On Generosity

I haven’t written a new post in a long time – seven months, though to be honest, it seems like even longer. So long that I kind of forget how to use the interface of my host website. I’ve been busy, I suppose (haven’t we all?); I’ve been frustrated, down in the dumps, elated, exhausted, well-rested, depending on the day. Haven’t we all? I had post ideas that quickly receded as the news coverage shifted: Notre Dame as an emblem of impermanence (I may write that yet, but also, duh); on the beauty of dating yourself, even when you have a partner (not sure that one shouldn’t be consigned to the recycle bin forever).

But today, in the middle of another busy Monday, in a quiet pause between meetings, I find that I do want to say a wee something, at least as a placeholder, about generosity, the nuances of which knit communities together, and the absence of which can very easily erode them, or (if I’m to stick with the knitting metaphor)…unravel them, tear holes in them, and so on.

Before I say a bunch of things about this abstract noun, though, it seems like it might be a good idea to define it, conceptual rather than dictionary style.

Generosity. A word generally, I think, associated with material goods, and with time (also seen as goods, and in our culture, imbricated with money, as in “time is money” just for starters). 

But it’s also, I hope, a word that brings empathy to mind, and a cluster of related concepts: giving the benefit of the doubt; kindness; a certain divesting of our default-mode assumptions. 

All of these things require one other expansive concept: pausing. This idea itself has been coopted by the corporate world, to some extent, in the idea that it’s better to respond (which requires waiting a beat, which requires pausing) than react.

But just because the corporate world occasionally gets it right doesn’t mean they have invented (hardly ever) or trademarked a concept, or that we should cede it to them and to their twisty language (and no, I will not be generous on that front). Not when pausing is so important; not when moving through the world too quickly makes it difficult to be generous. Not given the necessity of taking time (there is that word again) to imagine the worldview of someone who is not me, to allow an idea to take shape and form, to put a pen to paper. (Which is now, mostly, a metaphor for typing on a computer.)

Because the pause is where we can admit of someone else’s humanity; where the thing that needs to be said can crystalize. The pause is everything. 

The pause, whatever I use it for – to take a breath, to remember that I’m irritable today, to think, ‘I have worth, here; may I be happy; how do I want to respond?’ – gets me closer to a place of generosity, even when the person I am being generous to is myself.

The pause is the thing that can be difficult to find when my heart is racing and I feel cornered. The pause is a thing I can choose to remember at the beginning of the day, as a kind of intention: may I remember to pause.

The idea of generosity has for too long has been weaponized by those in power to retain it, as Kate Manne so artfully demonstrates; “himpathy” is, of course, real. The pause enacted for those who already have power – and judgment rendered far too quickly for those who do not. Those worthy of our generosity are often, in our patriarchal and racist culture, the Everyman whose perspective is white, the only race that is not-race, on which see Robin D’Angelo. Be generous to the perpetrator; blame the victim; if I like it so should you; if it doesn’t bother me but does you, you are deficient in some way; lighten up; get a life; and so on.

This version of empathy – commanded only by the powerful few – has held sway for so long because we imagine the white male perspective to be the universal one. What is important here, in this blog post, is that – at least I think so – we all also tend to imagine our own individual perspectives as universal, insofar as we imagine they should apply to everyone else (even when we are able, intellectually, to see that this isn’t the case).

What am I saying? That what yokes us together is, paradoxically, our insistence that we are special, and also our insistence that this specialness undergirds the world: our views are the views and express what other people should also think and know and experience. I am suggesting that recognizing this pattern might help us to be more generous. That where I sit on the hierarchy of privilege inevitably affects how I talk about experience; that the absence of generosity (and creativity, and empathy) those who sit above me frequently derives from the assumption that their perspective is the perspective. I have had very tall white men say that they have never experienced gender discrimination, let’s say; therefore, it doesn’t exist. I have no doubt made similarly unfeeling comments to people of color. 

Generosity requires that, living as we do inside one skin suit until we die, we pause, occasionally anyway, to ask whether what we experience is really the same as everyone else; and if we think it must be, to ask – but how can we know? 

And it means extending the same curiosity and even skepticism to our own ideas, to thinking expansively about our contributions to the world, in whatever form those take. They don’t have to be the best; they don’t have to be right. It is not a contest, whatever our metaphorical commonplaces, especially in the United States, might tell us.

Generosity means thinking beyond the bounds of self to the communities that make possible whatever the work is we do, whatever groups of people we know. And generosity is as good a place as any to start.

**The image is a picture I took in San Francisco; I’m posting it here because it’s beautiful, the street art, not my pic of it.

Facebook Likes

In my last post, I wrote about new things coming from old things. This post is also, in a way, about that – about a New Year’s resolution that I might actually achieve. It doesn’t matter that it’s the middle of February.

