The Essential Neruda: Review

misty mountains

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The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems

“dan cristal a cristal, sangre a la sangre,
y dan vida a la vida las palabras.”

“words give glass-quality to glass, blood to blood,
and life to life itself.” (P152)

Of all the books I want to read, books of poetry are somewhere near the bottom of the list. Having written poetry myself, I’ll admit this is somewhat mystifying, but while I occasionally enjoy writing it as an outlet, I find I often dislike the ambiguity that comes with trying to interpret someone else’s poetic turn of phrase. It is for exactly this reason that poetry made the category list for #nonficbingo2018 – to push me out of my comfort zone.

While browsing the Poetry section in my local public library, I came across The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems. Having studied Spanish in the past, I was intrigued. I made myself read the Spanish aloud as I went through these, to hear the rhythm of Neruda’s phrasing, which is, in fact, quite beautiful.

Many of Neruda’s poems center around nature, the struggles of everyday people, the wonders of life, and (of course) love/sex. He also has a series of poems for Machu Picchu. His poems are at times, wandering, and deeply evocative. Reading Neruda, I found, puts me in a rather wistful and contemplative state.

I noticed a couple fun tidbits regarding the selections included in this anthology: doves (palomas) and foam (espuma) are frequently recurring. Also, he seems to like the idea of fullness and curves combining, and I’m not sure if this is because of the sexual undertones, the beautiful way the words sound together (because they really do), or both. ūüėČ

Here are two examples:

Colmas la curvatura del silencio.”

“You overflow the curvature of silence.” (P104, emphasis mine)

“tu cadera
es la curva colmada
de la copa,”

“your hip
is the curve of the wineglass,
filled to the brim,” (P130, emphasis mine)

I am definitely a fan of the curva colmada¬†word combo now. It just rolls off the tongue. Read that second snippet (“tu cadera…“) out loud and try to tell me the cadence and alliteration of it isn’t simply brilliant.

If you speak or have studied Spanish, and have an interest in poetry, I would highly recommend The Essential Neruda.

A SELECTION FROM “PLENO OCTUBRE”

I thought this passage was beautiful (if a little melancholy):

“Poco a poco y tambi√©n mucho a mucho
me sucedió la vida
y qué insignificante es este asunto:
estas venas llevaron
sangre mía que pocas veces vi,
respiré el aire de tantas regiones
sin guardarme una muestra de ninguno
y a fin de cuentas ya lo saben todos;
nadie se lleva nada de su haber
y la vida fue un préstamo de huesos.
Lo bello fue aprender a no saciarse
de la tristeza ni de la alegría,
esperar el tal vez de una √ļltima gota,
pedir m√°s a la miel y a las tinieblas.”

“Little by little, and also in great leaps,
life happened to me,
and how insignificant this business is.
These veins carried
my blood, which I scarcely ever saw,
I breathed the air of so many places
without keeping a sample of any.
In the end, everyone is aware of this:
nobody keeps any of what he has,
and life is only a borrowing of bones.
The best thing was learning not to have too much
either of sorrow or of joy,
to hope for the chance of a last drop,
to ask more from honey and from twilight.” (P174)

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

#nonficbingo2018 keeps shaking its curvy hips on down the road!

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Norse Mythology: Review and Thoughts

Author’s Note: Life threw an unexpected curve-ball at me recently, which has eaten up some of my productive time. As such, I’m giving myself a little leeway and making a sliiiiight modification to my original #nonficbingo2018 challenge. Where I had initially chosen Dewey Decimal 201 for the fifth category, I am expanding that to 200-299. I was enticed to read Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (although, to be fair, it doesn’t really take a lot of enticing to get me to read Neil Gaiman), and I realized that reading the world myths themselves is perhaps just as worthwhile as reading commentaries about them. So… for anyone following along at home… be free! You have more options for the original “Religious Mythology and Social Theology” category.

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Norse Mythology

For those who have read Gaiman’s original works, Norse Mythology will be a bit less thrilling of an experience. (This reminds me of the relative flatness of Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer, as compared to the sheer brilliance of her Grisha Trilogy and Six of Crows Duology.)

That being said, I do appreciate the wit and turn of phrase Gaiman brings into the work. While I knew the names of some of the Norse gods, I had never really heard any of their stories, outside of snippets from the pop culture movie franchise (and I must confess — while reading these myths, Loki was played by Tom Hiddleston in my head), and it was intriguing to read their adventures.

Alright… past this point, THAR BE SPOILERS!! You’ve been warned.

Here are a couple stories that caught my attention…

MIMIR’S HEAD AND ODIN’S EYE

One of my favorite facets of the character Odin is that he traded a physical eye for wisdom. I love the metaphor of it, and I love how Gaiman describes the trade:

“After he had done what was needful, he placed his eye carefully in the pool. It stared up at him through the water. Odin filled the Gjallerhorn with water from Mimir’s pool, and he lifted it to his lips. The water was cold. He drained it down. Wisdom flooded into him. He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two. (P46, emphasis mine)

It is too true that our greatest wisdom comes from our deepest sufferings. That Odin understood this so well as to cut out his own eye (without ado) for the exchange, even before he had received any additional wisdom for it, shows how much wisdom he already had.

THE TREASURES OF THE GODS

This story just felt so wonderfully ridiculous to me… Loki gets drunk and does something crazy, which causes harm to Thor, so Thor bullies him into fixing it. But rather than just… you know… FIXING it… Loki has to turn it into another game, trying to pit two groups against each other to gain a bunch of free stuff while saving his own hide from Thor. His plan fails, however, despite his wacky efforts at interference, and the outcome of all of this nonsense and shenanigans is that Thor gets a really awesome hammer (yes, that one), and Loki almost gets beheaded.

And you just kind of have to throw your hands up and jovially wonder, are these gods? Or toddlers?

THE CHILDREN OF LOKI

An aspect of the Norse lore I really like is the concept of Ragnarok — that they foretold an end to everything, even their powerful gods, who could seemingly do (or survive) anything. And I like it all the more in that there would also be a new beginning, after the end.

There is an element missing, I feel, in the (United States of) American culture, in that we don’t address death as well as many other cultures do. We ignore it, postpone it, and do everything we can to outrun it… but we do not embrace it as an inherent part of the life cycle. In an American Religious Diversity class in college, I learned about how beautifully the Native American tribes explain the cycle of life in their mythologies, and what respect they gave to elders and the wisdom that comes with age. There was not the feeling of a beginning and an end, but more of an ongoing cycle, larger than ourselves, that we are a part of. I remember feeling a sense of wonder at how inclusive they were of death, as a natural part of life.

In this story, the gods are acting out of concern for what may happen during Ragnarok, and I find it interesting how it addressed a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. Because there was concern that Loki’s wolf son could bring them destruction in the end times, the gods endeavor to bind him from doing them harm. Yet, once they’ve accomplished it, he says:

“”Treacherous Odin!” called the wolf. “If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of all things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you.”” (P106)

Would the wolf have ever destroyed them, had they not first bound him, in their fear of said destruction?

FREYA’S UNUSUAL WEDDING

This was probably one of the most enjoyable tales to read, and it provided one of my favorite quotes:

“There were things Thor did when something went wrong. The first thing he did was ask himself if what had happened was Loki’s fault. Thor pondered. He did not believe that even Loki would have dared to steal his hammer. So he did the next thing he did when something went wrong, and he went to ask Loki for advice.” (P110)

I do love the duality of a character who is both most likely to have caused your problems, and most likely to help you find a solution to them.

HYMIR AND THOR’S FISHING EXPEDITION

My favorite quote from this book may not come across well in writing, and without all the context that makes me love it so.

But, I’ll preface it by saying that it came at just the perfect time for me, and I think it is expertly and accurately phrased, in a way that strikes me as amusing. It depicts something we all feel from time to time, but are so rarely willing to admit. It comes when a giantess wife is trying to coax her newly-arrived-home husband to be kind to their unexpected guests. He answers:

“I am grim of mind and wrathful of spirit and I have no desire to be nice to anyone…” (p126)

And then he smashes some shit up. You know, because he feels like it.

And the image of this giant acting like a petulant child because he just isn’t in the mood is laughable and somehow comforting. Because, come on… who among us hasn’t wanted, on a bad day, instead of putting on a fake, polite smile, to just honestly say… “Look – I am grim of mind and wrathful of spirit and I have no desire to be nice to anyone. Now please go away and leave me alone. Thank you.

It’s the perfect mixture of melodramatic, honest, and ridiculous. I think Gaiman totally nailed that particular slice of human experience, and I love it.

RAGNAROK: THE FINAL DESTINY OF THE GODS

As mentioned before, I love the idea of Ragnarok, and I love how Gaiman describes it:

“Nothing will remain of the armies of the living and of the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash. Soon after, the swollen ocean will swallow the ashes as it washes across all the land, and everything living will be forgotten under the sunless sky. That is how the worlds will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods. That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end.” (P279)

I think there’s something beautifully real in creating these amazing, powerful, stunning gods and also foretelling their complete destruction. And while it may be the end of these gods, and all that they knew, there is also something that will exist, afterwards.

That the impermanence of our lives is woven into the fabric of the Norse mythologies is impressive to me… not even their gods get a pass for true immortality. But there is yet something new to look towards, around the corner, beyond the inevitable destruction. A new beginning.

