I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Self-esteem: social cure-all or recipe for narcissism?

This article from MEDIUM has given me so much to think about, I hardly know where to begin!

It certainly raised a lot of questions for me. At their core, are humans bestial and sinful or inherently decent? Does high self-esteem help us unlock our true potential or simply inflate our egos out of all proportion? Does increased self-regard make us better, kinder, more functional members of society, or praise-junkies at risk of lashing out when our view of our own greatness is challenged?

As a parent I find the issues raised by this article particularly important to reflect upon when thinking about the values and self-image I’d like to encourage in my children. But beyond the implications for parenting, I think this piece provides a thought-provoking perspective on some key American values and cultural elements. I had taken for granted that fostering high self-esteem was crucial for a child’s development and was inherently positive, but now I’m not quite so sure. Or at least I’m not so sure the common ways self-esteem is currently ‘taught’ are really that healthy for children. I think it is such a ubiquitous part of American culture nowadays (and perhaps other cultures as well) I never thought to question the idea. I just didn’t consider the possibility that the focus on self-esteem could be anything but positive.

Please leave a comment and share your opinions on the pros and cons of the obsession with self-esteem. I’d love to hear other thoughts on these ideas!

The man who destroyed America’s ego: How a rebel psychologist challenged one of the 20th century’s biggest – and most dangerous – ideas MEDIUM

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

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Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness

In a previous post, I shared a TED Talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of the Before They Pass Away project. This stunning photo collection documents 29 of the world’s last indigenous tribes. The photos themselves are amazingly beautiful and highly artistic, capturing iconic images of indigenous peoples and the landscapes where they live throughout the world.

These cultures are under threat from the encroaching modern world, and this ambitious project is one man’s attempt to not only document their existence, but to spark conversation about the diversity of human culture and the preservation of these last tribal cultures.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Image by Jimmy Nelson, beforethey.com.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Photo by Jimmy Nelson at http://www.beforethey.com

As I looked through the photos and read the captions about each tribe I found myself wondering what it is that interests us about these Others. What do we find so enticing about these images of distant and exotic foreigners? Is it simple curiosity? A desire to learn? Is it a craving for something new, a search for novelty?

It seems that interest in such exotic Others often leads us in one of two different directions.

In the first, we can be fascinated by difference because we see it as something strange, freakish, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. There is something dangerous about these Others, something taboo about the way they live. Perhaps by looking at their images and reading descriptions about their customs, religion or beliefs, we can vicariously experience an alternative to our own culture, albeit in a safe, controlled and distant way.

When we approach the Other in this way – as an oddity, as one who defies our sense of what is normal and acceptable – perhaps our response is one of self-affirmation. We see the strangeness of this Other, the backwardness of his (or her) ways, the perversions of his culture, his ignorance of proper morality, and it makes us feel more secure in the fortress of our own worldview and way of life. We can feel smug and self-satisfied because our way is superior, and we can thank our lucky stars that, at the end of the day, no matter our personal or cultural flaws, at least we don’t live like those Other people. Our ego and sense of self is re-affirmed and we can happily go on with our lives.

Alternately, we can approach the Other in a more positive way. We can admire the Other’s beauty, their interesting clothing and appearance. We can see valuable aspects of their spirituality; their simpler, less materialistic way of life; their close community ties; their deeper connection to nature. We may view the Other’s culture as more authentic, more innocent, less corrupted by the negative influences of modernity. We may see them through the lens of nostalgia, as remnants of the past, historical relics from the proverbial garden of Eden. By learning about these Others and their way of life, we express our longing to escape the complications and restraints of modern life, our desire to return to a state of childlike innocence and simplicity.

Unfortunately, neither of these views does the Other justice. Both are too narrow and simplistic. Any single culture is so complex that to truly understand it could take an outsider a lifetime of study, and would require living within the culture itself, among the people being studied. Even then, we would still see the Other through the filter of our own culture, our own biases and way of life.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to learn about those who are different from us. It just means we must be realistic in our expectations, realize the limitations of our own understanding and remain constantly vigilant against our tendency to oversimplify, to make hasty judgements, to create false comparisons. The path toward truly understanding the Other is fraught with intellectual, moral and philosophical pitfalls, and we must be careful how we tread.

So, if we cannot hope to get a very accurate understanding of these distant Others from photos and books – from our gazing at a distance – what is it we hope to gain from the experience of looking and reading? What is our goal?

Perhaps it is an opportunity to be shocked out of our complacency. By seeing images so starkly different, we are shaken out of our usual dullness. We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention. It is hard for us to look away. We begin to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Things are turned upside-down. The ground feels different beneath our feet and the air tastes different when we imagine the roads that the Other walks on and the bright empty sky that hangs above the his head.

And then…

We begin to ask questions.

First, if we are brave, we may ask what makes this Other tick. How does he feel? What does he truly believe? What does he love? What does he fear? What are his desires? How does he interpret the world and his place in it? How does he create meaning in the experiences of this life?

While we can ponder these questions, we cannot really answer those questions about or for the Other. That is something only he can do.

