I’m a firm believer that the solution to almost every problem is empathy. It’s the skill I exercise most often in doing my job, the ability to get in someone else’s head and see the world through their eyes. Admittedly, that’s for the possibly-scorned practice of “selling them something”, but I like to think that at it’s best, what I’m really doing is trying to understand what they need or want and how to help them get it, or help corporations tasked with “selling something” at least treat them like human beings, not just faceless “consumers”.
But empathy is also the skill I try to exercise most in all my interactions with the world. I try not to get frustrated with service people when I have to wait in lines or have a bad customer experience. People are trying their best. I try not to react with anger when people on the street are rude or oblivious and do me wrong. Who knows where they are at that moment, mentally and emotionally.
Empathy. Empathy and patience can go a long way.
The recent verdict on Trayvon Martin (and I suppose, technically, on George Zimmerman) has inspired some really thought-provoking responses about race, justice, and equality. The message this case sent to millions of people in America was truly lacking in empathy for those identifying with the boy in front of the gun, and overly sympathetic to the man behind it. But the response from Questlove for NYMag was particularly resonant, because it dared to be particularly personal.
I recently told a friend one of these stories: I live in a “nice” building. I work hard. You know I work hard. My logic is (naïve alert in 5, 4, 3, 2 … ) “Well, there can’t be any fear of any type in this building” — you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn. Secondly, there are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7, so this spot is beyond safe. Like, Oscar winners and kids of royalty and sports guys and mafia goombahs live here. One night, I get in the elevator, and just as the door closes this beautiful woman gets on. Because of a pain in the arse card device you have to use to get to your floor, it just makes it an easier protocol for whoever is pressing floors to take everyone’s request, like when you are at the window of a drive-thru. So I press my floor number, and I ask her, “What floor, ma’am?” (Yes, I say “ma’am,” because … sigh, anyway.) She says nothing, stands in the corner. Mind you, I just discovered the Candy Crush app, so if anything, I’m the rude one because I’m more obsessed with winning this particular level than anything else. In my head I’m thinking, There’s no way I can be a threat to a woman this fine if I’m buried deep in this game — so surely she feels safe.
The humor comes in that I thought she was on my floor because she never acknowledged my floor request. (She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”) Anywho, the door opens, and I waited to let her off first because I am a gentleman. (Old me would’ve rushed first, thus not putting me in the position to have to follow her, God forbid if she, too, makes a left and it seems like I’m following her.) So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”
Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed. It was a “pie in the face” moment.
I laughed at it. Sort of.
Inside I cried.
He goes on to relate how hearing about the verdict made him feel, and remarking to a friend that the message this sends to him is, “You ain’t shit.” Read the rest, it’s a powerful piece.
More empathy means fewer moments like this that callously judge others as wrong or less than ourselves. More empathy means fewer people acting out in anger and violence and fear in situations that don’t need to escalate.
Need a boost of empathy? Read a few posts at the We Are Not Trayvon Martin site.
Resolutions don’t work. We know this. New Years is no better a time than any other to make a change in your life, aside from the fact that it’s satisfying to mark up a fresh calendar page. Still, my birthday is also in January, and these dual reminders of time passing do make a person want to take stock of things, at the very least.
This year, instead of any hard-to-keep promises to do less of this unhealthy thing or more of that healthier-but-less-pleasant thing, I have one goal. In a sense, it’s the boiled down essence of all New Years resolutions ever, all crammed into one — a sort of life resolution — and less an optimistic short-term goal for change. It’s simple, but important.
Really pay attention to how I spend my time.
Spend more time doing things that make me a happier and/or better person.
Spend less time doing things that don’t.
Note the “and/or”, which is key. Watching the NFL playoffs with a couple friends in a crowded pizza place certainly doesn’t make me a better person either intellectually or physically. But delicious food, a few pitchers, and the feeling of excitement in the air made me extremely happy (go Niners). The prospect of sitting down to write this didn’t make me happy (at first), because I was feeling uninspired and I wanted to read some of my favorite blogs instead. But writing is good for the brain, and now that I’m typing away, I happen to be feeling pretty good.
This year’s mantra is part process, part demand. I’ll have some self-evaluation to do along the way over the difference between ‘occupied’ and ‘happy’, as well as what constitutes ‘better person’ vs simply ‘person who feels better about himself’. For example, will reading more books this year make me happier or better, or am I lazily pinning my self-worth on a data point to uphold the image I have of myself? Maybe it’s what and how I read that matters more? So learning to define happier and better will be gradual. Then, having reflected on those things, the trick will be learning to catch myself in the act of totally wasting, or just poorly spending, my time. Having the presence of mind to divert myself from killing time to filling it with more constructive pursuits may take some force of will too, and that will take practice. Still, as a plan for the future, this mantra is hard to argue with.
