Friday, 22 February 2013

Know Thyself

This is one of the courses offered at Coursera, and I've signed up, telling myself that if it's just more philosophy waffle, I can drop it. I already think I know myself well, as a matter of fact, it's not something I've ever found difficult, but every so often people ask me questions I'd never considered properly, so I'm open to the fact that I haven't got it completely.

One of these came up yesterday. I posted a photo of myself on Facebook, wearing make-up, something I hardly ever do, and most of the comments were flattery. That wasn't the intention, but I suppose it's hard to know WHAT to say really, in hindsight it did look like a bit like I was trolling for compliments. But somebody, never mind who (but I gave birth to it), asked me, offline, why I don't usually wear make-up (the question was actually not phrased quite that way, a point which I'll come back to, but that was the gist of it) and my off-the-cuff response was my standard "my self-esteem is not based on my looks".

To which this wiser-than-their-years person said "so what is it based on?"

And I had no answer.

I had to go away and mull that one over. It's not the first time I've ben asked, but it's the first time I came close to an answer.

In my mind, I am neither truly vain nor truly modest. In my mind, I've got it balanced out pretty well, I don't do some stupid big act trying to avoid getting photographed, nor do I post ENDLESS posed glamour shots of myself all over the internet. Somewhere in-between those two extremes lies sanity.

When I was young I was told so many times that I was pretty, I just accepted it. It was never a question of conceit, but I hate (DESPISE) false modesty, and I am probably too thick-skinned to care if anyone resents the fact that I get compliments, if you see what I mean. Apparently my Dad had the same *shrug* attitude towards his looks, and he had movie star looks. My youngest son - the same. I know him very well, and it's 100% genuine. He knows he's good looking but he's just not bothered.

In fact it is stupid to respond to compliments with gratitude, it was just a toss of of the DNA dice after all.

I've not aged badly, but I haven't made any effort. My entire collection of cosmetics fits in a bag the size of a paperback novel, and really, a pair of tweezers and the occasional box of hair dye are the only clues that I am even aware of my own image at all. I have, shall we say, limited vanity. Aging really has an impact on your vanity, and while some women who were unhappy with their looks earlier in life cease to give a shit, others break their hearts over every wrinkle. Some, frankly, let themselves go. There's a middle way, if you choose it.

"Oh," you say, "it's easy for you to be cavalier about your looks, you've just admitted nature gave you an advantage there." That's not the point. There are plenty of people who are plain, or even actually deformed, who have decided it's not important. Their self-esteem is based on something else.

But what?

Scratching around for an answer I first tried out integrity. It's something I admire in others, that their word is good, and they are good to their word. Do I have good integrity? Well, I try. I aim for that. I value it, so I work towards it.

So maybe effort is more important. I value effort, and I like to think I try my best. Maybe my self-esteem is based on the fact that I know I try hard. Even when I fail I am able to say to myself "I tried my best."

But am I telling the truth? It is possible to lie to oneself. Even believe it, unless REALLY REALLY pushed. Self-deceit is probably the most stupid thing you can do, but it can be done. I think I am being honest, when I say I really try to have integrity. No, I'm sure. This has become almost circular now, and really, at the end of it all, is that I appear to pretty good at knowing myself.

So, maybe that's where my self-esteem lies, in self-knowledge.

But I just said maybe.


One of the courses I'm doing very well in is Astrobiology. The bare truth of that is that I only took it in the first place to prove a point to Tom. Tom is quite obviously more intelligent than me, and even with his social disorder he is more mature and worldly than I was at his age; he's going to be an incredible genius as he gets older. And he frustrates the hell out of me by refusing to take that brain to university. What would he study? ANYTHING. The only course he failed at school was Geography, and that was due to sheer boredom from the way it was taught (yes, I blame the syllabus/teacher, wholly, sorry, but I do). To replace that credit, as he had an IEP they let him do a different subject, and call it Geography. And he chose Physics, which he passed with a high mark. And every damn time I tell anyone that I get the same response, and I expect it. Yes, he took a more difficult course, and passed it easily, to replace an "easy" course. Tom is an enigma, but you get used to it.

So while he is living rent-free writing multiple novels he doesn't finish (who does that remind you of?) and working as my housekeeper, I insist he takes some of these courses. He refused point blank to take Astrobiology, which I at first suggested, then encouraged, and finally nagged him about. He maintained it would be too difficult. That's my eyes rolling across the desk, catch them for me please.

