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The Sixth Sense

“Life literally abounds in comedy if you just look around you.” – Mel Brooks

“I have always been a huge admirer of my own work. I’m one of the funniest and most entertaining writers I know.” – Mel Brooks (presumably commenting on the first quotation)

Learning about human perception involves learning the “five senses:” sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. From a young age we are taught that each sense allows us to appreciate the world in a different way, and that we ought not to take these such perception for granted. Each of our senses adds a certain je ne sais quoi to our world, contributing flavors, colors, or melodies to our day, nourishing our souls. Together, our senses allow us to understand and appreciate differences in small details. They make each moment different from the last, allowing us to perceive and appreciate life’s many beauties. It is the variation that makes life so exciting.

In quarantine, what we see, smell, taste, touch and hear can be redundant. I, for instance, have cooked the same eggs with onion and spinach for breakfast each day. My gastronomical variation comes only when I occasionally replace the spinach with broccoli. The birds can always lift my mood on sunny days, but after listening to them carefully enjoying each note of their improvisational symphonies, even their melodies sound redundant. And, I love seeing trees blossom and flowers bloom in the early summer warmth, but after walking past the same tree multiple times each day, its beauty becomes less impressive. I have realized that beauty exists in impermanence, and our five senses allow us to preserve such Wabi-sabi in our memory, making what Robert Frost describes as “Nature’s First Green” last just a bit longer.

With quarantine, however, this process breaks down. The impermanence switches from being our surroundings to being our lifestyles. Instead of needing ways to appreciate the beauty of the universe around us, we need ways to appreciate the universe of our own lives. While our five traditional senses allow us to preserve that which surrounds us, we need to turn to a different sense to appreciate our own lives during quarantine, granting us the ability to shine a light on each moment, turning dull moments into joyful ones. The sense that we need is a sense of humor.

It is difficult to find reasons to laugh, especially during times when the world seems bleak, but it is during these times that our sense of humor has the most potential. Laughter is a prism that refracts the typical grayness of the world into a myriad of different colors eliciting a sense of joy that can only be expressed through the whimsical melodies of our laughter. (Have you ever listened to your own laughter, and pondered where it came from and what it says about you, or, have you ever considered what you find funny and why?)

Laughter is like our fingerprint, as it is part of what makes us unique. Laughter heals. If social distancing and quarantining create distress, then laughter is medicine. Laughter uplifts. If one seeks to momentarily escape their existing environment and give themselves a break, then laughter is an instant vacation. Laughter spreads. If one seeks to bring happiness to others, then laughter is the harbinger of smiles. And, smiles are contagious. They send energy to those around us, lighting up their worlds just as our smile lights up our own. When our typical senses struggle to help us make life special, we must turn to our sixth sense, our sense of humor to do so. Channeling this sixth sense begins by asking ourselves “what has made me laugh recently, and who have I made laugh recently?” Send your answers to carlins101@gmail.com. I am curious!

Heroes Among Us

kenan insider heroes among usI recall career day in kindergarten, when parents would come into class and talk about their jobs. Professions like police officer, firefighter, soldiers, lawyers and doctors would be considered heroes. They would tell tales of their time on the job saving lives. Their brief presentations concluded with a much deserved applause from the class. Almost all of my classmates excitedly exclaimed I want to be a hero when I grow up, so I will be [one of the aforementioned professions]. As kindergarteners, we had our lives planned. Everyone wanted to be a hero.

Then, the parents who were bank tellers, computer salesmen, and grocery store clerks presented to my kindergarten class. As they described their jobs, my classmates and I found their presentations far less glorious. Why would anyone choose to handle money or machines, or help purchase food when they could be a hero and help people instead? One classmate had a confused look on his face when he heard the bank teller parent talk about interest. How could anyone find this interesting, my classmate whispered to me. Looking back at my kindergarten yearbook confirms my memory. While people reported wanting to be doctors, lawyers, firefighters and other heroic careers, I found only a few cases of people wanting to be what we considered non-heroic. At that time, we didn’t understand that circumstance creates glory, not position alone.

