Seeing a new world–with color

About two weeks ago I read an article on the New York Times website by David Pogue, the technology guy. He, like me, is colorblind and he described a new product, funded by the National Institute of Health, that created glasses for colorblind people. The company, Enchroma (http://enchroma.com), makes sunglasses that have to be used outside in bright sunlight to work. But they advertised that it helps colorblind people see colors that they had not before. I was really amazed to hear about the glasses and that Pogue said that they actually worked. He said poignantly that he actually felt some emotion when he saw a rainbow for the first time and saw all the colors.

Now the glasses are really expensive. I caught them on sale (about 15 mins before it ended) and they were still about $450! I know, crazy. But they do have a 30 day guarantee where you can return them if they are still in new condition. So it seemed to me like something to try. I mean, why not right? I will describe here what the experience has been like and it has been both wildly amazing and really hard to handle. Let me explain…

First, the sunglasses arrived yesterday while we were eating dinner. I immediately left the table and walked outside with them, only mumbling my purpose to everyone else. I walked first to the strawberry patch, expecting to see bright red berries glowing there. Actually, you all know this (if you are normal color visioned) but the berries sort of hide underneath leaves. They did look brighter than usual and stood out a bit more, but I did know that strawberries are red before. I went wandering around the neighborhood looking at people’s flowers and again found that the colors were more obvious, brighter, as long as they were in direct sun. The minute they were in shadow, back to colorblind. I thought, “Well, sort of cool” and went back in to eat my now-cold-soup. The most striking of all was my daughter Asia’s dress. It is bright purple with a bright green pattern on it. Now I didn’t know the pattern was green until last night but it was quite cool to see purplish-pink right next to green. Never seen that before.

Today I actually read the insert. They told me that I should put the glasses on and keep them on for a long time while outside in sunlight. And they said not to keep peeping over the top of the glasses to compare the normal with the sunglasses. So I decided to give it a try. I had to pick up Eden from school and decided to wear the glasses, ignoring the many warnings that the glasses could make “colors distracting” and to use caution while driving. It seemed like one of those silly warnings like “don’t touch a hot iron” or something.

So off I go in the car, noticing only at first the brighter colors–especially of green. When I came to my first STOP sign, I was stunned. Who made red so red? How could one ever think that stop signs blend in with trees. Actually, there is a story there. In brief, I failed my first driving test when I didn’t see the STOP sign because there was a tree behind it. I have gotten better, don’t worry. Anyway, most of the way to the school I just kept saying outloud “Red!” to myself. Red cars, red flowers, red signs. Who knew there was so much red in the world? Well, all of you reading this for one. The few of you that are colorblind will know what I mean. Well, actually you won’t because you still don’t SEE, if you know what I mean. It gets confusing.

I picked up Eden from school and she was carrying this bright red shirt. Now I know what red is and can pick it out, but I have never really seen red like that before. Now that I had an audience, I kept saying to Eden “Look, a red sign! Look at the red car! Look at those flowers, they are pink!” She had a rough day at school and seemed quite unimpressed. But now I got the warning, I had to be careful to keep my eyes on the traffic because the world was suddenly turned up, like when you supersaturate on Photoshop. I decided to stop at the neighbor’s house to look at their raspberry bushes. There’s a story there too: when I was young one of our chores was to pick raspberries. I had the toughest time doing it and would often hear my sister complain “I hate picking with Matt, he doesn’t even look for them and I have to pick them all over again.” At the time I did not know I was colorblind and was amazed to see how other people could pick baskets of berries when I could only find 5 berries in 30 minutes. Anyway, sadly enough the berries were all gone or dried up so I didn’t get to have that victory.

When I got home I decided to try looking at photos to see if the colors in a photo album would be different if I looked at them with the Enchroma glasses on and in full sunlight. So I picked up the photo book I had made of our recent time in India. The minute I saw the front cover, I knew I was in for something. The picture was a family photo of us after the Holi celebration and we were covered in colored paint. It was stunning. As I looked through the book, I was just floored at all that I was missing. Eden was sitting there with me and I kept doing the same thing as in the car–Look, it’s red! Seeing colors made everything seem more separate. Large group photos looked different because everyone was wearing different colors and it made them stand out as separate people. One picture of the girls sitting on a painted elephant looked so much better with all the colors and I had a hard time believing that I had really missed so much. And that is the down side. And it is kind of a big downside. For Pogue, he was emotionally moved by seeing a full rainbow (I haven’t seen that yet) and that is one part of it–to see the vibrancy and separateness of colors after a lifetime of being colorblind is revelatory.

But to take the glasses off and know that you have missed that much your whole life is really painful. I felt like crying and only didn’t because I don’t really like doing that. But to have missed so much in my life! I would always tell people, “I don’t know what I am missing so it doesn’t bother me.” And now I cannot say that anymore.

There are more important things

This is an article I wrote for the journal here at Lady Shri Ram College for their annual academic journal, The Learning Curve. Theirs is the both the copyright and the inspiration.

Reference: Whoolery, M. (2013). There are more important things: Questioning American psychology’s commitment to personal happiness and self-esteem. The Learning Curve, 2 (1), 6-10.

