Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stop talking and listen to yourself!

Henry, being 21 months old, isn't the best communicator. His vocabulary at the moment is pretty much limited to mama, dada, bubba, and animal sounds (he does a great snake). Recently, Bubba and I have grown frustrated with his attempts to tell us what he wants. Over the past week or so he's picked up the habit of saying "dis, dis" whenever we ask him what he wants.

To us "dis, dis" is meaningless. "Use words" we plead. "Talk to us, Henry." "Don't say 'dis.'"

And then, today, it suddenly hit me. I knew what "dis" meant. To demonstrate how I arrived at this epiphany, let me share a typical "conversation" between Henry and us, his parents.

Henry: Dis, dis.

Us: Do you want this? (picking up a package of crackers). Do you want this? (picking up his blanket). Do you want this? (picking up a book).

Henry: Dis, dis.

Us (frantic): Don't say dis. What do you want? Use words! Do you want this? (frantically pick up whatever remaining item is within arm's reach). Do you want this? (repeated again, exasperatedly).

Henry (pointing): Dis.

Sometimes it's instructive to shut-up and listen to yourself talk. Instead of pleading with Henry to "use words", I should have been using words. Words like blanket, crackers, book. How can I expect him to distinguish among these items when I use the same word to describe them all?

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life where a father, suspecting his son is doing drugs, decides to tap the phone. The father records dozens of his son's phone calls, which confirm his suspicions to be true. When the son discovers his father has learned of his drug use, he fears the punishment. He is surprised when all his father requires of him is to listen to all of the taped phone conversations. And, oddly enough, that's all it takes to change the son's behaviour. He said that listening to himself on the recorded conversations made him embarrassed - he hadn't realized how stupid he was being - and he changed.

Conventional wisdom says that the key to being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener. We usually assume that this means listening to the other person involved in the conversation. We seldom think about listening to ourselves, to what we are saying and how we are saying it. It's not such a bad idea to stop talking and listen to what you're saying. You may find you have something to teach yourself.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Problem with Selflessness

We've all at one time or another, when feeling down and depressed, received the advice to do something for someone else in order to feel better. It's a conundrum really: to find happiness for ourselves, we must lose ourselves in the service of others. The equation selflessness = happiness appears to be circular instead of linear. I'm being selfless precisely because I want to be happy. Isn't that the very definiton of selfishness?

Is it possible to perform a purely selfless act? Can we do something for another without receiving a benefit ourselves? Can we do anything selfless without being selfish?

Let's examine a conventionally perceived selfless act: raising children. People (parents) wax on about the selflessness involved in bearing and rearing their young. If the individual tasks of parenting are broken down and examined individually, parenting begins to look very selfless: changing a diaper, giving a bath,preparing a meal, laundering an outfit. The performance of these tasks in and of themselves does not scream selfishness. Except, in most cases, said parents chose to bring a child into the world because they believed the child would bring fulfillment to them, that having a child would, in short, make the parents happy. One could argue that having children is in fact selfish, narcissistic even, creating a miniaturized version of you to ooh and ahh over, and (hopefully) care for you when you're old.

I suppose I started mulling over this self-ish-less issue tonight because Bubba asked me a question: What would I do if I were the only person on earth? (This is a twist on the "alone on a desert island" scenario, except with access to all material goods and without the hope of being rescued or running into hot, scantily-clad natives). Bubba, of course, had ready answers that involved rummaging through people's homes and learning how to fly an airplane or navigate a boat across the Pacific. But I couldn't think of anything to do, because I was struck by how utterly pointless a life without anyone else would be.

It's hard to imagine acting without self interest. It's equally hard to imagine acting without the interest of other people. Even self-absorbed acts seem oddly dependent on other people. Would you worry about your looks if there was no one to see? Could you run a one-man rat race? Would you be motivated to create - sing, write, paint, dance - for an audience of none?

Alone on the earth, it would be hard to be selfless. There would be no one to lose yourself to. And, I suppose, perhaps no way to really find yourself. Alone on the earth, I fear I would tire of being selfish. For my own self-interest, I would want other people to care for, laugh with, love and serve.

My own self-interest requires the interests of others.

Do you see the problem with that?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Our day at the beach

What's the best remedy for winter doldrums? A day at the beach seems like a possible antidote. We decided to visit the Indiana Dunes and Lake Michigan on Saturday. It was a balmy 32 degrees, and when we arrived at the lake Bubba and I just laughed. What were we expecting? Warm sandy beaches and clear blue water? I don't know what we were thinking, because instead of a beach we got a frozen tundra. Even still, we wandered the lakeshore and found it had a kind of austere, brilliant beauty.