Courage and courtesy

I’ve had a couple of strange experiences this week. Nothing that would make you wonder if it’s a full moon or something, but strange enough that they’ve stood out. They’re actually related and that’s part of what I find strange.

The first thing happened when I was finishing the last of my Christmas shopping a couple of days ago. I decided I’d get the bus back as it was late and I had a few things to carry. It was fairly busy and a mother and her baby sat in front of me. The baby seemed fascinated by my appearance. Maybe it’s the beard or maybe he thought I was particularly ugly but he just stared at me the whole time. Have you ever had a kid just stare at you? It’s freaky. I didn’t know where to look, so I looked out the window and every now and then glanced back. He didn’t move. I swear this kid could break someone in GuantΓ‘namo.

Anyway, after about ten minutes they started to get off, her balancing several bags and the kid in one arm and trying to pick up the stroller with her other hand. I got up and offered to carry the stroller down for her; she looked stunned that I’d offer. So I carried it down and she thanked me, but still seemed surprised that I’d want to help. I didn’t say anything but as I returned to my seat, I couldn’t help but wonder why she thought it strange that I’d help. Was it something about me that made her think I wasn’t the kind of person who’d notice she needed help? Or was she just surprised that anyone would help? I suppose I’ll never know, but no one else moved, not even the driver… I found that very strange. There were at least thirty other people on the bus and twenty near where she was sitting. Are we really so involved in our own worlds that we wouldn’t think to help a mother who obviously needed it? Or did they all think that someone else would do it? I don’t know which is worse.

The second thing happened a day later. I was out again and on my way to browse in a couple of bookshops to kill some time. A woman and I both reached the escalator at the same time; I had a little more room and probably could have gone first, but I stepped back and let her go. She looked at me with that same look on her face: half-bewilderment, half-smile, like I’d just done something very unexpected. Maybe I had but it’s actually something I do a lot, for men and women. It’s partly because I try to be polite but also because I don’t like getting bumped on the escalators; I’ve lost my balance several times when somebody’s brushed past me, so I find it easier just to let them go first.

It was only a small thing, but again it struck me as strange. Is it really so unusual that someone would do that? Are we so used to forming long queues and yelling at each other on the roads that when someone gives way, it feels unexpected?

Truthfully I wouldn’t have thought much of it, except that two similar things had happened in as many days and now it’s got inside my head. I don’t believe in coincidences and it’s made me wonder if courtesy is slowly dying. Well, not wonder; I know it is. There’s no doubt that people aren’t as polite to each other and when they are, it often feels fake. No doubt that people speak to each other more harshly and are always in a hurry; no doubt that we spend a lot of our time listening to music inside our heads, unaware of what’s going on around us… I just hadn’t realised that it had come so far as to seem strange when someone actually did a kind act. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

What it’s made me think about as well is courage. I’ve said before that I think it’s much harder to do the right thing, to make a right decision, than it is to do the wrong thing or make a wrong decision. There are many different ways of approaching something; there might be many favourable outcomes, but I would say there are many more unfavourable ones because there are so many obstacles that can get in our way. Sometimes you need to back yourself and go ahead no matter what people say, or do something you know is right when everyone disagrees.

I’m not going to say that anything I did was courageous, but I think you need a bit of courage to perform a kind act. You need not to be afraid that you’ll make a fool out of yourself (always possible) and to believe that you can help. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and do what has to be done. And sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in even when it might seem better to stay quiet. How many disadvantaged people have been helped because someone took the time to listen? How many small acts of kindness have changed lives because someone had the courage to say “I want to help”? More than we’ll ever know.

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of two small experiences, but I find it very sad to think that common courtesy is becoming a thing of the past. This isn’t me lamenting the death of society or how inconsiderate people my age are; if anything I think the opposite. I just think that the way we deal with each other says so much for who we are, for who I am as a person. I can go round listening to my iPod quite comfortably and not notice anything outside of it; I bristle when someone says something harsh to me like anyone else, and I can just as easily say something harsh back. Sometimes that’s entirely appropriate. But the way I behave affects other people too; carrying a stroller or letting someone go first is such a small thing, but can make such a difference. Both those women were surprised but pleased; my doing one nice thing for them gave them a good feeling. It would have been easy for me to do neither, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, but I think the world would be a much colder and sadder place to live in without those small acts of kindness. So I help where I can.

With Christmas so near it’s simple to get caught up in the frenzy and forget about the impact we can have on other people, so I think it’s important that we make the effort to be polite and helpful if we can. It’s not easy with all the noise and music and people, but a kind word or gesture can make all the difference in someone’s day. So my resolution from now until Christmas (and beyond!) is to try and do something nice for someone each day. A stranger, a friend, whoever, I want to show that courtesy isn’t completely dead. Anyone want to join me? πŸ˜‰

Is the glass half empty or half full?

