Increasing Vocabulary To Understand Experience

On a recent episode of the podcast Owls at Dawn, one of the cohosts shared the tragic news of a loss in the family due to suicide. He discusses some of his family history and his relationship with faith as he takes time to publicly process some of his grief. It’s a haunting and sad episode. I appreciate that he shared his grief and I hope he and his family can recover from the loss.

One section of his thoughts veered into an idea that I wanted to capture here. He discusses the feeling one has coming out of a crisis of faith (in the context of the episode, it was largely about religion, but this could equally apply to a crisis of identity as well). When one feels themselves breaking away from faith, it sounds as if it creates a vacuum of epistemic knowledge about how one engages with or defines oneself against the world. Austin, the host, notes that if you lack a kind of vocabulary to apply meaning and labels to your worldview, it can create a kind of despair because of the anxiety that comes with not knowing how to relate to ones feelings.

This reminds me of those lists you see floating around the internet of words to describe feelings in other languages that don’t have analogues in the English language. I always enjoy reading these lists and seeing if I can recall a time I’ve felt the emotion being described. I feel a sense of excitement when I discover a label to apply to how I feel, but more importantly than that, it gives me an epistemic awareness of the feeling so I can identify and name it in the future if it happens again.

What happened to Austin’s family member was tragic, and I don’t know if having a vocabulary to describe the emotions he was feeling would have helped bring him comfort. I think there is a lesson to be learned here about the importance of increasing one’s own vocabulary of the lived-experiences of others so that you can either a.) have a greater sense of empathy to the inner lives of people different from yourself, or b.) be more sensitive to your own emotional states to help you make sense of the world.

By naming the feeling, you can come to understand it. And by understanding it, you can work towards addressing, integrating it, or enriching your identity and sense of self.

Austin, I’m sorry for your loss.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Nerd Time Nostalgia

boy holding Magic: The Gathering trading card
Photo by Wayne Low on Unsplash

Generally speaking, I’ve handled the social isolation during the pandemic well. Technology has allowed me to keep in contact with friends and family, though I admit it’s a poor substitute for quality in-person time. And I am fortunate to have family that has kept their bubbles small, so we have the occasional visit to help alleviate parenting our infant son. Most importantly, I’m very fortunate to have a partner who I enjoy spending time with, which has made weathering the time at home much easier.

Recently, though, I’ve been finding myself longing for the good ol’ days where I’d get together with friends for nerd stuff like board/card games, video games, or just getting together for the sake of company. I’m getting wistful for a time, almost ten years ago, where I’d walk down to a friend’s house on a weekend, spend the day doing laundry at his house and watching him play video games all night (and I’d eventually walk home around two in the morning). It’s not that he preferred to play solo, or in any way excluded me from play, but I just enjoyed relaxing and chatting with something to watch on the screen. It was Twitch before Twitch was a common thing.

I miss getting together for card tournaments on weekends, whether it was at the game shop for a Magic: The Gathering release or at a friend’s house for a fun draft tournament. With a few packs of cards and a couple boxes of pizza, we’d whittle a whole day away laughing and cursing our poor card draw.

A colleague at work just announced that he’s accepted a job 5-hours away and will be resigning this week. He noted to us that his decision came about as a result of the pandemic – in reflecting on the last year, he realized he wanted to live closer to his family and home town. I will miss him terribly and I wish him all the success he can find in his new job. His reasoning for finding a new job resonated with me – as I reflect on the pandemic, what are the values that have been highlighted to me in my time disengaged from our larger society and culture?

Yes, family is important. But I’ve learned to appreciate the time spent with my friends. Whether it was games, music, or getting together to watch the Super Bowl (which I don’t care about, I just like hanging with my friends), I see the value in building community and creating shared history with people who matter to you. I’ve found little ways of connecting with friends while living at home, but until life allows us to mingle unfettered, I want to be more intentional with how I foster connection with friends.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Supporting Community

Since the birth of our son, my wife has joined an online mom’s group in our town. Among the various posts asking for advice or to share items for sale, there periodically comes posts from the admin notifying the group of a request for aid. Families who find themselves in a financial pinch can contact the admin to anonymously ask for support.

