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Saturday, May 26, 2012

The gift of authenticity

“If you tell the truth, you won’t have to remember anything”

~Mark Twain

Mark Twain hit the nail on the head with many of his sayings, but he hit it extra right when he referred to always telling the truth. It is so simple to just be honest, and yet, so difficult. Why? I have been wondering about this over the years, and I came to the conclusion that the way we have been programmed from crib till adolescence lies at the foundation of this behavior. Being authentic – which also entails telling the truth – has almost become an extinct trait, because many of us have become too busy following trends that dictate us what to wear, say, drive, do, or eat, and –even more flagrantly- how to do it. We have landed in an era where it takes the greatest effort to remain ourselves, and forego all the temptations and challenges placed on our path. The biggest problem of being authentic is, namely, that you can get chastised. As Annie Leonard puts it in “The Story of Stuff”: we have become so over-programmed in thinking that everything about us is wrong, and that the only way we can correct this is to shop till we drop, that we actually believe it!

Not being authentic comes in numerous forms, but it mainly expresses itself in unnatural behavior. I can get so disheartened when I see people following trends without wondering if they are even remotely happy doing so, or if these trends are even good for them. The simplest example I can think of at the moment is fashion. I often see young women walking in shorts and jeans that may have looked sexy on the model promoting them, but look absolutely unattractive on them, because these outfits display their physical weaknesses in the most blatant ways. The saddest part of the story is that these women may have paid a lot of money for their mindless behavior, while they could have chosen something that would fit their posture much better, and maybe even set a new trend! But the fashion industry cannot be blamed – and neither can any other industry, media outlet, or social trend - because the choices are ultimately ours.  

Another reason why authenticity has become such an outlandish trait is because of the demands of our workplaces. Since transparency is not customary in our professional world, we are not allowed to be fully open to our co-workers, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. We may, after all, run the risk of sharing too much information, thus jeopardizing our job.

And then there is this factor of getting ahead. People who are still in stages where they depend on others to be helped to the next level have to be extra cautious with what they say and how they say it. They find themselves forced to be politically correct and consider what they say to whom, in order to avoid ruining their career advancement.

The above is just the tip of the authenticity-iceberg, but as you may already see, it makes for a pretty hypocrite human society. The truth of the matter is, that it becomes easier to be authentic when you are either independently wealthy, uncaring about others' feelings, fearless about your career progress, rebellious, or more mature, hence, more progressed in life.
One positive endnote that may reduce any sense of hopelessness within the reader of this piece: there are various ways in which you can be authentic without endangering your relationships or progress. In other words, you can focus on the negative and tell the truth in a hurtful way, or you can focus on the positive and find a tactful manner to present it. For example, if your teacher’s lectures are boring, you can either tell him that he bores you to tears, or come up with some positive suggestions to “make the class more interesting.”

In sum, being authentic is not always easy, but it can make life much more pleasant and rewarding. Authenticity requires courage and awareness of your own value as a person. You don’t have to be part of every fashion trend to matter. You don’t have to participate in every social habit that is “cool” at the moment. And if you have to live beyond your means to be accepted by your friends, it’s time to release them. Authenticity can be a tremendous emancipation – if you let it.
Joan Marques

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The gift of respect

About half a year ago a man made a comment that stunned me. It was right after the orals for my second doctorate - in the Netherlands. This professor from Belgium was a member of my examination Committee, and he said, "It's great to enlarge your consciousness about the whereabouts of all living creatures, but at the same time it must be very frustrating, because you become aware of so much suffering."

He hit the nail on the head: it ís a painful experience. I have shared my perspectives rather frequently with my reading audience in the last few years. I remember writing about my visit to Chicago,  a wonderful city, where tourists love to take a sightseeing ride in a beautifully painted carriage, towed by some horses. Unfortunately, there are few who are concerned about the suffering of these animals that are now forced to participate in the heavy downtown traffic with thousands of cars and motorcycles around them, and have to inhale poisonous exhaust fumes from close-by, minute after minute. Consequence: tears in Chicago for me. I also recall a visit to the LA zoo, where I realized, again in tears, that I would never again enter a zoo, particularly after seeing the miserable elephant in the hot sun and the gorilla that, in sheer misery, was pulling grass in his cage with his back towards the public. Watching television can be traumatic as well, because horses are abused in many Westerns without any concern for their wellbeing. And then there are the scenes of bears, tigers, or other wild animals, who have to suffer from training for many months before they are ready for the film shots, and then get trashed afterwards or, if they are lucky, land at the Wildlife Way Station, an ailing non-governmental organization, that tries heroically to offer a home to those who are now unfit for wildlife.

Of course the awareness reaches beyond just animals. About human suffering there’s so much to say that I don't even know where to start: the millions of undernourished, uneducated children, and their powerless mothers, while there are mammoth companies nearby, with stinking rich managers, insensitive to the gross inequalities that they deliberately maintain? Or senior citizens who, after a life of hard work for their families, land in senior homes where they are snubbed, and where their children and grandchildren sporadically pay a visit, because granny can't do much for them anymore? Or miserly doctors who have converted their vocation into pure business and only want to "serve" where they can rummage a lot of money? Many of these supposed medical caregivers are no longer interested in the cause of a problem, because it takes too much time and energy and it brings in relatively little money. Instead, they prefer to write out recipes for expensive drugs that smother the symptoms, and preferably cause side-effects, upon which they can write out some more recipes, thus maintaining their patients’ dependency.

Last week a dear family friend became the victim of such neglect: a prominent specialist neglected her problem, so now her young children are preparing for their first mother's day without a mother.

Having respect for all beings hurts and is often difficult too. After all, how do you respect those who have no respect for the well-being of others? That’s hard. It’s tragic too.