July 25, 2011

Interface: Love Your Neighbor

I've long been interested in the scientific examination of existential questions, such as, "What exactly is my mind's I?", "Where exactly does this I interface with my brain?", etc. And while I still love to read all sorts of scientific works on that subject, I've come to realize on a deeper level what Jesus taught us so long ago; the interface of my mind's I and my brain isn't nearly as important to my life as the interface of my I and your I.

No matter what you believe about the nature of the self and the soul, it's pretty hard to justify not loving our neighbors, especially in terms of society and community. The cold selfishness of "Every man for himself" brings us to a level that is somewhat lower than that of some animals, and certainly much less noble. It's easy enough to love the ones that have captured our hearts and attention, but how in the world do we go about loving our neighbors, the ones that live near us, the unknown ones we meet randomly, and the ones we actively dislike?

The English word "love" is a particularly impoverished one; we use it on so many different levels from people to animals to objects. And to accurately describe the differences in those levels, we have to resort to a multitude of words to express these levels. But, in the context of this discussion, the best way to express "love" your neighbor was one I heard years ago: to know and meet the needs of another. None of us can meet all the needs of another, nor should we. What we can do is meet the needs of our neighbor at the level of our interfaces, and the closer our interface is, the more we can do for these people.

I could (and countless people have and do) write about how to improve this aspect of our lives with the ones closest to us, but that would be a post that would never end. The real problem is that "to know and meet the needs" of those we randomly encounter each day is something so exceedingly simple that it becomes very difficult to do consistently, at least for me: Just Be Nice. To Everyone.

Generalizing (and a BIG generalization), we tend to fall in to two categories: nice to strangers, and nice to those near us. For the vast majority of us, it isn't a question of liking/disliking one group versus another, it's that we tend to get distracted. For some of us, it's easier to extend ourselves to the stranger that we don't have a history with, the ones that haven't hurt us. For others it's easier to save our kindness for those we feel deserve it, and let mistrust and detachment rule our random encounters. For a lot of us, though, I think it's just that we forget to keep our view outwards when we interact with people.

How many times have you(me) gone about your(my) day with all sorts of things in the forefront of your(my) mind, forgetting the basics of simple politeness to the people on the street, in the office and behind the counters at the stores? Or, flipping that around, practicing that niceness to strangers, saving the aloofness or venom for home, expecting those closest to us to "just understand?" Neither one of those scenarios is good for others, and especially not for us.

We have to be mindful of our outward expressions and actions, with both types of relationships. The simplest way that I've found to start doing this is a suggestion from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama: Practice Smiling. Yep, it can really be that simple to start out. A simple smile, hello, and thank you to the waitress or cashier flows easily to a hug and an "I love you" to those at home. A simple smile can also trick our brain into feeling better, with the conflicting signal from the smile overriding the negativity that is occupying our attention. Many people would dismiss this as "faking it", but my good friend Scott puts it so well: "You might think you're faking it, but if you're actually doing it, you're not really faking it." It doesn't matter one bit how I feel inside, if I'm helping someone else to feel better, regardless of my internal state, then it's not faking it.

It's so easy for us in this fast-paced modern world to forget that knowing and meeting the needs of the majority of people with whom we come in contact is as simple as a smile and a kind, friendly word. If you think I'm wrong, just think about how it makes you feel when you get that from a stranger...

I'm not going to tell you to have a great day, because I don't want to tell anyone what to do, but I'm going to go out and have a great one!  ;)

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