I’ll preface this by saying that that this post took me about two months to finally finish, and was a struggle almost every step of the way. I’m always cautious of intending one meaning and inadvertently causing people to hear another, and this post more than others falls into that territory. I hope you find something of value in it.
There is a concept in Hinduism known as माया (māyā), which means “illusion.” It is the idea that the sensations of the world are a sort of veil, drawn over our eyes to keep us from seeing the true reality of things. Many–most–people cannot see past this veil, and spend their lives reacting to it and trying to act upon it–ostensibly in vain. A large portion of Hindu teachings, in my understanding, are oriented around cultivating a posture of mind that is able to see past this veil and grasp the underlying truth of our world. This post isn’t about Hinduism, but the concept applies quite well.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit these days about some changes I’ve undergone in the last few years, especially in regards to my emotional composition and world outlook. There’s a connection, I promise.
For my entire childhood, I was an exceedingly sensitive boy. I was quick to feel and empathize with others, and would be wracked with pain at the sight of other’s suffering. It was impossible for me to be aggressive or violent, and I was as forgiving and nonjudgmental as a puppy when it came to relationships with other people. I owe this, in tremendous part, to two loving parents, two caring sisters, and the stable home in which where I was given both freedom and attention. In small part, I owe this to a childhood of struggles with obesity, in which the traits of empathy and sensitivity developed out of necessity, as my way of building and maintaining relationships.
These traits lingered into my twenties. I carried them with me for my first few years at university, where they kept me out and about, meeting new people and forming new connections across broad and unusual networks. I would give freely of my time and attention, with little regard to any reward–I was happy simply being a part of something, being around others. Unsurprisingly, these traits led to my quickly rising in most organizations I found myself a part of.
It was during and after my stint as BSC president (my most major involvement thus far) that my personality started to change (or perhaps to mature?). It was a life-changing experience, enlightening in some respects, crushing in others. Looking back on it now, I can’t quite figure out if, on balance, I should have even done it. But I can never know, so it’s a moot question. There were a number of factors that led to the beginning of my personality shift (and it was just the catalyst; the shifts have been taking place ever since). I’ll focus on two which are particularly salient.
The first was that, for the first time in my life, I had to come to terms with the reality of limited resources. Up to that point, I had been able to avoid confrontation with Malthusian reality. My family had been well-off enough that, although I couldn’t have all the things that I wanted, I knew that I could count on my strongest desires being met. Or to put it another way, I had grown up in a reality where my emotions had some instrumental force, inasmuch as the mere fact of my desiring could set in motion events to bring about an outcome. If I just wanted something enough, I stood a good chance of getting it.
In this new reality of the BSC, I was finding myself in circumstances where I knew clearly the outcome I wanted, but simply lacked the resources to achieve it. I first encountered this when I was involved in the BSC’s judicial system. The early months of my presidency were swamped with conduct cases, most drug-related. I was hugely–you could say naiively–committed to doing the right thing by all the people involved. As the person responsible for the cases, for managing procedure, for leading deliberations, I was uncompromising in my commitment to ensuring a fair process. I believed that if I just tried hard enough, we could uphold both justice and fairness in our system. My focus at this point was on the faces involved–the individual people, their experiences and their feelings. I wasn’t yet calibrated to think in terms of larger systems.
It wasn’t long before I began to understand the magnitude of my aspirations. My first case took an enormous amount of time, with meetings lasting for ten hours at a stretch. I poured oceans of organizational resources into the case, as well as tremendous amounts of my own emotions. I was, as they say, idealistic.
Slowly I began to realize things. For the first time in my life, at least in my awareness, I was the object of manipulation. The parties to the case could see the naivete on my face, and wasted no time trying to appeal to my ideals. My trusting nature was ill-equipped to grapple with the half-truths meant to pass as testimony. More resources, and more, were poured into the case in the name of ‘justice’ and ‘fair process.’ Meanwhile, the rest of the organization was waiting around.
