Tribe: Home in Community

Tribe: Home in Community

Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.

 

Ever since I joined the ranks of homeowners, I finally see and feel this pattern of life called the American suburbia. Before this, I was that urban person who was only minutes away to major grocery stores, bookstores—both chain and independent—and delicious, diverse, ethnic restaurants. Not anymore. Part of me is still trying to understand why some call this the American Dream…

 

One thing that is markedly distinct about the change to suburban life, with all the space that comes with it, is its isolation. Perhaps people enjoy their nice houses so much that they don’t come out? Over the past months, I kept saying, “Where is everybody?” All these houses, and I didn’t see anybody in their front or backyards, or on the streets. Maybe because it was winter. I saw their parked cars though, so there was evidence of life.

 

People. Not that I’m the most social being on earth, but I do like to see people. People working, people doing activities, walking, even at times yelling at each other. Seeing people at the same place signals a common interest. Even though you may not be interacting with all of them, the fact that you’re there together is a sign of camaraderie. “Oh, you love books too!”

 

But when there are not many places to gather, how in the world are you supposed to find or form a tribe?

 

Tribe and Belonging

Sebastian Junger’s concise and poignant book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, was especially resonant when I read it earlier this year. It delves into the role of community in a person’s mental health and well being, except that that description is so watered down and doesn’t do the book justice. Junger calls on the properties of ancient tribal social structures that, though seen as primitive by modern people, in fact supply a sense of home and belonging to their members commonly lacking in modern society.

 

In its introduction, he writes:

The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with… This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.

 

It begs the question, is there a group of people whose survival is so important to me that I would share my last food with?

How Money Pulls Us Apart

Wealth and affluence, I daresay the mark of modern society, come with many great blessings. With them, many basic human sufferings are avoided and we are enabled to enjoy and entertain ourselves with much delight. Vacation, eating out, hobbies, etc.

 

But there are shadows that lurk behind these blessings that may catch people unaware. The fact that our money can satisfy so much of our needs, bolstering our independence, by definition lessens our need of other people. We like this. We like to be able to move and do things on our own and not depend on someone else’s good graces.

 

Take exercise equipment. In my last apartment I lived in (and boy, what a great apartment it was), I used to walk to my local gym to work out. I saw other people exercising and running, which inspired you and boosted your own motivation. I interacted with the staff and also increased the chances of running into coworkers who lived in the area too.

 

When my husband and I decided to buy a treadmill instead of paying for gym membership, the convenience of running at home was great to have, but it came at the expense of the people exposure at a communal space. The only “interaction” I would have while running was maybe a podcast, the recorded voice of another human being.

 

Obviously, there are pros and cons of each option—I’m not saying one is absolutely better than the other. But it is a trade-off. The pros and cons differ.

 

Junger stretches this privatization of resources and links it further to mental health. Perhaps one of the big cons of independence and self-sufficiency is loneliness and depression.

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

 

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

 

Money doesn’t buy everything, obviously. Especially in an individualistic culture, the lack of people interaction can have a serious effect on someone’s mental health.

Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.

The Leveling Effect of Suffering

In contrast, one of the blessings of “financial dependence” is the community aspect of shared resources. Sure, it comes with many frustrations—you have to deal with other people—but loneliness is likely not part of it. Junger argues that often people cherish the memories of disasters, whether natural or manmade (war), because they seem to level and ennoble human nature. They bring the best in everyone, because each has a role to play in the survival of the community. Everyone feels needed and important.

 

Yet…

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

 

To belong to a tribe, a community with shared experiences, is to find a home. How do you find your tribe?

 

For more, read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. It goes deeper into the tribal psychology of war, PTSD, and what a society should do with regards to war veterans.

This article is Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.

Take Care of Your Roots

Take Care of Your Roots

When you move a tree, as long as you take care of the roots, the tree will be ok. I heard this from a guide at the San Diego Zoo. He was describing the construction of a new expansive exhibit, the 8-acre Africa Rocks, that was slated to open in 2017. There was a precious nugget of truth there.

 

To build the exhibit and create a new ecology that mimics Africa’s natural habitats, they had to bring in grown and established trees from. Since zoos don’t have years to wait for the trees to grow, the trees there are all migrants, of sorts.

