Eli Schwamm: 17-year old rapper and Samaritans volunteer
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About Our Guest
Eli Schwamm is going to be the youngest guest on the feisworld podcast (for quite some time, I expect). At 17, Eli is a high schooler, audio engineer, rap singer, song writer, and a volunteer at Samaritans of Boston (suicide prevention) for 2 years. He started his journey at Samaritans when he was just 16 years old. I remember hearing about it for the first time and not knowing exactly how to react. Instead, I decided to respect Eli's decision but paid close attention to his journey. I have known Eli since he was a little kid. He has always shown a tremendous amount of compassion for others and deep appreciation for the life we have.
In this episode, I invite Eli to chat with me about philosophy, therapy, music and volunteering:
What does Eli think of "the inconsistency of an artist seen as the biggest criticism"?
Do we have a fixed identity?
How much do we really know about ourselves? Why does Eli believe that "myself is in flux all the time."?
Eli's advice as a teenager, for teenagers (a period of great uncertainty: adolescence is an existential crisis for many people.)
What are the signs of a good therapist / psychologist?
How does Eli practice medication and balancing himself on a regular basis?
What was it like for Eli to participate in a 25-min sitting meditation?
Why do we live in a much more anxious world today than we used to?
How did the Samaritans volunteering opportunity come about?
A Day in the Life of a Samaritans Volunteers (find out how little you know).
What are the policies for working at Samaritans and what Eli is trained to help?
What is the most controversial policy at Samaritans?
What type of advice will Eli give to his even-younger self?
How did Eli encounter hip hop and rap music?
How does creating art and music make Eli feel?
What does a dream project look like to Eli (with no constraint to time, budget and resource)?
Favorite "quotes" and snippets from Eli Schwamm:
On trying growing up quickly:
Nobody really is an adult, people are just varying levels of kids. Nobody has everything figured out, everyone's stumbling through life together. The moment you stop convincing yourself that you need to figure everything out, you can spend a lot more time living it.
On world view and definition for success:
'You have everything you need to be happy already'. That is easy to be confused with laziness. but I mean the process, the living. How do you know if you are on the right path? If you look back and that you genuinely believe the entire process is waste of time, then it's a waste of time even if you succeed.
"A sign of a good therapist is not someone who takes on a distinct personality but rather acts as a mirror to look at your own personality, and for you to make your own judgement."
"'I need to set aside my pride and that's how you practice. The duration of the angry action becomes shorter, and the moment in time you feel grateful becomes larger. "
"Statistically speaking, it is extremely likely that there is always something tragic happening somewhere in the world. It is easy to think that the world is going to hell. But the biggest problem of thinking this way is that we are far too limited in our perspectives as a result of making such giant conclusions of the world as a whole."
On volunteering at Samaritans (Learn more at: http://samaritanshope.org ):
"Volunteering at Samaritans generates such good feelings. As people, we really want to feel useful. The best way to be useful is to be helpful. The work we do is rooted in pragmatism - we are people who listen, I'd love to say that I save lives but that's not true."
It's a big commitment. Everyone will help someone when it's convenient.. Everyone is stumbling through life together. Eli walks us through what it's like to volunteer at Samaritan and why he thinks that making human connections is really important.
There is a very strict policy at Samaritans to not give advice. "We always believe what the caller tells us isn't true. A lot of the times people just need to be listened to."
"Only 40% of the calls are being answered. On a busy shift, we are have 6-7 people taking back to back calls."
"When you are feeling on the top the world, it is easy to help others. But when you are at the other end, that other person lifting a finger for you will make a huge difference for you."
On Art is Living:
"Art is really what humanity did after we fulfilled our basic needs. Art can be anything - music, speech, video game, painting, novel, etc. The purpose of art is to trying to construct meaning or maybe find meaning, or to make meaning, somehow. This is living. We live for art, I think."
On Hip hop and Rap:
"Rap music have a unique opportunity to do two things. One, beautifully sounding words put together to emphasize meaning; Two, construct multifaceted meaning out of physical words, and then take all of that and put it in the context in music. Rap music is poetry plus."
