Thursday, May 21, 2009

Let's agree to disagree

"One of the worst problems in America--not just in America, everywhere--is demonizing. If you disagree with a person, then you think they are a demon. I don't think people realize the cost of hatred; how it not only corrodes the person feeling it but makes the possibility of persuasive conversation with the hated person impossible. Hatred has only one object: hurting the target. I think it is very important to disagree without venomous hatred, without insult. No one changes their view, or even considers a differing view if it is presented as a personal attack."--Paul Ekman, from Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, PhD.

This past Mother's Day, my mother went to a brunch at my aunt and uncle's house (I couldn't be with her that Sunday, but saw her the following weekend.) She told me that a woman I had met before, an older woman related to my aunt, was there with her boyfriend. Apparently the topic turned to gay marriage, and this woman (let's call her Bea) was vehemently opposed to the idea and wasn't shy about expressing her disdain. My mother said, "It was a good thing you weren't there." And I thought about that. Usually I steer clear of weighty topics like gay marriage and immigration rights and abortion and organized religion--even politics--unless I know the person I'm talking to feels the same as I do. I also think you should respect people who are older than you. But is silence a form of agreement? And if I were to actually argue with someone whose beliefs diametrically opposed my own, could I keep it civil?

It's like when someone criticizes you or does something that feels like an infringement. Do you retaliate or walk away? I'm sometimes caught by surprise by my own venom. If I feel someone has disrespected me or done something rude, I often get very, very angry, spitting angry. For someone who likes to get along with people, there's a part of me that also wants to slap them at the least provocation. But if I retaliate, or if I argue, isn't that escalating things? And won't that make the situation worse?

In 2004 I marched in a women's right to choose rally on Washington. Bush was in office and women's reproductive rights were being threatened. Because I surround myself with people who share my liberal views, I was taken aback by all the pro-life advocates who lined the streets where we were marching. I held up a sign that an artistically-gifted friend of mine had made for me--a dove with a gag in its beak--meant to represent the global gag rule. It was a kid's drawing compared to the visceral, bloodied, and horrific signs the pro-lifers displayed. At first I recoiled, and even felt hate rising in me for these people. But then I thought--this is what animal rights activists do--show shocking pictures of abused animals--and you support them. These protesters are just trying to get their point across, and a graphic visual may be the only thing that registers with people. Still, I felt angry. In fact, even though I was too much of a coward to say anything, I was secretly pleased to be walking next to a very vocal marcher who shouted down the pro-lifers with absolute ferocity.

But that's the problem, isn't it? For all the times that I seethed at the people storming the gates of Notre Dame when Obama was giving the commencement address, or crossed the street when I saw anti-gay marriage protestors, wasn't I shutting myself off from trying to understand people who happen to have an opposing view? Growing up in the Northeast, I'm so buffeted by liberalism that I have become the very elitist that infuriates the right-leaning.

Now that Obama is in office and trying to make both party sides come together, I've been thinking about how you make change in the world. It's not by being hateful of others because of their differing beliefs. It's about expressing your view, calmly and peacefully, while allowing other people to disagree. What would have been accomplished if I had yelled across the table at Bea about how gays should have the same rights as everyone else? I could have still made my opinion known, while keeping things pleasant between us, therefore not ruining the entire brunch! And I wouldn't be left seething and angry and distant--and ultimately sorry that I had lashed out.

This is why I hate talk shows where liberals and conservatives are pitted against each other like roosters in a cock fight. The only thing that comes out of it is a lot of ruffled feathers and a dead rooster.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Loneliness of the Internet User

"Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection--or compassionate action."--Daniel Goleman, from Social Intelligence

As someone who likes to write, I go back and forth about whether I should write about myself and my personal experiences, or stop navel-gazing and write about other people. Write what you know versus be creative. Great writers (and actors and other artistic types) are empathetic enough that they can write about someone else's experiences and make it sound completely authentic. They get inside their characters' minds. I'd like to to be able to do that. Problem is, I often feel like I don't really KNOW what other people are thinking or experiencing. I've lost some of my ability to pick up on subtle clues--non-verbal signs that tell you what the other person is feeling. So instead I turn inward, and write about what's going on there. And I'm worried that it's a slippery-slope leading to self-absorption. And one of the things I'm working on here is to become a more compassionate person. So I find my goals and my reality are at odds.

