Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What Hand Have I Been Dealt?

My dear friend C, who likes to make lists, added this to his list of beliefs:

"I’m not very fond of the saying, “You have to play the hand you’re dealt.” I believe that many of the most interesting people are those who have not played the hands they were dealt.  Personally, in my own life, I try not to be limited by the cards I was dealt at birth."

But, C, what are the cards you were dealt?  You may have been dealt controlling, hostile parents or no parents at all.  You may have begun with deprivations of all sorts, four fingers instead of five; but obviously your hand included the ability, imagination, and courage to see beyond the initial unfolding of your life.  That too is part of your hand.

Let's take the card game, bridge, for example.  In bridge you are dealt 13 cards.  Every round, another 13.  Sometimes it's all aces and faces.  Sometimes none.  You have to play the hand you are dealt.  (And, by the way, in duplicate bridge, you can even play a bleak pointless hand extraordinarily well and win the game!)

Unlike bridge, a life might offer more choices and the immediately available options change with every decision you make and every fork in every road.  The hand we are dealt makes it possible to choose Fork A or Fork U and to even go back if we don't like the view.  We might feel we're all out of cards, when out of the blue, we see another card hiding under a bush.

Of course not everyone has a bush available.  I agree with C of course, but I'm just not sure the metaphor holds up.  What do you think?  Should I delete this blog?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Are You a Good Son (Mother, Father, Partner, etc. etc.)?

A friend of mine (male, early 30s) is living a mountain range away from his mother.  His father died a couple of years ago and his mom (late 50s) has been trying to get on with her life.  He said he wants to be a good son.  I asked him, "What do you think being a 'good son' means?"

He didn't know.  He hadn't thought of it in terms of a set of criteria.

We want to be "good" partners, friends, and family members even when there are difficulties with the other person.  If we are in a relationship, we generally want to do our part to make it good.  It might be useful to have specific behavioural goals instead of assuming goodness.  People who need to protect themselves from difficult parents might still want to be a "good" son or daughter.  Guilt and a sense of duty might push them towards family, but fear, ambivalence, or resentment pulls them away.

If there's closeness, respect, and acceptance, we want to be around family and do all we can together.  Some people, however, need to put up boundaries of protection and be free to create themselves.  In these cases it might be helpful to define for yourself what it might mean to be a good whatever.  Set minimum actions (e.g. phone once a week).  As the relationship changes, eventually your actions will be fearless and spontaneous and flow from open-hearted love.

When my daughter was young, I decided that being a good mother included giving her swimming lessons.  A lot of "what is a good mother" had to be figured out.  It's not instinctive.  It might be the same with all our roles.

Self-Definition Goals

Some goals are long-term goals that we set out to achieve step-by-step:  complete a degree, find a job, run in a marathon, and so on.

Other goals involve ways of being:  being a good employee, partner, or parent.  If my goal is to be a "good" daughter to an elderly parent, or a "good" partner in a relationship, what does that mean specifically?  We could ask the other person and consider their answer, but their definition of "good" might be different from our own.

Can you define your roles, at least partly, in terms of specific realistic behaviours?  What is one of your most important self-definition roles (student, sister, brother, daughter, son, lover, team member, parent, etc.).  Pick one and think of some specific behaviours:

I would consider myself a good ________________________, if I

1. ___________________________________________________________

2. ___________________________________________________________
3. ___________________________________________________________

You can then measure your level of achievement against your own criteria -- not someone else's.  You don't have to feel inadequate or guilty all the time, and you can fortify yourself against other people's accusations of inadequacy.

Monday, July 23, 2012


The media say that the FBI are searching for a motive for the Aurora, Colorado massacre.  "Why?" is a frequently asked question, number five on the five w's list:  who, what, when, where, why.  Answers to the whys of human behaviour, though, tend to be speculative.  DNA or other evidence will often help nail down who, what, when, where, and even how, but give no hints to why.

If we knew why random, senseless atrocities occurred, we could predict them and stop them before they happened.  But I suspect there is no why.  Perhaps the shooter will offer a reason besides "I'm the joker," but even an explanation given by the perpetrator will not create a satisfying why.  Nonetheless, we would very much like one.  This article suggests that needing an explanation seems wired into the brain:

BEHAVIOR; Mind Fills The Need To Explain


"While mapping the brain, they [neurophysiologists] were amazed to find that when the area responsible for an emotion was electronically stimulated, subjects experienced the mechanically induced feeling, then instantly came up with reasons for their responses."

Many people will come up with a why.  We need to, but I suspect events like the Montreal Massacre, the Columbine massacre, and the tragedy in Aurora ultimately arise from the unique experiences and chemistry of the shooters.  Perhaps it would be more helpful to examine, question, and circumscribe the how.

