Tag Archives: compassion

Kwanzaa 2020: Ujima

Habari gani, fam?

2020 has made me keenly aware of my place within my community, and how important my relationships are to me. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers and the collective frustration of millions of Americans bubbled over into street protests, it meant a lot that folks checked in on me because that was honestly the one time this year I came close to breaking. When others struggled I tried my best to be there for them however I could — and I had to think of new ways of supporting the people and causes I cared about. Being unable to be physically present with a lot of people made me realize how much I had been taking for granted. I’m walking into next year with gratitude for my support network at top of mind. 

That’s why this year, Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility, feels different. Even though we all went through some pretty heavy stuff, when I look back over 2020 I remember most the ways we became more sensitive to the pain of others and treated one another with more compassion. Maybe it was the fact that our common enemy was a virus, something that transcended borders and most other kinds of division, but most of the time it felt like I was interacting with people who knew we were in the same boat. 

As a culture, we’re far more aware of each others’ problems than we were before. As a cis black man, it was a process for me to learn what women, trans and non-binary folk, other people of color, and people with disabilities have to deal with in this country. There is so much suffering caused by the way our society decides who gets the privilege of being seen as a whole person and who doesn’t. Even though the harm it does takes many forms, the root cause of the problem is the same thing: the curious lack of empathy that allows us to feel a connection to others despite our differences. It can take something like a pandemic to get us to see past that, but it also makes it easier to fight the problem no matter what form it takes. The lack of empathy is the problem; how do we solve it?

Personally, I think we expand our criteria for who gets our empathy, and who we fight for when we see they’re being pushed to the fringes of the community. We can’t leave behind our trans brothers and sisters just because it’s harder for the dominant culture to accept them (or it’s harder for our community to accept them); we fight for them the same way we would fight for anyone else in our family. The problems of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities and mental health issues, American women, QUILTBAG Americans and others are our problems, too — lack of empathy isn’t confined to one specific group or a distinct difference. If we don’t clear it away, it corrodes our connection to other people until we have only the most narrow definitions of who’s within our group. 

I know the fights we’re already engaging in are exhausting. This year has aged me seven for everything that’s happened! And there are so many different fronts that need looking after; it can be easy to feel stretched really thin caring about everything all at once. Enacting this virtue certainly isn’t easy, and I think what it looks like for each of us will be unique to our situation. But, as this year has shown us, we’re all in this together — and we can’t lift ourselves up without lifting up everyone else within our community.

That might mean some difficult self-reflection, checking our own biases and blind spots. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about my less-advanced thoughts on trans people, and I’m glad I’ve gained a better understanding. I have to continually check myself for the deeply-ingrained biases I’ve absorbed about women, and that doesn’t feel great. It’s work to unlearn the bigotry we hold, and it’s almost never pleasant when we learn about it (it’s even worse when it’s pointed out by someone else). But we owe it to each other to do this work. We can’t demand empathy for ourselves and deny that same empathy to others who are different in ways we don’t readily understand. Again, their oppression is our oppression. We can’t be free of it until they are.

This requires introspection, a sense of perspective, and a heart willing to embrace that which it doesn’t always understand. It also requires a measure of trust in the humanity of others; even if it’s not readily visible, or expressed in ways we don’t appreciate, it’s there. We’ve spent a lot of time this year drawing lines in the sand about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and much of that has been long overdue. But let’s not forget our collective responsibility to nurture the best in ourselves and others. That work is valuable, too.

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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection


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(Personal) Thoughts From a 38 Year Old

Today is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of the first time atomic weapons were ever used in war, when Hiroshima was bombed on this date in 1945. I’m fascinated by this face, and I like to tell people whenever I talk about my birthday. I used to think I did this because it was an extension of My Brand (™) — self-deprecating comments, weird and unrelatable humor, random uncomfortable facts that no one quite knows what to do with. But over the years, as I keep thinking about Hiroshima and what happened to hundreds of thousands of people decades before I was born, I learned that this is just one of the ways I keep myself in proper perspective. I am celebrating myself on a day that reminds so many of unfathomable pain.

I want to talk (again) about compassion. Recently I’ve been reciting a version of the Bodhisattva Vow every morning as a demonstration to my commitment to my most important virtue:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

Learning to be a compassionate and kind person is my life’s work. I have vowed to dedicate every moment of my life, every action I take, towards spreading compassion and kindness however I can. Of course, I’m just some guy. I have my own damage and my own limitations that makes this challenging work. I may never achieve the kind of radical, all-radiating compassion that I want to inhabit. There are still people who tie me up in emotional knots whenever I think about them, and when my heart turns towards them it still hardens instinctively.

