Practicing gratitude

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

About a year ago, I read Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod. The book chronicles her journey from fed-up office worker with a dearth of vacation time to her decision to save money and then quit her job to travel in Europe. I am sure that many of us dream of living that scenario, but how practical is it? How can we justify dropping everything to live a dream? It seems wrong and selfish from everything we have been taught to want and taught to value.

The goals we set for ourselves, that we are given from a young age, to get a good job, to get married, have kids, buy a house and car, tend to weigh us down with expectations. When we do not meet those expectations by a certain age, it is as if we have failed in some way. Haven’t met the perfect spouse by age 30? Failure. No kids or (gasp) do not want kids? Not only a failure, but selfish. We tend to be judged against the potential that other people see in us to be like them, and, when we fail to become the person in those potential versions of our lives, it leads to dissatisfaction and a feeling of being lost.

MacLeod’s account is not very specific when it comes to financial planning. She arbitrarily decides on saving $100 a day, is able to sell artwork and make money buying and selling stocks through methods that she does not completely explain. However, she is savvy enough that she meets her goal, cuts down on clutter, and is able to pack her life into a suitcase and travel. Through her journey, she discovers a means of earning an income without going back to an office job.

I have thought a few times of taking a risk like MacLeod did, but each time I am stopped by a feeling of selfishness. It seems wrong to complain about a life that is pretty stable when I have a job and people who care about me. Perhaps I need to be more grateful. Apparently, lots of people keep gratitude journals, though I cannot say for sure that that kind of positive reinforcement would work for me. Feeling forced to make a list each day would possibly lessen the gratitude, no?

Instead, I am trying to stay focused on what is around me, to be grateful for sunshine and good weather, flowers and trees and shade on a hot day. And to see the possibility that the life I want is not as out of reach or as selfish as the world leads me to believe sometimes. There is sunshine in Europe too. And castles and Cadbury Crème Eggs. Perhaps, with my meager vacation time, I can see some of the world, and, if I save enough, I can take a trip like in Paris Letters.

Part of the message of Paris Letters, to get rid of unnecessary clutter and expenses, to live a minimalist life to save for the things that matter most, is something I can implement today. And perhaps those small changes can help me to accomplish something larger.


The Wonder Woman Pose

“And so I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.” -Amy Cuddy’s TED talk entitled Your body language shapes who you are (Filmed June 2012)

Imagine that you are on a bus or train or any other public transportation that involves close contact with others. There is a window seat, which you snatch up, and the vehicle slowly gets more and more crowded. Someone takes the seat next to you, a man (it is usually a man who does this, to you, a woman) who sits with his legs far apart, his arms stretched out. The contact makes you uncomfortable, so you attempt to scrunch yourself a little more towards the window. He uses that opportunity to take up more space. You, too polite and hating confrontation, simply stay in your awkward hunched pose and try to ignore it, but you feel small and sort of insignificant.

Whether consciously or not, taking up more space is a power play, a way of asserting dominance.

Take a moment to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about how body language affects how powerful you feel. It is worth the time to realize that something as simple as how you sit, how you present yourself to others in your posture can affect how you feel about yourself.

I tend to slouch and make myself smaller when I sit. Crossed legs and arms. Hands kept closely to my body. I easily give way on buses when someone sits next to me and attempts to stretch out. I did not realize, until I watched that video, that when I shrink physically, it also happens mentally. It is as if I am backing away, going into protection mode, feeling unimportant instead of powerful and confident.

Cuddy suggests that a simple change can improve confidence. Stand with your hands on hips, feet apart, chin up. That is called the Wonder Woman pose after the superhero. It’s as simple as that. If you do not want to do it in front of others, go to the restroom and, just for a few minutes, stand in the pose. It is feels a bit strange at first, but it makes a difference.

After I first watched the video, I did this for a few minutes each day, but then I stopped and sunk back into a lack of confidence. I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not deserve to feel so confident. I wanted to shrink back into myself. Change is such a nebulous concept that it can take a few tries to really get it. I want to be the one in class who gives a brilliant comment, like the student Cuddy talked about, instead of the one who says nothing and is invisible. Saying that is what you want to be is easy. Making the faking a habit is the hard part.

Whatever your goals, fake it until you become it. And each day it will get a little easier until it is a part of who you are.

Setting Goals

“Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” – Middlemarch by George Eliot

Today, Eliza Berman posted about a LIFE photo essay from 1969 concerning how lady authors should market themselves. The natural reaction is one of outrage, but is this really so different from how women in today’s marketplace are taught to portray themselves? Actresses, performance artists, and all types of celebrities who just happen to be women are jettisoned off to a place of Otherness where they can become famous through showing more skin.