 

How do you move a grown tree? Apparently, it’s all in the roots. As long as the roots’ immediate environment is stable and unperturbed, the tree will survive and thrive just OK, even across overseas transport. They are not so fragile as to wither and die upon removal, even when this moving process is unnatural to their existence. They can continue on living, blossoming, and bearing fruits.

 

It’s inevitable that I see the metaphor here, since I’ve been going through some uprooting process myself. Last fall, I moved to a new state, changed my whole work setup, and planted myself in a completely new environment. It felt like my entire life dynamic changed and a new equilibrium is yet to be found.

 

Moving can be disorienting. One has to figure out life’s simplest things again, like grocery stores, food sources, and happy places to escape to (re: bookstores). Like the trees, if certain roots are not taken care of, there are consequences. Maybe some branches wither and die, maybe a fruitful season is skipped.

 

To be honest, I haven’t been doing that well taking care of my roots this time around. And the effects are real. A tree without roots is easily tossed by the wind.

 

At the very least, though, I know a little about my root system. Reading books and writing are always my rescue in times of great changes. They’re part of my constants, part of my equilibrium. At least I know there are a few things I can hold on to.

 

Do you know your root system? Maybe you’re going through some changes this year, or you’re about to face major life changes soon.

 

Take care of your roots, so that the change will not cause some of your fruits to wither. There will be adjustments that you’ll definitely experience, but you can minimize any negative effects by keeping your roots taken care of. And then one day, know that you too will recover, blossom, and flourish in your new environment.

 

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality: What Makes You, You

What makes you, you? This is the first of a series of posts on individuality. To begin, here are 10 thoughts on individuality. Agree/disagree? Feel free to comment!

 

  • Individuality. The you-ness that makes you, you. It’s your personality, your character, your history, your responses to situations, your decisions, all combined into one person, you. It’s what makes you unlike any other person on Earth and what makes no two people exactly alike.

 

  • Everything that makes you who you are—your biological traits, genetic heritage, ethnic background, the place of your birth and upbringing, your current location, all the places you’ve been and worked at, the people you’ve met, the people who have impacted your life, your cultural heritage, your entire life experiences, in the particular order that you experienced them, the books you’ve read, the things you’ve seen—all of these enrich you to tell your own unique story. It gives you a unique lens through which you see the world, a unique perspective that will tinge everything you do.

 

  • This unique perspective is a gift that you can give to the world. It’s your contribution to society and to humanity. Your individuality is an asset that will enrich our collective human experience.

 

  • Individuality is especially an asset in creative works, works that have no prescribed formulas and to-do guides, works that haven’t been done before. Face to face with a blank canvas, a blank page, an empty theatre, a research problem, a work emergency, what will you do? Where will you turn to when there’s no manual around? All you’ve got is your wits, your judgment, your wisdom, and your character. The way you use them to tread an uncharted path will be uniquely yours. In these blank canvas situations, I think you’ll find that your individuality is a well, that in your identity lay a treasure of connections and creativity that can manifest into a truly original work. It will not always come out right, but if you keep digging and mining the well, something great and original will come to life.

 

  • The paradox of individuality is that the person next to you is just as unique as you are. This presents no problem at all, because multiple individualities in turn can combine to create unique teams that produce unique results. As you are limited to your own experiences, others’ can inform and add to your life and to your collaborative work.

 

  • No two people can solve the same problem completely alike, if they stay true to their identity and not become a carbon copy of someone else. No two doctors perform surgery exactly in the same way, no two people sing a song the same way, no two engineers do calculations the same way. Even in math, a field with rigid rules and laws, no two mathematicians solve math problems the same way. They may end up at the same final answer, but the road to the solution will bear the mark of the author’s individuality.

 

  • Which is why diversity is an asset. Diversity is both a source of creative inventions and the outcome of originality. The combination of diverse individualities will create diverse solutions, which are needed in solving complex human problems.

 

  • Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Don’t worry too much that your work should or should not resemble someone else’s. Look internally and ask yourself, what would YOU do?

