Key #32. Ulysses and the sirens.

In ancient Greece there was a mythical island stocked with beautiful female creatures called sirens. They had a habit of singing when a ship passed, and so sweet was their singing the ship’s crew would come ashore to listen. And die.

How the crew died is unclear. Were they shipwrecked? Did they starve to death listening to the sirens? Were they eaten by the sirens with hollandaise sauce and a glass of burgundy? Who knows? But sirens were bad news.

A ship was about to pass the island. Its captain, Ulysses, had been warned of the sirens, but wanted to hear their captivating song. He ordered his crew to fill their ears with wax, and then tie him to the mast of their ship. They were not to untie him until the ship had long passed the island, no matter what his orders.

Being a captain has its privileges.

Sure enough, as soon as the ship sailed near the island the sirens sang their hearts out. And prepared the hollandaise sauce. Ulysses was so entranced by the beauty of their song he tried desperately to free himself from the ropes. He railed at his crew, vehemently demanding that they immediately drop anchor and set him free. His crew either didn’t hear him, or they ignored him as they were ordered to do.

The ship sailed past the island, and when Ulysses became silent and sagged in his ropes, hollow and exhausted, his crew finally set him free. He had heard the sirens and lived.

The sirens hired a manager and went on to sign a contract with a prominent recording label.

In the 1990s a male friend of mine in his forties, Sam, had negative views about women and relationships. He would tell me such things as, ‘women are only interested in your money‘. He looked for examples to prove his claim and ignored examples that proved the opposite. (That’s called ‘Confirmation bias’). He could not see women as individuals; he saw them as a collective out to exploit men.

He was made aware of his bias, and even acknowledged that his view of women was disabling him. He could see that he saw women in a one-dimensional way, and that would make it difficult for him to relate with a woman on a meaningful level. He could see it hindered his efforts to find a partner. I assumed he wanted to see women in a healthier perspective, and was trying to do so.

I was wrong.

A film came to the cinemas, The First Wives Club. From the promos we both learned the film was about women seeking revenge on men. I suggested to Sam he not see the film, that it would only further cement his negative views about women. If he wanted to view women in a healthier perspective he should avoid that film. He agreed.

He saw it the next day.

Only then did I realise he was more intent on validating his skewed view of women than on changing it.

Straight after seeing the film Sam visited me, complaining about the women in it, and venting about women in general. This time I did not to try to change his view. I realised he was choosing to ‘feed his soul’ the wrong stuff, and nothing I said would change his mind.

The question, dear reader, is: Do you do the same? Do you have disabling beliefs and feed them at every opportunity?


Sam kept his disabling belief about women because it was comfortable. It explained his world. For him to contemplate a world in which women might love him, and care about him, and not give a damn about his money, was a scary thought for him: he might have to face the possibility that he had little to offer a woman, and that no sensible woman could love him. (Which wasn’t true.) It doesn’t get much scarier than that.

Sam had begun with a choice: he could wrestle with his scary fear and refuse to feed it, until the idea of him being loveable would not seem so absurd, or he could avoid that scary thought and replace it with another one far more comfortable: ‘Women just want your money’.


Sam made his choice and proceeded to feed his soul negativity and bitterness.

Disabling beliefs are like sirens. They beckon us. Their song is warm , comfortable and tempting.
‘Yes, women just want money.’

‘Yes, men just want my body.’

‘Yes, that person is inferior to me.’

‘Yes, I’m worthless.’

‘Yes, religion is a big, big problem.’

 ‘All the good men are taken.’


Even if our belief is correct, we gain no benefit if it disables us. Even if it were true that 100% of women are only interested in a man’s money, that wouldn’t negate the fact that many healthy and rewarding relationships exist. So, when Sam focuses on his ‘accurate’ observation and disables himself, he misses out on a chance to enrich his life.

Even if all the good men were taken, perpetually finding evidence to prove it won’t help anyone. If that ‘fact’ ceased to be true in a year’s time, and one good man did appear in the world, and stepped on Samantha’s foot in the supermarket, she would not give that man a chance to meet her. Her negativity, fed year after year after year, would be so powerful it would disable her. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; it’s a self-imposed blindness.

Had Sam chosen to stuff his ears with wax – had he chosen to not see that film, not vent his opinion as fact, not search for examples to prove his point, not ignore the contrary examples put before him – he might have one day let himself trust a little, and found his trust honoured, and found to his astonishment all the fear and doubt about relationships falling from his shoulders like wedding confetti.

Some journalists don’t write articles to make the world a better place; they write them to attract readers. (They want to generate advertising dollars to please their editor, and to earn their wage.) They attract readers by writing about our fears – our ‘soft spots’ – which are often intertwined with our disabling emotional beliefs.

