loveSo I am sitting with a group of younger friends when the topic inevitable turns to the perils of dating in the digital world. Wonder of wonders, apparently people on dating sites lie! Stop the press, write to your local M.P.

As if “in my day”, when people met face-to-face (as oppose to Facebook to Facebook), they were honest and upfront about their flaws? I wish. Dating has and always will involve conscious deceit: we all want to present ourselves in the best light so we bend the truth, exaggerate a little here and there, pad the resume as it were. Humility and modesty are admirable virtues but  not, it seems, in the dating world. “If only I could find that special one my life would be so perfect,” sighed one young man.

Dude, are you serious?

Apparently he was. All his problems would magically evaporate in the magnificence of “The One”, who coincidentally should be a mirror image of himself.

Is this how he believes relationships actually work? I sealed my lips but my smirk gave me away.

“Why? Is that not how it works?” He asks. Big mistake, Bud. Never invite a curmudgeon to pontificate.

Okay kiddo, where do I start? First off, there is no such thing as “The One,” there are dozens, if not thousands of compatible people you could spend a lifetime with, providing  if (and this a huge, gigantic IF), you have the skills to navigate relationships.

He looked deflated but still aroused, wanting to know what I meant.

“Do you believe once you meet your special someone you will just walk off into the sunset, finishing each other’s sentences?”I asked.

He nodded.

Well, Kid, Hollywood lied. Shocking, I know, but they peddle fiction, as do Romance novelists. Relationships don’t end with you ‘finding the One’, rather that is how they begin. And it is work, let me tell you, moment to moment. Sure, there is a honeymoon period when love is blind and all is peachy sunshine but slowly reality returns and the work begins of maintaining a healthy relationship. Despite having many things in common with your other half, this is still a union of two individuals and your moods, wishes, dreams and wants are never going to align perfectly every waking moment of your time together. For example, you may need quiet time for some personal reflection and deep breathing yoga while Love of Life needs to hear his/her favorite track Mental Banshees by the band Death Metal Steroids.

The art of Compromise is the first skill you will need to cultivate. Suggest for Love of Life to use headphones while you work on your heart chakra.

Despite nimble backroom deals, despite displaying a flexibility that a teenage gymnast would envy, said Love of Live will still retain a talent for driving you crazy. Know how to set limits: “Look, you can keep a pet alligator in the bathtub but I draw the line at you belting out Celine Dion in the shower. One more verse of My heart will go on and on and my ass will go on and on outta here.”

All of this maneuvering and contorting should be offset by the benefits of being in the relationship. Partners fulfill needs, often unspoken and deeply rooted psychological needs of which we ourself may not be aware. Needs such as a sense of security, a sense of being needed, companionship. Your partner should make you feel as though he or she has your back.

I hear so many reluctantly singles complain about their status, but what is more pathetic is that they blame the wrong things for their loneliness. You are not single because you don’t spend enough time at gym or don’t follow the latest fashion fad, if only pretty people found mates the world’s population would be no more than sixty-three. It has nothing to do your lack of wit or your inability to quote Proust in French either. Neither is it because you still live in your mother’s basement that you scare off suitors. Rather, finding a mate has everything to do with a person’s ability to listen to others, have empathy, negotiate, do things to please another even though it is personally abhorrent. These are skills worth investing in.

There was a potent silence in the room. One of the youngsters threw me a resentful glare. It was quick but I was not too old to have missed it. Then they went back to complaining about the problems with their latest dating app.

Ah well. I’ll just gather up my pearls and cast them elsewhere.













kkkDillon 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?

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Smart pagans.

As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?

And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.

I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?

From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.

How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown.  The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete  knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food.  Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?

In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon  in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.

If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.

Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?

Happy Halloween!

helpDerek 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?

insult1We have a toddler in our family. Certain sights /sounds/tastes/emotions attract him but the rest of the world just makes him cry. He is sensitive about whom he goes to. Makes sense. He has come into a world not of his making. A world which is a mixture of the pleasing and the scary. He is protecting himself. But then as adults we mature in our outlook. Or do we?

We surround ourselves with the objects that please us, the music of our liking, the people with whom we feel a kinship. Then there are those other areas of town we never stray into. The people of whom we are suspicious. The strange smells and textures of ‘foreign’ cuisines. All that falls into the ‘other’ which we avoid and we also advise our children to avoid marrying.

It seems to me this instinctive self-preservation we come into this world with, remains with us  of our lives. Unless, that is, we challenge it.