I think the problem lies in a lack of close personal connections. For this, I partly blame the internet.

Much of this blog is about finding a way to connect--to my neighbors, to old friends, to my family, even to strangers (maybe even especially strangers, since I don't know a lot of people in Boston yet.) I have a love/hate relationship with technology because on the one hand it allows us to do so much that we couldn't do even five years ago (maybe I'd heard of blogging back then, but it took me a long time to catch up!) On the other hand, I feel like it's also isolating. Mike and I talked about this the other night--how we have so many ways to reach out to people--social networks, texting, email. But we have less really close friends. And this is not an original idea I'm having--there was a study done that said people in 1985 had more close friends living in their community than they do presently. Back in 1985, I was in junior high school, and though I'd never want to go through THAT again, I did have many good friends who I saw everyday. Now I'm lucky to see my friends once a month.

Yesterday I signed up on Facebook for the first time--ostensibly for work, but I was also curious about it on a personal level. I looked up my old classmates from the two high schools I attended. At first it was really interesting to see pictures of people I had grown up with. Many posed with husbands and children. Some had moved away, but most had stayed in New Jersey, where I'm from. I was disappointed that some of the people I had lost touch with weren't on Facebook, so I wouldn't get the chance to reconnect with them. I wondered what I would say to people I "friended." Would we just trade facts about our lives--the best and most shiny bits--or would we actually become real friends? It seems like the former is most likely.

My point is, I much prefer to meet people in person and actually interact with them. It's too easy to hide behind an avatar. Technology might have brought us some fun and innovative ways to communicate, and I do like blogging and getting comments from some really wonderful people whom I wouldn't have had the chance to meet otherwise. But I can't help feeling that the internet is killing the way things used to be, when you knew your neighbors and people came together to help each other, and you met people face to face. If we don't know the people around us, and just know old and new friends by pictures on MySpace or as a curvaceous avatar on Second Life, will that kill our compassion for the live, flesh and blood people all around us? I live in a major American city, and I have access to lots of ways to socialize on the Net. So why do I feel so alienated sometimes?

I wonder how others feel about this...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

As inevitable as death and taxes...

"The Buddha taught that among the most predictable human sufferings are sickness and old age."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

When I turned 26 back in 1999, I thought that was over-the-hill. I told myself I had to do everything a young single person would do before I hit 27 and it was too late. I started roller-blading. I got my belly button pierced (surprisingly, my mother was more upset about it than my Sicilian father, who thought it was cute.) For one carefree month in the summer I was dating two different guys. I quit my editorial assistant job with the bad boss and started working for a start-up, where they let me write about books all day. 26 turned out to be a pretty good year. But it really had nothing to do with my physical age, just my resolve to make some changes, to take some risks.

On Sunday I turned 36. I was again struck by the feeling that I was over-the-hill--maybe even past the hill and heading for the ravine. I started performing the highly unhelpful exercise of comparing myself to others my age. I have some high-achieving friends and many of them are now having babies or planning to, while still keeping their careers. I admire them because they are making things happen. They're evolving, and each time we talk there's something new about them.

I'm trying to find my own path, one that won't be including children but will include other things that make life worthwhile--helping others, a personal passion, creativity, travel, love. This blog has helped a lot and so has volunteering. In a little over a month we'll be going to Europe, to a city where I've never been. But there's still a question mark when I think of the future--what will it bring, what will I do to make it good? On bad days I imagine all my efforts at happiness leading to the day when I'm old and alone in a one-bedroom apartment with my cats and the television always on. On good days, I think of the people in my life now, and those I have yet to meet, plus the places I'll go with Mike and the new experiences I can still have as long as I stay healthy and can be brave.

I will grow old and get sick--that is inescapable (unless of course I die young--slipping on a wet floor, for example, or getting hit by a cab. I'm fairly clutzy and spacey.) But I don't have to let age hold me back from enjoying myself. I don't have to focus on it as much as I do, use it as an excuse for not trying new things. I have to let go of the idea of expiration dates, stop looking backwards at the 26 year-old me without cellulite on my legs or a mortgage cutting into my spending money. I need to focus on where I'm at right now, and appreciate it. After all, in ten years I'll be complaining about being 46...ect, etc.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Dalai Lama, live in Boston!