On A Dream Project:
"With Dali Lama: I want to work with him to address continuity between the different religions that exist in the world. I'd love to think that regions is about forging connections and not about causing dissent and conflict. We live in a world where religion is evoking a lot of violence. So a comparative exploration of religion will be interesting."
Check out this article "The Good Samaritan" on The Newtonite Eli was featured in.
People Mentioned / Musicians, Rappers who inspire:
Adam Leffert (coolest uncle) & Sam Schwamm (best brother) who introduced hip hop to Eli
Ab-Soul - "On the surface you may think that it's brag about thug-life. But if you look deeper for significance and then you will find abundance."
Tribe Called Quest (production and the beauty of the words themselves)
I think it's helped me become a better listener. I think it's helped me understand people a little bit better. I think it's helped grow compassion in me. But it's also just a really good feeling to go there.
Fei Wu 0:27
That was Eli, a 17-year-old high school student, audio engineer, rap singer, songwriter and the volunteer at Samaritans of Boston for over two years. He started his journey there when he was just 16 years old. I remember hearing about it for the first time and not knowing how to respond or react to that. So instead, I decided to respect Eli's decision but pay close attention to journey, that, in my opinion, required so much patience, courage and compassion.
Eli opens up with an intro of a rap song he wrote, this part is explicit, but only for the first five minutes of the show, then we dive into this topic of adolescents’ really kind of an existential crisis. And Eli's advice for not only his peers, but many of us who are beyond adolescence, but still feel the struggle with our creative voice, constant attempt to fit in and never feeling at ease with our choices.
How much do we really know about ourselves? Though we live through our experience, oftentimes, we can't see ourselves. In that sense, we also know nothing about ourselves. Eli refers to that as “Myself is in flux all the time”.
We talk about his appreciation for music, of course, and why we all live for art. Art really is what humanity did after we fulfilled our basic needs, art can be anything: music, speech, video games, painting novel. The purpose of art is trying to construct meaning, or maybe find meaning or to make meaning somehow. Eli said: “Art is living”. He may be 17, but Eli has shared wisdom all of us can benefit from to reflect upon.
Fei Wu 2:49
You are listening to the Feisworld podcast This is your host Fei Wu. I share stories from sung and unsung heroes who are just like you and me, who are willing to share their views of the world, deconstruct their success stories that are relatable and applicable. Show notes, tools and resources are on my website at Feisworld.com. If you liked this episode, please check out the other ones. The best gift you could ever give me any time of the year is a review on iTunes, Stitcher or podcast source of your choice. I also welcome that you share my podcast Feisworld with families and friends. Now onto my conversation with Eli Shwamm.
Fei Wu 3:57
So welcome to the Feisworld podcast, Eli Shwamm!
Thank you, thank you very much.
I am so psyched to have you on my show, because you are going to be the youngest guest, probably for a little while. So, you know, right before this I’ll probably give my audience a little bit of an intro. And I thought, you know, why are you so interesting to talk to, is because you're a rapper who also writes music, and you're really into music production, and you have many other lines of work. That simply is astonishing to me and the things you get into. To me, part of that is bravery, you know, and to be at peace with so many uncertainties in one's life. Much senior to you, there are things I struggle with that I oftentimes come to you for advice. So that probably sounds very scary to my guests right now, like, why is a 30-year-old going to a 17-year-old for it? So how would you like to introduce yourself to my audience? I'm curious.
Um, well, I'll start with a rap. How's that?
Fei Wu 5:13
So this is a rap that I wrote partially about the quest to finding one's identity, and it has a beat, but I'll do it acapella here.
