It is okay to follow the herd (just for the heck of it) but there are problems:
1. The ‘herd’ itself constitutes of different groups with different opinions. People often have contradictory opinions. A Hindu Brahmin might speak against non-vegetarian food while a Muslim may speak in favor of it.
2. What people say they like and what they actually like is sometimes different. For example, many Indian men look down upon prostitutes and porn stars but their hard drive is full of porn.
3. It’s too stressful to please everybody so, we have to pick and choose. If we are always going to disappoint somebody, then why don’t we do that while following our inner voice?
4.We often follow the crowd because we are afraid of being ridiculed. However, being inauthentic makes us feel ashamed of ourselves. If shame or ridicule is inevitable, why don’t we listen to our own judgment?
5. No one is going to take responsibility in case we follow their advice and things don’t work out.
In ancient times, there were philosophers like Socrates who went to people on the streets and asked them questions on happiness, ethics, love etc. Socrates could have just discussed all these things with the elite but he believed that each human being had the capacity to think and Philosophy, for him, was not just for intellectuals who discussed it over a cup of tea. Philosophy guides everything that we do, the choices we make and the way we treat the people in our lives. In ancient times, philosophers like Plato and Seneca wrote on various topics like human beings and their relationship with society, self-esteem, etc but today most self-help books and fanatic religious groups have killed people’s interest in self-improvement and their passion to know the meaning of life. Unfortunately, Philosophy is considered a ‘dead’ subject’ now.
If your education doesn’t give you the tools to handle stress and challenges, then it is really useless. Schools and colleges are now introducing ‘life skills’ but we seriously need a culture where philosophers are respected. I think it was Plato (or was it Aristotle?) who said that philosophers should be given more power than kings in a society because the right kind of philosophers are not hungry for power. They use their equanimity to keep power in check and keep the society stable and peaceful. At the heart of obsession with celebrities, art, sports lies a desire to find a guide who will help us find solutions to issues that bother us. Hence, we need philosophers more than ever.
It’s a great time to be alive. We can now read about what great philosophers had to say about happiness. We have access to knowledge about the way our mind works. There are free courses on life skills. On paper, we have all the knowledge that we need to be more happier but in reality, the happiness levels are the same. Maybe because obsession with knowledge is obsession with control. We believe that if only we know how something works or what is good/bad for us, we can manipulate life. Unfortunately, we cannot control everything. At some point, we have to surrender and accept that we can never have 100 certainty in anything.
Perhaps, what we need is wisdom but like someone once said, it cannot be transferred. Knowledge can be acquired but to be more wiser, one has to walk alone.
I’m one of those annoyingly optimistic people who just don’t like to give up. Most of the times, I hide this quality because I know that it will piss people off. Sometimes, it is insensitive to suggest people to be optimistic when you don’t even know what they have gone through in life. After reading Martin Seligman’s ‘Learned Optimism’, I am acknowledging the importance of pessimism and hopefully, I will see things from others’ perspective as well. Optimism can be a great help during stressful circumstances, but sometimes, it is the reason why you are stressed out in the first place! As I am growing older, I am realizing that sometimes, it is wise to let go. Sometimes, situations are too overwhelming and you need to acknowledge the fact that they are too powerful. However, people like me also need to acknowledge the optimist in them..so what I feel is, that it is better to respect the situation..but at the same time, you do everything that is possible to get out of it. Instead of obsessing about ‘perfect’ situations, it is better to do whatever you can in the given circumstance. Sometimes, you cannot give your 100 percent…but instead of obsessing about perfect effort, it is better to do whatever you can, no matter how small it is. Usually, imperfect situations threaten optimists’ world view and they end up becoming depressed and do nothing. It is better to acknowledge that sometimes you can only do limited amount of things.
