Monthly Archives: October 2014

Altruism and the Patriarchy

eleanor-roosevelt-2“If anyone were to ask me what I want out of life I would say- the opportunity for doing something useful, for in no other way, I am convinced, can true happiness be attained.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

It is taken as a given in our society that the highest good is the transcendence of selfish desires and the service of others. Our paragon on virtue is Mother Teresa, who lived in poverty in order to dedicate her life to work in service of the poor (and pushing her religion, but we overlook that). Selfishness is generally considered the worst of all sins. Heroes sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones. Villains say “greed is good.” Our dominant religion is centered around the story of a man sacrificing himself for the good of mankind. The greatest evil is an angel who selfishly sought to exalt himself above god.

Above all, we are told that shallow, selfish desires lead to life devoid of meaning:

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The relationship between meaning and happiness was the subject of a recent study. In the study, researchers surveyed 397 adults about how happy their lives were, and how meaningful. The terms were not defined, which allowed each study participant to interpret them as they wished.

The study found, rather unequivocally, that a meaningful life is not a happy life. The study gave the lie to the Roosevelt quote above, and found that when we put our own desires aside and focus on helping others, we end up less happy. This finding reinforces the previous finding that having children does not make people happy. The study found that “meaning” is actually largely achieved through trauma and misery.

Emily Esfahani Smith at The Atlantic, through some bizarre reasoning, spun this finding as proof that people should focus more on living meaningful lives and less on being happy. Smith’s article is heavy-handed in its suggestion that everyone would be better off to pursue meaningful lives through sacrifice, not “mere happiness.”

Smith’s position is not only diametrically opposed to my ethical position that the most ethical decision is often the one that makes the decision-maker happy, but it also reinforces the cultural status quo outlined above, where righteousness is only found in the service of others.

So, according to the conventional wisdom, which Smith reinforces, the way to be a good person is to sacrifice what you want in favor of devoting your life to the service of others. Individual desires don’t matter. What matters is the service of others. Anything else is shallow and selfish.

This is a problem because one of the patriarchy’s main tools of oppression is its ability to convince women that their desires don’t matter. In addition to the “everyone should serve others” meme pervading our culture, there is a complementary meme that says “women should be subservient to men.”

That dominant religion I mentioned earlier? Its scriptures explicitly instruct women to be subservient to men. Women’s reproductive rights are continuously under assault because women’s needs aren’t seen as important. Women’s sexual autonomy is constantly under attack because women’s desires are seen as less important than men’s. The male gaze is constantly catered to. The vast majority of our leaders, from CEO’s to elected officials, are men.

There are thousands of other examples of how the message is sent every day, that women’s desires don’t matter, and that they should be happy in subservient roles. Implicit in this message is the message to men that our desires ARE important, and that we should get what we want. We are told to “be a man,” and to stand up for ourselves. We are taught to be confident and even violent in pursuit of our own happiness.

So men end up receiving two conflicting messages: one is that our individual desires don’t matter, and that we should serve others, but another that we should get what we want and be aggressive and tenacious in pursuing it. Receiving both messages gives men options about how to balance our own individual desires vs. the desires of others, and generally facilitates healthy decision-making. It’s not the best system, of course, but it does have some flexibility. Generally, men are permitted by our society to display a wide range of selfish and altruistic behavior and still be considered acceptable.

Women have no such luck. Because there is no countervailing message, women ONLY get the message that being subservient is virtuous. On one hand, they are told to be subservient to everyone. On the other hand, they are told to be subservient to men. There is no message (except a small-but-growing message from the feminist movement) that what they want as individuals matters.

So it’s no secret why the vast majority of rapists are men, women end up doing most of the housework and child-rearing, women ask for raises far less than men, and men generally make fewer sacrifices than women.

So when I see an article like Smith’s, which denigrates and demonizes the pursuit of individual happiness as “selfish” and “shallow,” I see it for what it is: an oppressive tool of the patriarchy. I think there’s a place for encouraging altruism in our culture, but not at the expense of individual happiness, and not in a way that suggests that anyone trying to make themselves happy is a bad person. People can take the pursuit of individual happiness too far, but the answer is balance. People should be encouraged to balance their individual desires against those of others (or, even better, shown how their individual goals can be served by helping others). Rather than be taught, as they are now, that everyone’s happiness matters except theirs, people should be encouraged to view everyone’s happiness (including their own) as equally important. People should not be told that the only way to live a good life is to sacrifice what they want. People will listen, and most of those people will be women.