I feel like this is what myth is supposed to do. To teach us about the grand scope and macrocosm (how species come and go over eons), as well as the microcosm within us (how these themes will play out in our own lives). As we survive our own personal Ragnoroks — those times in life where everything we knew is razed to ash and it feels as if our world has ended — although that part of our story (and the gods that starred in it) may be over, there is always “what will come after the end“, as Gaiman puts it.

Beautiful.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

With this book (the ninth), we’ve hit the quarter-mark on #nonficbingo2018! ūüôā

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Review

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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

“And I realized why Kamila’s brother understood better than I why, at this moment, telling his sister’s story matters so much. Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed. I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage. And to introduce them to the young women like Kamila Sidiqi who will go on. No matter what.” (P229)

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is the perfect example of a book that broadens your awareness of world events, expands your understanding of other life experiences, and does so in an unassuming and entertaining way.¬†The author’s storytelling feels personal, almost as if you were hearing the events directly from the main character, Kamila, herself.

The deep empathy that Tzemach Lemmon developed in her years in Afghanistan and with the Afghani people emanates from the pages of this book, in a way that can’t but engender empathy in the reader as well:

“Kabulis watched helplessly as the Taliban began reshaping the cosmopolitan capital according to their utopian vision of seventh-century Islam.” (P25)

“The newly issued edicts commanded:

Women will stay at home
Women are not permitted to work
Women must wear the chadri in public

For many women, however, including Kamila and her four sisters, the clothing restrictions were the least of their problems. The worst was that they had no place left to go; they had been banished to their living rooms. Overnight, women vanished from the streets of a city where only days before they had accounted for nearly 40 percent of civil servants and more than half of all teachers. The impact was immediate and devastating, particularly for the thirty thousand Kabul families that were said to be headed by widows. Many of these women had lost their husbands during the endless years of war, first with the Soviets and then with their own countrymen. Now they couldn’t even work to support their children.” (P26)

“And now, day after dreary day, these energetic, educated girls sat around in their bare feet on pillows in the living room listening to events unfold over the BBC, wondering how long life could continue like this. All of their plans for the future had simply disappeared in what felt like a heartbeat.” (P29)

I better understand now what happened to the everyday lives of Kabulis when the Taliban came in. Even though I heard the news stories, and I’ve read other books set in a similar time/place, I don’t think I really understood the level of privilege that was removed from the everyday lives of the Afghani people. I may have cognitively been aware of it on some level, but there was a significant expansion of both understanding and empathy that came from reading this particular story. It was also so inspiring to hear the story of these women’s incredible strength in adversity, and how they banded together to overcome what life dealt them. And (as if that weren’t enough going for it), it was also an enjoyable read! I would highly recommend it for anyone.

A related, excellent novel is The Secret Sky, by Atia Abawi. The author spent years as a journalist in Afghanistan (as did Tzemach Lemmon), and wrote The Secret Sky based on the people she met and the events she covered. While The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is set in Afghanistan’s largest city, where women were free to roam the city without chaperones (pre-Taliban, of course), The Secret Sky is set in a rural town, where women’s rights were always far more restricted. It is a frighteningly eye-opening story, and not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

This heartening, true story brings our #nonficbingo2018 score up to 8!

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The Year of Magical Thinking: Review and Thoughts

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The Year of Magical Thinking

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” (P3)

Grief. It slices through the normalcy of our day-to-day lives like a knife, marking the point where everything we once counted on became suddenly only “what was before.” The shock of this unexpected change can feel unbearable, and yet, we all must experience it multiple times in our lives, and see it through, each time, to the other side.

The Year of Magical Thinking was not my intended pick for the category of “Written by a Survivor.” But this book fell into my lap (and then demanded to be read) for a multitude of reasons, and so I read it. I still hope to read My Stroke of Insight, Unbroken, and Man Alive¬†(my original choices), at some point in the future.

In this incredibly personal book, Didion shares with the reader the experience of unexpectedly losing her husband to cardiac arrest, while her daughter was languishing in a coma in a hospital, and her subsequent path through her grief and her daughter’s awakening and further health crises. She speaks honestly about the depth of loss, and how that loss spread into all aspects of her life. She discusses how grief befuddles you, in so many unexpected ways, how it negatively affects our health, and how society expects us to react (that is: unaffected). She shares insights from the research she did on the subject, and her wandering thoughts, as she struggled to come to terms with loss.

This book is helpful in that it is empathetic. If you are grieving, it is nice to feel un-alone in the ways that pain expresses itself. Didion mentions how, in the aftermath, she was unable to eat without her stomach turning (P30). Twice in my life, I have suddenly lost partners with whom I felt an unnaturally deep (and, I thought, permanent) connection, and whose loss I did not expect… even if, perhaps, I should have. In both cases, I also became unable to eat almost at all, and certainly not without feeling sick, for a time afterwards. Beyond sharing this response with the author, I discovered a broader connection — did you know that dolphins have also been observed refusing to eat, when they lose a mate? (P46) Apparently, this deep sense of loss, and its physical manifestations, is not limited to the human experience.

Our society, however, does not generally indulge such expressions of grieving:

“The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public morning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat morning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”” (P60, emphasis mine)

But when someone is unexpectedly ripped from your life, how are you supposed to go on acting as if life is the same and nothing has happened?

“”A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,” Philippe Ari√®s wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes towards Death. “But one no longer has the right to say so out loud.“” (P192, emphasis mine)

In the Victorian Era, when a loved one died, a strict period of mourning (identified by special clothing and social practices) was observed. While this practice was potentially excessive in certain cases, and did not allow for the variations of individual grieving times, I cannot help but think there would have been something cathartic in the ritual of it, in the process, and in the way social obligations were moderated during such a difficult time.

Today, we force ourselves to bury that sadness, and put on a happy face nearly immediately. And while there is certainly some scientific evidence for “faking it until you make it”, there is also plenty of evidence that ignoring our pain can set us up for trouble down the line.

One good thing I have found about grief (if, in fact, any good thing can be said about grief), is that the more often you go through it, the easier it becomes to recognize its patterns… to submit to the waves of sadness that wash over you, and then ride the slow, numbing current back to shore, where you might find a few moments peace before the next wave comes. Knowing that crash of freezing wetness is coming in no way prevents or even alleviates the pain, but it allows you, at least, to see through the present anguish to the other side, when the pain will (if all-too-eventually) lessen.

Whether we have lost someone to death, or simply via their removal from our life, we have to come to terms with the fact that our lives will be different without them. We have to find balance between allowing ourselves to suffer their loss fully and honestly, and also deliberately making our way towards healing, through intentional choices of self-care and habits that support our long-term goals and priorities.

“”I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense,” C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. “It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassable frontierpost across it. So many roads once; now so many cul de sacs.“” (P195, emphasis mine)

Lastly, after reading the book, I was gazing at the cover one day and realized that a few letters were blue, among the black of the rest… and as my eyes traced them, they strung together J…O…H…N. Her lost husband’s name. What a beautiful metaphor for the way in which the lost person stays with you, interwoven into the aspects of your life. After forty years of connection, in all that she does in his absence, he is still with her — in her thoughts and in what she creates. She still sees him, in everything.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

#nonficbingo2018 marches on!

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Philosophy 101: Review and Takeaways

classic library with ivory statues

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Paul Klieinman’s Philosophy 101 is a concise summary of the major schools of philosophical thought and the prominent philosophers who created them. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for slightly more depth and explanation on a given topic, but overall, the conciseness of this book works in its favor. It provides an enticing sampler platter of ideas, introducing the reader to historical figures and topics, with a short overview of their most salient points. It therefore functions excellently as a springboard, from which to dive deeper into those philosophies that stand out to the reader.

Since this is already a compact overview of in-depth concepts and histories, there’s no way to give any summary that would truncate it further. Instead, I will discuss just a few of my personal takeaways.

Philosophy 101

Existentialism

Apparently, I’ve got a decent amount of existentialist ideas running around in my head. I took down more quotes from this chapter than any other, and they tend to line up well with how I already see the world.

There’s existentialism and the notion of…

  • THE INDIVIDUAL — Existentialism outlines the responsibility of the individual to create his/her life through conscious thought and actions in accordance with his/her values. (P25)
  • CHOICE — Ultimately, it is each human being’s responsibility to weigh their options, make their own choices, and live with the consequences. (P25)
  • ANXIETY — There is a process, referred to as the “existential crisis”, where we are confronted with evidence that contradicts an understanding or belief we hold, and we must, in light of this new information, reevaluate all that we know and the ways we interact with the world. (P25) I believe these moments — of crisis, leading to loss of bearings, forcing reevaluation, and resulting in a new world view — are central to our continual growth and becoming.
  • AUTHENTICITY — Each of us must take the time and effort to come to terms with who we truly are. We must challenge the initial histories/scripts/social constructs we unconsciously adopted, decide what of these scripts is true for us — and what is not, and then act in ways that bring our lives into accordance with who we really are. There is a great sense of responsibility that exists in making decisions that align with our values. (P25) I have learned that this is a never-ending and ongoing process, as our authentic self will change over the years.
  • ABSURDITY “The world has no meaning other than the meaning that we provide it.” (P25) Again, going back to the concept of personal responsibility, I think that each of us has to design our own lives to provide the purpose and outcomes that are meaningful for us, individually.
  • RELIGION “Existentialism asks human beings to search and discover their meaning and purpose from within themselves, and this is not possible if they believe in some external force controlling humanity.” (P26)

Language

John Locke’s ideas on the accuracy (or lack thereof?) of language were quite insightful:

“According to John Locke, words do not represent external things; rather, they represent ideas within the mind of the person saying them. While these ideas are presumed to then represent things, Locke believed the accuracy of the representation does not affect that word’s meaning. With that in mind, Locke set out to eliminate the natural shortcomings of language that naturally arise. He suggested that people should never use words without having a clear idea of those words’ meanings; people should attempt to identify the same meanings of words used by others so as to have a common vocabulary; people should be consistent with their use of words; and if a meaning of a word is unclear, one should then define it more clearly.” (P133)

It is amazing how often even direct and honest interpersonal communication can be sabotaged by the different interpretations (held by each person) of the terminology used. If two people make an agreement, but are mentally defining the individual aspects of that agreement differently, miscommunication (and potentially conflict) will occur.

