I was sitting on a bar stool (surprise!) recently, watching my friend Michael J mix drinks, play trumpet, sing and successfully wheedle paper money into the musicians' tip jar. I ask the gentleman next to me, a trained therapist who has returned to school to study bureaucracy, whether he thinks such self-confidence can be learned later in life or is something, like good hygiene, that has to be instilled in childhood.
He replies that he's just taken a class dealing with the subject of charisma. Charisma, I return, is stronger than self-confidence - sometimes too strong. Charisma conjures up images of cult leaders and "Let's all drink the Kool-Aid." As a matter of fact, Jim Jones was mentioned in his class. So I don't need to get a degree, but I still want to know where healthy chutzpah comes from.
As coincidence would have it, the very next day I see a poster advertising a seminar/workshop at New Acropolis titled The 7 Keys Of Self-Confidence. The promo reads, "Self-Confidence. Bad news: self-confidence is not innate; we are not born with it. Good news: self-confidence is not innate; we are not born with it - we develop it day after day!"
Several blocks north of Eglinton, off Yonge, is a house whose upstairs serves as office space for an insurance broker and downstairs houses the Toronto branch of the New Acropolis School of Philosophy in the classical tradition. New Acropolis is a registered non-profit organization with outlets in 40 countries.
Open-minded, but with a terrible tendency toward accurate predictions, I walk into exactly the atmosphere I expected. It's reminiscent of a Raelian meeting, with Cirque du Soleil-style New Age soundtrack and some kind of incense or perfume spray that immediately begins to clog my airways.
I pay my $15 and take a seat in a tiny, low-ceilinged living room. On an easel stands a newsprint pad on which someone has printed, "From Shying To Shining." The metal-backed chairs are impressively uncomfortable. It's a living room - couldn't we just sit on couches? But that would be too cozy for something called a seminar/workshop.
I ruminate for a while on the posters on the wall. "Attitude. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and, if they can't find them, make them." This aggressively can-do 'tude is illustrated by a lone kayaker heading straight down a dangerous-looking waterfall. Geese flying into the sunset promote the power of teamwork.
People are filtering in, a couple, a pair of friends, three people not together but all dressed in black. Finally, we're a mixed bag of 14. Frangoise Soria introduces herself. Originally from France, she's been with the New Acropolis for 13 years. She's wearing a spangly-edged skirt that I can't help associating with a player of the tambourine. Her accent is a bit thick, and it takes a second to recognize words.
She begins by asking, "What is self -confidence?" She writes down the answers offered by my classmates. Their answers are all good. "Feeling you are able to achieve your goals." "Believing in yourself." "Can you put, like, positivity?" "Courage." "Self-mastery." You'd never guess there was a shrinking violet in the room the way this bunch pipe up.
The tissue I get from the bathroom seems laden with something that's making me worse, so I quietly snuffle into my sodden hanky as Mlle. Soria lists the barriers to self-confidence. But, on the up side, a self-defeating attitude might just save you from taking crazy risks in a kayak
I was worried we might have to do confidence-building exercises like addressing each other or talking about ourselves. Now I kind of wish we would. There's only so much palaver anyone can absorb. The group wilt must be obvious - our instructor asks, "How are you feeling? About to fall asleep?"
A man in a suit sells refreshments during the break. I browse a 2001 calendar of NA events, printed in Spain. I particularly like a slogan from El Salvador, "More philosophy, less Valium," although I doubt it's meant as a comment on the soporific nature of philosophical lectures. "It's not expensive!" exclaims the sexy York philosophy student of the $240 fee for the 12-week Philosophy Of East And West course.
It's time to reconvene, and by now I'm sneezing. I have never been much good with metaphors, and the one our teacher is using that opposes fog to clarity is no exception. Isn't fog more of a challenge, a mystery? I mean literal fog - anything to romanticize ugly Toronto. "If the sun is not shining outside, I am going to make it shine inside." I like rainy days.
The talk is chock-full of good things about living with integrity and purpose. We need to cultivate the "active patience" of nature. Ah, that's it, nature, the only teacher. Didn't old-time philosophos hold their sessions out of doors? Invigorating, stimulating, and here in Canada there would be the bonus of a time limitation due to cold.
On the way back down Yonge, I pick up the Learning Annex catalogue, jampacked with healers and sellers all promising self-confidence through power learning and real estate profiteering. I pass a woman from the workshop. She's gazing into a window display of shoes. I don't ask what she thought of the night. Is it because I don't want to interrupt her footwear fantasies? Am I too shy? The answer is more mundane. I have to retrace my steps to look for the subway ticket I lost on the street.
I try to think positively. "I will find that ticket!" I don't. Even the smallest efforts at confidence can do with some help from the fickle hand of fate.