The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

An Interesting Reflection on Casual Love

Everyone seems to have their own opinion on love, a word so loaded with meaning and interpretation that it’s no wonder that it continues to elicit so much confusion and emotion across history and society. But every so often I come across a fairly engaging and insightful musing on the subject, such as the one expressed by indie jazz musician Carsie Blanton on her blog. It’s a somewhat long and interesting read that I highly recommend, but the following is the crux of her point:

There are advantages to separating the wacky, butterflies-in-the-gut, unpredictable feeling of “love” from the ideally rational, cool-headed decisions and agreements of “commitment”. For one: love is just not a good enough reason to commit to somebody (trust me, I’ve tried). You need a few other ingredients: mutuality, compatibility, and availability, for starters.
The big advantage for the lover is that falling in love will feel less scary, life-threatening, and crazy-making. As long as love is theoretically reserved for people whom you want to date and possibly marry, falling in love will be confusing and dramatic. If we interpret this particular set of feelings and thoughts as an epic, life-changing event, we’ll have no choice but to get really, really attached to our beloved. We’ll throw a lot of expectations at them (“Love me back! Love me only! Love me forever!”), and feel hurt and resentful if the feeling is not mutual. We’ll imprint upon them like baby ducks, and resolve to stick with them through thick and thin, through hell or high water, through abuse and neglect and lies and bickering and frustration and mutually-assured destruction, whether or not it brings us (or anyone else) any kind of joy.
The big advantage for the beloved is that being loved will feel less like an attack, and more like a gift. The little-discussed fact is that it’s super uncomfortable to be loved when the feeling is not mutual (see my song Please). So uncomfortable, in fact, that many of us would rather act like callous, cold-hearted assholes than be in the same room as the person who loves us. We panic, we get distant, we deny any interest or care for the other person, we stop returning their texts. But that’s not an aversion to love, or to the lover; it’s the attachment and expectation being hurled in our direction with such intensity. If love was casual, we could take it as a high compliment, say “thanks!”, and feel some warm fuzzies. We might also begin to feel some compassion for our lover (who, after all, has a stomach full of butterflies and can’t eat or sleep very well), which might allow us to make better and kinder decisions about how to respond.
If love was casual, perhaps it wouldn’t collide into our sense of identity or our plans for the future at such high velocity. It wouldn’t feel so personal. If it’s not mutual, so what? If it doesn’t turn into a relationship, so what? I have feelings and desires all the time that go unsatisfied. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times), late at night, I want Chef’s Perfect Chocolate ice cream, but Creole Creamery closes at 10pm. Do I panic? Do I call Creole Creamery and leave a series of desperate messages? Do I curl into a ball and lament that without Chef’s Perfect Chocolate, I am a broken person who is not worthy of ice cream? No. I deal. I feel my feelings, whine a little if I need to, and go without. Like a grown-ass woman.
And here’s my favorite part: if love is casual — not something rare and dramatic and potentially painful, but something common and easy and mutually enjoyable — we all get to feel more love, and share more love.
As usual of late, I sadly don’t have the time to weigh in much further, although I will say that I’ve felt very enriched to have large and diverse individuals that I would consider loved ones. There’s a certain taboo about using the word love so loosely and broadly, and I can understand how it might seem odd or even cheapening of the concept.
But in a world where we encounter and interact with more and more people than every before, I feel it’s untenable to restrict your platonic and romantic aspirations to just one or a few people for life. So many more individuals come and go and we find ourselves making unexpected connections with someone new regularly — whether online or in person — that try as we might, we still find ourselves changing up and/or expanding our existing circle of loved ones.
Obviously, we can only have so many people to love — due to lack of time, emotional investment, etc — but as Blanton notes, the wider we expand our circle of compassion to include baseline kindness and consideration, the easier it will be to deal with the inevitable changes and losses in our relationships that occur throughout our lives. It’s chaotic, stressful, unpredictable, and at times maddening, but it’s also quite a lot of fun and education along the way.
I’m not sure if I’m making any sense — that’s love for you — but as always, please give your two cents.
Hat tip to my friend Miri for first sharing this article.

Map: All the Love in the World

It goes without saying that love is complicated no matter you go. But the degree to which it is difficult to find or feel love varies from country to country, as the following map from The Atlantic shows:

The map represents one of the most comprehensive assessments on love ever compiled thus far. Here’s more on it:

In 2006 and 2007, Gallup asked people in 136 countries whether they had experienced love the previous day. The researchers found that on a typical day, roughly 70 percent of the world’s population reports feeling love. The world leader in love turned out to be the Philippines, where more than 90 percent said they had experienced love, and the world’s laggard Armenia, where only 29 percent of respondents did. In the United States, 81 percent replied in the affirmative. 

Love appears to be flourishing in the Americas, achieving mixed results in Africa, and languishing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But [economist Justin] Wolfers cautions against reading too much into the data. “[D]ifferences between countries may be due to how cultures define ‘love’ and not in actual day-to-day experiences,” he writes. “For example, in some countries, the idea of ‘love’ is restricted to a romantic partner, while in others it extends to one’s family members and friends.”

Yes, so let’s not jump the gun and assume that the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa are dour and curmudgeon places: they might just have a more narrow or specific understanding of love (indeed, this is the issue with any global index that tries to measure complex attitudes and concepts across a range of different linguistic and cultural groups). 

