On Criticism

Criticism is painful, especially if it comes from someone you admire, but it’s still necessary and vital for all our interactions with the each other and the world around us.

We already talk of the need for feedback in the creative process, and have accepted its importance. We do not assume that the wonderful works of art we have are perfect from the moment of their conception. We know that humans are not, as a rule, perfect, that we are ruled by emotion, blinded by perspective, and sometimes just plain lazy or apathetic. Whether it’s self-criticism or another’s efforts, evaluation of our work is a purifying process, making the bad things good and the good things better, maybe even the best.

So, then, if careful and clear analysis of our creative work is so very necessary, why shouldn’t the same apply to every facet of our lives?

One of the most common traps we find in life is the things we love, whether they are people or concepts. Our role models are role models for a reason: we admire and respect them and we want to be like them. We cling to our chosen ideologies because we support them, we agree with them and we want to follow them. And that’s fine – that’s part of being human, and needing to relate to things and have something to pursue in life. But when we’re so caught up in what we believe and read and hear, it gets harder to remember that our role models are not perfect, as much as we might believe and want them to be. Our ideologies may be theoretically unshakeable but life has always made practicalities less clear-cut.

Overzealous fans are the perfect example of a lack of criticism. Any time a celebrity screws up, a certain number of their fans will flock unhesitatingly to their defense, decrying any opposing voices and asserting the virtues of their idol even if it means insulting others and supporting things which they mightn’t otherwise agree with. This behaviour – this brief abandonment of rationality and personal convictions – is precisely why we need to consciously criticise our lives and actions. Criticism is the very process by which we develop our own principles and morals, by examining those of others, those of the people we love, and comparing them with our own experiences, knowledge and emotions.

The same idea holds true for concepts – it’s great to say you support a cause, to enthusiastically align yourself with some new notion that appeals to your sensibilities. But unless you maintain a certain distance from it, you run the risk yet again of becoming a blind follower, an unquestioning devotee to an idea which might be imperfect. The vast majority of things in the world are, so it’s only logical to assume that whatever it is you’re currently enamoured with is in some way problematic.

That’s why we have to be able to criticise everything we encounter – to recognise the flaws and try and work past them. And I do mean everything, from your friends, to your favourite books, to your own fleeting thoughts. Why does your friend think they can say that? Was that chapter necessary to the story? Was that really a rational reaction?

Criticism doesn’t mean forever playing Devil’s advocate, or tossing away anything with some tiny imperfection. It’s merely an acknowledgement of the flaws, a conscious acceptance that allows us to judge with greater impartiality, though as humans we will always be biased, and to continue towards improvement. There are too many philosophies and interpretations of life and scraps of advice and inspiration to count, and many have merit, many are fantastic and hugely significant to various people, but it is unlikely any are utterly perfect. Criticism becomes the tool that lets us take the best bits of all the concepts and credos and manifestos that appeal to us without being dragged down by the issues, the unwanted parts.

Life may be about exploring new things but a good explorer knows not to plunge into a murky, unknown swamp just because the leader of the party did. It’s downright foolish. It has always been dangerous to believe blindly and shut your mind to other ideas, to any opposing beliefs, but never has it been so easy to cherry-pick your media and blinker yourself to the vastly diverse realities of life as it is now with the ubiquity of the internet and its hundred thousand realities. The artificial nature of internet-based groups filled only with people sharing almost identical beliefs is a poor reflection of real life, which, unfortunately, is what we need to be dealing with. If the world really did function according to our personal principles and beliefs, we wouldn’t be having to deal with all the various issues that do exist.

But sadly, these issues are real. The world isn’t made for us, we just try and fit in around it, and things go wrong all the time. At least when we learn to criticise our own part in it, we understand it a little better.

Comparison to others poisons your happiness. Shhh. Go read a book.

It’s been rather a while.
I thought my last post might have been as long ago as last year, but it seems it was only June. In any case, I haven’t posted as regularly as I once did. And I really think that’s a good thing.

I haven’t written because I’ve been dedicating all that time to a million other things. To friends, family, work, studies, travel, stories, cooking, feminism, walking. There’s a thousand and one things to do in the world – how can anyone ever be bored?

I’ve always struggled with intense jealousy and self-esteem issues, like many, and generally tried to alleviate my problems by writing about them and often sharing it. I can’t say how much it helps. But I keep doing it anyway.

I’m forever slowly building my case against jealousy, finding a tidbit of evidence to put forward in an effort to convince myself that I’m actually quite alright as a human being and it’s reasonable to expect to have friends. Unfortunately, I’m very suspicious of myself.

But I’ve found another little scrap of proof in the past months, which is a variation on the usual theme of ‘Just being happy is absolutely enough to achieve in life,’ in that I’ve spent the past few months doing my utmost best to not stress about being the best and simply doing things I want to do. Baking cakes, reading books, writing in confused and English-peppered French to keep in practice, lying in the sun and practically purring with delight at just sitting and existing, peacefully.

