On this page:
  • In an imperfect world
  • Embracing Pollyanna
  • On friendship and becoming more social

In an imperfect world

Quinn wanted to know how I respond to systemic injustice, wicked problems, and other things that are so far beyond individual scale that they tend to reduce people to helplessness.

I used to be paralyzed by these thoughts. I fumbled with class divides, marked as privileged by language and accent and access. I avoided relationships because I worried about the statistics showing discrimination against married women and mothers. I felt torn apart by guilt over being part of the brain drain, tempted to think of what-ifs.

I’m learning to pick my fights and focus on doing the best I can.

So, yes to… Even though it will probably be much harder to…
Pursuing my passion for code and writing, despite knowing that there are scary people out there Deal with such people if they make me a target
Blogging about what I’m learning, sharing whatever I can Contribute to open source code while at IBM (it’s doable, but there’s quite a bit paperwork ;) )
Both my husband and I keeping our names, and to always phrasing it as decisions we both make for ourselves Go with non-patrilineal naming for children
Promoting equality through avoiding deemphasizing motherhood and emphasizing parenting, valuing homemakers and caregivers, and appreciating people who choose not to have children Deal with gender-role assumptions, subtle professional discrimination against mothers, and ageism in technology careers
Managing my finances myself and resisting the pull towards consumerism get everyone to live below their means and manage their accounts reasonably
Microlending and encouraging entrepreneurship Get people to self-start, or solve systemic biases against the poor
Living as full a life as I can with W- Deal with the occasional biases against and the certain challenges of a relationship with a large age gap
Making the most of where I am and helping other people get started Move back to the Philippines and make a bigger difference there
Working reasonable hours at full capacity and investing in building a full life as well Change the work-life expectations for executives or startups

It isn’t about solving the world’s problems. It’s about facing the world lovingly, finding unknown depths of energy in yourself so that you can keep on going even if life challenges you.

Here’s something from people wiser than I am:

The bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings, but that is not a
goal in the relative sense. The bodhisattva realizes that what she is
saying in that vow is completely impractical. You can’t really do it.
We see this from the mythical story of the great bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara. He had a literal mind in the beginning. He took that
vow, “Until I save all six realms of existence, I will not attain
enlightenment.” He worked and he worked and he worked to fulfill his
vow. He helped beings, and he thought he’d saved hundreds of millions
of them. Then he turned around and saw that an even greater number
than he had saved were still suffering, and he had flickers of doubt
at that point.

At the beginning, when he took that vow, he had said, “If I have any
doubts about my path, may my head split into a thousand pieces.” This
vow came true at this time. His head began to fall apart. He was in
tremendous pain of confusion, not knowing what he was doing. Then,
according to the myth, Amitabha – a great buddha of compassion – came
to him and said, “Now you’re being foolish. That vow you took
shouldn’t be taken literally. What you took was a vow of limitless
compassion.” Avalokiteshvara realized that and understood it. Through
that recognition, he became a thousand times more powerful. That’s why
the iconographical image of Avalokiteshvara often has twelve heads and
a thousand arms. You see, once you take the meaning of saving all the
others literally, you lose the sacredness of it. If you’re able to see
that compassion applies to every situation, then compassion becomes
limitless.

… The path is what there is to work with, and that work is there
eternally, because sentient beings are numberless, and we have to work
with them eternally.

Trungpa, Gimian, and Kohn’s Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness (p73-74)

Sometimes it feels like the world rolls backwards faster than we Sisyphi can push it up. That’s okay. We get better and better at making little differences. We get better at making bigger and bigger differences. There’s no game over. There’s no happily ever after. There’s just the constant work and growth of being human.

Sometimes I roll backwards faster than I can push myself up. I forget something. I ignore someone’s needs. I make mistakes. But if I can keep focusing on small things I can do to move forward instead of trying to keep score over the entirety of things, then it’s easy to find the energy to start again.

The world also rolls forward, unexpectedly, through no effort of our own. Keep an eye out for those moments. The world is full of things that aren’t right, but it’s also full of things that are.

Embracing Pollyanna

Happy people are sometimes derided as unrealistic Pollyannas, other people’s way of bringing them down to earth. I’ve heard it from people who don’t yet understand how I can be so optimistic. The dictionary defines “pollyanna” as an excessively or blindly optimistic person. Curious about this, I requested Eleanor Porter’s book Pollyanna from the library. In the pages of this easy-to-read book, I discovered a philosophy similar to the one I live.

You see, Pollyanna’s life centers on the Glad Game that she plays – the game of finding at least one thing to be glad about in any situation. An orphan taken in by her stern aunt, she inspires the town and eventually her aunt into playing this game. Invalids are comforted, quarrels are patched up, life gets better all around. When she runs into her own challenges, the whole town pitches in to help her play the toughest Glad Game she’s ever faced.

