On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.

The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?

The Joys of the Ordinary

The key to happiness — to a life that is not only comfortable, but fulfilling — is one of those loaded concepts that elicits a wide variety of answers and musings. But one consensus that seems to emerge among people of all ages and experiences is the notion that we must appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life — the little gifts that we take for granted yet would be much more miserable without.

The New York Times published a piece some time ago that explored this notion, citing some interesting research which, among other things, showed that the older one got, the more joy was derived from ordinary experiences. It seems that with time and experience, one learns to appreciate anything that our often difficult lives have to offer.

This is especially salient in a time of socioeconomic crisis, when people of all ages and backgrounds — but especially the younger and less wealthier — are finding their optimism and enthusiasm tested. Declining political and economic fortunes, combined with an uncertain future, would make happiness seem more elusive than ever, especially when compared to the more prosperous circumstances in which many older Americans came of age.

Amid the subsequently rising rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness, perhaps the age-old lesson of counting one’s blessings (in either the secular or religious sense) is as apt as ever. As the Times article noted, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays, the average person simply lacks the resources to enjoy an extraordinary life full of untold luxury, adventure, and other fulfilling activities — but nor should they require such approaches to be happy.

…plenty of people won’t have the money to go to faraway places or pay to jump out of airplanes. Low-cost extraordinary experiences may well be nearby, but there ought to be much comfort in the evidence that everyday things that cost little or nothing can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. All-you-can-consume subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify, with watchlists and playlists that stretch on for years.

This is not to say that we should give up on aiming for better lives; it goes without saying that, traveling the world, seeking a well-paying profession, and pursuing other life-affirming endeavors are still great goals (at least for some people). Nor should we simply accept the systemic sociopolitical and economic issues that have made it harder for most of us to reach our highest potential. But regardless of one’s circumstances, now and in the future, it seems sensible to make the most of what we can while we can, even if it is only in the process of realizing higher aspirations.

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to the value of this attitude. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from regular bouts of depression and anxiety; it has only been in recent years, as I approach my thirties, that I have mitigated these conditions by, among other things, deriving as much value from ordinary experiences as possible. Reading my books, listening to my favorite songs, tending to my garden, enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping in my warm bed — these are the little things in which I look forward to day-by-day.

These are the seemingly mundane activities and indulgences that are easy to take for granted, but are luxuries to so many other humans. While I nonetheless have aspirations for greater things — not least of which is traveling the world — in the meantime I am content enjoying the everyday pleasures that come with my good fortune to be alive and healthy.

 

A Brief Address to Former Strangers

One of the strangest feelings is looking back on the period of your life before you knew your current friends or lovers, while keeping in mind that they were still around out there. Before I knew any of you, we were each going about our own independent lives completely unaware of each other’s existence.

Then all of a sudden, on some fateful day, our lives intersected. Your presence became known, and our lives were no longer totally separate. From my perspective, your history doesn’t begin until I meet you.

Furthermore, you were a very different person before I got to know you, and visa versa: with time, I began to forget what it was like not to know or love you; it starts to feel like you were always there in my life. Even if we lose touch, our lives will remain irreversibly influenced or impacted in some way. You’ll be a part of my narrative in some way or another until my story ends (and visa versa).

I wonder what other former strangers will enter my life. People I could never conceive may some day spontaneously cross paths and become acquaintances, colleagues, friends, lovers, and maybe even enemies. It is both exciting and, given my recurring social anxiety, a bit scary at the same time.

My Ambivalence on Human Nature

It is astounding how just a cursory glance of the human condition at any given moment can simultaneously yield so much good and evil. Browsing through one day’s worth of news, I can find such a mixed bag of humanity’s best and worst tendencies. It puts my mood in such a flux.

I will read an article about an altruistic act, a peace accord, the lifting of millions from poverty, or some other event on either a micro or macro level that demonstrates moral and social progress. Then right after I see some stomach-churning demonstration of cruelty, whether it is a heinous crime, warfare, or the immiseration of millions by a seemingly impervious regime.