I’ve written a bit, here and there, when I felt like it. But I haven’t forced myself.

And I’ve really had a great time.

How does this relate to jealousy? Well, now, let me continue.

I’m still unhealthily envious of people who seem to have something better than me. Or rather, do something better. Those who speak foreign languages fluently, and those who compete at national levels in sports. The 18 year old on my Facebook who’s apparently launched a new magazine for young people. That one’s hit me the hardest, recently. My jealousy is born, I think, of ambition.

But I know these people, often. I know they’re not always happy. I know I’m not always happy. But doing the things I want to do has made me a lot happier than trying to beat the whole world by doing whatever it is the people I’m jealous of have been doing.

And I suppose that’s the moral of this, ultimately. Your happiness shouldn’t be about other people’s views. It should be about your own personal desires and preferences.

In other words, I’m going to go ice a cake (and admire it, and later eat it), instead of trying to launch a magazine I don’t want to launch.

The value of friendship and the necessarily related qualities required in a friend.

So, friends.

Friends are sometimes ephemeral, sometimes reliable, generally amusing and hopefully sympathetic. Actually, friends can be a lot of surprisingly different things, from truthful and kind and absolutely selfless to manipulative and needy and dishonest. Some might disagree, and say that they’re not really your friend if they’re manipulative and so on, but I usually consider those people to be wrong. Human relationships are odd things – it’s often difficult to understand the varying relationships of the people around you, precisely because they’re so complicated and individual. I’ve had friends I didn’t like much because circumstances dictated we should be friendly. We weren’t close, of course, but in most senses of the word we were friends. We did things together, we laughed, we shared things, and then behind each others’ backs we complained and whined and that was that. We had to be friends, so we were.

I’ve also had friends who I did really like, wonderful, amazing friends, who were nonetheless dishonest or unfeeling or insensitive or careless. In one sense, it’s a little like having a friend who’s really bad at maths. It’s pretty damn irritating that when you go out, she can never get the right change ready or whatever else, but you can deal with it, and try and help them. You don’t just declare them a complete waste of your time. So if you have a friend who’s mostly quite alright, and who you get on with, then sometimes you can just put up with the way they tend to point out flaws or remind you of things you’d rather forget. Obviously you’d be happier if they didn’t do that, but life isn’t about ideal situations. As I’ve said before, it’s about compromise.

I’ve been forced over and over to make new friends because I’m constantly moving around, and I really, truly think I value friendships very highly. In fact, though this could simply be a result of my unfortunate tendency to believe myself superior to others, I think I might often value friendships more highly than the average, random young person. And while I half-jokingly attribute that to wanting to be special, I do think it’s more likely just because of the way I’ve been raised and my own personality. I’m not particularly at ease with large groups of people. I move around all the time, and I want friends who I can talk to 3 months after I last saw them and still have the same or at least a similar relationship with as when I saw them every day. I understand why other people prefer to have many friends, because I observe it around me a lot, and I have no problem with it. That’s wonderful, if that’s what they want and what they have. I just don’t want it for myself. And that means that I also tend to have quite selective criteria when it comes to finding a friend from the masses of humanity that I am forced to engage with, and thus often take rather a while to settle in to a new place, and find myself new friends.

Which leads me, of course, to what those criteria might be.

I don’t pretend to have some careful list detailing the exact attributes I require – that’s obviously quite foolish. But there are many things that I look for – I have to be able to respect them, for one. As I get older, I do seem to be getting more accepting, but I have limits, and while I do my utmost best to never change my treatment of people – it is my aim to be perfectly polite to everyone, unless of course they do something directly rude or cruel – I still don’t think there’s any reason I have to make them my friend and confidantes.

But one of the most important things in a friend, to me, is that they entertain me, and keep me happy. Honestly, as far as I can tell, that’s the main reason we have friends. It’s certainly the main reason have friends. I want people who make me laugh, and stop me from being bored on a 2 hour train trip, and that’s probably how I judge how well I’m friends with people. When we laugh often, and I don’t feel uncomfortable, like I’m faking it, or like I’m overeager for friends, I feel secure in my relationships.

I don’t mind a bit of dishonesty or selfishness. I would far far rather my friends weren’t selfish or dishonest, but I try to be a realist. No one is perfect. I’m not. It would be odd for someone as imperfect as me to always have perfect friends, wouldn’t it? And I’m dishonest sometimes too. I lie because I’m a private person and don’t want to share everything about myself. I imagine my friends do too. Same goes for being selfish, or rude, or insensitive, or lots of other things. Sure, I want  my friends to be honest and kind and sympathetic and selfless and caring and all these positive qualities. But most of all, I want them to make me happy, to make me laugh, to cheer me up when I’m sad. The kind of friends you can enjoy yourself with in imperfect situations, like when it’s raining and everywhere is closed and you end up in the cold wet park but it’s OK, because you’re with your friends and you can laugh about it tomorrow over hot chocolate in the warm.