Here are some other interesting conclusion pulled from this study:

Wolfers and his wife, the economist Betsey Stevenson, crunched the global data and arrived at some fascinating conclusions, including that feeling loved peaks when people are in their mid-30s or mid-40s, and that unmarried couples who live together report getting more love than married spouses. But perhaps their most interesting findings involved the complex relationship between money and love:

“What’s perhaps more striking is how little money matters on a global level. True, the populations of richer countries are, on average, slightly more likely to feel loved than those of poorer countries. But love is still abundant in the poorer countries: People in Rwanda and the Philippines enjoyed the highest love ratios, with more than nine in ten people providing positive responses. Armenia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, with economic output per person in the middle of the range, all had love ratios of less than four in ten.

Pretty interesting stuff. What do you think?

Love and Relationships in the 21st Century

In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, [Stephanie Coontz] surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible. She’d long known that the Leave It to Beaver–style family model popular in the 1950s and ’60s had been a flash in the pan, and like a lot of historians, she couldn’t understand how people had become so attached to an idea that had developed so late and been so short-lived.

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

– An excerpt from “All the Single Ladies” by Kate Bolick. It’s a long but interesting read.

Hat tip to my friend Colette for sharing this with me.

Labor of Love

In the following photo, Dr. Zbigniew Religa, a Polish cardiac surgeon who was one of the best in the field, monitors his patient after a successful 23-hour successful lung and heart transplant (his assistant is sleeping in the corner). The photo was among National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures.

The procedure took place in 1987 Communist Poland, with the technology of the time requiring constant monitoring and care — something Religa was willing to do even after nearly 24 hours of difficult surgery. The following is an interview with the photographer, James L. Stanfield:

He’d captured the anxious eyes of Dr. Zbigniew Religa tracking the vital signs of a heart-transplant patient. “I never let him out of my sight, never turned my back on him,” he says. “This was the payoff.”

It was 1987, in an outmoded operating room in post-Soviet Poland. Stanfield was looking for an image that would portray the critical state of the country’s free health-care system—and that’s exactly what he got.

His lens not only focuses on a dedicated surgeon’s eyes, but also on a patient hooked up to technologically outdated equipment. Stanfield also includes a weary staff member (far right) sleeping after assisting Religa with two transplants during an all-night session. “Each of these elements,” says Stanfield, “gives dimension and drama to the photograph, while helping tell a story”.

Here is a touching photo of the patient, no doubt grateful for the doctor’s dedication and skill.

I cannot imagine carrying out even the simplest task after nearly 24 strait hours, much less something as complex as a multi-organ transplant. This is a clear testament to the doctor’s skill and compassion.

Dr. Religa passed away in 2009 aged 70, two years after he finished serving as the Minister of Health of Poland.

Love and Vulnerability

The following comic is from a website called Zen Pencils, the brainchild of Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than, who creates illustrated adaptations of inspirational quotes by famous luminaries. I highly recommend paying the site a visit, as it offers a nice dose of wisdom in a palatable format.

In any case, I’ll likely be sharing more of these in the future. The following is one of my favorites.

Love and Vulnerability

If you put up walls to keep the bad out, you might prevent the good from coming in. To love someone is make yourself vulnerable, which is why love is so valuable in the first place.If you put up walls to keep the bad out, you might prevent the good from coming in. To love someone is make yourself vulnerable, which is why love is so valuable in the first place.

Unquenchable Love

Isidor and Ida Straus were a Jewish German-American couple who died together during the sinking of the Titanic. They were last seen seen standing near a lifeboat in the company of their maid. Despite being allowed to board the lifeboat, Isidor Straus refused to go as long as there were women and children still needing to escape.

However, he nonetheless urged his wife to board, though she refused, responding that “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” Her words were heard by several eyewitness. The couple were last seen standing arm in arm on the deck; they had been married 41 years and were survived by six children.

News of the their sacrifice and loyalty spread shortly after the disaster, including in Yiddish and German newspapers. There was even a popular song featuring the story of called “The Titanic’s Disaster”, which became popular among Jewish-Americans.

Although Isidor’s body was recovered, Ida’s body was not. A memorial dedicated to the couple can be found in their family mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Its inscription, quoted from the Bible, reads: “Many waters cannot quench love — neither can the floods drown it.”

Those who have seen James Cameron’s Titanic, might recall the following scene, which is allegedly based on the couple:

How Does a Polyamorous Relationship Work?

Polyamory, a term which entered the Oxford English Dictionary seven years ago describes the practice of having simultaneous intimate relationships with more than one person at a time, notably with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Unlike “swinging,” the intimacy isn’t merely temporary or recreational, but a full-blown romantic and sexual relationship. (Polygamy, which is much better known, is a kind of polyamorous relationships involving more than one spouse.)

Needless to say, while the practice has become comparatively more common — an estimated 500,000 such relationships are said to exist in the US alone — it can be very difficult wrap one’s head around it. After all,  isn’t sexual and relational exclusivity the cornerstone for deep, committed, long-term and truly loving relationships? How does one get around the jealousy and possessiveness  that seem intrinsic to intimate relationships?

Well, aside from trying to do more research yourselves — including seeking out polyamorous people  to engage with — the BBC offers a very good inside look at a polyamorous relationship involving four people. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to comment on it or explore the topic further, but it did certainly raise a lot of interesting reflection on the nation of human relationships, love, sex, boundaries, and the like. It’s important to note that just as with “conventional” romantic pairings, no two polyamorous relationships are alike.

It’s even more vital not to generalize or caricature what most of us immediately assume to be a degenerate or “lesser” kind of love. As with everything — especially interpersonal relationships — it’s a lot more complicated.

Please share your own thoughts, comments, or experiences. I’m hardly an expert on the subject and have only recently begun to explore it academically-speaking.

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?