The other day, my wife saw one of these posts, and in reflecting on how expensive life can be with our newborn, she felt instantly connected with the call for help. The pandemic has been hard on most people, but we feel we’ve been very fortunate to have our jobs reasonably secure this last year. While I have lost two side jobs over the course of the pandemic, my main source of income allows us to be fairly comfortable.

So, without much deliberation, we picked up some gift cards for the grocery store, loaded it with funds to help with groceries for a week, and offered them to the administrator. This is on top of the automatic monthly charitable contributions I started in November.

In the moment, this had me reflecting on what it means to be a part of a community. Setting aside questions about the role of government and the problems caused by exploitative capitalism, there is a strong moral case to be found in looking out for our community neighbours. We want our communities to be vibrant and healthy. Hyper-individualism may maximize utility for you and your family unit, but I think that outlook discounts the intangible benefits we see when we pitch in to help people feel safe, secure, and taken care of. Take your pick of moral argument:

  • Deontological – we have a moral imperative to help those who experience suffering due to a lack of resources.
  • Utilitarian – the morally right thing to do is to use surplus utility to offset the suffering experienced by others.
  • Feminism & Intersectional Ethics – redistributing wealth, even in the short-term, helps to buttress against the effects of systems that oppress people. This also applies to those who by luck or happenstance are experiencing suffering.
  • Rights-based & Social Contract – people have a right to security of person, and while this right is usually handled by the state, the community shares some of this responsibility as part of the social contract; if you want to derive the benefits of living in a community, you ought to be willing to support and contribute.
  • Virtue ethics – charity and magnanimity are virtues of the ethical person; giving neither too little, nor to excess.
  • Theory of Justice – if I were not in a privileged position to feel safe and secure, I would hope that my community could help me. It is better to work to lift all life conditions and raise the floor of suffering.

In truth, I often feel like a terrible neighbour because of my social habits. I feel awkward meeting new people and making small talk, so I’ll wave at neighbours at a distance instead of striking up conversation. Over a year into living in this house and we just learned the last names of one of our neighbours (who have been fantastic the entire time we’ve lived here – dropping off gifts for our son a few times since he’s been born). Where I lack the social grace to learn about the lives of my neighbours in a meaningful way, I hope I can make up a little bit of good will that comes from answering a call from a stranger online.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Gifting Books

I’ve longed for the day when I would be in a position in my life to gift people books. I don’t mean gifting people books for Christmas or their birthday, or even as a congratulatory token for their accomplishments. Instead, I mean an unprompted, unsolicited book to people I think would value the read. Where I can give a book because of how much I enjoyed the experience, and by giving it to others I hope to share that feeling.

I’ve finally found such a book. Last week, I finished Waubgeshig Rice’s novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, a dystopian novel about an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario that gets cut-off from the rest of the Province. It’s dark, but also life-affirming; it felt like the perfect pandemic read, even though it was published two years ago.

Despite its themes and content, it was a wonderful book to read. As I noted in my Instagram post, the characters feel real and the narrative helped me feel as though I was walking among the community while the story unfolds. A commenter on the book noted that the story is very accessible for folks who are unfamiliar with reservation life of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Yet, the book doesn’t talk down to the reader – it’s infused with cultural references, history, and language that makes you work to understand it in places.

I have already gifted this book in audiobook format to one friend, and I have ordered two more copies for other friends. I am also excited to give this book as gifts because I feel it’s important to support Indigenous and other minority voices, and help amplify them so that we can enjoy more great art from these creators.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Observations on “A Christmas Carol”

Our bookclub tackled A Christmas Carol as one of the last reads for the year. It was a wonderful chat about what the holidays means to us, how things have changed over time, and what the moral lessons are from the short story.

This was my second time reading the story, so in addition to my knowledge of it from cinema (thanks largely to the Muppets), I was able to pay closer attention to the themes threaded through the story.

I noticed, for instance, that while the story is largely about redeeming one’s soul and the spirit of giving during the holidays, knowledge kept popping in. For instance, when Scrooge is haunted by Jacob Marley, Marley notes that he walks the earth as a result of not letting his spirit roam while alive. This unfinished business suggests that experiencing the world (cultivating awareness of those beyond yourself) was an important element of living a fulfilling live (after all, why would a spirit need to roam if they had a fulfilling life?).