There are More Important Things:

Questioning American Psychology’s Commitment to Personal Happiness and Self-Esteem

While I hope I am still too young to write a retrospective of my career, I find myself reflecting on reoccurring themes in both my professional career as a practicing and teaching psychologist and my personal life. I hope that the reader will indulge a certain personal focus and use of the personal “I” pronoun even though this is a voice not used much in academic psychology. My focus in this article is on the commitment in American psychology to the ideal of personal happiness and self-esteem. While for most Americans these aims seem self-evident, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with and skeptical of these mostly unquestioned assumptions in my field. I hope that what I have to say can influence the reader both professionally and personally as you purse your academic goals and seek for living the right kind of life. I will focus on three primary assumptions made by modern American psychology: first, that human beings should or ought to be happy; second, that we should seek to be free of suffering; and third, that humans beings should (and deserve to) feel good about themselves.

Unhappiness is not a Disease

Whether we focus on research or psychotherapy, American’s psychology’s commitment to the ideal of personal happiness is overwhelming. This focus is not new and is based on a long history of European and British philosophies claiming this as the primary aim of human existence. Since this happiness focus is evident to any casual observer or experienced psychologist, I will not spend a great deal of time hammering out the history or details of this commitment (that is for another venue and paper) to personal happiness, but instead put my efforts into the questioning the familiar assumptions. This goes for the other assumptions as well: it is well established that American psychology seeks to end human suffering and to help others feel good about themselves. Indeed, these assumptions for most people are unquestionable and form the basis for an ethical and effective psychotherapeutic intervention. My argument is that these assumptions are not as self-evident or universally true as we usually accept them to be. And I genuinely believe that they lead us away from, rather than toward, the right kind of life. Stick with me.

As a freshman at university, I grew to enjoy the experience of watching international films in my university’s International Cinema program. It was refreshing and fascinating to see the stories and landscapes of other people and cultures. One particular Russian film had a profound impact on me. The film was directed by the critically acclaimed but largely obscure Andrei Tarkovsky. In his film Nostalghia, one character says to the other “You want to be happy. There are more important things.” I actually returned the next day to see the film again (this was before Google and YouTube) just to see if I had gotten this idea and quote right. It at once struck me as true and I found myself morally disturbed by its simplicity. Disturbed primarily because it seemed to be so true but in all my years as a student and an American I had never heard this truth before. When I have shared this quote over the years with my students, many of them have been similarly disturbed by it. Not all have agreed with it, but all have found it to provoke some questioning about what they have been striving for in their personal lives. I have even heard from students, years later, still mulling over this question: “Is personal happiness the right end goal to strive for in life?” Psychology, I believe, answers the question affirmatively. While there are notable exceptions (Frankl, 1992 for example), most psychologists and psychotherapists focus on the increasing of personal happiness as a primary goal. But is Tarkovsky right? Are there more important things?

I firmly believe that there are more important things, both personally and professionally. One of these is the search for meaning and purpose in life. By this I do not mean the search for personal meaning independent of others around us, but to find our purpose in what we can and should do in benefitting those around us. In a great story by Tolstoy, he tells of a king who is seeking to know the answer to three questions: Who is the most important person to know and consult? What is the most important thing to do? When is the most important time to act? In his parable, Tolstoy answers that the most important time is now. The most important person is the one in front of us. And the most important thing to do is to do good to that person. In working with clients and students struggling with depression, one of the questions I always ask them is what they are doing to benefit those around them. Some describe their feelings that they don’t feel like there is any reason for them to wake up in the morning. And the reality may be that in the way they are living their lives, there is not much reason for them to wake up and get out of bed. I encourage them to seek out ways to use their particular abilities or talents to benefit others. Even if it is just that they have an hour a day to spare to sit with elderly patients in an assisted living facility.

Part of this push comes from my own experience. In my late adolescence I found myself in this “dark” time and couldn’t seem to find a way out. I had read the books on self-love and self-esteem and had found them ultimately lacking. No matter how much I examined myself or tried to convince myself that I was a “good person” I still was left with these feelings of gloom. Maybe it was Tarkovsky’s film, I don’t remember, but one day I decided to seek out ways to serve in my community. I didn’t have any specialized skill to offer, but I ended up spending some hours each week working with children with physical and mental challenges. It’s not that in doing this community service I thought “I am a good person because I am helping others.” The change that took place in me was that I started to lose the self-consciousness and concern for my own well-being. Being with these children who approached me with simple love and affection just left me to not be worried about whether I was happy, good, or experiencing meaning in my life. The self-forgetfulness that came from working with these children was exhilarating. I finally didn’t care anymore about my problems and as a result “found” others around me. The relief from myself was wonderful.

This is the meaning I am referring to: the meaning found in the engagement in doing good in the moment we are in and for the person we are with. This is more important than being happy. Happiness may come (sometimes but not always) from living this way, but need not be pursued as a goal. Indeed, happiness as a goal is unattainable—for as long as we seek personal happiness we find ourselves always falling short because suffering and sorrow are inevitable parts of the human condition.

Healthy People Suffer

Much of modern psychotherapy sets the goal for a healthy individual to be free of suffering. Measures of mental health are almost always organized as “symptom checklists” which add up negative symptoms (like feelings of unhappiness or anxiety) to give you a score reflecting the “amount” of suffering you are experiencing. In other words, each symptom of suffering is counted against your mental health. This is universal enough that it must seem to most psychologists to be self-evident that suffering is bad and a sign of poor mental health. I myself helped create one of these measures and also worked in a clinic that used such a checklist to track the progress of psychotherapy. I was certainly committed to ending the suffering of my clients and believed that problems needed to be fixed so that a person would be free of suffering and problems.

