Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Six Things I've Learned at College

In just twenty-one days, all of us "K" College seniors will become graduates. So, what has it been worth-- beyond the diploma (fingers crossed!)? Despite my frustrations at this un-round number, there are precisely six things that pop up as being the biggest "take-home" messages for me, and I will share them now.

6. Defining Success in Terms of Community. Cliche as it sounds, I came to "K" with a sense of individualism and hopes of "traveling the world." But in only my second term, that idea started to wear away as I read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert Bellah et al. for my Intro to Sociology course. The authors conducted an extensive series of interviews concluding that a strong sense of individualism generally leads to the feeling of isolation and a lack of fulfillment. While Americans generally think of freedom as freedom from, we often fail to consider a definition of freedom as emerging from ties to community through which we can discover our true strengths and our roles in a society where we are dependent upon the labor and livelihood of one another. Early American leaders, like John Winthrop, embraced this idea, defining success as: “the creation of community in which a genuinely ethical and spiritual life could be lived.” Duty, he believed, does not make us less free, but is instead the mark of a free person.

5. "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain." In the past 4 years, I've definitely come to take this piece of advice from Maya Angelou more seriously. It's fairly accurate to say I spent the better part of my four years at "K" complaining because I didn't like it here. I won't bore you with the details since many of you have heard them ad nauseam. I still see 100% where I was coming from with those complaints, but it was absolutely ridiculous for me to stick around and continue to complain about it. As the sort of person who liked to start what I finish, I hesitated to see the idea of transferring as anything more than a cop out or a lack of follow-through. Now, instead, I've started to believe that there is nothing wrong with changing one's mind.

(I should add that I now have Stockholm Syndrome and have actually started to--eek-- like it here.)

4. Truly Free Thought Requires Effort to Distance Oneself from the Peer Group. By the end of my twenty-four interviews on religious belief for my SIP (thesis project), it came to my attention that I could literally predict almost exactly what a person would believe about God and scripture, and how a person would exercise those beliefs based on their parents' beliefs, early religious community, and their social class. This creeped me the hell out. Everyone was able to explain themselves with such conviction, even when, as in the case of upper-middle class liberals, that meant no conviction at all about anything.

As I mentioned in a pervious post, as I did my SIP, the vast majority of "K" College people I mentioned it to would make some sort of disparaging remark about evangelicals (or one could read the equivalent sentiment on their face). At the beginning, I identified with their reactions, but as I really got into dialogue with evangelicals about their beliefs and practices, I was amazed by their willingness to grapple with questions of faith and make serious sacrifices for their beliefs.

Moreover, as my favorite Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein once said: "I never learned from a man who agreed with me." There is immense possibility in being willing to open the mind up to dialogue with people with different political, social and religious convictions from our own. (But by this I don't just mean tolerance, which I often find to be a sort of liberal cover-all cop-out, instead I mean a true interest in the perhaps unacknowledged truths that another's story might have to offer.)

3. When people tell you you have a stupid idea, you may be on to something. During the summer of my freshman year, I delivered flyers en masse to the mailboxes of well-to-do homes in the Twin Cities. Probably hundreds. I advertised my abilities: "Spanish-speaker, can make balloon animals, can comfort the elderly, can mow lawns, etc." I essentially offered to do anything legal for money; I was desperate for a job not working for "The Man" at Snyder's (a Walgreens-like chain drug store), as I had been for so long. The idea was absolutely torn to shreds by those who I proposed it to before executing the plan. After I handed the flyers out, a woman called me, offering to pay me a very high hourly rate to look after her luxurious home (since she is usually out of town) and to occasionally driver her places since she was partially blind. She also offered to help me practice Spanish and French in the process, since she was fluent in both languages. This brought the possibility for, if I may be so bold, one of the most high-paying, cushy and ideal college jobs one could hope for! Unfortunately, I couldn't take it because I would be moving around from Michigan to Minnesota so often and was looking for more of a brief project, but if I had listened to all of the nay-sayers I never would have encountered such an opportunity!

I had a similar experience before I went on Border Studies. I lost count of how many people seemed to show a gag reflex when I told them about going to the border-- "Why would anyone want to go to Juarez!?" Turns out, it was one of the most fun, fulfilling and edifying experiences of my life.

Who knows-- maybe my personalizable food thermometer invention really will be the next big thing!

2. "Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods." -Aristotle, Nichomacean Ethics. One of my greatest joys and biggest pains has been my habit of having a few friends who most people don't like. In one of my favorite books, Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life by the current Dalai Lama, he writes: "Even though we all equally want happiness and do not want suffering, you like the faces of some people and think 'these are my friends' and dislike the faces of others and think 'these are my enemies.'" My friendships have been a window into a different way of living and a different way of seeing that keep me sane (while at other times drive me insane). They have offered a wonderful opportunity to feel free of constraints of arbitrary, petty personality preferences.

I will never forget coordinating my 13th birthday party, and after having drafted the guest list, having parents tell me I wasn't allowed to invite someone on the list, simply because of his reputation as an "odd duck" and perhaps "troubled." It broke my heart, not so much because I couldn't invite him, but more because of what this shows about how our society operates, on such an arbitrary system of some people as "in," some as "out." I hope never to sacrifice a single opportunity for friendship for the sake of this societal construct, as each one is an absolute treasure for different reasons.

