Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Kindness of Strangers

I have in my possession a copy of the voluminous 'The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined' by Steven Pinker. In 776 pages, Professor Pinker argues that over the years, violence has gradually declined. In other words, the modern age is a much better time to be alive because people are less violent (and I would guess, better?) than they have been before.

This is not exactly easy to believe, since we live in a world that has vibrant media - both mainstream and social - that seem to glorify as well as normalize violence.
Catching up on news is essentially a voyeuristic experience today.

Steven Pinker does present a contradictory argument: what has changed is only our awareness and sensitivity to violence.
And as Bill Gates writes in his review of this book:

The book is about violence, but paints a remarkable picture that shows the world has evolved over time to be a far less violent place than before. It offers a really fresh perspective on how to achieve positive outcomes in the world.

Pinker presents a tremendous amount of evidence that humans have gradually become much less violent and much more humane.
Pinker isn’t saying that peace, justice and nonviolence are inevitable. He acknowledges that modern technologies have really expanded how lethal wars can be. Things can go very wrong, but Pinker is saying the arc of history is toward less violence, and we should understand that and tap into it.

* * * 

I've always maintained that this "I can't trust you since we are strangers" cliche is way overrated. Even stranger is the reasoning (see what I did there?) that we should be very wary of what is either unfamiliar or different.
We were very much discouraged from talking to strangers in childhood, and this notion that was ingrained into us continues to live on in a majority of well-meaning adults.

It is not uncommon to see us cast very presumptuous and prejudicial aspersions on the character of a person that is pretty unknown to us. And this is rife in this day and age where people make contact to other people using the ubiquitous and instantaneous digital connection methods that the web readily accords us.

Malcolm Gladwell has recently published a book that is aptly titled 'Talking to Strangers.' He talks about what we should know about the people we do not know, and proceeds to examine interactions with rather conflicting outcomes.
For one, human beings are quite trusting. This is why people submit to even damaging religious beliefs and in the same vein, unquestionably believe the media.

Humans are also pretty bad at making that initial decision on who or what to trust. This is why it is so hard to accurately judge character.

* * *

One very hot day, a guy was sitting on his porch when he saw three guys standing nearby. He walked up to them and said "Hello." He then proceeded to ask them to come in and had his wife offer them some baked goods, tantalizing veal, with milk and butter to boot.

For his generosity, his post menopausal wife become a mother.

This is the story of Abraham and Sarah as we read it in Genesis chapter 18. It is then mentioned in Hebrews 13:2

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Strangers can be kind. And generous. Even altruistic.

And this is exactly what happened when in 1945 towards the end of World War II, a young Jewish boy was liberated by American soldiers. Strangers who were outraged by what they witnessed at Auschwitz, but who were also driven by compassion for the victims of the systemic genocide that was perpetuated by Nazis.

This young boy did live on to become an old man who finally died on 2nd July, 2016. But that was not before he bore witness not only to the horrors of the Holocaust, but also to the magnanimity of human compassion. In 1999, Elie Wiesel gave a speech where he said:

I am filled with a profound and abiding gratitude... "Gratitude" is a word that I cherish. Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.

There are additional links and excerpts on this past post about the perils of indifference on The Walkabout.

* * *

What do you do when you encounter strangers? The acceptable and seemingly smart thing would be to run away, especially if it's strangers in the night. But who knows, things might be quite different and in the likelihood this is a beautiful stranger, the person turns out to be good for you.
Anyways here is some Frank Sinatra magic!

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Ditch Desirability. Pursue Purpose

The Greatest Love of All

Many years ago on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in March, I walked into a room on the fourth floor of Hall 6 at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). I was a student there, and so was the man I was about to meet.

But I wasn't meeting him for the first time. He was a classmate. A very cool dude in fact. Very low-profile. Quiet. The most outstanding thing about this guy, noticeable within a few minutes of meeting him, was that he really loved smoking. To this day, he reminds me of Terry O'Reilly's line: "Light them if you got them" in his Age of Persuasion episode about the AMC TV hit show 'Madmen'.

