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It’s the little things…

By - Dec 2, 2014 - Category Articles - Print Print - Version française

chess piece in a mirror

In a book about self-esteem[1], the French psychiatrist Christophe André cites a number of social psychology studies according to which, in any given field, most of us feel just a little bit superior to the average person. We feel a bit more skilled, a bit more intelligent, we think that we have better taste, etc. “Based on these studies taken as a whole, he writes, 67 to 96% of people overestimate themselves in comparison to their peers. And that phenomenon is fully subconscious…”

If this is true when it comes to professional skills or taste, it is also true, and perhaps even more so, when it comes to ethics. Indeed, while we may sometimes nurture an inferiority complex with regards to our looks, general knowledge or intelligence, we rarely have similar doubts with regards to our moral values. We wouldn’t dare think that we are perfect, of course, but we are quite confident that, overall, we behave slightly better than other people. If the world had to be divided between the “good people” and the rest, we would more than likely place ourselves in the former category.

What is your biggest failing? Journalists often like to ask that to movie stars on interviews. Three out of four times the answer will be something like “I’ve been told I am too much of a perfectionist. It’s true, whenever I do something I really put my heart and soul into it”; “I tend to be too upfront, too sincere; that has played tricks on me throughout my life”; “I’m really bad at saving money; I don’t count when I spend”; “I have a sweet tooth, if you put cake in front of me I won’t be able to resist”. In other words, failings that aren’t really failings. Failings that seem posh in a way, and make you likable. Far from revealing moral failings, they describe people who have a strong personality, who are passionate and generous. On the other hand, no one will ever say: I am stingy; I am weak and a coward; I am a toady; I am corrupt, jealous, envious and greedy; I am filled with hate; I am lustful; I love money and power so much, I would be prepared to sell my own parents to get more; I am vain, superficial, manipulative and a liar; I am rigid, dogmatic and stubborn; I am cruel and cold, insensitive to other people’s misfortune; etc. If movie stars don’t say these things on interviews, it isn’t only to follow the advice of their agent. It might just be that, just like everyone else, they do not see these failings as major traits of their personality.

We are thus faced with quite a contradiction: no one seems to see these failings entrenched in themselves, and yet everyone sees their manifestations every day around them, in others. Many consider that society is suffering from a “great moral decline”, and yet most of us consider that they belong to the small minority of people who do not participate in this moral decline. There are only two ways this contradiction can be solved: either the character traits and moral failings cited above do not exist (or only rarely and superficially manifest themselves in people)—but we would then be living in an almost perfectly harmonious society; or we are all more affected than we want to admit, and unaware of ourselves and of our true motivations.

The problem, if we try to push the analysis a little further, may well reside in the way we approach ethics and the idea we have of it. Ethics, morality: even if the latter sounds a bit out-dated, or even reactionary (those who take the moral high ground are generally rejected by today’s society, together with anything that appears moralising), no one rejects the validity of its principles. We all know, in theory, that we shouldn’t hurt others, that we should help them rather than break them, that it is preferable to be fair rather than unfair, etc. But in practice, except for those great moral quandaries we are faced with once in a while, we do not systematically evaluate our daily life on the basis of moral principles. Yet our daily life is filled with opportunities to practice ethics. And all we need to do to realise that is to observe ourselves. First our behaviour, and then the thoughts and emotions that we perpetually experience. We might notice some interesting things: a feeling of contempt for someone, some pleasure hearing a group of people making fun of someone else; a sudden cowardice that stops us from saying something, an impulse that pushes to cut someone off, to talk in ways that are crushing and hurtful, or to reveal someone’s private life, a state of mind that makes us see in others the source of all our problems, a comfortable selfishness that makes us indifferent to what happens around us, or even makes us rejoice, admittedly or not, in the failures of others, etc.

All these anti-ethical tendencies that go through our psyche are actually occasions for us to practice ethics by consciously acting against them. These are little things, one might say. Little things, maybe, but little thing after little thing, they can deeply change our relations to others and make us discover some surprising pockets of resistance within ourselves.


[1] ^ Christophe André, Imparfaits, libres et heureux. Pratiques de l’estime de soi, Paris : Odile Jacob, 2006, pp. 13-14.

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14 comments

  1. H Dec 03, 2014 12:31 am 1

    Very true – how beautiful is the truth

  2. A. Dec 03, 2014 3:33 pm 2

    ALL THESE ANTI-ETHICAL TENDENCIES THAT GO THROUGH OUR PSYCHE ARE ACTUALLY OCCASIONS FOR US TO PRACTICE ETHICS BY CONSCIOUSLY ACTING AGAINST THEM. THESE ARE LITTLE THINGS, ONE MIGHT SAY. LITTLE THINGS, MAYBE, BUT LITTLE THING AFTER LITTLE THING, THEY CAN DEEPLY CHANGE OUR RELATIONS TO OTHERS AND MAKE US DISCOVER SOME SURPRISING POCKETS OF RESISTANCE WITHIN OURSELVES.

