Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Filtering by Category: Culture

Being a Keeper of My Brother's Mental Health

The more I think about it, mental health isn’t a personal health problem, where it’s solely our own responsibility to make healthy choices and “get fixed” if our mental state is unhealthy. it’s something for which we have a reciprocal responsibility with others. When it comes to mental health, maybe it’s better - and more accurate - to think about it as something for which we are our brother’s keeper.

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What is good vs. How to become a good person

The most important ethical question I grapple with is not what is good, but rather how to become a good person, especially amidst cultural pressure. In our times, distinguishing those questions is essential.

A lot of the moral philosophy I’ve read in the past focuses on the what. What is right conduct? What is good? How does a good person behave? All this is important, but it is theoretical. The most practical I’ve seen this line of inquiry get is contemplating how to create or manage an ethical society.

I don’t often read ideas about how to turn this question inward and focus on the how for an individual person. How do I, a frail, imperfect, falliable, and mortal being become more good than I am now? The first question of what is descriptive, the second question of how is reflective. And more over, I think if one contemplates how to actually become a better, more ethical person, they must also consider what right conduct is and what a good person does. The question of how encapsulates the question of what.

This perhaps pedantic point matters a lot, I think, because of the times we live in now. Individuals hold much more power than they did even a hundred years ago because each of us now have access to much more knowledge and many more tools to inflict harm on others if we so chose (e.g., weapons, a social media megaphone, transportation, networks of people). It’s not just the ultra-rich or members of high society that can strongly impact others’ lives. As a result, we must all  become good people, because if we do not we are much more capable of causing serious harm.

The times we live in also make actually following through on our notions of right conduct harder. Why? Because we have so much more exposure to social pressures from other humans (e.g., via social media, global travel, news media, the internet) than any other time in history. We have to parse through many more messages that try to persuade us to act and think in a certain way than any of our ancestors did. Listening to our own hearts on what is right and what is wrong and actually walking that walk, is a heck of a lot harder when there’s a cacophony of thousands of other voices in your ear at all times.

In this post, I’m merely pointing out the question of how and trying to give a few reasons of why that question is important. But even though I’m tapping out on answering that question in this post, I do have some ideas.

I’ve been working on this question of how for over a year now. The first part (in very rough form) of my answer to the question of how one becomes a good person is here. If you care about the question of how to become a good person, I’m eager to hear your own reflections or have you share a guest post on this blog.


Thinking about my life backward from the very end I'm speeding toward

When I envision it in my head, I hope my final moments alive on this Earth are surrounded by my family. As many of them as possible, and I hope that means I don’t outlive my kids and maybe not my wife either. I hope that it’s peaceful and not too painful. I hope it’s at least a few decades from now, too. At the same time, I hope that moment isn’t one whose arrival I’ve cheated and delayed at great personal cost.

And amidst that scene, when my life is waning, I think about the last few minutes - the last few breaths, even - and how I want them to feel. The regrets that I hope I don’t have and what my life looks like from a vantage point at the very end.

This is a concept Robyn and I have talked about, in a general sense. And our conclusions are pretty simple.

At the end of our life, we don’t imagine wishing we would’ve spent more time working or wishing we had made more money. Or wishing we would’ve spent less time with our kids and our family. We won’t wish we would’ve drank more alcohol, or wish we had spent less time together. We won’t wish that we had been more popular or powerful, or conclude that we had wasted too much time praying. At the end of life, we won’t ever wish that we had put less effort toward being kind and loving toward other living things.

When my Papa went ahead, the part of me that wanted to be a king died with him. King of a company, king of my neighborhood, king of my peers, or even just king of my own backyard. For my whole life, I had wanted to be the king of something, but once he passed, I just didn’t care anymore.

Being the last person by my father’s side, in his final moments, changed everything. I stopped thinking of my life from beginning to the end, and I instead started thinking about it from the end - the very end - to the beginning. And when I did that, being a king didn’t matter much anymore.

And I feel such tension now with parts of American culture. I don’t care about being the big fish in the pond like I used to (and I used to). But I feel like the culture around me signals that competition, fame, talent, status, and wealth is the point. That I should care about those things.

I don’t want to be that person anymore because to be honest, that final moment doesn’t feel far away anymore. My father was older than 60, but he was a young man. And the final moment doesn’t just feel closer than it used to, it feels like it’s coming faster. Like I’m speeding toward it. Like we’re all speeding toward it, faster and faster.

And I don’t know what my conclusion is here. Maybe I don’t have one yet. I guess I hope writing and sharing this, reveals that I can’t be the only one feeling this tearing between the way I want to anchor my life, versus the way I see the brazen and competitive parts of American culture telling me to. Because at the end, the very very end, I want to leave this Earth without wondering whether I had missed the point, wishing I had changed something sooner.

