Saturday, March 01, 2008

Make the World a Better Place (and you a better person)

Before any of my readers are mislead into thinking this is going to be a list of well-worn "dos" and "don'ts", let me say that that's not the way my mind works. I don't think people need hear more about giving money to the poor, meals to the elderly, or to pick up trash. There are more than enough public service announcements and non-profit agencies encouraging such acts. My suggestions are about improving you and by association, making the world a better one that you will be happier living in.

1. Mind you own business.

When you see that fat guy chowing down on a piece of cake, remember that what he eats has nothing to do with you. When you see that woman wearing lot of makeup and tight dresses, remember that her fashion sense has nothing to do with you. Either as part of "human nature", self-centeredness, or as part of our socialization, we make a myriad of little judgments of strangers everyday. With a glance, we size them up, judge their choices, and reach conclusions. When challenged about how it's our business, we invent an elaborate chain of connections that smugly allow us to conclude that their behavior harms us because it harms society as a whole as a way of justifying our stance.

When we do this, we trivialize people and distill them into mere results of their choices rather than see them as people who, like us and those we love, have multi-faceted characters, feelings, and needs. In doing so, we are attempting to elevate ourselves and diminish them. We're also appointing ourselves the authority on what is right, best, or acceptable. The actions of others don't lead back to you unless they are acting upon you. You wouldn't want someone doing this to you, so try hard not to do it to them. When you catch yourself doing this, try to stop yourself in mid-judge and break this pattern.

2. Don't act out of selfishness (or anger at the selfishness of others).

Most of the acts of discourtesy that one experiences in public spaces are the result of one person acting selfishly in a competitive situation and then the other retaliating. From pushing for a seat on the subway to stealing a parking space to rushing to get in front of someone who is about to get in line before you, these acts are putting your needs before the needs of someone else. It's taking away from them because you've decided you're more entitled. Sometimes, that entitlement is justified by fatigue, frustration, or the idea that 'everyone does it'. If you don't do it, then that's one less 'everyone' who does it.

When someone does one of these things to you, try not to be hostile as it serves no purpose other than to prove that you cannot control your emotions and are taking the low road in a power struggle you feel you have just lost. You're not going to "teach someone a lesson" and have them stop doing it in the future. People who do these things know what they're doing (just as you do when you do it) and it makes them feel smaller inside and they put up an angry defensive posture. Even in a victory of scoring that last parking space in front of the shop, that person feels defensive knowing that their pettiness may invite a confrontation. Remember that not acting on your frustration is a bigger battle won over your temper and worse impulses, than winning some petty one-off competition for a social benefit.

3. Don't consume or talk about entertainment that feeds off the misery of others.

Everyone complains about celebrity gossip and reality T.V. Both of these types of "entertainment" are offered by the bottom feeders of media who hope to draw in an audience of bored people filling their lives with empty information about the lives of famous folks. This type of content takes little creativity to produce, contains no deep, high, or subtle messages or stories, and panders to a need to judge others in order to feel better about someone else. Some of them are the equivalent of bread and circuses. Anything you consume which has a voyeuristic element reflects an emptiness in your life which you're trying to fill with the more exciting or titillating lives of others.

If you want these things to go away, avoid consuming them at all costs and don't complain about them. When you complain about them, you are giving them free publicity and driving interest up for such content. In fact, complaining about the excessive coverage of the celebrity of the moment tends to drive folks to that coverage to see what you're on about.

Similarly, don't get your jollies from reading about the stupidity, misfortune or carelessness of others. Enjoying mean-spirited humor like the Darwin Awards or making fun of others for actions you think are "stupid" reflects your insecurity and anger. You should be feeding your needs to improve your self-esteem in ways which are lasting and positive rather than doing so at the expense of others.

4. Stop justifying your bigotry.

No one believes he or she is a bigot because bigots are "bad" people. People believe their belief that all Americans are rude or all Christians are intolerant fanatics are justified by the behavior they read about. If you read a story by way of Digg about how a little boy was denied access to a Christmas party because he didn't believe in Jesus and smugly shake your head as you reinforce your certainty that Christians are hypocrites, you've entered the bigot club. The very essence of prejudice is using anecdotal or isolated experiences to justify a negative set belief and not allowing other anecdotes or a vast array of contrary information to dissuade you, or worse yet, to form an opinion based on anecdotes without looking deeper into the situation. Thousands of Christians may be doing missionary or charity work and express tolerance, but their behavior is off the radar for those who are determined to justify their prejudices.

What's more, it's not OK to hate a group of people just because they aren't oppressed. Hate is hate and it's bad for you and it's bad for your relationship with the world. It also infects all your interactions with people and warps your digestion of information. You're encouraging yourself to become a person with a highly-distorted world-view just to prop up your bigotry. You won't even know it, but you'll end up being one of those people no one wants to interact with and who makes others uncomfortable. The world could use fewer of these sorts of folks, don't you think? Why not start with not becoming one yourself.

5. Use honesty wisely and kindly.

There are always going to be times when we can't be honest because it could be detrimental to our jobs or our relationships. Honesty isn't a license to be a jerk or to abandon the white lies that smooth over social encounters and being honest all the time doesn't make you "strong" or prove your ego is durable enough to withstand the disapproval of others in the face of your blunt honesty. Honesty which serves your desires and in no way helps the object of your candor makes you insensitive and rude. If you go to dinner and the hostess's cooking isn't to your liking, you don't tell her you didn't like it. Unless you have a close relationship with her where such candor is acceptable, you offer a white lie to spare her feelings. This sort of lie does no damage to you and it protects her from damage. That is not to say you should pretend you loved the food either, but rather that you be gracious for the social opportunity and the effort.