I had one such opportunity this week. Most of the guys I give free haircuts to are very polite and grateful. To serve them with love is really no effort at all. Then sat Mr. John Sebastian in my barber’s chair. He glared at me from the start with a look I recognized from my distant childhood. A look of unmitigated contempt. I suspected he was a racist and an overt one at that.

He did not disappoint. He came out with multiple slurs against various racial minorities (while carefully avoiding references to mine). He said nothing original, the same tired words we have all heard many times before. I knew at the outset whatever I did for him would be scorned and his dissatisfaction would be vocal. Sure, I could have refused to cut his hair. I could have reported him to the manager, a woman of obvious African ancestry. I chose not to. Not out of weakness, but as a test of strength. I wanted to push the limits of my ability to see merit in everyone–especially those biased against me.

O it is easy to see the goodness in those who are good to you. Any toddler can do that. But to see the goodness in a man despite his blatant contempt for me? Now that’s a challenge. I was grateful to him for that.

In my volunteer work I usually look for the goodness in others by focusing on the light in their eyes. It is this light which is pure consciousness. The same consciousness which gives life to my own body.

But when I looked into his eyes, I was continually met a look of contempt. Can I look past that at the life force which enlivens his body? The body’s electricity, as it were, which is impartial to what action and words it illuminates.

As I snipped and combed I observed his negativity with a neutral, disinterested eye. I did the same with the emotions it was bringing up within me. In the past I have fiercely spoken out against racial bias. I don’t hesitate to call people out on it. Some people are so overtly racist I have avoided their company. He would have been one of them. But here I was giving him loving service.

Later that same day, our condo had its Annual General Meeting. A kindly and gentle neighbor ( a white woman) whom I had never met before instantly displayed profuse and undeserved  love towards me. The complete opposite of the abuse earlier that day. It seemed to me that on this day life had chosen to show me its fearful symmetry.

William Blake wrote: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry”

The day was bookended by displays of hatred and love in equal measure. Fearful symmetry indeed!

That night, as I reflected on the day’s events, I wondered if perhaps all of life is in such balance. Perhaps  over the years the love and laughter we receive is duly balanced by pain and contempt. I realize the young man spewed bile because he was filled with that at this particular juncture in his life. Similarly, the elderly woman oozed love and warmth because that is the contents of her mind at this moment in her life.

And me? I was a witness to both. I didn’t take the woman’s love personally, neither did I take the young man’s wrath personally. I feel just that little bit stronger for having done this experiment. It is the kind of strength I suspect Mahatma Gandhi must have cultivated before he took on the British Empire. Stayagraha, which is sometimes translated as truth force, has to be about adhering to that inner light in those who vocally proclaim hatred against you. It has to encompass both the pleasing and the repulsive. Isn’t that what growing up is about?

Does God hate tolerance?

Does God hate tolerance?

I have been volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter for more than a couple of years. As a non-Christian, I was prepared for turning the other cheek to the various Bible quotes plastered on walls. I routinely declined invitations to join their Sunday church service. I even tolerated a few not-so-subtle digs at ‘my philosophy’. I consider myself very accepting of different faiths and creeds, if (and it is a giant if) they respect mine. In other words, I do not tolerate intolerance.

Sometimes it is hard to determine if a faith group is merely being themselves, or are they acting upon an evangelical impulse.

I have been in the throws of such a dilemma with this homeless shelter. For me a life of awareness means being conscious of my biases within my relationships. I always try to be objective about my motives. I question my attachments and expectations. I challenge my fears, I scrutinize my prejudices. I think these things make being a mature adult so rewarding. In my youth I lived by my passions. Some people and situations would repulse me, while I would become obsessed by others. Not an intelligent way to live.

Just when I thought I had it all figured out, the shelter decided to play gospel tapes over the loud speaker while I was cutting hair in that room. My objection to that was on several levels. I prefer silence because I enjoy listening to the men as they open up about themselves in the barber’s chair. It is the main reason I do this. But what bothered me more was this uneasy sense that I was being targeted for proselytization.

After each session, they would “praise Jesus” for the “fine work you are doing.” I grew uncomfortable with the way the food restrictions of the clients were dismissed. Men who did not eat pork were given no consideration, neither were vegetarians. “We are a Christian organization and we serve according to the Gospel.”

I really had to have a long hard think about why I was feeling so uneasy going there nowadays. Was I becoming intolerant of their right to practice their faith? Was I turning anti-Christian? Or was it that I had observed one incident too many where they had breached the boundary of respectful behavior?

I have to admit it was not easy to separate out my personal emotions from the altruistic ones. If it were boundary issues, I knew the thing to do was re-negotiate. I attempted to speak to those in charge about my feelings and, to a man, everyone of them was dismissive of my concerns. “You knew what we were before you joined. If you don’t like it, leave.” I was told in more padded language, but it amounted to that.