Recently, actress Rose McGowan called out a Hollywood casting notice for its description of what to wear to the audition. There is a certain expectation that our society holds for women. While great advances have been made in just the last century, we still live in a world where young girls are sold things that are pink and glittery and socially constructed as girlish, while boy sections have trucks and cars and action figures. Boys are taught to be tough and to do things. Girls are taught to take care of dolls with unrealistic figures and to make them, and the world around them, prettier.

You can argue about whether we are naturally born to gravitate towards one or the other, but there is no question that the programming starts early, from the first few years of life, and continues throughout adolescence. Advertising, movies, TV shows all perpetuate the stereotypes of what is appropriate for each gender.

While it is disgusting, it is the framework of the society in which we live. How far we are willing to beautify ourselves in our quest for success affects all aspects of our lives: careers, what partners we can attract, whether others will be willing to listen to our messages.

When things like this get me down, I remember the women throughout history who have smashed expectations to make life their own. For example, George Eliot. There is still, even today, a fascination over what she looked like. Mary Ann (or Marian as she later spelled it) Evans was a Victorian woman who lived an unconventional life. By contemporary accounts, she was not attractive. But she was a woman who made her voice heard through her intelligence, hard work, and persistence. She grew from a prickly, defensive, cutting young woman into one of the most generous and empathetic authors since the invention of the novel. Middlemarch is a masterpiece which puts the marriage plot on its head by marrying off the heroine in the first part and showing the disastrous results of her marriage throughout the rest.

This is a post about setting goals, but not in the conventional way. There will always be the list that has been created for us that we can follow tick by tick, collecting checkmarks in place of happiness. I can’t tell you what goals to have, only that they should be your own, and that no one else should dictate to you what composes success or what you should look like, act like, or sound like on the basis of gender or race or any other identifying characteristic.

Goals are a tricky thing, hard to identify for the lost, hard to wade through when considering the expectations of others. However, I think that, together, we can change societal expectations and create a more accepting world. Change takes time and patience, but it is a good goal to have.



How to make a difficult decision

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” –Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Today, while trying to make a difficult decision, I found Ruth Chang’s TED talk on the topic. More elegantly than I could, she came to the conclusion that hard decisions (and some easy decisions) are not a matter of one choice being greater than, less than, or equal to another choice. There is no way to determine an absolute value, no scale to balance between them, no time machine to see the consequences of the various decisions. Instead, there are merely choices and the ability to weigh them internally against what is important to you.

You risk drifting, she says, when you instead listen to the outside noises of what others think is important. There is an infinite amount of advice available by just entering a few words into a search engine, and sometimes it can be difficult to focus on your own internal compass when tons of people, all convinced that they are right, want to give you advice. You have to decide what is the core of who you are (a donut-eating, urban-dwelling artist, for example) and to make all of your choices based on that core.

So, while money may be the primary factor that drives another person’s decisions, it is not safe to assume that a job that offers more money is the best decision for you. There are a variety of factors that need to go into the decision. The standard of living you want, the hours, your outside interests are all important factors. While this doesn’t offer a neat solution to my own choice, it has helped me to pinpoint a few things on which to focus:

  1. Tune out the other voices. For a moment, consider who you are, what you value, what is important to you. Personally, I know that money will never be a big component of my happiness. Having a career with a big salary does not fit in with my INFP, dreamer personality type. I have spent so much time reading career advice and listening to advice from friends and family members that I have strayed away from the core of what is really important to me.
  1. Be realistic. I like Penelope Trunk’s advice because she is a great writer. She manages to be both practical and a good story-teller. And her life is full of drama that she doesn’t attempt to hide. Even on topics that don’t interest me, like homeschooling, I can usually find something to take away and use in my everyday life. For instance, you cannot be anything you want to be. Which is true. We all have limitations within our particular set of skills which we have to acknowledge when making any big decision.
  1. Take time to acknowledge that the decision is difficult, but that there has to be a choice in the end. I personally feel better before I make a decision, so I tend to prolong it as long as possible. Any excuse I can make, I will, procrastinating until the absolute last minute. The thing is, the extra time doesn’t help, and, if anything, it just delays the inevitable. It is perfectly fine to realize that you are lost, that the decision is difficult, but that shouldn’t be an excuse not to keep moving forward.

Making a difficult decision takes a lot of courage, strength, and soul-searching. It is not easy, but it is worth the time and effort that goes into the choice.