If there was one thing Facebook is good for (or possibly bad for) is the dispensing of canned advice through adages, proverbs, clichés, and quotes from a random assortment of famous people. I’m not going lie, I do love a good quote now and then. There have been great minds in our history who have profound things to say. There is one adage that annoys me to no end, and so you’ll have to forgive for doing a little bit of venting.
“God only gives you only what you can handle”.
Now this has nothing to do with me being an atheist. Even if I was a theist this statement would be wholly false. Like many of the adages floating out there on social media at best this applies to first world citizens, but even then it still seems like it could end up insulting a lot of people.
My first thought when I first heard the expression: well how many people die of starvation every day? For your information 1.5 million children starve to death in the world each year. That’s over 4,000 children a day, or about 1 child every 20 seconds. Clearly these children were given a situation in which they could not handle. Why would God give children such a situation to begin with?
What about all the people who die of cancer, heart disease, or other fatal conditions? What about the people who suffer nervous breakdowns, have undiagnosed trauma, severe depression? What of those who go a step further and tragically take their own life?
There is no doubt that all of us have a certain amount of adversity we have to face in life. We of course want to survive and for the most case if we can handle it, we will. Nobody wants to just let a difficult situation destroy their lives, or weaken them to the point of personal neglect. Ultimately we handle adversity the best way can, and hope that we are better and stronger for it afterwards. But there are plenty of situations that are beyond one individual.
What is most bothersome about the saying is what it implies about you if you couldn’t handle the situation. If God gives you only what you can handle, if you didn’t handle it, then it must be your fault in some way. You must be doing something wrong. If this message is supposed to give you strength to handle a situation, failure to do so may not bring you the peace you desire.
In the end it is a fairly empty piece of advice, applicable to relatively mild situations, and really only verifiable in hindsight to someone who got through a difficult situation successfully. Personally I think we can come up with something a little more helpful than this expression.
I consider my first love, a girl who did not even love my back and who didn’t know how I felt. It’s not the same, and I’m not going to even claim that it was as intense as the first time I fell in love with someone who was in love with me, but this girl changed my life. Before I met her, I never even dreamed someone so beautiful would talk to me, and more importantly that I would have the confidence to talk to her. I had a lot of self-esteem issues growing up and that may surprise some who have only known me in my 30’s and it took me a long time to even have the nerve to even ask a girl out. I didn’t do that until I was 18. She was very kind, said she felt flattered but that she had a boyfriend. Of course I was disappointed, but it gave me some confidence. I then went on my first date at the age of 19. I was a mess on that date, and she didn’t want to date again, but it was another confidence builder. Yes it took me until the age of 20 to even have the nerve to really talk to a girl I found that beautiful like a normal human being. We became friends though, and she had a boyfriend at the time and so it was really inappropriate for me to really express my feelings anyway. And she was extremely beautiful and I don’t regret at all that I didn’t express myself because if you can’t also be friends with someone you find attractive than you have no business getting into relationships anyway. Because of her I gained so much belief in myself it’s hard to describe. And she is out there with absolutely no idea what she did for me, and I will forever feel grateful to her.
Stories of my boring early love life is not the point of this post, but what is the point is that we all have these kinds of memories.
Incidents and people that touched our lives and trajectories have moved us apart without them ever knowing how they changed us. It doesn’t always have to be a positive experience. It could be negative at the time, but upon reflection we learned the right lesson from it. It could be an acquaintance sharing a tale of woe and from that we have an extra piece of knowledge that may help us avoid that situation in the future, hurling us on a different trajectory than we otherwise would have taken. These moments can happen so briefly and the other person has no idea the changes they’ve caused in you. And who knows, some of these small moments may even plant the seeds of greater change.
As I reflect on these people and these moments it makes life feel absolutely amazing because if I’m feeling a bit down on myself, feeling a bit invisible, or feeling smaller than I like in the vast universe, I remember that I also do not know what impact I might have had on others. Whether I have been at my best or at worst I still may have helped someone grow, change, lead a better life. Sometimes I think it would be nice to know, but given how people have changed me without them knowing, I don’t know need to know exactly, I can simply be confident that at least some people out there have benefitted by my existence. I think that as long as I keep trying each day to be more than I am, then good things will always happen. And it’s good to know that at 40, I’m still an optimist at heart. 🙂
Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same. We try to set ourselves apart. Even with respect to those we are closest with. It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear. But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc. To do this often we must make judgments. Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not. Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.
