What do you do well?

In a culture where self-promotion has become an obsession and competition is talked about like a birthright, talking about what you do well may seem like an indulgence. For someone like me, whose cultural background is quite the opposite and fitting in, being silent, disappearing is not just the norm but my most fundamental desire, it feels awkward in the extreme. But it does give me an opportunity to talk about something that I find curious and have for as long as I can remember.

First, though, I should answer the question. There is a short list of things that I do well. By well, I don’t mean I do them better than an uneducated infant. I mean, I do them at a world-class level. And that’s important to me because, while I have no desire to compete with others, if I did things poorly, I would either need to significantly improve my abilities in them or stop doing them. It confuses me how people do things badly and then continue to do them — without trying to get better at them but without stopping them altogether. It’s the community choir syndrome. People are perfectly fine with sounding awful and expect others to come and watch and listen while they sound awful. If this was a choir of four year olds, this would be understandable. They haven’t learned how to sing well yet. The conductor is doing all they can just to get some notes out of them. And with each passing week of rehearsal, they gradually improve. But community choirs are different — people expect them to be bad and justify it because these people don’t care about being good at it. How anyone can care about not being good at something confuses me in the extreme. If you can sing well, sing. If you can’t, either learn how to do it well or don’t do it. This isn’t specifically about music but it’s a handy example and my ears remind me of it on a rather continuous basis, especially in this country where the aim isn’t perfection but tradition, and that includes rhythmic inaccuracy, wild dynamic variation and a conducting style that puts the beat pattern everywhere imaginable but where it’s supposed to be and that I find is slightly more difficult to follow than would be an orangutan with a baton.

What do I do well? I write (how many books of poetry published this year was it again?), I sing (although far less of late, sadly), I write choral music and I teach (if wishing made it so, a return to North America and a happy life at a nice creative writing faculty…). Of course, there are other things that I do “well”, as the question asks, as there are for so many people. But these are things that I do well enough to be held against any competitor. And that gives me a sense of pride. That’s what I want to think about today, though.

Pride. When you hear the word, you probably conjure up one of two images — the military or stupidly flamboyant parades. Both of these have serious issues for me, far more the second, honestly, but I’ll talk about the military first.

I could say it’s because of my Buddhist heritage — Buddhism prohibits conflict, physical or otherwise, and is inherently pacifist without exception — even fighting for the lives of your children is strictly outlawed and accepting brutal punishment is a basic tenet of much of the Buddha’s teachings. I could say it’s because Judaism is anti-war. I could say it’s because Jesus taught a strictly egalitarian system of peace and love. Or, probably more relevant, I could say that State Shinto destroyed an entire generation of Japan and that the corruption of that millennias-old faith system that was in every possible way committed to peace to turn it into a mobilization motivator for a country that had every chance to seek peace was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. But none of that is it.

Fighting is simply wrong. It’s not that it’s religiously outlawed or against ethical guidelines prescribed centuries ago. It’s that it’s just wrong. There are moral absolutes and fighting (no, I didn’t say killing, but that’s wrong too) is wrong. Conflict goes against everything human progress is meant to cherish — knowledge, understanding, compassion, love, caring, service. If we fight, even if we only do it with raised voices and harsh words, even if it is just allowing ourselves to express speech motivated by a bad mood or exhaustion or having had a painful day, we are wrong, we are guilty and we should be ashamed of ourselves. That unto itself is unhelpful, of course. We must be those things and use them as a motivation for change. And that is what is wrong with being proud of the military — especially if we are in it, which I am not, nor have I ever been. If you are fighting, you are wrong. It doesn’t matter why you’re doing it. It’s always wrong to fight. Self-defense is wrong. Aggression is wrong. And having a group of people dedicated to fighting, regardless of tradition or culture or anything else that we can talk about, it is, simply, wrong and must be ended. I would use the same argument against the availability of weapons but I have already spoken far too long about this today, since this is not even the topic I intended to discuss.

Pride is a far larger problem. I don’t mean specifically gay pride, although that is a symptom and a brutally obvious one of a disease that has infected the entire western world (and much of the eastern world, too, though far less so, for unusually painful reasons — how much sexuality-derived solidarity can there really be in a place where sodomy is a crime punishable by torture and death by stoning and how likely are people to worry about having a celebratory parade when the entire neighborhood is fighting for its very existence against opposing armies or tyrannical leaders? I should begin this by saying that I am by no means prejudiced against anyone for their sexual orientation, their gender, their race, their background, anything. I’m not. If you think I am, you may perhaps want to ask me about mine, which I’m not going to go into here and may in a later article. But let it suffice to say that I have every reason to be accepting — although, that being said, we all have every reason to be accepting, when we really understand that humanity itself is at stake.

