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Why We’re All Soccer Fans when the World Cup Rolls Around

June 27, 2010

It's all about them. Image by Ali Brohi at flickr.com.

I spent hours the other day trying to sell the World Cup to a friend of mine who just could not comprehend the craziness of the sport. As we conversed, crowds of crazy Brazil and Portugal fans thronged around the tiny picturesque streets of Toronto’s Little Italy in the late hours of the afternoon. The noise was abundant, indeed excessive, and I was drinking every iota of energy reverberated by the crowd.

Unlike my friend, I had been waiting impatiently for this event, and I’m not someone that can proclaim to be a huge soccer fan in general.  Having grown up in Europe, soccer has always been a faithful companion as I was growing up. In the microcosm of such a small and insignificant country as the one I grew up in, soccer elevated itself to a serious part of daily life, much like politics and other worldly events.

Although my country of birth (which shall remain a secret) does not have a good soccer team, we did our best to support neighbouring nations and watched their games with religious devotion. Around the time of the Cup, the whole country would be in a constant state of uproar. Soccer insanity represented merely the momentous outpouring of all the emotions repressed during all the other dreary months of a given year, by a country whose political and social climate demanded with a deep sense desperation some well-deserved forgetfulness.

Having lived in Canada half of my life, I realize that an appreciation for soccer is, generally speaking, missing. It is only in certain parts of Toronto, especially amongst the immigrant communities in such places as Little Portugal, Little Italy, Danforth or even Korea Town just to mention a few, that one finds the excitement and devotion experienced by fans outside of North America (with the exception of Mexico).

Which really begs the question my friend also had the hardest time discerning the answer to-  why is it that around the time of the World Cup, all of these communities spring into frenzied celebrations expressive of their Cup fever? How come we get so passionate for soccer during the World Cup, but care little for it at other times during the year?

Well it is simple. The game is not as meaningful when teams play against each other on their year-long games. This is because fans do not feel so much of an affiliation with a certain team if its made up of players from around the world.  An Italian team, as well as any other team, will have players from various continents and thus does not represent a solid identity group. People’s affiliation and loyalty to teams increases when teams represent nations, since nations most always comprise such a crucial part of people’s sense of personal identity. People believe that their national team represents who they are as a people and soccer evens the playing field, so to speak. For Third World countries, especially Latin American and African countries, the World Cup represents a chance for dominance in the face of deep social and political repression by more powerful nations.

In places such as Europe and Latin America, where national identities are quite strong (e.i not Canada), the World Cup is simply a metaphor for warfare without all the weaponry. When the nation wins, the part of self that is defined through one’s national identity, also feels triumphant and strong, and the opposite is just as true.

I find it harder than most to have a good affiliation with any particular team, primarily because I live in such a multicultural country and have friends from all sorts of places. I have also traveled quite extensively and have dedicated my life towards warning others of the dangers of nationalism too much to assimilate a national identity to my sense of self. But as a lover of many nations, and many people, I always find that I have a team to fervently support in every game and often have trouble deciding whom to support. When you love, appreciate and are thankful for the diversity inherent in all of humanity, you cannot help but appreciate and deeply love the sport especially when the Cup rolls around. Because you know how meaningful it is to others, especially the ones that find in this sport their country’s sense of redemption when it otherwise feels so frighteningly and unfairly lost.

And that is precisely the beauty of the game.

The Examined Life

June 22, 2010

Beauty to behold. Image by nattu at Flickr.com

I often read advice and self-improvement blogs simply to gain a new perspective on my actions, and to overcome, or altogether avoid, blind spots in my lifelong development. I feel it is important to always be aware of the ways in which you can improve yourself and become a better and more fulfilled person.

Nonetheless, I’m often taken aback by how many of these self-improvement blogs concentrate on quantity versus quality of experience. Some individuals travel prolifically trying to cover all the countries in the world within a given timeline, others take endless photographs, while others still try to break records in book-reading, just to name a few examples that promptly come to mind. All these self-improvement activities, which are also advised to readers, aim to break some type of pre-established record without really examining the reason why the activity is undertaken to begin with. I may be among the few, but I do not believe that this kind of self-improvement advice is truly helping anybody, especially those lacking the financial means to travel the whole world. Let me tell you why.

Oftentimes people who are driven to achieve something for the sake of breaking a previously established record are merely in a way using external events to fulfill an internal void. After all, you do not need to travel that much to know that people who travel in a hurry are not going to enjoy any of the places they visit, know of the people who live there, and come to understand the joys and struggles endemic to these individuals’ daily lives. Thus they are  not going to get a fair idea of what any place is truly like. When you endeavor to do something just to break a record, you are not doing the thing for its own sake, you are merely doing it as a means to something else.

