Tag: self-improvement (page 1 of 2)

Best Self

From the moment we are born, there will be people around us who will try to tell us what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and by what metrics we should be measuring our success. The influences of our families, societies, popular media, and a host of other sources try to inform us of what is “best”: best behavior, best performance, best goals, best cars, best social media platform, so on and so forth. With so much clamor from so many directions, the messages and influences that encourage us to validate ourselves, rather than seek validation from others, can easily get drowned out. It is one of the most subtly dangerous threats to our psyches that exist, and I cannot overstate how important it is to find our sovereignty within ourselves first and foremost.

There’s no universal set of rules or criteria that can be followed to achieve this. Our pasts, and our present, create a set of circumstances unique to every one of us. Regardless of where you’ve come from, where you are, or what you have or have not achieved so far, there is something that I can say I honestly believe is true for you as much as it is for me: you are worth believing in, and you can find that belief within yourself. I’ve dismissed that idea out of hand in the past, be it with a sincere if half-hearted “thank you” to whatever person was saying it, or acting in a sarcastic manner in reaction. Because of how I looked at myself, I neither saw nor internalized the truth of that statement. It was a denial of my best self. That is one of the biggest things that has changed about me, and that I’m dedicated to not losing sight of ever again.

Our best self comes out when we look within ourselves for our sense of validation. It isn’t easy. Those external sources, those structures of control, can be difficult to eject. Some of the influences, especially from parental figures and role models, dig themselves deeply into our psyches. And sometimes, they are directly detrimental to our self-actualization. Even when we can recognize them as toxic, if they have been a part of our lives for an extended period of time, the idea of being apart from them can be daunting. That challenge of making new choices I mentioned previously? This is where it’s at its most prominent, and where forging those new neural pathways can be its most rewarding and empowering.

As much as a lot of popular media is aimed at making one reach for an external sense of validation, be it financial success or reliance upon a relationship or some fleeting moment of fame or recognition, I’d like to cite three examples of stories in our popular culture that exemplify the challenges and empowerment of seeking and seizing validation from within oneself.

“I don’t have anything to prove to you.”

One of the best scenes in Captain Marvel is Carol’s last confrontation with the Kree Supreme Intelligence. For years, the Kree had been influencing Carol’s psyche with both direct and indirect manipulation; there was a device on her neck representing the direct control of the Supreme Intelligence, and her peers sought indirect control through exemplifying the Kree way of life. Even then, however, Carol didn’t quite fit in, wanting to be her own person. Returning to Earth showed Carol who she had been before the events that put her under Kree control. I love the scene where Carol’s best friend from her past, Maria, tells Carol who she is, or at least who Maria always saw her to be: “smart, and funny, and a huge pain in the ass… the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.” Maria could see the person that Carol was, and wanted to help her see who she could be — to help Carol grow into her true self.

Carol resolved to forge her own identity, using both who she had been on Earth and what she’d learned from the Kree to become a new, better, stronger version of herself. She doesn’t want to go back to who she was before — she knows that’s impossible. And her identity as a Kree warrior, not to mention the entire Kree way of life, has shown itself to be a lie. She rejects the influence of the Supreme Intelligence; she physically removes the device (something else she’d been lied to about), and says:

“I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?”

What happens next is a direct manifestation of Carol Danvers as her best self. As Captain Marvel. And it came from within herself, from her own inner sense of validation.

“I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.”

Aragorn, especially in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, is a man who is fearful of his legacy, the influences of his past. He knows that those who came before him failed, succumbed to their weaknesses and temptations, and he is afraid of doing the same, of not being equal to the task ahead of him. Because of the actions of others, he is inclined to invalidate himself. Even when actively encouraged by others, be they Gandalf or Arwen or Elrond, he secludes himself, more concerned with the possibility of failure than of success.

When he puts that fear aside, and makes the decision to use what has been given to him to its fullest potential, we see a change. He’s been able to lead in the past, when tracking Merry and Pippin or at Helm’s Deep. But when he rides out of Minis Tirith with an army behind him and has to inspire them to stand with him to give the world a chance at peace and freedom, it’s through his own inner sense of validation that he validates others. He knows he might fail, that it might all end in darkness and death. His belief that he can be better, that he chooses to be better, makes all the difference. It allows him to face his fear and, in turn, help those with him to overcome theirs. And that is why they prevail.

“… this spark in you; it’s amazing! Whatever you choose to do with it, you’re gonna be great.”

Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse has to find it within himself to “put on the mask”, to be Spider-Man. He’s in a situation where he knows his powers give him responsibility, and he aspires to be like the Spider-Man of his world — Peter Parker, now deceased. (Whups, spoilers.) The Peter Parker from another dimension, who’s come to care for Miles, tells the young man that he’s not ready, that he doesn’t quite have what it takes to tackle the major threat. This is a sentiment backed up by Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Peter Porker. They all care about him and want him to be safe; they feel his inexperience makes the situation too dangerous. His father, coming to his door, tells him that he’s worth believing in. In the end, it’s Miles himself that helps him realize that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the kind of person, the kind of hero, he wants to be.

Into the Spider-Verse immediately became my favorite Spider-Man film, and favorite Spider-Man story period, because of Miles Morales. I mean, yes, the art style is mind-blowing and the attention to detail is staggering; I adore the worn-out alternate universe Peter Parker, the incredibly confident and empowered Spider-Gwen, the uniqueness of Peni, the wonderful delight of Nicholas Cage just doing the most, and my inner 8-year-old can’t stop giggling at the Spectacular Spider-Ham. But it’s the story of Miles, and how he grows and changes, that is sticking with me. From his father to his uncle, not to mention not one but two Peter Parkers, there are a lot of external influences that could push or pull Miles in one way or another. The focal point of the story, however, is how Miles makes his choices in terms of who it is he wants to be. The most important thing to Miles is not living up to anyone else’s expectations; it’s not earning validation from peers; it’s not seeking attention or affirmation through external shows. The most important thing to Miles is being Miles, the best Miles he can be — for him, that’s to put on the mask and take a leap of faith.

Much like redemption, validation is at its most powerful when it comes from within oneself. The people who truly love us want nothing more than to see us succeed, for our own sake and on our own terms. They want to believe in us. Here’s the thing: if we can’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect others to believe in us? If we don’t respect ourselves, why would anyone else respect us? It begins within ourselves. It’s not something that’s touched on often in the media that permeates our society. There are tons of businesses who will be more than happy to sell you something in the name of fulfilling a need within yourself. It’s an easier solution to reach for. To try and find these things on your own, to eschew the expectations of the world, is considered an abnormality. There’s something about it that can, and often does, feel dangerous.

With everything that’s happened, and everything I’m learning, I’ve come to believe that choosing and working become one’s best self is a difficult thing, sometimes even a frightening thing. Your success and failure is entirely on you. If you’re detached from reliance upon and validation from others, you run the risk of either buying too much of your own hype or focusing overmuch on minor setbacks as evidence that you can’t make your own way. Again, this will vary from person to person, but that seems to me to be the nature of the challenge, the flavor of the danger. And it’s understandable to be afraid. But just like deciding to seek your best self, you can also decide how you handle that fear. I used to let it make the decisions for me; now, I can acknowledge it exists, see it for what it is, and then find it within myself to make my decisions on my own terms.

In other words: being one’s best self is often a matter of stepping out under one’s own power, seeing the challenges ahead, choosing to show the fuck up anyway, and saying:

What’s up, danger?

500 Words on Entitlement

Here’s a simple question: what do you feel you are owed?

If you put in hours and hours of your time at a job, you are owed compensation for that time, right? That’s how jobs work. If your employer says they don’t owe you anything, you have rights. You can sue their asses. You earned that money. You put in the time, therefore you deserve the pay.

When people talk about entitlement, often it’s in reference to someone who quite obviously hasn’t done anything to deserve what they are after. Here’s a quick example from Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck:

Ever watch a kid cry his eyes out because his hat is the wrong shade of blue? Exactly. Fuck that kid.


https://markmanson.net/not-giving-a-fuck

There are a lot of people who, in one way or another, don’t grow up past that stage of their lives. The most obvious example is the male-bodied Internet denizen who’s acting pissed because a woman isn’t giving him the time of day, let alone nude selfies. “Look at this pathetic motherfucker,” you might say. “He’s so entitled it makes me sick.”

I’ve certainly said something along those lines in the past. I’ve also, in my own way, acted like an entitled asshole. I’ve acted like the world at large owes me something. I felt the world owed me special treatment because I was born bipolar, got bullied, lost a sister, and basically got emotionally and mentally more and more fucked up as time went on.

I was different. I was special. I felt like dogshit and I hated myself. I sought to destroy myself and sabotage everything good to prove that I deserved nothing good, especially the love of others, who in my mind should hate me too, for being such a disgusting entitled hairy nerdy weird-ass male. I was so wrapped up in hating my entitlement that I didn’t realize I felt entitled to special attention, in this case having women take turns to spit on my grave. And while I feel that, for the most part, I’ve managed to shake off a lot of that bullshit, there’s a part of me that wants to convince me that how I feel makes me somehow a special snowflake.

