Stereotypes and Cliches


When I was nineteen years old, I found out about stereotypes and cliches the hard way. As I came from a dysfunctional family(that would be a too polite way to describe it), I had a nervous breakdown, was hospitalized for two months, and then attended group therapy for a year.

My mother especially came from a large family, so I have many uncles, aunts and cousins. I could have had many visitors while admitted; but I only had four. My mother mostly, my father twice(he was why I was in the hospital) and two cousins. Everyone else stayed away because mental illness of any kind, in those years(60s, 70s, 80s), was further stigmatized by the stereotypes and cliches that kept us marginalized.

I’m not angry at my family; I hold no animosity against them whatsoever. But I am still deeply disappointed that they didn’t try harder to understand.

People tend to hang on to even worn-out attitudes because they are convenient.

Another example is that I am eccentric. But in my very conservative, very “straight-laced” family where conformity(obedience), especially to our Christian (Catholic) Faith was expected, I, and a few cousins that I believe were also eccentric, stood out – and were constantly admonished for it. But this attitude was certainly not unique to us; it was quite prevalent.

I came to believe that I was a bad person, somehow sick, and sough help from a psychiatrist. A major part of his help to me came simply in the form of telling me that there was nothing wrong with me being eccentric, it was just too bad my family didn’t understand – stereotypes and cliches.

Cliches sometimes have their uses, they often are a convenient way of expressing an idea or thought. But they do require that the other person understands the reference. If they don’t, that can lead to lots of trouble.

Our situation is not definitely helped by stereotypes; they do far more harm then good(a cliche). Ever read a dictionary definition of eccentric: a person who is unconventional and slightly strange. “Slightly strange?” Political correctness gone mad? If I saw a person walking towards me with that description, I’d probably cross the street.

In my case, my life changed dramatically again when I got to know, by email, a psychologist named David Weeks, who has done the world’s first clinical investigation into eccentricity, and his research has helped me to finally understand myself, and be happy with who I am. That has been an amazing journey.

Despite the stereotypes and cliches. They may have their uses, but they should not rule.

From “Self-segregation” to WHOLENESS; a “Middle Way” perspective.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic, but I now believe that the “morality” I was taught, as exclusively Catholic, is clearly evident across Christianity, if not other Faiths as well.

The Catholic Church is going through its own traumas these years, with priests and other religious(brothers and nuns) either being the perpetrators of, or the victims of, sexual abuse. But I actually don’t blame the priests or other perpetrators; I blame Catholics who were taught to put priests, and other religious, “up on a pedestal” many simply, in reality, could not live up to. From what I understand about celibacy, it is a special discipline that should not be taken for granted.

So we Catholics idolized our Church; we were told to see it as a “bastion of morality”, the “epitome of all things holy”. Sin, on the other hand – well, you don’t go there! Ever!

But that, in my own experience, produces a whole slew of at least potentially neurotic problems; I have known people who lead miserable lives because they don’t like themselves because of some “mistake” they made; they “sinned”. This seems especially true if someone is raised in rigidity. And often, to escape their pain, they turn to drugs which ultimately only ruin them further.

We were told that God is loving and merciful, and forgiving – but why? The simple answer is, its because we screw-up all the time. We make mistakes – what’s the saying, “learn from your mistakes”, because even the “best of us” make them! And to deal with them honestly. I now believe that’s what makes the “best of us”.

Excessive guilt is a too easy way to drag us down, and get us involved in substance abuse, etc., etc.

A “good mistake” can in fact teach us more about ourselves than an accomplishment does. I believe it is a serious mistake that we become so focused on seeing ourselves as a “good person” that when we do “screw up”, especially seriously, the guilt can mess us up even more.

I grew up in this “neurotic morality”, which I now consider does far more harm than good. It creates “reputation”, where people live in constant anxiety about how they appear to others; always living in fear of judgement.

We all have our “Yin” and our “Yang”. Its what makes us human. We have to deal with ourselves as a whole person, and not create a really destructive “self-caricature”, so addicted to reputation that anyone who might criticize us we get outraged.