This is the main reason I push back so hard against the dominant cultural idea that virtue is found only in sacrifice. I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effects that such ideas can have, particularly on women. As a staunch advocate of Ask Culture, creating space for people to voice their desires is a top priority for me. And step one of that process is encouraging people to value their desires.

Home Improvement Makes Me Happy

I suppose this post doesn’t really have much to do with the general themes of this blog, but whatever.  This has to do with improving the house that all the writers of this blog live in, so, um, it’s totally relevant.

Yesterday I took on the unpleasant project of removing the urine-soaked carpet in the back room of our house and replaced it with new, stench-free vinyl tile! Seriously, the puppy is adorable and often hilarious, but it’s like she’s having a personal pee party everyday all day and, while we are all apparently invited, we are not in attendance willingly.

I began the project by myself initially by starting to lift the carpet and yank it off the floor. There were staples and other pointy sharp things, but the most terrible part was the wave of eye-burning odor I was hit with as I progressed.

It was at this moment that I learned that there is something that is the opposite of aromatherapy.  Aroma-torture?  Aroma-needling-and-nagging? The cloud of putrid aroma instantly stressed me out, made me sad, and had me spiraling in a negative feedback loop of epic proportions. I was questioning various life decisions that brought me to this juncture and was honestly afraid that “Urine-Soaked Carpet Maven” was going to be the value I represented to everyone.

I’m being a bit hyperbolic of course, but I definitely had a mini-meltdown and cried for a while. Jessie found me staring helplessly at the pile of offending textile on the floor with a tear stained face.

Jessie often has a way of finding me when I’m having one of these moments. Last year when we rented a little house in the mountains for Wes’ birthday, I managed to forget my meds for the weekend. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal, but by the last day I was truly not in my right mind. At one point, I was vacuuming various rooms while in full throttle weeping mode. I feel like a weeping woman vacuuming is the perfect embodiment of the 1950’s. Jessie found me though and calmed me down. She did the same thing yesterday. She’s pretty awesome.

After that, I was talking with Jessie, Wes, and Amber and we came up with the thought that it was the pee that threw me off my rocker. Then I got to thinking that the permeating aroma of decomposing waste had likely been making me generally less happy and calm for days.

I pulled it together and went off to brunch with everyone and when we got back, Jessie helped me roll up the carpet and underlayment and get it outside. It was gross, but freeing to get that awful stuff out of the house. I then cleaned the floor underneath with Nature’s Miracle, followed by some heavy duty floor cleaner I got from the tile aisle, and then I put a sealer/primer down so that rogue pee molecules could not escape from the wood. Then I put down the vinyl tile, covered the gaps with trim, and the back room looks fabulous AND (most importantly) the stench is gone. I spent a while back there just breathing happily.

As it turns out, while there are other offending spots in the house (all of which are on my list to fix with various cleaning and floor coverings), the back room was supplying the bulk of the stink to the whole house. By fixing that, the rest of the house was remarkably not awful in the smell department.

As you can tell, I am quite proud of myself. Wes took me out for dinner and drinks to celebrate the floor project. All in all, with shopping for supplies included, the whole project took about 6 hours to complete and cost us about $200. About $50 of that was made up of tools that we will use again and again, and some supplies that I didn’t use much of and can use next time (since this project is a big one). And it looks like this:

Back Room Floor

Pretty neat, huh??? The improvement is amazing. With the stench gone, I am way less angry to be home. It’s also much easier to clean (since the puppy is still being a jerk about ONLY going outside), which is a plus. The next project is the stairs! This is much bigger and more annoying project (I think) but it will be awesome when it’s done. After that, laminate flooring in the living room. Then? Who knows???