I feel frustrated. I feel lonely. I feel that I could have done more to not fuck up my life.

To which I say, to myself: “Guess what, dumbass, so does everyone else. And if everyone else feels that way, you are not special.

Here’s the thing: if I’m not special, if how I feel isn’t different than how anybody else feels, what am I owed? What have I got to prove?

Not a fucking thing, is the answer.

Accepting that is more important than I can say. Along with my expectations, my other flaws, and my mistakes, once I accept this sense of entitlement, I can let go of it, and that leaves room for me to love myself.

You owe me nothing.

I Want To Believe

Courtesy GAINAX

It’s a statement I’ve said many, many times, especially in the last year or so. I said it several times when I wrote this post back in January. Even in these last few months, I’ve changed, I’ve moved forward — even away from that very post! — and come more to terms with who I used to be and how I’m not the same. Those around me can see the change, and they’ve celebrated, even as the change has continued on a daily basis.

I want to believe other people can change, too.

People who love me, who have been there for me, and seen these changes, have said that not everybody can do what I’ve done. That there’s something special or singular about how I’ve seized myself, pulled myself apart, and discerned what about me was toxic and needed to be discarded — and, to be clear, there were indeed ugly parts of me that spread toxicity and had to be destroyed — and while I deeply appreciate that, the way I’ve moved forward has come down to belief in myself. And I believe, if I may talk circularly for a moment, that anyone can believe in themselves, and foster their better natures.

It has been hard for me, there’s no mistaking that. For years, I relied more on the opinions and support of others, even going so far as to turn down my own feelings to make room for those of others. Among other learned behaviors, I’ve had to face that one down, and shake it off to the best of my ability. This one in particular is weird and sort of sticky, and it still comes up now and again. But I’m still doing the work to get myself free of it, once and for all.

As hard as it’s been for me to find the ways and means within myself to believe in myself, I know that part of it, at least, has come from others believing in me, even when it hasn’t been convenient, or when others might have told them that I’m not worth it. And what was said was not entirely without cause.

I’ve shed so many useless and toxic and ugly parts of who I used to be. Even now, I look out for them and put them down whenever I can. Because the world deserves better than that. And, given the chance, I show who I have become, in contrast to who I was and the thing I was reported to be. I grab hold of my light and push it upwards as a beacon, throwing back darkness that I might myself have perpetuated at one point. I stare into that darkness, seek to banish it, to drive it away from myself and those I love.

I ask that toxic ghost, straight up, who the hell it thinks I am.

In the midst of the darkness I once threw over myself, some people still held on to the belief that I was worth it, and their belief in me. It protected and kindled that spark of light within me; it fostered in me this belief I now have in myself. It’s helped me get and be and do better. I might have arrived here completely on my own, and there’s a lot of work I had to do for and by myself, but knowing that someone, somewhere, believed in me, even in spite of my failures and ugliest moments — that made things easier, made my goals clearer, motivated me to work twice as hard.

That’s what I’d want people to do for me, even — or especially — when I’m at my worst.

And that’s what I want to do for the people I care about, even — especially — when they’re at their worst.

Maybe it’s a waste of my time. Maybe it won’t be worth it in the long run.

But it’s something about me that hasn’t changed.

And I don’t know if it will. Or if it should.

People out in the world chose to believe in me, because they wanted to believe I could be better.

And they were right.

I want to believe in others. In the world. In you.

And I really, really, want to be right.

So here I stand. Holding up this light. Hoping. Believing.

Because I want to believe.

I challenge you to believe, too. And if you can’t believe in yourself, believe in me.

Believe in the me that believes in you.

Doctor Strange Is My Hero

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’m going to take a break from pontificating on our current crisis and the implications of the resurrection of ultra-nationalism to talk about a comic book wizard. Because it’s a form of self-care and it’s something that tickles the cockles of my imagination.

I used to do reviews on a fairly regular basis, and while there’s definitely enough going on in Doctor Strange to warrant several paragraphs, I’d like to dwell more on why I feel like the character is one of the best transitions from page to screen Marvel has done yet. Let’s keep it simple: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel origin movie to date. It has compelling and complex characters, downplays the humorous elements to rely more on well-woven world building and truly stunning visuals, and even gives us a villain with more depth than a soup spoon. Not lots of depth, but its there. It’s well-cast, well-written, and Jack Kirby is smiling from the Great Beyond at the capture of his visions of the realms beyond our reality. The true strength of the piece, however, is Stephen Strange himself.