Soon after I sat on one of the beds in the University hostel room, I was offered black coffee and some mandazi. That, given the time and circumstances, was unparalleled 'Ivy League' hospitality!

I had come to this room to get myself some music. Illegally, of course. But it was quite a process, much unlike simply downloading an MP3 track from the Napster website and adding it onto a collection on my personal computer for offline access and - it goes without saying - additional distribution of this bootleg music through endless copying.

Joel gave me a tape cassette. On it was recorded ninety minutes of Whitney Houston music. This included some of my then favorites, and others I hadn't listened to before.

Back in my room, I transferred the music from cassette player to a desktop computer. It was a time consuming exercise, that involved the use of JetAudio, Nero and Winamp audio software. I ended up sleeping past midnight.

Finally, I had the one Whitney Houston Song that carries so much weight, and around which I write this post.

Loving oneself is the greatest love of all.

Utaambia Watu Nini?

Throughout the December 2018 holidays, there was a radio (I neither possess nor watch TV, so I wouldn't know if there was a television version) commercial by the StarTimes terrestrial and satellite TV company. Voiced by one of Kenya's pseudo comedians, the advert ended with the question: "Utaambia watu nini?"
That, of course, is if you didn't get yourself a StarTimes decoder.

That is an interesting persuasion technique, for anybody who knows just how much people love to belong and to not miss out. But there is another way of looking at it - just how much do we say, do or acquire on the strength of what others will say, think or feel?

A key premise of the Advertising classic 'The Mirror Makers' is that advertising doesn't merely show people how or what they are, but what they'd like to be.
And this is also what predisposes people to conmen and frauds - all it takes to manipulate or otherwise unduly influence a person is to tell them a story that resonates with what they either believe or want to hear.

The best example of this is the hope peddling that happens every Sunday...

The Divided Self

In his book 'The Happiness Hypothesis,' Jonathan Haidt writes about "The Divided Self."
In a nutshell, Haidt outlines the various divisions the self has to contend with, given that they often work in cross purposes. These are mind vs body, left vs right, new vs old and controlled vs automatic.

It is for this reason that each one of us, despite the obvious assumption that one would have his or her best interests at heart, will occasionally do irrational and stupid things, fail to control oneself, or do what one knows is not good for him or her.

How should a Person Look Like?

In the United Kingdom, Chidera 'The SlumFlower' Eggerue is a young woman who has had to constantly deal with the pressure to have what is considered perfect boobs.
At one point, she decided she's had enough of this nonsense and launched the #SaggyBoobsMatter hashtag on social media.

Chidera was bold enough to refuse being shamed for how her breasts look.
Sadly, not every person has the support systems around them to come out and speak boldly against harmful societal constructs that dictate what is popular or even acceptable.

It is acceptable and in order that humans will want to belong.
But time and again, we have seen people across all age groups and regions of the world, lower their dignity or otherwise harm themselves in an effort to be accepted by others.

An even more harmful version of this happens on the web, thanks to social networks. It is not uncommon to see people post fake photos depicting their near "perfect" lives in an effort to flaunt glamour and "success" in life.
All this vanity is informed by a misguided craving for social approval and validation by strangers online. Many people feel like they owe their followers and Facebook friends an account of how well they are living their lives.

This is why in August 2018, a popular Kenyan TV presenter was exposed for having projected a very exaggerated and fake lifestyle on Instagram. She would use photos lifted other sites and using filters and digital graphics editing, claim to be doing fashionable things or being in exotic places - all of which was entirely untrue.

The Purpose Driven Life

This book by Rick Warren is a great guide to living a life that is driven by purpose. It is true a lot of it is based on Christian principles. But religion aside, it has wonderful insights that are worth considering.

It much better to pursue one's purpose in life, than to be burdened with an endless search for desirability in the eyes of other faulty humans.
Or even worse - and more damaging - feeling the need to explain oneself to others as if one owes his/her life or happiness to them.

* * *

There is need for every individual to learn how to love oneself unconditionally.
There is honestly nothing wrong with loving who you are, you were born that way. There is no need to hide yourself in regret or feel the need to gain the validation and approval of strangers who in actual fact do not care about you at all. Everybody is beautiful in their own way.


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