When it comes to doing things in order to improve yourself or to better live your life, instead of focusing on breaking records and wow-ing others, ask yourself why you are doing a particular activity and what you hope to get out of it.

Why are you traveling so much? If it’s to impress other people, forget it- you’re not going to be any happier and you’re also not going to get the most out of traveling. Why are you losing so much weight? To look better than your friends isn’t a good enough reason, and it isn’t a good enough motivator for true weight loss (nevermind what it says about you as a friend). Chances are you will quit in no time. Why do you work so much? Why do you spend so much money? Why are you addicted to dangerous thrills? And so on and so forth.

So next time you take any advice on self-improvement, question the reason behind the advised goals. Ask yourself why you are doing whatever it is that you are doing. If the thing itself is what you are after, and if the enjoyment of the experience is the only goal you have, then do it. If it’s to show off to your friends and/or to derive some sense of superiority towards others then forget it because you are not going to be any happier in the end.

Want to be Perfect? Keep Trying

June 15, 2010

Image by vonShnauzer

After hearing that I was a vegetarian, a friend of mine swiftly blurted out, “I tried to be a vegetarian once. But then my father cooked the most wonderful, juicy steak I’d ever seen, threw it right in front of me and I just could not resist .”

I thought this statement strange then. After all, had I stopped being a vegetarian because once or twice I may have slipped and had some meat, I would not be a vegetarian right now nor would I have ever become one at all. The thing is, even though once or twice, especially in the beginning, I used to eat a piece of chicken or order some pork, I eventually went back to trying to live a vegetarian lifestyle the next meal. I wondered why she’d stopped trying. After all, nobody is perfect and if you’ve been eating meat all your life you are not suddenly going to go vegetarian cold turkey (yes, I know).

How many times have you heard someone say that they stopped dieting because they had a slice of cake? Or they stopped studying because they were not getting good marks to begin with? Or stopped trying to quit smoking because they had a cigarette on the weekend while having drinks?

And so on and so forth. Have you done so yourself? We all do with regards to some task or another. In the end, it’s all an excuse to fall back on bad habits when changing habits proves to be a taxing challenge.

Well, in reality it is hard to change a habit and you have to accept that you’re not going to be perfect at this task either. But if you are trying to change a bad habit, stop lying to yourself and stop trying to be a hero by not allowing yourself room for weakness. We all break new habits. Seriously, is it the end of the world that you had a cake, a cigarette, you bought an expensive outfit etc? Does eating one piece of cake make you gain back all the five pounds that you lost in 2 weeks of dieting? Does one cigarette undo the healthy benefits of the months without? Does one expensive outfit empty out your savings, making it impossible to save a penny ever again?

In a way, I blame our culture for perpetuating these thinking patterns, even though people often use them as excuses. The last few days I’ve watched a very prominent weight loss TV show called Bulging Brides and I have already spotted the kind of messages sent by the media that perpetuate these thinking patterns in audiences. For example, every time that the contestants, who are put on very rigid dietary and workout schedules, eat something forbidden (once in a few weeks, mind you!) they are shamed for it and put through a hell of a workout by trainer Tommy Europe. I understand it makes for good entertainment, but it is simply unrealistic in the real world to expect people to be that rigid and perfect. Aiming that high and not allowing yourself any room for failure, will make it so that the moment your weakness displays itself you will stop trying altogether. And trust me: with that kind of a mindset, you will fail.

Falling back on bad habits happens to the best of us. Learn to accept this simple fact. But the key to succeeding in acquiring new habits is just to stay on task. You have to allow yourself room to be human in order to stay on task. Realize from the very beginning that you may break a new habit but also tell yourself that this is okay, it won’t be the end of the world if you do because you can start fresh right away. Every new moment presents a new opportunity for “redemption”. You can’t be perfect. Nobody is perfect. In order to be a better you, you just have to keep on trucking.

A Comforting Secret to Happiness

June 3, 2010

Image by notsogoodphotography at Flickr.com

Sometimes life just doesn’t seem to be happening. You know what I mean? I’m talking about those times when things at work are not going well, when you can’t seem to meet any new friends or lovers, when you have too much or too little time on your hands and don’t know what to do with it or do not know where it is all going. Life is just not happening.

This has been for me, as I realize it is for many others, a source of occasional unhappiness. Periods of stagnation can also last quite a bit, setting the stage for more serious issues than temporary feelings of sadness. So what is one to do when life gets stuck?

While it is true that life will not be happening all the time, and that a lot of the time we may have very little to no control over our external situations, it is also true that we have at least some kind of control over how we decide to look at these periods of time. Instead of spending time feeling displeased with what life throws your way, why not accept that that’s the way things are for now? You cant fight what you can’t control, so why not just accept it?