On the other hand, sometimes people lie even when they seriously don't want to do something or like something. They are asked to do tasks they don't want to do, but pretend it's not a problem for them to do it. They fill themselves with anxiety or get mad at having even been asked to do such things and often ultimately build resentment toward the person who put them in that position. Be honest when it means something to you even if it's difficult for you to do so. If you don't, you misshape the relationships around you and mislead others in terms of their expectations of you.

6. Know when to care and when it's best not to.

It's interesting how many people make a big deal out of their latte not having enough foam or too much foam. They get worked up and charge up to the counter to complain. There's this tiny little insignificant thing which they use an excuse to spread negativity to another person. Sometimes they'll even go so far as to get people in trouble with their bosses because some small thing doesn't suit them. This is the life in nations where ordinary citizens live the life of kings and queens in past centuries. Whims must be anticipated and the smallest of expectations must be met, or there is hell to pay.

Getting worked up about such minutiae is not only harmful to the object of your ire as it starts to build up a hostile resentment toward the customer that will be transferred to other customers and sets off a chain reaction of negativity, but is also bad for the angry party. Every time you invest thought and energy into being angry about tiny little things that don't go your way, you reinforce a pathway in your mind to being angry about such small things. It's one thing to get upset by people treating you poorly or very shoddy work when you pay for a service of goods, but it's quite another to get worked up over small things which are accidents or simply not a reflection of the way you personally believe things should be.

Ask yourself what sort of world we'd live in if everyone followed my advice above. While not everyone will, it has to start with someone and, if not you, then who? If you want to live in a world with people who behave in a more civilized fashion, the changes need to start with you.

If anyone thinks I'm elevating myself as being high-minded and above everyone in giving out this advice, please keep in mind that there's not one point on this list that I don't struggle with myself. I'm not perfect, and I know I never will be, but I do believe we can all live in a better world if we try to fight our worst thoughts and impulses. That's really all we can ask of ourselves.


owenandbenjamin said...

Good advice all of it although I find myself doing some of those things I shouldn't and always try and remind myself to not do that.

lina said...

at one point, we are all guilty of some of the above and hopefully we try to be better and avoid judging others.
sometimes what we think is best is actually not so for others.
I agree with all your points and will try to make the world a more tolerant place to live in.

Anonymous said...

One piece of advice that has stood me in good stead is the admonition that people rarely intend their actions to be hurtful. Their rationale may be convoluted, but they generally believe they are acting for good - even if the outcome is bad. As Napoleon said "Never ascribe to malice that which can be ascribed to incompetence".

Viki in Chiba said...

Great deep thinking. Couldn't agree more...however to do that is hard.

Shari said...

Thanks to all for the comments. I appreciate them. As you have pointed out, wanting to do it and doing it are different things.

And, to Chris, in general, I tend to agree with you, but I do believe that a lot of people are not incompetent so much as insecure and self-centered. They mean no harm because they're only thinking about themselves. The people they act poorly towards are merely objects for their egos to bounce off of. They lack the empathy required to exercise compassion.

badmoodguy (Бадмўдгуи) said...

Great advice, this. I find myself doing these things more often than I should, but a lot less now that I used to. I try and try to be a better human and keep stumbling...I guess that's life! :)

Joseph Tame said...

Such good advice and so poetically put too - I've printed it out for my scrapbook! Would it be OK if I were to link to it from my blog in the near future?

I used to feel that trying to live in harmony with guidelines such as these in some way made life more difficult, in that it required a lot more energy to be a 'good' person.

But I'm now inclined to feel the opposite, as I have come to be only too aware of the conflict / negativity / stress that arises when I have strayed too far from these principles.

Whilst that encourages me to continue to try to make them a part of daily life for long-term peace, in the short term it does make for quite a few challenges to this rather boisterous ego of mine!

Shari said...

Mike: I imagine what you've been through with cancer is likely to change your perspective pretty radically, though, as you say, we all fail at being the best person we can be. It's just important to try.

Joseph: Of course you may link to them and I'm glad you found them useful. Your an inspiration as one follows your path of personal growth on your blog. Sometimes, you're the only light in my day when I read on-line. There's so much more dark out there than light.

Thanks to you both for the kind comments and for reading!

ミス・イギリス said...

Great stuff.
I myself (though am ashamed to say it) am a tad addicted to the website "dlisted" which gives updates on celebrities. Though, in actual fact, I have little interest in the celebrity life, it fills 10 minutes if I'm waiting for something and is updated often.

I'm trying to break my habit and will try even harder now to read a news website instead of dlisted... but it's a hard habit to break! (><)*

Shari said...

Oh, cutetwirler, you are not the only one who is side-tracked. I used to read IMDB's celebrity news everyday. Now, I only sneak a look when I look up a movie review, but I really shouldn't do that either.

I'm pretty much in the same situation as you. It's idle entertainment and I know it's wrong. I give in sometimes and sometimes I stand firm. It's not much of a struggle, but I do find myself gravitating toward such things when I'm bored.

Thanks for your comment!

Dave Martindale said...

I read a lot of blogs, but this is the best post I've read in weeks. You are an excellent writer and I really value your contributions to the blogging community. Thanks!

Shari said...

Thank you for the lovely comment, Dave, and for reading.

BTW, I followed your profile to you blog, but it came up without content. Are you a new blogger or is Google being a bit troublesome?

Dave Martindale said...

No, Google's fine - I am a new blogger, the first post should be up soon. I've been wanting to start one for a long time, but I recently received an offer for a job teaching English in Japan for a year. I figure now I'll have more interesting things to write about (instead of what I ate for breakfast and how many loads of laundry I've done today).