 

  • When you have found an outlet for your individuality, a work that truly fits who you are, you have found that rare intersection between self-fulfillment and altruism, something that is good for you and for society. It is self-centered, as in it all is anchored in your individuality, and selfless, in that it blesses other people too. It is rewarding internally, yet it is also a gift to the world. (See this post)

 

  • There’s something that only you can give in this life. There’s work that only you can do, music that only you can create, books that only you can write, pictures that only you can take. This is your gift to all of us, and we can’t wait to see it.

 

You are more unique than you think you are.


I asked some friends, What does individuality mean to you? Here are their insightful answers.


IndividualityIndividuality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want more? See also how individuality and creativity are related, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.

 

Lessons Learned One Year After Blog Relaunch

Lessons Learned One Year After Blog Relaunch

In June 2015, I relaunched my blog after a 2-year hiatus. It was a soft launch, because one, the domain name had existed for years un-utilized, and two, I didn’t know which direction to go with the blog, hence no big reveal.

 

Since then, my approach to blogging has evolved drastically, a compound effect of the decisions I had made. As someone who advocates oft reflections, I intend to share some, maybe unsolicited, but hopefully useful lessons learned during this past year. If you’re a blogger and writer, I’d love to hear if you agreed, commiserated, or disagreed with any of these points.

 

 

  1. Finding a Focus Starts with Asking Questions

 

The backstory: I spent the first 6 months after the launch finding a focus. Previously, my blogging approach covered eclectic topics on the things I experienced–travel, food, silly experiences, personal reflections, and essays. But, personally, there was something unsatisfying about this format. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, and I even enjoyed other blogs of this nature, but when I looked at my own posts, I knew there was a category that, when read, gave me most satisfaction. More on this below.

 

The blog relaunch was then an opportunity to do something different and ask different questions. For me, the question was this: What is the single umbrella theme that I want my blog to have? Just one. 

 

This question set me off on a journey. I simply started blogging, because only action would bring answers to said question, and if you saw the posts between June and December 2015, you would still see the sporadic nature in themes and topics. I was experimenting.

 

What did I experiment on? Initially, it was to test people’s responses–which posts would have more readership, wider audience engagement, page views, etc. It seemed like the most natural metric to use. But as I observed responses over those posts, one thing troubled me: the ones that were more popular were not the ones I would want to be the most popular.

 

I realized then that the real experiment was on myself. How did I feel about my posts? And I surely had different reactions to them. Faced with contradicting results, I had to make a choice: Which types of posts should I do and which should I abandon?

 

In the mean time, I also explored the blogosphere, reading websites and blogs of writers that I admired and respected. I discovered that my favorite kinds of blogs had dense and thoughtful entries, well-written pieces by people who devoured books. They were the self-learners, perpetual students, and wisdom seekers. It was almost like finding a tribe, as I resonated with this way of life.

 

Lesson Learned: Ask questions. Blogging, or intentional creative efforts of any kind, is a craft. It’s a design exercise–not just graphically, but internally, a design of content. It takes effort and prodding and questionings. What do I want my creation to look like? How do I iterate to find out what I want? If the question doesn’t get asked, a journey doesn’t get discovered. And if things don’t get measured, they don’t get improved.

 

  1. Doing Work I’m Most Proud Of

 

I found out that I was most satisfied when people read my thoughts rather than life updates, or rants on paper towels. These were usually long essays with messages that I’d like to send to the world, sharing what I had learned from books, people, and experiences.

 

So, should I write things that I knew had attracted readers in the past, or should I write things that I was truly proud of?

 

I decided on the latter one: to only produce things I was proud of. 

 

What did this decision mean? It meant dropping travel updates from the blog, since I never intended this site to be a travel blog, nor a food blog. I used to blog about scrapbooking or random meet ups with friends. Dropped those too. I supposed this was what it meant to focus. What stayed on the blog was one of the constants in my life: books.

 

Now, a larger percentage of this blog, if not entirely, revolves around books, packaged mostly in an essay format. Naturally, this genre overlaps with blogs that I admire. I frankly want to emulate what they have done, but also remain distinct, which is easy to do since I have different sets of interests and reading selections.

 

I can confidently say that I’m proud of the posts published since the beginning of this year. I say proud in the sense that there’s immense pleasure when thoughts germinated in the head find their expressions in the published words. It’s incredibly satisfying.