Furthermore, instead of assuming that a period of stagnation is here to stay (I know this is easy to do), think back to times when your life felt just as stagnant and depressing as it does today. Think about how things turned around in a matter of days, months or even years. Think of the joy that you experienced in the months or years that followed. Look at your life’s patterns, like you would a trend chart, so that you’re not trapped into seeing the current moment as permanent. It is easy to think of this moment as unique, but this only means that you are losing perspective on your life. You have to elevate your thought to another plane of vision. Zoom out a bit on your life in order to gain some objectivity.

If you need to learn at least one thing in life, learn that everything comes and goes. Everything. Looking at outside situations as temporary arrangements that will eventually pass (yes, even the happy ones) will make it much easier to deal with periods of stagnation. Knowing that everything passes will give you a sense that, while at times you have to pay your dues and live through some unpleasant times, in the future you are also guaranteed to witness bright and sunny days just as well. Because in life, nothing ever stays the same. Change is the only thing that is ever guaranteed.

The Authenticity Hoax: How the Rat Race Leaves Most Behind, Some Out

May 25, 2010

I was browsing some new releases at the bookstore yesterday and I came across this particular book entitled The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. I was immediately intrigued by it . What exactly did the author mean by authenticity being a hoax? What was the point of this book?

Authenticity is one of our society’s most avidly marketed goals. Discovering our unique individual selves, and becoming who we are is an age old concept that inheres from the philosophy of such enlightened individuals as Socrates and Aristotle. It entails discovering a better version of ourselves, and becoming something of better quality.

Since our societies are so heavily imbued with materialistic concerns, becoming something of quality quickly becomes conflated with buying things of quality and emulating upper class looks and behaviour. Society is quick to show us ways of approaching authenticity: veganism, yoga, organic food, indie music, Barack Obama worshipping (love this one), or mass-produced jeans chemically washed-out and strategically ripped to appear fashionable. (I’d suggest maybe adding Che Guevara shirts to embrace your inner revolutionary to this jolly checklist).

In the end, our search for authenticity becomes merely the search for the latest trends in fashion and gadgetry rather than the solid discovery of a sense of self. Indeed it takes us further away from discovering who we are particularly because it creates all sorts of spending addictions, not to mention material obsessions and money squandering.

If you’ve ever thought of someone fake because they searched for (and boasted about) their authenticity through their consumerist behaviour, and realized how condescending they were truly being towards all the other people in their lives, then you know quite well the issue that this book takes with our search for authenticity.

And I should say this message is a bit late coming. If people are proclaiming their own authenticity merely to prove that they are better than others, then they are using their search for authenticity in divisive and destructive ways. Authenticity, its author claims, is merely the search for social superiority or status both in taste and in morality to the other people in our lives. It is an obsession that divides people instead of bringing them together. After all,  people too busy proving that they are better than anyone else, will not try to connect and understand the people they think they are competing with. They are too busy showing they are better than them.

Although, in my opinion, people should search for themselves and become who they truly are, we should be very careful of the ways in which our own personal privilege is creating inequalities in society. Anytime you are buying Starbucks for show, or a pair of very expensive jeans because of their price tag, you are not only deploying a type of privilege that comes from a certain position of race, class, gender, physical ability and so on, but you are also creating greater rifts between yourself and the people that cannot afford such items.

Furthermore, while status boasting can certainly lead to short-term feelings of satisfaction, consumerism cannot in any way lead to long- term happiness and fulfillment. Thus it’s in no way the way the path towards self-actualization. Let it be clear that the people who have previously achieved self-actualization or authenticity, have done so by rejecting material wants and certainly some needs as well, restricting their diets and their social environments and dedicating their lives towards achieving equality between people. Abraham Maslow, the man who constructed the Hierarchy of Needs and ranked human progress towards self actualization in terms of how well people were able to let go of material attachments, has put only such individuals  as Mother Theresa or Gandhi at the top of the hierarchy, who lived on few items of clothing and restrictive diets, but who enjoyed rich lives tending to the needs of their societies. And that’s the kind of search for authenticity I certainly approve of.

Why You Should Avoid Stressing Out

May 9, 2010

TheeErin at Flickr.com

Here you find yourself once more. Debt may be dragging you down, major exams and deadlines are soon approaching, a huge event in your life is coming along. You respond by giving way to what your body tells you to do under this pressure: you freeze or you freak out. You try to work through it but in the meantime you’re being ravaged by anxiety.

Stop. Chill out.

I know it is hard to do. It’s even harder to do so when the society we live in is constantly telling us that if we’re not damn near losing our minds when something major comes up, there is surely something wrong with us. It could be telling us that our sense of calm may be an indication that something is not important enough to us or that we are not putting in enough effort.

