em·pa·thy, noun

This marks the beginning of a series on empathy. Something so desperately needed today between the bombs and the borders and the bros. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but, as of yet, feel is not fully formed from fetus status. Regardless, I’ve committed to starting the series or I think it’ll never evolve beyond the size of a peanut with arms and legs hardly defined. Let me just lay out my beginning thoughts.

em·pa·thy noun

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Our differences are what makes it difficult for us to understand one another, for others to fully understand you or understand me. Why is this understanding important? This understanding becomes important if we accept the premise that humanity should aim to preserve life for all its members. That we strive for equity. That we hope to build a greater world for all of us and then some. That we should develop. That we should evolve to a higher standard. That humanity should care for one another.

There are so many instances today of the severe lack of empathy. If the history books could speak of humanity’s crimes on this front, libraries would be a horror, driving those who dared enter into madness with the constant, unwavering resonance detailing its memories of pain and cruelty and destruction. Is today that much different than the history books? How much have we progressed? Have we regressed? What does it take to treat this chronic disease?

The flood of information accessible to us today with the advent of the wonder that is the Internet magnifies our differences. It intensifies in speed and sometimes in content the information that we seek out and the information that we receive. Still, this doesn’t necessarily translate to our learning and understanding of the other. The Internet is merely a tool and medium. The Internet has made it more possible for me to encounter the hate and propaganda and rhetoric and violence with each day. It comes from politicians on television and pervades the everyday person on the street. I even catch myself.

We become unfazed. This happens. Just An Ordinary American Terrorist. Life continues. I don’t bother messaging friends to check in anymore.

We see this everyday. And all we can muster is regret.

My mother, the X-man

My mother has an X-gene. It glows a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

I first noticed when I was 12. A long-faced woman – tears brimming her eyes – was retelling a grey story in the hallways of an elementary school. My mother nodded along, her face strained with the scrunch of real empathy – the kind you rarely see. A hug and phone number exchange later, the long-faced woman walked away, glowing a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

The pattern would repeat itself over the years. People with grey stories would find an ear that listened and a heart that cared in my mother, and she would move mountains to colour in the grey. To ease some of the pain. To make this life thing just a little more pleasant for those that crossed her path. They’d walk away from the interactions enveloped in all shades of pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

Some days I’d notice the toll the power took on her. The wrinkles etched by other people’s stories, the frustrations of not doing enough or having done too much. Still, it never wavered. Relentless on its mission to colour the grey, her magic led her to the front of a classroom. Here, every year, new stories await her, and she takes on the task of equipping them with their own power source. She teaches them how to add compassion, subtract hate, and multiply empathy. Every year, she leaves behind classrooms basked in hues of pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

My mother has an X-gene. I’ve often wished I had her blue-green eyes, her light curly hair, her cascading laugh. But mostly, mostly I want her power to paint the world a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

Happy birthday mom! On behalf of the world, thanks for being born.

Exposed.

You know the feeling you get after an evening of being hypersocial? The drink helps and the exhilaration heightens and the words flow freely. Oversharing. What I keep for myself most of the time is coming out. My own. The morning is the aftermath. You sit in it, alone. Alone with only your recollection of split seconds here and there, overanalyzing your words and their reactions and what it means for tomorrow.

No? You don’t know that feeling?

Perhaps it’s my introversion showing. The next morning it reemerges, in full recoil. I’m experienced in this cycle by now – the one where I crave social interaction, only to be met with angst afterwards – but I’m no expert. It takes that same rationalization, that same analysis to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. That no one will remember all of the bits and pieces of yourself that you left out there in the open to be judged, stomped on, and known. Not really. Everyone is also wrapped up in their own selves. The baseness of human nature is there to catch you.

I continue through my morning, hoping that I don’t remember every moment of the night before to dwell and analyze. I work to forget. The hangover helps. It helps the not thinking. The energy has been sucked away. Still, I yearn for the next night to erase this one. The next night when I’ll see the same people and I can re-write. Again and again.

Let me take a selfie

Values, contoured by the brush strokes of experience,
Strengths, highlighted by the shimmer of performance,

Weaknesses, covered up by the foundation of knowledge,
Power, accented by a strobing heartbeat,

Hopes, wax and wane, shaping future paths,
Fears, threaded throughout, always eye-opening,

Spirit, in shades, both matte and glossy,
Idiosyncrasies, in curls, stubborn, wild, unruly,

Memories, filtered to enhance history, adding mystery,
Capacity to love, double tapped into existence by family,

Smile, 27 nuances of happy, sad, and in-between,
Click. This is me. #selfie.