As a simple example, someone could say, “I’ll pick you up shortly after my meeting ends.” Shortly, to that person, might mean within an hour or so, whereas shortly to the person being picked up could be closer to a twenty minute window. Each person would have a different expectation of what that statement means in practice, and that miscommunication could cause unnecessary friction in the relationship.

Of course, these differences in interpretation could easily cause miscommunication in far more important aspects of one’s life than when a ride will arrive. Therefore, in all aspects of communication, from business deals to relationships, it is important to ensure that you both agree on the same definition of the terms you are using (or, if your definitions differ, be aware of and discuss those differences in interpretation).

Sartre and Self-Actualization

I have long believed strongly in the concept of self-actualization, but had done so without knowing its title or originator. Now, I know more of the philosophy behind an idea I already believed in.

Sartre did not believe that we have an essential nature, as human beings, but rather that we are constantly creating who we are via the choices we make. To believe that one’s place in society defines one’s self, or that one’s views cannot be changed, or that “I am just the way that I am” are all false. Instead, self-actualization — “the process of making something from what someone has already been made into” (P141) — is always possible. (A great read on this theory, from modern times and backed with studies/science, is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck.)

To succeed in self-actualizing, one must recognize the realities that are acting upon an individual, from outside him or herself, and then acknowledge that he/she has a consciousness that exists independently from those forces. With this consciousness, he or she can choose to act in ways that will ultimately recreate the sense of self.

However, to Sartre, this “inherent freedom of consciousness is both a gift and a curse. While freedom can allow one to make a change and shape his life, there is also a responsibility that comes along with it.” (P143)¬†Basically, once we realize that who we will become is solely a product of our own decisions and actions, we have a world of options ahead of us, but also must face all of the consequences of our choices.

I, for one, still find this a very empowering concept.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

This week, we marched forward with review number six of #nonficbingo2018. That means we’re 1/6 of the way to completion on this challenge!

non fiction bingo 2018 philosophy 101

 

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Binti: Review

Today, we take a break from #nonficbingo2018, to make a quick foray into the world of fiction. ūüôā


When first I picked up Binti from my local library, I was disappointed to find that it was a tiny novella, rather than a full length novel, as I had assumed. But I’ve heard such amazing things about this… I thought. How could all that buzz be over this little book? Nevertheless, the hype was justified.

Binti is a unique and intelligent science fiction story. The author, Nnedi Okorafor, inspired by her Nigerian heritage, beautifully weaves tribal traditions with science, mathematics, and technology, to create a world that feels both mystical and real.

Many of Okorafor’s insights into the human condition gave me pause, such as:

“[My brother Bena] was angry and always speaking out about the way my people were maltreated by the Khoush majority despite the fact that they needed us and our astrolabes to survive. He was always calling them evil, though he’d never traveled to a Khoush country or known a Khoush. His anger was rightful, but all that he said was from what he didn’t truly know.” (P54)

I already have already placed the sequel, Binti: Home, on hold at the library, and I’m sure I will be reading the third book, Binti: The Night Masquerade, soon after. I look forward to diving further into this vivid world!

 

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So You Want to Talk About Race: Review and Takeaways

caucasian and black woman standing side by side

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There is nothing I can say to do this book justice.

Please go pick up a copy of So You Want to Talk About Race and read it.

Ijeoma Oluo has done an amazing job of bringing both emotional vulnerability and rhetorical excellence to this book. With honest insights into the black experience, and ample use of facts and studies to support her views, Oluo helped me better understand what’s going on for people of color, and what’s at stake. And, as she explains near the end of the book, that kind of honesty about these deeply painful subjects takes a lot of emotional strength. I am so grateful to her for what must have been the epic task of writing this particular book.

I am going to list some of the main points that stood out to me. However, what’s listed here is a tiny fraction of the powerful content of this book. As a case in point, I had to start¬†marking the quotes I wanted to save with tabs midway through this book, because stopping to type them into my phone (as I usually do) was happening so often that it was affecting the experience of reading. ¬†And I used up a lot of tabs. ¬†;P

Maybe 3% of the quotes I recorded made it into this post. There is no way to reframe or summarize Oluo’s work without losing the potency of it. And I could never do it justice without simply ripping off her efforts, by quoting all the huge blocks of her words I recorded — which I have struggled not to overdo in this post, despite how many of her awesome explanations I want to share.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I want everyone to read this book. What is exists below is a truncated list of some of the points that surprised me, gave me new insight, hit me the hardest, or were explained in ways that really helped me “get” it.

 

woman looking through window

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So You Want to Talk About Race

#1 – It’s not just about class.

Focusing on economic class moves everyone forward, but without addressing the inequalities present within each class level. It maintains the same racial hierarchies that have always existed, which leaves significant income gaps between whites and minorities.

Yes — class needs to be addressed, too. But it won’t solve the income/wealth schism that exists because of racism. That is a separate issue.

#2 — If a person of color says it’s about race, it’s about race.

Every person uses their own life’s experience to interpret what they see. ¬†Just as each white person interprets their understanding of the world from what they’ve experienced personally, so too has each person of color interpreted their experiences, to form their own worldview. To deny them their interpretation is to say that their experiences and the worldview those experiences have created are invalid.

This, of course, extends beyond the difference between whites and people of color.  A trans black woman will likely have formed different interpretations of her experience than a gay Latino man.  Ultimately, it all comes down to respect: understand that your personal experiences have likely been vastly different from any other person who is sharing their experiences and worldview with you.  Seek to understand their perspective, not refute it.

#3 — There are racists and there is systemic racism. The latter is crucial to the discussion about race, if any headway is to be made.

If we want to see a more equitable and just experience for all people, we need not to focus on individual racists, but on the powerful system that establishes the implicit biases, unfair social systems, and other injustices that affect people of color.

“…the impotent hatred of the virulent racist was built and nurtured by a system that has much more insidiously woven a quieter, yet no less violent, version of those same oppressive beliefs into the fabric of our society.” (P27)

#4 — Believing your successes are 100% earned perpetuates the system.

No one wants to admit that privilege was at work in an achievement… a college diploma, a job offer, a promotion… but part of the problem is how insidiously privilege is woven into our society, such that (to those who have it) it is mostly imperceptible and seems natural. Our surroundings constantly reinforce what we know, and — until we take a step back and force ourselves to look at the privileges we’ve been afforded — the negative effects on others can escape our notice.

“If I were to go along thinking that my degree was 100 percent due to my efforts and all the benefits that I received were 100 percent deserved, it would then require that I think that those who did not benefit deserved not to benefit–say, an otherwise qualified coworker of mine who was exempt from the promotion I received because he did not have a degree. Because my advantage over that coworker helped me and hurt him, I would have to buy into the entire system in order to believe that it was 100 percent deserved. I would accept my promotion thinking that it was rightfully mine, and then I would promote other people, using their degree as one of the deciding factors, thinking that it rightfully indicated that they deserve the promotion–even if that degree had nothing to do with the position I was hiring for. I would then be perpetuating the same advantages and disadvantages–or system of privilege–on other people. I would be part of the reason why the deck was stacked against those who were unable, for so many reasons, to get a college degree. In a fair competition truly based on skill and experience, I may have still gotten that promotion. I may well have been the most qualified person for the job. But it wasn’t a fair competition, and in acting like it was fair, and accepting my prize without question, I helped ensure that it would stay unfair.” (P62)

#5 — Check your privilege. No, seriously.

This suggestion isn’t an insult. It’s not a statement that you’ve done something wrong. It’s just a necessary piece of handling the problem of unchecked, systemic racism, and its effects on individuals living inside the system.

Think about it. Think about all the ways you are privileged, and how those lenses — your only way of seeing the world — might affect your understanding of racism, education, and equality.

How have those lenses influenced your interpretations of other people’s reactions to their own personal experiences?

“Being privileged doesn’t mean that you are always wrong and people without privilege are always right–it means that there is a good chance you are missing a few very important pieces of the puzzle.” (P66)

#6 — Understand intersectionality, and be sensitive to it in conversations about privilege/prejudice.

Oluo defines intersectionality as:

“… the belief that our social justice movements must consider all of the intersections of identity, privilege, and oppression that people face in order to be just and effective…” (P74)

To oversimplify: a queer female may face more and/or different discrimination than a heterosexual female — and a queer, black female even more so.

We need to consider the intersections of multiple biases, and how that exponentially affects individuals with greater intersectionality.¬†Although this concept can make conversations and solutions more difficult, it isn’t something we can glaze over, because:

“…if you don’t embrace intersectionality, even if you make progress for some, you will look around one day and find that you’ve become the oppressor of others.” (P79)

#7 — Acknowledge that there is racial discrimination at work in police brutality.

