A hard lesson to learn: trying to be a better me

I was reading a book on Aikido recently. The author of the book mentioned how nearly everyone he met in Aikido over the years had been a decent person. I have had an interest in Aikido for over thirty years, and finally got a chance to join a dojo last year. In my very limited experience, I think that his observation is correct. I’ve visited two dojos in addition to my home dojo, and I’ve attended two seminars where people from other dojos visited to train with us. They’ve all been incredibly helpful, friendly, gentle, and patient people.

Even more recently, I was reading an article about Esperanto, and this section caught my attention:

  Invented at the end of the 19th century, in many ways it (Esperanto) presaged the early online society that the web would bring to life at the end of the 20th. It’s only ever been spoken by an assortment of fans and true believers spread across the globe, but to speak Esperanto is to become an automatic citizen in the most welcoming non-nation on Earth.

Decades before Couchsurfing became a website (or the word website existed), Esperantists had an international homestay service called Pasporta Servo, in which friendly hosts around the world listed their phone numbers and home addresses in a central directory available to traveling Esperantists. It may be a small, widely dispersed, and self-selected diaspora, but wherever you go, there are Esperantists who are excited that you exist.

It sounds hokey,* but this is the central appeal of Esperanto. It’s as if the initial Utopian vibes of the World Wide Web had never reached a wider audience. There’s no money, no power, no marketing, no prestige — Esperanto speakers speak Esperanto because they believe in it…

I mention this not because I’m interested in Esperanto, but because I was pleased to see someone praise the no money/no marketing/no power/no prestige angle instead of mocking it.

…and then there’s my local knitting guild. And my wife’s lace guild. All filled with wonderful, helpful people. I also recently attended my first Toastmasters meeting.  I think by now you’ll have spotted a trend, and won’t be surprised to learn that in addition to the stated goal to “…provide a supportive and positive learning experience…” the folks at that meeting actually modeled that behavior.

All of this positivity bubbling up in my life at once got me thinking yesterday, including realizing that this might sound as if I’m turning into a Pollyanna.

I concluded a couple of things right away. One: I don’t really care if I sound like a bit of a goody-two-shoes. After all, I don’t make a very convincing sinister character. Two: I like the “me” who participates in these groups better than other versions of me that I’ve been in the past.

Then I remembered something that I’d figured out a few years ago, but forgotten (or at least, not had much reason to ponder) since then. It was a hard thing for me to admit to myself, and I’ll try to explain why…

Somewhere along the line in my childhood, I’d gotten the impression that… well… good people are good because they hew to concepts of goodness. You know… the good man has this code of ethics and never varies from it. That whole thing. The trouble was, I kept disappointing myself. I kept not being the person I wanted to be. I was selfish, self-indulgent, prone to irrational rages, full of self loathing, often giving up on goals, bailing on commitments to other people… yeah, not the person I wanted to see in the mirror.

It took me a long time to admit that I wasn’t a stand-alone paragon of virtue. In fact, if I hung out with people who also were self-indulgent, selfish, and tended to bail on commitments, my virtue would be hard to detect. I had to admit that I’m one of those horrible people who are “easily swayed.” I’d rather not be. I want to be a paragon. But the reality is, my environment matters a lot.

It turns out, when I associate with people who exhibit the kind of behavior I really admire, I’m rather more admirable myself.

I’ve decided not to worry about being a paragon. If if takes being selective about how and who I spend time with to make me a better person… and heck, if it turns out that I like those people a lot better than the average, then where’s the downside? That I don’t get to be the Mighty Individualist? Perhaps, but in addition to not playing the sinister villain, I’m also not cut out to be John Galt. Sorry, fans of the American Rugged Individualist!

So, it seems that being with supportive people leads me to be a better me. Then a natural question might be “how do I find the groups that help me?” On the surface, knitting, aikido, and public speaking don’t have much in common, but there is a thread; or even a series of threads. These things all take time to do well; constant practice is mandatory to improve. There’s not much room for people who need constant ego boosts. One of my fellow aikido students noted that people who like to be overnight successes tend to drop out of aikido training after a few days or weeks. It’s just too humbling to be constantly at the level of total beginner.

I’ve learned to be at peace with the concept of needing lots of support and I like knowing I’m supporting others in striving for goals that seem to recede in the distance. You can always work to be a better knitter, a better aikidoka, or a better speaker, but it is probably not sensible to strive to be the best at any these crafts or paths. How would you even measure such a thing?

And now it’s time to get ready to go to the dojo. Peace.

 

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*I love that he used the word hokey here… 🙂

Tyranny

I was thinking about the news one recent day, and I started to wonder why so many dictatorships spend so much time, money, and energy suppressing their populations. I thought something like “if I had any urge to be a tyrant, I’d prefer to be the absolute ruler of a rich nation than a poor one, as there would be many more resources and fun things for me to own and do than otherwise.”

As I continued mulling on this concept, I realized that if the citizens subjects were convinced that they were actually free, then they wouldn’t even be a threat to my rule, not realizing that they were being oppressed. In fact, only really stupid dictators wouldn’t see this; the ones who saw the world from a zero-sum perspective.

It struck me immediately that if I could think of this, then many smarter and more ambitious people had to have already not only thought of this, but implemented it, and I should be able to look around the world and see evidence of this in existing countries.

Suddenly, and sadly, the history of U.S. foreign and domestic policy since the end of the second world war made a lot more sense.

Believe me, I know how paranoid this sounds, I don’t claim it’s objectively true, and I don’t plan to haul this theory out at get-togethers for the rest of my life. I just wanted to type it out to get it out of the cabinet of curiosities that is my subconscious mind.

Old nerd

Back in the 1970s, when I was a teen-aged nerd, being a nerd was horrible. People made fun of you, you couldn’t talk to girls, you probably had bad clothes and bad glasses.

Being a nerd when you’re in your 50s is entirely different. You’re probably being paid for many of the qualities that made you a nerd in the first place.

There’s no need to (attempt to) hide your nerd status, since everyone around you already knows you’re a nerd and accepts you for that. Besides, there’s a lot more social acceptance for nerds and you are also probably hanging around with–or are married to–other nerds.

You may also find that you just don’t care as much what people think of you!