Different isn’t always exotic, or, “It’s just Japanese”

TOYOHASHI, JAPAN—On this trip I fell into the trap where I expected a new place to be more exotic than it really was. One day I won’t, hopefully. 

As it turns out, Japan isn’t as busy as Times Square everywhere you go. As it turns out, there aren’t anime or Sanrio characters in every storefront. As it turns out, not everything is a web-enabled smart device. As it turns out, most people don’t work for the Japanese companies we know in the States.

There are important differences, however, that I didn’t expect. I didn’t understand the degree to which social norms regulate day-to-day life. I didn’t understand that so much here is thought through and designed with a purpose in mind. I didn’t understand the ways in which global culture have infused with traditional Japan. Humorously, I didn’t understand how friendly and fascinated with strangers (especially women) would be with Bo. And there are many more important differences.

But Tokyo is similar enough to any large, global city, it’s just Japanese. The food here is not so different as to be alien, it’s just Japanese. There are still shopkeepers, woodworkers, nurses, hotel clerks, train conductors, and business people here, they’re just Japanese. People here go on about their lives - with work, friends, family, and community - just like in any other place, just in a way that’s Japanese.

As it turns out, Japan is more common and “normal” than the stories lead me to believe. I fell into the trap of believing the story (at least a little) before I actually got here. I would be wise to keep this lesson in mind when hearing stories about people and places back at home, too. 

The things I blame

This is a non-exhaustive list of people and things I've blamed - rightly or wrongly - for things like suffering, fear, anger, and failure:

  • My upbringing
  • "The system"
  • My boss or someone at work with a position in the hierarchy higher than me
  • The President of the United States
  • Other politicians
  • Bad luck
  • God (e.g., when my father passed)
  • The person on the other side (of the table, on the phone, of the cash register)
  • The referee
  • Myself
  • "The "economy"
  • The teacher
  • American culture
  • "Technology"
  • Circumstance
  • My DNA
  • Lack of sleep

I've realized because of a number of blogs / articles, but most recently this interview on the Knowledge Project podcast with poker player Annie Duke, that when I have a failure event I have a tendency to blame something. That was hard to admit.

What's worse, I've realized how cowardly I am if I blame others, even if that blame is accurate and deserved. Blame, regardless of whether it's placed rightly or wrongly, is a digression from taking responsibility to solve the problem or be better.

If our goal is to be better, rather than to be right, blame is a waste of time and a neglect of duty. What's interesting that this is true, even if we blame ourselves. Even if we are blaming ourselves, it is a diversion from taking responsibility.

I hope that by admitting that I do place blame - on myself and others - and naming those things specifically, that I'll stop doing it. I'd rather cut the bullshit and move straight to taking responsibility for making things better or being better myself.

Easier said than done, but it has to start somewhere. And to be honest, even writing this is a liberating moment because I'm feeling my deep-gutted "I'm the victim" muscle start to atrophy a little bit.

Man in the Mirror

Changing myself, has been intense and rigorous. Even changing the smallest of my own habits, has been brutal. Seriously, it took me months just to start getting in the habit of not leaving the day's clothes on the floor, on my side of the bed, when I put on my pajamas at night. Months.

Changing my own backyard has also been hard. I mean this literally. I spent almost two hours doing yard work yesterday and our lawn is hardly up to neighborly standards. When speaking figuratively, the timescale of changing even our own little corner of the world is even longer. It takes years, if not decades. 

I don't really care about changing the world, anymore at least. In retrospect, glorifying and evangelizing the idea of being a "world changer" seems silly. First, I believe that all people should have agency over their own lives, which to me is an idea incompatible with the broad intention of changing the world (i.e., other people). Second, changing others doesn't seem to work anyway. Trying to influence and serve others so that they can and do voluntarily change themselves (usually through love, honesty, and compassion) seems to be the only lasting path to "change" there is.

A lot of people seem to have misinterpreted what Gandhiji said about "being the change you wish to see in the world." Regardless of what he actually said, I think the quote is more a call to change ourselves rather than to change the world. If anything, he seemed to suggest - and I agree - that if we change ourselves the world around us also changes.

All in all, I think Michael had it right (and said it best) - I'm starting with the man in the mirror.


Meaning of life

If we assume our human lives have some deeper meaning, I think it’s not only reasonable but important to be curious about what that meaning is.

The short answer is, I don’t know. And by that I mean, I really don’t know. 

But I’m damn sure it’s not anything like these: 

  • Treat others poorly
  • Put my own needs over others
  • Try to be better than everybody else
  • Hurt others or the natural environment
  • Take more than you need
  • Lie if it is convenient

If my assertions are true, and the meaning of life definitely is not one of those, how much more do we need to know?