 

Lesson Learned: You can choose what you want to work on and how you want to create. Don’t underestimate the power of choices.

 

  1. Audience: Lose Some, Gain Some

 

As a result of this pivot, I lost readers. I mentioned that in the past these types of posts didn’t get as much attention, so I probably lost quite a number of readers. It was natural, but still not fun to go through. But I made a decision and this came with it, so I made peace. Some, though, remained.

 

I focused on writing and thinking better, learning more systematically, and reading more intentionally. It was probably the harder way to blog, hours and days spent on a single post, but I enjoyed it, so much so that it was probably abnormal. As ideas and thoughts mounted, they created a compounding effect that produced more thoughts and ideas, more than what I could keep up in writing. New questions emerged and new searches began. I started writing essay series, since one post was not enough to express the whole thought. The series on worldview—Between Jerusalem and Athens—and on excellence and learning were my personal highlights of the year. They were dense, but they were a labor of love.

 

As it turned out, this type of content could find its audience too, in fact, in wider scope than friends and family. More importantly, the ones who visited the blog stayed longer. This was incredible to find, because truthfully, this was the audience I wanted. The ones that would stay reading long essays, these were my kind of people! I’ve come to respect this audience, goading me to do even better work to honor the time they spend on this blog.

 

Lesson Learned: The saying goes, if you try to reach everyone, you’ll reach no one. Dare to reach just a few, and maybe the few will turn out to be not so few after all.

 

Books

  1. No More Hiatus

 

I’ve maintained a personal blog since 2008. For some reason, I thought I could take a break some time in 2013, and I went on a 2-year unintentional hiatus. I said unintentional because blogging became one of those things that drifted away as I let other things took priorities. The result: nothing good.

 

I heard Brené Brown once said that the suppression of the creative energy inside us was a dangerous thing. I used to think, Dangerous, really? That’s a strong word, isn’t it? But then I thought about my life happiness vis-à-vis blogging (blogging = proxy for reading and writing), it couldn’t be truer. Imagine all of those focused hours on crafting and creating essays, channeled out as negative energy toward those around me (ask my husband). It was ugly. Something felt missing. I needed a purpose, something to expand my world.

 

When I finally decided to read and write again, all of these suppressed energy found their outlet.

 

It was weird how that worked, and this was all new personal discovery. Now, I know that reading and writing are so essential to my being that I can’t afford to do without them. Thus, I’m purposed to not take any extended hiatus from blogging, for my own sake.

 

Lesson Learned: Got to find a positive outlet to your creative energy.

 

  1. From Hobby to Priority

 

It’s hard to find time in an adult’s life for a hobby, but you always find time for a priority. Knowing how important blogging is for my happiness, I now carve out hours to work on the blog on a consistent basis. It occupies my thoughts and it’s part of my schedule, even when I don’t feel particularly inspired. The discipline of sitting down and writing is necessary and rewarding, because I always end up finding something to write on, even if it’s just crappy stuff in my notebook.

 

The time to blog is a matter of decision. I always find time to do what I want to do, and if I don’t get to do something, there’s a good chance I don’t really, really, want to do it in the first place. On another note, to be consistent, I have also started changing my words in saying no to things. I try to prevent myself from saying “I don’t have time” and replace it with, “I can’t make that a priority right now.” It feels more honest.

 

If blogging were my hobby, I probably would never have time for it. But now, it’s a priority, hence the time is found.

 

Lesson Learned: Decide whether what you want to do is worth making into a priority. Then commit.

 

  1. More Lessons to Learn

 

The blog has evolved to a certain shape right now, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the end. After all, it’s only one-year old. Part of it being a priority means putting the time and money into it (yes, gotta have some skin in the game). I’m learning from people who have created substantive content in the world and there are areas that I need to improve. I’m taking Jeff Goins’ Intentional Blog course and I’ve invested in software to help me gain skills to evaluate my own work.

 

It’s a continual learning approach, always tweaking, tinkering, and measuring. It’s about perfecting a craft and loving the process more than the results. I guess I am an engineer after all.

 

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren

 

 

Such is the tale of my first year after relaunching my blog. Do you resonate? What have been your experiences thus far? Let me know!