My problem is twofold — pride in something we have not accomplished and group association in lieu of individual responsibility.

We are, in the contemporary world, encouraged to take pride in the wrong thing. If you are gay, that is not a problem. If you are straight, that is not a problem. If you are, like me, an abject and committed ace/aro, also not a problem. What’s the problem? Being proud of it. You like girls. Or guys. Or simply don’t want to let anyone stick anything inside parts of your body. Totally cool however that goes for you and it’s your own personal decision to live that life. It’s your life and your sexuality is your business, not mine, as long as you don’t use it to hurt anyone else or try to impose your sexuality on me. I’m for all the freedom we can have without compromising someone else’s freedom and safety. Which is, after all, the only kind of sustainable freedom a society could ever hope to have. When you start being proud of who you are rather than what you do, though, it does two things. First, it stops you from wanting to be a better person. You’re not perfect, nor am I. You may be closer than me but I doubt it. we are likely all the same degree of broken inside and need to spend our entire lives improving. That’s what life is for — to learn, to become a better person. That’s why we respect the elderly so much, in almost every culture, as a general rule. Seventy or eighty years of learning what’s important and what’s trivial might not produce a perfect human but it will usually produce someone who has a pretty good understanding that can be passed on if you ask. My grandparents (I really only knew three out of the four but that’s pretty good compared to many of my friends who didn’t even meet one of theirs) were amazing people, all of whom had lived through at least one intense global war and had learned vastly important lessons that they were overjoyed to pass along to me and anyone else who asked. Yours likely are, too. You should ask. This isn’t an argument in favor of spending your entire life feeling guilty and ashamed of who you are. It’s just a plea not to be too happy with yourself or see yourself as a fixed entity that neither can nor should change over time. Life is about seeking to be a better person — if you give up, please, do us all a favor and leave the planet. We don’t have time or space for people who are self-satisfied.

Secondly, there is a group dynamic problem. Groups lead to mob mentalities, which are decision making situations that always produce the wrong outcome. Most people would never go out onto the street and break windows, set fire to cars, beat defenseless others. But in large groups, these things happen every day, all over the world. Groups don’t make good decisions unless they are completely calm and in a quiet, rule-centered environment. And even then they rarely do — just look at the decisions of the UN General Assembly or any representative governing body — lately, if you pay attention to the House of Representatives in the United States or the entire British government, though, you won’t have to spend more than ten minutes before you find a really obvious example of mob mentality taking over from good judgment.

The problem is that groups tend toward extremes. Being gay isn’t a problem. Being open about being gay isn’t a problem. Getting together with a thousand of your closest gay friends and producing a movement, making yourselves intentionally different — not because you’re gay, since that’s a perfectly reasonable motivation for feeling different, but because you want to be separate from society. That’s a problem. Why? You think you have a right to be different and you most certainly do — as an individual. Group differentiation, though, that simply causes difficulties for everyone, including those of us who don’t want to stand out. Standing out because you are different (for example, because you are Latinx, because you speak with a Chinese accent, because you have red hair — or blue hair, for that matter), that’s perfectly fine. Creating a movement where you have made an artificial rift in society, encouraging people to fight with each other, that is not ok.

Being proud of yourself is a good thing. But it has its limits. If you are proud of what you have done today or what you have accomplished in your life, that is wonderful. It’s right up there with being thankful that you have had the opportunity to live another day. It’s a great motivator. If you are proud because of what you are, you’re just looking for a reason to establish difference between you and others. You are a human. We are all humans. We are all different from each other. We don’t need groups to tell us that and those groups will only divide us. You’re not separate from me because you’re different. You’re separate from me and from others because you’ve drawn dividing lines and we must erase them if we are to come together in peace.

We don’t need a parade but if we’re going to have one, let’s use it to celebrate our interconnectedness, not to show off our difference and encourage conflict. We don’t need groups but if we’re going to have them, let’s have groups that serve others, not that serve themselves. As Thich Nhat Hanh popularized in the west, we “inter-are”. Let’s not forget, not pretend that we’re members of different groups. Let’s stop building walls when we could just look down and realize there’s no boundary there to even have to build a bridge over. Let’s stop calling ourselves names of division. It’s fine to classify yourself for descriptive purposes but group membership is nothing other than creating a fictitious reason to fight. Stop fighting. If you can’t be at peace, at least be silent, sit down or, if that’s too much for you, go away. Now.