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.

decorative image

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!

Sanctifying Time

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.” – Rabbi Abrham Joshua Heschel

One American and one Mexican twenty-something, both friends, wandered into a Tel Aviv pub at 9pm on a Thursday night to listen to adults share their stories about family… while this may sound like the beginning of a joke, it occurred this past summer and I was one of those twenty-somethings.

A person standing on stage that contains many clocks

We came to this small pub because we had heard that there was a storytelling event in which people would share 5-10 minute short stories about their families (with a particular focus on sibling relationships). My friend and I thought, what better way to end a day than to listen to people share their life experiences.

It was dark in the pub, with the only light being focused on the dimly lit makeshift stage that each storyteller would climb in preparation to share with the attentive crowd. I sat excitedly awaiting people to share their stories. First we heard about how a brother and sister lovingly played with each other’s stuffed animals as children. Then another storyteller shared how because of a marriage, he and his sibling had difficulties communicating in their adult live. A third storyteller told a story that emphasized how grateful he was for his parents roll in forging a relationship between his siblings. After this story, my friend whispered to me “you know Andrew, all of these stories are normal. There is nothing special or incredible about them. And, yet, I am still intrigued by them and I am glad to share this moment with you. Thank you for inviting me to come and listen…” My friend’s statement was the highlight of my night. I realized how incredible it is to turn typical moments into enjoyable memories. There is serenity in making the ordinary extraordinary. There is a special beauty to sanctifying time and space that is typically left mundane.

This semester at Duke has left me often reminding myself of what I learned that night. With my sui generis class schedule (many independent studies) and living on east campus as an RA, I am left with a lot of free time on my hands and not a lot of close friends that live nearby. I have been lucky to have had hours of free time each week, while most of my friends have had midterms and long homework assignments to complete. And, while I recognize that I much prefer my position than their’s, having this free time made me realize how difficult it is to fill. There is a pressure at Duke to always be productive. And, I think this pressure makes students (myself included) fear time spent in ways that are unproductive. Scratch that, our fear is more specific than unproductivity. We have a fear of time spent not on class work or clubs or job related items. And, this fear is rooted in the fact that many of us don’t know what we would do if we ever had a moment free of stress and work. I find myself working so that I can relax and relaxing so that I can work, because I don’t actually know how to relax, and I fear relaxation time and the loneliness that comes along with it when everyone else around me seems to be perpetually busy. And, this semester, I have faced the challenge of living with a significant amount of “unproductive, relaxed time.” Similar to the Tel Avivian storytellers, I have had to find a way to sanctify the mundane in a way that is authentic.

In search for this sanctity, I have re-taken up the piano after years of hiatus, I have started writing more, I call friends from home and family more often, and I have even starting reading for pleasure (a privilege I haven’t afforded myself in quiet sometime!). But for me, the best moments have been the ones sitting in a cafeteria or coffee shop, or dorm room saying thank you to myself and beginning to turn the world around me into a story, into a memory that I can smile about when I want to look back on it. I have begun asking myself what I would do if I never had to work again, and I realized that story making would be it. It is my way of sanctifying time. And, I encourage you to reflect on what your way is.

Omens and Tremping

“Learn to recognize omens, and follow them” -The Alchemist by Paulo Coleho

I found myself waiting on the side of the road with my two Israeli friends. It was hot, and I was incredibly confused. My friend stuck his thumb up and reached out into the road, seemingly awaiting a car to pass with a few empty seats. Then it clicked: we were about to hitchhike. And, all I could do was stand there quietly stunned with the shock of reality.

Twenty minutes earlier my two friends came into my room and convinced me to come “tremp to a nearby natural spring” with them. They had sliced watermelon (my favorite fruit) and cold drinks in their arms and smiled invitingly. At the time, neither my friends or I had any idea what “tremp” meant in English, but their encouraging smiles sparked my curiosity enough for me to agree to come along. For the entire summer I had been living by a motto one of my mentors recommended: “say yes, unless it is illegal.” And, by this particular point in the summer, that motto had already led to many incredible memories. Using this motto as a guide, I trusted my two friends enough to know that they wouldn’t tremp if it were illegal, so without inquiring further and opening a Pandora’s box of translation issues, I agreed to tag along. We began walking until we found ourselves on the side of a road basking in the Middle Eastern midday sun. There was no plan, no ride and no natural spring in sight. While my friends seemed fine, I was silently panicking.

Suddenly, my friend who was wishfully sticking out his thumb into the hot, dry air turned around and matter-of-factly exclaimed that “typically when I tremp there are only one or two open seats in the car, so we will likely need to separate.” For a brief moment, I felt my silent panic evolve into a shout of fear, frustration and utter shock. I had unknowingly agreed to go hitchhiking to a nearby spring that I now doubted even existed, and I was about to have to separate from my friends to travel with some stranger?! No way! I was about to crack, but I just barely managed to maintain my composure, irrationally trusting in the universe and believing that it would all work out.

Less than five minutes after my friend’s exclamation, a car passed by and seeing my friend’s thumb slowed down with its window open. A brief exchange in Hebrew between the driver and my friend resulted in my friend inviting us all into the car. Apparently, because my friend and the driver happened to be from the same small town in Israel, the driver was more than happy to take all three of us to the nearby natural spring. I thought what were the odds of that happening? It was nothing short of a miracle.

Yes!There are moments in life that the entire world seems to create the impossible. Our environment bends to our will and the path of least resistance merges with the path of purpose both sweeping us along for the ride. This was one of those moments. Paulo Coelho famously writes “when you truly want something, the entire universe conspires to help you.” This summer helped me appreciate what he meant.

I sat in the back of this stranger’s car still in shock and began reflecting on the motto that guided my summer and led me to my current circumstance: “say yes, unless it is illegal.” The first thought: this motto is incredibly risky! How could my mentor ever live like this! There are a lot of legal things, like tremping, that it may be much safer to say no to. But, I also realized this motto, despite its riskiness, had successfully led both my mentor and I to some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences. I needed to further investigate how to balance risk with reward.

The car came to a halt and we exited, thanked the driver and began our trek on a small path enclosed by barbed wire on each side that, according to my friend, would lead to the natural spring. I recall this walk all too well, as all I had to distract from the heat were my thoughts about the motto. Say yes unless it is illegal is not just about risk, it is also about trust. Living by the motto places trust in the world to work things out requiring faith in what Coelho describes as the universe and an understanding of what he describes as omens. I began to wonder what some of the other omens were in my life and if I were listening to their messages.

My friends’ excited clamor woke me from my thoughts. I lifted my head and saw a beautiful small natural spring with birds and a few locals enjoying the fresh, cool water. I smiled the same smile that my friends had earlier that day. One friend turned around and whispered to me “this is what I call a victory.” He was right. It was a victory because I had followed my omens and they led me to this moment.

In this victorious moment, I made three promises to myself: 1. I would search more actively for omens in my life and follow them, 2. Save any extreme circumstances, I would never hitchhike or tremp again, and 3. Going forward, I would ask for more English translations!