I often hear fellow students boast about how freaked out they get before exams, how stressed they felt, how they had to pull all nighters and write exams with little sleep. It felt that it was taboo for any of them to ever say, “I just simply studied, got a good night’s sleep and woke up refreshed and ready to write my exams”. Why is that?

If you stopped worrying about the future, would you do any less work? If you stopped worrying about it, does that make you a worse student … or a better one? If you didn’t pull an all nighter for a huge exam does that mean you’ll get a worse mark?

The answer to this is simply: NO.

Plenty of research studies have shown that students that space out their studying instead of cramming last minute ( thereby experiencing stress and anxiety), who feel less stressed (therefore are able to concentrate better), and who get more sleep at night (because sleep helps you process information that you learn during the day), do better on exams! You may have experienced this  yourself if you’ve ever been organized in tackling your future goals.

This applies to people in all sorts of occupations whether it be jobs, party/wedding planning, parenting and so on. So why do we complicate things for no reason whatsoever? Do we need to punish ourselves in order to feel like we are truly getting something out of what we are doing?

Personally, I’ve always felt like the whole “no pain, no gain” theory was a bit of bullshit. After all, anyone who’s lost a lot of weight and kept it off, who’s cut down their spending and paid off debts, who’s gotten really good marks or successful results throughout their careers will tell you that pain was never part of the equation. True, being successful in your work is arduous, but you don’t exactly have to suffer to get something out of it. Space it out and do it slowly. Only then will you be able to do it for longer, steadier, and (gasp) be able to enjoy whatever you are doing in the meantime.

Taking the Plunge

May 1, 2010

Photographer Nicki Varkevisser had to take a similar leap of faith.

Not too long ago I was standing on the edge of a cliff that overlooked a seemingly infinite azure paradise of skies with few clouds hovering on top of a cool Mediterrenean sea of September. Underneath my feet there lay a distance of probably about five meters to the water. I stood hesitantly overlooking the edge pondering this distance, each second rendering the chasm between the rock and the water ever greater, ever more intimidating. The look on my fellow traveler’s face expressed bemusement. After all, a long time had lapsed and I still stood imbued with dread on top of a rock.

I must confess: at the time I had no idea that I would find even these benign heights so frightening. I certainly knew there was nothing I should be afraid of. The water would undoubtedly catch and cushion me in its soft bosom. The distance down was not one that would hurt me in any way. Yet somehow even jumping onto the undulating waves from the back of a boat had seemed so daunting.

After standing inactive, starring at the sea in horror while giving my friend furtive smiles and chuckles of embarrassment from time to time, I made him a deal- if he jumped before me  only once more, I promised I’d jump. I swore I would.

He gave me a side glance which expressed his doubt and maybe some friendly mockery, but nonetheless took me up on the offer and jumped again. I felt the momentum from his jump suspended behind him in midair, waited just a little until he scooted out of the way and threw myself to the waves, not sparing a single thought towards my actions.

The water felt icy cold on my sunburnt skin. The adrenaline was still rushing through my body. Yet happiness and excitement had made all the negativity vanish as I felt the rush of the wind and the goodness of the iodine water enthrall and caress my body the whole day through.

Jumping from cliffs has since become a mild obsession of mine, simply because of the fear that it induces in me. It became my goal, a priority even, to attack this fear head on and to learn to habituate to higher and higher falls (of course with some limits, lest I plan on throwing my life away as well). I’ve since successfully jumped a few more times without as much fear and definitely without the slightest hesitation. I realized there’s only one thing that propelled me to go on with it:

I just stopped thinking about it so much.

How often do we feel reluctant to go to the gym, or to jump to a new job opportunity that we know will help us grow and move out of the crappy place in which we currently find ourselves? Yet how often do we not take these opportunities because we end up overthinking them, overworrying to the point that we neglect our future and the deepest obligations we have towards ourselves? If you know something is good for you, mulling it over in your head to the point of exhaustion is not going to make approaching it any easier; it is only going to make it harder. The point is just to do it. Say, f*** it, don’t think about it, and just go. Put on your gym shoes without really thinking and go to the gym. Erase from the mind any thoughts on what you are about to do. If you have wanted to go somewhere for a really long time, stop worrying about all that may happen, and just buy the ticket. Just do it.

I’m never one to claim that we should not think things through before we approach them. Nonetheless, when we clearly know that something is good for us because it will help us grow and fulfill our lives, its best to just go with it. Hesitating will only mean delaying, and delaying will make it so that you never take the next step needed towards improving your life.

The key is to let life unfold before you. Give it a chance, and let it amaze you. You’ll see that what it has in store for you is more beautiful than anything you could have ever predicted when you were pondering so hard on what the future would bring.  Trust me, I’ve been there.