Some motherfucker is going to call it self-discovery, I'm just trying to uncover the thing that stands between me and something we call true art. And I'm not going to wait for the blues to start. And I'm not going to wait for the faith to start. I don't want to find starvation looking for the inspiration, I am me here, right now, just trying to say my part. Yeah, I guess it might sound boring, and yeah, I guess it might sound corny, but I'm not going to say that I've been living sorely, and I'm not going to tell anybody else’s story. And frankly, there's no killing in mind, and lately, I stopped killing my mind. And I'm just trying to save my feelings and hope somebody takes some hearing them time. Maybe it's madness. But I don't think I need sadness to make magic. If this happens, I guess I'm satisfied to find them something more than average. So I’m gonna keep rap until I reach this. And I don't want to add fake weight to my baggage for the folk to feel deep when they hear it. My career is, well, non-existent, and I'm only the kid who doesn't give up. I don't want rap for subsistence, I just want to thank succinct shit, sit down and ink it. So if you're looking for my motherfucking mission - well, there's my mother fucking mission.
Fei Wu 6:23
Wow, an empty room. I need to clap on behalf of everybody else.
So the purpose of that is basically to say that, I think, art is one of the places where a lot of people are expected to know themselves completely. And I think that inconsistency is one of the biggest criticisms of an artist, and I think that's silly. I think it's unfounded because part of the purpose of art is to explore yourself a little bit and figure out what do you represent. And I don't even know if you have a real fixed identity the way we think people do, necessarily. So I think expecting that of art is not necessary.
Fei Wu 7:09
I think, not only to art, even expecting that from anybody, from themselves as a student, right? You probably noticed this. I remember from my school years, if I scored a 98 or 100 out of 100, then the next time I need to beat that somehow, to repeat that constantly.
Well, all the time we say to people “Oh, this isn't you”. But the other question I always ask is “What are you, other than your actions and your mindset and all those things?” If you will say “You're not acting like yourself today” - what is acting like yourself?
Mm-hmm. Do people really know that about yourself?
Actually, that's, that's a really interesting question. We get into philosophical topics here pretty quickly [laughs]. Do you think we actually know everything about ourselves? And how much of that can be quantified? To say, what we actually do know about ourselves?
I guess, it depends on what you mean by knowing about yourself. I mean, I'm the only one that can see through my eyes, from my perspective. So in that sense, I have a very good idea of my experience. On the other hand, I was with my therapist the other day. And one of the things he said to me is that the biggest advantage I have is that even though I live through my own experience, I, most of the time, can't really see it outside of myself. Because, you know, I'm inside my own head. I think that's true for everyone. So in that sense, we have almost no idea about ourselves. And the other question this brings up for me, is what is the self that we're supposed to know? I mean, even in the last four or five years, I think I've dramatically changed physically, and I've changed emotionally and intellectually pretty dramatically too. And though there's continuity between the past iterations of myself and myself as I currently appear, I don't think that I am the same as I was before. So how do I know myself? I think that who myself is, it’s in flux all the time, and it's hard to actually know myself at any point.
Fei Wu 9:30
I would agree, because, you know, even going through adulthood, from my mid-20s till 30, when you look at the years, just four or five years, people do change very drastically. I disagreed with that point of view. When I was 26, I was like: I'm already an adult, I don't see myself transforming or transcending through this period. But it's very true. And, you know, one of the reasons why I had to have you on the show is… I recall, when I was your age, possibly a little bit younger, 14-15, I remember going through a pretty serious struggle. And at that time, I very much thought that I was alone, and only did I discover much later on that, to your point, your body, appearance, your knowledge - everything's changing and it’s a period of great uncertainty. So, that's why I want to bring your voice to the crowd.
I mean, in the last couple of years - I can only speak from my experience, but I think it's pretty common - the last couple of years there have been a lot of things that I've had to face that are pretty scary, like big, nebulous ideas. One of them is like mortality, is something that… I don't pretend to have faced and conquered mortality more than others. When you're little, you don't really think you don't really understand what death is. And that's why when your pet fish dies, your parents say “Oh, he's just sleeping”, because that makes sense. And I think that as you become a teenager and then reach into adulthood, you have to confront these various things. And, at a certain point, mortality is one of them. Mortality of people, that people will be born and dying, but also mortality of relationships, of situations, right? You can be very well off financially, for example, but you always have to know that it is not permanent, that, at some point, you won't be in the same position financially or socially as you were before. And it's really easy to get totally scared and frightened by these big concepts. And no one, even the adults who have experienced these things for years, typically don't have particularly great things to say to suddenly alleviate all of your pain, and squash all your fears, because, I think, then people wouldn't still struggle with these ideas.