If I left, would I be abandoning the men? Was it fair to punish them for the wrongs of others? And so I gritted my teeth and kept coming back, each time less and less happy to be there.

Confused about my feelings, I turned to the homeless men themselves for advice. It was they who told me about how powerless they felt with what they were subjected to. Most of the shelters in the city are faith-based and each offers help to the needy tinged by their biases. While none are overtly discriminatory, they express it in the choices they offer, and the biases towards whom they help the most.  No dogs. You can’t sleep here unless you are sober. Preferential treatment for the guys who attend bible study.

Of the dozens of shelters, only a couple were secular. I decided to check them out. Both these shelters provide vegetarian  as well as non-pork options for the men. Both places had a spontaneous, chaotic energy about them. They were more flexible than the faith-based shelters, more willing to improvise in doing the needful. I felt at home with them. It occurred to me that this was because these secular workers had no other agenda than to help those who were in need of help. Because they were helping as one human being towards another, without a middle “man”, there was more of a willingness to accommodate. The faith-based charities defer to rules and authority. That Christian shelter was always quick with a reason why something could not be done.

I realized that there is close kinship between bias and belief. I don’t even know if the two can be segregated. While I strive in my spiritual journey to be free of all biases, embracing the world exactly as it is, l  also acknowledge that there are times when I need to take a stand. While I still respect all religions, I cannot tolerate discrimination, cruelty or violence in the name of any religion. Even when that violence is subtle and unintentional.

It is my core belief that faith is a matter of personal choice. No one should impose his or her religion upon another. The one true path is the one that works for you.

I have resigned from the faith-based shelter. I am not abandoning the men, I will cut hair at one of the secular homeless shelters instead. That may be a personal bias of mine, but for now it fits my belief.

A group mind.

A group mind.

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.

Does he deserve this much?

Does he deserve this much?

I thought I saw George Clooney last week in the Emergency Room at my local hospital. There he was, in his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, all six-feet of him, towering above the rest of the staff. This doctor was so unspeakably handsome that for a moment I thought I was on the set of the old T.V. show, E.R.

From his speech and manner it was obvious this doctor was well born. With all that going for him, did he further need the status of ‘doctor’? In a moment of envy, I questioned whether this young man deserved so very much in life?

For that matter, do any of us ever deserve what we get in life? “Why me?” we ask whenever something tragic happens. The unspoken other half of that is, “Why not to someone else?” (Perhaps to that young, good-looking doctor).

Because the reality is,  bad things do happen to good people. Compassionate people sometimes get cheated. Kindergarten children are massacred for no reason. Good guys do finish last. And people do get away with murder. Crime does pay (why else would so many people indulge in it?).

It feels like no one ever gets his just desserts. All of which is unsettling because we have an irrefutable sense that we are good and thus deserve all the good things in life, but none of its negativity.

If however, one has lived life for a number of years, one comes to realize how utterly selfish and utterly irrational that notion is. If we are lucky, we have matured enough to admit our imperfections. We are gracious enough to accept that others are also good and deserving.

However, it takes a huge leap to accept that life is just not fair. Cosmically, all life is random chance. People are not perfect. I have always liked how the weavers of Oriental carpets deliberately leave an imperfection in its design because, “Only Allah is perfect.” Then am I wrong to pursue perfection? Am I simply being vain? Perhaps it is envy of people like that young doctor that compels me to always better myself?

I have decided it is neither.  See, the problem with the George Clooney types and the Princess Diana types is that their perfection seems unearned. There were born perfect. They won the genetic lottery in terms of physical beauty, as well as social status. Were I to sit here and do nothing but resent them, that would be envy. It is also envy that makes judgements about whether they deserve what they have or not. Oh, it would be easy to emulate them in superficial ways–copy the hairstyle, his clothes sense, and speech. Those types of pursuits would be an act of vanity.

But to strive to be the best you that you can possibly be, to my mind, falls into another league altogether. One where there is striving to learn from whatever life throws at you. Where there is that drive that pushes you to pick up newer and fresher coping skills. To me that type of pursuit of perfection  is about  survival.

This was really brought home this week at the homeless shelter. Some of the men there are destitute because they are just out of prison. They usually request severe haircuts in the barber’s chair: Mohawks, bald heads– one man even wanted his eyebrows shaved off. He fussed and preened over his Mohawk, making me adjust it four times. I first thought it was vanity, but then I realized looking menacing is a survival necessity for them. They live the law of the jungle at every moment. So perhaps the quest for perfection is hard wired into us by evolution, and not about vanity or envy.

