Monday, February 7, 2011

On spirituality

Last Sunday I walked past a small catholic church and as I liked the organ music I stepped inside. I was impressed by the solemness and the quiet. However, then I saw a little brochure entitle "to be born again" which reminded me of all the things I dislike about organised religion of most kinds - how can possibly be up to other human beings to tell us how to be 'saved', how to pray, how to get talking to God, how and when to sit, stand, kneel and fold our hands? Apart from dictating our movements, the music, incense and tone of the mass/sermon even tells us how and what to think and feel. With the annual church circle eat-as-much-as-you-can-Pancake Tuesday, followed by fast-like-Jesus, just to be followed by another dictated feast. It's so suffocating that it's comforting. 

I find it amazing how creative humans are at searching for meaning, searching for 'the something else' that is allegedly missing from their lives or that allegedly gives more meaning to their lives - how it is conceptually possible to "give meaning" to someone's life is a different matter. I have decided to follow up on my curiosity of their curiosity and have sampled the following: 

On the "Alternatives Channel" on YouTube, a lady, Lorna Byrne, talks about how the angels never let her have many friends in her life and how other people were always kept at arm's length from her, but eventually she got used to it. A quick google search reveals her to be an Irish mystic who recently published a book called "Angels in my hair" and one called "Stairway to Heaven", she lives in rural Ireland, has four children and is a widow. According to The Times, her books have been published in 48 countries. 

Michael Neill is the other person featured on the Alternatives Channel, a channel powered by, surprisingly, 'Alternatives', which, according to itself,  is "London's leading centre for holistic learning", founded in St James's Church in Piccadilly. He is making fun of people seeking happiness by buying the right things. Then the clip ends so I won't be able to find out what I really need in order to find what is, I suppose, true happiness. Intrigued by what it is that I no doubt need like nothing else, I do the inevitable and google him. So this time I am not learning about a mystic but about a "genius catalyst" who has published (and now sells in his "genius shop") books with titles like "you can have what you want", "feel happy now" and "supercoach". Apparently he 'coaches' people to be successful which seems to be somehow linked to being happy. Given the range of materials I am encouraged to buy, listen to, book, experience live and share in forums, I get the impression that it takes quite a lot of effort to be "effortlessly successful". 

This bizarre mix of any feel-good-factor one can fathom is reflected by the talks programme of the Alternatives group: you can attend talk on just about anything to make you feel good about any aspect of your life: starting with a Valentine's Concert which cleverly disguises the fact that its listeners would only be buying into an extremely successful marketing ploy of the postcard industry, by offering something - guess what?! - yes, something different. Ironically, the singer 'with a difference' will 'open up the Valentine's Day message'. Err and that was... ah yes, a multi-million dollary industry which, just as the concert, awakens my 'soul's longing with her inspired music of intimacy and belonging' which will deepen 'our personal and global conversation with the unknown and the unseen, the One who has been loving us all our lives'. Who? Fleurop?  Hallmark? In fairness to the singer, Chloe Goodchild, a quick search on YouTube reveals that she has indeed a lovely voice which is being kept refreshingly untouched by auto-tune or similar. 

Lastly I glance quickly at the "Conscious Loving" talk with Katie Hendricks. As I wonder whether this would be a good pick-up place to find my future husband, I quickly click-one - otherwise I'll probably spend £10 attendance fee just to be surrounded by mainly middle-aged and probably sad, bitter middle-aged women. 

On (sexual) attraction

Just as was the case with envy, the sex market is determined by competitivity - those who posses certain features that others might envy them for, have more chances of securing a sexual partner. Is it that we want to be with someone knowing that others of his/her sex envy them for features we know they desire. Men want to be with models knowing that other men will be jealous and other women envious. We want to be with rich guys knowing that men will be jealous and women envious. Are our desirous really determined by jealousy of the opposite sex and envy of the same sex?

Or are we using the mechanism of competition to ensure we end up with someone with similar values and from a similar background, thereby ensuring our compatibility? After all, we only stand a real chance if we stay in our comparison class - just like I don't stand a chance of marrying a royal I might not be compatible with someone without a degree. So I am competing with women who are educated middle class with pretty faces and average (tall) bodies. This seems to mean that I will end up with someone who is just as middle class as me. A rich guy would be able to attract women whose bodies are more desirable. So I will have to go down the ladder until I get to someone who is unable to compete for someone higher up on the female values of beauty. This might explain what happens when in a couple the man gets older, richer and thereby more attractive on the male value-scale while the woman sink on the female value-scale by becoming older less sexually attractive and less competitive. Is the only way to establish a stable bound really to nail him down by having children together and establishing a nice cosy home he'd like to return to at night?

Maybe we should take into account that although we all mingle on the sex market in some way or other, different partners value different features differently. Maybe the real challenge is to find someone who places the same values as high as me - as I lack essential physical features, I would have to place companionship over sexual attractiveness. This however posses the problem of ascertaining a value - match. There does not seem to be any way of ensuring that the partner actually wants the same - someone who might only want casual sex in a non-exclusive relationship might only be able to obtain this by pretending that he is looking for a long-term serious relationship. Conversely, someone wanting to be in a serious relationship might be afraid of scaring the other person away by talking about committal issues and might pretend that a casual relationship is fine.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about finding someone with different values - but who competes on the same market. So for instance, the most successful relationship I know about is that of my uncle and aunt. Both are from an average to good-looking middle to upper-middle class background, the only difference being that his family is slightly more educated and her family is slightly wealthier. He is an incredibly gifted theoretical physicist who excels at everything he is doing, be it art, music, philosophy or indeed physics. She is a chatty, friendly, social art-historian-gone-art-and-German-teacher. By effectively competing on the same market but valuing the other one's features (presumably) higher than their own features, they can have the impression, that they got someone who is allegedly in a "higher" market sphere - she got a genious and he got an intelligent chatty girl. By thinking that they landed someone who is higher up than them, they are more motivated to hang on to each other as they might not be able to land someone who is equally high up. Although they are effectively on the same market, their difference in value system motivates them to stay together. As the saying goes: "Gegensaetze ziehen sich an" or 'contrasts attract'.