I already believed that implicit bias (unintentional, and absorbed from the larger culture of systematic racism) was largely at work in police brutality, but now I am sickeningly sure of it. The numbers simply do not bear out a just system:

“The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches), and more likely to be ticketed and arrested in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5-4 times higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with police, a shamefully underreported statistic). Even when we aren’t arrested or killed, we are still more likely to be abused and dehumanized in our stops. A 2016 review of a thirteen-month period showed that Oakland police handcuffed 1,466 black people in nonarrest traffic stops, and only 72 white people, and in a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity found that blacks were almost 4 times more likely to be subjected to force from police — including force by hand (such as hitting and choking), pepper spray, tazer, and gun– than white people.” (P86, emphasis mine)

This chapter made me equal parts brokenhearted and furious at the system that perpetuates this cruelty (not at the people who have absorbed the unintentional bias). And while I feel so powerless to make this any better, I recognize that I have to take action of some kind.

“People of color are not asking white people to believe their experiences so that they will fear the police as much as people of color do. They are asking because they want white people to join them in demanding their right to be able to trust the police like white people do.” (P98)

#8 — Affirmative Action can make a measurable impact, but we have miles left to go before approaching equality.

I have a friend who speaks against racial quotas; his position is that in a perfect world, selection should be based solely on the most qualified person for the job, and race shouldn’t enter into it at all. While I agree with him in theory… it is not an accurate representation of what can happen in our current system, with our society’s existing implicit biases. Until such a time when this systemic privilege for some and oppression for others has been expunged, I believe we need to take whatever steps we can to bridge the huge gaps that currently keep minorities from career and financial success (or adequate representation in films, books, etc)… even if those steps aren’t “ideal.”

When Affirmative Action measures are withdrawn, minority success in those areas often drop alongside those cuts. We should be seeking proper representation, and Affirmative Action moves us in that direction.

“When you say that a representational number of women or people of color cuts out more deserving white men, you are saying that women and people of color deserve to be less represented in our schools and or companies and that white men are deserving of an over-representational majority of these spots. We see the disparities in jobs and education among race and gender lines. Either you believe these disparities exist because you believe that people of color and women are less intelligent, less hard working, and less talented than white men, or you believe that there are systemic issues keeping women and people of color from being hired into jobs, promoted, paid a fair wage, and accepted into college. (P118, emphasis mine)

I was surprised by some numbers cited in this chapter (P115). According to a study on wage gaps from 2016, for every one dollar a white man makes:

  • White women make 82 cents,
  • Black women make 65 cents,
  • Hispanic women make only 58 cents,
  • Black men make 73 cents,
  • and Hispanic men make 69 cents.

There is obviously a severe wage gap which needs to be rectified.  (Also, we can see here an example of how intersectionality affects women of color, as their wages are lower than the men of their same race.)

While Affirmative Action may not be the ideal or perfect solution, it is effective in beginning to “mitigate some of the effects of systemic racism and misogyny in our society.” (P114)

#9 — Black and brown children are punished more severely in schools, and it’s affecting the rest of their lives.

“Studies have indicated that race is really a deciding factor of how and whether students are disciplined. The punitive level of school discipline–how harshly children are punished–is positively correlated with how many black children are in a school, not with, what many would expect, the level of drug or delinquency problems at a school. (P126, emphasis mine)

I’m sorry… let’s reread that quote and let it sink in.

How many times have you heard the “Well, black children come from bad neighborhoods/broken families/etc, and therefore must be more troublesome, and that’s why they are suspended/expelled/arrested more often” defense? Because, sadly, I’ve heard it a lot.

Kids of color are being punished for an implicit bias that has been unconsciously programmed into all of our brains. That bias is shaping their futures, and they’ve done exactly nothing to earn it.

While we may never actually act out against a person of color intentionally, the programming is so ubiquitous that it can come out even through the most well meaning of people (police, school teachers… all of us). And because we so desperately do not *want* to hurt people of color or to be racist, our egos try to hide from us those times where it sneaks out of our subconscious and into our lives.

#10 — If you’re white, you should not say the “N” word. And no, it’s not unfair.

“It is completely fair that a word used to help create and maintain the oppression of others for your benefit would not be able to be used by you without invoking that oppression, while people of color who had never had the power to oppress with those words would be able to use them without invoking that same oppression.” (P141)

#11 — Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic.

This isn’t exactly news.

But Oluo brought more clarity with her explanation than I have received from others:

“The problem of cultural appropriation is not in the desire to participate in aspects of a different culture that you admire. The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated. That power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultured are still persecuted for living in that culture. Without cultural power imbalance, cultural appropriation becomes much less harmful.” (P147)

#12 — Don’t ever touch a person of color’s hair without their consent. ¬†(And maybe don’t ask at all.)

Obviously, this comes down to basic courtesy and respect for another human being, but sadly, this is apparently something that needs saying??

Oluo explains so well (as she always does, I’m finding) why this is extra harmful for women of color:

“It is a continuation of the lack of respect for the basic humanity and bodily autonomy of black Americans that is endemic throughout White Supremacy.” (P159)

Beyond the basic courtesy of asking first, this chapter really communicated to me that we just really shouldn’t go there at all. As a society, we don’t acknowledge black hair in our mainstream beauty magazines, products, art, or television shows/films. We persecute it in schools, workplaces, and the military. And yet, when we’re one-on-one with a black person, we want to touch it because it fascinates us — likely because we keep it so marginalized/exoticized.

When it comes to black hair, it’s just too soon.

#13 — People of color have dealt with thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of microaggressions over the course of their lives. Most* white people simply have no frame of reference for understanding how damaging, frustrating, and exhausting that would be.

* I included the word “most” here, because of intersectionality. A white LGBT person, for example, may not have experienced racial microaggressions, but they surely have been on the receiving end of microaggressions regarding their LGBT-ness, and therefore would have a frame of reference for understanding what people of color experience.

Oluo explains that microaggressions are easy for white people to dismiss or explain away, because they seem so insignificant or accidental, one at a time. But it is the cumulative effect of these microaggressions that makes them so unbearable. Oluo uses the example of bee stings: one or two in your lifetime may not be so bad, but getting stung all the time is going to change your relationship with bees pretty quickly.

“You know the hypercritical parent in the movies? The mom or dad who finds a way to cut you to the quick right when you are feeling happy or proud or comfortable? “Nice to see you’re finally trying,” or “That’s a lovely dress. I can’t even see how much weight you gained.” The remark that seems harmless on the surface? The small sting that comes out of nowhere and is repeated over and over, for your entire life? That is what racial microaggressions are like, except instead of a passive-aggressive parent, it’s the entire world, in all aspects of your life, and very rarely is it said with any misguided love.” (P168)

And the difficult part is, it is so easy for white people to dismiss the reality of what people of color deal with, because we haven’t experienced it personally, and our worldview is informed by our own, personal experiences.

But we have to pause.

We have to check our natural inclination to use our lenses to interpret the experiences of others.

We have to really listen.

“Remember that you do not have all of the pieces. You are not living as a person of color. You will never fully understand the impact that sustained, systemic racism has on people of color. You will never be able to fully empathize with the pain your actions may have caused. Nothing will get you there. Do not discount someone’s complaint because their emotions seem foreign to you.” (P221)

#14 — Tone Policing is criticizing the way a discussion about inequality/injustice is handled, and it prioritizes your comfort, in the conversation about an offense,¬†over the offense itself.

“To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting your dominance over them in the situation. The oppressed person reaching out to you is already disadvantaged by the oppression they are trying to address. By tone policing, you are increasing that disadvantage by insisting that you get to determine if their grievances are valid and will only decide they are so if, on top of everything they are already enduring, they make the effort to prioritize your comfort.” (P207)

#15 — Regardless of your race, if you grew up in a system of White Supremacy, you have some implicit (i.e. subconscious/unintentional) bias, and have probably committed unintentional racial microaggressions against people of color.

This does NOT mean you have hate in your heart for them.

This does NOT mean you’re an awful person.

But it should give you pause, and make you think about the insidiously stealthy nature of systemic racism, how it affects a white person’s treatment of people of color, and how much people of color are up against, trying to exist, live, and thrive within such a system.

VernńĀ Myers explains how we are all biased, even in the ways we think ourselves least likely to be, and how we can work towards moving past these biases:

Conclusion

The above are some important points that I took personally from Oluo’s book, but it’s a crime to try to distill it into any kind of summary. You really need to read every word and every page that Oluo wrote to get the full effect, and her stories and insight will bring different realizations to each reader.

So please, make some time to read So You Want to Talk About Race.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

This is definitely my favorite #nonficbingo2018 book thus far! ¬†Looking forward to what comes next…

nonfiction bingo 2018 so you want to talk about race

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Life Lessons: Summary and Notes

starry sky over mountains

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Authenticity, love, relationships, loss, power, guilt, time, fear, anger, play, patience, surrender, forgiveness, and happiness.

According to two of the foremost experts on death and dying, Elisabeth K√ľbler-Ross and David Kessler, these are the lessons that life has to teach us. If we don’t learn them during the experience of living, we will have to face them during the process of dying. With this book, they aim to share the wisdom they have learned from those who are struggling to come to terms with the end of their lives (including Elisabeth herself).

Life Lessons was between a three and a four star read for me. It wasn’t one of those books where I feel completely overwhelmed or blown away by the new ideas and applications I’m learning, but at the same time, there is a subtle elegance and efficiency to this book, in driving home, with touching examples, many of the lessons we all “know” — but so often fail to follow. For the gentle and effective (and oh-so-necessary) reminders, I want to give this book a four. Yet, there was an underlying sense that much of this information is already out there – we know it, we hear it… we just fail to apply it. Also, there was also a lot of “God” throwing (“give to God”, “God has a plan”, etc) for a non-religious book, which may be helpful for some, but meaningless for others.