We all have a choice. We can continue to feed our soul with the negativity we find so comforting, and perhaps end up like Sam who at the time of publishing this book is alone and wracked with bitterness. Or, we can be aware of our disabling beliefs and make a conscious decision to not feed them. Yes, for a while we will suffer the discomfort of having our beliefs starved of fuel, but in the long run we will benefit.



In short, if we find a film, conversation, magazine article . . . that might reinforce our disabling beliefs – accurate or otherwise – let’s ask ourselves: Will this be good for me? If the answer is ‘no’, let’s avoid it.

Black Wolf, White Wolf 
  – A commonly told story of indeterminate origin.

A troubled young warrior went to his Cherokee elder and told him of the conflict within him. The elder nodded, and explained that within each of us two wolves fight: a black wolf and a white wolf.
 
The young warrior asked the elder, ‘Which wolf wins?’
 
The elder replied: ‘The one you feed.’



Exercise:
Ask yourself, ‘Am I going to continue to treat myself badly by looking for evidence that supports my disabling point of view? Will I stubbornly persist in reinforcing my disabling emotional beliefs even though they aren’t working for me, and even though they’re undermining my life, merely because they’re comforting?

‘Or is it time to stop insisting that I’m right? Is it time to be courageous, and confront the scary possibility that perhaps – I can be loved – I do have worth – I
have a lot to offer – no one is better than me – I am better than no one – ?

‘And, although my observations seem to be 100% correct, is it time to stop feeding my mind with that issue anyway, because I am becoming diminished and disabled? Can I make that deal?’

If your answer is ‘Yes’, then the next time there is:
– a conversation supporting one of your prejudices, avoid it.
– a film, book or play that will reinforce your view, avoid it.
– someone presenting a view that disagrees with yours, be open to it.
– If there is an opportunity for you to present a view contrary to your own, take it.

Or, be like Sam. Your choice.

Q. ‘Mark, I often open myself to a contrary point of view. I frequently ask someone, “Tell me why I am wrong.” But for how long do we keep looking to be proven wrong? For how long do we try to get that dream job, or find that partner, before we can accept that it’s not meant to be? I have tried and failed and I am awfully tired.’

Stop looking for someone to prove you wrong. Rarely will someone succeed. Most likely, you will defeat their argument and further cement your beliefs. (After all, you have dwelled on the subject for so long you are an expert in it. Everyone else is an amateur.)

Listen to contrary points of view, but don’t argue with them. That way, you won’t search for ways to consolidate your belief. Ask questions, but not to catch the person out. Ask in order to learn.
‘Alright, but when can I conclude that it’s not meant to be?’

Whenever you like. Just don’t focus on cementing your beliefs. Don’t allow your beliefs to become part of your being. Yes, you might feel despair and disillusionment from not finding someone, or from not getting that job, and that’s natural, but if you hunt for evidence to support your fears, and ignore evidence to the contrary, you will cement your beliefs and your chance of finding someone, or getting that job, will plunge. Worse, you will embitter yourself.



Sisters Betty and Cath had trouble finding Mr Right. Betty had self doubts, and read articles proving why she wouldn’t find a man. She repeatedly spoke with her girlfriends about men’s failings, and insisted there were no good men left. She took every opportunity to prove why her view was right, and why opposing views were wrong. She fed her negativity so well it encompassed her. 


She didn’t find Mr Right.


Her sister Cath also had self doubts, but she ignored the articles proving why she wouldn’t find a man, and ignored the negativity of her girlfriends. When she heard someone on the radio say there were plenty of good men left, she listened with hope. As a result, she remained open to possibilities, so that if “by some miracle” an opportunity presented itself, she was ready to grasp it.


Cath didn’t find Mr Right either.


The fact that Cath didn’t find a partner was disappointing for her, but her life wasn’t disappointing. She did not live a life weighed down with certainty. She had refrained from making pointless predictions, and from blocking herself from hope. And she had remained unattached to the outcome.


On the surface, both women led similar lives, but their state of mind differed. One had made a choice to not dwell on the parts of her life that were not going well. The other had chosen to dwell. One died lonely, but not too lonely, because up until the day she died she had continued to feel the remnants of hope. And with hope comes life. Her sister died lonely, and bitter, because up until the day she died she hammered the hope within her. That hope had become too afraid to rise. And without hope supporting us, life dies.


One fed her soul as best she could, one didn’t. One lived well, one didn’t.

If you have a strong emotional belief disabling you, don’t be like Sam. Avoid the evidence that will prove you right, and be open to the evidence that will prove you wrong.

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