Last week, I waded into gun control thoughts to demonstrate what kindness by humility looks like to me. That was an unexpected detour given the horrible news from Uvalde. This week, I’ll return to where that post was originally headed.
The post started with Slatestar’s Fake Graduation Speech which I maintain as one of my favorite reads. Graduation speeches are irresistible. They are the prize for beating the final boss in the tightly-tracked 8-bit side-scrolling video game known more colloquially as “school”. A great speech can be used as a compass to the wide-open MMORPG the diploma achievement unlocks. The commencement speaker is the sage shopkeeper in Zelda — “It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.”
The compass points to a metaphysical place. The destination is meaning. But it doesn’t exist without you. You give your life meaning. So the compass is unique to you. It has a biometric lock, like your phone. Only your eyes can see where it points.
Without a compass, you’d be paralyzed. Overwhelmed by choices. Think of a grizzly bear. It eats, sleeps, socializes, and screws. It doesn’t buy a duplex as the forest gentrifies or join the Peace Corps to help its polar cousins learn to climb trees because the ice caps are melting. You are blessed and cursed to not be a grizzly bear.
Our awareness drives us to ponder meaning. This feels necessary to at least loosely rank our values so we can make decisions. I wasn’t finished referencing Jared Dillian last week. In Memento Mori he wonders:
Even though I am not religious, I tend to believe that there is some accumulated wisdom in organized religion. All major religions believe in an afterlife. Most believe in the concept of heaven and hell. And then we have empirical evidence of tens of thousands of people dying, being reanimated, and describing what seems to be heaven and hell. I don’t think this is a coincidence. So the first question is: what happens to you after you die? And the second question is: how do you avoid going to hell? People get a Starbucks on the way to work, sit in a chair all day, come home, watch some shows, and go to bed, without really pondering this question.
I think about it every day.
So what is the solution?
His answer rhymes with Slatestar’s full-bodied endorsement of kindness.
Jared answers his own question:
The answer is love.
This is where people get confused. Most people equate love with falling in love, or romantic love, but that type of love is a feeling. Real love is not a feeling, it is an action. You see, people reverse cause and effect. They think that you feel love and as a result of that, you act selflessly towards someone. It is the other way around. You act selflessly toward someone, and then as a result, you feel love. [Comment from me: the surprising satisfaction of arranged marriages speaks to Jared’s inversion of cause and effect]
Real love should be given freely and without reservation.
Most people love their spouse, their kids, their pets, their family. That is the low-hanging fruit. What about everyone else? What about your dickhead coworkers? What about your grumpy neighbor? What about your enemies? Do you wish for them to get everything you want for yourself? Do you feel compassion and understanding towards them?
Do you strive to ease the burden of everyone you come in contact with?
Do you give people the gift of time?
I’m no saint. But the progress chart is going from the lower left to the upper right. The point is that I am constantly working on it.
That last line is the action dictated by the compass. There’s no right answer, your compass is your own. But in a life where I’m privileged enough to consider more than where my next meal is coming from, I don’t think my compass’ magnetic resonance with this is a coincidence.
Loosely Related Tangents
- I tend to be more on the introspective end of the thinking-action continuum than I’d objectively prefer. If you lean more towards “doer”, that probably sounds like a weird, possibly pathetic, observation. Like why even waste a thought to put yourself on such a spectrum. But if you are a fellow over-caveating shoegazer you understand. It’s a pernicious form of self-sabotage. You can’t help seeing the tension in every platitude. I literally keep a file in my notes called “Tensions”. If I shared it, you’d quite possibly die of exhaustion. Here’s an example.Jared: Real love should be given freely and without reservation.
Me ankle-biting: What lesson do people internalize when love is unconditional?
As Jared requests at the end of each letter, I’ll just go f myself now.
(Mumbling like Milton as I plod away: The thinking-action continuum is a false binary anyway, it’s more like…[Yinh proceeds to gag me])
- Again this line: Real love should be given freely and without reservation.I’m doing a mentorship program this summer where we work with HS students. These kids are defying long odds to even find this program. The training made their circumstances abundantly clear. This is a chance to help kids who may have never had a real conversation with an adult who is not a teacher, parent or coach. The kids are surprised an adult would even find them worth talking to. A story of a prior kid in the program was that he never bothered to learn to read because an adult once told him when he was young that he’d be dead by 19. Today, he’s 26 and regrets listening to that jerk.
As I prepare for my assignment, we were taught to navigate a too-common situation — the kids have been given paid internships this summer but when they go back home they are going to face tremendous pressure from their families and neighborhoods to share the money. Now there’s nothing wrong of course with being generous, but that’s the point. We are instructed to teach them to: give cheerfully.
The goal is to help these kids discern exploitation from genuine charity. A skill they have rarely had to practice because the concept of any surplus is foreign. Hearing this is more harrowing than surprising. Part of humility is expecting that we take things for granted, even if we don’t know what those things might be until we hear about them.
On an intellectual level, I know what the words “love freely” and “give cheerfully” mean. It would be a shame if the meaning stayed arrested at that level. Jared’s post is an invitation for all of us to stretch further.
- In Professor Kevin Bracker’s essay on college, he explains: a lot of schools are starting to offer — courses on professionalism. Things like showing up on time, table manners at a business lunch, working with others, etc. These are more important skills than many people realize. Grow up in the right environment and you learn it through osmosis. Grow up in a different environment and you probably won’t.
The mentorship training is highly aware of this. Teaching the kids to carry themselves professionally (i.e. no slang) is a core objective. I can imagine many readers bristling at the conformity of etiquette courses, but that’s a sumptuous degree of naivete. The way we speak and act signals class. Hipsters (my favorite definition of them is “someone who identifies with both the counterculture and the dominant class”) lament that reality without appreciating its ramifications — the cost of non-conformity is much higher for the underprivileged.
It might not be fair that something akin to “acting white” is required to get ahead, but the change to that is going to come from above. Not below. Being unrealistic is a luxury these 18-year-olds can’t afford.