 

My Summer Reading List. What Are You Reading?

My Summer Reading List. What Are You Reading?

Summer’s here! Since I’m solar-powered, I’m all charged up for a season of fun. How about you?

 

Summer’s the time to try new things, experience new adventures, and explore new worlds. This is true for my reading selection as well. Maybe it’s because my circadian rhythm is still calibrated to the academic calendar. I’m usually a nonfiction, idea books type of reader, but for summer, I like to venture out to travel books, selected fiction, biographies–more story-based books. Here’s my summer reading list for 2016, taken from my antilibrary–the books on my shelf that I haven’t read. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know what you think! And I’d love to hear about what you’re reading too.

 

Summer Reading List

 

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks

 

I got this book for $1 from Half Priced Books. Score! I recently finished another of Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, which is the scariest book I’ve ever read (will tell another time). With this and his essay collection, Gratitude, I’ve concluded that I enjoy his writing tremendously. Oliver Sacks had a poetic voice in telling human stories, a virtue that I find existing in my favorite authors. Uncle Tungsten is about his childhood and his love for the elements in the periodic table (in fact, in Gratitude, he wrote about his personal collection of these elements and how he thought about aging something like traversing across the periodic table, each atomic number matching his age). It’s probably the perfect mix of nerdy and poetic for me.

 

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

 

In my household, I’m usually the book buyer. But this one is my husband’s, also an engineer and fellow nerd. This is the only book I’ve seen that he read enthusiastically, sparking all kinds of conversations about technology and innovation at home. Apparently, it’s the kind of book that makes you want to build a plane. We’ll probably repeat those conversations when it’s my turn to go through the book.

 

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande
 

Having listened to Atul Gawande’s audiobook, Being Mortal, I’ve grouped him together with Oliver Sacks (and Paul Kalanithi and, my guess, Siddhartha Mukherjee–see below) as medical practitioners who are also excellent writers. They seem to reflect deeply on the human experience as they encounter individuals in medical crises, and this is an amazing trait. I look forward to hear more from Gawande.

 

Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan

 

Eka Kurniawan is an acclaimed Indonesian writer whose works’ translations have been increasing rapidly over the past year. The books themselves have been published for many years in Indonesian, but only last year were this book and another one, Man Tiger, translated to English. I read Man Tiger last year, and it is a spectacular piece of literature. I’ll be reading Beauty Is A Wound in Indonesian, my mother tongue.

 

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

 

Yes, I am so late for this one. I have a copy and it’s about time I read it.

 

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow
 

Gotta have a brainy book on the list. The first time I saw this book, it was at a bookstore. Its catchy neon green caught my eye. Sure enough, its topic of thinking and the workings of our mind was one of my favorite reading subjects. Over the next few days, I kept thinking about this book and I finally bought it online. Imagine my surprise when I saw the hidden text on the cover. Pssst…Hey There. Yes: You, Sexy. Buy This Book Now. You Know You Want it. These texts were so subtle that you couldn’t see them on the physical book cover, especially if you didn’t know they were there. So did I buy this book because it subliminally tricked me into doing so???

 

Notable New Releases

 

Or, books I would buy right now if I didn’t have some 50 unread books piling on my shelf. They sound so interesting!

 

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

 

Two things that make this book super appealing: gravitational waves and women in science. I was among the thrilled and goosebumps-covered people when on February 11, 2016, the LIGO scientists made the public announcement that they had detected gravitational waves for the first time ever. Their observations confirmed Einstein’s theory from 100 years ago. The fact that the science works is simply amazing to me. This book is the story of these LIGO scientists and their work through decades of trying that finally bore fruits this year. I’m also thrilled that just this year, there have been super interesting books written by women in science!

 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

 

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s first book, The Emperor of All Maladies, was a best-selling book on cancer. Here, he writes about the history of how the gene was and is being continually discovered.

 

Walking the Himalayas by Levison Wood
 

Stories of adventurers discovering the world at a pedestrian’s pace have fascinated me since I read Rory Stewart’s The Places in BetweenIt brings into view an intimate story of humanity that we don’t usually see through the regular media.

 

So there goes my reading list. What are you reading this summer? Please share in the comments below!

 

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