Step away from the edge

When did we become such an extremist culture? If the word extremist sounds, well, extreme, consider the word moderate and you’ll know what I mean. No one wants to be moderate anymore, or to do anything in moderation. As a culture, we seek out the biggest, the newest, the richest, the edgiest, the most dangerous experience or position we can find.

On reality TV, we see people competing to lose the most weight or be the best chef. Marketers tell us we’ll be left behind if we don’t have the newest phone, and we line up to buy it. College students accept binge drinking as the norm, putting their health, safety and studies in danger. Congressmen put the nation at risk to score points and avoid compromise at all costs. And in our daily lives, our fear of not having every bit of the latest information makes us obsessively check texts and email.

Isn’t the competition exhausting, though? We often talk about managing our time, but not so much about managing our energy. In fact, our energy is a finite commodity too, and we would do well to think about how we want to use it. It’s very stressful be constantly competing, or fighting, or worrying about the meaning of a text message, or subjecting our bodies to excessive amounts of food, drink or even exercise.

Most of us are naturally somewhat competitive, and of course it’s nice to be the best at something, or to set goals for ourselves. But I’m reminded of the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In some areas of our lives, maybe we’d be happier to not have the best or be the best. Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, A Good Enough Parent, espoused this philosophy. Instead of striving to be the perfect parent of the perfect child, he advised that parents should be more attuned emotionally to their children so they could understand their relational needs. Instead of trying to mold a child into the one we want, help the child develop into the person he or she wants to be.

A focus on emotional awareness can serve us too, as we try to manage our energy. What do you need for yourself, in body, mind and spirit? Is it the newest phone or the most principled stance on an issue? Or are those things that you could let go? Do you need to lose more weight than your co-worker, or would losing a smaller amount be sufficient for you?

A recent study conducted at the University of Copenhagen showed that moderate exercise was actually more motivating than hard training was. The people who did 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise lost more weight than those who did 60 minutes of hard fitness training. The moderate group said they had more energy and were more motivated to make other healthy lifestyle changes, but those in the vigorous group were exhausted after their workout and less open to altering other habits. They had drained the energy they had for changing.

“Moderate” doesn’t have to mean boring or mediocre. It could just mean that you are using your energy within reasonable limits, for you, at this moment. At some other time, or in some other space, the choice might be different. How can you feel your best right now? Not the best of something or the best at something, but just the best and most content you?

Benjamin Disraeli once said that, “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.” They’re not always at the edge.

Rising above

Have you ever laughed when someone fell down? Have you ever resented someone who has success that you want for yourself? Is it hard to feel joy for someone to whom you compare yourself? One of the premises of a new book by Richard H. Smith, The Joy of Pain, is that these feelings are part of what makes us human. Often referred to as schadenfreude – a German term meaning both harm and joy – the emotion we experience in that situation allows us to feel better about ourselves.

One of my husband’s favorite movie quotes is from a scene in “The African Queen,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Charlie, a hard-living, cynical riverboat captain, and Hepburn’s character is Rose, a prim and proper missionary. At one point during their many arguments, Rose says to Charlie, “Human nature is what God put us on earth to rise above.

When my kids were little, I told them countless times that it was wrong to “laugh at the misfortunes of others.” Even at a young age, we compare ourselves to other people, and maybe the laughter comes from nervous relief that the embarrassment happened to someone else. But even if it is human nature to take pleasure in someone else’s downfall, I don’t think it comes without another distinctly human emotion: shame.

In the novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the main character says, “I know something of shame…How can we not all feel it? We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors.” At some point, the experience of schadenfreude has to make us feel hypocritical, knowing that we are playing a mental game of one-upmanship. The neighbor or co-worker’s failure somehow makes us more likely to succeed, or at least to feel superior, no matter how temporary that might be, or how undeserved.

Is human nature something we can rise above? Even Smith admits that humans are also wired for compassion. And practicing compassion can probably help us downplay those feelings of glee when something bad happens to someone we don’t like or with whom we compete. What is infinitely harder, I think, is actually being able to feel glad when something good happens for the person we don’t like. How can I summon genuine feelings of happiness for the kid who was mean to my child, or for the person who made a cutting remark to me, or for the politician who betrayed the public’s trust?

Among the Buddhist meditation practices known as brahmaviharas is one called mudita. Mudita is essentially a practice of sympathetic joy. It helps to counter feelings of jealousy and envy, and increases one’s capacity to feel joy and happiness for others’ good fortune. Practicing mudita calls for bringing to mind various people, and then mentally wishing them continued happiness. Since this feeling needs to be actively cultivated in most people, it helps to start the practice of mudita by calling to mind your own goodness and happiness, followed by people you love, and finally, the people who are difficult for you.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Yoga Journal web site has a very thorough article that explains mudita and how to practice it. The concluding wishes go like this:

“May your happiness and joy increase. May the joy in your life continue and grow. May you be successful and met with appreciation.”

Mudita asks that we stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game, and recognize that our own happiness increases when others are happy too, even our enemies. That’s how the human spirit rises above the human nature.