I play something like the Glad Game too. Grew into it unknowingly, took it as my own. It becomes easier – almost instinctive – as you do it. In the book, Pollyanna says:

“Why, Nancy, that’s so! I WAS playing the game—but that’s one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon. You see, you DO, lots of times; you get so used to it—looking for something to be glad about, you know. And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”

The game I play isn’t quite the Glad Game, though. I don’t stop at being glad. I guess I play the Learn-Share-Do Game. What can I learn from this situation? How can I share what I’m learning? How will I respond – what will I do about this situation? This turns every joy and success into something greater, and every heartache into part of the story.

It’s a blend of the infectious optimism of the 11-year-old Pollyanna and the resolute freedom of the Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who wrote this:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

There is no shame in being a Pollyanna, on facing life with conscious optimism and deliberate gratitude. Optimism can be firmly rooted in reality, finding nutrients in its depths, using the rocks of life as anchors.

I play the Learn-Share-Do game. What game do you play with life?

On friendship and becoming more social

I’ve been talking to people about my project of becoming more social, getting better at connecting. It makes sense. I get to practise and pick up tips at the same time. =) Sometimes people say, “Sacha, aren’t you already pretty social? How big is your network, anyway?” But it’s not about that, and I think I’m starting to figure out what it’s about.

There are so many interesting people. W-, of course, is gosh-darn-awesome. And there are all these wonderful people I’ve gotten to know: my family, my barkada, my ninongs and ninangs, my friends in Canada who helped me get the hang of those first few winters, my friends at work and in various clubs, my friends through this blog and Twitter and all these other networks, and people I have yet to become good friends with. So the limiting factor isn’t the lack of people to develop friendships with, but my ability to do so.

What does it mean to be friends with someone? In the Nichomachean Ethics, where he devotes a book of fourteen chapters to the topic of friendship, Aristotle distinguishes between friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of good character. Of these, I’m interested in friendships of good character. In this kind of friendship, you appreciate the goodness of other people and they appreciate yours. You wish them good, and they wish you good as well.

One can’t have many friends at this level. In W.D.Ross’s translation of the Nichomachean Ethics:

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

And also:

Now there are three grounds on which people love; of the love of lifeless objects we do not use the word ‘friendship’; for it is not mutual love, nor is there a wishing of good to the other (for it would surely be ridiculous to wish wine well; if one wishes anything for it, it is that it may keep, so that one may have it oneself); but to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake. But to those who thus wish good we ascribe only goodwill, if the wish is not reciprocated; goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship. Or must we add ‘when it is recognized’? For many people have goodwill to those whom they have not seen but judge to be good or useful; and one of these might return this feeling. These people seem to bear goodwill to each other; but how could one call them friends when they do not know their mutual feelings? To be friends, then, the must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other for one of the aforesaid reasons.

That makes me think of several things. First, to wish good for other people, you should know them beneath the surface. It’s easy to say that I wish my friends to be happy, but knowing the specific things they consider pleasurable or good means I can share good experiences, find good gifts, or help people grow.

I’m probably an outlier in terms of writing and making it easy for people to get to know me through my interests. If I’m going to get to know other people, then I’m going to need to take the initiative and reach out, maybe slowly getting a sense of a person over time. I can get better at this by also, say, compiling notes on people’s expressed preferences. (Yes, I’m a geek.)

Second, friendship is reciprocal. I can feel goodwill towards many people, such as the people I’ve gotten to know through blogs. Some may even feel goodwill for me back, without my knowing. Friendship, I think, is when we both know it and that mutual understanding influences our actions.

I think that people are rather better at caring about me than I am at caring about them. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people as much. It means that I think other people are more thoughtful and are better at making a connection, and that there’s plenty of room for me to learn. Add to that the occasional asymmetry of knowledge and it can be a little awkward, but I’m getting better at getting past the awkward bit and just focusing on getting to know people more.

One of the things I’m particularly curious about is developing friendships online. When I listed people I might call if I needed a favour or I needed someone to talk to, I realized that there were some people I’ve never actually seen in person. I’d like to get even better at cultivating friendships online. From literature and other people’s examples, it’s clearly possible to develop deep connections beyond your geographic reach. With many of my friends outside Toronto – or infrequently met even in the same city – it’s something worth learning more about.

A lot of this is a matter of time: time to learn about people, time to share experiences, time to build trust, and so on. I can’t do much to speed things up. But it’s also equally a matter of attention – if I don’t invest that attention, then that time will pass without much effect.

Of course, reflecting on the Ethics, I need to be careful that people and friendship don’t become means. It’s not about checking off a little checkmark on my list of things to learn, or dissecting people and finding out what makes them tick, or chasing the pleasure of making someone’s day.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I say I want to get better at connecting or I want to be more social. It’s not about making sure I’ve “got my dance card filled”, or that I go out to at least one get-together each week, or even that I remember to host tea. I think it’s more about knowing people more so that I can appreciate their goodness and wish them good, and about building deeper connections.

2011-02-18 Fri 06:50