I want friends who make me laugh.

That’s what I value most.

 

Compromise

Have you heard about compromise?

People are often romantics at heart, it seems, because I’m forever hearing about the power of love, and how it’s what keeps the world running. And I don’t deny it – our emotions are what make us keep going, what stop us from deciding nothing is worth this hell. If you love something enough, it gives you the strength to put up with a lot.

But actual life, actual, physical, day-to-day life? Well, compromise is just as important as love. You don’t need to live a life of pure happiness, cavorting in the clouds to a soundtrack of your favourite musicians playing live and inviting you backstage afterwards, to be happy. I’m not saying that that wouldn’t make you ridiculously happy – I can’t really comment, having never experienced it – but I know for a fact that you can be quite deliriously happy without such exaggerated reason to be.

That’s one of the great things about humans. The oddest, most pointless things can make us happy.

Of course, that also goes the other way. Everything that makes you happy can seem stupidly pointless and make you question why you even care. But when you’re not looking at it from underneath, it’s almost magical how we can be made happy so easily.

But back to compromise.

Life is not perfect, and probably never will be. But there are enough good things in it, generally, that we can outweigh the bad. Of course, this means doing something that the human brain makes very hard for us – see the negative and the positive equally, or even slightly tipped to favour the positive, rather than the negative. You’ve got to make yourself look at your life, look at the people and the pets and the trips to your favourite restaurant and that feeling you get on Friday afternoon – and see how all of that makes it easier to get up at 7 every weekday, or find the money for that dental surgery, or give up your evening out to do something you don’t want to.

Otherwise, there’s no way out. All the bad stuff will cast too dark a shadow over what’s good in your life. Compromise is literally essential to not hate everything – and that’s OK. Really, it’s fine. Maybe it’s not what we want, but we can work with it. You might have to buy the top of the range phone or laptop, and have the other one be a bit cheap, but you’ll be able to pay your rent and buy Christmas presents, so it’s OK. It balances. I know some people are a lot poorer or unhappier than the difference between an iPhone 5s and an old iPhone 3, but surely even then, compromise is what gets you through.

All our life is is compromise, sometimes. It’s summer so you don’t have to wear a jacket, but you’ll get sunburned. You can go skiing in winter, but it’s freaking freezing. Eat the second slice of cake and you’ll feel a bit sick, or don’t eat your vegetables and you’ll also feel sick. We have to make choices all the time, and they’re not perfect. You just have to learn to take the best compromise – take the better one, because best isn’t always an option.

This rambling has been brought to you by me sitting in the sunshine and staring at the sky and loving Australia. And being unable to decide whether I’d rather live here or overseas. You know, the usual big problems of life.

A Love Letter to Germany

Liebe Deutschland, I liebe dich.

I love you for your language, which others claim is harsh and ungainly but which I find the most natural tongue to speak in other than my own native tongue, English. I love those long, frightening compound words which turn out to be perfectly simple and sensible, even if I must admit I hate all those cases and article endings that change all over the place.

I love the castles and the palaces dotted about the country, and your gorgeous Gothic churches which even the most hardened atheists must appreciate, with their soaring spires and fascinating curlicues. And the Fachwerker houses, all lined up together, sometimes higgedly-piggedly and sagging, and sometimes neat and perfectly well-kept, in orderly rows separated by the old-fashioned cobbles that jolt you like a tumble-drier if you ride over them.

I love the Fahrradstag, when all the inhabitants of the little villages near me pour forth on their bikes to ride up the Weinstrasse, even if they get caught up in a temporary Biergarten along the way or stop to eat fresh Waffeln mit Puderzucker, or just to talk and laugh and eat Bratwurst.

I love all the sausages, the Bratwurst and the half-metre wurst from the Markts and the Currywurst that’s far too spicy for me. I love in particular the Wurstmarkt, which is surprisingly enough a wine festival, and all the rides and lights and the smell of sugared almonds and sausages, and the sight of the unassuming parking lot turned into a bustling fairground for two glorious weeks. And then there’s the Weihnachtsmarkts, held throughout the country and full of Gluhwein and candles and gingerbread and what is surely a thousand kilos of onions frying gently and mingling with all the other delicious aromas in the frosty December air.