1. It's a love issue. Oprah has said that her biggest epiphany in her struggle with weight has been realizing it as a love issue-- "Do I love myself enough and do I value my body enough to discipline myself to exercise and to eat foods that love me back?"

While I've always believed that the most moral thing to do is to give until you're blue in the face (and then some), it's come to my attention that ignoring one's own needs and sense of dignity is as bad as ignoring another's. And the people around us pay the price for when we short ourselves. I've seen myself and many friends give and give and forgive and forgive, especially in romantic situations, that end up culminating in no one's benefit. That is to say, as Maya Angelou said: "When people tell you who they are, believe them-- the first time." Giving until one is blue in the face, often never satisfies the "getter" while constantly effacing the dignity of the "giver." Understanding giving to others and understanding my own lifestyle as love issues that require a fine balance will continue to be instrumental in the way I live.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Update on the St. John's Wort Experiment

For those of you who haven't heard, I have spent the past month taking St. John's wort, an herbal dietary supplement, in the doses for which it is used to treat mild depression to see if I could induce in myself an ever-euphoric mood. If I could summarize the results of this experiment in two words they would be "epic fail." While I recorded a significant increase in mood during the third and fourth weeks of the experiment, it was not worth the side effects, which included skin that can be burnt with only a few minutes of moderate sun exposure, decreased complexion beauty, and increased anxiety. 

One of the top five Knopp family values transmitted to me as I was growing up was "sunburns will be the death of you." Thus, when I got my sunburn on just an average day, I knew something was up. Worse yet, I was more irritable about the subject than I usually would be because of my increased anxiety. To be fair, it is not possible for me to know if these symptoms were the effects of St. John's wort, but since they were extremely unusual, I think I can assert these claims with some assurance. 

Anyway, to those who say "I told you so" about this experiment, I'll just respond that knowing is better than not knowing. Now, I'll never have to wonder if I could have lived life on an untamable high without the use of illegal drugs. But, needless to say, I'm not taking St. John's wort anymore.  

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To Your Health!: A Proselytizing Rant

The United States has done a progressively impressive job of demonizing the use of tobacco over the past quarter-century. Most people who smoke, particularly in upper-middle class culture, realize or at least have come to terms with the fact that they might be judged or ostracized for this habit. The demonization of this unhealthy lifestyle choice is sensible (smoking kills), and some other countries have done the same. (Example: My bosom friend Ilana Kresch has saved a cigarette box from Chile that, when translated, reads: "Warning: these cigarettes are killing you.") Yet, the equally detrimental decision of many to lead a sedentary lifestyle has, somehow, largely dodged criticism. While it is generally acceptable to say, for example, "I want you to quit smoking because I care about you" telling a friend "I want you to start exercising because I care about you" is far less acceptable. Yet, the research on the negative impacts of a sedentary lifestyle are practically as striking as that of tobacco use. Leading medical research indicates that exercise is linked to increased positive mood and mental health, creativity, increased energy and decreased risk of chronic disease.

I find excuses like "I don't like to do it" or "It's not fun" ineffectual in lieu of the smoker's excuse "I like to do it" or "It makes me feel good." You might notice a parallel. As Dr. Oz says (I feel great shame knowing that this is the second time I'm citing him on this newborn blog), regardless of whether or not one has found an entirely "fun" form of it, exercise should be like brushing your teeth; you do it every day, even when you don't want to. (But it can be fun. Speed walking with a friend, being involved in a sports team, or playing with your dog... fun! Everyone can find something they enjoy.) 

My point? A little piece of me dies every time I hear a shamelessly sedentary person lambasting smoking or a particular smoker. (Not that we should avoid passing any judgment ever for fear that we are speaking hypocritically... but this hypocrisy particularly peeves me because it is so common.)

Okay. Proselytizing rant over. What I really want to talk about on the subject of health and well-being is the exciting new research on Blue Zones. If you're not familiar with them, Blue Zones refers to the communities in or regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives, often living over 100 years with limited disease. Examples of Blue Zones include Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy that boasts the largest population of centenarians in the world, Loma Linda, California, a community composed largely of Seventh Day Adventists, and Okinawa, an island off the coast of Japan with the highest disability-free life expectancy in the world.

Scientists are studying these longevity hot-spots to identify threads in lifestyle, and they have developed eight principles that lead to such healthy and long lives:
-Eating a plant-based diet (limited meat consumption)
-Regular, low-intensity exercise (i.e.: gardening, playing with kids, etc.)
-Family-oriented lifestyle
-Practicing a communal faith once a week (this reduces risky behaviors and encourages scheduled time for reflection/meditation)
-Identifying a sense of overarching purpose
-Eating to only 80% fullness
-Drinking wine moderately and responsibly
-Living in community that supports the healthful sort of lifestyle outlined above

To hear more detail about these communities and their lifestyle, click here for a video-clip. I hope learning about Blue Zones has been as edifying for you as it was for me. For one, it has inspired me to abandon my lifestyle of sobriety for a glass of wine per day. Huzzah!