Friday, October 30, 2009


'You should eat healthier foods'. 'You should recycle'. 'You should forgive your friend for her transgressions'. Have you encountered what I call 'you-should' people? Are you one yourself? In other words, the kind of person who offers unsolicited advice, regardless of the other person's values or interests. What are they after and why are they so insistent on what they think you should do? Because I reach my conclusions by induction - observing first and evaluating second - I don't assume anything about the people who engage in 'you should' behaviour. In some situations, the advice can be perfectly benign, such as when someone loves a particular movie and declares: 'You SHOULD see The Lives of Others! It is the best movie I've seen in years!' The goal in this piece, however, is to examine the nature of those who offer unsolicited advice, not calls to share a value.

Earlier this year, an old friend of mine came to Sydney to visit me. We hadn't seen each other in nearly a year and so it was a great opportunity to catch up and show him around my beloved new home city. Over breakfast on his last day in Sydney, he did the one thing I dislike most in other people. He intoned that I should recycle, offering apparently valid reasons for doing so, including the oft heard 'saving the planet' we get in the media every day. I replied that there may be good reasons not to recycle, which he rejected out of hand. I wasn't going to argue with him about the merits of recycling - and that is not the point of this article - but I did say that it was my choice to make if I deemed it worthy of my time.

I think this example highlights the issue quite nicely: moral superiority. The you-should person assumes his advice is appropriate, regardless of the situation. Uh oh! There's that word 'assume' again. It's a sneaky devil, despite the age old view that one ought never assume. We all know the rest of the expression. This problem extends much further than assumption, though. The you-should person is not assuming anything. He knows his views are correct, and therefore his advice is not advice at all. It is self-evident truth.

Here's another more recent example: another friend of mine ended a long time friendship with someone he'd known since high school. He described to me his reasons and I was aghast at the transgressions of the other friend. I told him he was right to end the friendship, under the circumstances. Along comes another friend who says to my friend: 'You should forgive Mary!' (not the real name). What has the you-should person done here? Aside from the matter being up to my friend to decide, the you-should-er has failed to grasp the context.

Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. People who offer unsolicited advice are dropping the context. They are so wrapped up in their meddlesome ways that they don't see others may disagree with them. Did you-should ask my friend why he broke with Mary? Did my old friend ask me if I thought recycling was worthwhile and why? In 1972, when Richard Nixon was elected to a second term of the Presidency in America, Pauline Kael, a famous movie critic for the The New Yorker, was incredulous because no-one she knew voted for him. That alone speaks volumes about Ms Kael - and about all the you-should people out there.

What's the answer to this annoying problem? In keeping with my blog theme, I can easily say that it is far better to remain positive whenever possible. Also, the context of the advice giving is vital. Is the you-should-er engaging in moral ultimatums? Or is the advice gentler, even if unwelcome? In the former case, I simply tell the you-should-er that I prefer to make my own decisions. If he insists, then I tell him the conversation is over. I don't raise my voice - ever. If the advice is something I might do anyway, then I'll gently tell the other person I appreciate the concern, but I will consider the matter on my own.

What if you are a you-should-er? If so, my gentle suggestion is that you examine why you engage in that behaviour. Perhaps you do have good advice to offer. Fair enough, but the manner in which you advise others is worthy of a make-over. If I were my friend, I would have suggested reading materials or evidence that recycling is a worthy activity. If I were indignant about someone I know dropping a friend, I would ask what Mary did to deserve it. In other words, I would engage the other person or, where necessary, just leave him alone.

Recalling my first post: your life is your own. So is your mind. When others intrude, it's annoying, but your reaction to unwanted advice speaks volumes about you, too. We would all do well to consider the context and act accordingly.

But really, you should see The Lives of Others. It is that good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Up and Away

When one loses a top value, how does one cope with that loss? How does one close a chapter in that book and embrace future possibilities? The easy thing to do is hunker down and wallow in the sadness of losing a loved one or the end of a romantic relationship. This is a serious issue in one's life - and one should accord it the appropriate amount of reflection.

