By Troy Headrick
In the comment I’ve referred to, Hamish writes, “I’ve been slowly figuring out over the past little while that I’ve become better at forgiving others, but not so much myself.”
I immediately thanked him for providing me with food for thought (and possibly my next blog topic). Why, I began to wonder, are so many of us so hard on ourselves when we recognize the value of being kind to others? That’s a damn good question and one that deserves to be asked and answered (if possible).
We’ve all heard that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I wanted to know more about the origins of this “Golden Rule,” so I did a bit of Googling and found that these words appear in the book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Bible. Such a precept, though, is universally taught in all the religions of the world.
So, we have a Golden Rule that we are to follow. Plus, all good parents aspire to teach their children to “play well with others.” They instruct their offspring to share, to avoid bullying, to be helpful, to show respect, to be, in short, good people, which requires them to live by the edict spelled out in the book of Matthew.
So, why aren’t we taught to treat ourselves with the sort of kindness and forbearance we are told to show others? Where is our second Golden Rule, the one that exhorts us to treat ourselves lovingly?
In truth, we learn to beat up on ourselves at a pretty early age, and it begins in the family. I’m not suggesting that most parents begin with the intention of giving their children complexes, but they do establish expectations, and when these go unmet, the parents demonstrate, in a variety of ways and perhaps even unwittingly, that their children have disappointed them. Punishments are often meted out as a result of these failings. Those who are chastised can respond by becoming angry, at themselves and/or at those who’ve done the disciplining. When this anger is turned inward, it can lead to self-condemnation or even self-loathing. We beat up on ourselves when we feel like we’ve disappointed those we want to impress.
Thus, being a parent is hard. One loves, but one must teach, and some lessons can be painful. This means that tough love is sometimes called for. Or am I wrong about that? I’ve never been a parent, so I’m really only trying to reason all this out. I’m using commonsense and trying to draw lessons from what I’ve observed.
In America, we believe that competition pushes people, that it allows them to become the best version of themselves. It’s the way we separate the wheat from the chaff.
Children learn, at an early age, to test themselves against their siblings and peers. They gauge, via all the ways they interact, who is the fastest, who is slowest, who gets chosen first, and who never gets chosen. Then, once they get a little older, they are sent off to schools where they are tested and “graded.” Those who learn the secret to doing well in school rise, while those who don’t or are disinterested, sink. For every person who figures out how to play the game well, there are dozens who languish. Wasn’t it Henry David Thoreau who said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”?
I don’t know what, if anything, can be done about this. We do naturally compete, but I think we must find ways to protect the weak and disadvantaged from the Alpha types. If we don’t, we run the risk of normalizing predatory behavior. We can even convince ourselves that gobbling others up is good. In a society that glorifies the ubermensch—to use a good Nietzschean term—it’s easy for those who get eaten by sharks to begin to feel like their sole purpose in life is to be shark food. It’s no wonder that so many of us have self-esteem issues and think of ourselves as failures.
This period in American history is interesting because I think many are beginning to look more critically at some of our “sacred cows.” Capitalism is one of these that’s being reexamined, and rightly so. Unbridled Capitalism is an economic system that creates more losers than winners and thus contributes greatly to the creation of all manner of neuroses and self-destructive behaviors. If a person hates herself, because she feels that she is worthless, she is likely to engage in acts of self-harm.
I’ve tried to be somewhat disciplined while writing this but lost control several paragraphs back. I see (very clearly) that I’ve begun to strike out in many different directions and to cover way too many topics. Having said that, I’m curious what your reactions might be.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.