 

 

PC

Social movements begin with an objection to the status quo, initiated by a perception that something is wrong. Rarely is it mild resistance or silent individual demonstration. Others, the critical masses, most tangibly grasp these objections when defiance is loud. That’s when they become movements, and become change, become revolutionary. When the words are strong, when you feel them, feel their force – not only the passion of their emissary, but the potency of the words themselves.

History is witness to this power, particularly that of words written. The written word molds, shapes, and reshapes history to its purposes and perspectives. The words continue beyond the time of their mediums. But the “new” perspectives, the provocative tales of what really happened, are hailed as revolutionary. This provocativeness usually comes with some lack of political correctness. They depict what was happening to the real people like you and me – the part that you and I would actually care about because that would be us. That is us.

The ideas behind historical movements or social change seem obvious today. At that time and place, they were not. In fact, they seemed wrong. They seemed outrageous. This repeated re-realization leads me to ask what’s “wrong” today. When do we know something is wrong? When are provocative ideas valid? When should we call it out? When are we allowed to? When should we strive to be politically incorrect? When should we defy loud through the written word – or otherwise?

I am the reigning queen of PC. It’s been bred into me as an Asian, and as an American – a double whammy. It’s not my place to disagree. Or if I do, I’m going to let you share your flawed perspective to your own detriment without my own comment or interjection. A commiserating nod will do.

But when is it necessary to be politically incorrect? When does this interminable effort to maintain political correctness become censorship? When does political incorrectness become a tool for constructive provocation, debate, and progress? At the far end, when do we condemn without tolerance? When should we? When do we condemn without empathy and understanding, clearly demarcating that this something is wrong? When do we force political correctness to the wayside to get to the flesh and bone of the matter? When do we reign it in? And when do we leave it at the door to make way for something else?

How to make friends in 20 minus 19 easy steps

1) Don’t be lonely.

2) Item #1 is in fact sufficient, but let’s keep going because lists=clicks.

3) Bite the bullet and decide what your “hobbies” are. Find groups that take part in them.

4) Identify the one or two people you enjoyed during the aforementioned hobby-wielding group gatherings and stalk them.

5) At least legally stalk them. Add them on Facebook and essentially ask them out on a friend date.

6) Friend date them.

7) Get excited when they start texting you random life details. Level “friend” unlocked.

8) Go to lunch with colleagues who hold the potential of being vaguely interesting when away from a desk.

9) Plan get-togethers to bring “friended” people together.

10) Fail at actually holding get-togethers to bring “friended” people together.

11) Give up on making friends. You are too stressed out/ unhappy/ dark/ annoying for people to be interested in your friendship. Be sad about this.

12) Be mad at all humans.

13) Realize that this is irrational.

14) Try to understand your loneliness and figure out what’s really been bothering you.

15) Get incredibly busy with your life and your plans.

16) Understand that it was never personal. You are, and have been, just fine.

17) Stop feeling lonely.

18) Stop actively seeking friends.

19) End up with a social calendar you can’t keep up with.

20) Ignore steps 2-19.* Keep it simple: don’t be lonely.

* For the purposes of offering you high-quality, evidence-based advice, I personally tested items 2 through 19 so that you don’t have to. My findings suggest that one of the following phenomena are at play in making item #1 so successful:

a) One theory is that loneliness is a viral infection. Other humans can smell the moribund stink of it on you, and as conscientious, harm reductionist citizens, they will take the very appropriate measure of initiating a quarantine. Therefore, not being lonely will protect against a quarantine and thus facilitate friendship. The vaccine against loneliness is in development, with Facebook leading global efforts. FDA approval is pending the removal of side effects such as Facebook depression and cell phone addiction.

b) Another theory is that loneliness is an addictive drug that changes neural pathways, leads to obsessive behaviour and enhances paranoia. Those addicted will suffer from seeking comfort in their victimization and developing misanthropic tendencies. As a result, they will alienate themselves from society in order to maintain access to their drug of choice.

In conclusion, don’t seek friendship when you feel like you need it most. Instead, figure yourself out, wash off the Lonely, put on some Happiness foundation, dust yourself with Pleasantries blush, and plump your smile with Good Times lipstick.