As an example of this in modern psychology and psychiatry, take the controversy over the so-called bereavement exclusion in the diagnosis of major depression. Until recently, the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by American psychiatrists and psychologists) gave an exclusion from the diagnosis of depression to those who were in bereavement for the death of a loved one. It was thought that it was normal to have sorrow, difficulties in eating and sleeping, and other symptoms when a loved one passed away (by the way, the exclusion was for only two months). Recently the controversy became more important as American psychiatrists and psychologists began the revision of the DSM for the fifth version. Members of the committee were psychiatrists and psychologists in good standing in the field, even if also in close relationships with pharmaceutical companies. The final decision was to remove the exclusion altogether! Now a person who is only two weeks away from the death of a loved one (since the diagnosis of depression requires 2 weeks of symptoms regardless of cause) can be diagnosed with a so-called mental disorder. The reasoning was that since people in bereavement are “suffering,” to not diagnose them with depression would unnecessarily leave them to suffer.

In the years since I began practicing and teaching psychology, I have continued in greater earnest to question the assumption that suffering is bad or avoidable. In other words, I have come to believe that suffering is an important part of being a human being. While most or all human beings prefer times of ease and happiness over times of stress and suffering, these latter states still play an important part in a normal human life. Existential philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard (1969) argue that anxiety is essential to the meaningful human life. A human being free of anxiety would have no motivation to do anything, be happy to sit still. Anxiety and suffering move us in ways that moments of satisfaction and happiness cannot. Suffering in the case of bereavement, rather than being seen as a symptom of disorder to be fixed, may be seen as a healthy and normal way to deal with significant loss. These are not symptoms to fix, but meanings waiting to be fulfilled. More and more frequently I find myself advising others to refrain from trying to “fix their problems” and instead find ways to have a meaningful life accepting these parts of themselves.

One example is of a friend who talked with me a few years ago about the sorrow he and his wife were experiencing as they struggled to have children without success. The reality that they would not be able to have children of their own was a great source of suffering to them and their families. Interestingly, they went to seek help from a psychologist and were told that they were both “suffering from depression” which led to a prescription for an anti-depressant. There seemed to be no room for the idea that this suffering was genuine and an outgrowth of their love for one another that they had hoped would be expressed in having children together. Instead, their genuine suffering was interpreted as a disease that needed to be cured. While I certainly did not hope for their continued suffering and sorrow, I believe that it was a necessary and healthy mourning of loss rather than a problem to be fixed. The fact of the matter is this: life has times of unavoidable suffering. It seems to me that learning to find meaning in these times of sorrow is far superior to a frantic avoidance of pain. Psychology has done great harm in presenting human suffering as simply a disease to cure.

Feeling Good about Oneself is to Encourage Illusory Thinking

Perhaps the most provocative of my professional disagreements has to do with the way that we should think of ourselves. American psychology has long had an obsession with positive self-esteem and working to help psychotherapy patients “feel good about themselves.” This kind of positive self-image is encouraged regardless of the kind of lifestyle or decisions the person is making in their lives. People are encouraged to think positively of themselves even if they are failing miserably in their relationships, career, and personal lives. One of my colleagues worked at a mental hospital where they treated youth who were convicted of violent sexual assault. Even these youth were taught to love themselves more, disregarding or separating themselves from their horrific behavior. I believe that this focus in psychology is counter-productive and I have a feeling that most of us know that it is ultimately wrong. I will explain.

While I have known a few truly exceptional individuals in my life who I might think should esteem themselves quite highly (though I find they rarely do), most of us are quite aware that we are fundamentally flawed in one way or the other. And not just in ways that we can blame on our parents or society, but in ways that we know very well are due to our own poor choices. We are taught to repeat self-affirmative mantras when deep down we know that we really aren’t that wonderful. The problem isn’t that we find ourselves lacking in important ways, but that we are told by psychologists (and sometimes our mothers) that we should think that we are wonderful. Self-criticism is seen as a problematic behavior and something that should be avoided. We are taught by psychologists like Carl Rogers that our problems are fundamentally due to the inputs of others who teach us that we are only conditionally worthy. The goal of these kinds of therapies is to have us have unconditional positive regard for ourselves (Rogers, 1947). It was no surprise that a blockbuster hit in the 1980’s (and the song that became the theme song for the Atlanta Olympics) claimed that loving yourself was the “greatest love of all.”

When I say that I think most of us see through the illusion I mean that most of us feel the conflict in this. We are told by psychologists that we should feel good about ourselves in every way but we recognize, quite acutely at times, that we really aren’t that great. We see in ourselves character flaws and behaviors for which we feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt no matter how much our society says that these things are okay. We tend toward self-criticism not because we are experiencing emotional problems, but because we are being honest with ourselves. While most all of us have some traits that are admirable, we are all aware of the many ways in which we fail to meet up to standards of the right kind of life—even if we define that personally. When we find ourselves honestly evaluating our lives, we are frequently faced with ways in which we know we are failing. What are we to do with these feelings? Are we to avoid them and drown them out in self-affirmations or should we face up to them and accept ourselves fully as flawed people?