I have resolved to “like” more of the posts I see on Facebook. This is not the most salutary resolution in the History of Time; but I’ve already seen most of my New Year’s resolutions pass me by (what were they, again?) – and this one seems achievable. And it does not require me resolving to use social media less – which is part of its charm. Because I do, continually, resolve to use it less; I do, always, have mixed feelings about its utility and its complex effects on modern politics. But I don’t quit it, and so I’d like to use it better than I do (which is, lately, to post pictures of my kitten, which trend apparently everyone has noticed. Yes, I like him; yes, it will stop eventually).

Let me explain. People talk about “likes”; I’ve heard them do so, anyway. Certainly my students do. (See what I did there? Distanced this phenomenon – wanting likes – from me by a certain number of decades, as though I, too, were not a party to it.) People talk about which posts garner the most likes; people craft their online personas in order to collect and display, as if in a glass case, virtual affection.

People seem to focus, sometimes anyway, on this phenomenon more than on life – the live blogging of an event, posting pictures to Facebook of the person when you’re with the person. Messaging back and forth on social media, also when you are literally with the person. I know of what I speak – I have done this, occasionally. It is a truism that we think too carefully and too much about our selves, the crafting of our selves, our brands. It is a truism that the contrast between the shiny picture on social media and the patina of real life can breed discontent and even depression, to say nothing of envy.

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New Things, Old Things

In my first two posts, I wrote about interconnection, loneliness, and what brings us together: life just sucking, sometimes; humaning being hard.

Here, I want to introduce another idea central to this blog: that we are connected to the past, too, whether or not any of you know Chaucer (or any other old poet). We don’t earn this connection: it is ours because we are here, and it links us to other people who have lived, and to the ideas that circulate in the world – all of them.

I love the tree I’ve chosen for this post’s image. It sits – lies, really – in a bird sanctuary in Chicago. I paid it no attention at first, until a friend pointed out that it wasn’t dead; I’m not sure I would have noticed, otherwise, the stubborn new saplings growing from its hefty and broken trunk.

They are wee, after all, and in the picture it’s hard to spot them. We photographed the tree from multiple angles, and each time the camera seemed defiant, the branches incognito.

It was hard to tell, in the pictures, that the saplings were connected to the old tree at all.

As it so often is, I think, with new things.

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Humaning Is Hard

I recently came across this meme: “Humaning is hard until one day you decide it isn’t. When you change your mind, you change your life.”

Memes like this are, if not antithetical to connection, disruptive of it. Memes like this keep us separate – from each other and from ourselves.

Here’s why.

First. This meme takes it for granted that your mind governs your relationship to reality. That difficulty is always and only a matter of perspective – that difficulty is a decision that we all make.

Of course, as scientists have been showing us, our minds do kind of govern our relationship to reality. But that neurological complexity is not what this meme is after here.

Instead, the idea draws on the cult of positive thinking: that no matter the trouble, if we change our attitudes – or “change” our very minds, whatever that may mean – we will, literally, alter the environments we inhabit.

I understand the basic impulse underlying this sentiment: that cultivating gratitude and rejecting negativity for its own sake are pathways to, if not happiness, then peace, equilibrium. That we sometimes complain too much; that many of us have more privilege than we can hold. I know I do. And an emphasis on gratitude is right, and good: gratitude has indeed been shown to increase general well-being and compassion, lower blood pressure, and help us feel more connected.

But what I take to be the meme’s intentions, as it were, do not square with what the meme literally says: that we all decide on difficulty. For so many of us, that is not the case: our circumstances are real, and they are present. The disjointed and broken state of the world is real, and it is present. Not having enough to eat, not having health care, dealing with violent discrimination, with being poor, or abused, or marginalized, or cripplingly depressed – these all constitute real hardships that cannot be chosen.

There are many ways to respond even to intractable challenges, of course – but the upshot of this meme is that, if you are suffering, if some days, or even all of them, feel hard, you are doing it wrong, you are not making the right choices.

(And you’re not doing it wrong; and not everything is a choice.)

Second. This meme relies on the idea that things – life, being human – shouldn’t be hard. That we make things hard; that if we’re doing it right, life just – well, it just won’t be.

In other words, this meme assumes it is bad to think that humaning is hard – and, also, that what is difficult should somehow be avoided or, in this case, changed with the power of positive thinking. (A far different enterprise from cultivating gratitude.)

But what if we embraced the difficulties inherent in humaning: that the imperfections, the cracks in the teacup are what make us human in the first place? There is beauty and authenticity to be found in in this “hardness.” We don’t have to make life’s challenges go away. And we don’t have to pretend these challenges aren’t exhausting, mind-numbingly so, sometimes.

Because some things really are hard. Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Sometimes, no matter how “rightly” you do a thing, it will turn out wrongly. There is horror in that knowledge; and there is also creativity and beauty in accepting it.

Third. This meme assumes that change is uncomplicated and easy – it happens “one day” when you decide that humaning is not hard.