And adolescence is kind of like a giant existential crisis in some senses. I think that's why so many people struggle with it.
Fei Wu 12:14
Yeah, very much so. And sometimes that fear carries through in their 20s and sometimes into their 30s. And there's something very fundamental about fear. And some of that are the things that we grew up with. You know, after my dad passed away, I've shared that, you know, you're one of the people that kind of inspired me to seek help from elsewhere. And for the first time in my life is a 26-year-old, I seek help from a professional, and it almost was like a secret act on my behalf, but it was such a tremendous amount of help for me.
Hell, I mean, the analogy that everyone says at this point is that, if you had a heart condition, you'd go to a cardiologist, if you're struggling emotionally or mentally, you go to a therapist. I think also, it just really helps to have someone who can be a sounding board for some of the things that you're struggling with. In my opinion, the sign of a really good therapist, it’s someone who doesn't have to take on a distinct personality in conversation with them, but rather acts as a mirror for you to look at your own personality, for you to make your own judgments. I think, one of the biggest troubles about going to friends and family when you're struggling emotionally and mentally is that they always approach you as themselves. And that can be difficult. I mean, it works for all different kinds of people, so I don't mean to say that using your family and friends as a resource is bad, it’s absolutely wonderful. But I think that you can run into issues when you really need to look at yourself. And instead, you look at yourself through your friends’ eyes.
Fei Wu 14:10
And sometimes, with friends and family, they too quickly jump into conclusion, yeah, they do have their best interest in you, and therefore, sometimes they only see one side of the coin as a result.
Fei Wu 14:26
I feel like your parents are very open-minded about, you know… I think when you were growing up in different situations, they're probably comfortable because they are medical professionals themselves. And I was wondering, in this society - possibly in middle school, high school - are there opportunities or people, advisors, that students could go to, for instance, if whether they don't know what the benefits are, or their family won’t support them, whether there are financial difficulties?
Of course, of course. Therapists tend to be very expensive, no doubt, and a lot of therapy isn't covered by most insurance plans. So it is tough, it's really a luxury to have one, that I appreciate. But I think that there are resources at a lot of schools. Most schools have a counselor, in my school, I have been having a wonderful counselor. She's new this year, but she's an excellent person.
I think it's difficult because a lot of the people in the world who need someone to be a therapist, an individual for them, don't have access to it. I mean, in areas that are in a war, for example, those resources don't exist. And honestly, those are the people that probably need it the most, like areas that are severely impoverished. So it's tough. Yeah. And there is no easy solution that I can think of. And that's why friends and family, I think, take that role. And I think it's amazing, how good of a job friends and family can do at being emotional and mental support. But, I guess, what I would say, is that there is always the first thing that one has to do in order to accept mental and emotional support - set aside pride. And that's something that I've had to do many times. And I'm not pretending that it's easy for me, or that I do it willingly. But it is really worthwhile, to be able to do that. To practice that actively.
Fei Wu 16:48
How do you practice?
Well, it's not something that you can necessarily do on a daily basis. You just have to wait until the opportunity presents itself, until you experience something that is embarrassing. That is shameful. And it is very easy to be angry and upset about that. And for the most part, people will be. I think it would be hypocritical if I said that I'm not angry and upset when I feel embarrassed. But, I think, once that first feeling passes - because it will pass eventually - to look back on it and really look back on with open eyes and ask yourself: “Did I handle this the best way?”. So for example, the other day I was driving in my brother's car, actually. And I realized that I drove some time with the headlights off when it was at night. That's like a pretty rookie mistake driving-wise. I was very embarrassed about that. I actually I found out because someone else told me. My gut reaction was to be angry at that person and be like “Oh, fuck you. It's none of your business”, that kind of thing.