And so, if we are even braver, we then begin to ask those questions of ourselves. We realise that we too are an Other in someone else’s eyes. Our culture, way of life, beliefs – none of these are to be taken for granted. There are countless ways to be human, and our way is just one of many. 

Perhaps that is why we feel such an irresistible pull towards the Other, why we seek these encounters with those who are distant and different. They offer us something immensely valuable – a mirror in which we can more clearly see our true selves.

*  *  *

To learn more about the Before They Pass Away project and to view the amazing photos of indigenous societies around the world, click here.

To visit the Before They Pass Away Facebook page, click here.

To read the first part of my ongoing series on Meeting the Other, click here.

To watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED Talk, click here.


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Meeting the Other…

‘Each of [the] people, whom we meet along the road and across the world, is in a way twofold; each one consists of two beings whom it is often difficult to separate, a fact that we do not always recognise. One of these beings is a person like the rest of us: he has his joys and sorrows, his good and bad days; he is glad of his successes, does not like to be hungry and does not like it when he is cold; he feels pain as suffering and misery, and good fortune as satisfying and fulfilling.

‘The other being, who overlaps and is interwoven with the first, is a person as bearer of racial features, and as bearer of culture, beliefs and convictions. Neither of these beings appears in a pure isolated state – they co-exist, having a reciprocal effect on each other.

‘However, the problem … is that this relationship existing within each of us, between the person as individual and personality and the person as bearer of culture and race, is not immobile, rigid or static, not fixed inside him for good. On the contrary, its typical features are dynamism, mobility, variability and differences in intensity, depending on the external context, the demands of the current moment, the expectations of the environment, and even one’s own mood and stage of life.

‘ As a result, we never know whom we are going to meet, even though by name and appearance it may be someone who is already familiar to us. And what about when we come into contact with a person we are seeing for the first time? So every encounter with the Other is an enigma, an unknown quantity – I would even say a mystery.’

~Ryszard Kapuściński, Polish reporter, journalist, traveller, photographer, poet and writer (1932-2007)

Lately, I have been doing a great deal of reflecting on Otherness, diversity, difference, and culture. When we discuss The Other, who or what is it that we are really talking about? And who is the Self we are comparing to the outside Other? Each of us meets Otherness in our everyday lives, even if we don’t travel to distant locations and exotic countries. Sometimes the Other is disguised as someone we think we know, our neighbour, someone we think is the same as us, but who ends up surprising us. Each encounter in our lives, even those that seem mundane and ordinary, can be an eye-opening meeting with mystery and newness.

I feel like this theme of Otherness has been appearing in so many things I’ve read and in so many of my personal experiences in recent times. I think it is both a fascinating and important topic to explore and try to understand, as we live in such an inter-connected global society, and are constantly interacting with people of such diverse beliefs and background, either face-to-face or through various forms of media. If we want to live in a peaceful world, we can’t ignore the topic of Otherness.

It’s obviously a big topic – far too big for one post! I look forward to exploring the topics of the Other, Otherness, diversity and culture in upcoming posts throughout the next weeks and months and I hope you’ll join me on the journey!

We never know where the journey will take us or who we'll meet along the way.

We never know where the journey will take us or who we’ll meet along the way.


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Is science truly objective?

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Intentio Lectoris.

The author discusses some of the practical limitations of scientific inquiry that effect objectivity (finances, countless variables in the natural world that complicate things, outdated methods or equipment, etc.), but perhaps more importantly, the ways in which value judgements do come into the interpretation of data. This isn’t to say that if science isn’t perfectly objective, the whole thing is a big conspiracy and we should all forget about this whole science thing. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that stance!

Instead, it seems to me (as a non-scientist) that it is a call for scientists, and those interested in science, to be aware that scientists, like everyone else, are products of culture, particular organizations and institutions, their particular time and place in history, etc.,  and as such, carry cultural baggage, make assumptions, take certain things about the world for granted, and make value judgements based on their own prejudices.

Of course, the idea that true objectivity doesn’t (and perhaps, shouldn’t) exist isn’t only relevant for scientists. This little blog here is my personal attempt at challenging my own assumptions about the world. I try to seek out new information that gives me a more ‘objective’ view of reality, but at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that I can ever actually be completely free of biases and certain cultural values, no matter how hard I try. I also wouldn’t really want to give up all of my cultural values because they do serve a useful purpose in life. Humans live with other humans, and as a way to communicate and create social bonds and cohesion, it is necessary to have some common ground with others, a sort of default setting of background information so we don’t have to be explaining ourselves to death all the time!

What do we really mean when we talk about objectivity anyway? What does it mean to be ‘objective’ and why does modern Western culture value this trait so highly? In what situations might it be undesirable to try for objectivity? How can we strike a balance between objectivity and the inescapable reality of personal and cultural biases and assumptions? 

For more on this topic, there is also a follow-up post here discussing why, in fact, it isn’t desirable for science to be completely objective, which is also worth reading.


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‘When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.’

~ Bertrand Russell