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Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Selflessness Mystique

How many times have you heard someone described as ‘selfless?’ It’s always meant as a compliment and often attributed to someone who may have gone unnoticed. There’s a chance the term is attached to men, but most likely it’s a woman who’s received the ‘praise.’

It’s interesting that anyone would ever consider having an absence of self to be a virtue. In some cases it might just be a matter of semantics. Perhaps what they really meant was not selflessness as much as generous of spirit or empathetic. True selflessness conjures the most depressing of images: an individual whose only sense of purpose is external, who expends all of their creative energies on the perceived needs of others. How is neglecting oneself ever virtuous? Any person over the age of 15 or so, in their most honest bravest moment, will admit that it’s always easier to focus on others than oneself. It’s why teenagers lose themselves in the lives of boy/girlfriends. Some of us never grow out of that impulse.  Showering others with attention takes boatloads of physical energy but not a whole lot of emotional energy. Listening to one’s inner voice and having it guide our life’s path is work. It takes focus, daring and fortitude to know who we really are and what we want.

There’s one undertaking that is forever being linked with ‘selflessness': Motherhood (like the flag and apple pie) is a loaded term. Popular culture is rife with images of aproned women scrubbing floors to provide their child with a better life. Mothers are spoken of in hushed reverent terms usually reserved for saints. Nobody talks about fathers that way. Fathers are not perpetually giving (unless we’re romanticizing their wallets.) If they are thought of at all it’s as disciplinarians or buffoons. There is no glowing light that surrounds them. Nobody has ever chastised a curser with the phrase; “Do you kiss your father with that mouth?!”

Newsflash: women are not necessarily encouraged to have a strong sense of self. They are (in 2012!!!) lauded for being behind the scenes making other people’s lives happen. They are, if you will, the woman behind the curtain. This of course is part of the lingering backlash to the second wave of feminism. It’s understandable that woman are continuously being pushed back in time as they make real strides in the world and economy. The marketing of 6-inch heels, girdles, fake hair, and means to Barbie bodies, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Conspiracies, even passive ones, do exist. It’s somewhat predictable that as women outpace men in 4-year degrees television programming of the ‘girls gone wild’ ilk has increased. It makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is why women are such willing players. How did a generation (or two) raised during the Title lX years aspire to be the water-girl? Did they get their fill of being in the game?  And what of the children? What do we teach our children when we exhibit selfless behaviors? Do they grow up with a skewed sense of importance? Do they not grow up having witnessed what awaits them? Are they handicapped for not learning how to do for themselves? Wouldn’t they be further ahead learning that empathy and generosity of spirit are integral parts of what makes us fully formed and actualized human beings?

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2012 in Childhood, Well-Being

 

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Throwing Weight Around

Why in the world is it okay to make fun of (New Jersey) Governor Chris Christie’s weight? The barbs and remarks began to gain momentum when he ran for office. By now they’ve become practically a requirement when his name is mentioned. These (usually very un-funny) jibes aren’t political in nature (though likely invoked by non-supporters.) They don’t reference his platform or governing. They’re more of the junior high school “fatty fatty” genre.

Why? Is it merely because it’s so easy? We see a large person in front of us and the (lame) comments come to mind? Probably not. Is it because he’s not just obese but bombastic? If he were affable, less caustic and perhaps a bit humble, would we not feel the need tease? Maybe.

People in the political spotlight will always endure some teasing. It’s how we manage our “Stars! They’re just like us!” issues. For at least a decade we’ve made every joke (and non-joke) about HIllary’s pantsuits. Sarah Palin’s choice of clothes, hairstyles and accessories were more newsworthy than her speeches. Male candidate’s hair is often the subject of junior high school-ey note. But these all seem playful (slow news day) observations versus the mean spirited remarks about Christie’s weight.

Perhaps people see the accumulation of his poundage as the result of his character. Maybe, despite every marketing attempts of the diet industry, we really do believe that obesity is the result of our own doing. Maybe, as we ‘grow’ as a nation we are also increasing our sense of self-loathing. Or maybe we just don’t like what the guy says or stands for and we’re not terribly clever in how we express it. Hopefully that is not the case. There are many valid reasons to dislike the governor and they should be expressed. Making fun of his weight isn’t just distasteful it detracts from what we should be discussing.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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Shameless

The University of Colorado, Denver has been conspicuously silent about their former graduate student turned gunman. There’s nothing particularly surprising about that. Universities are loath to discuss their students or alumni unless doing so will bring glory to the institution. Universities are also part of the elite group of organizations known as suffering from acute “litigation paranoia.” But onlookers accept the silence as being a vague yet misguided attempt at protecting someone’s privacy.

