December 18, 2016
You bet I was pumped, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting on Earth. I practically skated down the hallways of La Lourve, ignoring millions of dollars of art along the way to glimpse this fabled masterpiece. And she looked lovely – if you were one of the lucky ones at the front of the scrum, the rest of us schmoes elbowed each other for air space, raising our cellphones or cameras as high as our arms and toes would allow. “It’s a fake, you idiots,” I yelled to those at the front, “the original has been stolen so often they hang a repro.” They pretended not to hear me, or perhaps I did not say it out loud. Regardless, they continued to click away. Walking slowly back I took my time contemplating the B-pictures I had rushed past in my haste toward the star attraction. Each painting was more brilliant than the next, some by artists I knew nothing about. The Mona Lisa is the most expensive painting in the world, it is also the most Clipart’d, Snapchat’d, Facebook “Liked” and Youtube-shared painting in the world, but is it the best? Is it even Leonardo Da Vinci’s best? It made me question; is popularity ever a measure of quality?
In this age of instant celebrity it should be obvious that popularity can be bought and sold in the time it takes to post a Tweet. Haven’t seen the latest in the Star Wars franchise yet? What’s wrong with you, it is so cleverly marketed that everyone you know has, so what are you waiting for? Popularity is now so cheap they are calling this the “post-fact era,” meaning you can make up any absurd fiction and if any people click your link then it is the truth. Just as Mary Poppins once predicted, “If you sing it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious.”
Despite all this obviousness, in my daily life I still struggle to divorce popularity from quality. Its not my fault, humans are hard wired for approval and affirmation, it is oxygen for the ego. How I salivate upon seeing the “like” stars on my blog posts. Somehow, more stars substitutes for better writing in some deep, dark recess of my brain. Yet the posts I have struggled with the most to write got very few, if any, ‘likes’, though strangely those were the posts which brought for me the most clarity on their respective topics. Popularity is intoxicating, it has a knack for waylaying wisdom, making me forget the real purpose for writing this blog; this blog is about sorting out the muddle of ideas in my head. If my musings occasionally help others to do the same, bonus.
Presently I am trying to maintain that same clarity about a modest showing of my art, a series of oils at a local art supply store. Artist friends from my drawing sessions took the time to go view the pieces, then showered me with praise. I admit, their generosity was intoxicating, a psychological boost up the wazoo, but I must remain guarded. They are more accomplished artists than I am, I see the evidence weekly in their work. I will not let their well meaning flattery carry me away from looking for flaws in my technique. There is no “best”, there is only striving for better. One benefit of being raised in a household where praise was meagre is that you learn to self-evalute very early on in life. You give more weight to your own goals and strive to please your inner ideals rather than feed off compliments from others. I wonder, could clarity of purpose be the definition of humility? Does being humble mean you don’t confuse your own popularity for quality?
November 18, 2013
Dillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?
According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.
When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.
In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same. In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.
Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?
Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.
So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?
September 3, 2013
Derek sits on a chair by the window, strapped to an IV drip. He longingly gazes out at the city spread out before him and the lake beyond. His immune system has been artificially reduced to zero while stem cells are continually being injected into him. “You know, I can’t talk to my kids about how I feel,” he says sadly. He is of a generation when men did not cry. Dads were the rocks, the ones who shielded the children from fear. Then Derek’s “children” walked into the room. Both were in their thirties and dressed like professionals. They certainly looked like intelligent, worldly people. Yet the father cannot bring himself to express the same fears he had just expressed to me, a total stranger.
I suspect Derek is afraid he might lose the sons’ respect. Were he to confide in his work colleagues or friends, he might be judged as ineffectual or weak. How can he be sure they will not gossip behind his back? So he bottles it all in, until this volunteer in a burgundy uniform appears with a trolley of magazines, and Derek pours his heart out. Only problem is, I am not in a position to do anything concrete for him, his sons are.
I come across variations of this scenario again and again. It seems to me when we enter into a relationship, we are play-acting. Whatever the role: Father/son, brother/sister, friend/friend, there is an unspoken script. We act out our part and hope the audience finds our performance convincing. We don’t get Oscars, but we do get complimented for being “a good father”, “a great sister”, or a “favorite uncle.” But while giving attention to our performance we sometimes neglect or override other more urgent duties.
