Seduced by the New England small town and rural aesthetic, we know our way around a farmers' market and can wax rhapsodic on the virtues of local, seasonal, and organic everything.  We are both lapsed vegetarians, a transformation in attitude occasioned by the availability in areas like ours of locally and humanely raised meat. For vacation we'd both go back to Tuscany before we'd go anywhere else. Finally, and most relevant here, we both became aghast at the insane amounts of sugar in American food and attempted to wrest some control of the volume of sugar in our diets from multinational corporations and well-meaning bake sale vendors.

For Ms Schaub, her sugar epiphany was catalysed by a video on the evils of sugar. Whilst far from being ignorant about healthy eating, she experienced a dawning horror at the amount of sugar her family, particularly her two daughters, was mindlessly consuming despite her avoidance of fast food and obviously empty calories such as soda.  Avoiding sugar entirely seemed impossible but, not being one to shy away from a challenge, that is exactly what she set out to do, for an entire year, with her family joining her.

Predictably, there were tears from her children, but her husband, leery of radical diets from having grown up with a father who experimented with bizarre dietary extremes, was surprisingly game. Her book chronicles the setting and enforcing of the no-sugar rules for the year, which budgeted for monthly treats, a "birthday party rule" that allowed the girls to make their own choices about what to eat when they were away from home and their peers were eating sugar, and a personal exception for each family member – the one form of sugar they could not live without for a year. The difficulties of shopping, dining out, eating at someone else's house, negotiating holidays like Halloween and Xmas, are all described with unvarnished candour.

They made mistakes, especially in the first few months, not realising, for example, that balsamic vinegar contained sugar.  I think my favourite mistake was when they bought their daughters some strawberries and plain yoghurt for an afternoon snack in Florence only to discover the yoghurt was actually whipped cream. I bet the girls were in heaven. Some recipes adapted to be made with dextrose (an allowed form of sugar in her experiment) were a success but others failed to gel, literally. As an appendix, Ms Schaub lists recipes that are sugar-free as well as recipes for their monthly sugary treat.  The latter I found a bit odd as recipes with copious amounts of sugar are, to put it mildy, not difficult to find and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the book.  But I understand that readers might be curious about them, considering how evocatively she describes their monthly sugar mirage, and how carefully they selected their most beloved family recipes as treats.

Another thing Ms Schaub does not sugarcoat (sorry—I was going to have to use it at some point, so best we get it out of the way) is her children's reactions.  But it is clear that neither girl will have cause to look back on it as the Year from Hell.  The number of exceptions, the sweet but sugar-free treats made from dextrose and fruit, and their opportunity to eat sugar at school if they so chose, hardly made it a literal year without sugar.  The scary thing, as Ms Schaub notes, is how much less this still notable amount of sugar was compared to a typical year, let alone a typical American child's diet.  Remember, these were kids who had a mom that bakes bread and who had never set foot in a fast food restaurant, so their sugar consumption was already far below the norm. The most striking point, which the author emphasises repeatedly, is that the girls adjusted in many respects more easily than the adults because they had less time on earth to become addicted to sugar.  At five, the youngest was the quickest of the entire family to adapt, and by the end of the year the palates of the entire family had changed to such an extent that they willingly chose to eat less sugar even when it was allowed. 

In addition to the gradual alteration of their palates, another point the book makes is how the process of avoiding sugar in 21st century America exacts a mental toll due to the vigilance necessary to police the sugar content in every morsel that drops into our shopping carts or passes our lips.  As consumers in America, we have more nutritional privilege, more choice, than people virtually anywhere else on the planet, but that illusion of choice evaporates when faced with an entire aisle of cereals or sauces all of which contain some form of sugar.  Skipping dessert, as Ms Schaub explains trenchantly, does not cut it. Go to a cookout steeling yourself to resist the s'mores and find that the buns, dogs, condiments, side dishes, even the chips, all contain hidden sugar – and the only drinks without real sugar contain poisonous artificial sweetener, which is worse.  Any event of significance, from major holidays to ostensibly healthy occasions like a 10K fundraising run, is accompanied by vast amounts of sugar.  Avoiding it requires superhuman will power or complete social isolation.  During her family's year of no sugar, they employed both of those tactics, along with the aforementioned judicious exceptions to make holidays and birthdays bearable.

I have taken a far more moderate approach to the sugar problem–there was never any possibility of me having the will power to give up sugar entirely, let alone when on holiday in Florence, surrounded by gelato–but I experience this same frustration and horror at sugar, sugar everywhere.  When I picked up the book, I knew exactly how the author was going to react when she started looking for the hidden sugar in everything because I have been there, and continue to rage impotently against the purveyors of sugar.  I, too, peruse labels and cook and bake from scratch. That is simply a necessity. I wish I did not have to. It would be nice to stop for an ice cream with friends or enjoy a cookie in a coffeehouse that did not contain ten times the amount of sugar necessary.  Also, as Ms Schaub notes, making everything is time-consuming. I prefer baked goods and ice cream with much less sugar than in purchased varieties but it is not practical to always bake or make my own ice cream.

But the more prepared foods you eat, the more sugar you ingest, and any food, whether it contains sugar or not, is more satisfying when it is homemade.  The ultimate lesson of her book is not just about avoiding sugar for health reasons but about appreciating food. Mindless eating is invariably less healthy than cooking local, seasonal, organic, fresh ingredients from scratch. Kids, she notes at the end of her missive, are inherently aware of this. They will take homemade bread over store-bought cake. Children know, she concludes, what is special. That sense is something we have lost in the world of corporate food where sugar is used as a drug to stimulate unhealthy consumption and addiction. It is less will power than an appreciation for real food that may save us.