Long time back, I heard someone say that we need to treat ourselves as trustees to our life, body, mind and the planet. When we are owners, we kind of abuse what we own. When we are trustees, most of us are responsible and conscientious. For example: A father may eat less or smoke or do something harmful to himself but when it comes to his child, he will urge him to stay away from bad habits. When we consider ourselves as the trustees (and not owners)to our planet, we might care about it better. I liked this thought but I feel there’s something missing…
An attitude of a trustee could lead to a stable and better world but without ownership, there is no creativity. We may work hard and do our best for our organisation or any collective unit but without a sense of ownership, we are not satisfied. In practical life, we have a selfish side to us and it needs to be honoured too. Without a sense of ownership, we will be deprived of self-expression. The worst part of this is that the child in us will be abandoned. A child has no responsibility…she doesn’t have to care about putting food on the table. She doesn’t feel guilty about doing things that make her happy.But this child is important. Sports, Art, Entertainment are not ‘basic’ needs but they are important for human beings. Being a trustee (all the time) kind of stops your growth. Being an owner (all the time) can be harmful to the society. I guess we need both the owner and trustee.
After a long time, I happened to watch the Bollywood movie ‘Baazigar’ which is about a guy, whose family is cheated and humiliated by a cunning man. So this guy plots an elaborate plan to teach the man a lesson. One part of his plan is to make the man’s elder daughter fall in love with him and kill her. And then, he gets engaged to his younger daughter and eventually gets his revenge. In the end, you get a feeling that the filmmakers are justifying what the person did.
The problem with revenge is that the person seeking it always assumes that the other party is a separate, independent entity. In the above case, the guy has a problem with his father but it is his daughters who are sacrificed in the name of revenge. You might say that you will seek revenge in a way that will *only* hurt that particular person but that’s just not possible! Human beings have connections and our actions cause chain reactions. You cannot harm that person without harming an innocent life.
The same thing applies to justice. If you find out that a family member of yours is guilty of child sexual abuse, you might want to stay silent because at the end of the day, he/she is a part of your family. But remember that he/she is a part of the society too..and your decision to not speak up might affect the lives of other children.
I’m not one of those people who complain about how “shallow” the modern world is. Yes, there are a lot of self-obsessed people in today’s world, but it is also a world of authenticity. I believe that every generation has its own strengths and weaknesses…and labeling an entire generation and reducing it to negative stereotypes is not cool at all. But I keep wondering if there’s something significantly different about this generation. Alain de Botton says that unlike earlier generation, today’s youngsters don’t have a God. Even if they do, they are vulnerable to doubt because of the growing number of atheists. I don’t know if getting rid of God is a good thing or not but I feel that it is extremely difficult to replace this idea. The idea of something ‘sacred’ is powerful. In religion, sacredness is often confused with purity and probably, that is one of the reasons why there is so much fanaticism. But seeing something as “sacred” has profound effect on the way we live our lives. For example: You might feel that the activity of writing is sacred. You might feel like you are “home” when you write. However, it is possible that you might feel reverence…a deep sense of respect for writing. This is different from passion or even love. You love this activity but there is also a sense of awe and devotion. I feel that what “this” generation is looking for is that sacred activity/place/person. When you feel that something is “sacred”, you don’t abuse that activity/place/ thing/ person and you don’t abuse yourself. Sacredness is not about right or wrong or perfection or religion. It is just something that feels “holy” to you: It could be solitude, an idea or a person.
In my first job, I was expected to come up with creative ideas. Sometimes, I was able to impress my seniors and sometimes I couldn’t. When I succeeded, I was “confident” in every other area of my life. I could take on annoying aunties and had no self-esteem issues. But when I failed, I started questioning my worth. But this was not a problem because after some failures, there was success. But one day I left the job and I had no creative outlet for some time. Since my self-worth was based on being creative, I panicked. As days passed, I asked myself a question: What if I’m not creative? The doubts grew stronger and I was convinced that I was not creative. And then I had to came face to face with my biggest fear: if I’m not creative, then I am NOTHING. I am not smart!