We hesitate to ask for help that may be outside of the script of the relationship. One of my favorite geriatrics is Simone. She is recovering from a severe fall and she is anxious about how she will cope with day-to-day living once she is discharged. “Don’t you have family?” I ask. “Yes, but I don’t want to bother them. They have enough on their plate.” Her daughters and sons are in their sixties and perhaps could accommodate a change in roles but she is afraid the new roles might feel awkward, and so Simone will likely end up institutionalized, cared for by paid strangers.
Isn’t it ironic that in traditional cultures, where class, caste and gender roles are well defined and strictly adhered to, the people have less of a problem with switching roles as parents age. An Indian boy understands, even as his father is taking care of him, that one day it will be his turn to care for the father. In such places the idea of nursing homes is alien. Can the difference be precisely because the roles there are so rigid, that people see them for what they are, transactional necessities which can be tweaked as needs evolve? We on the other hand are unaware that relationships are role-playing and hence we cannot adapt as easily.
I think assistance is almost a currency. You do someone a ‘favor’ and the receiver feels obliged to pay back in the future. Some people even keep score. There is a sense that if you ask for too many favors from the same person, he or she will feel used and exploited. In other words, you might enter obligation bankruptcy. And so people suffer in silence and perhaps resort to prayer. Isn’t it revealing that when a couple take their wedding vows, the spousal contract specifically states that both parties will aid and assist the other under all circumstances. Apparently love is no guarantee that you may ask for help in need, they are required to swear an oath.
I come from a culture where we have this notion of karma, a kind of bank of favors. I do good deeds for strangers and the Universe deposits them into my account, to be redeemed in times of need. It is a nice idea, but the only problem is that karma requires people to execute those deeds. What if you do not have enough people in your life? The usually explanation given is not to worry, help will come from unexpected places. This again falls back to faith, just like prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I think faith and prayer have a place, but I do not believe in a passive spirituality. Practical problems demand practical solutions. Why not use spirituality to cultivate a support network during the good times, when you don’t need help? Why not have enough faith to have an open dialogue with the people in our lives?
April 29, 2013
If there were some secret formula for happiness, whoever discovers it would surely make a fortune. The MBA grads had written their final exam. One more day of classes remained. So the students and their prof attempted to tabulate the formula for human happiness. Philosophers have pondered it, poets have mused over it and psychologists have analyzed it. Now the number-crunchers have come up with a profit and loss statement where the bottom line is happiness.
They decided there were three sources of happiness revenue: Genetic, Circumstantial, and Relationships.
Circumstantial happiness was defined as that happiness derived from the accident of birth, such as being born in a well-off country. It was assigned a meagre 10% of the happiness quotient. I know from my own observation that people in the slums of Mumbai are as happy, if not happier, than the residents of Beverly Hills. As long as the basics of food, shelter and security are met, the luxury with which these are addressed only adds an incremental percentage to overall happiness. Other circumstantial factors might included being born male in a patriarchal society. Being heterosexual almost anywhere. Being tall, good looking, and is many places, white.
It turns out that in study after study, these types of factors certainly contribute to an easier life, but they do not in themselves make a person happier or more miserable. I am always amused by people who invest in new noses, boobs, even increasing their height. Initially they experience a boost in happiness, but it declines sharply. It is ironic that their return of happiness turns out to be more short lived than the torturous pain and the financial burden.
In my family we have strong cultural myth that marrying into a good family is vital for a happy life. But now we have the spectacular example Princess Diana to answer that. Despite her high status marriage, we know she was far from happy. It is far preferable being single than trapped in a miserable marriage.
Other common circumstances widely believed as necessary for happiness include: a suitable education, a respectable career (which of course brings with it designer clothes and fancy cars). Yes, they add something to the happiness quotient initially, but soon the novelty wears out. The human brain is highly elastic, hence it adapts to the new circumstances. I was impressed that these newly minted MBAs were aware that the euphoria of their achievement will fade. I am glad they are prepared for the reality that in a few years they will be no happier than they were prior to spending the $100 grand in tuition.