But that’s OK. I know that this is a learned response to intense pain I’ve endured in the past. In order to understand these difficult people and accept them, I must also accept and understand the pain that lives within me. When I feel myself becoming angry and unbending, I know now that’s a signal flare from the many scars I bear, calling me to tend to it. In order to properly heal it, I must learn to hold my pain with patience and love. When I can do this, I can see into the pain of others more easily through THEIR actions, and learn to hold theirs with the same patience, the same love.

We live in a time that feels like two sides are marshalling their forces for the total war that allowed up to 145,000 lives being lost through the most destructive act in military history. As we entrench our positions and collect our troops, we begin to think of the other side as abstractions, as extensions of their ideals instead of grasping, complicated human beings just like us. We call them The Enemy, The GOP, The Administration — we call their supporters fascists and racists and white supremacists. Make no mistake, these labels fit; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t call them what they are, now more than ever.

But at the same time it’s important to remember that they are more than these labels, just as we are so much more than what they call us. If we lose sight of their humanity, if we make them less real, we are priming ourselves towards inhumane actions. We are whetting our appetite to inflict more suffering, not eliminate it. That is a dangerous road. While dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima ultimately lead to the end of World War II, it also dramatically increased the suffering of millions directly, billions of us over time and space. We have lived in the shadow of that action ever since, and to this day we fear the time when just one of those weapons will be used again. If it happens, the world will again change into something we cannot recognize.

I think about the many articles these days that ask us to listen to the Trump voter or the white supremacist, or offers the reason for their destructive, hateful actions as mere economic anxiety. The reason so many Americans are falling into the trap of fascism is much the same that so many Germans did — a deep frustration about their inability to feel safe and secure with their families, and the mistaken perception that this is because of some foreign interest taking resources from a system that enables it. In order to break the spell these people are under, we must first understand the very human motivations that enable them to do such monstrous things. If we can do that, we can respond to it with the patience and love that we use to hold our own pain.

This is a very difficult thing to ask of people, especially when we’re afraid of what these people are willing to do (and have done) in order to claim a bit of happiness for themselves. So many of us have been through so much, and we have given our understanding and compassion so often and it’s meant nothing. Many of us are tired, sick, terrified. How can we be asked to be vulnerable enough to feel the pain of our enemies when they are also posing an immediate and existential threat to us and the communities we’ve worked so hard to build. I understand why there are so many people who reject out of hand the notion to keep extending compassion to those who have weaponized our principles to silence our protest and haze the issue. But I also feel that the only way to keep the proper perspective — to keep seeing these people as people — is to treat them as such. I’ve fallen into the trap of dehumanizing Trump supporters, and it’s made it so much more difficult to be the person I want to be because of it. I just can’t do it anymore.

That being said, I wouldn’t think about telling anyone else to try to be compassionate towards someone who wants to render them second-class citizens, strip away their basic human rights, who are completely fine with separating families and putting children in cages. We are rightfully shocked and angry about the abuses that continue to pile up under this regime, and I believe that the comparisons to 1930s Germany are apt. This is a very dangerous time, and we are facing very dangerous people who are dedicated to eradicating anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of what America should be. We can’t let that happen. We can’t allow these people to extinguish the hope of a compassionate society because we’re too worried about how much it diminishes us.

But we can fight in ways that allow us to uphold our own principles. What I would tell other people is to try to be as kind as you can. Kindness is in such short supply these days, and that, I believe, is the root of our problems as a society. If you can only be kind to your family, friends, and allies — focus on being as kind to them as you can. Fight the enemy, but be mindful that the fight doesn’t blind you to the necessity of compassion. The more you understand the people around you, the more you can tend to the needs expressed by their actions. All of us just want to be happy, and to feel safe. Some of us think this is a zero-sum game, that they can’t be happy or safe with us in the world, but we know better. The more compassion we share, the safer and happier the world becomes.

All we can do is the best we can do. I’m still finding the best way to walk my path, but I have traveled down the road of “righteous” hate and I didn’t like the places it lead me to. I can’t tolerate bigotry or willful ignorance, and I don’t think I can forget the things people have done to bring us to the state we’re in. But I can’t hate them anymore. I want them to feel happy. I want them to feel safe. I want them to be free from suffering. Because I believe that’s how all of us get out of this alive. That’s the future we work for. That’s the world we build.

