Be a mensch, make it a better world

six-year-old self-portraitThe word “mensch” is Yiddish for “man,” but it’s not really a sexist word, as the true essence of “mensch” means to be a human being in the kindest and most generous sense of our best homo-sapiens Selves.

A recent New York Times Magazine article, “Are your friends making you fat?” by Clive Thompson (http://tiny.cc/7Tu4G) raises some interesting notions that are particularly related to being our best Selves—as parents and in general.

The article focuses on two researchers, Christakis and Fowler, who found “that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses…  Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems.  Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people.”

“Drinking spread socially, as did happiness (bold and itac. mine) and even loneliness. And in each case one’s individual influence stretched out three degrees before it faded out. They termed this the ‘three degrees of influence’ rule about human behavior: We are tied not just to those around us, but to others in a web that stretches farther than we know.”

As a parent, Fowler said that “his work had inspired him to lose five pounds and to listen to upbeat music before he arrives home from work so he will be in a good mood when he greets his family. ‘I try to get myself in a mental space where I’ll be happy,’ he says.  ‘Because I know that I’m not just having an impact on my son, I’m potentially having an impact on my son’s best friend’s mother.’”

This represents the essence of Privilege of Parent’s outlook—that we must care about our world and all its collective children and, further, that parenting as our best Selves is a path to good feelings that last, and that our happiness, in turn, is a key way to help our kids (our own and not our own) be happier.  As I have stated in other posts, it’s cool to be kind.  It is also enlightened Self-interest.

While the shadow of this research would be the misguided notion that one should drop their “bad influence” friends (and help our children hang with only the fabulous), however, the research also suggested that it is even harder to change our social group than we might imagine.  In fact, the number of friends a person has appeared to be very much governed by DNA; for example, if you take a person with five-close friends and put them in an entirely new group they will be closer to the social vortex and end up with five close friends (while the one close friend person will again be on the edge of the group, if given a new group—so we parents might re-think the idea of finding a new school for our kid because all the kids at their current school don’t seem nice). 

Another implication of all this, especially the studying of social networks rather than just individuals, marks an important trend in our own consciousness of ourselves as humans.  As a result of our narcissism (i.e. not knowing who we are) we have tended to over-emphasize and overstate our identity in terms of individual markers of achievement or desirability, rather than imagining our very identity as being the interweaving of our relationships; as we evolve collectively, we may realize that on the surface we play different roles in the world, much as some water is in a river and some water is in a lake, a puddle or in a drop of dew—but it’s all water and we’re all an inextricable part of one relationship (that links us with rocks, plants and insects, and with light itself, as well as with all us humans).  

In this way relationship itself (the interconnectedness of everyone and everything) is the next big archetype for us humans to makes sense of and integrate into our ways of thinking and living.  

“Christakis and Fowler say social contagion could even help explain the existence of altruism: if we can pass on altruism to distant points in a network, it would help explain why altruistic people aren’t simply constantly taken advantage of by other members of their community.  Last year, to test this theory, they conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants played a “cooperation game.”  Each participant was asked to share a sum of money with a small group and could choose to be either generous or selfish. Christakis and Fowler found that if someone was on the receiving end of a generous exchange, that person would become more generous to the next set of partners — until the entire larger group was infected, as it were, with altruistic behavior, which meant the altruist would benefit indirectly.”

While money is a medium in which to test and demonstrate this principle, giving attention, love and compassion are non-monetized (although harder to measure) ways of enhancing one’s own happiness while also helping the world.  If each of us typically influences about 1,000 people per the “three degree rule” just being authentic, kind and reasonably happy is likely to have significant ripples.

A drop of water cycles from cloud to rain to stream and ocean and then back up to mist and cloud again; Lao Tze in the Tao te Ching says that in preferring low places, water is above things—quietly moving rock, finding paths of least resistance—and he encourages people to be more like water.  Maybe some people are a mile wide and an inch deep (so-called “super-connectors”) while others are deeper and less obvious.  Some humans shout from the corner office and on the myriad screens of our culture, but also, and just as legitimately, when we change a diaper amidst the clutter of things that we lack time and energy to attend to, or read to a child, we are expressing an equally legitimate corner of our one big inter-relationship.

What Christakis and Fowler do not say, and cannot measure, is how we are also all connected at an unspoken and unmeasurable level (but we’ll save the telepathic possibilities in parenting for another post). 

If the world turns out to truly be a stage, and each of us are each playing but a role in a giant play, the critical factor for each of us is to either play our role with gusto or phone it in (or, worse yet, text it in).  There are no small roles, only small actors.  If you appear to have been cast as the “outcast” (or even as the villain), don’t overly invest in believing that your transient role limits or defines you (with heart and soul, we can all make something beautiful out of our roles).  The play’s the thing.  

Most people consciously want a more tranquil world with less cruelty, exclusion, violence and unfairness; and yet, this would-be world would have a bit more stillness in it, and I’ve noticed as a therapist that many people initially cannot handle stillness—it allows all the shame, doubt and pain that all the frenetic rushing around serves to mask to suddenly flow to the surface.  

If we really want to free ourselves and serve our children, perhaps we need to do less and not more; perhaps we need to tolerate the intensity of our feelings (rather than judge them as “good” or “bad”); and just maybe the conscious realization of our inter-relatedness may prove a validating and encouraging influence to steel our nerve and strengthen our resolve to just be more compassionately true to ourselves—and to each other.

So, by “be a mensch” I mean, keep it real, be a human being and drop the shame, the ceaseless striving to nowhere and the belief that the “things” you want will bring you the feelings that you want (those good feelings that last are possible right now, with nothing more than what you already possess).  So, let’s see if we can’t widen our love to recognize our own ultimate, and even collective, Selves in our children… and in every other that we meet.  This cannot help but serve all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Be a mensch, make it a better world”

  1. A.N. Says:

    Perfect post today for the celebration of Lakshmi- goddess of wisdom, Light, prosperity, fertility(yesterday) and Dalai Lama’s teachings in the USA (tomorrow) !

    Thank you Bruce for your vast depths and dimensions, and for connecting to all of us that care and could not care less….equally.
    Namaste

  2. Eye on the real prize « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] a glitzy world of flash, Derek Fisher always strikes me as a down-to-earth mensch.  In an interview shortly after his daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer he was […]

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