In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems much of the world is turned on its head. Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms have extended past the university touching nearly every aspect of life. Information Technology teams who typically go under the radar, are now at the forefront of operational efficiency. They have become the heroes of some of the largest institutions (Duke included). In times of social distancing, only those that are considered “essential” continue to go to work putting their lives at risk for the benefit of society. Going to the grocery store, I felt compelled to thank the clerks, much as I feel compelled to thank soldiers, for putting themselves on the line to serve others.

While grocery stores continue to operate, many people are now scrambling to purchase electronics to ensure that they stay connected amid a temporarily virtualized society. As a result, computer salesmen, like my father, now come home recounting stories of customers calling them their heroes in times of crisis. Bank tellers who previously served a mundane role, have become points of access to much needed cash and liquidity.

During a crisis what we consider essential puts a new perspective on glory and heroism. Those whose work is often thought of as a means to an end, now preform lifesaving duties. This pandemic has humanized professions, making me recognize that the grocery store clerk, like the doctor helps people survive. I wonder how next kindergarten career day will go…

Since reflecting on how COVID-19 has changed our understanding of what is essential, I began counting the people whose work allows me to function daily. The grocery store clerk, the gas station worker, the bank teller, the IT staff, the mail(wo)man, truck drivers…. Eventually, I count over 100 people who without them, my daily life would come to a halt. I realize that these are also the people whose work I typically take for granted. I was never taught to view their work as glorious, or heroic. What a limited worldview I had!

This pandemic has taught me to appreciate the many heroes who are risking their lives and whose work allows society to function as smooth as possible even during a crisis. To those whose work is just now being considered essential, thank you for being heroes.

Advice From Grandma

Gam ze y’avor (Hebrew for this too shall pass), I hear my grandma calmly say over the phone, referencing a famous expression penned by Medieval, Sufi poet Rumi. Being back home, I had decided to call my grandma to check in with her, worrying that she may be more frightened than I because of COVID-19. However, while I had originally intended on supporting my grandma, the conversation quickly turned into my grandma supporting me.

I suppose I wasn’t the best at hiding my fear amid the uncertainty that has enveloped the Duke community recently. My expression of my frustrated confusion was met with my grandma saying, “worse things have happened, and, while the situation is not ideal, in some time things will return to normal. In the interim, be grateful for being back at home with family, and make the best of your blessings.” I knew my grandma was correct. Positivity and perspective in stressful times is are invaluable assets.

 I have found conversations with friends and family particularly helpful in processing what will become, as my friend puts it “the new normal, for now.”  In another conversation with a fellow Duke undergraduate, I was surprised to hear how well he was adjusting to the changing situation. “There is no point in being upset; that won’t help. Instead, I am smiling, laughing with family, and trying to readjust my purpose. I am now refocusing my lifestyle to accommodate these new circumstances,” he explained. I admired his perspective, thinking his strong sense of resilience. My friend further explained that he was already in touch with the Wellness Center, and intended to continue his weekly Moment of Mindfulness programming through Zoom, brining Duke students together virtually, when being together physically is not an option. Someone else asked me for feedback on a document outlining possible ways to maintain Duke community remotely that she and some of her friends spent hours drafting. This creativity inspired me to challenged myself to find my new normal amid a forced change in lifestyle. I am now in the process of meeting that challenge, and like my friend, I remain excited to see where the universe will take me. Creativity, excitement and laughter are good ways to turn worry into happiness, and preoccupation into occupation.

In other conversations with Duke staff and faculty (which have become personal mentors), I recognized the strength of relationships that I had formed throughout my time at Duke. One staff member offered to mail my essential belongings, and another offered their home as a place to stay, if needed. Many of my professors, both current and former, reached out to personally check-in offering themselves as a resource to process recent events. One professor even asked for my physical address because he wanted to mail me a book.

