Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

512px-Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_The_toilet_of_Venus

We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

512px-Federico_Andreotti_-_The_Persistent_Suitor

What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

Lonely_guy,_shadow_as_friend

How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

What Elite Athletes Know (and What They Can Teach the Rest of Us)

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Gilmar_catching_a_ball.jpg

It is easy enough to hold a low opinion of the athlete. Society is prone to stereotype, and the athlete easily becomes a “dumb jock.” He is the one, says commonly accepted “wisdom,” who can only get into college because of his physical talents, who will amount to nothing after his athletic gifts are gone, and who must be managed by an agent without whom he would be lost.

As the old Gershwin song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Let’s start with what it takes to be a successful athlete. There is actually a joke about this, but it pertains to classical music. A young man from out-of-town is walking down the streets of New York. He stops a stranger, presumably a New York native, and asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice,” says the New Yorker.

So it is with the athlete. He learns to practice, improve, and practice some more, until he gets it right. Beyond getting it right, to the point of nearly obsessive perfection.

Elite competitors also know that they must prepare the same way that they intend to play. Not just going through the motions, but with the same mindset and physical intensity that they will bring to the game. It is well-known that the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the Jordan era was created, in part, by Michael Jordan’s relentless competitive demands on his teammates in practice. If they could take him on with even a small measure of success, their chances against the rest of the league were quite good.

Have you ever watched an NBA player shoot free throws? He does it identically every time. The number of times he dribbles the ball, the moment when he takes his breath, the time he takes to ready himself, and the way that he shoots the ball are always the same; the product of thousands of repetitions during practice.

This dedication extends to stretching, running, and weight training. A look at the bodies of today’s athletes creates a striking contrast with the physiques of their predecessors 50 years ago. The muscle and strength do not come without great effort and regular training. If you have ever lifted weights or done scheduled aerobic exercise, you have at least some idea of what is required.

Then there is the purely mental part of the game. Having the strength of character not to be intimidated by your opposition. And the concentration to ignore the crowd and stay within oneself, doing what one has prepared to do, not thinking about the last play, but being “in the moment;” not panicking, but reacting instantaneously to the movements of the opposition, your teammates, and the ball.

The athlete, too, must learn quickly and forget quickly.

When he makes an error, as all athletes do, he needs to realize what he has done wrong so as not to do it again. But, before the day is out and before the game is over, he must put his failure out of his mind, relegate that setback to the shadows, and prepare for whatever comes next: the next play, the next contest, the next turning point. To keep thinking about the shortfall will undermine his confidence and reduce his capacity to function at his best when the same situation arises again.

Imagine a relief pitcher in baseball as he enters today’s game — the “closer” who is expected to end the enemy’s rally and hold the lead in the contest — thinking about how he lost the game for his team the day before. If he does that, he will let himself and his team down once again.

The performers’ focus must be extraordinary. Indeed, when they are “in the zone,” they have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness that they were in a stadium full of observers.

Moreover, in the world of “biggest-strongest-fastest,” one cannot allow oneself to become too high or too low. The best athletes are characterized by emotional control, so that they permit only brief enthusiasms and try to limit any tendency toward dejection. Opening themselves to the more routine vacillation of mood known to most of the rest of us can undermine their ability to perform. You cannot easily, for example, hit a baseball well if you are too excited, or too “down.”

Diet also comes into play, especially in activities like body building, where what you put into your body affects your ability to build muscle and highlight the definition of those muscles so as to make them stand out. For a serious body builder who avoids banned substances, the severity of his weight training is matched by his ability to eat differently than all the rest of us do. He stays away from foods that will compromise the development of his physique and its appearance.

My brother Jack, an amateur body builder who has won numerous competitive awards in his age bracket, tells me that his training routine typically includes five days per week of work with weights for 1.25 hours per day. His low fat-high protein diet requires that 50% of his calories come from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fats. He drinks a gallon of water a day. Within 10 weeks of his competition, he ups his protein to 60% and lowers carbohydrate sources to 20%.

Actual meal choices are restricted to the following:

  • protein: fish, lean red meat, chicken breast, turkey breast, cottage cheese
  • fats: flaxseed oil, olive oil, fats from lean meats/foods
  • carbs: sweet potatoes, grapefruit, white rice, oatmeal
  • vegetables: lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans

Clearly, extraordinary discipline is involved.

In addition, elite competitors ignore minor injuries, and sometimes ones not so minor; they must be played through for the good of the team. No wonder that the “athlete’s creed,” involves “rubbing some dirt on (the wound) and getting back into the game.”

The champion hungers for formidable competition. He does not want the contest to be too easy, a challenger who does not test his skills. For him, the point is to be the best among the best, not a big fish in a small pond.