If what we were discussing was a physical disease or impairment, patient privacy would be a valid and even laudable motivation. As a society we’ve determined that patient privacy, even when a diagnoses could involve potential contagion, is necessary. We’ve also determined that when a disease poses an imminent public threat the afflicted will be quarantined (and thereby outed.)  In other words; public good trumps the individual. On the most basic level we apply this same principal to mental health as well. If a person states (unequivocally) that he/she is going to hurt him/herself or others, they are held (usually for a very short period) until they can be examined and either sent on their way or hospitalized.

This flaccid approach to protecting individuals and the public stems from the deinstitutionalized of mental healthcare several decades ago. The “expression of specific harm” is employed to prevent people being hospitalized against their will. One only need sit with the preceding sentence a bit to see the absurdity of this approach. People struggling with mental health issues rarely are clear and conscientious enough to seek hospitalization on their own. We leave it to the ill to state clearly their intentions to do harm before highly trained professionals are allowed to intervene. That’s a problem.

Adding to that little issue is the fact that we are freaked out by mental health issues. Yes, we’ve been Oprahfied enough to (sometimes) toss around the right terms. But we are glaringly uncomfortable dealing with real life mental health. If we see someone, day in and day out, who we consider odd, what do we do? Maybe we mention it to a friend, but beyond them who would we actually tell? And what is exactly do we say? Is the guy who only comes out at night and keeps his door covered in aluminum foil a danger to anyone? Are his odd behaviors actually highly honed coping skills for his illness? Maybe he sees a psychiatrist every day and is adequately medicated. Maybe he’s just eccentric (versus ill.) More often than not, we say nothing and just hope to avoid someone who makes us uncomfortable.

There is somewhere where aluminum foil should send an observer directly to the phone, and that’s at a university. Most students (graduate and undergraduate) are under 30 years of age; a primetime for the onset of very serious mental illnesses. Students are often sent away to school already presenting symptoms and perhaps fully medicated. The beauty of a controlled environment (like a university) is that elaborate and accessible systems are in place. A professor who observes disturbing behavior knows exactly how to report it immediately. No doubt, they sometimes do. But too often we err too heavily on the side of our own discomfort (which we shroud in “patient privacy” rhetoric.) It’s very unsettling to be the person who may upend someone’s life. However it’s far worse to be the one who stayed silent.

When we stop seeing mental health issues as being somehow shameful we will be a safer and more humane society. When newsreaders no longer intone (in sotto voce;) “He even spent time in a mental hospital” we will be further ahead. When a political candidate gains sympathy points for a spouse with a physical illness and looses popularity for one with a mental illness, we will be further ahead. When we stop using the word “rehab” (invoking images of large sunglasses and hangovers) as a euphemism for mental health facility, we will be further ahead. And when celebrities stop claiming to be suffering from “exhaustion” (as if it’s the 1900s) versus having depression, we will be much further ahead. There is no shame in illness of any kind. The only shame is silence.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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What Comes After We Choose To Go To The Moon?

During the 1960s there were lots of little kids jumping into newly fallen snow and shouting “First Man On The Moon!” when their boots left a print. Little boys (and some liberated little girls) dreamed of and played at being astronauts. Even if children weren’t old (or sophisticated) enough to follow NASA’s doings, there was I Dream of Jeannie. Popular culture was drenched in all things space-age and planetary. The space program was in the air if you will. Being an astronaut was to a 1960s kid what being a cowboy was to a 1950s kid. Adventure, exploration, and glamour were all packaged into a very cool outfit. Astronauts, like cowboys, even had special food. They had belts that held their lifesaving apparatus. But they also had science. For a kid who loved rocks, or space, or climate, or chemistry, he/she too could dream of being a superhero.