The chains worn by Marley were a symbolic reminder of the knowledge he now possessed of his life’s actions. Each link forged by his life’s misdeeds are discrete representations of his lack of personal knowledge of his actions while alive.

Scrooge is unable to be receptive to the ghosts’ messages of redemption until he gains personal knowledge of himself by traveling to the past and understanding the choices that lead him to this point.

The Ghost of Christmas Present beckons Scrooge with “Come in man, and know me better!” Becoming acquainted with the present requires one to be present in the moment.

Scrooge’s redemption is only realized because he confronts the Spirit of Christmas-Yet-To-Come, pleading to know whether the shadows he sees are set. Why would you show these images to me if my knowledge of them won’t change what’s to come! he cries to the ghost.

I couldn’t help but draw a connection to our own problems with empathy in our charged political moment. We often lament our failures to connect with folks “on the other side.” We lack the empathy to understand their position to see how our similarities vastly outweigh our differences.

Dickens’s solution to the problem of empathy is rooted in knowledge. Yes, Scrooge is motivated initially by the desire to redeem his immortal soul and to avoid the fate of Marley. But his change of heart comes by letting his soul out to walk around and to know others. He connects with them, which in turn creates empathy and a desire to help.

It’s a delightful story that I was more than happy to revisit at this time of year.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A History of My Charitable Giving

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

I took a new step today in the evolution of my personal giving. For Giving Tuesday 2020, I finally set up my first set of recurring monthly donations. Now, every month the The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Brantford Food Bank will each receive a deposit of $10 from me. It’s a small, almost embarrassing amount to type (when I think of charitable giving, I’m thinking of impressive amounts with more than two zero’s to the left of the decimal point), but the important thing to keep in mind is a.) it’s my initial amount that I expect to grow over time as my circumstances allow, and b.) the total for the year will actually be higher than what I would normally have given.

I’ve been growing more intentional over time with my charitable giving. Many moons ago, I was involved with a program created by the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation called Engage. The program has since ended, but the experiences have stuck with me. If I want to live in a vibrant and thriving community, it’s important that I take the benefits and privileges I’ve accumulated to help others in different living circumstances than my own.

In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance, where if I were to be placed randomly in a society, I would obviously want to choose a position that afforded me a degree of wealth, freedom, security, and privilege. To me, this translates into a moral imperative that we should actively work to raise the living situations for all persons in our community to promote flourishing and happiness. I don’t want to live in a world where people have to rely on charity, but it’s an inescapable reality and therefore it must be confronted.

If we are being technical, charitable giving breaks down into three kinds of support, known as the three “t’s” – time, talent, and treasure. Time and talent were my first introduction to giving back to my community. It started in my various youth groups, where I would exchange my time to support a cause: raising money for Beavers/Cubs/Scouts/Army Cadets/swim club, marching in Remembrance Day parades, highway cleanups, and building a library abroad. Later, when I was but a poor student, I volunteered my talents to support causes for school and to help fundraising efforts for the HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre (and eventually I became the minute-taker for their Board of Directors). I also supported my friends with their charitable causes, such as helping with my buddy’s Headshots from the Heart videogame marathon event. As I started to transition out of my student phase of life, I began exploring the third “t” – treasure.

My history of charitable monetary giving started in my mid-20’s. I created an elaborate birthday ritual for myself in an attempt to imbue the day with significance (after 21, there weren’t any milestones I cared to look forward to). One ritual I set for myself was to make a donation to a cause I was interested in. When I was a student of the Engage program, I reflected that I wanted my charitable giving to go to “feeding bellies and minds,” and so I would make a yearly donation to the local food bank. Despite having never used it myself, I recognize the value they bring.

My first donations were in physical goods. I would save up rewards points from the grocery store, then buy as much food as I could for a few hundred dollars, and bring all the canned goods in for donation. Then I found out that their purchasing power was much higher than mine, so I switched to monetary donations once a year on my birthday.

The next evolution in my charitable giving happened a few years back when I wanted to help support the preservation of our environment. The Bruce Trail is a massive network of linked trails that allows one to hike 900km from Niagara to Tobermory in Ontario. Despite having never hiked on the trail myself (though I have ambitions to take up the activity), this seemed like a good cause to support, so I started purchasing yearly memberships. This year, I switched from a buying a membership each year to an automatic renewal system.