After so many weeks, months, and years of taking it all in, both academically and autodidactically, it is difficult for me to be consistently cynical or optimistic about the course of humanity. Perhaps this is to be expected, since our thoughts and worldviews are shaped by our experience and knowledge, both of which are continuously changing.

As it stands, I suppose I am currently cautiously optimistic, because we have nonetheless come a long way as a species, even if innumerable vices and problems remain. I see the potential for progress and prosperity, even amid so many reminders of our proneness to fallibility, apathy, and hatred.

I think it is worth acknowledging that suffering would remain even with the best intentions. There are still the vagaries of natural disasters, disease, and simple misfortune (accidents and what not). The impact of all these factors can and have been reigned in, but I feel it is only up to a point.

Sorry if my thoughts seem all over the place, this was sort of a stream of consciousness. It goes without saying that I am fortunate to have the luxury to pontificate on such things in so much comfort, largely by an accident of birth.

 

Reflections Upon Mild Sadness

I fell asleep sorrowful, filled with a vague foreboding of coming trouble…That precaution of love against death, even in the presence of abounding life, caused my thoughts to wander all night about those scenes where I had passed, without knowing it, the happiest hours of my life.

– Jorge Isaacs, Maria

It has been a while since I have written a personal post, so I know it must be strange to see these sad musings amid sociopolitical topics. But as the tagline says, this blog is about wherever my mind takes me, and right now it is a sad place.

I have been feeling quite a bit of melancholy lately, a sort of mild, back-of-the-mind type of sadness that keep resurfacing throughout the day and especially at night. I have no idea what has triggered — there is almost never a clear reason for it — but I know that a lot of nostalgia is emerging as well; I miss the simpler and more naive times; old hangouts, friends, first-experiences. 

And while I indulgently reflect upon the past, I start to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — a futile endeavor, I know, but I cannot help myself. I know I was younger and stupider back then (as we all our), I know that I am looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with information I could not have possible known at the time of my dumb, regrettable decisions. But I nonetheless still go down all these hypothetical paths that I will never truly know.

Ultimately (and graciously), these feelings pass quickly; as I said, it is all very mild and subdued. But it still lingers to some degree, and I worry if this is simply the way I am. For as long as I can remember, I have always been nagged by some sort of worry or melancholy even when I am otherwise happy. Maybe it can be attributed to the intrusive thoughts characteristic of OCD, or maybe it is the clinical depression or dysthymia that I suspect I have. I do not know, but I suspect I am going to have to get used to it.

Thankfully, I find myself handling these things better than I once did. Life goes on, and I continue to find little ways to cheer up and move forward — from the simple joys of green tea, good music, and a walk through the park, to deeper focus on goals, fitness regimens, and planned trips. I am mercifully surrounded by potential and opportunity. I just need to find the courage to take action and overcome the fear of what if; I just need to embrace the adventure of the unknown rather than dwell on ephemeral and pointless nostalgia. 

Writing these like this certainly helps bring clarity and organization to my disjointed and intangible thoughts. Thanks for reading my friends. I hope you are all well.

Brief Reflections on the World Cup

Although I am not a huge sports fan, I must admit that the energy surrounding the World Cup can be infectious, such that I find myself enjoying some of the games. Soccer is one of the few truly global institutions in our increasingly globalized world, enjoyed by literally billions of people across the planet.

Hundreds of millions of people from all walks of life are, in one way or another, taking part in the same collective experience. Not to sound sappy, but imagine — never in our thousands of years on this earth have so many people across so many different boundaries shared in one thing.

To be clear, I am not naive about or in disagreement with the various criticisms and controversies surrounding this particular World Cup and FIFA in general (which are similar to what bedevils the Olympics and the OIC). I just find it fascinating from an anthropological and historical perspective how something can transcend so many different cultures and nationalities.

Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

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?