In my own life I have found great peace in accepting that I am simply not a great human being. I don’t feel self-pity about this, but feel that an honest look at myself leaves me with the truth that I am lacking in significant ways. This self-criticism does not have to lead to a kind of wallowing in our faults, but can be an important way to move ourselves closer to the life that we want to live. Self-criticism is an essential part of being an excellent scholar and scientist. A willingness to admit one’s own scientific and moral fallibility helps us to be more careful in what we believe and more able to see our own mistakes. The famous psychologist Alfred Binet spent a significant portion of his career staking his reputation on the idea that the volume of a person’s cranium is the determiner of his/her intelligence. He even said that this “truth” was scientifically proven and irrefutable. In an act of scientific and personal humility, he later admitted that he was wrong. Binet went on to make significant and long-lasting contributions to the field of psychology while many of his compatriots never recanted and have faded into history as examples of pseudo-scientists.

I believe honest self-criticism is also important for experiencing personal growth. If we are really so wonderful and amazing as the self-esteem psychologists attempt to convince us, there is not much more for us to do. But if we are what we often fear, flawed and bruised human beings, there is a work to be done. Realistic expectations are fostered when we recognize as well that being less than stellar is to be human. Following from the example I gave earlier, when I realized that my personal feelings of doom and gloom were largely of my own self-ish creation, I was able to find a way out. As long as I kept trying to tell myself that in reality I was a great person I could not find the solution. The fact of the matter is that many of my own problems come from short-sightedness, selfishness, and willful disregard of the things I know and believe to be true and right. This is not self-pity, this is simply the truth.

Permit me one last example. One of my daughters was talking with me on the sidelines of her football (soccer) game about how she felt like she wasn’t a good player. I simply agreed with her, not to be unkind but to be honest with her and encourage her ability to be self-critical. The fact is that she wasn’t really very good at that sport even though she excelled in other parts of her life. I told her that the teammates and opponents that were better at football than she was had worked very hard to get that way. They had spent hours every day playing and practicing in order to feel confident and succeed on the playing field. I asked her “Do you want to be good if it requires that kind of work? If so, I will help you to achieve it.” Her answer somewhat surprised me. She said “No.” I asked her how good she wanted to be and she replied “Good enough to have fun.” From that we decided to practice some more in order to help her feel more confident and to enjoy her games more. As you might imagine, when I recounted this conversation with some of my American friends, they were horrified that I would tell my daughter (or at least agree with her own conclusion) that she wasn’t good at playing football. They felt that I should have told her that she was “good” or “improving” even though neither of those were necessarily true at that time. This is the problem, we teach our children the same self-affirming and self-deceptive practices that lead us to the paradox of trying to feel all good about ourselves with the recognition that we realize it just is not true. Honest recognition of our faults is an important aspect of a healthy and mature human being.

While I believe that American psychology has good intentions and that most practitioners are acting in good faith to help others, I believe that our enterprise is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, I believe that psychology may be doing more to further unrealistic expectations of happiness that leads to feelings of shame about unavoidable unhappiness that is natural to the human condition. By perpetuating the idea that we can be free of suffering, people flock to their doctors and psychotherapists to help them fix what in reality are normal parts of the human condition. And by pushing the notion that we should feel good about ourselves we are leaving people unable to be self-critical in ways that will help them toward genuine self-improvement. Maybe accepting life as something more than self, sprinkled (sometimes heavily) with suffering, and ourselves as the incomplete creatures we are will lead to something like an improvement of individuals and society. Consider it, maybe there really are more important things.

References

Frankl, V.E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Kierkegaard, S (1969). The sickness unto death (W. Lowrie, trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rogers, C.R. (1947). Some observations on the organization of personality. American Psychologist, 2, 358-368.

What makes us human?

We often discuss in my field of study, psychology, what it means to be human. Or what sets us apart (if at all) from other animals. While I do have some sympathy with those who view us on a “continuum” from lower animals, it seems pretty obvious to that we are something significantly different from other animals. What has struck me in the past few days in particular is our ability to imagine ourselves being something or someone other than what or who we are. Notably has been my thinking about the people I see very day and wondering what they are like and wondering what it would be like to be them.

On my walk to work, about one mile, I see people of every variety from the upper caste and wealthier to the slum-living lower caste. I imagine most of you have felt this way as well, but I look at them and wonder what it would be like if I were them and they were me. What would it be like, for example to have underdeveloped, skinny legs that seemed to not bend the right way? To not be able to work, to be judged as less of a person for my disability? To be begging for coins on the walkway under the street? To sleep there? What would I think every day while I sat there? Would I be bitter and angry or resigned to my fate? Would I feel grateful when people stopped and gave me money or would I feel resentful if people didn’t stop?

What about the guy giving me a ride on his rickshaw? If I were him would I enjoy the physical effort of my job? Where do I live? Am I married, with children? What do I hope for in my life? What do I eat? What do I think of this pale skinned guy that I pick up in my rickshaw? Do I think of him as a real person with real thoughts, feelings, hopes? Or might I see him as a symbol of something and not as a full human being?