Switching back to the Food Bank, my next evolution in giving started in January of this year. I emailed to follow up on the Christmas drive and to ask what kind of shortfall the KW Food Bank saw.  They kindly shared their yearly report, but what stuck out was a throwaway comment that they were successful with the campaign, but that the regular commitments were more important to ensure meals throughout the year.  So, I decided I would eventually switch to small monthly donations that would increase over time as my circumstances allowed.

It was accelerated this summer with the BLM protests.  I wanted to do more than empty social media posts, so I started to think about how I could contribute financially to important causes. A close friend of mine has created a line in his budget for philanthropy, which I took some inspiration from. 

But in the Canadian context, I thought I should find a way to support Indigenous causes.  Truthfully, I haven’t yet made that commitment – I’m still on the lookout for an ongoing support cause that resonates with me. I value the input of my peers, so if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your input.

That brings us to today. I decided to finally set up my regular payments to support these organizations that do so much good in our community. While I don’t live in KW anymore, I still feel called to help them in their mission. And since I support KW, I thought it appropriate to also give money to support the same cause but for my neighbors. The $10 per month I’ve committed is indeed small, but over the year will amount to a higher giving than my one-off donations. Also, it’s important to note that these campaigns help to raise awareness (and it feels good to help feed people at Christmas), but the need is felt year-round. The reality is that these campaigns serve as a funnel to bring donors into the organization.

This isn’t to say that I will stop giving one-off donations. A lesson I took from Engage is that it’s ok to say no to charitable asks that come your way. You do it each time you decline to contribute a few dollars at the cash register when you check-out at the store. Rather than having to give to every cause, it’s important to determine how much you feel you can give, then to be selective with where you allocate your funds. During Charitable Tuesday today, I also made one off contributions to my alma mater’s Arts student fund because I value the time and experiences I collected when I was a student. I also made an additional donation to the Bruce Trail’s latest campaign to purchase and preserve additional land in the Niagara region for the trail. I doubt I’ll ever get out to see that portion of the trail, but it’s important to enable the organization to leverage its resources to improve access for everyone (include some of my friends who I saw posting to social media from the trail this summer!).

My birthday is coming up, and I plan to give another one-off donation to the Food Bank to keep with tradition. And in time, I’ll find new ways to offer support. There is no one right way to give, but regardless of the type and degree of your impact, there will always be needs that go unmet in our communities. In addition to my monetary donations, I still volunteer where time allows, such as on the two ethics boards I serve.

Both Stats Can and Imagine Canada are seeing that while average donation amounts are trending upwards, the average donation rate is holding-to-declining over time. I hope to do my part in reversing this trend.

Thank-you for reading my story, and perhaps it might inspire you to reflect on your giving history.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Tech Shabbat Experiment

Almost a decade ago, I co-started a semi-formal group with some friends. It was intended as a bit of a mutual-beneficial group – we were all just starting out in our careers and felt that getting together monthly to practice public speaking would help us in our jobs. The nature of the group has evolved somewhat now that we are having kids and have grown comfortable in our jobs. Instead, we treat the monthly meetup as both social time and a chance for us to share experiences with each other.

This month, we’ve been challenged to try out the Tech Shabbat as discussed in Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (note: I haven’t read the book). In essence, we pick one day a week to abstain from screens – no smartphones, no computers, no television. It’s not a complete removal from all technology (for instance, I use my smart speaker to stream podcast episodes and listen to live radio), but instead we seek to disconnect from an increasingly interconnected existence.

I have completed three of the Shabbats, with the final one this weekend. Overall, this has been a very positive experience for me. There are some challenges and moments where I have to play fast and loose with the rules (like this weekend when I got lost on a hike…).