I love your summers and your snow, even if I cried myself to sleep from cold and exhaustion on that freezing night when we visited for the second time, and I was only 6 and it was snowy and dark and treacherous outside, and I’d come all the way from Australia. I love how the fields and hills transform into ski-slopes, and the forests are cold and clean and silent. And I love the summertime when the trees are full of birds, and you can spot squirrels and rabbits darting about, and rest in the cool shade before returning to the sunny outside, where children swim in the fountains and half the world seems to be at the camping-grounds beside the lakes, venturing out on paddle-boats and steering clear of the infamous, vicious swans. And if they’re not in the water or out hiking, there’s the hundreds of Eiscafes with their beautifully swirled gelato, all topped with berries and fruit and nuts and looking far too tempting to cost less than a euro a scoop.

I love your food, with the Gulaschsuppe and Brotchen and the numerous different Schnitzels, and Spatzle and salmon and dumplings and the delightfully bad-for-you Griebenschmalz, which tastes so good on rye bread. I love your croissants, even if they’re stolen from next-door, and the streusel and the Nusschnecke and gugelhupfen, and the hot chocolate I used to drink for breakfast from that little bakery up-around-the-corner in town. And even if I don’t like all the fruity desserts which are so popular, the Apfelstrudel and so on, I love the blackberries I picked beside the little stream, when my brother and I rode out to the week-end gardens and scratched ourselves collecting berries and jumping the stream and idly considering climbing the fence into a garden, just to have a look.

I love the town I live in, and I love Heidelberg and the Altebrucke and the church opposite my best friend’s old house on the Hauptstrasse, even with the milling tourists all calling out in American accents. And I love the hundred little towns we visited, some by choice and some by happenstance, and the fountains and statues and imposing old Rathaus that we almost always found there.

 

 

And I love Australia too, and I think France is a beautiful place and I want to see Portugal again properly, but above all that, I miss you. I want to come back and slot back in to waking to the church bells and sipping Weinschorle under green vines and trying not to mangle the language too badly. I miss you so much sometimes, when I see a picture of the Ganzliesel or read about Heidelberg in a book, and I want so badly to be back.

Too many people think they’re ugly. It’s just plain statistically unlikely.

Do you know what I find possibly the worst about our current culture’s issues with self-esteem? It’s that there are so many girls – and probably guys – out there who don’t just think they aren’t beautiful – I mean, if we’re being honest, with society’s expectations where they are only maybe 10%, 20% of people should be ‘beautiful’ – but they think they’re ugly. Not average, as probability dictates they should be. But honestly, aggressively, ugly. Repulsive to look at in some respect.

I find that horrible.

 

It wouldn’t be so bad if people JUST felt bad about not being beautiful – which as we all know is utterly ridiculous anyway. But instead of the 80% feeling sad that they’re not in the top 20, most of ’em are downright depressed because they think they’re practically in the bottom 20. 

It’s just stupid. It’s all just so crazily stupid that some days I can’t believe this is actually a problem we have.

*********************

The fact of the matter is, I tend to walk around thinking quite honestly that most of the people I meet are attractive. Some more than others, sure, and there’s always a few people who just really don’t fit our idea of beauty at all – but I very rarely meet someone who is ugly. And I know way too many people who I sometimes catch myself staring at and thinking “Damn, they’re so pretty/beautiful/handsome/striking.” AND OF COURSE, those of them that are my friends (admittedly I may be prejudiced by my opinion of their character, but it’s not like I’m completely mad) have all expressed the opinion that they aren’t at all pretty.

*********************

I would like to point out that in most cases, self-esteem is in a constant state of flux. One day you feel particularly good, you think you’re pretty in the mirror, you’re happy. The next you could quite literally be idly considering plastic surgery and cursing how expensive it is, before you catch yourself and are rightfully horrified. And most of the time you’ll be somewhere in the middle, though, it would seem, tending towards to the thoughts of plastic surgery. 

 

 

I don’t need to do anything and it’s making me sad.

It’s hard for me to feel like I’m not failing at something. I’m on holidays and so I have nothing to do – and even though I’m doing French exercises occasionally, I still just feel like I’m being unbearably lazy. Like if I ever want to achieve something, I need to be working right now. I do write my little stories sometimes, and otherwise I’m often cooking or cleaning which aren’t exactly the hobbies of a complete loser in life. And yet I feel, for lack of a less stereotypical word, unfulfilled. Despite the fact that more than half my peers are probably doing less than I am, at the moment.

Perhaps I just really need to work harder on learning languages fluently and writing a tonne of stories. I don’t know. Part of me really, really wants to but it can be so very difficult to be motivated when I could just be reading books or with my cat. Or making scrumptious chocolate desserts.

I blame this uneasy feeling on my horrible jealousy of people who succeed, especially those who succeed young. I look at my own list of achievements – mostly good marks – and they seem paltry in comparison to the many people who are doing so many brilliant things. Like when I stumble across Top With Cinnamon, a gorgeous food blog run by a seventeen year old. I was borrowing her croissant recipe when I noticed that she’d started this when she was 15.

Seeing things like that make me ashamed of myself.

So I guess I need to go do something that makes me proud instead.