Nonetheless, it was a good reminder that our time on earth is limited, that we don’t know when that time will be up, and that we really should do those things we know we should do, to appreciate the time we have.

As with The Obstacle is The Way and with The Power of Kindness, I’m going to summarize my key takeaways from each segment. I will refer to the authors mostly as “they”, as they co-wrote the majority of the book, but there are some segments where one or the other speaks directly.

 

gentleman playing chess in the park

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Life Lessons:
Two Experts on Death & Dying
Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life & Living

AUTHENTICITY

K√ľbler-Ross talks of how we all adopt roles that are not who we truly are. These roles may be forced upon us in childhood, or by social circumstances or other people, or they might be ones we intentionally adopt… attempting to be someone or something we are not. Even if we want to be a perpetually sweet and loving person, we may discover that it isn’t who we actually are, and our attempts to be supernice every moment of every single day are inauthentic (or, as K√ľbler-Ross would say, “being a phony-baloney”). Of course, this shouldn’t mean we don’t try to improve over time, or that we are intentionally cruel to others. But we need to be honest with ourselves about who we truly are at this moment, and allow ourselves to just be who we are.

When we take stock of who we are, underneath all the hats we try to wear, we may find that we selected those roles out of fear, to win approval, or to feel stronger/better than others. We may realize we were just deceiving and manipulating others into seeing a picture of what we wanted ourselves to be, rather than letting them get to know who we really are. And when we drop the pretense, and accept ourselves (in both our flaws and our glories), we can truly connect with others, too.

“We think sometimes we’re only drawn to the good, but we’re actually drawn to the authentic. We like people who are real more than those who hide their true selves under layers of artificial niceties. (P17, emphasis mine)

LOVE

Love is:

  • accepting people for who they are, and not what we want them to be;
  • being with them through the tough times, even if we can’t “fix” things for them or “make” them happy;
  • and choosing to give love freely, without measuring the love we receive in return.

Love is something we do, not something we receive.

“If we measure love received, we will never feel loved. Instead, we will feel shortchanged. Not because we really were, but because the act of measuring is not an act of love. When you feel unloved, it is not because you are not receiving love; it is because you are withholding love.” (P22)

RELATIONSHIPS

All relationships — whether lifelong or brief, romantic or otherwise — are areas where love can flow, and they all have lessons to teach us.

Just as we don’t automatically become eternally satisfied when we achieve a current goal, or become unendingly happy when we purchase an item we desire, so too will we not suddenly become whole and complete if we find a romantic partner. If we desire more, deeper, or different relationships in our lives, we should focus not on the wanting of them, but rather on improving ourselves.

“Instead of trying to find someone to love, let’s make ourselves more worthy of being loved. Instead of trying to get the partners we already have to love us more, let’s become worthier of being loved. And let’s ask ourselves if we are giving as much love as we wish to get, or if we expect people to love us dearly even if we’re not so lovable and giving.” (P45)

LOSS

“There’s an old Jewish saying that if you dance at a lot of weddings, you’ll cry at a lot of funerals.” (P58)

As much as we’d like to avoid it, loss is an essential part of our lives. It can change us, harden us, bring out our inner strength, make us more compassionate, or turn us bitter. The reality is, though, it is our reaction to our losses that shapes us. No one on this earth escapes it without experiencing loss, but it does not affect each person equally. In the pain of loss, it is good to remind ourselves that we are hurting so greatly because we were so lucky to have what we lost.

“Just as there is no good without bad, or light without dark, there is no growth without loss. And odd though it may sound, there also is no loss without growth.” (P60)

It is important to understand that grief is a very individual process. Just as the body heals itself over time from a physical wound (and does so without your telling the cells individually to regrow), so, too, does the process of healing occur in our minds and hearts over time. Whatever you currently feel about your loss is what you are supposed to feel, and it is never for us to tell someone else how they should be handling their loss or carrying out their healing. Sometimes, grief may even wait for years after a loss, until we are capable of addressing it, and suddenly arise with full force as if the loss had just happened.

“Whether loss is complicated or not, we will all heal in our own time and in our own way. No one can ever tell us we should have been healed by now, or that the process is going too rapidly. Grief is always individualized. As long as we are moving through life and have not become stuck, we are healing.” (P69)

POWER

No matter what circumstances affect our life, we can choose how we respond, and that is our power.

“We give our power away when we become concerned with other people’s opinions. To recapture this power, remember that this is your life. What matters is what you think. You don’t have the power to make them happy, but you do have the power to make yourself happy. You can’t control what they think; in fact, you can rarely influence it much at all. … Let it go. Take back your power. Form your own opinion of yourself. (P81, emphasis mine)

GUILT

Guilt can be a healthy guide — one that keeps us within the boundaries of our personal ethics and prevents us from harming others. Unfortunately, it can also be an unhealthy strain on the way we relate to the world, and the way we see ourselves.

“Our guilt so often comes from our childhood because we were raised to be “prostitutes.” This sounds harsh, but it’s true. Obviously, in using the word prostitute I am talking about how, as children, we symbolically sell ourselves for the affection of others. We are usually taught to be good little boys and girls, tending to the wishes of others rather than forming strong identities for ourselves. We’re not really encouraged to be independent or interdependent. We’re trained to be codependent, making others’ needs and lives important and neglecting our own.” (P88)

We must be able to say “no” to others — even to those we love. It is important to realize that other people’s happiness doesn’t rest on our shoulders, and that we shouldn’t carry any guilt for “failing” to provide happiness for others. We must remind ourselves that they are capable human beings who must find their own happiness.

And, on the flip side of the coin, it is important not to use guilt to force others to try to make us happy. ¬†Just as we cannot bear the burden of other people’s happiness, we cannot ask them to bear that burden for us.

TIME

“…this moment can be robbed by your past and future. You have no idea what a better experience you would have if you let go of the past, at this moment, to focus on this moment, to fully experience it and really live your life.” (P104)

Time has a strange effect on our perspective. When time has passed, we often see people, events, and ourselves as we see the stars — an old impression of what was, rather than what is, today. We hold on to outdated views of the people we’ve known for years, rather than seeing them as they are now. We apply judgment or bias to events, because they remind us of older, similar events that were either good or bad for us — in the past. And we see ourselves as a conglomeration of ideas and experiences that we have collected throughout a lifetime… a narrative we have spent years building… but we don’t stop and ask ourselves who we actually are — in this very moment — and whether or not that old narrative serves us anymore.

Being present — being authentically who we are right now (not who we want to be, or how we see ourselves), and seeing others as who they truly are right now (not how we wish they were, or as a character we’ve constructed from our history with them) — is all that we can do in the face of being allotted a random amount of time on this earth. We cannot decide when we leave this world, but we can ensure that we greet each moment with honesty, curiosity, openness, and gratitude¬†— because each of these individual moments *is* our life.

“As hard as it may be to accept, the reality is that we don’t die before our time. When we die, it is our time. Our challenge is to fully experience this moment–and it’s a great challenge. To know that this instant contains all the possibilities for happiness and love and not lose those possibilities in expectations of what the future should look like. And putting aside our sense of anticipation we can live in the sacred space of what is happening now.” (P107)

FEAR

Fear (like guilt) can be healthy in small doses. It can keep us from getting into trouble… but it can also hold us back from living our most fulfilling lives.

“Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible and, in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away. Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid. We became old and ill without ever trying or secret passions, finding our true work, or becoming the people we’d like to be. If we did the things we are longing to do, we would still be old and Ill one day–but we would not be filled with regrets. We would not be ending a life half-lived. Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of. To transcend fear, though, we must move somewhere else emotionally: we must move into love.” (P118)

On a personal note: while I don’t believe in the “quit your day job immediately, and only ever do what you love” motivational message (see So Good They Can’t Ignore You for an excellent discussion of the process of transitioning successfully into meaningful work), I think it is a shame that so many people spend their free hours watching tv or scrolling on their phones, when so much else exists in the world… activities, people, and experiences that could bring so much more fulfillment and meaning. Yes, it can be scary putting yourself out there… but scarier still coming to the end of your days with a life un-lived. ¬†So you have to pay the bills with your day job, but you wish you could be a musical theater star? Why not pick up some weekend gigs singing at local bars? It may not pay the bills, but looking forward to your Friday night gig may put a smile on your face during that boring Thursday morning meeting. ¬†;P

The authors argue a point in this chapter that may end up being my most important takeaway from this book:

“Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment–we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear, anger, hate, anxiety, and guilt.” (P118)

“All of our invented fears involve either the past or the future; only love is in the present. Now is the only real moment we have, and love is the only real emotion because it’s the only one that occurs in the present moment. Fear is always based on something that happened in the past and causes us to be afraid or something we think may happen in the future. To live in the present, then, is to live in love, not fear.” (P119)

“Kindness always overcomes fear. That’s how you beat it; it is no match for love.” (P116)

It all boils down to this: ¬†Life is just about love. Burning away our bitterness, anger, hate, resentment, and fear…¬†and¬†choosing to risk being hurt by others, or by failing in an activity we love, because loving is the only worthwhile thing in this life.

ANGER

Many of us hold onto anger, because we feel we have no socially acceptable areas to vent that anger, and oftentimes, because of a guilt-based drive to be perfect for others’ benefit. But if we don’t deal with that anger, it can turn into rage (and then, the authors say, to screaming at other people… which ends poorly for everyone involved).

