Tag Archives: Reflection

How Not to Donate Blood

I went to the bloodbank yesterday for the first time since I’ve been living in Singapore. I’d made an appointment, done due diligence on the past year of my travel history, and timed the donation so that it wouldn’t completely throw my fitness training plan. It’s been years since I donated blood (I used to donate a few times a year in the US) so I was nervous, but I really wanted to do something good. I was looking forward to it.

And then, as has happened once before, my donation was denied because my iron was lower than the Red Cross requires. I’m a vegetarian and this really should not have been a surprise.

The surprise was how I felt when I left with a packet of iron tablets from the nurse. I was really, really upset. I was disappointed not being able to donate and a little embarrassed at the whole rigmarole of paperwork and a fingerstick for naught. I had really wanted to do a good thing and I was disappointed that I couldn’t. But I was also keenly aware that it’s not actually about me, which caused further upset feelings for being upset because it’s not about me! And here I was, making it about me. I didn’t like that, either.

As my students and I study in psychology, there is theory to suggest that people do good in order to make themselves feel good and not actually because it’s the right thing to do. Altruism might not be so altruistic. While I am aware of this and aware of how our minds are wired to help us maintain self-esteem, I did not appreciate the recognition that I am no better than anyone else.

The thought that occurred to me as I left was telling, as well: Now I have to go plant trees or something.

My students and I talk about why doing something, regardless of the brain mechanisms encouraging us to do it, is better than doing nothing. I firmly believe this is true. But it took me several hours last evening to accept that I was feeling upset and to accept that my brain was doing what our brains are designed to do. I’d like to be better than that.

Overall, I found the whole experience of my reaction pretty interesting. It led me to a predictable conclusion, but one that is worth sharing: If the point is to do something good, do something good. If the point is to feel good, recognise it. And then do something good anyway.

You Can’t Erase the Internet

Something we talk about at school is being aware of our digital footprint. Young people today have an enormous digital footprint, which means the choices they make now may have consequences far beyond what they can reasonably be expected to imagine. (We know that much about frontal lobe development, after all.) We talk about this with students in the context of university and job applications. If the people reading your applications do their homework, we say, you need to be prepared for what they’ll find.

Fairly recently, I started looking around to see if I could remove items with my name attached from the Internet. (The book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki has been floating around my mind.) Altering posts on my blog, for example, is easy because all I have to do is edit, unpublish, or delete to my heart’s content. There’s nothing I can do about content that others have previously copied, saved, or disseminated, but removing information from my blog is very easy. However, editing is much more challenging in parts of the Internet where I am not the sole owner of a document, or when other parties share document permissions.

This is interesting to consider when written evidence exists to suggest that my ideas have changed. As authors, journalists, and publishers have known for as long as publishing has been around, it’s nigh impossible to take back something in print. What is written is written and people have seen it. Changes may occur but the record itself remains. People who speak in public know this, too. In fact, we all know this. Inconsistency and evolution are easily visible to anyone who bothers to look.

In a situation when change is discovered and pointed out, there are largely two choices. We can condemn one another on the basis of what was once said and shut out difficult conversations and opportunities to learn, or we can consider that evolution of ideas is part of being human. Rather than hoping our old words will vanish into the ether of cyberspace or memory, we can make the choice to stand up and say, “I’ve changed. Here’s how.”

This is a big deal. Psychology tells us that it will likely be uncomfortable to recognise and admit to inconsistency. To protect our self-esteem and make it easier to cope with the every day, the human brain rationalises cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately this ultimately prevents us from actually looking at the very things that need examining. We don’t always like the past because it might not reflect who we are now, or perhaps it highlights aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there. When the brain senses this conflict in us, it helps us rationalise our behaviour so that we can save face and feel good. This is a protective measure, but not a particularly helpful one for those who want to live honestly, openly, and with integrity.

Just like we cannot erase the Internet, we also cannot erase the past. We cannot pretend to be faultless because we aren’t. We have all made mistakes or behaved in ways that we may not be proud of, or that may not reflect how we would behave today. If we really have grown and if we really want to be better people, we cannot deny what has been. If we really have changed, the past will not define us. Who we have become should be obvious from our current actions. If you see such a change in me, your role is to judge the present on the basis of itself rather than holding the past over my head like a sword. No one can heal if old wounds continue to reopen.

At the same time, however, actions speak louder than words. I may claim to have changed but it is my actions that matter.

It can be confronting to ask challenging questions and then act in accordance with what we have found. But actions ripple outward and if we can learn from the past, if we can see inconsistency and evolution in ourselves, we can lay the foundation for a life lived honestly and with integrity.

This is the kind of life that makes a difference.

Getting to Tomorrow

I met up with a former student last week and it was a delightful, gratifying, and energising experience. It is a real pleasure to see how much a young person has grown in a very short amount of time and to have conversation about, as a friend would say, life and the universe.

I’ll paraphrase and modify here, but we talked about what it means to be grounded and about believing in something to get through a difficult time. Some people rely on faith in a religion or religious figure and for the rest of us, well, there must be something, right?

I know what has carried me through times of difficulty in the past and I know there will be more of those times. After all, that’s living. In many ways, overcoming a difficult time has come down to perspective. Where am I really in the grand scheme of things? What can I cling to that will remain constant no matter what else is happening? What images need to be in my head while I concentrate on my breathing until my heart rate slows and my mind ceases racing?

There are several things that I find helpful and this post will share these. Perhaps you will find them helpful, too.

Tiny little me with a very tall tree in Berkeley, California – June 2018

One thing that I know is that the sun will set tonight and rise tomorrow. It might be cloudy and I might not be able to watch the sun disappear and reappear along the horizon but I know it’s happening. I know that today will end and tomorrow will come. Even if I’m dreading tomorrow, I know that, like today, it will begin and then it will end and I will walk tomorrow like I walked today.

Deliberately cultivating a certain attitude matters a lot here, too. I have spent the last seven or eight years writing down three things I’m grateful for every single day. There have been extended periods when this lists consists of a roof over my head, a hot shower, and a full stomach, but it helps to remind myself that I do have these things. I have something rather than nothing. And I have been lucky enough that those things are also constants for tomorrow. Regardless of what it is, the perspective of having something to be grateful for has calmed my mind.

Another image that helps me find my footing when the world is spinning more quickly than I can grasp it is to look at the trees. Really look, look carefully and silently and deliberately. Mentally trace the patterns on the bark, the shapes of the branches, the growth of leaves and flowers. Trees are strong and tall and solid and they withstand all sorts of weather conditions and human activity. The trees, too, will be here tomorrow and through the next storm and the next one. Touch the trees if you can. They hold a special sort of warmth.

I’m not a religious person but I think there’s an element of spirituality here, an understanding that I am part of a wider universe that spins and moves. The best I can do is spin and move with it rather than remaining rigid and uncompromising. Complaining and waiting have a time and a place but they don’t always get us very far. As my pen holder mug proclaims:

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. – Unknown

Peace can be hard to find, there’s no doubt about that. Peace can also be fleeting. It can engulf in one moment and then completely desert in the next. But the important thing is being able to find it again, to develop those moments when peace is easy and fluid. This also means you need to look for it, actively seek it out, especially when everything is all right. Watch the sun. Write down a few things. Look at the trees. When all is well, the world has given you time to find who you are and ground yourself in the present. Doing so eases the transition to whatever world we awake in tomorrow.