This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective. Here we find a
strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us. It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism. Some people need community more than others. Some people value their individualism more than others. Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs. The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church. I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.
What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work. Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group. A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual. Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park. Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.
What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism. A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball. Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose. Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas. Diversity generally benefits the entire group. All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.
I am a big fan of the rock band Queen. I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May. I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me. It was something along the lines of “We are
all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track. But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”. Dealing with diversity is exhausting. It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise. When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart. This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.
Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity. People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”. I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though. If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals. As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community. Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education. The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.
After my son was born I suddenly realized how people could be baby crazy and wrote an apology to all those who I thought were insane. 🙂
In that same vein I would like to continue with this topic as I reflect upon the love I have for my son right now.
It’s insane. The love is like no other. It feels so strong that it’s like it could literally jump out of my chest and wrap itself
around my boy. I am not going to say it’s better or worse, but it’s unique. It’s like falling in love, but as I mentioned before, even when you fall in love it feels like it’s based on something in the other person that is describable, even though the love you feel is more than the sum of those tangible criteria. This feeling is totally biological. My son barely has a personality, has barely acknowledged my existence, knows nothing about me, and we can’t communicate, but my love grows each in every day. So much so that it scares me.
I’ve always tried to understand the darker nature in ourselves and what I am feeling right now helps understand some behaviors better, while others I am even more clueless. For instance I don’t understand how people can do unspeakable cruelty to their children; beat them, scream at them, shake them to death, forget about them. I am not talking about parents who work very hard to try to provide for their kids and whose hearts are broken that they don’t get to spend more time with them. But real abuse. It feels as wrong to me as 2+2=5. It’s just not an option.
On the other hand I get a glimpse into the type of parent who would do very irrational things to protect their children. Or parents who would make their whole world revolve around their children to the point of their detriment. I am not condoning these behaviors only that I see it. It’s not an abstract thing to me anymore. I can see how the intense love you feel would make you do some pretty stupid things. As intense love is prone to do, for whomever you feel it for. But it is still very different from that intense love and passion of romantic love. Perhaps I lack some depth of feeling but there is something about falling in love with an adult that is different because the other person is an adult. You have the feeling that they can take care of themselves, they have the ability to make their own decisions, and there is a certain understanding that you can’t control the other person (healthy love anyway, obviously many try to control their partners and this usually become dysfunctional quickly). The helplessness and the innocence of a baby turns your love into such a fury of protection that it’s without measure. As my love grows I get so scared about what would happen if I lost him. I already have no idea how I’d emotionally deal with something so big. I hope I never have to pass through such a trial because I am not sure I could carry the weight. So I get it. I see it as though I stand on the top of a hill and see how slippery the slope is to just doing stupid
things out of love. And whenever this happens I am thankful for it because I know I have increased my capacity for forgiveness.
And though I see such things I know that I am capable of keeping my sense of reason. It is precisely because I love my son so much that I know that if I really want to give him the best opportunities in this world he needs to have a dad who maintains a measure of reason in the face of overwhelming emotion. So I must continue to be vigilant and direct my love into ways that will strengthen him and not weaken him.
Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works. A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the
love we have for ourselves?” In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self. For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves? Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother? A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism. How do we become the people that we are? How do we know ourselves? Is our sense of self just an illusion?
In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother. Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes. 🙂 For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others. Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things). I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others. As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self. I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy. Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.
Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well. Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings. I have no doubt that this is true. But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.
It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences. No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education. We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.
So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives. Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to
others? People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice. No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care. What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome. It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.
I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share. This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism. After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.
I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately. I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing. His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future. To me that
is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.
One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series. In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people. The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware. In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human. Robots do everything. Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need. It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding. And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.
Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more. While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact. Not overly different from today’s city life really.
Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted. We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival. Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance. As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people. The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained. It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.
In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street. Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well. I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past. I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it. As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet. I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship. Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face. Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?
And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways. I can still conduct
my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me. You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door. Banking and paying bills can be done on-line. As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher. And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary. Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others. The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be. Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.
For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species. Is it simply not part of our
mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities? Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man? Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it? What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others. In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way. Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way? Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.
If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more. But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace? Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen? I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder. It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.
For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance. I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