The support that any community provides its members shines strongest in times of distress. Emergencies become both the hardest and the most supportive times. I am so grateful for the support that I have received and given recently. Recalling the advice from my grandma, I realized that although “this too shall pass,” the memory of the support that I have received from and given to others will not. While there is a temporality of any crisis, there is a permanence to the memories and relationships that are formed during it.

In short, I am taking grandma’s advice, in the hopes that I can make her proud. Amid the ongoing uncertainty, I will do my best to maintain perspective and positivity. I will live up to the challenge that my friends have presented: to embrace the excitement and creativity inherent to adjusting to the new normal, and, I will treasure the support that I receive and that I can give. Gratitude plays a crucial role in times like these, and, I remain incredibly grateful for the support of people in my life.

Proper Posture

Returning to Duke after Winter Break presents many undergraduates with a socio-emotional conundrum. I am no exception. We have just come back from a 3.5-week break filled with (relative to the semester) few and deep interpersonal interactions, with family, friends from home and ourselves. Over break, I found myself actually having time to read for pleasure (which led me to read another Mitch Albom book), while reflecting on the semester that I had just finished and beginning to consider what lied ahead.

This reflection came as a shock to my psychological homeostasis. Directly after finishing an intense finals week filled with studying and saying end of semester goodbyes, Winter break plunged me into a far less-structured, family-oriented schedule. My life at Duke quickly seemed like a separate universe: one that I left behind in exchange for a more familiar universe in a community that I was raised in.

Going home to New York after a semester in North Carolina brings out a different side of me, ranging from the accent that I speak with, to the use of the word “y’all,” to the politeness that I conduct myself with, to the unconditional love that I give and receive from those around me. It is an incredible privilege to call Duke and New York two different, yet integral parts of my identity: two homes that fill different niches for my young-adult self. I imagine I am not alone in feeling this way among my undergraduate peers.

However, sometimes transitioning between the two homes is not easy, and creates a kind of culture shock. Going back to New York, this shock looks like my sister poking fun at the way I pronounce “coffee,” my parents remarking on my new use of “y’all” in place of the New York “you’s,” and the occasional feeling of inadequacy and boredom rooted in a less productive and work-oriented mindset that exists when one leaves the Duke bubble.

Coming back to Duke, this “return shock” manifests itself in obsessive introspection: Am I taking the right classes? Am I associating myself with the right people? Am I making the absolute best use of my short time as an undergraduate at Duke? Of course there are no right answers to these questions, but transitioning between worlds brings them about in a fashion that begs immediate and definite answers. This obsessive introspection often begins in the downtime of the first few weeks of classes. I start by questioning the classes I quickly begin questioning other parts of my identity too. I struggle to find adequate answers as my mind wanders into hyper self-criticism that creates a dangerous negative feedback loop.

 This phenomenon is different than the infamous “Sophomore Slump” (I am a Junior after all and the image of slumping implies a sense of permanence that doesn’t accurately describe my emotions); it is more like a “Slouch” from which I can stand proudly erect once I recognize my concerns and take strides to address them. I know that I cannot be the only student experiencing the Spring Semester Slouch and I also imagine that this conundrum expands past the undergraduate experience. For that reason, I find it worthwhile to enumerate my remedy to the Slouch in hopes of inspiring others to discover and share their own.

When I realize signs of the Spring Semester Slouch, the first thing I do is breathe and smile. It is important to remind myself of how amazing of a person I am and that despite my imperfections, I try my best and am always improving (that is what counts most!). Next, I write out my thoughts trying to identify the root of my questioning: Why do I suddenly not want to take a class? What do I feel like I am missing currently? Typically, I find that there are deeper, more complex causes to what may appear as a simple yes-or-no question. Perhaps the reason why I am questioning a certain major is because I feel that a better knowledge of science is essential to reaching my potential post-Duke. Understanding these root causes allows me to forge a temporary peace of mind. After creating this temporary peace, I sleep on the remaining questions and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle them. I then re-approach my concerns considering advice from friends, family, and mentors.