I am so grateful that I’ve made it to 38 years old today. My heart is so heavy for the victims and descendants of the Hiroshima bombing. I worry about my country, gripped in the fear of the future and trapped in its trance. I vow to attend all of these feelings, to meet them with kindness. I vow to extend this same kindness to all of you, as much as I’m able.

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Posted by on August 6, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection


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(Self-Improvement) In Praise of Mistakes

Self Improvement 150Mistakes are a fundamental part of the human condition — almost as much as our fear of making them. Because of the way we’re designed and the reality we live in, we’re imperfect creatures limited by our experience, perspective and the momentum of habit. It’s natural that these things would push us to do something we regret from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to what we do moving forward, they act as a valuable tool for self-improvement. So why are we so often paralyzed by the mere possibility of screwing up, and why do we find it so hard to own up or forgive others for what they’ve done? I think it’s because we’re socially conditioned to think of mistakes as an aberration that we somehow have the power to avoid, and until we recognize that and reckon with it our relationship with our mistakes will be unbalanced.

It’s simply impossible to avoid making any mistakes at any point in our lives, but we all live with the unspoken narrative that we must aim for perfection and nothing less than success will do. As we move through school, we’re conditioned to learn that mistakes lead to lower grades and failed classes, parental disapproval, disappointment from your teachers, the limiting of future opportunities. We’re constantly under the threat of dire consequences resulting from our mistakes, to the point that it’s more important to study for the test than it is to actually absorb information. Even when we leave the gauntlet of testing, that template for life informs everything we do. Through a crucial 12-year period of our lives, a deeply seeded fear of being wrong is cultivated within us.

We walk through our lives terrified of being wrong or worse, being seen as ignorant. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as a tech professional is how much energy is spent at work covering our own mistakes and deficiencies; instead of admitting when we’ve messed up or that we don’t know something (even when maybe we should), we forge ahead without stopping to take the opportunity to better ourselves. Maybe this inclination isn’t entirely down to our history. Maybe our managers or colleagues foster an environment where asking questions or addressing mistakes are an annoyance at best and career-ending at worst. Because no one makes room for our imperfection, we never think to give that space to ourselves.

So our mistakes and ignorance become a source of shame, something we have to hide. And when there’s a risk of exposure, we panic — the subconscious memory of bad grades, parent-teacher conferences, ostracization and ridicule seizes our lizard brain and short-circuits our ability to cope. There’s this implication of a “set mindset”, that we as adults should be fully-formed and know about anything we come across. If we don’t, then we’re failures; everyone can see the “F” branded on our foreheads. Because the state of our knowledge is frozen, we freeze when we learn our knowledge is incomplete.

We internalize the idea that no one will forgive us for the mistakes we make, or the things we do not know. We learn that we can’t forgive ourselves for them. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as hell can’t forgive other people. If we’re expected to know everything and get it right the first time, how can we expect anything less from other people?

So when the mistakes and imperfections of others are exposed, we try to make it as visible as possible so the offense can never be hidden or denied. We demand that they look at what their ignorance has led them to and apologize for it. We demand the most severe consequences — expulsion from our communities, the end of their careers, exile into the social and professional desert. We demand the performance of remorse, the acceptance of their punishment, the enforcement of their disappearance. But what if one of our mistakes was exposed in all of its ugliness? How hard would it be to reckon with it, all laid bare for everyone to see? How impossible would it be to deal with the personal shame and self-doubt while the harshest criticisms rain down from the people in your community? Could you have the presence of mind to construct the perfect apology, accept the hyperbolic disparagement of your character, submit to the exile demanded of you? Could you resist the urge to push back or deflect blame, even a little?

I’m not saying that we should simply brush off mistakes or ignorance — when spotted, they should be exposed. We have to look our flaws honestly, but we have to know that we’re trying to do so in order to learn the lessons we need from them. If we’re too paralyzed by fear of exposure and deep shame, there’s just not enough room for us to grow.

I should also be clear that not every transgression is a “mistake” or the result of ignorance. Some actions are the result of willful malice, and some people use ignorance as cover for the consequences of that. It’s a bad-faith tactic that must also be exposed for what it is. Acceptance of mistakes and tolerance of ignorance can be tempered with with the expectation that all of us be accountable for our actions and their consequences.