Adventures in Therapy: New and Improved

I went to Lowes today at lunch to scope out floor replacement options to continue work on undoing the pee-havoc that the puppy has wreaked on our various carpets. My initial solution was going to be self-adhesive carpet tiles. That’s still something I’m going to do on the stairs, but I have to order them online and if I know one thing about myself is that there are certain types of things I almost always do on a whim. When I decide that I want to do something in certain categories, I want to be able to go to a business and get the materials/services needed. For instance, a few weeks ago I decided I wanted to cut my hair short, so I went to a Hair Cuttery on the way home and had it chopped off. I have gotten sudden impulses to paint murals on our walls at home and…so I do. In the context of this particular home improvement project, I found nice looking vinyl self-adhesive tiles that are readily available in abundant quantity at the store, along with all the tools and shit I might need right there in the aisle next to them. Solution found, and I’ll be working on that this week in the room where that kind of solution is appropriate. HOT DAMN.

As I wandered around the store, and then subsequently as I walked outside towards my car, I was suddenly aware of how calm and generally “fine” I was feeling. I remarked to myself that this feeling of general calmness and okayness was what I have grown to expect from myself. It is my new normal. I then realized that it has been 3 years since I began my Great Journey to Mental Health: Extreme Makeover Edition, 2 years since beginning the search for a therapist and going on Zoloft, 1 year since winning the epic wages increase battle of 2013, 8 months since ending a relationship that was not doing anyone (especially me) any favors, and about 4 months since some other rather unfortunate stuff happened resulting in the end of a friendship I cared deeply about. In hindsight though, everyone is better off with the way things turned out. Sometimes people and lives are not compatible and it’s important to find that out earlier rather than later.

I honestly never believed that this general feeling of personal wellbeing, of calm, of Fine would be normal for me. Sure, I’m still on Zoloft but Zoloft (and other meds) didn’t do all the work required for me to get here. Zoloft is a tool for wellness and one that I still use and need for balance. There’s no shame in it. I’ve worn glasses every day of my life for the last 20 years because my eyes don’t work properly without them. The chemicals in my body are imbalanced, so I do what I need to in order to correct that and lead a happier, more productive, highly satisfying life.

But before and since medication, I have done an immense amount of work on myself to find the person I want to be hiding underneath. The biggest change I have experienced is that the things that are important to me have shifted. It used to be that being well-liked, or more to the point, having no one be upset with me, was pretty much my main social goal. This backfired, like, all the time in terms of people treating me well and my getting anything I wanted or needed. But I did achieve the goal of no one having an issue with me. In my younger mind, this meant that I would never be voted off the island. But that’s because I was the most obedient mule around and I would work tirelessly to pull that water wheel…or whatever it is you would need a mule for on an island. Pulling a cart full of coconuts? I’m mixing my metaphors I think. The point is I figured that if I was indispensable as a friend (through the services I would do for them), no one would leave me in the lurch! It was a substitute for actual trust in people.

The problem was that I was constantly being left in the lurch because I wasn’t communicating anything accept acquiescence. I was selfless in the fact that I never, ever put myself first for anything but it wasn’t altruistic. I got a sense of security from it.

I am still a helpful person but I have learned to pay more attention to what is a reasonable thing for me to be asked to do. This might seem like a small step, but I wasn’t doing this AT ALL before. And the scenarios in which I have to do this range from the mundane (“Come pick me up at a location 10 miles out of your way even though I can totes take the train”) to the fantastic (“Lie to me about your feelings…better yet, don’t talk to me about your feelings”). Both types of scenario are things that I have said no to and life is better for doing so. Saying no when you honestly want to say no is better for everyone in the long run. If there is backlash, it can be weathered knowing that ultimately this is the system working. Holding your wellness and happiness as central goals is better for those who love you and those who don’t.

I’ve learned a lot about what I want, what I need, and what I’m worth to myself. It’s still a struggle to express those things and sometimes I falter. But the underlying change in focus is there. I have a lot more to say about that and the things I have learned and am always trying to act upon, but for now I celebrate this peace time after so much war.

Tonight, Wes and I are going to have a few drinks at the Franklin Institute and learn about the science of gross stuff (Happy Halloween!). The Science After Hours series has been so much fun and is pretty much the best idea ever. I have always loved the Franklin Institute and the fact that they are making kids in adult bodies events after the work day is so very cool.