And under my breath, when they couldn't hear, that's kind of what I did. But later, I looked back, and I realized that they were actually potentially saving me from a dangerous situation. In some sense, I'm really indebted to that person.
So, I think, looking backward and saying “Oh, this is an example when I needed to set aside my pride” - that's how you practice because then the duration of the angry reaction becomes shorter. And the moment in time when you can be appreciative and grateful becomes larger. And then, when you're faced with a circumstance where you need someone else's helping and you don't want to admit it, it's much easier to do so.
Fei Wu 18:42
I feel like I am also in the trenches at times, not being able to reflect upon myself, my daily experiences. And one of the beauties I'm finding out through podcasting with my guests is, you know, for a second, I need to brag, that kind of creating that environment at times, you could say, is a little artificial, but for us to come together and really share and really reflect upon, you know, I think, pausing is important.
And then I know that recently you had the opportunity to practice in meditation. I want you to talk about that for a second, and you might be the youngest person in that room, possibly.
Not quite, actually, because there are a couple of other people from my class. So my English teacher opened up a Zen Meditation group, and he encouraged us to come if we want to. He put no pressure on us, he's the kind of guy that you very much get the feeling that he respects your choices. So I think it worked well. He's an English teacher in Newton North.
So I went for the first time. One of the things that I'm very bad at is sitting still, I tend to, you know, tap my hands or click my pen, much to the annoyance of other people sometimes. So meditation is something that I've read about, that's always been fascinating to me. And I've always wanted to try it. And when I do try, for the most part, within a few minutes, I feel very jittery, I have to feel like I have to tense my muscles, and I get this feeling in my chest of this, like, there's a fire burning in my chest and it’s slowly expanding to the rest of my body.
Fei Wu 20:35
So funny that you mentioned that, we just came back from a meditation workshop. This is in between your third and fourth chakra and represents the element of fire [laughs].
That's funny. Um, so yeah, we did a sitting meditation, we did some walking meditation, it's easier for me, because, you know, there's motion involved. The sitting meditation lasts 25 minutes. And I would say that within the first five minutes I was, like, sweating. And it was so uncomfortable. But this “firey” feeling sort of spread and spread. And then, after a while, it extinguished itself. And from that point onwards, I think it was really easy to just sit.
And one of the things that definitely taught me, is that all kinds of pleasurable, comfortable feelings, uncomfortable feelings, painful, you know, - all this variety of emotions that we feel, they all will stay with us for a time and then pass. And in the moment of excruciating pain it is so easy to think this is going to be forever, even if you don't intellectually think that, but your whole body believes that you will be in this pain forever, and the truth is - you won't, and then, it never will last forever. And just that knowledge, holding that with you, can make it a lot easier to bear pain, physical, mental or emotional.
Fei Wu 22:16
I feel like a lot of the teenagers I've met over the years, in particular, the age of 13 to 17 – and you get a little bit better as you become an older teen – it is just anxiety… and in today's day and age, we expect everything to happen simultaneously. And even I look back for someone my age, when I was a child, I was forced to have some level of patience. There's no amazon prime online shopping, you know. If something I needed to get happened to be in Hong Kong, then I need to wait for two weeks for it to arrive. And I just find it to be kind of fascinating, it's not just technology alone. Do you think it's parenting, do you think it’s the exposure of crime? I mean, 20-30 years ago, in that wonderful neighborhood that was in Newton, you could have little kids running around, they could walk themselves to school, but it rarely happens now. You know, everybody kind of lives in fear, not so much here, but certainly in many other neighborhoods.
I don’t hundred percent know. In fact, I don't really know it all, but if I had to guess, I would say that part of it has to do with just how much you hear about. Because whenever something really tragic happens, everyone in the world hears about it. And there are so many more people in the world than there were even just 20 or 30 years ago.
So just looking at it from a mathematical, statistical perspective, it's extremely likely that there were tragedies at almost any point in time. Yeah, all around the world. And I think it is really easy to think that the world is kind of going to hell, I know that I often feel that way, especially after the several deaths of African American individuals by police officers, especially the Eric Garner one. For me, that really set me on a path of feeling like, wow, the world is just getting worse as a place.