Way back in 2010 I pontificated on Strange in the comics, given the decision to have him lose the title of Sorcerer Supreme due to an act of hubris that, while motivated by the best of intentions, cost him dearly. In the film, we can see both that hubris and that humility and self-sacrifice, which I’ll get to. But what makes Strange stand out from the start is his baseline level of self-awareness. He knows how great he is, but he tempers that with taking opportunities to save lives as well as proving it. The opening scene’s bullet extraction is a fantastic, pitch-perfect moment of character-building without too much exposition or too many bells and whistles.

Okay, from here on, it’s spoiler territory. Fairly be ye warned.

When he loses the fine dexterity of his hands, Strange pushes himself to find a way to fix himself, improve himself. He isn’t motivated by an outside force, nor is he willing to settle for a more mundane profession, like teaching or dictating his theories to another person. While he is ambitious, arrogant, and even antagonistic at times, to the degree he alienates friends & colleagues and burns up his life savings, he is still seeking a return to his former glory, a position where he can regain his cushy lifestyle and keep saving lives. That, by itself, makes for a good story.

Then, when he arrives at Kamar-Taj, a very interesting thing happens. Once the Ancient One actually allows him to study, he throws himself into those studies. The haunted and hurt surgeon gives way to the astounding and curious student. A legitimate bookworm and very quick study, Stephen Strange gains a fundamental grasp on the essence of the Mystic Arts even as he struggles with the hand gestures that manifest even the most basic of spells. His focus on and struggles with his mangled hands do get in his way, but when he is studying, he gets out of his own way to a degree that is even more inspiring than his redemptive struggle itself.

Then, after the obligatory Marvel cinematic fight and chase scenes (which are still Inception-levels of creative and compelling, no seriously, they are that good), we come to his confrontation with Dormammu, ruler of the timeless Dark Dimension and overall sadistic bastard. What does Doctor Strange do? He doesn’t unleash any offensive spells, never throws a single punch. Instead, he uses his mind. Knowing that time is foreign to Dormammu, he locks himself and the godlike creature in a time loop, bewildering and frustrating his opponent rather than seeking to destroy or even cripple it. Haunted by the one murder he did commit (even if it was in self-defense), Strange pushes himself to redeem the act, refusing to do actual battle with Dormammu. He dies, over and over and over again, to fill Dormammu with such impotent rage that the entity has no recourse but to bargain with the sorcerer. His calm and somewhat whimsical admission that “pain is an old friend” perfectly encapsulates this strategy. And it works. At last, we have a Marvel movie that reaches its climax in a way that, while gruesome, ultimately resolves in a non-violent fashion.

And after all of that, Strange is not Sorcerer Supreme. He has no predefined destiny, no obligatory position as an exemplar or pinnacle-occupying hero. Instead of promoting his own genius or prowess, he humbly becomes the mere guardian of one of the Sanctum Sanctorum locations that protect our world, and offers his assistance to those who share his goals, even if they present a possible threat. He shows intelligence, discretion, charisma, and an ongoing desire to continue improving, continue changing, continue to do and get and be better than the man he was at the start of his journey.

This is why I hold him in higher regard than Captain America.

I may get some backlash for this. But while Captain America basically was born as a paragon of the virtues United States citizens aspire to exemplify and wish their country would represent, Stephen Strange is truly a self-made and ever-improving vanguard of actions matching intention and morals defining actions. Relying on his wits and intellect rather than physical violence or even his powers, he shows us that what it takes to be a hero isn’t what you are, but the choices you make, especially if you’ve made bad ones in the past. Steve Rogers has made mistakes, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. Tony Stark has improved himself, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. He is simply, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because of the Cloak of Levitation.

I’ll be watching Doctor Strange quite a few more times. I suspect it will join other works in my yearly practice of revisiting narrative moments that inspire me on a foundational level. There are echoes of who I was, and goals for who I want to be, in the cinematic portrayal of Stephen Strange. This deeply personal connection, along with its production values, memorable portrayals, and mind-bending effects, is why Doctor Strange is, if not the best, one of the finest Marvel movies they have or will produced.

Vlog #7: “The Road”

Vlog 7
Click the image!

What a lovely day to talk about the future. There are two roads that lead in that direction, and this week I talk about those roads and which one to take – and, more importantly, the paths we should NOT take.

If you like what I’m doing with these, please feel free to subscribe or support me on Patreon. Thanks in advance!

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