I am, of course, no expert on overcoming serious losses. I do not come to the table with ready made solutions or pat answers. I do know from personal experience in the past couple years that that sadness frequently feels like dying inside. Some days it is so all consuming that finding a way out feels impossible. And yet, as an advocate of achieving one's goals and persevering in the face of any and all adversity, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't offer my own reflections on the matter.

In the touching recent Pixar animated film 'Up,' we are presented with an unlikely hero: an elderly gentleman who has lost his beloved wife of several decades. As kids, Carl and Ellie became fast friends because they both shared a passion for a life of grand adventure. This shared value eventually blossomed into a deep and enduring love that spanned many years. As a happily married couple, they planned to make their dreams of travel to the fictitious 'Paradise Falls' a reality by saving their change. Alas, daily life intruded on their plans: a flat tyre, a tree falling on their house, among other minor mishaps that cost them their savings. In the final minutes of the initial sequence of the movie, Carl's cherished Ellie dies, leaving him alone for the first time in a long long time.

Because 'Up,' is an animated film, one can expect whimsy and cheerful action, not a lament of love's loss. We get it in spades. Instead of being carted off to a nursing home, elderly Carl takes to the skies - literally. His sole career in life had been that of a balloon salesman, so he affixes balloons to his house and sets off on an adventure to find Paradise Falls, with a small neighbourhood boy in tow. The house represented for Carl his dear departed Ellie.

Without revealing the entire story, one realises at the end of the movie, after Carl has lived his final great adventure that he didn't need the house at all. His wife Ellie wanted him to go on without her and Carl finally finds her note telling him to do so.

Ordinarily, I do not seek wisdom from animated movies, but in its own gentle way, 'Up' reminds the viewer that to move forward in life, one must discard old baggage. Reflecting upon the past two-and-a-half years of my life, I take this message to heart. In the middle of 2007, two things made life for me difficult to the point of wondering how I would go on. A relationship of several years ended and my career was coasting. The passion I once held for life and its myriad adventures flickered out. It was an emotionally crippling time for me.

In true Jason fashion, though, I soon began to devise ways in which I could re-emerge from my doldrums. During a training session for work, a gentleman from New Zealand who was also attending suggested that I would be a shoo-in for a position in Australia. Whilst his idea was for me to become an independent consultant, the germ of this idea eventually morphed into a full blown sales position within my company. By late June of 2008, I had moved to Sydney and started my new job and life in my favourite place on the planet. In the time since I arrived in Australia, I've become accustomed to my new home country and have slowly made friends and built a new life for myself.

Do I sometimes feel the occasional pang of sadness over my previous loss? Of course I do. I have not yet fulfilled the goal of finding a new soul mate, and so the large amount of time I spend on my own can sometimes turn to thoughts of what I once had. Despite this fact, I have friends and loved ones who fill the void of my single life and for that I am eternally grateful. I even made a new friend during a recent trip who has become a real confidante to me, and that is something a valuing person like me is delighted to have found.

In the end, though, when I think about all the adventures I've experienced and all the risks I've taken that have paid off, an elderly gentleman named Carl reminds me to keep looking Up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


To those who read my posts, and to those who comment: I appreciate the interest. For the most part, I will not comment on my own posts. Nor will I reply to others' comments. Because I prefer to focus my energy on the quality of the writing itself, I would find the activity of commenting too distracting for me.

For the record, I may sometimes use comments from others in subsequent posts, if I find that they illustrate a point I'm making. In those cases, I will attribute the quote to the person who made it. Predominantly, however, my posts will consist entirely of my own words. Because a blog is a different medium from others, I will keep my regular posts to between 500 and 1,000 words. If I find that I'm running long, I'll edit the piece down to its essentials before publishing it. I will rarely, if ever, use photos in my posts.

A few words about the topics I will cover. Under very rare circumstances will I write overtly about politics or current events. There are a great many blogs out there that do this already, and I personally am more interested in the realm of personal values. That said, when one holds a particular world view - as I do - you can expect some political notions to crop into my pieces. As a man who values independence above all else, you can expect that I will not be praising modern politicians who pander to the very lowest common denominator among men. This applies as much in my adopted land of Australia as it does to my country of birth.