If this is true than our behaviour would mirror the natural or chemical attraction that is said to happen when two human beings feel attracted to each other. Scientists say that people feel attracted to each other when their immune systems are different to each other - apparently, by pairing up the offspring is hoped to have a stronger immune system than the one of its parents.

Maybe we can postulate that 'contrasts attract' is true from a biological point of view as well as the value systems which keep people together whether 'gleich und gleich gesellt sich gern' ("birds of a feather flock together") remains true for determining the market on which, in turn, differences are thought to guarantee emotional as well as biological - if there is indeed a difference - attraction.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On envy

The other day I went out with one of my best friends and I realised that I was fiercely envious of her. Why was it? Because men react to her in a way that I would like them to react to me. In general she is much more open than I am and gets approached by more people in general. I don't mind that people regard me as closed, it has certain advantages. However, I would quite like if men liked me the way they like her. She's small, cute, big blue eyes, long eye-lashes, pretty cute and sweet face and blond hair. I wouldn't say that she's beautiful as such but she's very cute and pretty. We went dancing together and, apart from the fact that men noticed her a lot more than they did me, she was also a better dancer. I'm neither ugly nor a bad dancer, in fact I have a pretty face and am quite a good dancer but there are several things that I can't compete with. First of, my hips are too big. Second, I'm too tall. Third, while I might be pretty in an elegant way, I am most certainly not cute and seem neither available nor particularly approachable. Or so I have been told but it seems to be true, given the reactions I normally get.

Noticing the acute pain that seeing her dance with other men caused me, I realised it was pure envy, tried to suppress it and be happy for her that she gets so many positive reactions which are undoubtedly good for her self-esteem. (which makes it difficult to not let my own self-esteem be affected by said lack of reactions as I need to source it from other places but that's a different matter)

It was important for me to realise that it was envy rather than jealousy. Other than jealousy where I would have wanted to be in the position of the men she was dancing with, where I would have wanted to eliminate the third party and to constitute the object of my friend's attention, I quite simply wanted to be her. Seeing her in a way that I wanted myself to be seen, made me feel insecure and inferior. I longed to be like her. At the same time, I was feeling terrible about myself - how could I have these kind of negative feelings towards a friend, one of my best friends even? 

Maybe my envy felt particularly acute as we are quite similar in some ways. We are both blond, both like dancing, have had similar problems at home and with our boyfriends, are from an educated middle class background and have similar career aspirations.  In other words, we are part of the same comparison class. And yet, in that moment, it was she who sparkled and shone and who was in the centre of attention and admiration. I was far away in the outer limits of her overpowering shadow. I, the envier, wanted what she, the rival had (the good): attention from males, coupled with (or caused by) good looks and superior dancing skills. It was all the more frustrating that there was nothing I could do to get into the possession of that good. 

Of course, envy here could constitute a motivation to exercise more, to take more dance classes, to put on more make-up, to be more positive and open towards people etc. It could constitute a mechanism for identifying areas in my life which I am not only unhappier about compared to other areas in my life but also compared to others, rivals, in my comparison class. As mentioned above, we are in the same comparison class as we are relatively similar; comparison typically stays local. In other words, I would not envy the Queen for her crown jewels or her lifestyle as we do not share a comparison class, we are not in direct 'competition' with each other. 

I am not sure whether envy does not also have something to do with a certain lack of self-esteem that is somehow linked to the desired good (this is Rawl's position on envy). For example, if I were to hear my friend sing and to hear others praise her on her vocal qualities, I would be able to be happy for her as I am confident about my own singing skills. On the other hand, if I already have low self-esteem regarding for example my looks and my ability to attract men and see her do just that with astonishing ease, then I want to possess this skill and I envy her for something that I feel insecure about. 

Although this would point to envy being linked to low self-esteem, the two views are not mutually exclusive. My confidence in my singing skills is based on past positive experience of being given praise etc. I have positive associations with this 'good'. This, however, is linked on how others see us and often how they see us is based on how we compare to others. I would not have received the praise I have had I not been able to sing at all. Similarly, I might not be as confident about it had I not, even unconsciously, compared my own skills to those of others. I know I compare well, this makes me confident and able to be happy about others receiving similar praise. I am however rational enough, that professional singers are not in the same comparison class and I can also be happy for their good as there is no need to compare my 'good' to theirs - they are not comparable. It therefore seems to me that self-esteem is inextricably linked to our competitors. 

To say it with Kant:  "the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others". (emphasis added,  The Metaphysics of Morals 6:459)

So, when Miranda in Sex and the City says about models that "they are stupid and lazy and they should be shot outside" and that "the advantages given to models and to beautiful women in general are so unfair it makes me want to puke" or when Charlotte in the same series says that she hates her thighs and that she "can't even open a magazine without thinking thighs thighs thighs" then they are expressing a certain low self-esteem which can be explained by their well-being being linked to how it compares to others. It is only Samantha who does not demonstrate this sentiment. Her high self-esteem is based on what men have told her (that she is like a model except that she also works) which enables her to feel good about herself and which explains her lack of envy towards models which the three other characters display. 


This blog is about collecting thoughts on various topics, topics that are important to me for various reasons. They can be silly, important, random, whatever. I will start a topic, might just write down a few thoughts on it and  might come back to it in the future, edit it or just leave it in its unfinished state.