Out of the jungle we compete for grades, we compete for jobs, for spouses.  We are compelled to be faster, stronger, smarter, prettier just to keep connected.

I have been lucky enough to meet, every once in a while, patients as inspiring as Mr. Lewis. He is in his eighties and this is his fourth long-term hospitalization within the past two years. The nurses fight to have him in their care. Why? He is never not cheerful. He is by no means passive or fatalistic, he simply chooses to accept his misfortune with a positive, undefeated attitude.

Mr. Lewis is more perfect in my mind than that handsome, young doctor. He reminds me somewhat of that great poem by that Indian born Englishman,  Rudyard Kipling, If.-

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too….

….Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son!

His poem, echoes word for word the passages from the Bhagwad Geeta on the “Man of Perfection.”  (Chapter II) (Except for the bit about you’ll be a man, my son.)

It seems reasonable to me that if life is inherently unfair, random, and a mixture of positivity and negatively, the only choice we have left to us is what we do with what is thrown our way. To strive for perfection, for me, is to evolve and learn from my particular circumstance. The way I see it, the misfortunes of life are your pre-payment for wisdom. If you forfeit your right to wisdom, you have squandered your misery.

If my near-death has taught me anything it is that perfection of character is the only pursuit without envy or vanity. It is purely about survival. It is the only type of perfection that can never be snatched away from you.

Can One Be Too Optimistic?

February 11, 2013

Hayley Mills as the terminally optimistic Pollyanna.

Hayley Mills as the terminally optimistic Pollyanna.

Always look on the bright side of life,” sang Eric Idle in the film, The Life of Brian. It has since become an anthem for optimists who perhaps do not realize it was meant to be sardonic. Knowing those Monty Python guys, might they have meant for us to question if optimism isn’t as good for you as it’s cracked out to be?

Pessimists, the glass-half-empty people, are supposedly at higher risk of heart disease, depression, and a host of other ailments because their immune systems are not optimal. Or so goes the research. No doubt there is common sense behind this argument. Positive people bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy when they act according to their belief. And self-help books of the New Age movement have ran with optimism as the secret of a happy life. Think positive thoughts and only positive things will happen to you, they say.

But hang on a sec, doesn’t optimism also shut down critical thinking? A healthy dose of cynicism is our only defense against scammers and marketers. A mother may advice, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, say nothing.” Does that mean that if I know Mr. Adobe from Nigeria is a con-man, then I should just keep quiet and not warn my friends? If my landlord is bullying me, I should not complain to the authorities? So clearly, always looking on the bright side is sometimes the foolish option.

Historically, despots have sold a skewed optimism in order to control the masses. If I am denied the right to question my religion ( because I must have faith), to question my culture ( because I must have pride), and to question my government (because I must remain patriotic), then I will never become a fully-formed adult.  Personally, I prefer the New Yorker cartoon where a father advices his son: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, be clever but devastating.”

Which brings me to Mr. George Carlin. He, like many intellectuals, employed negativity rather positively. Persons with high IQ love satire and lampooning. When such people rant it is cathartic and joyful. When listening to such people it is hard to miss the huge overlap between optimism and pessimism.

When I began patient support I imagined I would be in most demand from patients without families. It turns out it’s the opposite. When faced with cancer or any terminal condition, families seem to prefer a state of denial. Particularly in front of the afflicted relative. They somehow think that what the patient needs is to be reassured that everything will work out just fine and dandy. “This little diagnosis will one day become a distant memory.” I quote those words from what was said to me after my heart attack.

This is optimism which is negative for the patient. If you really want to be supportive, be honest, allow him to consider the worst. Go over all of the options. When a person is faced with a shortened lifespan, it would be more comforting for him  to know he has planned his departure well. That he has made peace with everyone, his finances and estate are in order, that his canny planning succeeded in making things easy for his loved ones as his illness progressed.

But time and again I witness families saying, “I don’t like to think about such things,” as if being blindly optimistic is a sign of supreme love.

A depression-prone pessimist might be more likely to take his own life, but a chronic optimistic is never far behind. Optimists are risk-takers. They are more likely to risk their lives on thrill sports such as free-fall parachuting or bungee-jumping.

Given that reality is made up of both positive and negative elements, it would be make sense that a balanced approach should be the most realistic. Might there a third, more sane, way then? Is it possible to live as neither an optimistic nor a pessimist?