While I was putting together my list of 5 sayings that don’t make sense a few days ago, my mind kept coming back to “is the glass half empty or half full?”. Not because it doesn’t make sense, but because I just detest the expression with a passion. I think it was inflicted on me a few too many times as a child; I’ve never liked being psychoanalysed to begin with and now I just cringe whenever I hear it. Seriously, I don’t think there’s an expression I hate more; “because I said so” and “let’s face it” would come close, but even they don’t set my teeth on edge the same way.

A few years ago I used to hear it so often that I tried to make a game out of it; I thought if I could come up with a different answer every time, I might somehow preserve my sanity. I came up with some pretty good ones and sometimes I’d just change my answers to mess with people. It’s half full. It’s half empty. Well, it’s half empty, but really it’s full because the other half is full of air. Right now it’s half full, but there’s a crack in the glass so soon it’ll only be a third full. I decline to comment because it will reveal more about my psyche than the police are willing for me to reveal. And my personal favourite: There is no glass. You should have seen the way they’d stare at me, then turn to look at the glass when I said that! It was priceless. πŸ™‚

But of course the reason the expression exists and has become so popular is because it asks such a simple question, but has no simple answer. We’re fascinated by the way optimistic and pessimistic influences appear in our lives; that’s why there are so many psychology books, so many self-help books – our thinking determines how we act in our day to day lives, and it’s daunting to think out mindset might have a negative outlook.

Why should it worry us, though? What’s so bad about seeing the glass as half-empty? I’ve never quite understood why. Most of us know it’s not good to be pessimistic; being in a negative state of mind makes it more difficult to function and brings you and everyone around you down, as well as having an impact on depression and other illnesses. But I don’t buy into this idea that just because I look at an equation one way, that means I’m more likely to subscribe to a certain kind of mindset. It’s just too simple; too black and white. I know it’s not that simple because whenever I try to answer the question seriously, my answer varies, and not for the reasons people think.

Does anyone else find that as well? Maybe not, but my first reaction when someone asks me “if the glass is half empty or half full?” is that it depends on whether the person is pouring or drinking. Does that make me pessimistic? I think it makes me realistic; I can’t answer the question without knowing. If you are drinking from the glass, it’s half empty; if you’re pouring water, it’s half full. Prove me wrong! πŸ˜‰ But if I put that aside, I’ll often answer based on how I’m feeling that day; if I’ve had a good day, I’m more likely to say half full; a bad day, half empty. For me it’s about mood and not mindset; because my mood changes every day, how can one answer be an accurate reflection of my thinking overall?

It can’t. And that’s why I hate the expression, because people swear by it as fact; I’ve had many arguments with people who just don’t seem to accept that my answers are outside their definitions. Well, maybe they’re right from a certain point of view, but that doesn’t mean I’m not entitled to my opinion.

My definition of pessimism (or optimism) isn’t based on a thought but on a lifestyle; it’s not how you answer a question, but how you live every day. I’m more in the camp of Arthur Schopenhauer’s definition of pessimism than this current idea of negative thinking. To me pessimism is the belief (constant belief) that the world around us is the worst possible; that things will only become worse; that evil will triumph over good. Optimism is the belief that we exist for betterment and goodness; that we have value and people and events are intrinsically good; that the world has a positive influence. For me the only way to judge either is through someone’s feelings and personality rather than their mindset.

Personality is an interesting thing, isn’t it? I posted a quiz called What Kind of Soul Are You? the other day and thanks to everybody who took the time to take it πŸ™‚ , you can see some quite distinct differences. It was just a fun quiz but it was surprisingly accurate with my results; I’m fairly trusting and impulsive, and I like to think I’m creative and nonconformist. What really interested me was the way different types of people were more compatible than others; that’s true in real life. How often does someone rub you the wrong way, or you’re unable to form a connection for no reason? And yet with others, you’re on the same wavelength right away.

I think it’s because we recognise similar traits in each other; we all have our likes and dislikes, and over time that becomes part of our psyche and difficult (though not impossible!) to look past. So it’s not so strange to think that we’d form connections with people who best complement us. Often more positive people will be drawn together, and likewise negative people. Someone who thinks on a more intellectual level will crave that in return, while a docile personality might gravitate toward the opposite, to someone with strength to dominate the relationship. Our personality is unique to us, a reflection of our humour and everything that makes us an individual; whereas our thoughts can change day to day, our personality is much harder to change. It reveals much more than we vocalise; our intensity, our hopes. That’s why it’s a better judge of what kind of person we are.

