Avoid Being a Critic.

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As I struggle to understand the world around me as well as my own emotions and role, I realize how often I judge people in my mind.  You would think that the more I discover about humanity, the more I would come to dislike people who go against the grain of what I think is the right way to live.  On the contrary, it’s been quite the opposite.

I used to be haughty and swing around the opinions I’d been raised on like some kind of righteous sword without even having a cause for why I felt that way.  It was strictly due to my environment.  Moving away from home – and then eventually traveling independently – gave me the priceless ability to view myself from the outside.  And I didn’t like what I was seeing.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the toxic wave of judgment.  Someone says one thing, a few people nod in agreement, no one wants to be “that guy” who stands up and protests.  It’s important to remember people come from different backgrounds, experiences, comfort zones, and beliefs – and all of those things drastically influence their actions and choices.  Even if something seems wrong to you, that person might not be viewing it in the same way.

Let me take a very simple example:
When I was living in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa this time last year, it was perfectly ordinary to walk out onto the street from my compound to swarms of children with outstretched hands.  They would chant “Yovo!  Yovo!’ on account of me being a foreigner with lighter skin.  They would sing “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!  Ca va bien, merci!” without even knowing what they were saying.  They would then tug at my dress and beg for a “cadeau”.  The parents would chuckle and watch.  Yes, these children were taught to racially discriminate and demand money, to disregard personal space, and to taunt.  That’s at least how some people saw it and it angered them.  They’d spit out mean words and curse at the children.  I just smiled and played along, rarely given out any francs.  These kids were raised to believe this is how you treat people, this is how you survive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that because that is how they survive.  That’s how those kids get the coins they need to go to the Internet café.  Some of them probably give the change to their mom, and that’s how they have bread for dinner.  No harm done.

Probably the hardest part in avoiding being a critic, for me at least, has been realizing not everyone is so determined to live righteously.  Some people choose to just live and get by within the common rules.  They don’t strive to find some inner-peace or to travel the world or discover themselves.  They’re content like that.

I used to hate that.  I used to resent that and call it being lazy, selfish, stubborn…but really, it’s a choice.  In fact, I preach so much that morality is just a human-made concept in order to function in an optimal society – that we are really just animals.  So isn’t that perspective more animalistic?  I guess so…I just couldn’t see it before.

I think I always just wanted the best for myself, and then to see the best in others and help them bring it out.  It’s a tough line to walk, but there is a point when your suggestions should stop before intervention.  I see it between me and my peers, the ones who don’t say they’re inspired by my ambition and who continue with the same mundane life they grew up into.  The ones who don’t move or don’t try to make changes.  I’ve got to let them decide for themselves; they’ve already seen the things I have done and how those things have helped me.

So before you’re hasty at judging someone, consider why you’re doing it and why you think you’re better for what you do.  You might find you don’t have a legitimate reason after all.  You might realize you should remain a worst critic to only yourself, and I think you’ll be a better person for it.

High School Reunions? Uhh…

Lately I’ve seen a lot of posts and pictures about high school reunions.  Many of my friends have reached the five-year mark (’08).  My parents, like all of my family, graduated early and would have celebrated their 37-year (‘78) and 35-year (‘80) reunions.  I can guarantee you they will never hold an interest in any Pennsylvania State University reunion, let alone any reunion with people they don’t care about from their high school who obviously had nothing better to do than stick around.  And I feel exactly the same.

I’m baffled by how many people seem to attend high school reunions.  I attended so many different schools, I don’t even have a loyalty.  Neither does my brother, who attended the Valley School of Ligonier (Pennsylvania), Kiski Preparatory School for Boys (Pennsylvania), and Andrews Osborne Academy (Ohio).  I’ll admit, I still go back every once in awhile to visit Valley.  I’m good friends with many of the teachers there.  But no one my age goes to any of these reunions.  Are you kidding me?  First of all, most Valley kids were from different areas and transferred to boarding schools even farther away as they set themselves up for college.  So who would be left?

I went to a reunion shortly after I graduated high school.  It was winter break, and my private school was just over a few mountains from my home.  I made the drive and was disappointed to find that most of my college-aged friends were away for school still, on vacation in attractive places, or simply disinterested.  I asked my friends how a reunion had gone recently and they told me “no one came”, a completely ordinary response.  Maybe a few recent grads, but everyone else have careers and homes and live far away.  Most boarding school kids don’t even come from America, so why would they come back for a reunion?

Maybe it’s different for public school people who see the same people day in and day out, who keep in touch, and who don’t move away.  But I feel like that kind of person is harder and harder to find these days, what with college and careers leading us to bigger and better things.  All I know is I don’t really keep any friends from high school; I’ve, well, grown out of it.

So here’s to all the people who are sick of sappy get-together photos, who don’t understand reunions or sucking up to people who think they´re something they aren´t, and who would like to think we have moved on to much greater events in our lives than catching up with people who don’t even remember our names and who obviously haven’t had a move on with their small-town lives.