This ability, besides being about empathy, is also the source of the creativity and destructiveness of envy. Since we can imagine a life other than our own, we can wish to be or to have something that some else has or owns. We see someone with expensive possessions and we can imagine ourselves with that instead of them. We see someone with some physical or intellectual or social characteristic and imagine ourselves with that quality. That makes us feel, somehow, that they took it from us–since we can imagine it with us or belonging to us we feel like it could be ours. So if they have it maybe we should have had it instead. It is a strange feeling and so very painful for some people. I feel fortunate in my life (I am fortunate in so many ways) that I don’t feel envy all that often. But when it does, it burns.

The positive side? That same empathy can lead us to want to raise up others in the ways we might see them as struggling in comparison to us. We may want them to have the advantages that we have, the joys that we experience. We may be led to try to relieve some of their suffering because of how good our lives have been.

Girls Education in Dhani Bhadan, Rajasthan

This last weekend we had the opportunity to go to a village called Dhani Bhadan in Rajasthan for a wedding. We went with a couple of friends (they are a married couple who are our friends—couple friends, friends couple?) called MacArthur and Ved. MacArthur we met something like 8 years ago when we were living in Cairo. We go to the same church and we met her there and invited her to stay with us. We also had a mutual college friend—maybe that is partly how we met, I don’t remember. Anyway, at church here in Delhi we see her and find out that she now lives in India, married to an Indian man named Ved. We hadn’t met Ved until this last weekend when we were all traveling to Rajasthan together. We had a spectacular time and I will have to include some photos here of the experience.

While the wedding was amazing, I am more interested in this space to talk about the school we found there. We stayed at the house of Colonel Ramautar Singh who seems to be a leader in the village. As you see by the name, he is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army. He showed us some awards and things from that era of his life. But the amazing thing about the Colonel is the decisions he has made since. He has a nice and spacious home and was so welcoming to all of us. He even gave us his room to sleep in (though he didn’t mention that). After retiring from the military, he decided to invest his life savings and his life in educating girls in his village. He believes (and I agree with him) that this is the one way to lift families out of poverty and increase the opportunities and empowerment of women. We were welcomed at his home by a group of the older students and the graduating class of girls from high school. They were happy and beaming on that great day and many were planning on attending college next.

The school has grown from a starting point in his own living room to larger buildings and now includes boys as well. Unlike some other village schools, this one seemed to be overflowing with hope and cheerfulness. The children were all in uniform and were happy to meet us. We asked about how we might help in some small way and the Colonel informed us about a system he has where people can sponsor the child of a poor family who cannot pay for school fees, etc. For just $200 (10,000 rupees), you can sponsor a primary school child all the way through her education. We met a young girl named Meena who comes from a poorer and lower caste family and chose to sponsor her. The Colonel sends sponsors a school photograph and progress report each year as well as a letter from the child. When the child is old enough, she will send a letter as well. It is great to have been able to been to a place that is doing such good and making a difference. You could really feel it there. If anyone reading this is interested—and I hope that all of you will be—please contact me and I can give you the information regarding the school as well as how to sponsor a student. If you can’t afford the $200 yourself, maybe get a few other people to join with you in making a donation. The information I have for you has an international routing number where you can wire your donation. This is a chance for us to do something small in money that can make a dramatic impact on a young girl and her family and children for generations. Email me at: matthew@whoolery.com for more information.

 

 

Lady Shri Ram College

I realized today that one of my failings as of late has been writing more about my experiences while here in India.  While some of that may (or not) benefit you, dear reader, I am more self-concerned that so much of what I am learning and experiencing will be lost.  So today I will try to fix that with a few things that have been on my mind. 

First, my experience at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR).   I came to India on a Fulbright Scholarship and was connected to LSR as a Visiting Professor for the semester that I am here.  I knew practically nothing about LSR or Delhi University and so I did not know what to expect.  My first introduction to the campus was a short tour during the break between semesters.  My colleague and team-teacher for the Theory and Systems course is Megha Dhillon and she met me at LSR and showed me around.  I have to say that I was a little bit surprised by some of the arrangements.  In my job in the USA, I have my own office with the requisite bookshelves, drawers, desk, computer, etc. that I have grown used to.  I am pretty lucky to have a good-sized office in a new building with a nice window in which I keep my plants.  I have that space of my own and frequently close the door and just have time alone with my books (sweet).  At LSR, we shared (note the past tense…more on that later) a small room (smaller than my office at BYUI) with a table and six chairs.  We had a set of drawers that had locks and I was given a drawer of my own.  At first I was really surprised by that—I mean how does one do what we do as professors without all the other space for books, computer, etc.  Well, the answer is—you just do.  That is what I learned—you make do with what you have and enjoy it. 

In fact, that little room has now been demolished as they take down rooms that used to be part of the Psych Dept as they renovate that wing of the main building on campus.  So one day we were all informed that we needed to vacate that room and clean out the drawers.  So where did our little 2 cubic feet space go?  To a set of smaller outdoor lockers near one of the classrooms.  When I asked some of my colleagues how they would manage without even a small common room, they did the Indian head bob which sort-of means, “Whatevs.”  I have come to appreciate and like that gesture and its meaning.  For the years it will take to finish the psychology wing the faculty will be without a common room, without labs, without rooms for the tutorial sections.  And the response?  Whatevs.  We will find a way to make it work.  That is the wonder of Indians, their ability to take whatever comes their way with good humor and an ability to make do with what they have.  If this happened in the states, we would be incensed at the careless attitude of the administration in not providing proper accommodation for the faculty.  Here, they just roll with it.  Super cool. 