It crushed me, really, the first time I allowed compromise in the process. It was hard, learning to insulate myself from the emotions of the people involved, and accepting their fear and anger as an inevitable by-product of their situation. But I recovered. When faced with the trade off of my ideal process, and the need to attend to other priorities, I eventually understood that my zealotry was causing net hurt, as the multitude of other priorities–unseen faces–in the organization were being neglected. Inevitably, the compromises continued, and I inevitably began revising my identity in response to my actions. I began to distance myself from the soaring humanism of my late teen years, and began making advances towards ‘practicality.’ I believe (of course) that my new utilitarian attitude is an improvement. Intellectually, I understand that I’ve simply carved out room in my mind to contain the many unseen and unfelt faces alongside the handful of those seen and felt. But the earlier me is still unconvinced.
That was the first factor.
The second factor involved personal relationships. At that point in my life, I was harboring deeply-felt and idealistic notions about nature of communities–a consequence of my academic path through the cognitive sciences and political economy and of my recent engagement with the world of cooperatives. In addition, I was still searching for belonging at university, as while I had made many casual friendships, and some deep ones, in my time at Berkeley, I had yet to experience a feeling of belonging to a group–an experience I was yearning for. My views at that time can be summarized in the following metaphor:
A community is like a vessel. If you pour your energy and affections into the community, you will build a reserve of bonds and goodwill. In time, when you need support and acceptance, the community will return the energy and affection to you.
These beliefs resulted in some consequential behaviors on my end. First, I became extremely other-focused. I dedicated huge amounts of time and energy to the well-being of those around me, both in the immediate co-op in which I lived, and in the BSC as a whole. I felt genuinely personally invested in the lives of nearly all the people with which I had regular (or even irregular contact). Second, I made myself extremely vulnerable to others. My understanding of myself at that point had led me to conclude that my failure to be vulnerable with others in the past had prevented me from forming the community bonds that I so desperately desired. As a result, I attempted to shift my attitude and open up to more people, sharing personal stories and feelings with the people around me. Third, I worked very, very hard. My view was that all my efforts given to others would eventually be returned to me in the form of a stronger community, and so I was able to engage with vigor, reserving very little time for personal needs.
This was how I operated during my year as president. Initially, to my perception, it worked brilliantly. I found myself working more intimately with people around me, feeling more connected and comfortable in the company of others, and full of energy and vigor at the thought of contributing to something larger than myself. It was a good period for me.
The decline came later, and lasted for a long time. It began with a breakup. We lived in the same house together, which added a layer of complexity to our split. She was hurt, I was hurt, and we both needed support from friends. She was able to find comfort and belonging with the people we lived with. I… less so. What I discovered was that the people whom I had worked for and shared with those past few months weren’t particularly interested in me or my problems. They were friendly when it was convenient, but had no motivation to support me with my hurt. This amounted to a second breakup, where the relationships I thought I could rely on–more significantly, that I had counted on–simply faded away. Recall, I hadn’t saved anything for myself. I had given it all, and found myself abruptly with nothing left.
To say this was painful is a polite understatement. Yet there was a second wave of disappointment en route. As president, I had given tirelessly to the organization, making many personal sacrifices. The following year, I took on a Vice President role, in order to bring about some organizational changes that I felt were crucial to the long-term well-being of the organization. I expected the work to be easy–coming out of a good year as president, I thought I could rely on my well-earned social capital to bring about some key reforms. Again, I was mistaken. I found that while the new group of leaders respected me, they had little interest in helping me or supporting me with my changes. I was criticized, treated with skepticism, and eventually marginalized. Their actions were justified, of course: they had a responsibility to use their best judgment for the welfare of the organization, and they truly felt that my direction was inappropriate. My shock came more from the ease with which my experience and ideas were disregarded, and my history with the organization cast aside.
This sequence of breakups and disappointments, so close together, were crushing. I had given, and been vulnerable, and sacrificed, all of the sake of the well-being of the people around me. In return, I received almost nothing. Given the state of my worldview just one year prior, these events nearly shattered me.
With a certain nostalgic sadness, my approach to relationships began to change. I slowly became much more reserved around new people, withholding personal details and avoiding displays of vulnerability. I became much more hesitant about helping or volunteering my time and energy to people and projects. I maintained more emotional distance with my acquaintances and causal friends, opening up only in the presence of very close friends. Finally, I became more self-focused, acting in order to ensure my well-being before turning to questions of others.
Why these changes? I can sum up what I learned from these events thus:
The needs of the world are vast, and others will happily accept everything you are willing to give. But they will give you nothing in return, at least nothing reliably. If you give without first securing your own needs, the world will consume you. This does not, of course, mean that you should cease to give. Rather, you should give with a good understanding of your relationship to the world, and to attend to your own well-being first.
