Thursday, April 15, 2010

Is the Age of Experience Awakening Our Innate Predisposition toward Compassion?

As a person who’s battled with depression there are two types of circumstances that can send me down a dark path. Surprisingly, personal problems aren’t as devastating to me as their counterpart: global problems. For better or worse, I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve certainly had my fair share of personal heartache and seemingly insurmountable challenges, but in the end things always get at least somewhat better, and they get better because ultimately I’m in control. I’m in control of my actions and my decisions, including the decision to be optimistic. If there’s one thing I do well, it’s persevere. My tenacity is almost equivalent to my stubbornness, and if you know me then you know just how stubborn I can be. Recently, however, I feel as if I’m miles down a dark path riddled with tricks and traps as I contemplate the state of humanity.

It think the beginning of this path was forged with good intentions by people who pioneered into the unknown – people who undoubtedly were also optimists at one time. The story of the people who wore down the earth to forge this path is one we’re familiar with. It parallels the iconic migration of some of the first Americans to the west. Lured by hopefulness and opportunity, people who would otherwise never have a chance to better their lot in life seized this once in a lifetime chance make their lives better and to better the lives of their family. But you know what they say: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

My decent down this well-worn path started when my husband-to-be injured his knee at work one night. The next morning he woke up to a knee, calf, and ankle that were all about twice the size as they should be – the fluid from his knee had spread and descended down his leg. We were to be married in two days, and all he wanted was to be able to make it through the wedding. The morning after, still with no improvement, we went to emergency care. When the woman at the desk asked him “marital status”, we looked at each other and chuckled. “Married, I guess,” he said. “We just got married last night!” And we had. Poor guy spent most of the night in a chair with his leg propped up, standing only for the vows and the cutting of cake. Long story short, he couldn’t return to work without having been cleared by an orthopedist, so the next day he contacted his company’s insurance company and filed the workers comp claim needed for the orthopedist appointment. The claim was immediately denied – as soon as he could get anyone who answered the phone at the insurance company to not hang up on him, which took several days. Now he can’t go see the orthopedist under his personal insurance, because he already made the claim that the injury happened at work, and if he tries to use his personal insurance he can get sued by his insurance company for insurance fraud. Worse still, because he was denied and because he didn’t show up to work, he can now be “fired” for being a no-show, rendering it impossible for him to collect unemployment. With no workers comp, no unemployment, and the inability to see an orthopedist, this never-miss-a-day-of-work perfect work ethic ironworker is now left in need of medical help he cannot get, and he’s lost wages, to boot, because it’s standard practice for workers comp insurance to deny all initial claims, and it’s probably also “procedure” for his company to fire him instead of lay him off for not showing up.

According to the Buddhists, the three poisons – or the three reasons behind the root of all suffering in the world – are greed, hatred, and ignorance. Now, I want you to understand that my mention of Buddhist teachings isn’t intended to convince you that Buddhism should be your religion. Religion is an odd word, and I personally think we as a society assign more meaning to it that was ever intended. In fact, the principles taught in Buddhism for how to live one’s life are the same principles that exist at the core of Christianity and Islam – just by different names. I choose Buddhism to illustrate, because it’s somehow managed to not be bastardized or disguised over time as a defense for any one man’s power struggle (hello, greed). Regardless, as an eternal optimist I find the teachings in Buddhism to be utterly practical. When I get angry, I’m able to ask myself why and the real root of my anger can always be attributed to greed, hatred, or ignorance. Fear is tied in here as well, since these three reasons are underlying reasons for fear. I begin to wonder, however, in times like this if anyone else ever thinks about what they’re doing – the foremen, the claim managers, the people at the top who make the rules that X decision is always made when Y happens so I can keep my job, so I have a job, or so that I’m able to increase our annual profits. Greed.