    Yes and these little things would not be so invisible to us if we only paid heed to what others say especially those closest to us. For instance, my wife has been repeating for ages that I was not doing enough for the children (and it was to be understood – also for her). I wish I had paid more attention from the start… because she was right, I was behaving egoistically. And I could say this about many other flaws I have. If I had paid attention to what others said from the start, I would have gained an enormous amount of time and could have started working on changing my behavior much earlier.

    Another amazing source of information to discover these “little things”, is to pay attention to events. Because what happens to you mirrors what you have done to others. For instance, no later than yesterday morning, my wife was trying to dress my little 5 year-old (to go to school) who was throwing a tantrum. The more she struggled, the more he resisted and she was desperate not be late or else the school doors would close (and we all had to go to work). Whilst this was going on, I was quietly kind of working on my computer pretending this was none of my business. After a few minutes she started to complain loudly that I was not helping, not even to put his shoes on. I finally (reluctantly) got up and tried to do my best but the job of getting my son dressed and out of the door was almost finished and my contribution was minimal. A short while later, it was my turn to have to go out. Just then did realize I was running late and that it was not going to be easy to catch the underground with the 2 big suitcases I had to carry. In front of the elevator, right next to my flat, a man was waiting. I mumbled that I was in a hurry and that I was happy he had already called the elevator…. But as I was locking the door he just left without a word. I was left speechless and a flow of negative thoughts occupied my mind. Although I resisted, it still took me a few minutes, while I was running to catch the underground train, to calm down and yet a good 90 minutes to understand something quite obvious : the person’s behavior mirrored my behavior with my wife and it could be summed up in a word – INDIFFERENCE

    1. adissam Dec 20, 2014 7:28 pm 2.1

      Thanks for these real life in-vivo examples !

  3. MY Dec 03, 2014 5:25 pm 3

    How true! As I was reading the points mentioned here, it was as if I was reviewing my list of weaknesses, little by little they create an ocean of chaos and create the smugness that prevents me from seeing the “real me”. Pride and self-righteousness are truly blinding.

  4. AS Dec 03, 2014 11:24 pm 4

    Really good informative article. We all have flaws. It’s just a matter of being honest with ourselves and realizing what they are. Of course, the hard part is working on them one by one on daily basis.

  5. Sepideh Dec 04, 2014 3:04 pm 5

    This is probably the best article I have ever read. This goes to the heart of how difficult it is to know yourself. The ruses of the imperious self prevent us from seeing our character weaknesses. Before getting acquainted with the teachings of Ostad Elahi if I noticed a bad thought or weakness in myself, it terrified me, but when I realized that these exist in all of us and that we should become aware of them and fight them, it was a great relief. I really feel blessed. That being said, the challenge is great and for a lifetime. Sometimes I feel I have improved myself in some weakness, for example controlling my anger, then something comes up and I realize that I cannot bask in my victories. Constant vigilance is required.

  6. juneone Dec 06, 2014 4:42 am 6

    @sepideh you make a great point. I recently had to deal with and extremely unpleasant family situation, one that cost me some pain and lots of resources. It would have been so easy for me to break down a series of bad character traits of the relative that had “wronged me’ — to demonize him. When i share the situation with others that’s the first thing that people do. But I have been trying so hard to practice Ostad Elahi’s principles, which include fighting against my own ugly weak points, so for each thing i looked at to criticize in this person, i find a memory of when i’ve had a similar behavior myself! It really is not something that would have happened if I wasn’t constantly asking for help to overcome similar traits. I can’t even believe it, but I actually have some empathy for this person now.

    Now, I still am doing my best to defend my rights. But the spiritual value of “looking at the speck in your own eye” is apparent in this very uncomfortable circumstance. If I hadn’t received help to look at the little things in myself, I would have missed this lesson.

  7. yocto Dec 07, 2014 1:41 pm 7

    When I first saw the title of this article, I got very excited, like a child, so much wanted it to say “it’s the little things… the little acts of kindness, …the little sacrifices, …the little forbearances, …the little acts of generosity, …the little sparks of goodness that exist in every human being, that counts.” To say that “it’s those little things that take a human being to another level, despite all the flaws and character weaknesses, despite all the faults and wrongdoings.”

    I get it. I know the imperious self constitutes the main obstacle to the practice of those correct divine and ethical principles. Apparently doing such little ethical or moral acts do not come easy and you have to stand your ground against temptations on a daily basis, against those little inner forces that seek to prevent a benevolent act.

    But to be honest with you, I am tired. I am tired under the dark cloud of this material world that makes everything so fuzzy, under the weight of my errors and faults and sins, under the pressure of my families and friends high expectations, under the burden of my unforgiving culture, under the weight of my conscious that constantly tells me you can and should do better and what I do is never good enough.

    Why can’t I be happy with who I am? Why do I feel so warm and light, hopeful and energetic when I feel the presence of the One, and lonely and helpless all other times?