Your friends await you.

The Coupling Constant

I’m at that age. I’m at the age where everyone is coupling up. The age where things are done in couples. It crept up on me. I didn’t realize that this was a new baseline until it was impossible to ignore. I found myself on a long weekend trip of 11 people, five pairs of these 11 were (surprise!) couples. Let me add by saying that one of the sources of entertainment of the weekend was pairing up the lonely lingering one. The Couples were expected to do the entire weekend together. Maybe they normally do anyway. Still, the declared status of togetherness was overwhelming. People now come in pairs.

I found the realization disturbing whether or not you define yourself as being one half of a couple. It’s something that you don’t necessarily realize or care about when it’s just you and the other person. You’re wrapped up in life with this other person. Me and you. I suppose that’s what companionship is taken to mean. But with a group of couples, it seems to morph into something else. Navigation of the social space is different. You’re attached. You’re expected to know one another, complement one another, and present this to the world.

Now, I’m finding it a rarity for people not to be paired up. It’s all too tangible that this is the age where I should expect my peers to have significant others, husbands, and wives, if not families. Too many times in the past month have I already made decidedly wrong assumptions.

“So, you have roommates?”

“No, I have a family.”

“Oh…yeah, those are like roommates…”

It’s a different frame of mind. People come in pairs. Whether it’s the natural course of life, I’m open to debate. Companionship is, of course, a goal from a young age. It’s rooted in humans as the ultra-social species, perhaps even in our wiring for survival. The challenge of it all is maintaining independence and individuality within the couple, even if we’re horribly attached.

Success: A good memory is unpardonable (Pt 3)

The point of my mountain getaway was to figure out some next steps. The thing about next steps is that they often lead to a backward glance. The thing about a backward glance… it’s not very reliable. But it can be constructive, regardless of accuracy.

We know that memory is unreliable and malleable. We also know that it plays a large role in building self-identity. So it stands to reason that we could theoretically shape our selves into what we wish for the future, by slightly mis-shaping the past. This could go horribly wrong. Or it could embody the very core of “fake it till you make it.”

But wouldn’t your personality eventually take over? Aren’t there traits that will always dominate and veer you back to the original, supposedly “less desired” path? You will always be too shy to speak up during that meeting, leaving you overshadowed. Or you will always be too friendly to be taken seriously.

Some psychologists disagree. They assert that it’s not so much the consistency in personality that predicts behaviour, rather the “power of the situation:” the roles we’re put in and the nature of the relationships in which we engage.

The glance over my shoulder this weekend was an exercise in both memory shaping and re-situation.

This week marks one year since I moved. One year of being generally frustrated with most aspects of my environment and personality.

At least, that’s what I thought.

At some point I had painted a narrative that my reality was not meeting expectations and so I had “failed” at being “happy.” After that framing, everything conveniently fit the narrative. I continued to collect supporting evidence for my “everything sucks and no one understands” soliloquy.

And then it happened.

Somewhere in between all the fun I was accidentally having, the love I was inadvertently feeling, and the learning I was happening into – somewhere in there, my sob story fell apart. So much so that as I sat watching the sun rise over the range of tectonic accidents, I couldn’t even remember why I had spent the better part of the year so upset. My re-telling of the story was much more made-for-TV-holiday-special, much less Kafka. I had essentially placed an Instagram filter on my memory and hashtagged it #iwokeuplikethis.

And you know what? It worked. By tweaking the brightness settings of my memory, I also changed the position from which new memories are being formed. It’s as if by cleaning up the pieces that were bothering me, I learned how to leverage them to inform a better, calmer, more thankful version of myself.

It may have be an uphill battle for most of the year, but looking back, most of what I see, is simply remarkable. I’d call that a Success.

 

Writer’s note: Thanks for joining me on my little 3 part introspective journey into the world of “Success.” I hope it was at least mildly entertaining. Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Chance of Evening Showers

Nearly every evening I have an internal debate: whether or not I should take a shower. It’s never a matter of desire. I will always want a shower. The internal struggle comes from recognizing that I don’t need a shower.

Google often tells me how much water I use and why I should save it instead. I’m well aware that one person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water each day, and that showers are a great contributor to that. I’m also well aware of the environmental consequences of these facts, that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are related to our demand for hot water. My nightly deliberation doesn’t allow me to forget it.