The rest of the week will be spent working, celebrating 10 years of employed bliss at my company’s Employee Appreciation Dinner (I’m totally getting a mug. I just know it), knitting a hat (my first project with double points needles…gasp!), coloring drawings, and replacing urine soaked carpet. I definitely did not save the best for last in that list.

So life is good overall. The happiness baseline is at a good place. The sinusoidal nature of the human experience notwithstanding, I am satisfied with the amplitudes of the highs and the lows. As for the frequency of the waves, well, that’s getting longer and more mellow all the time.

OK, that was just a pretentious metaphor. What am I even talking about here? Am I failing at mule AND math metaphors? Look, my point is, I’m doing well and I’m happy being me. What a novel concept!

Much Obliged, Madam

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure.

Now, before you go thinking that you’re going to need me to talk me of a ledge or something, I don’t mean for that to sound like such a bad thing. I spend a lot of time thinking about success too, but we have to think about our failures in order to sow new success, yes? And I have also learned that much success is not a one time thing, but rather a state of existence that needs to be maintained.

Success and happiness are the same in this way (and are pretty interrelated, obviously). To me, success is a part of happiness. It is a necessary part for everyone, I think. It’s just that the definition of success is different for different people.

So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently. Part of this contemplation has included thoughts on friends I have lost, or more to the point, friends who have lost me. There were communications failures. There were failures to vet properly and there were red flags ignored. But whatever, that’s life, right?

What I’ve been thinking about more these days is my inability to fulfill obligations to myself. I don’t even want to call them obligations. I have great trouble making my own personal goals, desires, and needs a priority in my own life. It is pretty much an automatic habit I have to deprioritize mine when there’s someone else I could spend my energy on.

This isn’t a new realization and anyone who knows me well is all like, “No duh”. It’s true that in the last several years, I have learned how to prioritize myself more and I have gained the confidence to speak my mind and demand decent treatment. But I did that to improve the quality of my relationships. This is important to do, most certainly, but it has a component that is for other people, not just myself.

The frustrating thing for me is that I just won’t put the same kind of value onto things that benefit me almost solely. The two biggest examples are eating right and exercising regularly.

I know the truth already: There is a way of eating that makes me feel a lot better both emotionally and physically. I don’t have allergies or intolerances (I don’t think), but a more “paleo” diet makes me function better and feel healthier. Exercising regularly makes me feel more confident and healthy and does away with any body image issues I might have. If I did both, I would feel incredible.

You would think that with that evidence, it would be easy to prioritize these things for myself. What would prioritizing things like this look like? An early morning yoga class a couple times a week, stopping at the gym on the way home from work, a Pilates class once a week, walks/jogs on the weekends. It would look like meal planning for the week and shopping for what I need for those meals. It would mean not using the time after work stopping at the grocery store or at Home Depot or a million other places, instead of working out. It would mean more “make ahead” meals that would allow me to throw it together in the morning and have it start cooking while I’m out doing things for myself. It would mean cooking even when I don’t feel like it. It would mean scheduling workouts like they are things I can’t miss (like work). It would mean not worrying so much about everyone else’s preferences and let them fulfill those on their own.

It would be me taking an interest truly in my own wellbeing. This sounds really simple but I am currently just not wired that way. But it’s a circuit worth getting.

These things take a lot of time (as in time to exercise and time for preparing healthy meals) and definitely a lot of energy. These things also take clear communication to others. Like, if I’m going to make meals that don’t include starches and other things that make me drag and feel lousy, then all I need to do is communicate what I am making and people who want more can add what they want for themselves. Part of my problem is always trying to anticipate what other people want and feeling obligated to accommodate them, even if it means compromising my own goals.

The bottom line is that I need to see the value in working as hard for myself as I do for other people. I honestly don’t know how to do that. How do I hold myself accountable to myself? Clearly, I still don’t know quite how to value myself without external validation. I am assuming that this is a skill I can learn. I know I can always work harder, but at some point I’m going to need to work smarter too.

Good thing I have therapy on Monday!