But we don’t have to make those consequences so drastic that honest mistakes upend the lives of the people who make them. We can allow for our imperfection while still working to make sure we learn how to be mindful of it. Accepting our own ignorance and capacity to really fuck up every once in a while softens the tension we have with our own flaws. We can learn to embrace the messiness of our condition gently, with compassion. We can extend that compassion from ourselves to others. We can forgive ourselves and other people, and in the space that creates we can develop into braver, kinder people.

I think it has to start with us, so I’d like to recommend an exercise that consists of three basic steps. One, think about the last mistake you made or the last time you tried to cover up your own ignorance. Two, accept the mistake or ignorance by stating aloud (or as publicly as you’re comfortable with) what it was honestly. Three, forgive yourself by saying “I forgive myself for my mistake (or ignorance). I accept my imperfection with compassion.” and then state what you’ve learned from it.

I’ll start. I often make commitments — explicit or implicit — to help people or collaborate but then end up being very inconsistent or late with my end of things. I can think of so many people who’ve been disappointed by this, and whose work has been affected by my shortcoming. I sincerely apologize for not delivering the things I’ve promised in a timely or consistent manner.

I also forgive myself for this mistake. I accept my imperfection with compassion. I’ve learned to be more careful about my commitments, and to work harder to do the things I say I do when they’re expected of me. I’ll do my best to be better in the future.

We all make mistakes, and we’re all wrong at some point. Demanding perfection from ourselves and others, or demanding severe punishments for mistakes or ignorance, only deepens the training we’ve received to think of our natural imperfections as something unacceptable. It’s an unhealthy mindset that leads to unhealthy actions and a bad relationship with our own selves. In order to be kinder, more fearless, and happier, we have to examine our ingrained response to mistakes and give ourselves (and others) the room to grow and change.

And there’s no time like the present to start doing this. What mistake or bit of ignorance would you like to forgive within yourself?


Posted by on July 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection


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(Buddhism) Right Speech

Buddhism 150So for a little while now I’ve wanted to go over the “spokes” in the wheel of the Noble Eightfold Path — more for my own benefit than any pretense of instruction. One of the things that I’d like to get more serious about is my understanding of Buddhist ideas and how they relate to mindset, action and life. Going back to the basics is a great way to do this; making sure your foundation is sound helps you to be sure as you can that your belief structure is well-constructed.

Last week, I talked about the two spokes in the Wisdom or Prajna group: Right View and Right Intention. Right View is an accurate understanding of reality and how it works, though there’s also the understanding that this will need to be adjusted as we gain knowledge and experience. Right Intention is the decision to act upon that view to be harmless at worst, and harmonious and helpful at best. It is making the commitment to be the best person we can be, and to pursue improvement not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with.

Now that we have our best understanding of the universe and our best intentions towards goodness, we move to the next group of the path: the Sila group, or the “moral virtues”. These are how we manifest our understanding and sharpen our focus towards being as helpful and compassionate as possible. These three virtues are Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Right Speech is a very important one for me. The idea is to refrain from four kinds of speech that are damaging and uncompassionate: we are meant to abstain from lying; from divisive speech; from abusive speech; and from idle chatter. At least for the layperson, telling the truth while doing our best to connect and uplift people is the best thing we can do. Idle chatter can be…just talking for the sake of talking, speech that offers no benefit or takes attention without giving anything in return. It can also be gossip that bonds us to one person by distancing another — especially when they’re not there.

I’ll be honest right now: I’m terrible with right speech very often. I have a hard time being honest with people — mostly because I learned how to be secretive at a very early age and being open and vulnerable is very scary to me. I can be gossipy and uncharitable towards folks who have habits or attitudes I find annoying and harmful. When I’m stressed, I am often impatient and snappy towards people who turn to me for help. And as much as it pains me to say it, I am not nearly as good as I’d like to be with comforting people who turn to me with their problems.

I don’t like these things about myself, of course. Focusing on Right Speech is a great way to unlearn these bad habits and inclinations, then replace them with alternatives that foster a sense of compassion and connection. I believe that ultimately, what we say has a powerful effect on the people around us; it fosters a sense of emotion that tends to develop unattended because we’re not talking about it directly. If we look for and speak negatively, we begin to think along the same track and encourage others to do the same in order to communicate with us. Others might think that in order to connect with us, it would be easier to complain or share outrage. We might only look for the things that upset us, because those are the things we speak most about.