Having children then, will that make a person fulfilled for life? It seems the happiness that children bring is offset by the lifelong worry for their safety, the stress of good parenting and financial worries of providing for them. I cannot imagine the horror of those parents whose children go missing. Add to that fear, parents have to worry about what kind of world their children are about to inherit. Food shortages, water shortages, even breathable air will be a luxury in the not too distant future. On balance, the asset of having children are entirely offset by the liabilities. Childless people live as long as parents, and they report being just as fulfilled.
Relationships: The grads decided that a whopping 40% of the happiness revenue comes from non-material things such as being connected to others through family, friendships, and hobbies. This includes volunteer work which feeds a feeling of worth and of giving back to the community.
Genetic: To which they assigned the remaining 50% of happiness revenue. Basically, they argued, some people are born psychologically better equipped to be more happy than others. Some are naturally optimistic, cheerful, easy-going, while others are more serious, rigid, predisposed to depression or anger. The grads saw these as unchangeable, and hence genetic.
Yikes! A bit too fatalistic. Perhaps we do not come into this world with our personality traits cast in stone. Perhaps we learn them as a response to whatever happens to us in life. But that does not mean they are unchangeable. The grads had assigned a whopping 40% share of happiness to Relationships, but I wonder if they had stopped to dig a little deeper? Don’t all relationships (not just romantic ones) teach us much about ourselves and our character traits? Relationships shed a light on our unconscious habits, traits, feelings and bias. In that dance to make relationships work, we are compelled to examine and change, to adapt, to learn new skills and traits. We mature because of our spouses, we grow to appreciate diversity because of our colleagues and neighbours.
Our minds, if we give them attention, can be rewired and reprogrammed. The grads themselves admitted that the human brain is highly elastic. So why would the disposition to happiness be an exception to this?
Rather, isn’t happiness the default setting of the human mind? Whenever an emotion or situation takes us away from this default we describe ourselves as being “upset”, “disturbed.” When we are angry, we are “unbalanced”. Fear makes us “unhinged.” Insults make us “out-of sorts.” Just as health is the default of the body, happiness is the default of the mind.
If that is true, then surely happiness lies somewhere below the surface turbulence of the mind. Rather than trying to quell the disturbances, shouldn’t we be searching the still, calm depths of awareness? Isn’t that where we might discover happiness?
April 15, 2013
Undoubtedly, all of us have been moved by compassion at one time or another: a little girl walking silently with a bruised eye, an old lady collapsing in front you. An aching rises from deep within and it compels our hands to aide. Overwhelmed by sadness for another, we forget ourselves. We scarcely notice that the wall between ‘me’ and the ‘other’ is gone. His pain is my pain. Moving beyond the dictionary definition, I wonder if compassion can bring about a sharing of emotions other than sympathy and pity? Perhaps even, joy?
I now know that it can.
There I was in the small-town campus of an esteemed university. The fresh batch of MBAs, already suited and heeled for the graduation ceremony, were showing off to their families the rooms where they had garnered their expensive education. Mostly South Asian immigrant families much like mine. Mothers in saris with proud, glinting eyes. Paunchy fathers with worn-down limbs, no doubt, from years of loving sacrifice. I have seen these types of looks many times before. Their glowing smiles proclaim: my son the doctor, my daughter the Harvard Ph.D. And yet, amidst all this obvious joy, I was struck by a profound grief.
While I understood their emotions, I was an outsiders to them. Something prevented me from fully empathizing. I had no experience of parents supportive enough to cough up 100 grand in tuition. I do not know what it is to be encouraged at home to succeed. In high school I had been academically gifted. All of my teachers unanimously agreed that I had great potential for worldly success. But it never happened. The grief I was feeling was for that high school teen still trapped inside of me. The emotion was that of self-pity–an impotent and indulgent emotion, at once isolating and debilitating.
As I sat in the convocation hall, listening to the well-prepared speeches, I thought to myself: Is there a way in which this uncomfortable feeling of self-pity can be channelled into something positive? Is there a way to so wholly empathize with their joy? To use this group sense of accomplishment to extinguish my long-denied desire?
It turns out there is. And it wasn’t even difficult.
