maskI was always a foreigner wherever I lived – from an early age. In my teens I moved from southern India to Delhi in the north. While it is the same country, the language, culture, religion, skin color, even the texture of hair is different. Then to Hong Kong and later to America. So I always knew I was different – my skin wasn’t the same, I didn’t speak the language (and if I did, I had an accent), I was not familiar with the customs, etc. So I always had to “put on a mask” to fit in. So can feelings of inadequacy affect our self-esteem and happiness?
16th c French philosopher Michel de Montaigne claimed that there are three things which make us feel bad about ourselves. First we are not comfortable with our body or looks, secondly we break social norms – and others judge us for that. Thirdly, we are intellectually inadequate – that we are not clever enough. For all three, he gave us highly practical solutions and to overcome these feelings. Most philosophers would believe that having a mind can lead to happiness. Montaigne claimed that we have problems precisely because we have reason, in part because we cannot fix all of our problems, because many things are out of our control.
Unlike other animals, we are often disgusted by our bodies – we are overweight, uncouth, whatever. What do we do when we feel self-critical or when we are being judged by others? Montaigne advises that travel can open our minds. Understanding other cultures makes us more accepting of others but also of ourselves. As to intelligence, Montaigne was more keen on wisdom. All that you need to be wise he thought, is humility, modesty and an acceptance of your intellectual limitations. Wise people need not know everything. They accept the limitations, of their minds and bodies. Montaigne knew people around his chateau who were plowman with no formal education. Acquaintance with them persuaded him that these people were often far wiser than his fellow university graduates. Whilst he didn’t think all learning is useless, those who go to prestigious universities are not necessarily any happier or wiser than those who didn’t. They might learn a lot of facts but often facts are not applicable to their lives.
The idea we take away from Montaigne is that academic qualifications, our looks or our diploma are not the sole determination of our happiness. An actively conscious life, accepting our strengths and weaknesses and working towards becoming a better person is the way to happiness.
“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”
Mark Twain

humor: What tables do we eat? vegetables