On the other hand, speaking up more about the things we love and make us excited can generate a sense of openness, contentment and positivity. If we focus on the things that make us happy and share them with others, it invites them to do the same. If we look for the best in people and compliment them when we find it, it lifts them up and encourages them to do the same. Speech is a powerful thing, and being aware of how we use it can enable us to use its power towards our best aims.

It can be difficult to remember this in the immediacy of conversation, especially at first. If we’re among friends who tend towards being divisive or abusive, then it’s really difficult to turn that around or find ways to abstain from that and still be a part of the conversation. But I think the difficulty of it is precisely the reason it’s worth doing; it’s far too easy to let ourselves be negative and distancing, especially online and in this political climate. It’s hard to change a thing for the better, but it must always start with ourselves first. We must make the commitment to strive for compassion and connection any way we can, and how we communicate with each other is one of the most fundamental ways we can do that.

Online, almost all we have is our speech. Armed with our understanding of the situation and our intention to improve it, speech is a very powerful tool that we can use to achieve that. When we speak up to each other in person and online, we can ask ourselves whether what we’re saying is truthful, helpful and worthwhile. At the very least, we can resolve to remain quiet if we catch ourselves lying, tearing someone down, or talking just for the sake of it. By choosing not to take action, we learn how to pay more attention to our impulses, and we also learn that we don’t have to act on the first impulse that arises; it will subside, and often a better one will take its place.

These changes won’t happen all at once. But the more we pay attention to our choices when we speak, the more we’ll be able to make better choices more quickly. Personally, I’ll be doing my best to be more honest and open to others, and to connect with someone where they are to the best of my ability. Where helpful, I will discourage abusive, divisive and dishonest speech and attempt to redirect the conversation towards something more positive. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll try not to be an annoying and sanctimonious asshole about it when I do.

Now, my friends, what are the particular challenges you face with your speech? What has worked for you in trying to be better with it? Or do you have a different view about speech entirely?


Posted by on August 15, 2016 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection


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Movie Review: Melancholia

Entertainment 150Melancholia (2011)
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsborough and Kiefer Sutherland
Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is one of those directors with a distinct, uncompromising vision. You get the feeling when you see one of his movies that every shot is exactly the way he wanted it to look, and every word is what he wanted you to hear. He is a director with an intimate knowledge of storytelling through movies, and every film he makes is essentially a direct communication from the artist to his audience. He aims to be obtuse, as clearly as possible.

This makes a lot of his movies simultaneously fascinating and impossible. I think critics love him because he uses movies to push people, to confront them with ideas about the world that make them uncomfortable. It’s rare that someone can pull a fast one on audience these days; we love to pick things apart, and love or hate it we typically know exactly what a director is trying to do. With von Trier, even though you can guess the through-line of any movie he leaves big enough gaps that make you question what he means by certain things.

With Melancholia, the entire opening sequence presents itself as a puzzle of surrealist images that you’re not quite sure about even after the movie is over. What’s the deal with the 19th hole? Why do we see the same characters in vastly different places, doing wildly different things? How far does the metaphor go — all the way to the immense blue planet that’s causing birds to drop from the sky, two shadows to fall on the ground, electricity to rise into the air? How much of this stuff matters to understanding the rest of the movie? Even after stewing on it a few days, it’s hard to tell.

As near as I can figure, though, Melancholia is a movie about two different sisters dealing with two different disasters. In the first part, Justine (Dunst) looks to be a happy newlywed with an incredibly blessed life. She just married Eric Northman from True Blood, she was promoted to Art Director at the advertising firm she works in, and her wedding reception is an incredibly high-end affair at her brother-in-law’s (Sutherland) golf course and resort.

As the night goes on, however, things are systematically deconstructed to reveal the horrible truth underneath. Justine suffers from crippling depression that makes her unable to function with those closest to her on what should be her happiest day. Her boss is a controlling tyrant who hires his nephew on the condition that he hounds Justine for the tagline of a new campaign throughout the night. If he doesn’t get it, he’s fired. Her brother-in-law doesn’t think much of Justine or her squabbling, eccentric parents — he’s only interested in making sure she knows how much money he’s spent on this affair and how ridiculous she’s being.

And to be fair, Justine is fairly ridiculous. She frequently slips away from the reception at inopportune moments to be alone, making the tightly-scheduled affair run off track. Her harried sister and doting husband do everything they can think of to make her happy, and she gives them only the mask of gratitude in return. She pisses on her brother-in-law’s golf course and cheats on her husband with the assistant hired specifically to harass her. By the time the sun rises on the uncomfortably dark night, she’s ruined everything that’s been given to her — her job, her fledgling marriage, her relationship with her family. Justine is one of the most unlikable main characters I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for her.

