(Original post written - 3rd April 2016)
Since last year I have become very aware of the external pressures on me to do more, and be more. Everywhere I look, I see attempts to shame me into thinking what I have, or who I am simply isn’t enough. Adverts portraying unachievable body and life goals, memes suggesting I should ‘follow my dreams’ (I admit I have been guilty of sharing such tripe!) and social media streaming perfectly edited versions of other people’s lives, all making mine (me) feel less worthy.
What’s wrong with just being average? What if you don’t have dreams? What if you really like your two-bed terrace in suburbia, where you commute ten minutes to your average paid job? What is wrong with that? Nothing. But economies would collapse if people got comfortable with themselves and stopped wanting more, so for as long as money runs the world, the messages will keep coming. The sad truth is that people make lots of money from shame.
I’m sailing up the Mekong River. To my left is Thailand. Every so often I spot elephants, temples and small villages. To my right is Laos, a much poorer country. I can see small little shanty villages every 20 or 30 miles and people at the riverside, washing clothes. Last night I stayed in one of these villages as part of a ‘home stay experience’. That’s what got me thinking about ‘average’. Do these people crave for more? Not that I could see. Sure, they want to do the best for themselves and their families, but I got a real sense of contentment. I took a selfie with our host, we laughed together (I think it was her first). She seemed happy, and more importantly I think, content. As for the children, they too seemed grounded. They played games with coffee beans and I hopelessly tried to join in, much to their amusement!
There’s no Facebook or smartphones in these villages. They engage with each other on a very human level. They seem to accept their lives for what they are and what they have. They only have solar power until 9pm and their homes are in the large part, made from bamboo. I personally saw no comparable external source of shaming to that found in the Western world. If there is, its presence is far less.
Having read ‘The Velvet Rage’ by Alan Downs over the last two days, I’m even more steadfast that I want to move away from thinking that material things are in any way attached to my worth as a person. Alan is a 50+ year old gay man and therapist. In his book he observes what he believes to be a fairly common life journey for gay men. He starts by discussing the effects of knowing we were different as children and the huge amount of shame that can embed in us. These are the first messages of “you’re not enough, you’re unlovable.” Once we ‘come out’, he suggests many of us try to conquer this embedded shame by either numbing addictions (shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol) or searching for validation in the form of materialism – making sure we have the best job, home, relationship, etc. Some do all this and much more. You’ll have to read the book to get a full context and I’d suggest it is essential reading if you’re a gay man, but you hopefully get the idea.
I was a textbook example of Alan’s ‘stage two’ throughout my late teens and almost my entire twenties. I continually pushed myself (and my then partner) for bigger, better, more. I was never satisfied, with anything. It is clear to me now that I was desperately trying to silence the voice inside my head that was telling me (and often still does) “you’re not enough, you’re unlovable.” Somehow I figured if I could just reach perfection, the voice would be silenced. However, this voice is driven by the shame I developed as a young boy, growing up gay in a straight man’s world. It can’t be silenced with these things. It’s deeper than that.
I’m now in what Alan calls ‘stage three’. That is to say, I’ve had my “f*ck this, there must be more to life.” moment. Getting divorced and losing my business has made me question what life is really about. Is it about things? I don’t believe so. All I know is that I feel a bit lost. He predicts my feeling of ambiguity as accurately as he predicts my desire to replace it with some certainty, and fast! Apparently it’s not unusual at this point to make big life changes. We don’t want to fall back into the trap of bigger, better, more, but we haven’t (as yet) found a way to replace those behaviours. Cue many a mid life crisis where he suggests job resignations flow, people move cities and others travel the world (I know, I know!) in attempts to ‘find meaning’.
I’ve got different expectations from travel. I want a break. I don’t expect to ‘find myself’ and nor do I think I’ll run away for good (please stop me if I declare I’m becoming a monk in Asia!). I guess I want to detach myself from old patterns of behaviour, from seeking validation for the wrong reasons. I want some alone time with this critical voice and I want to learn how to reason with it, hence ‘learning to love me’. I do not wish to be seen as a role model. This is my journey and others will follow their own paths. I’m also not unaware of the irony of writing a blog post about being average, whilst sailing down the Mekong River. It’s perhaps in this irony that other lessons may exist for me!
I’m an average guy. I like nice food and the company of good friends. I like the countryside. I like dogs, and cats. I like average things and I’m determined to learn how to love my average self. I’d like to come back and establish a very average, yet fulfilling life, without being controlled by shame.
I’m going to tackle shame head on and write as openly as I feel I can about how I get on.