So what kind of person do I think I am? The truth is, I don’t think of myself as either an optimist or a pessimist. I don’t like categorising myself as anything because then I’m putting myself in a box, and once I’m in there it’s hard to get back out. Deep down I’m a positive person; I don’t chastise myself often and usually my thoughts and dreams are hopeful. But I don’t like closing myself off to my negative thoughts either because I learn more from them than from my positive ones. If I can ask myself, “why am I thinking that?”, then I can actually turn it around to my advantage; I’m not afraid to face my insecurities, and that’s why I have few fears.

If I had to say something, I guess I’d call myself a realist. Maybe that’s a cop out, but that’s just me being honest. I wonder how you see the glass? Or maybe there isn’t any glass at all? πŸ˜‰

A sound of thunder

It’s interesting where we get inspiration for posts, isn’t it? At some stage everybody gets blogger’s block; there might be an infinite number of ideas for posts but something has to grab us in just the right way to spark that inspiration, and we have to recognise it when we see it as well. For me blogging is about mood; if I don’t feel something in a topic then no number of hours hammering away at the keyboard will help me get through it. But if I feel like I have something to say (often inspired by something I’ve seen or read), it makes all the difference.

Muse wrote an interesting post a few days ago about “being of service”. The post looks at the way many spiritual and religious teachings include being of service to others as an important part of their doctrines. I found Muse’s point of view very interesting and I agree; we all want to help people less fortunate than us, but to do that we have to be in a place where we’re able to, and often that comes from how we think about ourselves. That may not sound particularly altruistic but it’s true; when we’re obligated to do something, we’re much less likely to feel charitable, and it becomes simpler to look at someone less fortunate as being lesser in many other ways.

There were some interesting comments after the post, particularly from Muse and Dovelove, and what I found interesting again was I didn’t – couldn’t – disagree with what they said. I admire their points of view greatly and though our thinking differed on some points, I think for the most part we came to similar outcomes. I find it fascinating to think that you can arrive at a viewpoint through so many different ways; that the journey you make can mean something different to each of us, but the outcome unite us. The human mind is an amazing thing.

I’ve been thinking about Muse’s post for the last few days and it sparked something for me. I often say that a constant theme in my writing is the human impact of science on society; my work is hard to categorise into one genre because I’m more interested in the characters, the rest is just the setting. At the moment I’m going through a bit of a rough patch with it; I thought I was getting somewhere with Shards at last, but it turned out I was just shovelling shit from a sitting position. πŸ™‚ Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I think I’ve worked out what the problem was, and Muse’s post helped. Something happens in Shards that’s difficult to remain objective about, but the success of the story hinges on it not seeming like extremism; the reader has to understand that sometimes people do good things for bad reasons, and bad things for good reasons.

What I’m trying to get at is that nothing is ever really black and white; you’re never just for us or against us, never just locked into one mindset. And for me that’s something I find myself facing every day. It’s there as I try to bring a character to life, but also in the decisions I make every day. When I answer someone’s question, or take on a burden, there’s a knock-on effect that sometimes can have more of an impact than the initial problem. Nothing’s ever black and white, and sometimes my strengths might actually weaken someone else, and I have to think about the consequences.

You know Bradbury’s story A Sound of Thunder, where a group of people travel back in time, but the death of a butterfly changes the future irreversibly? That’s kind of what I’m talking about. We act a lot more than we think about and we don’t always consider the consequences. And yet we each of us (myself especially) value being able to act on our instincts; we don’t like overthinking things because then we hesitate and we’re uncertain. There’s just as much danger in thinking about the consequences too much as not at all. So what’s the balance?

I think the answer is it has to feel natural. Whatever you say, or do, on some level you know there might be consequences, but you can’t let that stop you from speaking or acting either; otherwise you’re paralysed by fear. Someone might not like it or disagree with you, but that’s outside of your power to influence. We have to trust what we feel is right in a given situation – and most of the time, what we feel is right, is right.

I think that’s the problem I’ve been having with Shards; I’ve been letting the characters overthink the events, when really they need to trust in what they’re doing. Their decisions need to feel more natural. Sometimes good people do bad things for good reasons; it doesn’t have to be justified, just presented in a way that’s real, and hopefully it will be believable.

So thanks to Muse and Dove for their comments; you probably got something completely different from that post (and this one!) than I did, and that’s the nature of blogging, but you reminded me as well of how important instinct is and I’m grateful for that. And you might have helped me solve one of the biggest sticking points in my story too; for that I thank you again. My readers will too, all three of them! πŸ˜›

PS. If anyone’s wondering what happened to my post on personalities, I know I said I’d be doing that next in my last post, but I got distracted when I got back into writing again. So that’ll be my next post. Promise! πŸ˜‰