Luckily, in my volunteer work I am used to putting myself in others’ shoes. During the practice of empathy, there is wonderful self-forgetting that happens. It brings about a call to action without the pettiness of the ego. So why not empathize consciously, I thought? Why not deliberately burst the bubble between ‘me’ and ‘them’? I summoned every fiber of my awareness to this very idea. A surge of joy immediately filled me. My hands moved, as though by compassion, not to aide, but compelled to applaud wholeheartedly the accomplishments of these strangers. For a moment, all of their joy was also my joy. That teenager inside me had his wish fulfilled. (And it didn’t cost me a 100 grand either.)
When you think about it, this is not a very difficult skill to master. In fact we all do it without realizing it. Sports fan routinely break that bubble with the players and share their rapture. Skilled actors on the stage or on screen are able to make us feel what they feel. The other day on the subway I saw a sleazy, old man leering at a teenage couple in the throes of passion. He was visibly aroused and I realized that he was using the mechanics of compassion as, well, literally, co-passion.
I bet we all remember where we were during 9-11. On that day we North Americans were as though one mind. While we are not strangers to this bursting of the ‘me’ bubble and sharing the feeling of those around us, it happens to us because of forces beyond our control. We depend on others to make it happen.
What if we were able to unite with the minds of others at will? At even the most mundane of events? Might we then be able to override other useless emotion? Blow them apart forever? Emotions such as jealousy, boredom, disgust, loathing and contempt. Self-centered emotions which serve no purpose but they drain our energy all the same. Emotions such as self-pity seem attractive because they make us feel special, but really all they do is isolate us.
To be always connected and never lonely, no matter where, no matter when–now that really is special.
March 4, 2013
Yesterday, during my rounds on the geriatrics ward, I chatted with a woman who was being visited by her son. Throughout our conversation, she continually referred to him as her husband. She has dementia, she gets confused. I asked her if she had been told when might the hospital discharge her. Her son replied that it would not be until a suitable nursing home was found. “They asked me if I would take care of her, but I can’t,” he explained, even though I had made no judgement. “I have never had children, you see, nor a wife. I wouldn’t know how to take care of her,” he shrugged.
I sympathized with his dilemma. I am certain he loves his mother because he visits her daily. But might he be lacking in compassion that he cannot adapt himself to taking care of his mother? It got me thinking about the difference between love and compassion. Commonly confused, I know I have often mistook one for the other in my life.
Love is personal, it’s messy. Love is taking a swim in the emotion sludge of the beloved. When the beloved is happy, we are happy. When the beloved feels guilty, betrayed, or grieved, we feel likewise. Parents/spouses/offspring/friends–all these relationships exist because of interdependence. They fulfill our needs and we theirs. Thus love arises from a sense of self.
Where compassion is selfless. It is impersonal because it can exist without any relationship at all. I do it weekly at the homeless shelter. It would be disingenuous to say I love them when they are strangers to me and I to them. Yet I have unreserved compassion for them. The liberating thing about it being impersonal is that it comes without emotional baggage. Compassion does not demand anything in return. That is why I can still feel compassion even when they are unappreciative or even abusive. I would help my worst enemy if his life were endangered. Compassion is unconditional.
Whereas love brings with it expectations of the beloved. We reward or punish behavior, sometimes deliberately, sometimes tacitly. We punish the beloved for traits which we do not approve of. During my youth people used to speak of unconditional love. Back then we accepted it as a universal truth. Now, as I get older, I wonder if it is merely a utopian idea? I mean, if parents had unconditional love, why are some offspring more favored than others? If mothers have unconditional love their sons, then why did some mothers abandon their sons in droves in the early days of the AIDS epidemic? If a husband loves his wife in sickness and in health/ for richer, for poorer, then why do half of all marriages end in divorce? Love is by nature so conditional that I wonder if we really only love the relationship, rather than the person?
Though love and compassion are distinct, I see no reason why the two cannot coexist within the same relationship. This fusion, it seems to me, is the nearest thing there is to unconditional love.
But how does one go about blending love with compassion in relationships? I have spent the entire past week hunched over a sewing machine attempting to do just that. After spending a day mastering the straight stitch, I felt comfortable enough to tailor a kimono for myself. It was made from cut up old shirts and it now proudly sits among our dish rags. However, it and its descendants did set me on course to learn much about sizing, cutting and other tricks of the sewing trade. Tricks that will one day be of benefit to others as well as myself. I have decided to keep adding new skills to my character resume.