I’ve found life to be more stable, if somewhat quieter, in the time since these events. I am still unsure as to whether I’m happy with the changes that have been occurred within me–some idealism was lost, as well as some capacity for joy, in exchange for a clearer intellectual understanding of the forces at work in the world, and a certain amount of serenity. You could say that I had begun to cast aside the veil. This is an ongoing process, however, so it may be too early to pass judgment. And there’s still another place this post needs to go before we’re through–we still haven’t reached “the point”.
In India, there is poverty. Huge amounts. In Nepal also, and in dozens of other countries. The kind of poverty that literally tugs at your clothing and stares at you, the kind of poverty that sleeps on the sidewalks and leaves bodies rent. Poverty that goes on for blocks and for miles and for countries. There is pollution also, and the destruction of natural landscapes and natural resources. Trash and garbage and soiled rivers, the sight of which could break your heart.
We are, each one of us, first and foremost human beings. We have physical dimensions and physical limitations. There is a human scale to our ability to perceive and to feel. I’ll take the (risky?) stance and assert that we’ve evolved this way, and that our bodies and minds have developed to serve our genetics and promote their survival. Over the history of our species, those who could grasp and empathize with the hurt and needs of others would thrive.
As a result of this legacy, we react viscerally to the sights and sounds of poverty and pollution when we first encounter them. This is especially true in children, who often react with anguish at the sight of the poor and helpless. At first, poverty manifests itself as a single person in need–a form we are configured to comprehend and react to.
Over time, most of us are trained to stop thinking this way. Parents tell their children that they don’t need to give money to every person who asks, on the grounds that a) they will use the money for drugs or alcohol or b) there are too many needy people, and that the child cannot possibly help them all. To various degrees, both of these reasons hold true.
Eventually, the child adapts and ceases to see the poor as individuals, but as small pieces of a larger whole, a whole too massive to be engaged with or understood.
We are inclined, I think, to see this as a negative. We see this as a child becoming desensitized to the world, losing their natural inclinations towards empathy, generosity, and charity. In a sense, this is negative.
But there is another perspective. We could see this as the child learning to see past their sensual experiences, and becoming aware of the māyā, the veil, of the world. We could see this as the child learning that in sometimes, their feelings can be dangerous distractions from the truth.
Countless individual people are poor, destitute, malnourished. Countless environments have been ravaged and despoiled. These are hard truths. But the cause of these circumstances are broader, deeper, and more subtle–the consequences of an invisible economic and political system, which itself is shaped by further invisible networks of power and influence.
In a certain sense, these systems have a more real existence than any individual, inasmuch as they create and perpetuate the circumstances of poverty and pollution. In a certain sense, they make up the substance of the world–while the countless individuals whose lives are shaped by them are the illusion.
That sounds harsh, and strange, and it is in a sense. The point is not that the billions of the people in the world aren’t real, it’s that their circumstances are largely determined elsewhere, out of their hands. If you were to change the circumstances of any one of them, another would emerge in their place. That’s what I mean by illusion. Perhaps “expression” would be a better word–poverty and pollution are expressions of the global status quo, more than they are individual people or places.
Ultimately, in my new view, the world requires people who can think in this systemic way. Being attuned to the emotions of individual people, or reacting emotionally to individual places, is appropriate in some circumstances–families, close groups of friends–but is deeply misguiding for those interested in grappling with issues of complexity or scale. These larger issues demand detachment in order to be seen clearly, and thus to be acted upon.
And so, in a sense, this “closing” of the child’s heart is itself a kind of “opening” of their mind. It is a closing of the heart and the senses to one level of experience, only to enable the perception and understanding of a second level–one in some ways (but not all) more real. It is the casting aside the veil of illusion in order to see the world more clearly.
What does this all mean? To me, it means that a clear understanding of the world requires one to shed some of the natural urges and inclinations that they were born with. That an individual who wants to be effective and sustainable in their efforts needs to be able to see through some of the emotional layers of the world and grasp the dynamics that lie underneath.
A smart man once said
At year’s end you should look back at your thoughts and opinions twelve months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn’t read or explore or work hard enough.
I have no idea if I’ll agree with anything I’ve written here in twelve months time, but at this moment it represents a huge piece of my worldview. We shall see…