I teach most of my classes in the Bamboo Hut which is, in fact, a bamboo hut.  It does have fans but I am a little afraid of the coming heat in that hut.  It has a small chalkboard on wheels and one of the students always remembers to bring some chalk.  At first I was a little taken aback by the lack of resources, but I have begun to realize something that sounds a little trite but no less true for its trite-sounding-ness: it is the people that matter, not the facilities.  My first time meeting my students was actually on the day before I started teaching.  They were all in another class and the professor of that class introduced me to them.  When they all said hello, welcome, etc. and did that lovely head-bob greeting I felt very welcome. Now, on my best days when meeting a new class of students I feel nervous.  But now I am in front of a new set of students at a new university, with names I don’t recognize as names, in a new country and culture.  So I was super nervous the first day of class.  It may sound strange that someone who has been teaching for 13 years has this problem, but when a whole room of people I don’t know are looking at me it seems like I must have something wrong with me or something.  Or else why are all these people looking at me? 

Anyway, I did survive that first class and since have gotten to know the students as individual people and can pronounce their names passably.  And I have found that they are really quite remarkable students.  LSR is an elite college (part of Delhi University) where the students have to be scoring at 97%+ to be able to get in.  Of course those are test scores rather than GPA so you might think that they are just better at memorizing and taking tests?  Not so much.  While the Indian system does encourage a kind of test-based education system, these students are more than that.  For example, I put together a seminar on critical thinking where the students pay a fee, come once a week to a class, read and write—all without any official credit.  So you would guess, as I did, that maybe 10-15 of the really strong students would show up.  You know, those select few students who really want to learn just for the sake of learning?  Well, 90 students showed up to take the seminar and we had to move to a larger room.  And I have found that they are coming prepared, working hard, and have great questions.  So despite a system which discourages the questioning and deeper learning, they want it and seek it out. 

I have been more than impressed with the quality of both students and faculty at LSR and feel very fortunate to be able to be a visiting faculty member here.  I hope that I am able to make some small contribution so that it will have been worth having me here.

One suitcase…

So yesterday I was thinking about my little apartment (I mean compared to home, not in an objective sense) here in India.  We have much less room and less privacy.  Way fewer clothes, possessions or household items.  Even our clothes washing machine is really small capacity compared to what we use in the USA.  But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter!  So then you wonder what all those things were for.  This happened when we moved to Cairo.  In that case, we did have a large shipment of our books and household stuff that was shipped by boat to Cairo from the States.  But it took almost three months for that shipment to arrive.  By the time it did, we felt like we didn’t need any of those things.  Over time we all accumulate so many things, so much stuff, and really so little of it is essential.

A few surprisingly essential things: my computer, I-Phone, and Kindle.  While I am without my home library, I can still buy books to read and even make notes in them as I go.  Cool.  And with the computer and I-Phone I have unbelievable amounts of information available to me at any moment.  Pretty amazing world.  I brought this up with the girls earlier today and they also had the same feeling–wondering what all that stuff at home is for.  It is almost hard to remember all the things we boxed up before we left.  Since the airlines only allow one free suitcase, we thought of that as our limit and so we live here month after month with only one suitcase (each) of our stuff.  Weird.

If you haven’t seen it before, there is this terrific book called “Material World” that is a collaboration between an anthropologist and a photographer.  They went around the world taking portraits of families outside their homes with all of their possessions.  As you might imagine, some families had a total of something like six small bowls, a bag of rice, and a goat.  And the American family they had to hire a crane to get far enough above to be able to photograph all their stuff outside their modest house.  American culture is really so much about consumption, but it does make you wonder what we are spending all that money and energy and life on.  Stuff that you could live without if you had to move somewhere and had only one suitcase.

What would you include in your 50 lb. suitcase?

Coming up for air

I haven’t written since the first day or two and so much has happened.  Just trying to get our lives in order, celebrate Christmas, and start a new life.  So I feel like today maybe I am coming up for air.

Food

First, as it should be, food.  We have been experimenting with all kinds of places, mostly street food and take-out kinds of places.  We have had so many foods, most of which I do not know the name of–though some like: samosas, bhaji, kachori, aloo tikka–I do know.  But most of it is great.  Some places are better than others and we have found places that serve good street food and a few that serve dishes with chicken.  Most of our meals are vegetarian, though, with lentils and chickpeas providing the protein.  Many Indians are total vegetarians, some eat just fish and chicken.  Very few eat beef or pork.  This, in fact, is a great thing for the world because of the energy and waste that is created in meat production.  So we have gotten used to that kind of diet.  The only thing is cooking at home.  In the USA, we organize most of our meals around the meat we will serve.  We tend to eat chicken and fish mostly, with other meats less often.  But when I think of what I will cook, it usually starts with the main course of meat.  So I often find myself needing to make food and not knowing where to start.  It is good to learn to re-think food and better of course to eat less meat and eat more plants (thank you Pollan), but we often find ourselves eating out because we have not thought through what we will eat.

