Laughing Out Loud – Imaginary Mitzvahs

After a day of smiling at strangers, trying to follow the Chinese wisdom of Michael Puett’s The Path, I came across Calvin Trillin’s essay for The New YorkerImaginary Mitzvahs – and my true self reverted to type.

When I travel, I often tear out essays I want to read again from The New Yorker, before recycling the magazine to a flight attendant.  Trillin is one of my favorite funny cynics, and his litany of good deeds gone undone restored my cranky equilibrium.  But I did have a good laugh.

In Imaginary Mitzvahs, Trillan reviews his attempts to be a good person. When he graciously moves to a middle seat on the plane between a woman holding two crying babies and “a man whose stomach hung over the armrest” to accommodate the two men who “hadn’t seen each other in years…{this} flight is the only time we have to catch up,” he notices one man falls asleep throughout the flight and the other reads.

When he obliges his newly gluten-free vegan cousin by foregoing the sumptuous meaty French meal he had anticipated, his taste buds suffered but he felt virtuous.

Finally, when a cat in a fiery building needs rescuing, he resists – despite his inclination to do good.

There is a limit, after all.

Have a laugh – Read the essay : Imaginary Mitzvahs

9780375758515_p0_v1_s192x300And if you have not read Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out – my favorite book, here is my review:  Tepper Isn’t Going Out




Finding Inner Peace – The Path by a Harvard Professor

9781476777832_p0_v2_s192x300Would you enroll in a class with the daunting title Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory?  What if it promised to “change your life” ?  Harvard professor Michael Puett condenses his lectures in his book The Path, offering Chinese philosophy to live a better life.  Citing Confucius’s Analects, the Mencius, and the Daodejing, Puett suggests ways to apply the teachings to daily practice. 

Addressing universal themes – how to be a good person, how to create a good society, and how to have a satisfying life – Puett suggests the practice of exhaustingly researching and thinking about plans in order to decide (as I do), is precisely the wrong way to make important life decisions. The Chinese philosophers say this strategy makes it harder to remain open to other possibilities that don’t fit into that plan. 

So for those of us who like to dissect, analyze, and synthesize – what to do?  Puett offers a few suggestions:

  • Attend to small practices; they can change everything.  

Mencius, a late Confucian thinker taught that if you cultivate your better nature in small ways, you can become an extraordinary person with an incredible influence. So…hold that door for someone, smile at the early morning walker you pass as you jog by, take time to have a conversation with a good friend – not just texting.  

  • Instead of choosing between mind  (the rational) and heart (your gut) when you make a decision, go with both.

Become more open to experiences. Research shows our unconscious awareness of emotions around us are actually what drive the decisions we believe we are making with rationality. “One study showed viewers who were flashed a smile—even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it—perceived the things around them more positively.”  So, go ahead – smile at someone – even if you don’t feel like it. It will improve the other person’s day, and it might make you feel better too.

  • Try something new.

“We are what we do (Aristotle)”  and effort counts more than talent or aptitude. Puett suggests going outside your comfort zone, trying new possibilities will open up a whole new world for you – so what if you have to work a little harder to get there.

Sounds like common sense mixed with a little shmaltz – but then Confucius always seemed so to me.  Nevertheless, the idea to focus on the little things to make life better seems doable. A quick read – not as fast as a fortune cookie – but worth a look.

In the words of Disney’s Cinderella – “Have courage and be kind.”