The dying aren’t afraid to be honest about concepts like being scared or mad. If we could bring some of that courage and frankness into our lives now, instead of waiting until we are faced more imminently with our mortality, we could live with greater authenticity. And by circumventing the build up of unacknowledged fears and disappointments, we take away their power to control us.

PLAY

“The number one regret people have when they look back on their lives is “I wish I had not taken life so seriously.”” (P138)

A brush with death will often remind people how short-sighted it is to be caught up in a mentality of “productivity at all costs.” Sadly, we are encouraged by society as a whole to be successful and productive, but rarely (as adults) to be creative, silly, and playful. But when our life is at it’s end, are we going to be happier about that perfectly completed Excel spreadsheet… or that time we sat around with friends all night, singing karaoke, laughing, and sharing stories?

“Playing is our inner joy, outwardly expressed. It can be laughing, singing, dancing, swimming, hiking, cooking, running, playing a game, or anything else we have fun doing. Playing makes all aspects of life more meaningful and enjoyable. Work becomes more satisfying, our relationships improve. Play makes us feel younger, more positive. It’s one of the first things children learn how to do; it’s natural and instinctive. Isn’t it sad that most lives have so little pure playtime?” (P140)

PATIENCE

We tend not to know how to accept and be with situations as they are… especially if a situation is unpleasant. The authors say,¬†“We feel we have to change it, make it better, we don’t think things will be okay if they’re left alone.” (P155)

But, as much as we may wish for it, we are not omnipotent beings who can shape our environments and interactions to our will. There are many… infinitely many… things in life that we will not be able to change or fix, and we must learn to sit with them, as they are.

“If something is not changeable, try to see it as not broken. Try to find a little faith in the process and the unfolding of things. Despite our belief that things need our assistance, most of the amazing things that happen in the world occur without our help, interference, or assistance. We don’t have to tell the cells in our bodies to divide, we don’t have to tell a cut to heal. There is a power in the world. Trust that all things are moving toward the good, even when we don’t recognize or see it.” (P159)

SURRENDER

“Refusing to accept situations we cannot change exhausts us, strips us of our power and peace of mind. We take back our power and regain peace of mind when we let things be as they are. We are, in effect, saying, “I am going to be happy right now. I’m not going to put it off.”” (P171)

Of course, surrender is not meant for things that are within your power to improve. Certainly, you don’t have to surrender yourself to the concept that your fitness will decline as you age, or that you’ll always be a poor communicator… surrender is for those situations that are bigger than us, where our personal power and effort could never sway the outcome, no matter how hard we tried. In those moments, it is choosing to acknowledge our limitations, and find happiness in the ways and places we can.

This has been a difficult lesson for me, personally. Friends would tell me to “just let it go” or be happy within the parameters of certain circumstances, and I could not. I would ask them HOW I was supposed to let it go, and they couldn’t provide an answer other than “just do it.” But I simply did not have the ability to find peace in discomfort. While this is not covered in the book, my personal experience with surrender has been helped greatly by taking yoga classes. I believe strongly in the connection of mind and body… where the body goes, so too goes the mind (and vice versa). When I learned to find stillness and calm in the middle of very uncomfortable yoga poses, willingly staying in the discomfort and focusing on how I could calm and slow my breathing, rather than electing to back out of the pose and let myself off the hook, then I learned, too, how to better sit in stillness with many of the unfixable discomforts of life, and to begin to find my peace with them.

FORGIVENESS

“Forgiveness offers us much, including that sense of wholeness we are sure was permanently taken from us by the offender. It offers us a freedom to again be who we are.” (P178)

We all know that forgiveness is important for our own health and peace of mind, yet it can be so hard to do. The authors advise us to take a step back from the narrative we are creating in our minds (me = victim; them = villain), and see the whole picture:

“When children do wrong, we see their fear, their confusion, their lack of knowledge. We see them as human. But as adults we tend to see those who hurt us as what they did to us. They become one-dimensional characters defined only by the pain they have caused. The first step in forgiving is to see them as human beings again. (P180, emphasis mine)

Oftentimes, we are just as cruel (or crueler) in our judgments of ourselves.  We should keep in mind:

“A key to forgiving ourselves is realizing that we would have done things differently if we had seen a better way. No one decides, “Oh, this would be a good mistake to make” or “I’ll do this because it will make me feel really bad about hurting someone.” We thought we were doing the right thing, which is why we must forgive ourselves for not knowing everything. And even if we did hurt someone intentionally, it was probably because we were in pain. If we could have made better choices, we probably would have. (P185, emphasis mine)

HAPPINESS

“In reality, happy people are the least self-absorbed and self-centered among us. They often volunteer their time and provide service to others, they are often kinder, more loving, forgiving, and caring then their unhappy counterparts. Being unhappy leads to selfish behavior, while happiness expands our capacity to give. True happiness is not the result of an event, it does not depend on circumstance. You, not what’s going on around you, determine your happiness.” (P189)

Happiness is not a reaction to an event. It is a state of mind that we cultivate, despite our circumstances.¬† I personally have found Mr Money Mustache’s views on happiness quite helpful in this process.

Happiness achieved by some conquest (title, status, financial or material gain, etc) is always short lived, and hedonic adaptation will always (in time) reset us to our default happiness level. While that sounds daunting in some ways (even achieving my dream job/vacation/partner/house won’t make me happy?), it is actually quite liberating, because it means that¬†we can find, cultivate, and maintain happiness right now, in this moment, as we are… and¬†do so (as many of the terminally ill patients in the book did) even amidst the direst of circumstances.

 

While I summarized some of my takeaways here, each person will get something unique out of this lovely book.  For all the lessons in detail, and the examples that make this book so powerful, check out: Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

Moving right along with #nonficbingo2018! ¬†Four books down so far, and 32 yet to go…

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 - Life Lessons

 

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The Power of Kindness: Summary and Notes

couple dancing in the woods

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

As I write this post, I have just experienced a perfect example of the difference kindness can make.

Recently, a friend took me Salsa dancing. And while I have taken a couple classes in the past, it has been ten years since I practiced, especially in any kind of public setting. ¬†Personality-wise, I am prone to overthinking. I like to plan multiple steps ahead, to avoid being caught unawares or making mistakes. As such, a dance floor is an intimidating place: one where (as a follower) I am asked not to plan, not to strategize, not to interperet nor analyze… but to simply be in the moment, follow the leader, and allow my body to freely move with the music. ¬†(Yeah, right…)

The dance lesson itself went pretty well. Choreographed dancing is not usually too difficult for me (there’s a plan to follow!); it’s once we get to the improvisation that I tend to panic. When the lesson ended and a steady stream of dance partners came, I could feel my body betraying me… nerves were rising as the dancers attempted to whip me around in flashy moves and combinations, and I kept botching the directions, footwork, and spins. Passed from one dancer to another before I could get off the floor for a break, there was a period where the tension was building, and I was getting sloppier and sloppier, out of nervousness. During that stretch, many of the leads said to me, “relax,” “feel the music,” or “go with the flow.” Readers, let me tell you — I am good at exactly none of these things.

So, it was a breath of fresh air when one of the leads (and there were a handful, throughout the night), would take a moment to start with the basics and see how that went. Then, he would slowly add a simple spin. Maybe try that one a couple times, to build my confidence, and then telegraph a new spin was coming. The amazing thing to me is that these dancers, too, were quite skilled when I saw them with more seasoned partners. At the very heart of it, they were putting aside their egos to truly engage in the best dance that could be had at my skill level, rather than force me to try to perform at their level. They could have blown everyone away with their fancy moves. They could have tried to shove me into moves I couldn’t do, and then rolled their eyes at my ineptness, looked over my shoulder, and “checked out” for the rest of the dance (as many leads actually did). But rather than insist on showing off their own skills, these few dancers “dumbed down” to my level, with the result that we moved seamlessly and enjoyably to the music, and I rarely gaffed, stepped on their toes, or lost my footwork. They stayed engaged with me the whole time, maintaining eye contact and a pleasant expression… even if that few minutes of dancing was, stylistically speaking, beneath them. The kindness they showed me made all the difference in calming my nerves and making the experience a pleasant one.

But even more interesting to me than the impact of their kindness on my nerves was that these few — who were willing to truly have a conversation through our dance, at my beginner level — were able to successfully twist and throw me around in much more exciting combinations, once we had found our rhythm. And even as I was whirling around unexpectedly, I had a sense of calm, and a feeling of bliss at moving easily, in sync with their movements, which was the opposite of the panic I had felt trying to keep up with other dancers. That simple gift of giving me time to acclimate, rather than forcing me to ascend to their level (or “fail”), made all the difference, not only in the pleasantness of the time we shared, but also in the level of skill we were able to display.

I get a kick out of the fact that this evening happened just after I finished reading The Power of Kindness,¬†by Piero Ferrucci, and that the difference between these two groups of dancers — put simply: kindness — became so obvious.

It also makes me wonder… in how many areas of life are we the “expert”, acting impatiently with the newbie? And beyond, perhaps, the obvious result of making their experience more difficult, how often are we shooting our own experience in the foot? I’m sure many of those I danced with that night would have preferred the smooth grace I was able to achieve with those who showed me kindness (instead of the tromped upon feet they ended up getting). And all it really takes is mindfulness… taking a moment to notice where someone truly is… and then a simple reigning in of the ego — allowing one’s self to shine slightly less than we could possibly do — to help someone else relax and flourish.