Why? Because compassion is a kind of generosity. And, like money, you need to have plenty of it before you can give generously. Practical skills are one way by which you can introduce compassion into your relationships. Practical skills such as carpentry, cooking, and sewing, allow poor folk like us to squander compassion as though Bill Gates. Practical skills afford a son the capacity to take care of his senile mother.
The latest research in neuroscience has discovered that learning new skills changes the very structure of the brain. New brain cells grow, the brain enlarges incrementally. People who learn new skills throughout their lives build up cognitive reserve, so much so that if old age dementia does set in, others don’t even notice it. In other words, continually learning new skills would have made that mother so capable that when her senility did arrive, she would have no need of her son to take care of her.
February 4, 2013
“What do you think I should?” asked a weeping old man as I held his hand beside his hospital bed. An ethical minefield for any sympathetic listener. I wanted tell him. I could so clearly see what the problem was and what he should do about it. Luckily I held my tongue. It is a cardinal rule of good listening: Never Tell Them What To Do.
And with good reason. There is no such thing as universal advice. What works for one man in one situation may be disastrous for another. Just as no one medication cures all ailments. What made it more delicate was we had built a rapport, he trusted me. If my advice were to go ass-up, he would surely feel betrayed.
But a part of me wondered if that was correct. Who’s to say he was genuinely after my guidance? Very rarely do people want to be told what to do or, heaven forbid, be told what to think. Don’t we prize only our own opinion? I my stroppy youth I used to envy John Boy Walton. His Pappy cured everything with a few choice words. In real life I never listened to anyone. I knew better (as all teenagers inherently do). Not that I regret any of those decisions. Hey, mistakes mould character (that may explain why mine is as convoluted as an Origami octopus).
Besides, people who want to be told what to do or to think are being best lazy. Or worse, they are pathologically weak. This is the real reason why soliciting advice is a dangerous sport. The adviser may have a hidden agenda. The advice may not be in your best interest. The elderly and sick are particularly vulnerable, so it makes sense that the hospital denies us the right to give advice.
When I dodged from giving out my opinion he used the old tried and true: “What would you do if you were in my situation?”
I wasn’t going to fall into that: it’d be easier to climb out of a tar-pit. Part of the skill of active listening is interjecting encouragement when the speaker is heading in the right direction. It is passive advice giving, but advice it is none the less. It is an art to make the speaker feel he is the one who made the right decision when in fact the listener guided him by asking the right questions. It is the mark of a good listener, and a great friend.
As I encouraged him to think through, it became apparent that he was not looking advice at all. He was like the vast majority of the human race, he was simply gathering diverse opinions. I have no doubt he will have asked the same question to as many people as would listen. He was hoping for a consensus. Or at the very least a wider perspective on his problem. People do this on the internet daily. They invite anonymous strangers from all over the world to pipe in on their problems. It is not advice seeking, it is conducting an opinion poll. And why not, when reality is layered and ambiguous, it helps to have as many different perspectives as possible.
But sometimes (about as often as a total eclipse) someone who earnestly desires guidance will seek out your advice. What an honor! And what a responsibility. The trick is to determine above and beyond the obvious asked question, what exactly does this man require from me. The right advice at the correct time and in the proper manner requires extraordinary subtlety of judgement. It demands expertise of the subject as well as knowledge of the person asking the advice. No easy challenge. That may be why the wise generally avoid giving advice.
I once lived with a guru and at that time I imagined he would solve all of my problems, both big and small. But nothing doing. He gleefully refused. Instead he highlighted my strengths and then showed me how to improve upon them. Little did I understand then that a genuine guru never tells you what to do or what to believe. He demonstrated the ways and means through his own example. I think this is where parents go horribly wrong: Do as I say, not as I do.
One of the gifts of growing old (yes, there are more than one) is when someone asks, “What’s your secret?” It means they have observed you and are saying they admire you. However, I seldom ‘blab my secret’. The answer has to comes from them and to help them with that requires active listening.
The times I have been successful in active listening is when my life journey has touched upon what that person already knew to be correct and beneficial for himself. My presence merely served to reinforce their innate wisdom (confirmation bias).
So my advice about giving advice? Do you really want to know.