"Physical comfort does not equal mental happiness. Mental happiness can subdue physical discomfort but not the opposite: physical comfort cannot subdue mental unhappiness."--His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

Mike and I went to see the Dalai Lama speak at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on Saturday. We had to get up at 6 to be there at 9, but we were early so I got to have coffee and a coconut donut at Dunkin Donuts.

The crowd was a mix of ages but not as ethnically diverse as I would have expected. We saw some Tibetans in traditional satin dresses and cotton prayer shawls. It was overcast and a little chilly so I didn't even try to dress nicely, just put on a pair of jeans and sneakers and a rain shell. We waited on various lines, one when we were passing through security, one when I stopped off at the ladies room (where Mike reported women going in through the exit to avoid the long line--not very kind of them!) and then a final line to get our orange arm bands. The lines weren't very well-organized; Mike pointed out that they sure got enough people to work the concessions, but not as many people to keep the event running smoothly. Skirting the concessions were stalls of Buddhist knick-knacks, prayers flags, and shawls, but I have trouble with that because I don't want to get too invested in "the stuff." Yes, the lotus candle holders and the gold Buddha statues are nice, but I don't want to cheapen my learning experience by loading up on tat--it just seems counter-intuitive, and oh so American (Western?) to be shopping at a Dalai Lama talk.

Once on the floor of the stadium, we sat down on fold-out chairs. Because the lines had been so confusing and long, we missed the introduction. Mike had gotten irritated, and I started to feel my peaceful cocoon of lovingkindess slip off and get trampled in the crowd. I don't like crowds, and the papers reported after the fact that there had been 16,000 people there.

The Dalai Lama was already seated cross-legged on the teak chair built for him by the Tibetan Association of Boston. When I first heard him speak, for some reason his thick accent surprised me. Did I think he was going to sound like Dan Rather? I had my little notebook with me, and I started writing down strings of words, but I couldn't seem to comprehend full sentences. There were lots of pauses and sometimes D.L. would lean over and speak to his translator, a handsome gray-haired and very capable looking man, and then that man would speak. But even coming from him--a man whose accent was slight--I had a hard time following the talk. Mike was also taking notes, and he got a lot more down than I did. Something about Europe and America having lots of material wealth but spiritual emptiness and unhappiness (check.) Physical comfort doesn't bring mental happiness (is he sure about that?) And then the big questions: what is self? Where does self begin? Where does self end? Buddhists believe that there's no separate "self," just body and mind. And the mind can cause a lot of problems when it's delusional or otherwise afflicted. I thought of the trouble that negative thoughts had caused me over the years; Mike, too. I'd love to lasso all those free-floating thoughts once and for all, kick them to the curb where they won't bother anybody.

Throughout, I wanted to ask some very basic questions, or ask for more examples, but of course I was just one among thousands and I think I would have had a hard time articulating myself anyway.

He was a funny guy, that Dalai Lama--several times he laughed this hearty laugh that made everyone else--serious and solemn for the most part--crack up too.

He ended his talk by reciting a prayer, but the person in charge of the widescreen where the words to the prayer were flashed must have fallen asleep, because the wrong text kept displaying. Finally, only His Holiness and the few who knew the words by heart recited them.

There was music and dance to come, and then an afternoon program about peace and love in today's world. I don't know why I didn't want to stay. Well I do--I was cold and felt tired from the sugar crash from the coconut donut, and I was already looking ahead to dinner with Mike that night. It was my birthday this weekend and he was going to take me somewhere nice. I'd need to shower and change, and before that, wouldn't it be nice to just laze around on the sofa for a few hours with the cat, and read my thick novel?

So there you have it. It was an interesting experience to see such a respected, noble man--a rock star, really--in person, but it would have been nicer if it was a small group setting and not in a football stadium. I still wasn't getting the idea that physical comfort does not bring mental happiness. I love being comfortable--warm, well-fed, with my husband or my cat sitting with me on the couch. Does this mean I don't belong on the path?

I heard that after we left, the clouds parted and the sun came out, and the D.L. wore a Patriots cap, which made everyone cheer. I kind of wished we had stayed, but there were no lines when we stopped for take-out lunch at a neighborhood restaurant that afternoon. Comfort trumped mental least for the time being.