The further I allow my mind to travel down this dark path, the more frustrated I get with humanity. The path is dark, but people are there – they’ve just encapsulated themselves within tall, thick walls. At one point in time this concrete jungle may have been an open-air market, but over time the desire for money forced these very entities that were instituted to help others to ignore them. When this happened enough, the entities who were successfully greedy cannibalized the entities who weren’t as greedy, and individuals lost their jobs. Needing to provide for their families, these individuals made the choice to ignore other people just like them, and wanting their piece of the pie, they assumed functions in the greed machine. Luckily, over time, ignoring your fellow man gets easier, and you become complacent in the monotony of helping to build the walls taller and thicker. You may claim you want things to be different – hell, sometime you even participate in protests, which makes you feel better about choosing to continue to allow that very hand you protest against to feed you and your children. But do you really do anything to support the cause of your fellow man? If you’re one of these people functioning in the greed machine, your existence is neither rich nor secure, even if your very participation in the machine makes you rich and secure. We’ve turned into a reactionary, selfish society that willingly makes the decision to be ignorant just so we can hit the snooze button for 5 more minutes, over and over, knowing full well that our happiness is merely a dream, when what we really need to do is collectively wake up and contribute to creating true happiness by exhibiting compassion toward others. THIS is what I’m consumed by on a daily basis.

We’re each responsible for ourselves, which is part of the reason I become more upset when I actually think about how we operate collectively in the world than I do when I’m faced with personal adversity. I can make choices that directly correlate and contribute to my overcoming something I perceive as needing to be fixed in my own life, but I feel overwhelmed and out of control when I consider the miniscule part I can play in righting humanity’s wrongs. Why does it get to me? I guess I’ve already woken up and had my coffee. Even if I lied back down and tried to fall back asleep, I don’t know that I could ever return to the dream and have it not be a nightmare. I suppose that’s why so many people refuse to wake up in the first place.

Doing the right thing isn’t easy, especially if it’s contrary to everything we’re taught, directly or indirectly. We’re taught to follow the rules because they’re the rules and not question them. As children we ask “why” and are fed responses like “because I’m your parent and I said so” or “don’t question authority”. In an effort to make things momentarily easier on ourselves we condition our children to unconditionally follow man-made rules instead of to employ logic or to explore a gut feeling. The gut feeling becomes so suppressed so early on that it becomes harder and harder to recall and employ. And meanwhile, when faced with personal adversity, we sometimes become confused and overwhelmed. We’re not used to doing what’s right – the hard and often painful work of self exploration that leads to personal growth and betterment, so we turn to artificial methods of escape. Within our concrete jungle and brick walls we put cardboard boxes over our heads through the overuse of drugs, alcohol, sex, and food. For some of us, the trigger to put the boxes over our heads may have actually been a glimpse reality and a twinge in our gut.

But I said that I was an optimist, and I am. I hold onto the belief that deep down every single person knows the difference between right and wrong, even if they don’t know they do and can’t verbally articulate it. If we didn’t, I think there’s a damn good chance that we’d quite literally no longer be here right now. The thread that holds us together is that shred of wanting to do the right thing that no matter how buried has the strength to present itself to us, giving us the option: use it as a tool to do right or don’t. Choose to express compassion or give in to greed.  If you’ve never made a decision or performed an act out of true compassion before, then you won’t believe me when I say that personal rewards you will get for having made that choice are inexplicably and inconceivably more joyous than the result of anything you will ever obtain from greed. Your head may know it should increase excitement as numerical values increase, but the happiness you reap from compassion is more intense and not felt in your head but in your chest – at your very core. Greed may be addictive, but luckily compassion is too.

The mechanism for unleashing compassion is mindfulness – an awareness of your surroundings, your choices, and their implications. Mindfulness employs the use of logic and welcomes questioning. And if you ask enough questions to find the motivation behind your would-be actions, the only conclusion you can arrive at is the compassionate one. Whether you choose to follow the conclusion or not is entirely up to you, but by practicing this over and over it will become harder to ignore choosing compassion.

It may sound crazy, but I think we’re more ready to wake up than we realize. In the mid-20th century our country and culture were in the midst of the mechanical age – we were focused on producing physical goods and finding new and better ways for machines to work. The 1980s brought with them the age of information, where we were introduced to the computer chip and fiber optics and when a college education became a universal requirement to obtain a white-collar job. Now, we’re in the age of experience, with our smart phones and our iPads literally changing how we interact with and experience information, which in turn impact our other experiences and our expectations for their outcome. Who do you know that has had an iPhone and has decided to abandon it at the end of their contract because they don’t like the functionality? The reason Apple has done so well (and why Jonathan Ive is a fucking genious) is because they’ve cornered the market on the experience.  After using a device like an iPhone we expect things to be presented to us simply and logically, just like they are on the iPhone. I’m fully convinced that Ive and the developers at Apple have somehow tapped into the very method by which we all employ logic and have translated that into hardware and applications that mimic something that is innate to us. By using these tools and applications that to some are nothing more than an aid for modern convenience, that logical sequence of questioning and decision making that we have strayed so far from is being reintroduced to our brains. We repeat the actions that mimic our own innate logical thought processes hundreds of times a day, and by doing this we’re preparing ourselves for a personal and global revolution.