I am lucky to have an incredible support system and yet even with this network, I often feel incredible amounts of pressure when making final decisions. But, reminding myself that in the long-run, most of these decisions will seem miniscule, and creatively searching for humor in the moment creates a sense of relaxation. From this relaxation comes an embracement of imperfection and mystery (I will never know if I made the “right” choice). And, this realization empowers me with the requisite energy to stand up straight, proudly overcoming the Slouch that previously clouded my mind.

Through self-love, compassion and humor I can overcome even the most urgent of “introspective crises.” I hope to carry these qualities with me as I continue along my life journey, with the hopes of continuously learning about the world and improving myself while standing erect despite temptations to Slouch…My mom always told me that proper posture was important!

Kindergarten Kindness

“This little book is designed to teach you everything you need to know about getting ahead… just have courage and memorize the rules in the chapters that follow”How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

My friend recounted a frustrating story. She was in a meeting, and, she couldn’t understand how her peers would interrupt each other and disregard the quieter voices in the room. This was especially bothersome for my friend when the quieter voices had more experience than the louder voices tackling the specific problem at hand. This was one of those times.

She was the quieter voice with sui generis experience solving the issues they were talking about. However, each time she spoke, other voices would pipe in before she could even finish a thought. Instead of getting frustrated (as is her typical recourse), she sat back, and quietly looked around wondering what world these people were living in. What was the water that they swam in and how could she let their river flow right through her, so that she didn’t get bothered by their behavior?

In her reflection, I realized that this was not the first time I heard about this phenomenon. Some of my other peers would recount that during their summer internships they sat in meetings witnessing the same pattern. And, as a result, meetings that should have taken thirty minutes took over an hour. The inefficiency was astonishing.

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My friend exclaimed: “People complain so often about meetings (especially long ones) and yet they are the cause of their own problems. How is it that people don’t recognize their hypocrisy?”  I smiled as I recalled my former supervisor’s advice: “it doesn’t matter how poorly a meeting is run, as long as there is good food and wine people will leave happy.” I was processing these thoughts as my friend continued with her story.

And then, my friend suddenly paused. She, in a moment of genius, had three realizations about working in groups that she listed: “1. People aren’t being hypocritical by complaining and then extending meeting lengths, they actually enjoy meetings, or at least enjoy bonding over complaining about them. 2. People care less about the actual results and action items of a meeting and more about whether they feel like their voice was heard. 3. When all else fails, good food will ensure success, like a good insurance policy.” I smiled at her excited statement. Shortly afterwards, she turned these realizations into the three “Golden Opportunities” that explain when (according to her) people will forego meeting efficiency:

  1. A chance to complain
  2. An opportunity to talk about themselves, their lives and their ideas
  3. A free meal

She finished her realization by terming these things the “Kindness Rules,” because they involve actions that are commonly regarded as “kind gestures.”

My friend explained that she felt like J.P. Finch from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as she finally understood the world that her compatriots operated in.  It was a world in which “efficiency” and “end product” were said to be the gold standard, but in reality a radically different thing was: kindness. Instead of good work driving kindness, kindness drives good work.

My friend then looked upset. “How can people live and perpetuate this fabrication? And, why should I conform to it?” she exclaimed. My friend paused for another moment before continuing with “This reminds me of kindergarten.”

I gave her a confused look. She elaborated, “I was the one kindergartener who knew that there was not fat man in a red suit coming down anybody’s chimney, and yet come Winter time I would listen with a smile to my peers who would recount stories about this man. I remember laughing to myself at the ridiculousness of their stories, always following Kindness Rule number 2.”

She paused again… “You know, if I could do this with my peers in Kindergarten, then why can’t I do this as a young adult with my coworkers in meetings?…

Our conversation ended there, but I was curious to see how my friend’s outlook had changed so I followed up with her a few weeks later.

