Saturday, March 10, 2012

Who Is "Good People"?

In today's issue of "Spiritual Wealth" (a newsletter I have delivered to my inbox on a regular basis) there was an article titled "Are You 'Good People?'" It was about Confucius who, despite his name having become something of a punch line over the years, was a real person (55-479 BC) with a real philosophy.

"The central concept of Confucius' philosophy is ren or benevolence. (It also means 'gentleman' in the sense of someone who behaves with authentic respect and consideration for others.) It was Confucius' view that the cultivation of benevolence leads to self-mastery and...right action."

Everyone's familiar with the fortune cookie jokes that start "Confucius say...", but there really is a collection of sayings, compiled from what his students remembered -- collectively known as the Analects -- through which he inspires us to express our better natures, reminding us that "we define ourselves by what we do in our daily routines and relationships".

In the last few years (maybe longer) there's been much focus on fostering "self-esteem" in children (indeed, in everyone) to the point that now kids get praise for just showing up at the game or doing their best on a math test. (Never mind if they actually studied or did their homework.) But as I drive to the train in the morning to go to work I see kids going to school in baggy shorts (even in the coldest weather) and unlaced sneakers; tight-tight pants and cropped T-shirts; any number of odd combinations. And one day it occurred to me that what these kids need (in the view of this old fart) isn't self-esteem as much as self-respect. Self-esteem comes from doing estimable things, behaving estimably -- you can't just hand it to someone in a package of gold stars or a pat on the head.

I think if you truly respect yourself you foster the behavior that leads to respecting others; behaving in a civil, decent manner; speaking appropriately and respectfully; treating others, in other words, as you would have them treat you.

Unfortunately these days, in popular culture (especially with the advent of "reality TV"), in politics, wherever you look, the role models for estimable behavior are fewer and farther between. The "stars" of "Jerseylicious", for example, or "Jersey Shore" (oh, poor New Jersey!), or "Dance Moms"* promote a way of presenting yourself to the world and behaving in a manner that's the polar opposite of the way many of us were raised: screaming, yelling, insults, doing whatever it takes to get yourself ahead and screw everyone else... This is what passes for "self-esteem" these days, but in my humble opinion, these people suffer from a severe self-respect deficiency.

So will it change things overnight if we make the children wear long pants, shirts with collars, hard-soled shoes to school? Will the national discourse become more civil by Monday afternoon? Doubtful. It's not just what kids wear to school. It's the way they treat their parents, teachers -- even each other -- that reflects what they think of themselves, to a greater or lesser degree. I guess it's a variation on the old idea that you need to love yourself before you can love another. (Thank you, RuPaul, can I get an 'Amen' up in here?) If you respect yourself, you'll respect other people, you'll be kind, you'll have boundaries...all that good stuff. Much the way the rules of etiquette were established to make you comfortable in any situation, you and those around you.

It doesn't come cheap or easy. Like anything worth having, you need to work at self-respect. It's not swagger and bragging and mouthing off, it's intangible. But you know it when you see it, or when you're in its presence.

Know what I mean?

*I'm starting a list of "Things I Could Happily Live Without Seeing Ever Again", and the first item on the list is white women doing the "sassy black woman head-bob", as exemplified by Abby Lee, the hefty choreographer/star of "Dance Moms", in the promos for the show. I don't know what it's supposed to mean...or say... but enough!

Finally, please check out the two new favorite links to the right of this post: Rona Fisher Jewelry: Rona designs and hand-crafts beautiful, truly unique jewelry pieces; and Gilt Groupe, a site you can sign up for and receive regular updates in your email about terrific deals on (mainly) clothes, for men and women: really good prices for really unique items. I regularly get compliments on the clothes I've bought from Gilt Groupe sales.

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