Debunking Fashion Snobbery

One thing that pisses me off about, well, every day life is our obsession with this bizarre enigma we refer to as “fashion”.  Being “fashionable” or “well-dressed” is an important part to any publicly active and successful being, at least in America and other First World countries.  We are so caught up in appearances and aesthetics in literally every perspective of life that it completely consumes us.  The feeling of social security we get from meeting self-imposed visual standards becomes the lifeblood to maintaining our self-esteem.  One faltering moment and our confidence is undermined.  But how did we ever come to rely on such meaningless concepts as “fashion”?  And who became the judge of it anyway?

I personally believe “fashion” and “aesthetics” derive from ancient practices.  Thousands of years ago, monarchies and religious rulings determined that women should be covered in a certain way, and men had to dress appropriately to complete their daily chores (hence their use of pants for convenience).  This is perhaps the point from which our fashion “stigmas” arose: we placed expectations on certain groups of people’s dress and manner, and some of this developed into class distinction.  Although we have long struggled to destroy the hierarchy of class, we as citizens continue to fuel the fire by dressing, acting, and buying in means we can’t necessarily afford just to display some false vibrato.  Who are we kidding?  Well, no one cares.  You’ve got to learn to keep up in today’s world; that means little time for thinking.

Now, where did aesthetics come into play?  You know, designing your house in a certain way.  Discerning a certain status via style and – often – false  impression.  I think this too has a cultural root.  Tradition plays an important part in all societies and, although ancient peoples did not necessarily spend superfluously to impress visitors that they didn’t have, they did hold on to the style and ways of their people.  It’s a defining thing.  It’s art.  It started as an activity, it blossomed into a form, and then it launched into this pressuring hell of subjectivity.  Elements from different cultures that were found attractive by others were adapted and preserved.  Then with events like the Silk Road introducing trade and global awareness, people started wanting these “finer things”.  It’s always for some kind of façade.  Suddenly, these “different ways of doing things” collided, were compared side-by-side, assessed, improved, developed…  Aesthetics – and fashion – … It has all become a form of expression in which one A) strives to meet certain standards, B) tries to perfect those standards, and C) often next struggles to exceed those standards through either perfection of a form or through discovery of a breathtakingly new concept.

But now that we have developed into this modern world of fashion and interior design, who actually lays down the rules for what is “good” and what is “acceptable”?  How do you define “cool”?  While some trends and shades invoke emotions and sensations that are pleasing and understandably desired, some trends are absolutely horrendous and distasteful.  Yet they’re still successful.  So who is trying to convince our instincts otherwise?

Apparently, there are people who “decide” these things.  For example, the non-profit group called the Color Marketing Group.  These people literally sit around and say, Oh, people last year like these shades and these trends, so we’re going to base next year off of this and then revamp an old selection that was successful in past years.  These people teeter between appeal and experiment, between satisfied customer and satisfied vendor.  They argue that the customer, ultimately, makes the decision of what is “fashionable” because the next year’s trends off of what was and what wasn’t popular in the past.  My argument?  That’s not completely true because I don’t feel like I am deciding anything.  I’ve grown up in this world where clothes are already stocked, I had to select from those stocked things, and my selections were not always satisfactory.  Besides, I really do believe people’s tastes revolve mostly around models and celebrities.  People idolize people.  If a tween sees Miley Cyrus in yoga pants, she thinks that’s the coolest thing and buys a pair.  Some of the racier trends on the Red Carpet?  Check out a night club.  I’m sorry, CMG, but I still think you’re snobs.

Then there’s reality TV.  Fashion shows.  Best Dressed and otherwise.  I never agree with them.  For example, America’s Next Top Model…Tyra Banks…acting like a snooty fashionista expert of sorts and why?  Because she was a model?  Oh, please.  Some of the things she wears and does make me sick to my stomach.  More than half the time my tastes conflict entirely with this snobbish “fashion world”, and yet it controls so many factors of our lives.

How about that show where you dress people in better clothes to improve their self-esteem?  The problem usually lies in their bodies and how they perceive themselves inwardly, not in how they dress.  It’s true though: While I tend to critique the critics, there are definitely some fashion lines that I don’t cross.  Those lines are usually “tacky”, “slobbish”, and “risqué”, lines that are painfully crossed quite often by people on this show, perhaps in oblivion.  But, in that case, I think a slap across the face would suffice.  Why arrange some exorbitant shopping spree with some presumptuous gay – or maybe straight – man critiquing a simpleton’s underclassed fashion sense with some flamboyant accent as if he were gay?  Half the time I want to shout, People, if you want to help her out, tell her to go on a diet!  It’s not just how you dress.  You can’t cover it all up.  Fashion is no band-aid to true inner problems.  That self-esteem comes from within, it comes from a confidence in your body and your health.  E.g., paint your face all you want, if you still view yourself as ugly without it, you’ll just feel broken and constantly haunted without the facade of makeup.  In other words, that show really sums up my feelings on how we put too much faith in fashion and these alleged “experts”.

I just wish we weren’t such a sheep society.  I’m not sure where we went wrong, but our need to be on top lets us lose our sanity and drain our wallets to attain personal expectations and social standards.  I think it makes us more miserable than it does happy.  And you want to know what the funny thing is?  I think one of the happiest animals I’ve ever seen in a belly-sliding, snow-covered little penguin… and penguins don’t wear clothes!!  Lesson learned.