It’s stating the obvious to say that change doesn’t happen in “one day.” It takes a lifetime; we grow, develop, backslide, learn, forget, re-learn, forget some more. We don’t ever arrive at the end goal. Some days, I get up early and write because that makes me happy and makes me feel whole. Other days – even though I know this to be true – I sleep because I’m tired, get a later start, feel like I am losing and like a loser. Not writing is hard. But getting up is also, sometimes, hard.

And part of what makes humaning hard is this relationship with ourselves, this dance with our own natures, our habits, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and whether we count.

But the corollary is a lovely one: part of what makes this dance easier is accepting and even reveling in how hard it is, having a sense of humor about how hard it is. Denying the hardship in the first place denies us this connection, this joy.

So: what if, instead of striving to change our minds we accepted that to live is to suffer, that humaning is hard? Would we be more patient? (Would I be?) Would we regard the faults of earth’s other inhabitants with more compassion and lovingkindness? Would we cultivate self-compassion, too?

I guess I think we just might. I guess I think that this compassion, these imperfections, these difficulties bind us all together, every single one.

I guess I think that the more we let go of the idea that we can control the outcome, the easier embracing life in its hardness – and its occasional ease – might be.

For from the hardness of being human arises interconnection, our care for each other, our relaxing into a warm embrace, even – maybe especially – when that embrace is one we give ourselves.

Whale, Puppy, Tornado

Mary Oliver died just over a week ago, and it seems like as good a time as any to start a blog about the connective tissue binding us all together. Not a blog about the “banal idea of ‘oneness’,” as Rachel Syme puts it in the New Yorker– but, rather, about the “mutual acknolwedgment of pain.”

Of course interconnectedness is more than that, too, at least it is to me. It’s the pain that I share with Oliver – but it is also the common bond I have with her simply because she was here, because I am here, because for most of my life, until she died, we shared the same planet. In a manner of speaking, we still do; in her interview with Krista Tippett, she emphasizes the idea that matter does not dissipate: that we are neither made from nor become nothing after we are gone.

That is to say, the idea of oneness is hardly banal, even though I speak of it so earnestly. It’s a heavy, weighted thing; I belong here, in this world, because I am here. That is all – but that is also everything. It has cost me more than I can say to get to a place where I believe that I am not a solitary creature; at least, not really.

I was married for ten years; I’ve lived alone again for three. The first year after I separated from my ex, I had a cancer scare, which entailed solitary trips to the doctor, and mostly solitary tests. I was thankful to have a friend to list as my emergency contact; I felt bereft, nonetheless. But my sense of separateness did not begin with my divorce; it began when I hid outside, under the trees in my backyard as a child. I once wrote – to myself – that loneliness is being encased in skin. In a way, it began when I was born.

This separation is true, in many ways, for all of us; I don’t mean that I’m special or different. It is a cliché, and an annoying one, that we all die alone. There are new books on being alone (even when we don’t want to be); the UK has a Minister of Loneliness; there are hashtags drawing together those of us who have nowhere to go at the holidays (or who feel alienated from where we are). There are so terribly many of us, in our modern culture, who live alone, work alone, sleep alone. The flip side of a culture obsessed with individuality, innovation, newness, difference. We spend so much time trying to be distinct that we forget the ties that bind us. We spend so much time trying to be apart that we forget how to be together.

I chose the title Whale, Puppy, Tornado because these are a series of emojis I used for a while – I thought they were funny, all in a row. And I used them, in a way, to communicate a certain kind of togetherness to my friends, to my siblings: I delighted in knowing that they would know, seeing that combination, that the text was from me, even if they didn’t see my name. Whale, puppy, tornado became evidence of things unseen: connection forged from mutual understanding, kindred spirits, presence.

And, also, I thought: whale, puppy, tornado. It’s random, disparate. And yet – interconnected.

At the same time, I – and the poets I love most, Chaucer among them – am all too aware of how difficult it often is to bridge the gaps between people, between things. To believe in what you can’t see: that we’re not alone. That we have inner lives worthy of the universe – and that our inner lives are worthy simply because we are here.

That we do not have to be intelligent. We do not have to have deep thoughts. The imprints we all leave are lasting, whether we are buried with pomp and circumstance or rest in unvisited tombs.

Again and again, Chaucer’s poetry meditates on our desire to tell the world who we are, to pull back the veil, to expose our innards – and again and again, his poetry reveals what is only too true: we don’t do this very well. It is difficult enough to articulate my own thoughts to myself, let alone convey them in clear terms to someone else. Language is instrumental to human connection, and it is also, often, our downfall. Language can’t always bridge the gap between the seen and unseen, between what is outside and what is inside.

But language is not all there is. There are also: atoms, breath, sitting quietly, a smile. There are also: connections across history, time, and space. This blog will take up, variously, all of these ideas, and other ideas, too – the desire to be a part of something, the difficulty of achieving that.

But the necessity of trying, all the same.