#21: The Questions We Ask

I was sitting outside Dumont Burger in Brooklyn last Sunday waiting for my friend Sarah when a guy came up to me and asked if he could take my picture. Sure, I said. A few shots later he told me his name was Brandon, he runs a blog called Humans of New York. I said I’d heard of it. Then he asked me a question that was instantly disarming:

“What are you struggling with the most in your life right now?”

Off I went, pouring out to a stranger:

“I’ve been examining my values lately, and determining whether or not I like the feelings that result from those values.”
“What’s an example of one of your values?”
“I’m very competitive.”
“And what’s a feeling that results from being competitive?”
“How does competitiveness result in jealousy?”
“When you have a competitive mindset, you tend to view the world in terms of winners and losers. So you resent other people getting recognition, because you somehow believe that less recognition is available to you. I’m learning that this is a false mindset. There’s not a fixed amount of success and recognition in the world. So another person’s accomplishments don’t diminish the accomplishments available to you.”

A mindset of scarcity. Where it comes from, I’m not entirely sure – it’s concentric and not easily untangled, a ball of Christmas lights made of where we grew up, how we’re raised, the cultural beef stew we simmer in day after day. I’m mixing metaphors but forgive me – I’m hungry and it’s almost the holidays.

Maybe: I was born in Shanghai, and while today’s Shanghai is largely transformed, it feels that there’s still a mindset inherited from an older, poorer China. There’s little regard for lines, because when resources are scarce and people are plentiful, if you don’t push to the front of the line, you don’t feed your family. Even when you no longer feel that pressure, when it’s no longer a matter of survival, that competitiveness and scarcity-mindset can linger – or persist – in the cultural organism, get passed to future generations through the way they’re brought up.

What’s the half-life of being afraid to die?

That’s not to say that competitiveness and scarcity-thinking doesn’t have it’s benefits. Brandon told me he was very competitive, too, and that in a lot of ways it’s brought him success and happiness. The same is true for me. The concern is more whether you’re overvaluing it. The question is more, How do you know when it’s no longer serving your best interest?

I’ve been re-reading bits of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness the past few mornings. The book’s a long letter written to Brother Quang at the School of Youth for Social Service while Thich Nhat Hanh (or “Thay”, aka “teacher”) was in exile in France in the early seventies. The first print run of the English translation was a hundred copies, printed on “a tiny offset machine” squeezed into the bathroom of the Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris. Because where else would you put a tiny offset printer?

The letter opens with Thay describing a visit from a friend, Allen, and Allen’s seven-year-old son Joey. Thay asks Allen how family life compares to bachelor life, and Allen says that in the past, he saw his time as subdivided into units; once he took away all the units he had reserved for Joey, for his newborn Ana, for his wife Sue, for his household work, what was left over was “me” time, time for reading, writing, researching, going on walks.

But Allen then says that he’s stopped breaking his time into units like this. Now he considers all his time “me” time. He looks, for instance, for ways to turn helping Joey with homework into his own time. “The remarkable thing,” says Allen, “is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

What would it be like if we approached those same things that sometimes feel to be so scarce and precious – time, attention, recognition, love, respect – from this place of infinity? What if we looked for that abundance everywhere? How do we remind ourselves of it when we’ve forgotten?

And since we’re here and asking questions, I have one more for you: What are you struggling with the most in your life right now?