It’s also not clear if I should abstain from using our smart speaker at home; I’ve been using it to listen to podcast episodes and radio over the internet. I’ll even admit that there are moments of boredom or tedium where I feel a strong pull to give up the challenge and open a social media app. But despite any of these missteps or moments of weakness, I can say without any qualification that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I may look forward to the close of the 24-hours, but I do so with a sense of mental calm. The break gives me a bit of a reset, a chance to journal and bring order to my life. Instead of mindlessly consuming content, I’ve chosen activities that create memories and allow me to be more present in the now.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep the Tech Shabbat once the group activity is over, but it has given me a lot to reflect on. Cal Newport has discussed taking a more hardline stance on cutting unnecessary tech out of our lives. I’m sympathetic to the idea, though in practice I have to balance my quirky experiments with my wife’s needs, and I doubt she would entertain any drastic measures like what Newport suggests. Regardless, just taking the opportunity to pause and reflect is a worthwhile activity, which the Tech Shabbat has afforded me over the month.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – July 31, 2020

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on July 31st:

💭Reflection – Writing Daily, But Posting When Ready | Derek Sivers

I started this blog for two reasons – because I wanted a public way of practicing what I was learning at the time, and to force myself to write consistently. I decided posting once per week was a manageable target, and I’ve been relatively successful for the last few years. Recently, I’ve added the Friday Round-up as a way to force myself to write more and to share interesting content I stumble upon. When I added the Friday posts, I questioned whether it was worth putting in the effort – was I adding value to any part of the process? On some level, I feel it’s worth it, if for nothing else than to force myself to be a bit more reflective on what I consume. However, Derek Sivers’s point about forcing one’s self to post rapidly comes with some trade-offs. I imagine Seth Godin (another prolific blog poster) sometimes feels the same way by posting daily – that most of his posts aren’t what he would consider good. The mentalities are a bit different; Godin posts as part of his process, whereby you have to make a lot of crap to find the good stuff. Sivers would rather keep the crap more private to give him time to polish up the gems. I’m not sure which style is better. Both admit to keeping the daily writing practice, which is probably the more important lesson to draw from their examples, but it’s still worth considering.

*Addendum*

After drafting the above, I kept reading some bookmarked posts from Sivers’s page and found this one written in 2013 after a friend of his died. It’s a heartbreaking reflection on how one spends their time, which included this:

For me, writing is about the most worthy thing I can do with my time. I love how the distributed word is eternal — that every day I get emails from strangers thanking me for things I wrote years ago that helped them today. I love how those things will continue to help people long after I’m gone.

I’m not saying my writing is helping anyone, but the thought that my words will live beyond me touched something within.

📽Video – The Biggest Bluff: Poker as Life | Book Review from ThePoptimist

I’ve known the author of this YouTube channel for a few years, and I follow him on ye ol’ Instagrams (I love his scotch and cigar posts). But I didn’t know until last month that he also reviews books as part of the BookTube community. I wanted to share this link to show him some love, and because it reminds me of one of my roomies in undergrad who introduced me to the world (and language) of poker. While I’m a terrible player, I have fond memories of watching my roomie play online, if for nothing else than the humor of him yelling at the screen.

Oh, and I like Maria Konnikova’s writing, so I think I’ll check out her book. Another good book by a poker player about thinking better – Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets.

🎧Listen – “Your mask questions answered” | The Dose podcast by CBC

With all the anti-mask beliefs floating around, I wanted to do my part to share good information about the benefits of masks and to help dispel some of the dis/misinformation out there.

Wear your masks and stay awesome,

Ryan

In Memoriam

I received some sad news today. Two people whom I interacted with at work have recently passed on. It would seem that both illnesses were rather sudden, though thankfully don’t seem to be related to the pandemic.

One was a faculty member that I’ve worked with off-and-on for five years. Though a short, quiet man, he had a gravitas about him. He was thoughtful, patient, and methodical in his work, and incredibly devoted to his student’s success. At all times, he seemed to be pondering ways to improve the program, never resting on his laurels.

The other was an advisor for some of our programs. When I was first hired around six years ago, his committee was the first I worked for, and he would have been one of the first people I met. He always made a point to stop in and chat before meetings, asking me for life updates. He never missed a meeting and came out to every student project judging event, despite the fact that he had retired from the industry a number of years ago.

I remember the last times at work I spoke to both people, but as with these things it’s sad to think those were my last times I’d get to chat. Had it not been for the pandemic forcing the school to go remote, I would have had many more interactions with the faculty member and at least one more run-in with the advisor.

My heart goes out to their families, and I will miss my conversations with them. However, the programs will miss them more. I’m thankful for having crossed paths with them.

~Ryan