Cross-cutting topics for holiday conversations
All I want for Christmas are golden conversations.
I am off social media, but the year-round necessary wired engagement via email, text messaging in different apps, livestreaming options, and getting news updates leave me and probably a lot of people out there too, with a yearning for both alone time and also for meaningful, extended face-to-face conversations.
The holidays draw a marked season of chances to catch up with family and friends. But while there is a lot to catch up on in terms of what each family friend or barkada member has been up to, perhaps there is room to deliberately engage each other on really thoughtful topics that cut across age, ethnicity or even gender.
The past few years seemed to have done a better job highlighting the things that divide us. Politics – local or global – has seen old friends break up and family members not talking to each other anymore. But while there are things that wall us from or even against each other, work in the sciences have shown that we should never forget that there are things that strongly and permanently bind us all.
If you are one of those who want to engage beyond the usual hello and the perfunctory pleasantries, there are themes from important research that are so ripe for conversation. Some of these revelations require us to rethink the way we have been raised, because our future – individual or collective – depends on it. Some require us to reconsider what we think are "completely new things" that have nothing to do with the past.
Here are 5 conversational themes that could mend or fill in some gaps in your family and friend connections:
1. Rethinking the way we look at lechon and fried chicken
This is actually about the way we have latched on to only a few things to satisfy our daily and feast time appetites. I have friends whose top reason for coming home to the Philippines for Christmas is because nobody does lechon like we do. Fried chicken, and the million other ways to cook the common bird, also serve as staple holiday food.
But it is not only our traditional feasts that have relied only on a few kinds of livestock and crops for generations. Fact is, the average human diet has relied only on a few crops – 10 at best – and to grow only these things to serve a growing world population has required increasing amounts of life spaces around the planet. This narrow dependence has caused the once stupendous variety of flora and fauna, as well as the places they inhabit and give life to, to shrink to dangerous proportions. There are now more chickens in the world than all the other kinds of birds combined! Our dependence on only a few crops also means that once these kinds of crops fail, there would be serious food insecurity.
But you should still finish the portions of lechon and chicken that you got from the meal table. This topic is not intended to dampen your holiday spirit, but for you to entertain alternate meals to pave the way for a better, post-holiday life. My mom prepares mean chicken dishes and I would not miss them for the world. But she also loves a culinary challenge, so maybe I could suggest little bits of other things (but not endangered ones!) next holiday and we can start a tradition of "little bits of variety."
2. "Old" and "new" may not really be so.
A few days ago, at a wake, I was listening to my brother and a family friend of ours exchange stories recently about their children who have just graduated, with some having started work. As is known about parents of any generation, they often lament how their kids are so different from them, as if how children behave is something completely new to all the generations before them. And in an equivalent vein, both fathers said their kids always say "Dad, it's 2018" to mean that whatever their dad is saying does not really apply to these times anymore, as if what children of today are engaged in are completely their own generation's invention.
One big thing that both parents and kids are aware of is how language has changed, specifically how it has been abbreviated and taken over by emoticons. Parents usually lament this, and the children of the digital age hail this as their generation's revolutionary feat. In wooing someone, young people would perhaps write: "An S A now, I mean 2 write / 2 U Sweet / R U for an X ation 2? / ...heart and ☞ ." Right? Except, that was part of a poem by C.C. Bombaugh, published in 1867.
Also, the song "Big Yellow Taxi," which I hear being sang by kinds now in their teens and whose refrain goes, "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got / 'Till it's gone / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot," is actually 43 years old. It was written and recorded by Joni Mitchell.
Kids, beware what you call "all ours and new." Parents, relearn your own history and how your own parents looked at you. No generation is completely cut off from the ones before them.
3. Education is no longer just about degrees.
Most Pinoy family reunions will have some sort of roll call as to which kid is studying to be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. But the challenges that face us now and in the future require an overarching reach across various disciplines so that we can come up with solutions.
One study by many experts from various fields revealed that probably only 8% of the students in the world are capable of collaborative problem-solving – an essential trait required in the 21st century, given the issues that bleed across disciplines. In fact, many aspects of medicine, engineering, and law can be done by Artificial Intelligence now. But collaborative problem solving, so that diverse human opinions and knowledge can come to bear on a problem, need minds that straddle the disciplines – the sciences, technology, the arts, humanities – including ethics, which in turn require empathy, compassion, and self-awareness and reflection.
I notice that many graduates these days sign their emails with their degree and alma mater. They think it is really cool especially if it is a school everyone seems to think guarantees a good human being. But no school or university degree can guarantee a good human being, because it is not what you know but what you do with what you know that can lay out what kind of human being you are. So, get to know the non-doctor, the non-lawyer, or the non-engineer in your family and friends. Human beings are multi-splendored beings, and the worlds of non-doctors, non-engineers, and non-lawyers are as interesting, and maybe, a lot more.
4. Uncertainty about gender is not a disease.
Inevitably, in any family gathering, there will be whispers and rumors about which member may be uncertain about their gender. While this can be described as many things – sensitive, delicate, private – everyone has to know that whatever their feelings are about it, gender dysphoria (discomfort between the gender one experiences and the gender that birth has biologically assigned) is not a disease. It was never a disease, but because our understanding always lags behind reality, the World Health Organization just declassified it as a disease this year. Gender is an aspect of our humanness that calls out for respect, dignity, and appreciation for its uniqueness, just like other aspects of who we are. It is not a switch you can dim and still be lit up as a whole from within. A human eye can see different variations of light in the form of 7 million colors. If an eye can do that, surely the human spirit, which even religions exalt to be most expansive, can see gender in more than two.
5. Thankfulness = happiness
Scientific studies have confirmed that it is so much easier for our brains to see the negative side of anything. It takes more effort to be positive. But even if it requires more effort, seeing the positive leads you to be thankful. Gratitude studies have proven time and time again that it is one of the open doors to sure happiness. Do not just make a mental panoramic shot of your life and conclude that there must be a good portion of things to be grateful for. Tease them out. Those gratitude studies revealed that it is being aware of specific things that you are grateful for that can give or recover happiness for you. It may sound too simple a measure to yield a profound feeling, but it does. It really does.
So I wish you marked chances to behold a face and engage in a golden conversation this holiday season. Digital citizen or not, the native human in all of us, young, old, and middle-time yearn for that. As author Ruth Ozeki articulates in her book A Tale for the Time Being, we are all "time beings" – like notes that come out of specific strings or keys. But notes are meaningful only when they create music. And music is what humans from across time can do together. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.