The food is spicy for the girls, but they are adjusting.  When we are home and I cook Indian food, I tone down the spiciness significantly and the girls are fine.  When we arrived, the girls were more excited about food than anything else.  I mean, what could be better, an entire country that just calls Indian food–food!  They were taken aback by the hotness of the spices and disappointed with not being able to enjoy the food.  It is interesting, though, how quickly they are adjusting to eating spicy (and new) foods.  Most meals they all dig in and enjoy.  Every once in a while we have to try to find or cook something more normal for them.  Like tonight I cooked pasta with a vegetables sauce (tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, etc.) and they were super happy with that.  So we are all adjusting to our new food life.  The one thing missing for me is finding a really amazing restaurant to sit down and enjoy.  So far most of our food has been of the street or take-out variety.  Nothing like the restaurants we eventually found in Cairo.  Still searching…

Getting around

Our most normal form of transportation is feet.  Second, we are able to jam all of us in one motor-rickshaw (called an “auto” here).  I really should get a photo of all of us sitting in one of those green autos.  There is barely room for three backsides so we sit three down and three on laps.  Usually the trips are relatively short so it is no big deal.  The long trips we take the metro.  The metro is Delhi’s pride and joy.  They are proud of having a mass-transportation system that runs on time, is clean, and where people act with decorum.  That does tell you that most things do not run on time, are dirty, and people act with much less decorum–but that is India, too.  We each have metro cards and have spent more time than we would wish on the metro.  Mostly those trips have been in search of a bunk bed so that we can have more bed space for our visitors.  They don’t have many beds like that here in India and the ones we have found were either super-expensive or really junky (and still quite expensive).  We looked around and found a couple of streets here in Delhi that are filled with furniture shops.  We probably spent about 15 hours searching–including 6 hours or so on Christmas Eve.  We have Rachel’s mother Cathy and our niece Mandy staying with us since yesterday and we have been really trying hard to have it all sorted out before they arrived.  Finally on Friday we found a guy who makes good bunk beds (called “bunker beds” or “dobul deker beds” here in Delhi) out of solid wood.  We worked out what we wanted and it should be complete in a couple of weeks.  Until then, kids sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Finding places is always an adventure, though maybe not always a welcome one.  Going around the city with four girls and trying to find the places we are looking for can be very frustrating.  One evening we found ourselves way outside the urban part of the city and walking down a road where everyone stared at us (more than the usual) because both they and we knew that we were out of place.  I remember that feeling years ago when I was in Tanzania.  We got on the wrong bus and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere.  We knew we weren’t in the right place but did not know where we were or where to get back.  I remember it felt like being in a dance where everyone knew the steps but me.  Out of rhythm, not understanding the music and the movement.  That is what it felt like that night–everyone staring at us and we both knew that we were not part of the dance.

Christmas

This is another Christmas for us away from the American Christmas rush.  It was nice.  Mostly, anyway.  Being in a Hindu country, there is very little in the way of decorations and mass recognition of the holiday.  But also so much less of the stress and commercial pressure of the holiday in the USA.  We did get a Christmas tree and saw a man dressed up as Santa Claus.  More about both of those: first, we did get a Christmas tree that was called a “7 foot tree” by the lady that sold it to us.  Rachel was trying to negotiate a better price and had the lady take the fake tree out of the box.  It was just a tad shorter than her.  The lady said, we have a 7 foot tree that is 700 rupees and a 5 foot tree that is 500 rupees.  Rachel said “Oh, good, this is the 5 foot tree.”  The lady replied, “No, this is the 7 foot tree.”  When Rachel protested, she said “We call it our 7 foot tree.”  So she and Rachel had this back-and-forth about it and we ended up buying a 4 foot 10 inch tree called a “7 foot tree.”  And that is what we have called it.

The Santa Claus guy, too, you need to hear about (and see–I’ll put a picture with this entry).  The picture was taken in the Lajpat Nagar Central Market which is right by our home.  He was in white-face and looked quite dour and serious.  We all gawked at him for a minute and I said “Hey, girls, go stand by Santa and get your picture taken.”  They pointedly refused, referring to him as Zombie Santa.  I got a picture of him by himself instead, and said hello.  He smiled wanly in return.  Poor guy looked just awful and didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.

On Christmas Day we bought some tins of Oreos and went to the neighbors in our building and sang a Christmas song to them.  It gave us a chance to meet our neighbors (there are two other families in our building) and they are nice people.  They are both Indian families from New Delhi.  In fact, now that I think about it we almost never see foreigners.  Whether at the market, church, or the street we stand out with our four little blondies.  People have been very friendly and shown us both friendliness and the respect of not mobbing us.  Nice.

As per my family tradition, we also went to a movie on Christmas night–Rise of the Guardians.  A good-enough movie and good for the kids.  Funny, though, and so Indian: at the movie theater there were assigned seats in a very large auditorium.  In about 50 rows of seats, only three were filled in that particular showing.  And we were all put right with each other–at the very top.  I don’t know if they were expecting to fill the place (I can’t imagine that, we arrived just as the movie was about to start) or what, but it was kind of odd.  You have to go through security to get into the cinema complex and they asked for our tickets.  When I said we didn’t have one, they pointed to the right.  All I saw was a Box Of Ice.  It took me a minute to realize that one of the F’s just was not lit.  I was wondering what a Box Of Ice was anyway…