Philosophers of antiquity used the jock as an example of what other philosophers and their students should strive for. They cited the man of physical culture for his excellence, observed him striving to improve himself, and advised the rest of us to perfect the skills of the mind just as the athlete seeks to perfect the body. With respect to the challenges of living, they exhorted the novice philosopher to behave like the wrestler who, when thrown to the mat, gets up instead of giving up, and returns to the battle.

Apart from the possibility of celebrity and fantastic wealth, the athlete profits from the confidence that he has earned by his attitude and effort. He thrives on the exhilaration of a body that responds to his wishes, is finely and precisely tuned and honed, and is not an encumbrance but a tool to achieve his goals.

He is in fact, a model for excellence in living.

No wonder that the rest of us can’t help but watch him.

The top image — Gilmar Catching a Ball — comes from the 1958 World Cup Final. Source: Scanpix (svt.se) (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

The bottom image is of Jack Stein.

Watching Women’s Softball

Elena Kagan playing softball

I recently watched the 2010 World Cup of Softball, a game I used to play. Of course, not against women, as in the World Cup that featured teams of the fairer sex. And certainly not at their level of excellence.

When most people think about softball, they think about fast-pitch, 12″ battles between men who wear gloves on defense. Although I played a bit of that game, more often I enjoyed the Chicago-only version of softball — a 16″ slow-pitch ballgame played bare-handed.

Chicago-style softball is a very different game than the 12″ variety, but it’s another distinction I’d like to discuss. That is, the difference between the 12″ game when played by men and the same athletic contest among women.

Women have taken the game and made it quite their own. While no less dedicated and talented than men, their conduct on the field is remarkably dissimilar. Take the matter of cheering. Women will create cheers, sometimes musical, for their teammates and chant or sing them as a group. Similarly, at the end of a defensive inning, all those in the dugout rush on to the field to give their defensive compatriots “high fives.”  And, on offense, if you hit a home run, you get the same circle of congratulations with everyone participating.

There seems to be more smiling in the women’s game, more obvious pulling-together and concern for your teammates. Indeed, more good sportswomanship for the other team too. To wit, in a game against Japan, when Jessica Mendoza collided with the Japanese catcher in a play at home, Mendoza stood nearby as the catcher received medical attention, all the while showing her concern.

The females are also much more attentive to their appearance than male players. Makeup isn’t uncommon and the distaff athletes don’t scratch in public the way men do.

In all, the game seems to be a good deal more cooperative endeavor for the women, with more frequent displays of enthusiasm and goodwill for each other. More social too, as if the ladies know that the group really is more important than the individual and that the sun will rise tomorrow even if they lose.

Now, I’m not saying that the women don’t care. They appear to care deeply and have all worked hard to achieve elite status, certainly at the World Cup level. But they seem more balanced, less desperate and aggressive, so that the game becomes more about skill than about brute force or intimidation.

During one of the games, I watched an interview of Jenny Finch, the darling of women’s softball in America. Ms. Finch has a child and a husband, and has decided to retire at the end of this season; hardly ready for a pension, she is all of 29.

But what was really interesting about the interview is what Jenny Finch said she will miss most upon retirement. It isn’t trophies and triumphs, accolades and media attention, or the applause and the endorsements. Instead, she believes that she will ache for the camaraderie among her colleagues, whom she described as “family,” and “way more than teammates.” For her, the most memorable moments of her career happened off the softball diamond, not on it.

I think the women are on to something here and, to their credit, not so macho that they won’t talk about it publicly. Anyone who has played on an even moderately successful team knows that the sense of pulling-together as a group isn’t just the property of women.

If you love the game and know that your teammates are trying to win just as hard as you are, over a period of time you came to love them a little bit too. Men will never say it in quite that way, but then, men are generically well-known for having a little trouble in expressing their feelings (or even admitting to them).

I’ve written here before about the Zeolites, the high school summer league softball team of my last two years at Chicago’s Mather Public High School.

We won more than we lost, but never quite enough to distinguish ourselves as a powerhouse. Still, we gave everything we had to that version of the American Pastime and invested it with all the intensity and importance that is known to teenage followers of the great game.

In the end, the team reunited many years later (traveling from around the country to do so) and came to give an ongoing scholarship at Mather High School. But for the attachment to each other, the reunion (37 years after our graduation) would never have happened; nor the philanthropy that still bears the name of team: the Zeolite Scholarship Fund.

The women at the World Cup of Softball seem to know something that it took us many years to figure out. They understand the value of the people who wear the same uniforms and the significance of the acts they perform together, the bonding that comes from playing a child’s game, and the mutual benefit of the wish that your teammate will succeed just as much as if he were you.

As I said in a speech given at one of our annual scholarship ceremonies at Mather High, “The Zeolites never won a championship in the Mather summer softball league. But, as things turned out, we had something that was more important: our friendship.”

Once you learn this lesson, you don’t forget it.

The image above is of Elena Kagan, our newest supreme court justice.