I’m also heartened that there’s hope for humanity when I sit back and look at the communities people have created on Twitter. Twitter?! Yes, Twitter. No one is stopping you as a Twitter user from simply copying and pasting tweets others have posted – there are no rules – but as a community Twitter users don’t do it; they retweet, giving credit where credit is due. And if you don’t retweet and claim a tweet as your own instead, you’re more than likely going to get called out on it by your followers or the person from whom you ripped the tweet in the first place. As a community, tweeters have collectively and organically embraced doing the right thing.

Even more heartening than the previous example, however, is the very product of the Twitter community and the impact it has had on consumerism. To use a really dated metaphor, I no longer have to rely on Rolling Stone or Spin magazine to find new music I might be interested in. With Twitter I simply throw a question out and receive dozens if not more replies suggesting new music I might be interested in, and better yet the recommendations are coming from people I know or people I can get to know by reviewing their profile and tweets, and I don’t know about you, but I trust their opinions a hell of a lot more than I do the opinion of a guy I don’t know from Adam sitting behind a desk in the Rolling Stone newsroom. We have created a community that enables us to rid ourselves of our own reliance on companies to tell us what we want. And by breaking that link, we’re again learning and practicing thinking for ourselves!

It’s funny too when you think about what companies are actively participating as respected members of the Twitter community. I feel like I know the CEO of, Tony, just as well as I do some fellow rollergirls from across the country who I also follow on Twitter. I’ve also seen Zappos come up in the media quite a bit – they’re featured on a website about National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day (which is tomorrow, BTW), and I also recall seeing video of their renaissance-themed company picnic recently too. I’ve shopped at Zappos a fair bit, and I’ve had to return things on occasion or sometimes things take a little long to arrive – their staff and policies have actually shocked me by how helpful they have been at times, as they go above and beyond for their customers.

Now think about AIG Insurance company. After doing a really quick search, the only profiles I found that I thought might be verified as real are spoof profiles: @AIGExecutive and @AIGexec (if the 1st one’s real, I feel really bad for the guy). These are the people who deny claims so that they can make even more money. Oh, I should clarify that AIG as a brand no longer exists. Their current automated phone message introduces them as something else, “formerly AIG”. Funny it’s so hard to find someone who represents them on Twitter (sarcasm, people). Their lack of a presence says one of two things to me. Either they don’t care what their customers or potential customers think of them as a brand, or they know full well that walking into such a forum could only further harm their reputation. They’re bad – they know it. The really awesome thing about them not being respected members of the Twitter community is that they’re really missing the boat and probably haven’t the slightest clue that there’s a revolution brewing, or they just don’t care, which I’m also perfectly fine with. There’s a little thing about business that you can’t succeed without, and it’s called innovation. If these morally corrupt companies continue to chase a golden age that’s already passed, they’re contributing to their own demise. The innate want to do the right thing and be compassionate is reverberating in so many unexpected places due to the present age of experience. The very things that have been created out of greed to generate revenue are the things that are being used to wake us up, and to me that’s exciting!

The more we interact with this technology the more mindful we will hopefully become, but don’t wait for the bug to enter your brain – be mindful now. Mindfulness is referred to by many different names and concepts. If you’re involved in roller derby, you’ve undoubtedly heard of The Douche Bag Rule, as coined by Trish the Dish: don’t be a douche bag. Just don’t. Think before you act. We’re all here to have a good time, so don’t be a douche bag and ruin it for everyone else. If you do, your community might just turn on you. I’ve seen it happen in derby – acting like an asshole isn’t tolerated, and I’m excited to see the day where it isn’t tolerated out in the rest of the world as well, but that’s up to you and me. If we choose not to tolerate it, things will eventually change. Please do your part, and I’ll continue to do mine.


Midlife Crashes said...

Fantastic blog post. I'm going to remind myself to go back & read it several more times. I've been thinking a lot about mindfulness this week--must be no coincidence that you chose to write about it!

Bob said...

I'm the biggest douche bag there... no one has yet turned on me.

-Thai Fighter