I have noticed that my plans for the future enter my awareness neither as optimistic nor as pessimistic. It is only when desires tag themselves onto outcomes that the problem begins. If desires bounce up and down and say, yes, that outcome will fulfill us nicely, then the rosy glow of optimism will appear. If, however, the desires bemoan, no, that outcome won’t do us at all, then the the blue mood of pessimism will cloud over.  

Here’s the irony: Desires are entirely unnecessary to the planning of the right thing to do. Desires tagging themselves onto outcomes happens because of force of habit. And like any habit it can be reprogrammed.  For me the solution is to keep alert the faculty of inquiry at all times. In my opinion a critical indifference of the outcome is the healthiest and most reasonable option.

How to measure human worth?

How to measure human worth?

At a dinner party over Christmas the conversation turned to the subject of the monarchy. One man, a renowned snob, stated he was a firm believer in the superiority of the aristocracy over the peasantry (all of us). I was appalled by his unashamed elitism. It offended every egalitarian cell in my body. But even as I was quenching my horror a part of me was questioning my core belief. Is it really true that all people are of equal worth?

Or put the question another way, if the the planet were doomed and you were in charge of the sole spaceship, whom would you rescue to save mankind? Of course all people are not created equal. We each have our own abilities and disabilities. Some of us can write, others are clever with science or business. Some are born with privilege which they harness to the full, while others flounder, or are prohibited from making use of their talents. Despite these obvious differences, I was raised to believe that each person, though different, has equal value. Their apparent differences are something like the differences within parts of the body. The eyes cannot do what the heart does, and the liver cannot do what the fingers do. Yet if we were compelled to surrender any part of our body (perhaps by a terrorist) we would be hard pressed to pick a part we would deem valueless.  Each organ is different but each plays its part, contributing to the whole. And so it is with humanity. But is it? 

At one end of the spectrum, we have the high-achievers who have changed human history, and affected the quality of our lives: Gandhi, Einstein, Teslar, Shakespeare, Mozart,  to name a few. Obviously they cannot compare to the drug addict sleeping on the sidewalk. Jeffery Dahmer was a man who stalked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered then ate his victims; did his life have equal value to that of Steve Jobs? Obviously, not everyone contributes to the whole equally, so then are some lives worth more than others?

Not an easy dilemma to solve, however it is an important one. Because what we believe in our hearts (not our heads) affects how we treat others around us. That unashamed snob I began with is well known for mistreating those whom he considers his inferiors (pretty much everyone).

One thing I have learned from my volunteer work is that it is next to impossible to judge a person. We know nothing of their circumstances nor of their history. Many of my geriatric patients look frail and helpless, but I am always astounded by what they have done in their youth. One meek eighty-four year old lady in a wheelchair had been a Playboy bunny in 1960. Another sickly and weak old man had fought at Dunkirk during a pivotal battle of World War Two. The other day I was cutting the hair of a disheveled man at the homeless shelter  when I remarked innocently, “By the time I am finished, you will look like an investment banker.” To my surprise he responded, “I am an investment banker. At least that is what I used to be.” It seems he had been highly successful but a cocaine habit was his downfall. He has never quiet recovered to the same heights. And he is not the only successful man with an achilles heel, all the great and famous have a nasty side to them we do not always know about. Charles Dickens championed against oppression and bondage of the poor in the UK, however he was a racist in his views about the Empire. He spoke against the abuse of women, but he mistreated his own wife.

So even if our ignorance renders our judgements flawed, aren’t some people still so much more worthwhile rescuing in that spaceship than others?  Say, Mandela over Hitler? Well, that depends on who is compiling the list. My list will not be the same as yours. (I know I would want my cardiologist with me in that spaceship). That is because we judge others according to how much value they bring to our own lives. I mean, the real reason we value each and every part of our body regardless of function is because each part is of benefit to us personally. Similarly, any person we value, whether famous or not–we don’t really value them for their own sake. If we are honest, we value our mother mostly because of what she can do for us personally. Utterly selfish but utterly human. This is just how we are. Newton, Fleming, Jenner are valued highly because their discoveries have increased our lifespans. Conversely, the bum on the street has lesser value because we perceive no benefit from his existence to us at all. But that does not mean that his life has not been of benefit for someone else in the past. Nor does it mean his life cannot be of benefit to others in the future. For all we know his life is of benefit today to someone on earth.

Assigning worth to others is an expression of self-interest. And we are all inherently selfish therefore there is some snobbery in each of us. But, and it is a huge but, we are not all selfish to the same degree.  It is my observation that the greater the habit of snobbery, the more insensitive is the individual. Conversely, the lesser the snobbery, the greater the compassion. When we  accept this fact of human nature, only then do we begin to abandon the habit of assigning greater and lesser value to others.

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