This not “black/white” because life is not “black/white”; that’s a comfortable perspective some people have, but its not real life. Yes, its said God is merciful; we should treat ourselves this way too.

Deal with our “pros” and “cons”; and always treat ourselves fairly. Its really not so hard to do.

But, in our society, it seems an accomplishment.

The “Middle Way”

We hear a lot about strife these days, and see this strife demonstrated in groups on opposing sides of so called “contentious” issues, in often violent confrontation. Let me suggest that contentious issues become contentious because of this polarization. The “other side” becomes “the enemy”, and the result of this polarization often tragic.

I took Christian theology in university because I was raised Catholic and had ideas about becoming a Catholic priest. But if life is about experiences that change you, and all experience should change us, my university experiences did just that. In order to qualify for my degree, I had to take two non-Christian courses, so I took courses in Judaism and Buddhism. From the Judaism I learn what I didn’t know about Jews, which was everything. We respected Jews in our family as our “spiritual forefathers”, but we knew virtually nothing about Jewish culture or heritage; I learned a lot from the course.

Perhaps the most important attitude I took from Buddhism was the “Middle Way” The Buddha himself described the extreme hardships he subjected himself to before he found “the Middle Way”. I am naturally opinionated, one of the key character traits of being eccentric, and yes, at times I can be extremist, a “knee-jerk” reaction more than anything else. But the Middle Way forces me to pause, to examine both sides of any issue, and even a side I might be opposed to. I find myself examining that opposing side to understand why those who hold it have that view. This may not convince me, but I do end up with a degree of compassion for the “opposition” as I try to understand why they hold the views that they do. And they are never “the enemy”.

The Middle Way isn’t an easy way because it isn’t comfortable. To see an opposing side on much closer examination, and agree it might have some merit is sometimes hard to do, but much better than the violence I’ve seen. And it forces me to reexamine my own beliefs in the light of new knowledge.

We seem to be an increasing polarized people; some have had the opinion that part of our difficulty is trying to find simple solutions for complicated problems. People often try to see the problem as having having two sides, when in fact issues have many sides, many of them subtle and complex, and vital. Not right or wrong, but many degrees.

It’s hard to think that someone criticizing you may have a point; we want to lash out against “opponents”. But we need to do ourselves a favour and take a moment to see all sides of the argument, because, often, “sitting on the fence” can give that necessary overview.

“Black Hole” picture; the final evidence

When I saw the picture, the final conclusive evidence, of the existence of black holes, I got out my long-held copy of “A Brief History of Time”, authored by the late, great Stephen Hawking, and reread the chapters on black holes, so called because their gravity is so great even light cannot escape. One chapter was entitled “Black Holes”, but the second chapter was entitled “Black Holes ain’t so Black”.

His book was of course an automatic best-seller, because every scientist, and I guess especially astronomers, both professionals and amateurs, which I am one, went out and got a copy of it. And we were all overwhelmed by his genius; many of us didn’t even finish the book because of that genius. Simply owning the book was “cool”; owning it made people think you were a genius – you understand Hawking??!!!

Late, great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking

But Hawking’s book would put anyone’s mind to rest about physics being a terribly complicated. Yes, its a fact that physics has generally been favoured by fairly brilliant people, but Hawking tries to dispel any suggestion of “elitism” by using very common comparisons and by not being afraid of making more than a few jokes in the book.

Admittedly, when I first read the book maybe twenty-five years ago, I was among many who had to close the book before I finished it because I simply didn’t understand much of what Hawking was saying. His ideas and concepts were simply considered that brilliant.

While not knocking his brilliance even now, I have reread the book perhaps with my own increasing confidence and understanding.

In fact, one of the great benefits to science these days is that we have many science writers, not just science journalists who play their own important role, but actual scientists to recognize the benefits of writing about often complex science in terms easy to understand.

We used to insult this process by calling it a “dumbing down”, when it should be called an “educational enlightening”.

I don’t think Hawking wanted science to be seen as “elite” in any sense of that word. Hawking has passed away, just of course as Einstein died in 1955. But there are, and will be, plenty of others.