    1. PS Dec 29, 2014 3:16 am 7.1

      I believe there are so many people in your situation, including myself. Sometimes I wish I could just be left alone, that the crushing weight of so many expectations from others and from myself be lifted from my shoulders. I have analyzed and analyzed why do I feel such a burden… I have finally come to the conclusion that I feel this way mainly because I’m constantly waiting to see the results for the efforts I put into performing positive acts. This feeling of “expectation” to see results can only be the work of my imperious self who wants to stop me from trying… It constantly nags that I haven’t changed at all in comparison to when I started working on my negative traits. For example, if I was not compassionate before, I still feel I’m not compassionate in spite of all my efforts for years… etc. The most effective way the imperious self can stop me on my tracks is to whisper in my ears: “So, what have you accomplished all these years? Stop wasting your time; you are tired and exhausted and empty-handed after all this work,” etc. What can be the solution? Although it’s easier said than done, intentionally not having expectations of seeing results when we do positive acts maybe one way. In my experience, fighting the imperious self by not listening to its destructive whispers, marching onward, and inwardly seeking His help have all been very effective tools for me so far. I have a long way to go… but it’s OK!

    2. yocto Jan 06, 2015 6:05 pm 7.2

      Thank you all for your thoughts and wisdom. I really appreciate it and this forum. I guess I am one of those extreme cases of idealists who is out of touch with reality! It is not my fault though. The One is so bright, so unique, so alive, so beautiful, so extraordinary, so… that I don’t want to see anything else but Him.

  8. SA Dec 15, 2014 12:24 am 8

    @yocto, your mentioning your conscience and flaws as something that tires you reminds me of my own experience.

    It happened to me once or twice that my conscience was a bit too strong, and thus out of balance. It would lead me, for example, to engage in some spiritually motivated practice, while neglecting the rights of my body. I realized it when I felt my motivation for praying change: A feeling of duty and also pride for being so (spiritually) hard-working replaced the heartfelt desire to make contact to the One.

    I had to rationally think my practice over and adjust it, i.e. reduce some activities and pay more attention to the rights of my body. Altogether, this seems to have been my imperious self trying to drag me away from Him by manipulating my conscience.

    I don’t know if my story could be of any help to you…
    Regardless of that, I really hope that you can overcome your tiredness and move forward with some fresh motivation soon! Wishing you all the best!

  9. Saga Dec 17, 2014 11:55 pm 9

    @yocto, I love your sincerity and I can relate a lot to what you are saying/feeling.
    I recently had this experience with my boyfriend where I was telling him about a difficult situation that I had experienced and he told me what to do and didn’t want to hear more about it. So I thought it was very harsh of him not to take more time to listen to me, but I did think that his advice was great. Later on I thought about his action and thanked him for helping me not to dwell and to actually do something about it instead. I thanked him for being a mirror to me, and for saying what I needed to hear rather than what I wanted to hear. His response was: “I just love you, that’s all”. Then I realized that’s how God is showing His love to us, maybe not the way we want it, but the way we need it. It can be very tiring but once we realize that whatever happens to us is His love, then life becomes a little bit easier. But it’s easy to forget and it’s a constant struggle so one has to keep reminding oneself of it.

  10. Naghme Dec 21, 2014 2:43 pm 10

    There are 7 billion—well, actually, 7.1 billion—humans on the planet.
    And each one of us has a unique character. So what determines our character?We do, and all the people around us,And of course, some genetics too.
    But there’s new science proving that if we focus on certain parts of who we are , we can develop our character and ultimately live a more meaningful ,No matter what our circumstances. In 2004 two psychologists suggested that instead of just focusing on all the things that can go wrong with us,it’s also important to celebrate all the things that can go right. they looked throughout history to identify core virtues that humans across cultures have agreed lead to an ethical life.
    then they identified many character strengths that when practiced and developed could lead to these virtues.
    every person is a unique combination of these strengths ,Like for me, I’m high on curiosity,I could work a little on prudence.
    Actually, what is prudence? if we focus on building upon the strengths we have, It has a lasting effect on our characteristics ,like kindness, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, Transcendence ,perseverance,creativity ,we can Improve our character through mindful striving or let our character worsen through negligence and obliviousness.
    [Happiness comes from learning and practicing virtuous character strengths] [Socrates, Plato, Aristotle]
    spiritual education is just as important to education as reading, maths and science.
    we’re born with certain abilities, intelligence, and talents ,A growth mindset is believing “I can change.”If I set my mind to it, I can do anything by asking divine assistance “focusing our attention on him, and asking him” Is what I’m about to do a reflection of what u want and who I want to be”?
    So while we’re all becoming more and more distracted,in this age of distraction,we need to remember to take a moment and think.
    I red a wonderful comment on my daughter’s page

    [watch your thoughts: they become words]

    [watch your words: they become actions]

    [watch your actions: they become habits]

    [watch you habits: they become your character]

    [watch your character: it becomes your destiny]
    So when we think about ourselves, what are our strengths?
    And how can we find ways to use them more,in our home, work,school,and community!It’s like we have these superpowers
    and focusing our attention on them makes them stronger,And then, if we focus on the people around us and their strengths,it makes them stronger too.so we can be a better version of ourselves.

  11. Hoss Nov 27, 2015 10:24 am 11

    There are things in my life that I’ve been proud of. It seems that I need to watch myself and not to be too judgmental or feel superior with regards to others’ beliefs and way of life.

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