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.  These three questions comprise the title of Gauguin's famous painting currently hanging in the Arcadia exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  When I was there a couple of days ago, I took the exhibit's "audio tour."  This involved wearing headphones and carrying a device as I wandered the exhibit featuring Impressionists obsessed with visions of Arcadia.  Certain pictures are labelled with a headset icon and number.  When I punched the number into my  portable device, I could listen to the voices of art historians.

The historian first described the groups of figures in Gauguin's masterpiece:  the women and baby and dog on the right,  youthful figures in the middle, a blue idol in the background, and an old woman in the left corner with a white bird.  The expert then declared that the picture does not answer the questions in the title. Huh?

Was the picture supposed to answer the questions?  Can art answer questions?  Art of all sorts tends to stimulate and inspire questions in the viewer.  As artists paint, the working out of the picture might answer their questions, just as writing blogs answers my questions (or creates more questions).  When art seems to answer questions for viewers, it is likely to be a very subjective answer.

Brief note on the audio-tour experience:

The museum was very crowded with people wearing their headsets, isolated, listening to pre-recorded comments on the works of art.  Guided tours were few and far between.  This is typical of art galleries these days, and it might seem like a good idea as a great deal of information can be communicated, and people can choose which work of art they want to hear about.

I felt isolated and cut off from other viewers, each of us in a private audio environment discouraged from interacting with one another and unable to ask questions -- the way it is on sidewalks, buses, and subways of urban environments - everyone listening to their own private playlist.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Are You Self-Scrutinizing? Not Enough? Too Much?

I have a friend (C.) who engages in what he calls "self-absorbed list-making."  He just sent me his list of "Things I'm Good At" followed by "Things I'm Not Good At."

This is the same friend who wrote a list of "Things I Believe" which I discussed in the blog, What Should I Believe In?.  He says he considers his lists an exercise in self-understanding.  Also, he clearly has chosen self-absorbed list-making over other possibly more dangerous or addictive activities.  So I applaud his pastime.

His list, so far, is short although wide-ranging.  It includes work habits:
  • I am good at finishing what I start
  • I am good at procrastinating
specific skills:
  • I am pretty good at learning languages
  • I am good at writing music (sometimes)
and mental processes:
  • I'm good at questioning fundamental ideas that others might accept as self-evident truths.
His list of things he's not good at is presented without apology:
  •  I am not very punctual
  •  I am not very good at making money. I just don’t think that way.
Although there is occasionally a slight wistfulness:
  • I wish I were better at renewing old friendships than I am ...
  • Sadly, I am not much of a ladies’ man.
What am I to make of this?  Most of us do not feel the need to make such a list unless we're preparing for that horrible (but important) job-interview question, "What are your weaknesses?"  (Interviewers want to see if you are capable of self-scrutiny.)

Most of us also prefer to hear how wonderful we are from others. ("You're a fabulous lover.")  If your self-esteem is shaky, the list might lead you to the nearest bridge. 
On the other hand, it might not be a bad idea to make such a list, and having done so to look for ways to share or teach the things we're good at, or to seek to improve the things we wish to improve - or maybe just to understand and accept ourselves more.

I just sent C. the following questions:
  1. Do you feel you know yourself better after completing your list?
  2. Has it made you want to become better at things you are not good at, or more accepting of yourself?
  3. Has it provided a framework for what seems to be your life?
  4. Do you recommend this for others?
I'll report on his answers when they arrive.

I tried momentarily to write myself a list of things I'm good and bad at, but I didn't get very far.  I'm not that self-scrutinizing.  I know one thing though.  If I did make that list, I don't think I'd send it to anyone.  Unless they asked.

Meanwhile, how do you self-scrutinize?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's Your (Secret) Identity?

Growing up with Superman, Batman, and the other heroes, I thought I had a clear idea of what a secret identity was.  This was the disguise the heroes wore to hide their powers and function in the world as regular citizens.  Most superheroes wore masks, yet, their "secret" identity was unmasked.  Their masked (yet real) identity had amazing powers.  Their unmasked selves hid their powers.

This seems like a confusing message for a kid.  How do we learn who we are and what we stand for?  If we have special powers, should they stay hidden?  What is identity?  Do we all have double lives?

Masked or unmasked, identity is our definition of ourselves.  To be effective and consistent, we need an idea of ourselves.

We build our identity piece by piece as experiences sharpen our understanding of what we will or will not do.  Our identity develops
  • when we don't fit in
  • when we explore areas beyond our comfort zone
  • when we heed a call to go forward into an unknown future
  • when we find out we could do more than we thought we could
  • when we discover what we will or will not tolerate
  • when we take a stand
and in many other ways.  As we differentiate ourselves from others, we also must learn to merge empathically with others without losing ourselves or barraging others with our strong sense of self.

We define our identities bit by bit, experience by experience.  I suspect, as we enter the last periods of our lives, and our sons and daughters tell us to "rage, rage against the dying of the light," we reverse the process, losing ourselves piece by piece to merge easily back into the cosmos.

How did you discover who you were?  Do you have a secret identity?