Why? Because I identify with that level of depression. When you’re in a hole that deep, you go a little crazy — even if you realize what you’re doing you feel unable to stop yourself. Your sense of perspective breaks down, and you stop thinking about long-term consequences, or how other people might feel. The only thing that matters is easing the pain as much as possible so you can make it to the next moment. It doesn’t matter how destructive an act you’re perpetrating; if it eases your suffering, then it’s fair game. In some ways, it’s better if what you do makes a mess of things. Crazy, broken people don’t deserve nice things and the pressures that come with them. In some ways, having nothing means being burdened by nothing, and laying down your burdens is the only thing worth doing in a deep depression.

In the second part, Claire is preparing for the arrival of Justine at the bottom of her spiral and the rogue planet Melancholia, also reaching the end of its journey. According to the scientists, the planet should fly by Earth in a few days, stealing some of its atmosphere but doing no lasting harm. Claire’s husband John is annoyed by her fears about Melancholia and Justine’s melancholy, and he spends most of the time being curt with both of them. Of course, it turns out that the planet is going to hit Earth after all, and Justine, Claire and John must deal with the reality that the world will end.

Here is the tragedy of the movie. John responds in the most despicable and cowardly way possible, and his reaction is hardly worth mentioning here. I can definitely sympathize with his impulse — his actions inspired a fairly long conversation between Ryan and I — but the way he does it makes it one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen. It leaves Claire completely alone to face the horror of what’s coming, along with her young son.

Justine responds to the news with a calm, fatalistic detachment. Claire must deal with what’s happening completely alone, while struggling with how to handle the news with her son. Justine is of no help; when Claire asks that they do something “nice” for the end to distract themselves away from it, her sister mocks her and calls her plan a “piece of shit”.

With the end coming, we see Justine and Claire grow increasingly isolated. Justine has retreated away from the world and into her depression a long time ago; the absolute end of everything just represents the ultimate laying down of her burdens. Claire can’t reach out to anyone, and with no outlet for her pain and bewilderment she simply falls apart. It’s an awful thing to watch, but it also illustrates the true price of depression.

I don’t mean to say that depressed people suck and inconvenience the lives of the people around them. That would be a horrible thing to say and simply add to the feeling of unbearable burden that depressed people must carry with them. But I do think that depression is a condition that takes you away from the world and puts you in a hell of your own making. At its worst, it forces you to withdraw inward so deeply that your view of the world is incredibly warped. Everything loops back to the pain you feel, and you begin to grow so sensitive to it that you shut down to avoid it.

It’s an awful feeling. During a scene where Claire has to physically drag Justine into the bathroom to wash her, my heart broke for both of them. I can empathize with what Justine is going through in that moment; just the motion of taking a step or lifting your leg might cause something to break within you that you just can’t handle. But I also feel terrible for Claire; she’s devoting so much time and energy to a person who is incapable of appreciating it, or of helping herself. It’s a thankless and difficult job, and no one recognizes the work she’s doing or the sacrifices she’s made.

By the end of the movie, Justine, Claire and her son on a hill as the planet approaches. They hold hands as the sky is filled with intense blue light and the wind begins to roar around them. But the final image is something that I’ll never forget — Justine, serene in her withdrawal, closes her eyes and accepts her fate. She’s completely oblivious to her sister’s suffering; Claire is rocking back and forth, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears when the blast wave hits. She had to bear the terror of her last moments alone, even though she was surrounded by family.

Even though Justine is presumably the main character, I feel like the movie is really Claire’s. And my reaction to the movie is entirely personal, drawn by my own experiences. I think back to all of the people who’ve tried to drag me from my worst depressions, the people who sacrificed time and effort to bring me up. I think about all of the people that I’ve disappointed, hurt and abandoned because my depression had made me too self-focused to see what I was doing. All of them become Claire, wild with need and suffering, closing their eyes in pure terror. It’s a terrible thing to know that there are so many people who love so freely and are ignored and unappreciated.

I know I’m not Justine, but I’ve been Justine. And Melancholia paints an uncompromising portrait of what depression looks like to other people, what it does to the people who suffer it and the people around them. It makes me feel a deep sympathy for everyone stuck in that situation. And it makes me glad that it’s over.