Thank you all for the good comments and support so far! In the near future, look for my views on the life of a new immigrant, on why I am an unabashed Francophile and on how one becomes classy - among many many other topics.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sex on the Brain

Sex. There, I've said it. A little word everyone thinks about occasionally or constantly. We all have an opinion about it. The major world religions have deemed sex only appropriate for procreation, but it is otherwise a base desire that one ought to avoid. Hedonists proclaim that as the most intense form of physical gratification, men and women should enjoy sex wantonly. It's a 'natural urge,' after all. What about the third view - rarely expressed but nevertheless worthy of examination? I am referring here to sex as a rational pursuit.

Before we can delve into that other view, let's look at human values in general. By values, I mean those things that enhance our lives or further our experience of being human. A man who loves his career and excels in his chosen field has spent many years thinking about the type of productive work that invigorates him. A close friend of mine is a professional opera singer. When I hear her sing live, her passion for the art shines through unmistakably. I have had many conversations with her over the years about her chosen work. It's a tough life. Opera is a hard sell in America, and she must constantly struggle to get good gigs. And yet, my friend cannot think of another career that would fulfil her the way singing opera does.

Everything man does to advance his life requires thinking. So why is it so many people view sex as merely physical gratification? I sometimes ask people to tell me with whom they have had their best sexual experiences. Of course, I don't ask for the prurient details - that is an entirely private matter. Surprising to some of the people I ask is that they can recall exactly their best sex. More often than not it was with someone with whom they shared an intense emotional connection.

How fascinating, then, that when asked to reflect on the matter, people begin to realise there is more to sex than 'getting off.' Without my prompting, some give details about the person in question, and not just the physical attributes of that man or woman. Some recall the infectious laughter, others the intensity of the dinner conversation, still others the way the person carried himself with confidence.

If sex were purely a physical act, why would we spend so much time seeking out the partner we find most attractive to us? I have been on first dates, for example, where I found the other person enormously attractive, but uninteresting to me. Couldn't I just blot out my mind and jump into the sack? In a word, no. In keeping with the theme of this blog, I would be betraying my own values if I sought out mindless pleasures. If living well means living the examined life, then could I not be accused of sullying the very thing I espouse every day? Absolutely!

What about all those men and women who do engage in promiscuous sex? Are they happy people? To borrow from the Greek, do they experience eudaimonia - that highest state of human fulfilment for which there is no good English word? My answer to that question: ask them!

When I think of my ideal partner, I list personality traits that I find attractive first, followed by the physical types that get my blood pumping. What about you? Do you use sex as an escape from your mind or as the greatest reward for a life of rational pursuit? I welcome your comments.

Monday, October 19, 2009

His and Hers

He likes CSI. She likes BBC costume dramas. He watches her TV shows with her because he loves her and values her mind. Even though her shows don't energise and engage him the way CSI does, over time he has grown to enjoy the subtlety and erudition of the British programmes. She, on the other hand, cannot stand CSI. She finds it slick and empty. She cannot fathom why anyone in his right mind would enjoy such a thing! It's dark and violent and showcases an underbelly of American society she doesn't care to contemplate.

When he explains to her that the dark and seamy elements of the show are mere backdrop to the profound rationality of the crime solving, she is unmoved. When the CSI crew pieces together the clues that lead to the successful incarceration of a criminal, he feels a profound joy in man's ability to use his mind successfully. He gets such a lift from the weekly drama that his work and mood improve dramatically afterward. His co-workers sometimes roll their eyes over his 'obsession,' but nonetheless find it charming he gets such a charge from the show. Meanwhile, his partner just rolls her eyes in contempt.

This scenario, while fictitious, underscores a common problem in romantic relationships: differing values. Is she wrong to condemn his enjoyment of CSI? Should he even bother to watch the British dramas, knowing they don't move him the way they do her? What is the solution to this seeming conundrum? One thing is for sure: neither party should ever relinquish cherished values for the sake of the other partner. To do so would be to introduce an element of resentment between the two. In giving up CSI, he would begin to entertain thoughts such as: 'Who is she to tell me what I can and can't like?! After all, I have made every effort to enjoy her shows. The least she could do is give mine a chance.'