As with The Obstacle is The Way, I will break down this post into the main sections from¬†The Power of Kindness, to summarize and address each method discussed therein, with my own thoughts and interpretation added. Here we go! ūüôā

 

older sister gives piggy back ride to brother

Photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash

The Power of Kindness

HONESTY

We are, in essence, programmed for honesty. When we lie, our brains have to go through a series of complex operations, and our bodies react with measurable stress (“sweating, heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure increase” (P13)).

But sometimes telling the truth can be awkward, and if we are trying not to harm others, should we tell them uncomfortable truths? Ferrucci argues “yes”:

“To act honestly – even at the risk of saying the unpleasant truth, or of saying no and causing distress to others – if done with intelligence and tact, is the kindest thing to do, because it respects our own integrity and acknowledges in others the capacity to be competent and mature.” (P16)

Being willing to tell someone a difficult truth is putting a vote of confidence in their ability to handle that reality. It also gives them the necessary information to become their best selves.

WARMTH

This is one of the easiest, and yet most oft overlooked factors of kindness. The difference between a tight-lipped smile and a wide grin that crinkles the eyes… between distractedly nodding while your partner shares about their day, and making direct and engaged eye contact while they speak. Not just our words themselves matter, but the intention and tone behind them. Receiving our loved ones with warmth is an easy kindness we can suffuse into everyday interactions.

Ferrucci also includes touch in this concept of warmth:

“Ashley Montagu, in his classic book, Touching, has demonstrated how touching boosts the health of all mammals – animals, children, adults. Another classic study, conducted in forty-nine cultures by neurophysiologist James W. Prescott, shows that in societies where physical affection is lavished on infants, invidious displays of wealth, incidence of theft, killing and torturing of enemies are all low. In societies where infant physical affection is low, instead slavery is present, the status of women is inferior, and the gods are depicted as aggressive. Prescott sees warmth during infancy, and openness to bodily pleasure, as the best and easiest ways to transform our psychobiology if violence into one of peace. (P27, emphasis mine)

I am lucky enough to have received warm affection throughout my childhood, but I know not everyone had that advantage. Ferrucci points out, however, that Prescott also sees “openness to bodily pleasure” as a method for healing. When one is open to giving and receiving bodily pleasure in its many forms, it is easier to pass on the warmth and kindness to others.

As a last thought in this category, this quote completely bowled me over:

“Ten thousand Israeli men were asked, among other questions about their health, habits, and circumstances, “Does your wife show you love?” A negative answer to this question was the best predictor for angina pectoris. (P27, emphasis mine)

We all have more power over the health and well-being of our loved ones than we realize.

FORGIVENESS

“We cannot be kind while we carry the weight of our resentments. Nor while we remain too rigid to ask forgiveness. Nor if our emotions are colored by guilt or vindictiveness. We can be kind only if the past no longer dominates us.” (P38)

Ferrucci gives one of the best explanations of how to find forgiveness (for the really tough stuff) that I have ever heard. He argues that, in all of us, no matter how damaged we are by the events of life and actions of others, there is a whole, unpolluted core, which is protected from the corruptions of suffering, anger, and bitterness. He encourages us to reconnect with that vital part of our being, buried within us, in whatever way works for us individually. For some, it may be mediation, prayer, or kind acts of service. For others, physical exercise or artistic expression. Whatever the method, the goal is to nourish that part of ourselves where the beauty still lives, unaltered. As we strengthen that central self, forgiveness will be a natural byproduct, instead of something we struggle to achieve from a still-broken place.

“Thus, if we find in ourselves the place where we feel happy and whole, forgiveness is already a fact. … It is not something we do, but something we are.” (P40)

CONTACT

Initiate and maitain contact. It is vital to health, and an easy kindness to give to others.

SENSE OF BELONGING

Attempt to see the “other” (anyone you do not naturally feel drawn to, or anyone from an opposing group/school of thought/etc) as part of a larger family of humanity.

In Buddhist traditions, one is encouraged to imagine this person (which perhaps you do not like) as having been your loving, caring mother in a previous life. Imagine the sacrifices they may have made for you. Can you then find compassion for them?

The more we acknowledge that we are all part of the human race, the greater the sense of belonging we will feel, and the easier kindness becomes.

TRUST

When we don’t approach the world around us with trust, our alarm systems are always activated, which is detrimental to both ourselves and others. Of course, most of us have had enough experiences of having our trust violated to leave us hesitant about giving trust, even to those who have demonstrated their trustworthiness.

The reality is, we can never have guarantees that our trust won’t be broken, but we can give the people we love the kindness of putting our faith in them anyway.

“The gift of trust us a statement about our relationship. It empowers the other person and expands his or her possibilities.” (P65)

MINDFULNESS

“If we are in the present, we truly see the person in front of us – otherwise he or she is just an idea. In fact, being in the present is the only way we can enter into relation with another. To be in the present with someone else is a gift. The gift of attention is perhaps the most precious and envied of all, even though we do not always realize it. To be there. To be totally available. This is what we secretly hope other people will do for us, and we know it will give us healing relief, space, energy.” (P77, emphasis mine)

This, to me, may be the ultimate kindnesses… especially in a world as distracted as ours.

As Ferrucci says, attention is a gift… to give someone the entirety of your attention – despite the incoming notifications on your smart phone; despite that thing you just remembered, mid-conversation, that you’ve been meaning to google; despite the tv screens playing the game (or whatever) behind your dinner partner’s back in a restaurant…. you get the idea. I think we have all experienced the frustration of staring at our (supposed) conversation partner’s face, while they stare at their phone. But how often have we forced this frustration and unkindness upon others?

Ferrucci’s words also reminded me how important it is to think of “paying attention” more deeply. It’s not just the absence of an external distraction (e.g. “not looking at your phone”). It’s also…

  • not getting distracted from their words by planning what you want to say next,
  • not letting your mind wander to that stress or worry that keeps nagging at you,
  • making sure you’re listening to really hear what they’re saying,
  • tuning into their body language so you can respond appropriately to their feelings,
  • appreciating and enjoying the time you have with that person, as you’re having it.

Ferrucci put it best:

“Attention is the medium through which kindness can flow. No attention, no kindness. And also, no warmth, no intimacy, no relationship.” (P80, emphasis mine)

EMPATHY

“Some time ago while driving, I abruptly stopped the car to let a child, who had suddenly run out, cross the street. The driver behind me bumped into my car. As we got out of the cars and approached one another, I saw he was on the warpath. Even though he had not uttered a single word, I could feel he was in emergency mode. Yet, there was no damage to either car. So, I spoke first. I could have said, “I am right.” It was true but useless, if not harmful. Instead I said, “I was going quite fast and stopped suddenly. You did not expect that. Sorry. Are you okay?” Immediately, the man changed. Every line on his face moved imperceptibly. In a fraction of a second, his defenses dropped. Yes, he was okay. I saw surprise in his eyes: His opponent was interested in how he felt. Then I saw a relief: No need to fight. Finally, he simply shook my hand and left. What could have become an argument full of rage and fury was resolved in a few seconds.” (P84)

When someone expresses their pain or frustration to you, first try to identify with it. They do not need answers, explanations, or even solutions as much as they need your empathy.

HUMILITY

Ferrucci points out that while we all would acknowledge the fact that “other people exist in this world,” oftentimes, we do not act in accordance with this fact. Acting in light of that understanding might include choosing not to:

  • take up two parking spaces for a single car
  • smoke in a location that affects people who want to avoid the smoke
  • cut in line, or otherwise cheat to get ourselves ahead of others
  • take an item off a shelf in a grocery store, and put it back on a different shelf

It is, in essence, having the humility to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and that many of our actions do have an effect on others. If we want to be kind, we want to minimize the negative fallout of our actions, and perhaps even take steps in the daily mundanities of life to ease the way of others. This could look like:

  • pausing a moment to hold a door open for the person behind you
  • letting the shopper with only a handful of items skip ahead of you and your cart full of groceries at the checkout line
  • smiling at the tired mom trying to reign in her temper-tantrum toddler, rather than glaring at them
  • letting another car merge in front of you

PATIENCE

Be mindful of other people’s rhythms. Ferrucci points out that we feel a sense of violation when someone imposes on us a rhythm that is not ours. Whether that rhythm is faster/slower or steadier/wilder than ours, there is a sense of offense at being forced to alter our own, personal pace. As such, we can do a kindness to others by trying to adjust our rhythm to theirs, and meet them in the middle.

Understand that our haste comes from our fear of death. If we can learn to be okay with ourselves in the moment and satisfied with our existence, we will be able to find patience for others, and thus treat them more kindly.

Meditate to experience other perceptions of time. Meditation can help us slow a harried pace, learn to sit with discomfort, and understand the flexibility of time.

GENEROSITY

Generosity is more than giving of financial resources. Be generous with your time, resources, trust, and possessions.

Do it for the altruism of it, but know that generous givers also receive a self esteem boost for themselves.

RESPECT

Gift your attention to others. Channel energy into their being, and take efforts to validate their existence.

See the potential in people. Acknowledge that potential as if it were reality, to give them permission to inherit that reality.

“Various studies have demonstrated the Pygmalion phenomenon – if I change my perception of you, you will change. The students who are seen by the teacher as the most intelligent become the most intelligent. The employees who are seen by their bosses as the most competent and efficient become the most competent and efficient. Our perception is like a ray of light falling on a plant – it makes it more visible, nourishes it, stimulates its growth. Think of how many talents and qualities in everyone that are not fully manifest because they are not seen. (P128, emphasis mine)

Really listen. See what you can fully understand what the other person is saying, and learn from them, without trying to compose your next speech.

