Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Looking and Being Good (And Lent, Surprisingly!)

L-R: Little Bro, Nana, Me, and Weekend Bro
 at a very fine local establishment
There was a line that got thrown around quite often in the fourth season of The West Wing that was a pretty fun little maxim I'd never heard before, but I've been hearing much more often since. "It's high time we spent a little less time looking good and a little more time being good."

It's a good maxim, or, at least, as good as one any is. It speaks to that whole hypocrisy thing we're all obsessed with. We revile the thing that says or appears one way, and then acts another. It also speaks to something of a truism about the human animal: we all like to look, act, and sound a little better than we really are - sometimes even to the point of deluding ourselves. You've heard the spiel, I'm sure. You have one in your head right now; we all do. It sounds something like:

I'm a fantastic academic and a good, hard worker. I keep my house clean. I'm not a trouble maker. I have a very well-adjusted attitude. I never, ever waste time.
None of these things are true, necessarily, and a lot of us spend a lot at these things we think we look like, but know we can't look up to, and it's a stressor. I have a reputation for high academic standing, which people infer from the clear blue sky, as near as I can tell, because my grades have always been more-or-less par. I have good days, and bad, and when I'm studying hard and applying myself, I certainly break the curve... not that anything's marked on a curve, these days. There's a lot of pressure to look professional, and sometimes, you just buy your own con.

There's a principle in organizational behaviour/educational theory that people do things for the sake of the reward. It's a pretty base way of looking at things, but it's accurate enough. I study physics, astronomy, and chemistry on the side because I feel accomplished for it. I study ethics and religion because I hope it will make me a better person, and answer some of those nagging questions. I work because I hope to get paid. I study because I hope to get paid more. And so on.

There's a part of you that wants the challenge to be its own reward. A part of you that says "I shall do this thing, because it will feel good to do it", and that part of you is often right. Cleaning the house is like that for me. When it's good and clean, I like it that way. I'm more relaxed. I can focus more on other things that matter, like eating right and getting work done. But most things aren't like that. Most things aren't even worth the reward that seems to go with it. Sometimes, you gotta get yourself a treat to prove you could do something. Others, you just can't be bothered.

I think there's an extent toward which Lent is driven by the same principle. We give things up to get the reward, and a lot of the time, people use Lent as a second shot at their New Year's Resolution. "I'll quit smoking" sounds a lot like "I won't smoke during lent".

Me, I don't normally observe lent. I didn't last year, and I don't think I will this year, though I've been thinking about it. I'm a bad catholic, occasional fits of ultra-orthodox thought notwithstanding. The concept of giving up chocolate and meat for a little over a month as a general penance seems two-faced, when I don't spend most of the rest of the year feeling penitential. Last year, I tried to observe, for a while. Gave up things I already wasn't supposed to be doing.

But, while it was working... I felt better. And that's the lesson. Sometimes, the task really is its own reward. You just have to pick the ones that count. One year, I jokingly gave up beef for lent (until recently, I hardly ever ate red meat). I might try to focus on the positive-action "sacrifices" this year. The things you do, rather than the things you don't. Sure, some bad habits are worth kicking. Sometimes, though, it's better to pick up a new one. Who cares if I still have days when I can't focus, if my house is tidy, the boss is happy, and the grades are good? Just me, really.

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