I side with the man in this story. I support his attempt to be a loving partner and try something she values so much. He may not get the same enjoyment she does, but he values her so much - and her reasons for liking the costume dramas - that it is worth the effort for him to share those programmes with her.

The woman, on the other hand, has failed to ask key questions about her partner's values. In being dismissive instead of inquisitive, she has committed the error of assuming no one should like a show like CSI. By declaring that no one 'in his right mind' would like such a thing, she is insulting her partner's values, and more deeply, his value judgements. She may not intend to insult him. They are, after all, a loving couple committed in every other way.

The issue at state is one's chosen values. I find that a relative handful of people today can articulate what their values are and why. The typical response I hear is: 'I just like this song.' When pressed to elaborate, the same person often turns huffy or indignant. In my forty odd years of living, I have made it my personal policy to examine everything I value. I can name reasons for liking Dolly Parton and Dostoevsky. I can wax eloquently about the superior quality of coffee served in Australia. I can stand in awe in front of the Sydney Opera House and know exactly why it moves me, even after seeing it practically every day since moving to the city.

To me, this is a key ingredient to living well. It isn't enough to slog about our daily lives without taking the time to appreciate the things that make up our world, both natural and man made. In short, the key to fine living is living the examined life. When I encounter people who have differing values, but who are essentially rational, I get excited to find out why they appreciate Rembrandt, even though his paintings don't move me personally. When someone announces that Pretty Woman is a top favourite movie, I want to find out what they love so much about it.

Returning to our fictitious couple, we can see that he wants to know why she likes the costume dramas. He wants to examine his partner's values. Conversely, she has shut herself down to examining his values just because they are not her own. No, she is not morally obligated to like everything her partner does. In a romantic relationship, however, love grows more when both parties value each other enough to examine what makes one love CSI, while the other is moved by Pride and Prejudice.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Marilyn & Julia

Marilyn Ehlers and Julia Child. The first name is unknown to the world. The second needs no description. They are two women who existed in this glorious world of ours and are no longer. Marilyn was a wife, mother, friend and utterly lovely lady. I knew her in the last years of her life, during the time that her youngest son and I became close, had an intense relationship of nearly four years and parted company as friendly soul mates.

Julia Child was of course the world renowned wife of a diplomat who needed something 'to do' whilst living in Paris with her husband during the mid 20th century. As chronicled in the new film Julie & Julia, Mrs Child serves as an inspiration for fine living and never giving up, whatever obstacles may be thrown in our path.

Marilyn, on the other hand, did not achieve great things - she neither lived the life of a diplomat's wife in far flung locales nor contributed to the popularity of good cooking. But I knew Marilyn, and I always enjoyed her company intensely. Here is a woman who battled cancer for nearly two decades and never complained - not to me, not in public, not in private. Lesser souls succumb to sadness or even depression. Marilyn never succumbed. She lived her life as if it would continue forever, happily married to her husband Don of more than four decades. Marilyn always sported a winsome smile and had this laugh I can still hear in my head. She embraced me wholeheartedly when I came into the family, and I can proudly say I was able to say goodbye on her last day on planet earth.

The intense sadness of losing someone as special as Marilyn cannot be explained away or underestimated. She left this world on 21st September 2009 at the age of 71 years young. She went out as I remembered her in life: gracefully and peacefully.

This blog is not about loss, however. It is about valuing life. It is about charging forth in this world with the knowledge that one's most personally held values matter. Those things we pursue to attain happiness are what keep us going even in the saddest or most trying of times. Politicians and intellectuals of our current era ceaselessly remind us that we ought to live for others, be they starving kids in war ravaged nations or our neighbours who are less fortunate than we are. For my entire life I have challenged the poisonous notion that other people's lives matter, but not our own. I am living proof that the pursuit of my own highest values is the reason I get up in the morning. It is the reason I have sought out adventures across the world, finally settling nearly a year-and-a-half ago in Sydney, Australia.

And so, dear reader, wherever you may be, whatever the circumstances of your life, I offer this blog as a regular reminder that your life is your own. You have every right to live it. Marilyn Ehlers knew this. So did Julia Child.