Everyday, people around the world ask themselves similar questions. And when they are convinced that they are not good enough at something or afraid that they will fail someday, they start indulging in a range of self-destructive things. Some overeat. Some get addicted to porn. Some fall into depression. And when they get habituated to self-destructive behavior, they fall into a trap. They create a perpetuating cycle: The pain of not being good enough leads to depression/self-destructive behavior and since you cannot work on your craft when you are depressed/self-destructive, you will never even know if you are good enough for that thing/or any other thing. If I’m too afraid of failing in exams, then I might start spending too much time on the internet to feel less stressful…since I don’t study, I fail…and when I fail, I’m convinced that I’m not good enough, so I spend more time on the internet to soothe my pain…the cycle keeps repeating.
So the obvious answer to this is to say that self-worth shouldn’t be based on these things. And then we ask: How do we create this self-worth? The problem with the question is that it is again about achieving something. And if we ‘fail’ in achieving something, we feel like a loser again (I feel worthless because I cannot build self-worth!). Of course, we can acquire knowledge but the problem is not intellectual. It is an emotional one. Intellectual armor or knowledge cannot really soothe the vulnerable child inside us. Perhaps, we can never find an answer outside us. In Hinduism, there is a concept called ‘Swayambhu’ which means ‘self-manifested’. I guess self-worth or self-esteem has to originate within ourselves…techniques, knowledge or achievements are useful but they cannot help us much.
This book is a collection of advice columns of Sugar, who is actually the popular author Cheryl Strayed (she didn’t reveal her identity when she gave this advice). I read a few columns by Dear Sugar a year ago and found them beautiful. For some reason, I never went back to reading more but I recently stumbled upon one of her columns on a Facebook Page and decided to read this book. It would be an understatement to say that this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The columnist calls herself Sugar but she is not always sweet. What’s unique about her is that unlike normal agony aunts, Sugar shares experiences from her life. They are not always sweet. She talks about her sexual abuse and shares things that we might never reveal to even our loved ones. They say that those who advise are not supposed to show their vulnerability but Sugar shares some of the most shameful and brutal things that happened to her. It’s not to seek attention but to empathize. I was struck by how honest the advice seekers were. We say that the internet is screwing our relationships but this internet column is a proof that we can find a home in the virtual world too.
Sugar is not a psychologist. She is not technically qualified to give advice but she speaks from her heart and she is full of wisdom. I disagreed with her on few occasions but things like these don’t matter. Her advice columns obviously have advice but after reading this book, you are inspired to listen to your own voice. More than anything, you are inspired to make mistakes. Not for the sake of making them but to explore yourself and discover who you truly are.
Here are some quotes (quotes can’t do justice to Sugar’s writing but there is no other option)..
1. Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.
2. I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English degree and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: ‘Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire;’ or maybe just: ‘Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.’
3. I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.
4. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.
5. The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are.
6. To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion. It implies a pious quid pro quo that defies history, reality, ethics, and reason. It fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising–the very half that makes rising necessary–is having first been nailed to the cross.
7. Fucked-up people will try to tell you otherwise, but boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you, and they teach you how to respect yourself.
8. You don’t have to be young. You don’t have to be thin. You don’t have to be “hot” in a way that some dumbfuckedly narrow mindset has construed that word. You don’t have to have taut flesh or a tight ass or an eternally upright set of tits. You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all of your clothes and say, “I’m right here.” There are so many tiny revolutions in a life, a million ways we have to circle around ourselves to grow and change and be okay. And perhaps the body is our final frontier. It’s the one place we can’t leave. We’re there till it goes. Most women and some men spend their lives trying to alter it, hide it, prettify it, make it what it isn’t, or conceal it for what it is. But what if we didn’t do that? That’s the question you need to answer.
9. You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.
10. It’s still true that literary works by women, gays, and writers of color are often framed as specific rather than universal, small rather than big, personal or particular rather than socially significant. There are things you can do to shed light on and challenge those biases and bullshit moves. But the best possible thing you can do is get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. Nobody is going to ask you to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.