Rating: 8/10.


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My Story, My Government

I didn’t fully understand the power of marriage until I married Ryan. I was there, in a rented tuxedo with him, declaring a lifelong commitment to this one amazing man in front of the people I have come to consider my family over the last several years. After spending most of my life thinking of myself as an outsider, it’s the most vivid memory I have of ever belonging somewhere. Ryan and I had come together as a stable unit, something solid and long-lasting in our community. We were there, not just to celebrate our union, but to celebrate the fellowship we had cultivated with so many people, and to celebrate our small contribution towards making it stronger.

Since then, I’ve become increasingly grateful for my community of friends and I’ve come to recognize the value of making and maintaining bonds with the people around me. I believe that being in a relationship — with friends, lovers, neighbors and coworkers — is one of the best ways to get your head out of your own ass. It forces you to see, even for a brief moment, that you are not the center of the universe. You may be the star of your own story, but there are countless stories being told all around you, each with their own stars. And they all have narratives that intersect with one another, that bind and tie each story to a different one. If you pull back, away from your own story, to see the tapestry that’s being woven of the world around you, it’s amazing and humbling. True, it’s your thread, and you want to make it as good as possible, but you’re just one thread of countless others.

Maybe this is a sign of me getting older, but I think the greatest values you can cultivate as an individual are the ones that help you get along with other people. Yes, it’s important to have principles and stick to them. Yes, it’s important to stand up for what you believe is right. But ultimately, you have to convince other people about the worth of your principles. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to communicate your beliefs in a way that affect other people. Being right doesn’t count for much if you’re a dick about it.

But we live in a society where the exact opposite seems true. We’re encouraged to be dismissive to opposing points of view, and to shut out anyone who doesn’t agree with us. The template for our stories are the only ones that matter, and someone with a different experience, a different set of morals and values, or different beliefs are to be ignored at best, persecuted at worst. We’re the stars of our own stories, and everyone else is either an ally, an enemy or irrelevant. There is no tapestry; there’s only the single thread of our lives running over and over again. We live in a world, it seems, that rewards us for making our lives as small as possible.

I…can’t say how much this disappoints me. I think our society is at its strongest and greatest when we expand our lives to hold as many experiences as we can, when we encourage and reward opposing viewpoints coming together to find commonalities and compromises as much as possible. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, we share this world with other people. And these other people have lives that are just as important as ours, full of just as many wonders and miseries, contradictions, mistakes and victories. The people we see around us have ideals that they fall short of, too. If they’re lucky, they have friends who remind them of all they could be, just like I do. If they’re lucky, they have people who take them out of their own stories and show them a number of others.

I believe that our government is meant to make sure that each and every one of us has the best possible shot at making our lives the best it can be. Because if our lives are made better, then we can help make the lives of our friends and neighbors better. And that makes our community better. I think that government should give us the power to do that, to help us when we fall short, to make sure we can achieve our limitless potential if we try. I believe in that. I do.

I can’t tolerate anyone who seeks to use the government’s power to treat me as an ‘other’, to tell me that I cannot participate fully in my community. I believe that’s what Mitt Romney is telling me and countless others like me with his policy. If you’re gay, poor, an immigrant (undocumented or otherwise), a woman, uninsured, not Christian, or anyone other than someone who thinks and behaves like he does, you have no place in this country. Romney only wants the system to help those who can take most advantage of it. He represents the thinking of a distressingly large part of our society — that if your story isn’t just like his, then it should be ignored at best, written out at worst.

I’m not saying that Obama is perfect, or the second coming — he has his problems too. But the bottom line is that Obama still represents the world I want to live in. He is inclusive, encouraging, and continually stresses the power of community and the responsibility we have as individuals to forge a strong one. He doesn’t tell me that I don’t deserve equal say because I don’t believe the things he does. He doesn’t tell my sister that he knows what’s best for her body better than she does. He doesn’t tell my mother — who doesn’t pay taxes because she’s on Social Security — that she believes she’s a victim and he can’t worry about her.

To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be a perfect candidate or a perfect President. Try as we might, we’re only human. We fall short of our ideals. The bottom line, however, is clear. Romney is part of the movement to make our lives — and our communities — smaller and less vibrant. His party wants us to isolate ourselves from each other, and be poorer for it. I can’t agree with that way of thinking. It’s against everything I’ve come to stand for. And it’s against everything I believe government should be.