My friend now approaches meetings differently. She enters into meeting spaces with her “Kindergarten Kindness,” knowing that this will ultimately lead to the best outcome. She explained to me that during the next meeting she spoke up, smiled, and understood that efficiency looks different for everyone. At the end of her meeting, she was thanked for helpful contributions and encouraged to speak up more often. I smiled at this final point and began to imagine how to integrate Kindergarten Kindness into my life too.

From Silver to Gold Lining; From Comparative to True Gratitude

“Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.” – Candide, Voltaire

Sometimes, there are really bad moments in life. And, while it is possible to learn from some of these experiences, and better ourselves through reflection, there are just some moments that are plain bad. There is nothing that one could learn from these moments that couldn’t be learned in a less harsh way. And, we would likely be better off without having to experience these moments whatsoever. Hard stop.

Yet, when speaking about these “bad moments” with many of my peers, I am often given the advice to find gratitude in the silver lining of these bad experiences. I hear variations of it could be worse after all and at least I didn’t have it as bad as someone else had it. Before becoming a Resident Assistant, I took these responses as unquestionably valid. Finding gratitude through comparison seemed beneficial. In difficult times, it is better to be grateful than to be upset, I figured.

However, in listening to some of my residents talk about their difficulties adjusting to Duke, I realized some of the flaws in the Comparative Gratitude mentality. For instance, many residents have recounted their issues with balancing time at Duke, but then quickly qualify their difficulties by saying something along the lines of but I know I don’t have it as bad as Person X (who more often than not is an engineer or pre-med), so I am grateful and I don’t really have much to complain about.

 My residents don’t recognize that by drawing this comparison they belittle and delegitimize their own polemic in a way that is unfair to their personal health and wellbeing. They use Comparative Gratitude as a means to rationalize a less than ideal situation. And, this logic persists outside balancing class time; it also enters into the field of personal relationships. Namely, in my role as a Resident Assistant, I have also had numerous conversations about unhealthy friendships and/or romantic relationships that make the person I am speaking with feel drained or insecure or the likes. Similar to the other conversations, I often hear justifications for remaining in these friendships/relationships along the lines of well it could be worse or I should be grateful for the good things that the other person gives me. These rationalizations search for the silver lining in preventable situations to justify the status quo and use fratitude as their masquerade for doing so.

 After reflecting on this, I concluded that Comparative Gratitude is often dangerously metamorphized into faulty rationalization of changeable reality. Finding the silver lining then becomes necessary to justify such an existence. Drawing these conclusions reminded me of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide which, among other ethical concerns, points out much of these same flaws with Comparative Gratitude and optimism (see quotation above). What a troublesome ethical rabbit hole this logic puts people in!

This past week I was once again listening to one of my residents recount their background and how it has impacted their experiences at Duke. A similar foundation was set: difficulties at home played into difficulties adjusting to Duke which play into current stresses that my resident feels. My resident paused – something I wasn’t accustomed to – they then continued to say, but I have learned from my experiences that true gratitude is not saying ‘person X has it worse than I so I should be happy with my lot’ nor is true gratitude saying ‘well my situation is bad but I should be happy that it isn’t worse.’ Rather, true gratitude is looking at the situation and after trying to make the best of it, being grateful with whatever the resulting reality is (even if it is less than ideal) because at least you know you tried your best.

I sat there stunned. In these few seconds my resident became my advisor. My questions about gratitude and finding silver linings were concisely addressed. No longer would I search for gratitude through comparing my life with others, but rather search for gratitude in its true form: the form that originates from being truly content with whatever situation I find myself in. And, while this sometimes may still require finding the silver lining in tough times, it would require finding the silver lining only after trying to optimize my reality. So in this sense, I would be finding a truer silverlining (perhaps more of a gold lining, if I may).

Through True Gratitude, I can simultaneously be happy and look to improve my circumstances. I no longer need to succumb to the naïve optimism that Volatire’s Cacambo references. Rather, I can be a grateful optimist who continuously strives to better himself and the world around him. I hope that my resident continues to inspire people and share their wise insights with those around them. I know that I certainly will!