FLEXIBILITY

I’ll admit that I initially thought this was kind of an odd category. What does flexibility have to do with kindness? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Being flexible gives people the freedom to be themselves. When people change, surprise us, or become/do something unexpected, we can hold firm to what we wanted or expected from them, or we can trust that they have good reasons and justification for their choices. In doing so, we validate their authority over, and competency in, their own life.

“The ideal is a world in which older children and their parents reciprocally give permission to one another to dye their hair, attach any ring to any part of their body they want, follow their sexual preferences, dress as they desire, spend their money as they deem best, choose whatever chemical substance they wish to introduce into their organisms (well, with a few exceptions), change their personalities, and suddenly depart for distant and mysterious lands. To give the people we love the freedom to be what they want to be. To give them the space to experiment, make mistakes, be creative, fail or succeed. To allow them to discover their thousand faces without freezing them in the immutable mold of our beliefs. Without protecting, preaching, pushing, or pulling accordingly to what we believe is best. What a great way to relate. Would you not want others to trust you and treat you this way?” (P143)

Be flexible also in the sense of yielding¬†– using your own flexibility to give others grace. This can be expressed in yeilding an unimportant, ego-driven argument, or a place in line when driving. It can be forgoing, on a particular evening, your dinner or movie preferences for those of someone you love, or ceasing to carry out minor punishments for another’s past offense.

MEMORY

Ferrucci asks us to remember all those who were part of our story.

LOYALTY

Be true to your commitments to people, even when it’s disadvantageous to you. Stand by those you choose, even on days when they are grumpy or boring.

“In these relationships, what counts most is not extracting from another a tangible benefit, but the peculiarly good feeling that comes from giving presence, support, and friendship over time to a person, whatever may happen and even against one’s own advantage. It is right to do so. This capacity to last even in difficult and uncomfortable moments is an essential ingredient of kindness. It is called loyalty.” (P161)

GRATITUDE

“According to some psychologists, depression is caused not by what happens to us but by what we tell ourselves day after day – our own inner monologue. If we continually criticize ourselves and others, find only what is wrong, and feel sorry for ourselves, we will surely be unhappy.” (P175)

If we are unhappy with ourselves and discontent with our lives, it can certainly be more challenging to find kindness in ourselves to give to others. But finding contentedness in our lives isn’t an easy task, and the directions society gives for this task are often misleading.

Chasing happiness through the acquisition of possessions or achievements of positions will ultimately leave us feeling empty and wishing for more. Wanting what we don’t have is an endless cycle. Even if we were given each new thing we yearned for, we would acclimate and yearn for more, growing again dissatisfied. (See: What is Hedonic Adaptation and How Can it Turn You Into a Sucka?)

Instead, if we learn to value what we already have, we become content with our lives and can more easily share that happiness with others. As an added bonus, as we grow our gratitude, we also become more successful, as explained in my favorite TED talk of all time:

Learning to appreciate and express gratitude will help us directly in our relationships, by teaching us to appreciate the people in our lives for who and what they are (rather than who we’d like them to be or what we want them to do). We will naturally focus more often on all the reasons our loved ones are special and worthy of our love, rather than dwelling on their day to day foibles or flaws. And in this appreciation of all that they are, we are more likely to treat them with kindness, naturally.

SERVICE

Bestowing kindness on others through acts of service is fairly self-explanatory. But Ferrucci also reminds and encourages us to do these acts for their own sake, without hope of any recognition or praise. When we remind people of the good we have done for them, we put an after-the-fact price on the act. We exact a toll.

“It is like making love passionately, then finding out that it was a professional performance and here is the bill. A spontaneous gift has become an item in a budget: Its original beauty has suddenly vanished.” (P188)

Recognize that every day holds the opportunity for acts of service, small and large, and never remind others of what we have done for them.

JOY

“… true kindness is given happily. You cannot be kind unless you are at least a little cheerful. Yet many people do not think this way. On the contrary, joy is often considered as almost a form of egoism or shallowness.” (P200)

When someone is kind to you, it is (of course) far more meaningful when the kindness is bestowed with warmth and joy from the giver. So how do we find joy? Ferrucci mentions that there are two primary potential paths to joy: hedonism (pleasure) and meaning. He argues for the latter. When your life has meaning, you will be buoyed through the darker times, and filled with light that you can bestow upon others.

“Ultimately, it is all very simple. There is no choice between being kind to others and being kind to ourselves. It is the same thing.” (P124)

Seek out the experiences, work, and relationships that make you feel alive and give you a sense of fulfillment and purpose. That joy will radiate into both your casual interactions and long-term relationships. With that sense of purpose, and conscious effort in the above categories, we can become kinder to those around us.

While I have tried to do this book justice in summary, there is so much more expressed in Ferrucci’s words and examples. Check out The Power of Kindness for the full experience. ¬†ūüôā

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

Ferrucci’s advice brings us to a total of three completed #nonficbingo2018 books:

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 The Power of Kindness

 

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Common Stocks & Common Sense: Review and Notes

cell phone investing app

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Because Common Stocks and Common Sense is a book of case studies, through which the reader shares in the long-range experience of a successful value investor, it is not exactly the type of book that can be succinctly summarized in a blog post. If you’re very interested in the many aspects and styles of investing, it’s a worthy checkout from your public library.

In it, Edward Wachenheim describes his approach, as well as his thought processes and experiences with investments throughout his career (case studies include¬†IBM, Interstate Bakeries, U.S. Home Corporation, Centex, Union Pacific, American International Group, Lowe’s, Whirlpool, Boeing, Southwest Airlines, and Goldman Sachs).

He ends the book with a letter of advice to a younger investor, summarizing many of his key points, investment guidelines, and warnings. That last chapter (A Letter to Jack Elgart) is a concise but thorough overview of Wachenheim’s guiding principles, and contains quite a lot of great advice. So much so, that I would recommend borrowing the book just to read that chapter alone.

Some of my major takeaways:

  • News is sensational and often focuses on current issues that don’t always reflect the underlying profitability or potential of a company.
  • An investor should be careful not to write off a company entirely, based on a singular scandal, which often is the result of the immoral activities of a tiny fraction of the company’s employees.
  • When a particular boom becomes uncritically accepted by “everyone” (such as Tech stocks in the late 1990s), it’s very likely the next bust.
  • In commodities businesses (such as airlines), the winners will be those companies with the lowest costs.
  • Think about related industries. When the housing market is underperforming, most likely, businesses that supply appliances and housing materials (refrigerators, washing machines, linoleum, etc) may also be temporarily undervalued, and therefore attractive opportunities.

 

lake with bridge

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

Letter to Jack Elgart:  The Wisdom of Experience

The following are a few direct quotes from the Letter to Jack Elgart, which I found particularly insightful (emphasis mine):

“Our central strategy is to purchase deeply undervalued securities of strong and growing companies that likely will appreciate sharply as the result of positive developments. Our reasoning is that the undervaluation, growth, and strength should provide protection against permanent loss, while the undervaluation, growth, strength, and positive developments should present the opportunity to earn high returns.” (P182)

“Value investors also need experience. After graduating from a business school and after a few years working as an investment professional, an intelligent and diligent investor likely will become proficient at playing the notes, but it can still require several additional years before he can play the music. As in music and sports, the best professionals tend to develop a rhythm and feel that comes with long practice and that leads to optimum results.” (P183)

“Be careful not to let your mind acclimate to a present circumstance, and then lose perspective. This is particularly true after a long period of prosperity. During “bull” markets, many investors tend to give themselves too much credit for favorable results and to give insufficient credit to the positive environment that played a large role in creating the results. This can lead to overconfidence on the part of the investor and resulting misassessment of risks.” (P184)

“Managements of companies possess more information about their companies than you ever will be able to possess. Pay more attention to what managements do than to what they say. Remember, managements, like most other people, tend to act in their self-interest. It often is a favorable sign when management purchase shares of their companies for their own accounts, and vice versa. (P186)

“While an investor should work hard to avoid permanent loss, he must guard against being so risk averse that he turns down too many promising opportunities for fear of making a mistake. Even the best investors occasionally will err. To err is human – and we should not let errors dull our confidence or spirits.” (P189)

As mentioned above, that whole final chapter is full of wisdom, and is worth the read, even if you skip over all the case studies!

While I did get some valuable takeaways from this book, I feel like the case studies would be a slightly better fit for those who are planning to become investment managers, as opposed to “normal people” who also happen to have a casual interest in investing. There was a good deal of discussion of how Wachenheim used his contacts at various companies to get a feel of what was coming for the businesses, which obviously is not an option for most people. The final chapter does synthesize a lot of good advice about value investing in general, but much of it can also be found online, in financial blogs.

 

compass

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

Interested in investing?

While I gleaned some insights from this book, it wouldn’t be a go-to recommendation for me. If you’re curious about (or already interested in) investing, the following are some great resources to get you started and to deepen your understanding. These bloggers all come at finance from slightly different perspectives, but there are a lot of common threads. ¬†They also provide a great deal of counter-culture thinking, which can help in getting ahead of the curve, financially speaking.

 

Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress

Two books & reviews down – 34 to go!

Join the challenge and follow along on social media with: #nonficbingo2018

non fiction bingo 2018 common stocks and common sense

 

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