For those people voting for Romney tomorrow, I hope that I haven’t made you feel unwelcome, or lesser. A disagreement of ideals is not a condemnation of character. But at the same time, how will Romney’s policies help those of us who aren’t like him? How will they strengthen our communities and those around us? How will they help us live together more ably, even when we disagree? I don’t believe they will. If you don’t think that these questions are important for choosing a candidate, that’s fine. But being right doesn’t mean much if you can’t convince those around you that you are. Sometimes, that means meeting them where they are, seeing the world from their point of view, and determining how your idea best suits their needs. It’s something that we have to do, if we expect to be part of a community.

Anyway, that’s who I’m voting for and why. I’d love to hear from you, especially if you’re pro-Romney. No matter who you vote for, please be sure you do. We should all do at least that, in order to help make the society we want to see.


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Who I Am is What I Do

It’s been tough to write about self-improvement these past few years, largely because I’ve moved out of the contemplative phase of it. Through a great deal of my 20s I was still figuring things out — what it means to be a good person, the fundamental nature of humanity, how society works and how it doesn’t. To this day I’m still not sure I can explain concretely what I think about all of that, but at some point I realized that endless contemplation didn’t really get me anywhere. If I was going to try to live a good life, I needed to take action.

For the last few years, you may have noticed me trying different ways to spur myself into action. I’ve tried posting my goals on journals and Twitter to make myself publicly accountable. I’ve tried to take all of my big goals and break them up into bite-sized chunks where progress could be measured over the span of weeks. I’ve tried to distill virtues and ideals down into essential actions, to marry certain habits I was trying to cultivate at the time to something sacred. Through action x, I express virtue y. So forth and so on. It’s been a long, difficult slog, and so far nothing’s been a silver bullet. I’m still scattered and inconsistent. I still can’t develop a habit worth a damn. My willpower doesn’t feel much stronger than it has been. No matter how hard I try to make them bearable, I still collapse under the weight of my goals fairly often.

After a while, I get really discouraged about it. Why is it so difficult to do the things I want to do? Why is it so easy for me to trade long-term virtue for short-term pleasure? How do I keep making the ‘wrong’ choice — the one I end up regretting — over and over again? How can I develop that habit just fine, but any one that benefits me is actively resisted?

I don’t really have an answer for that either, but it’s making me more contemplative about my goals and priorities. I can feel the pendulum beginning to sway the other way, though not completely — I’m still going to keep running towards a virtuous life no matter how many times I trip up. Once you realize how important it is to apply your philosophy out into the world, to try to express thought through action, you can’t go back to being primarily a thinker. That genie has left the bottle.

Anyway, what exactly is it that I’m trying to do here? In other words, what kind of person am I trying to be? It’s been a few years since I’ve really asked myself this question, and I’ve been sort of flailing through all of my goals to the point where I can’t remember why I set them in the first place. It’s time to set my current priorities down, examine them, and discard what’s not working for me any more.

Right now, what do I want to do more than anything? Who do I want to be? I want to be someone who’s confident, but quietly so — it’s so much more attractive when you have a sure knowledge of your ability and limits without needing to have them reinforced by someone else. Part of that is pushing myself to be better than I was the day before, to test myself to see where my limits are. The more I expand my limits, the more I’ll be able to display confidence in a variety of situations, after all.

I’d also like to be compassionate. It’s a difficult skill to cultivate, because far too often we’re wrapped up in our own stories. Taking a moment to pause and step out of that, to be a part of someone else’s life in a way that serves them, requires a lot. It can be an incredibly simple thing to do, but very very difficult if you’re used to being the center of your life. I’d love to be able to get out of my head a bit, to do more for other people, to make them feel loved, capable and strong. I want to be a nurturing, positive influence on the people around me.

Finally, I would like to be productive. This means actively doing things that help me to become more confident and more compassionate. Losing weight, trying new things, letting go of ideas I’ve had forever, that sort of thing. Being productive means, to me, that you’re constantly generating new things, refreshing yourself with new ideas and perspectives, and (hopefully) a natural byproduct of that is shedding the things that have grown stale, that no longer work for you. Being productive means that you’re naturally able to embrace change, that when something new comes along you’ll at least give it a shot before deciding you like something familiar better. To me, being productive is the action of people who have an open mind.

Confidence. Compassion. Productivity. Those are the three big things I would like to cultivate right now. What about you guys? Are there any virtues or ideals you try to live up to? How do you do it?


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