No one will dispute that the space program has lost some of its glamour and pizzazz over the decades. Space is not new anymore. Technology has progressed and men and women in space suits are no longer required to achieve the mission. NASA has shrunk and no one dreams of being an astronaut any longer. But what has taken its place in the imagination of children? What is there today that encompasses exploration, science and glamour? Surely there are lots of careers that hit on 2 out of 3. But is there anything, not involving sport, celebrity for celebrity sake, or undefined means of accumulating wealth, that is universally compelling to children today?

One could posit that computer programming (in the form of gaming, biomedical, etc.) is our new space program. It is the new frontier. But only for a select few and there’s nothing particularly heroic about it. On a more practical level how in the world do you play “computer programmer” in the backyard? (But then again, does anyone freestyle play in the backyard anymore?) Even if it were fun to do so, only a small percentage of children would ever aspire to sit at a desk and write code. Every kid everywhere played cowboy (1950s) or astronaut (1960s.) Did a kid from the Bronx really stand a chance of homesteading and ranching someday? (Could his mother have survived it?) Did a rural kid with an allergy to moon dust and zero interest in science make it into the space program? Not without a miracle and some sudafed. But they had a shared dream/fantasy.

For all the glamour of being an astronaut (and the sports cars, groupies and ticker-tape parades add up to a whole lot of glamour) it was a serious (and at times deadly) profession. The space program was staffed with; test pilots, scientists and engineers. These were highly educated people with talents and skills of, well of rocket scientists. There was a whole lot of there there. They were glamorized for having the right stuff. Children were right to idealize these grown-ups. Their play, whether building cardboard box rocket ships, or jumping into snowbanks, was rooted in something real and admirable. For too long we have not provided children (and therefore humanity) with a universal dream. We once heeded the call to do something not because it was easy but because it was hard. Perhaps it’s time to suit up and have another go at it.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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What’s Your (Post-Secondary) Motivation?

Recently, during a higher education panel, the issue of “following one’s passion” arose. More than one participant grew visibly uncomfortable with the concept. Sure it’s a lovely thought and one that’s uttered ad nauseum in coming of age films/novels. But does it actually make sense when discussing 17-18-year-old’s education and career decisions?

It is the rare adolescent who knows that being a surgeon/lawyer/steam-pipe fitter is his/her destiny. It does happen, but it is rare. Most jobs/careers aren’t exactly a calling. There aren’t a whole lot of financial analysts or fundraisers who dressed in little bland casual Friday outfits and played number crunching as children. If we’re lucky work is mostly a pleasant environment in which we are fairly compensated for utilizing a majority of our talents. Encouraging a teenager to pursue post-secondary education as a means to one’s passion is not useful. It not only ignores the reality of the workplace and economy but also is misleading for the student.

“Following one’s passion” in regards to employment is about as useful a term as “having it all.” They both smack of a certain entitlement and haughtiness. They are vague enough to be appropriate for waiting room posters and meaningless in one’s actual life. What does “following one’s passion” mean in terms of a teenager choosing an educational/training path? Do we really mean to suggest that what an 18-year-old finds exciting will never alter? (I shudder to even consider that suggestion.)  Wouldn’t it be far more helpful to discover what a teenager finds interesting?

Getting good grades in English doesn’t necessarily mean you should be an English major and then find a job in an English-y field. Depending on the curriculum of said class, a good grade might reflect; being a good analytical thinker, a good writer, a good communicator or having a finely tuned ear for language or that the reading selections for the class were just of particular interest to the student. Grades only tell part of the story. A poor student is not necessarily a poor learner. He/She may be wildly curious about a subject outside of the academic curriculum. He/She might be incredibly gifted with their hands; an artist, baker, craftsmen.

Secondary education/training (for better or worse) is no longer about staring off onto the idyllic ivy-strewn quad and thinking deep thoughts. It is (at times) a very expensive undertaking that must deliver a return on investment. For many it is also a one-time only offer. Life doesn’t always allow for continuing education. What will put a young person in good stead is to pursue post-secondary training/education that is of interest and is useful. Pursuing an area of interest ensures that one will feel engaged with one’s work/studies. “Interest” is far more lasting and tangible than “passion.”

For those teenagers who will not be concerned with earning a living; follow your passion or lie by the pool. But for everyone else it is probably best to remember that the world simply cannot support that many ballerinas. If you pay close attention you will find work that makes you happy and supports a life that allows you to dance.

 

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2012 in Education

 

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