Let me also include that I’m a morning shower-er. My mother wouldn’t let me walk out of the house in the morning without a shower. It’s my morning ritual to have a shower, or else I really haven’t started my day. No, really. I won’t be awake. My brain will be in a daze. At this point, it’s mentally engrained. So I know that a shower will happen in the morning. Hot or cold. In the evenings, the same questions come around.

I haven’t sweat that much today or rolled around in dirt and dust. I haven’t jumped in a body of water or had something spilled and splashed all over me. My hair isn’t particularly greasy. I’m not dirty. The little I sweat, even on these warm days, does little to justify a full shower every evening. Why do I insist on wasting water, killing the environment in my indulgence?

Why do I want a shower? Stress and anxiety seem to be my baseline. My shoulders stay tense, knotting up my back to the point where turning my head left becomes a challenge for my neck. I’ve been working on this for years. But by the time evening comes, my muscles ache, my temples throb, my eyes squint with strain, and I begin to feel the weight of my head on my shoulders. Some days are better than others. Lately, those days have been far away from here.

The shower helps. It’s warm and cleansing. I can wash the day away and arrive clean to my bed, free of the dirt and sweat, released from the stress and tension. It’s a few glorious minutes of relaxation and reflection.

Some nights I can win it. I convince myself that the morning isn’t too far off. My moments can wait until then. Other nights, I can’t. I need it to be clean, to calm down, to sleep peacefully through the night. Maybe I’m simply a product of the all-to-successful American advertising industry. Maybe that’s who to blame. Or perhaps this is a dumb debate to even be having with myself. Regardless, the debate has been scheduled for tonight. Maybe tomorrow night I’ll say I’ve had enough.

Success: Creativity & Empathy (PT 2)

I find walking downhill a frustrating exercise. I don’t sweat. My toes get squished up against my boots. My left knee grumbles at me. And my footing is only half-intentional, mostly I’m simply avoiding a fall rather than actually walking.

Climbing up, however, well this is among my favourite activities. My entire body feels engaged. Sweat drenches my clothes and curls my hair, letting me know how hard everything is working to get me to where I’m going. I’m sure footed, choosing every rock as if it was put there exactly for me. When I reach the top, the view, the breeze, the first gulp of water- all of these are well-earned.

This is not a “what goes up, must come down” metaphor. It’s just fact. Hiking, is about the climb, the up. The downhill is a side-effect.

But it did get me thinking. Is success similar? Is it also about the up? Are we supposed to be moving toward something in a subjectively upward manner to be considered “successful”? Is this where the anxiety of stagnation comes from? If I’m not gaining “more” of something – degrees, publications, impact factors, LinkedIn followers – am I unintentionally scrambling downhill on the success spectrum?

To touch on these questions, I want to go back to the question posed to my remarkable friend from part one of this post.

What part of you do you want to share most? The most widely that is.

Her answer was simply complicated:

Creativity and empathy. You?

Her creativity and empathy are aspects of her personhood that she’s deemed significant enough to share with the world, leaving behind something of note.

Throughout the rest of our conversation, I realized that any combination of ways I tried to answer the same question still resulted in the same two words: creativity and empathy.

In some ways, isn’t that the essence of being human? Creativity in the form of art, invention, problem solving. Empathy in the form of understanding different perspectives, offering support, guiding each other through difficulties and celebrating each other through triumphs?

We all have our different versions of creativity, and it’s often what we yearn to share most in our thirst for “Success.” The musician goes to school, makes the right connections, practices for hours to be able to share their creativity on a stage of significance. The researcher subscribes to a brandname institution, seeks funds, obsesses over H- indices to share their creativity in a journal of significance. And so on.

Imagine how successful the world would be if we all had the privilege to tap into that inherent creativity to do good. If it wasn’t some race to have your creativity overshadow someone else’s, but rather to complement. Imagine if our social networks were actually about connecting with one another and practicing empathy rather than self-promotion. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

If we shift the focus away from how can I be successful to how can I be part of a success-filled world, wouldn’t “Success” be defined as contributing to an environment that enables all of us to have the capacity to exercise our creativity, and the tools to flex our empathetic muscles in support of such creative pursuits.

Sure, some of this is naive, but even more naive is the attribution of success at the individual level. We don’t exist in vacuums. Yet.

Writer’s note: Part 3 of grappling with “Success” while scaling up (and unfortunately down) mountains, coming soon.