Thursday, October 31, 2013

The parable of the giraffes and the sheep and how everyone else is wrong

For a few days at the end of October the Great Giraffe Riddle Meme swept through Facebook like a storm.  And, like a storm, it left some telling wreckage in its wake.

The rules of the game:  Send your answer to the riddle in a private message to the person posting the riddle.  Get it right, hurrah!  Get it wrong, you have to change your profile picture to a giraffe for the next three days.

The riddle:

It’s 3 a.m., the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors! It’s your parents and they are here for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?

Of course it's a trick question.  It's a riddle, and trick questions are what riddles are all about.  We're expecting that.

We're also expecting that the answer to the riddle, once revealed, will be obvious, evoking the quintessential A-HA! moment in which all the pieces fall neatly into place.

This riddle, however, didn't fall out so neatly.  Arguments ensued, claims and counter-claims were made regarding the real "correct" answer, people were chided for voicing dissent from the shared viewpoint of their circle, friends were unfriended over their disagreements.

You'd think everyone had been arguing about religion and spirituality.

As with religion, some people chose not to participate at all.  And as with religion, some were criticized for not participating.  They were told that they were not good sports; that they were losers who couldn't handle a simple game; that they were idiots who couldn't comprehend the truth; that they were just all-around party poopers who had no sense of team spirit.

And as with religion, some of the ones who chose not to participate retorted that the ones who accused them of not being good sports were just a bunch of mindless sheep, following along unthinkingly according to the rules they were told to follow.

And as with religion, some who chose not to play the game still took an interest in studying the game, learning the different answers people were offering, engaging in discussions about the ways in which the texts could be interpreted.  And as with religion, people who did choose to play the game sometimes claimed that those who chose not to play the game had no business offering an opinion about the game, nor about its Official Text, nor about how to interpret its Official Text.

And as with religion, many chose to play the game, but not everyone played the game the same way.  People divided over their interpretations of how to play the game, and by what rules to play the game, and what answers were and were not acceptable in discussing the game.  People argued over other people deciding not to change their profile pictures, whether because they didn't agree that their answer was the wrong answer or because they simply liked the pictures they were currently displaying.   People argued about whether other people had the right to argue about the riddle.

As with religion, there were multiple versions of the Official Text being passed around.  And as with religion, people disagreed, sometimes heatedly, about which version was the One True Version.

And as with religion, people argued, sometimes with detachment and sometimes with passionate attachment, about which interpretation of the One True Version of the Official Text was the correct interpretation of the One True Version of the Official Text.

And as with religion, some people allowed for more than one possible right answer.  Or for no right answer at all.  Or for the existence of a right answer but enough ambiguity in the text and in the interpretation to suggest that we could not definitively say who was right and who was wrong.

And as with religion, some people argued not only that their answer was THEIR answer, but that their answer was THE answer, and that anyone who did not agree which answer was THE answer was certainly lacking in logic and intelligence and the social grace to acknowledge their horrendously offensive wrongness.

At least nobody claimed that anyone who disagreed with them was going to be damned forever and ever amen.  One small step, and all that.

And I'm left thinking, if we can't even agree to disagree over a poorly-worded grammatically-ambiguous riddle about an absurdly implausible scenario, is it any wonder we humans can't seem to agree to disagree on the far more personally important subject of how we view religion and spirituality?

Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the giraffe, after all, about not being a sheep.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Be your own confidence

Be a lamp unto yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourself, as to the only lamp.

- The Buddha

Like every human being on Earth, I sometimes feel insecure.  And, like every creative and artistic person I've ever known, many of those insecurities center around my worthiness as a creative and artistic person.  If I am not careful, I can fall prey to the temptation of becoming a feedback junkie, constantly seeking signs of affirmation that my writing, my thinking, my insights are appreciated and valued and making a difference in people's lives.

These insecurities did not arise in a vacuum.

In seeking validation from others, I am seeking to assuage internalized beliefs that nobody wants what I have to offer, nobody values what I create, nobody wants to reward me for doing the things I love.  Every time I take a "hit" in terms of lack of support, especially by someone whose opinion I valued and trusted would be supportive, it's natural to want to fill the void with reassurance and affirmation that I really am all right, that I am worthy of my dreams, that I am not wasting my time, that it's okay to go after what I want to go after, that my most deeply held aspirations are valuable contributions waiting to be made to the world.

Many of you know--and have lived--the script:

Well, isn't that nice.  Wouldn't we all like that.  Sure you're going to change the world.  You'll learn.  Huh, who's going to pay you for that?  Some of us have to work a REAL job.  You're a writer?  Since when? Oh, that doesn't count.  You call that art?  LOL.  Still working on your great masterpiece, eh?  Dream on.

It took me a long, long time to realize that this kind of ridicule has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the person who is directing it at me.  Unlike constructive criticism, it serves no useful purpose and should be dismissed outright.

Constructive criticism focuses on ideas, addressing specific points where, in the opinion of the person offering it, a work, a proposal, or a project can be improved.  Often it will "ring true" as soon as you receive it, and you will feel positive and more clear as a result of receiving it.  Also, a person offering constructive criticism offers it as just that:  her or his opinion.  They say, This is how I see it, and then they let go of the outcome.  They will not be offended if you question the criticism, ask for clarification, or decide it just doesn't fit your vision.  Their ultimate goal is to build you up and help you to fulfill your vision.

Destructive criticism, rather than addressing ideas, attacks the person.  People who offer this type of feedback are not seeking to build you up but to tear you down.  Their criticism tends to be vague, evasive, shaming.  Any attempts to pin down specific points and ask for alternative ideas are met with yes-buts and non sequiturs.  Sometimes it takes the form of things unspoken, the support that's being withheld, the implicitly judgmental silence.  In any form, this kind of criticism has nothing to do with you or the value of what you are doing.  Its sole purpose is to undermine your confidence in yourself.

Whether overtly critical or subtly disapproving, when you encounter such a lack of support--even and especially if it is from someone close to you, someone whom you believe loves you and would never want to hurt you--protect yourself.  Back away psychologically, physically if necessary, and build a nice virtual wall around your heart and your craft and your visions and your dreams.  Recognize that this person is not and will not be supportive of your goal, accept it, and move on.

Then ask yourself the big question:

Why am I waiting for someone to give me permission to be who I am?

And then realize:  Your primary support comes from within yourself.

Just do what you want to do, create what you want to create.  Waste no more time or energy or attention on getting other people's approval or affirmation.  Approval and affirmation are wonderful, when you do get them, but learn to keep going even when the only one who believes in you is you.

That is the only way to stick to your vision, finish your novel, create your art, make a difference, become the change you wish to see in the world, reach your heart's desire in your life and your work.  Be strong within, strong enough to withstand the shifting winds of loyalty and support from without.  Release the restless search for feedback and affirmation.  Connect, but don't cling.  Dialogue, but don't depend.  And when someone turns on you, withdraws support, cuts you down?  Let it go.  Let them go.

Once we have established that we are indeed good at something we love to do, we need to confront our internalized critics, dismantle their ridicule, and replace that misguided ridicule with an appreciation of ourselves and of our own work.  The more we appreciate ourselves in a realistic, grounded way--the kind of appreciation that is genuine and heartfelt, not bluff and bluster to hide insecurity and doubt--the more we will radiate the confidence that nourishes our creative life and inspires others to appreciate us in turn.

Be your own confidence, and the time and energy you once expended on seeking approval for your dreams will go instead toward making your dreams your reality.