Right then. I'll bloody well take it myself, we'll see what's difficult about it.

I'm going to pass easily. According to the general consensus on the forums it is incredibly difficult. One of the most difficult courses they offer. I am not seeing that. But from my experience with the advanced math in the Genetics course, which makes my brain physically hurt, I get the idea. Some things are difficult for some people. Intelligence isn't as fully general as we pretend.

Tom had a complete meltdown last week trying to use text messaging. He was trying to get his brother to talk him through some maintenance on his Linux system. You might say "that's back-to-front". He can, with a bit of instruction, work Linux, but can't send a text message. Yep. In much the same way, he understands many complex concepts, but has been known, when sent to plug in the tractor heater, to only plug it in one end. Brains are funny things.

Mine starts to melt when faced with a mathematical formula, but I somehow absorb and understand the conceptual similarity between two methods of identifying exoplanets, after a short lecture.

This was all a tangent, but not a bad one. What I was coming to was how the professor, such an incredible mind, displays both modesty and honesty, when he keeps reminding us "but we could be wrong". That in  fact, the basis of all his research could be undermined by an assumption that doesn't hold true. Perhaps life, somewhere, CAN exist outside the parameters we define as habitable. Essentially he is saying, it is OK not to be certain.

I am never certain. I get close to it, in all sorts of ways, but I grok that we cannot ever really be quite sure. And I'm OK with that.

And I think..................that's where my self-esteem lies.


  1. It points out some of the basic assumptions of science which become a but more obvious when talking about those things that are really far away. One of which is that the physical processes work just the same throughout the rest of the Universe as we can observe here on earth. We are beginning to realize that this assumption can be violated in some circumstance out there. Which is all just the long way around to say that we could be wrong.

    1. We talk from our perspective because that's what we know.

      I am always saying "but what if it's DIFFERENT" elsewhere, and clever people say "Oh Melanie, the laws of physics are universal". And I say "But what if they're not". And the clever people smile and pat me on the head. But my professor says "we may be wrong" and I feel better:)

    2. The clever people are wrong. Physics is theory based on what we know thus far and so, "laws of physics" is an incorrect phrase. The "theories that seemed to be proven" is more on the mark. (Something a physicist told me.)

    3. It has given me me more courage to admit that I reject the Big Bang Theory.

  2. Here's where we differ slightly about the cosmetics. My aim is to go for the more 'natural' look, which is why I eschew the hair dye these days. Not to mention that it is one less box of colored chemicals invading the waterways (which are getting more polluted from fracking as we speak). So from looking natural for my age to Mother Nature, I would have to say that is where I attribute my middle stance.

    Toward the end you speak of the instructor who challenges you to rethink using the words, "We may be wrong." What popped into mind right after reading that part was the old song by Billy Joel, "You May Be Right." ;) ~ Blessings! :)

  3. Kathy, it's a funny thing. I'm not quite 51, and if not for dye, I'd be almost white. I am not ready to look like Mrs Claus. When I let it grow out a bit and then dye it, I get told it takes ten years off, but it's not true. What it means I look healthier. It's fake colour, but I AM healthy and prefer to make that obvious. If it was a lovely silver, I might like it, but it doesn't suit me. So, the way I see it is that that's my ONE nod to vanity. Everybody has something. Considering my footprint is greener than most, I allow myself this. I reserve the right to change that position, but probably won't. I'll just take advantage of the white "base" to use vibrant neon colours.

  4. I don't know - make-up? I can take it or leave it. I prefer to leave it, makes my face feel disgusting. Hair dye? I'm in the process of changing the colour. I'm tired of the maintenance involved with my usual colour. The formula stinks, it burns and itches - it is akin to voluntary torture. I won't stop dying my hair. I like the colour I've chosen. It is my nod to feminine vanity.

    1. If they can provide a fast natural dye (fast as in stays on my hair, not speedy) instead of chemicals, they have my custom. But the last time I used a natural dye I had to buy new pillowcases.

  5. As for the original question? The answer changes with the years, doesn't it? What defined me ten years ago, does not define me, now and so this impacts the concept of self-esteem. I am what I am and that will probably change with time.

    1. It certainly does change with the years. Which reminds me, I have something for you in today's blog. Gimme an hour or so.