Sometimes we think about the news and the state of the world with concern, pain, empathy, and a feeling that everything is falling apart. Of course, the environment is in a desperate state of change that could potentially write us off the menu, but we also see societal divisions and systemic racism, and ancient grudges afoot. Sometimes I feel like perhaps we have evolved enough to see our oneness, all humans, all of life, and we are shedding the cognitive dissonances that allowed us to persecute and mutilate each other for so long. Now, we are vexed because it as if our hands are cutting our body apart, we are waging war on ourselves. This pain does not have to be for naught if we if can use our empathetic pain to stop hurting each other, ourselves and begin to heal.
When I think of how grateful I am to be in China, able to work, moving ahead with my plans, paying for the house, working on writing new books, publishing, teaching, and able to see my friends and family, I feel really grateful. The hard work we did upfront, the vigilance, and diligence, working together and sacrificing for the common good allowed us to have nice things. When I look at social media, there’s still protests and people fighting and hobbling the half-hearted pandemic prevention measures, and my friends with parents who complain bitterly that their kids haven’t seen their friends for two birthdays now, say that they will have a hard time forgiving those who dragged it on and allowed so much suffering, strife, economic recession, the bankruptcy of businesses, depression of individuals. When I see how well we worked together and how proud we are of the good job we did, versus what’s going on in some other countries that’s another tale of two pandemics, and I feel very lucky to have been here instead of there. Rather than merely saying this to gloat, I want to focus on trying to explore what made our response so spectacular, what is it about the society that allows us to work so well together in China, and what the west could learn from us if it could stop and pay attention, that could help us to combat climate catastrophe and save the environment with hard choices and personal and collective sacrifices. This is a tall order, but so necessary that I will have to give it a lot of thought and see if anything comes up in reflection.
I’ve been doing the One Meal a Day (OMAD) kind of thing, sometimes a tiny breakfast, often not, a large lunch, focusing on vegetables and non-red meat protein and either no dinner or something small like a cob of corn. My health check came back great, only that I have a bit of high cholesterol, so I’m cutting down on eggs also, and have exchanged coffee for green tea. A study showed that in Japan, folks who drank 5 cups or more a day were 25% less likely to suffer cholesterol-related health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks/disease, or stroke than those that didn’t drink green tea. I’ve also taken to eating a handful of walnuts and almonds a day. Another study I read showed that a handful of these a day, six days a week for 30 days, reduced your LDR (Bad cholesterol) by 10%. These are little things I can do for my body. If you’d take your car for a tune-up to avoid blowing the engine, we deserve a tune-up too.
In climate news — big setbacks for big oil giants and bullies signal a long-awaited tipping point. The coalition is surprising: fund managers, progressives and environmentalists, big-money investors attacking from without and within to score startling victories against oil and coal; reforging the playing field and opening opportunities for green energy and a Green New Deal in the climate fight. Will it come too late, or just in time? Fingers are crossed hard.
For 520, a Chinese lovers day like valentine’s day because Wu Er Ling (520) sounds like Wo Ai Ni (I love you), Xiaolin and I got each other new smartwatches. The new MiBand6 has a cute full-color screen and can monitor blood oxygen, heart health, stress levels, and has a new PAI feature, Personal Activity Information. Having a PAI rating of 100 or higher indicates good heart health and overall fitness and can extend your life by eight years or more, or so they say. The weather is cooling down a bit with all the rain we’ve had, so I had a few days of going back to jeans, and I had to cinch in my tactical belt a good inch or two. I’ve lost about 5KG and feel good about swimming, running, and my fitness/weight regiment. I’m keeping busy.
The Inner Citadel, as Marcus Aurelius writes about, is where I need to ground myself now. “He is most powerful who has power over himself,” wrote Seneca, and I remind myself of this daily, that anger is a choice. Last Tuesday, I got quite cross with a couple of chatty Kathys in my class, and from time to time, I realize I’ve always had some control issues with my class related to pride and the idea that discipline was important. The Chinese school system is much different than the West, though, sending a student to the principal’s office doesn’t happen and is culturally much more mortifying for the student— I’ve been told some students kicked out of class leap from tall balconies rather than handle the humiliation of being punished.
Marcus wrote: “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions than your own soul…Retreat to consult your own soul and then return to face what awaits you.” So after a long conversation with my wife, I decided to get back to the fun, happy, easy-going teacher I used to be. I can make a good case for why a western teacher gets mad: the lack of consequences for failing to earn a good grade when the school gifts the student an easy A, the fact that English classes are often second fiddle to math or science, the fact that we feel like a frill, an adornment rather than a serious part of the curriculum, can cause a teacher to want to flex their authority in the best of times. It can feel impotent not to have “power” or feel “important,” and add to that the stress and chaos of a global pandemic, and no wonder I’m a bit stern. But demanding my kids put their math books away and pay attention, or don’t so much as whisper to their friends when I’m lecturing only makes me angry and them angry and my school frustrated, and it’s all a big waste of energy.
Anger is a choice— so I decide not to entertain it. Like Rumi wrote in ‘the guest house,’ when anger visits me quickly, I smile and acknowledge it. But then I let it go and keep my happy feeling. It is poison to hold onto anger, to jump at the chance to become anger. Bruce Lee said,
“Be Water, My Friend. Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water.”
Bruce Lee said: Be Water, My Friends.
Marcus explains at the opening of Meditations that he learned from his teacher Sextus “Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.” That’s the secret right now. It’s not that the Stoics had no temper or were fearless; it’s that they managed those emotions. They replaced them with love. They loved themselves, and their fate (amor fati), they loved other people, and this profound empathy replaced pettier emotions rage, fear, and pain. Indeed the Stoics were not unfeeling.
Yes, it is annoying to have a student right before me, obviously not writing his essay, chatting with a deskmate trying to write while he doodles chemistry equations on a messy notebook. I look at him and think, yes, he’s making himself a target for me, and I could ream him out for it and make a lesson of him. But why? I’m not a military drill sergeant. This is not what the school wants of me, so why put that weight on my shoulders only to ostracize myself from those whose support I need? Instead, I focus on what’s important: my life, my family, my health, the overwhelming majority of positive interactions with hungry students who are excited to learn from me, and I am at peace once again. So I smile and think poor guy, he’s missing a great lesson, but I did my best. That’s all I can do. I keep a smile on my face, teach those who want to learn, and let the rest live their own lives and make their own mistakes. In the pandemic, that’s all we can all do, really.
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