Visions of (Dis)Order

If you ever decide to live in a large city in a place like Cairo or New Delhi (and are an American), you will at once notice a difference in the acceptance of disorder.  The streets are dusty, you see rubble piles all over the place, the traffic is chaotic, and public spaces (and even homes, too) are…how to put it…disorderly.  For example, our apartment is new and we are the first to live in it.  Most things are pretty nice, but there are wires sticking out of the wall, some of the paint and plaster have bubbled and are falling off, the faucets are universally wobbly on their bases, and many of the cupboard handles and window locks don’t work quite right.  When we asked them to fix some of these things, like the faucets, they could not figure out what the problem was–I mean, the water comes out, right?  But when I looked around at our building it already looks old and worn and it is only some months old.  Part of it is the dust and buildup of grime that is common in a big city, and part of it is that they tolerate and don’t notice this kind of stuff.  It is just not noticed.  And this certainly not an insult; I would challenge my local municipality to deal with 10 million people in almost the same square miles as Delhi.  It is just part of the life of dealing with so many people and so much change constantly.  But it does make us hesitant to show them pictures of our home and yard at home.  It must look extravagant and slightly over the top I guess.  One of my friends from Egypt came to visit last summer and said that her father had always imagined a place in the country in the States, like where we live in Idaho.  She said that he always idealized the life–the space, nice neighbors, clean air, etc.  So when we got invited to a barbecue at the local park and played baseball with our neighbors, she said “I had better not tell him that it is actually true!”

The job

I met with one of faculty members that I will be working with at Lady Shri Ram College (part of the University of Delhi) and she gave me a tour of the campus.  I am excited to start teaching there this week though I can hardly know what to expect of it all.  Once I start teaching and the girls go to school, we’ll get into the new life routines.  Now I have come up for air, and for longer than you might have wanted.  If you read this long, thanks.

I just keep choosing this…

So here we are at long last, in our new home and life in India.  Soon I will go back and write about our days in Paris, but for now about our new place in India.  We have been in New Delhi now since late Monday night.  We arrived just before midnight and were picked up by the Fulbright in India office and taken to the Fulbright Guest House for the first couple of nights.

As I am writing now, though, I am in our new apartment (which is even new, not just new to us) in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi.  We had a friend from our church that we had been in contact with while we were in the U.S. who had been looking around at different apartments for us and found this place.  It is cheaper than the other one we had nearly settled on but is also in just the right location near my work, near the girls’ school (at least the one they are likely to attend–that hasn’t been sorted yet), and near the largest market area in south Delhi. Now the main work is buying the things we need for food, washing, etc. to get our house in order.  The apartment is nice and has just been cleaned and worked over by the electrician and plumber.  But it is funny how many things you build up over time in your own home and that  you have start with completely new again.  On the list are things like spices, salt, rice, stools, cleaning rags, rack for drying clothes, night lights, and so many more little things.  Since there is no place like Walmart here, all of these things come by going to small shops that specialize in housewares of different kinds.  So that is going to take some effort but will be an adventure!  Last night we shopped for sheets for the beds, some basic foods like eggs and bread, and for a washing machine.

Here’s a funny story.  On our first trip from the Fulbright House to look at different apartments in Delhi, we saw an elephant being ridden along the side of the highway.  I mean, what are the odds?  It is almost the perfect example of a stereotype coming true: in India do they ride elephants along the highway?  Well, yes, in fact they do.  The girls loved seeing that and are excited for their first chance to ride an elephant here in India.  Elephants in India are quite a lot larger than the ones in Southeast Asia but smaller than the African elephants.  When Rachel and I were in India six years ago we took an elephant ride out into the jungle near the border with Nepal.  Truly amazing.

The other striking thing about the past few days is how much so-called third world countries are similar.  Just like you can get around Paris if you know how to navigate New York City, our life in Cairo prepared us pretty well for life in New Delhi.  This experience has been a bit more starting from scratch than we had in Cairo, though, since the university took care of housing for us.  Here we have had to figure everything out from the bottom up.  We will get there.  As Rachel and I were walking back toward the market last night after getting the girls to bed, we realized how bewildering these first few days can be in a new place and culture.  We ended up not getting all we needed and had to put off things like good pillows until we can get to the market today.  So as I went to sleep on a hard mattress with a “pillow” that seemed like a bag stuffed with old socks, my thought was “Well, Matt, if you want to have your same pillow, bed, and life that you had before you had just better not go anywhere.”  It didn’t make the pillow any more comfortable, but it does remind me that I have chosen this life.  And I keep choosing it…  And I love it.

ImageThis picture is from our balcony looking out onto the street and at the Hindu temple that is just across the street.

The darkness deepens…

I know, sounds like a line from the Hobbit or something.  Speaking of the Hobbit, I got tickets for the midnight showing the night before we leave for India.  Good timing!

As the darkness of the Idaho winter sets in, I just can’t help but look forward to the sunshine of New Delhi.  And the food, smells, noise, people, and everything else.  We have many of our details worked out for our move to India–at least on this side of the equation.  Where we will live, where the girls will go to school, and those kinds of things still wait to be decided.

I remember as a university student having this thought: Whether things go well or go poorly, it will be over in a week.  That is sort of the way I feel now.  With as many things to get done as we have ahead of us in one week, I wonder how it will all happen.  But in one week when I am sitting on the plane to Paris and then New Delhi, it will all be done but the doing!  Between now and then it is a mad dash of moving, packing, planning, grading… But in a week it will be listening to music and falling asleep on a plane.  Can I stand the dark winter days until then? Yes.