Not to make this just a diary entry though, let’s get back to this “I’d rather be reading a good blog” thing. Related, but more useful in making a finer point.
I’ve realized that I spend a LOT of time on Twitter. I love it. I check my feed several times a day for a total of, what, half-an-hour? An hour? More if you count actually following links to things worth reading or watching. That’s a lot of time per day, per month, per year.** I supplement it with my favorite blogs, and try my best to keep up with Good Citizen things like The New York Times, a local news site, some professional stuff, some cultural stuff. Let’s just say that between Twitter and my preferred RSS reader, there’s a lot of daily input. But how much of this daily media time in particular is making me happier and/or better as a human being?
(**Couldn’t help doing the math. Conservatively: at an average of 30 min per day x 365 days = a total of 7.6 days per year spent just on Twitter. Probably more. That’s a whole vacation!… Taken in increments, all year long… Maybe not terrible?)
I would argue that Twitter is a net positive for being the most consistently interesting, immediately informative, occasionally hilarious and always diverse source of ideas in my life. I can safely say the time spent in this one channel is making me both happier and better, a large portion of the time. Plus, it’s easy to brush past the waste. Maybe I need to unfollow a few duds.
My policy has always been to quickly abandoned those that over-Tweet and abuse the privilege of my attention. Media outlets especially just tweet everything they post, often without respect to the form (tip me as to why I should click from within the tweet; stop obfuscating or baiting me). The narrow context of a scrolling column can go from easily-skipped to just-plain-cluttered pretty quickly, and that ruins its beauty as a channel.
As for non-Twitter sources like blogs, I’ve grown a new appreciation for outlets like The Morning News, who offer a quirky compendium of important, thought-provoking, or curious items twice daily. And of all things, Dave Pell’s Next Draft has given me a new found appreciation for the lost art of the email list, with a daily top ten list of stories worth knowing about, from world-shaking to merry-making. These sources — like Twitter without the strict character limit — are quickly scannable, well-curated, and link to all the great places like The Atlantic or NYT I’d normally have to spend time digging through to find the best bits.
Which brings me to the weird realization that of all my media inputs, it’s the New York Times I no longer want in my feeds. Any of them. I love a lot of their reporting. Their long features are especially good — usually through Instapaper — and I would gladly pay the appropriate sum for the right to read those things, just as I would with any great outlet. What I don’t want is to spend time flipping through ten pages of New York-centric stories, reviews of high-end fashion shows, sports recaps, or trumped-up trend pieces only to click on the three links to current events or opinion pieces I actually care about. I have a job and a wife and hobbies and books; I want to spend time reading, not looking for what’s worth reading. I have Longreads to find the best features. I have favorite writers who tweet interesting links with much greater personal filters than the outdated ‘front page’. And I have The Awl, where I somehow enjoy reading almost everything they post, long or short, thoughtful or frivolous.
It makes me feel like a traitor to the classy intellectual I want to be, but part of spending more time doing things that make me happier AND better means not trying to keep up with a magazines’ or newspapers’ full fire hose of content. It’s an outdated model that doesn’t fit my life. I’m done feeling like I’m always behind. I’m going to let the curators, who’ve chosen this as a specialty, do that job properly where I am doing it poorly. I’m going to immerse myself more and browse less.
So there we go. Realization number one. And the year’s just beginning.
Excuses aside, one would imagine that having as eventful a summer as I have, there’d be lots to write about. Non-stop excitement and life changes around every corner. To provide a full list:
final stages of planning a wedding
interviewing, getting an offer for, and accepting a new job in a new city
getting married (only the most fun/wonderful weekend a person can probably ever have)
honeymooning around the Greek islands (with a layover in Belgium for a few beers)
the final two weeks at a job I’ve held for over 8 years
packing for a move to San Francisco, after living in LA for twelve years
being in the wedding of one of my best friends
starting a new job for only the second time as an adult
getting to know a new city and feeling both disoriented and delighted all over again
But having done all that and at least approaching a period of normalcy again, I figure I can get back to things I like doing when my life is under control, such as writing.
The hope is that these changes — new job, new city, new lots of other things — will keep me even more stimulated than before and thinking sharper than ever. Now it’s time to find out.