Don’t be afraid to get a copy of his book and read it; you will be educated, and entertained.

The picture of a black hole confirms Hawking’s work.

What other incredible science discoveries are to be made?

English as an old (ancient) language

Edward Gibbon with three volumes of his great history
A portrait by George Romney (1781)
(Trustees of British Museum)

I’ve mentioned having a copy of Edward Gibbon’s historical masterpiece “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The copy that I have is not a copy at all, but an eight book set. I’m only into volume number two; his research seems thorough, but there are definite challenges to reading it and understanding it.

Edward Gibbon lived from 1757 to 1794 and so even the language used is already over two hundred years old. Its like looking at an episode of M*A*S*H. The comedy was set during the Korean War in the fifties, but the show was a 1970’s production.

For me, its history looking at history.

Gibbon’s writing style is far more formal than today, there is no “economy of words” to it. In fact, the work shows how English as evolved as a language; several years ago I happen to come across the writings of Julian of Norwich, a nun who lived four hundred years earlier, from 1342-1416. Her writings amply demonstrate how English has changed, significantly, over the centuries.

Of course, neither of these writers obviously had word processors or typewriters(for the youth out there, use your search engine to look up “typewriters”)

Gibbon, and Julian of Norwich, had nothing more than quill pen, and ink well, and parchment paper, so I can only guess that from his first words to the final edition, Gibbon must have gone through a thousand quill pens, a gallon of ink, and thousands of sheets of parchment paper.

An example of Gibbons 17th century style comes from the opening of Chapter 13: “As the reign of Diocletian was more illustrious than that of any of his predecessors, so was his birth more abject and obscure.”

I won’t even attempt Julian of Norwich, because her medieval style must be seen to be appreciated.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must have been a true labour of love. It took him twelve years to write it and some of his own sources, such as Homer, writer of his own iconic Illiad and Odyssey, are of course much more ancient.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a great example of a history lesson in so many ways.

My view of Star Trek Discovery

As someone who has been a fan of the series since the beginning, there is no doubt that this latest incarnation is very different from the others, which is clearly disturbing to some. In fact, in the first season, they did their version of the “Mirror, mirror” episode, which is an episode I was never a fan of.

But the series has slowly but sure grown on me, and I simply accept its very different approach. The various incarnations have only shown up the limitations of the Original Series, even in terms of the special effects technologies that simply didn’t exist at the time of the Original Series.

What will we be like in two hundred and seventy years from now, when the Discovery version is supposed to be happening? Well, I have grown to like the characters, and I like the fact that the series is not “standardized”. So I wish the series luck, and hope its outlasts the Original Series and is still on the air five years from now.

Libraries are great; great libraries

As mentioned, I had my first library by the time I was a young teen, and have had three or four in my life. Books, as much as I love ’em, are a pain to move.

But there is not a major city on this planet that doesn’t have at least one library, and even the smallest hamlet probably has one; schools generally have one. I have heard of the Great Library at Alexandra, founded by Ptolemy and of course in those ancient times there were no books as we know them today, there were scrolls, and this library was reputed to hold thousands of them. Older yet are cuneiform tablets, probably the oldest form of writing, on clay tablets. But even some cursory research revealed there was the Library of Aristotle in Athens Greece(384-321 B.C.), and the Nippur Temple Library in Iraq circa 2500 B.C.

In fact, I have recently had the pleasure of reading a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic, of course originally written on clay tablets in cuneiform. In fact, the translation I read had gaps in it, acknowledged by the translators from the damage done to the clay tablets over time.

So we have been collecting knowledge, originally on clay tablets, then scrolls, then in book form for millennia, as the easiest way to access this knowledge. Brilliant.

We continue to have great libraries allover the world. I have two ebook libraries, and one of the great benefits of an ebook library is that its so easy to carry around! But, I hope, at least in my lifetime, we don’t see the end of actual book libraries.

This is not only for their main purpose, the housing of books and public access to them, but also for the atmosphere of learning they engender. Seeing young people quietly sitting and reading, whether it be a library book or a school book, gives me hope for the future.