Serenity now!

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, the character Frank Costanza spends most of the episode yelling, “Serenity now!” 

He says it’s a therapy technique he learned from a self-help tape: Each time you feel anger coming on, simply declare, “Serenity now,” and you’re supposed to become suddenly calmer. His son George asks if he is supposed to angrily yell the mantra out loud, and Frank says, “The man in the tape wasn’t specific.” 

I’ve often thought back on this episode. It seems to me to represent how we usually deal with emotions: Fight them. If anger comes up, we yell at it. If worry comes up, we get into a tug of war with it. If sadness comes up, we get angry again. The vicious cycle continues. 

But the truth is that we are not our emotions. A feeling is just that—a feeling. We think we are averting the negative feeling, but all we’ve done is feed it. You can’t trick an emotion into going away. 

Seinfeld was such a great show. Of course I think about it philosophically, because that’s what I learned to do in college: hear a story then ruminate on what we can learn from it. And what we can learn from Seinfeld is that the more we fight our petty concerns in life, the more we deepen our discomfort. If something bugs us, it’s often better to let it go, than swat at it. 

I’m personally still learning to understand this concept in a deep way. Usually by the time I notice the presence of an emotion, it has already got its hold on me. I’ve already lost control. But with practice, I’ve gotten slightly better: I can say, There is anger. There is sadness. There is worry. Hello, feelings! 

Ah, serenity now… 

Lines

It’s interesting to notice the different cultural customs in various areas of the world. 

Here is a little one you may not be familiar with. It’s about ordering a drink at a bar: 

In California, when you’re in a crowded bar and you want to order a drink, you typically have to fight your way to the edge of the bar, and lean way over the top of the bar and try to flag the attention of the bartender. Everyone else is doing this too, of course, so the scene ends up looking like a litter of frantic piglets fighting over a trough. 

But when you’re in a crowded bar in Portland, Oregon, often times bar patrons will politely form a single-file line that leads up to the bar. That’s right, people waiting to buy a beer stand in line like kids waiting for a school bus. It is arrestingly polite. And an oddity for those of us not from Oregon. Perhaps this happens in other states, too. But I’ve never in my life seen it in California. 

It’s incredible because there was never an official rule posted. There’s no sign that says, “Line Forms Here.” Instead, it’s just the custom in Portland. The line spontaneously arises out of a culture of courtesy and attention to others. 

Without being told to, people really can get together and cooperate. 

Even if it’s just to get a beer. 

The life we can save

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?” 

Thus begins philosopher Peter Singer’s 2007 book The Life You Can Save

image

Singer’s book poses a simple question: 

What would most of us do if we saw a toddler drowning in a shallow pond?

Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to save the child—even if it meant ruining an expensive pair of shoes in the process. 

He argues that this empathy should apply to endangered children across the world. Millions of children live in extreme poverty, and many do not make it past the age of five. If we wouldn’t ignore a child drowning in a pond, why do we ignore children on the other side of the world who die every day? 

Taking small imaginative leaps, like the one Singer suggests, can help us see that suffering in far away countries deserves our moral concern as much as local suffering.

Most of us will never be faced with the need to save a drowning child. But Singer says there are other ways we can save lives. He suggests donating to effective international charities

The Life You Can Save is an elegant manifesto directed at the people of wealthy countries like our own, and the message is simple: We have so, so much more than most other people on the planet do. Sharing some of our wealth could save lives.  


Related posts: 

Altruism 

The ethics of paying attention 

Altruism

We live in a world where altruism must become the driving force of humanity to both relieve the suffering of others and ensure our continued survival as a species. 

The Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard gives an insightful and entertaining introduction to altruism on the interpersonal and global scale in this recent TED Talk: 

(summary below video) 

The take away points are: 

  • Altruism is the wish that others may be happy and find the cause of happiness. 
  • Climate change has brought the earth to a precipice. Learning to think and behave in a way that embraces our shared humanity and desire to survive is the fundamental answer to this crisis. 
  • Evolutionary scientists (biologists, anthropologists, psychologists etc.) believe that humans are not purely selfish animals. Studies show that our species has a strong tendency towards cooperation and altruism. 
  • Can we learn to become more altruistic? Yes, we can, and it can happen on two different levels: the individual and society. 
  • On the individual level, neuroscience studies show that brain structure changes when people practice compassion and mindfulness meditation—after just week eight weeks. 
  • On the societal level, we can encourage altruism by changing culture. Specifically, this means: 
      1. Enhancing cooperation 
      2. Sustainable harmony 
      3. Caring economics 
      4. Local commitment, global responsibility. 

If you want deeper meaning in your life, opening your mind to altruism might be the mind-altering path you seek. 


Related posts: 

The ethics of paying attention 

You can’t be mindful without ethics