I think the biggest problem with thinking that way is that we are far too limited in our perspective to be able to make such giant conclusions about the nature of the world as a whole.
And you can believe you can spend your life believing that the world is getting worse, and no one's going to stop you. But there's no way that you can really make that conclusion without assuming. And I think that's a dangerous assumption to make. Because it can lead to a lot of really negative experiences on the assumer’s part.
Fei Wu 25:17
Yeah, and limitations on opportunities. And a lot of parents, especially when they have young kids, I understand that desire, the temptation to kind of force feed that information on to the kids.
Well, I mean, it's every parent's worst nightmare to have something terrible happen to their kids. Everyone just wants their kids to be safe. And that's beautiful. So I don't mean to say that's not a good feeling to have, you know, because you want to nurture and protect.
I don't know the way the line should be. I think the line has gotten closer and closer to home as time has progressed. Yeah, you know, f you see a kid wandering around with no adult with them, it immediately rings that it’s a red flag. I don't know if it would have been that way, you know, 20-30 years ago.
Fei Wu 26:09
So I don't know.
Fei Wu 26:13
Yeah, good answer, though. Especially when you said the word statistically, I was instantly convinced [laughs].
Feels like we're jumping the topic a little bit, but… I was going to say “recently”, and I realize it's not so recent anymore because you've been going out for about a year now, you're only 16 when you started volunteering the Samaritans. So I had a very mixed feeling knowing you, watching you grow up, I had a very mixed feeling because that [the Samaritans] is something that I wouldn't let in and really come into my radar. Even though personally I've experienced, you know, not super close friends committing suicide. I remember when I was in college, I found out that three of the kids from my high school committed suicide a year younger than I was at the time.
So tell us, how did you find them? How the opportunity even come about?
So the story of how I found it (at a sporting event or something like that) - there was this exposition of a bunch of different groups in the community, and each had a little array of candy, to make you approach the booth. So I went to the booth that had the best candy, the Nestle one, from Samaritans. I was intrigued. But it's been really important…I think it's helped me become a better listener. I think it's helped me understand people a little bit better. I think it's helped grow compassion in me. But it's also just a really good feeling to go there.
Fei Wu 28:12
I think it's so good. That was my next question.
Yeah, sure. I really feel like I'm useful there. I think we want people to appreciate us, we want people to love us, to value our existence. Actually, some of the most deeply disturbed callers talk about feeling like they have no purpose, feeling like nobody needs them and nobody wants them. And that is really why we're there - is suggest, listen and be compassionate, and try to express to people that, you know, there are people who still want them there, and people who need them, and people who care about them.
Fei Wu 29:01
What are your roles there? Like, you know, you're there all the time, we got to schedule this interview around your volunteering, you know. So, could you walk me through, what is it like to show up? What do you do?
Yeah, so it's on the fourth floor of a small office, just outside of Chinatown in Boston. And it has one room full of all of the call receiver people, which is really nice because that fosters a real community amongst the people who are taking calls on your shift. And then there's one room of administrative people. And there's a room of people who do instant messaging support. I don't even know how they do that. The phone already feels a little bit detached. I don't know how they do it via computer. But they do.
I would say, there's really only three positions that you can have: you can be a member of the staff, which is pretty limited because we're funded by public grants; or you can be a volunteer either for the IM service or for the phone lines. And there's a range of people that do it, which is really wonderful. There’re men, women, young individuals like myself, older people, so it really does feel like everyone is represented, which is nice.
Fei Wu 30:34
How many people are on the floor, like, full-time? I don't know if there are any full-time employees.
Yeah, no, it totally changes, it totally changes. We're open 24/7. So sometimes, like, at two in the morning on a Wednesday, it's going to be pretty desolate, there's probably gonna be one person taking calls. On Saturday or Sunday morning, there's going to be as many as six or seven, and they're doing eight people there. But there's never like 30 or 40 people, we just don't have the infrastructure to support it.
Fei Wu 31:08
So it's an area that we can explore a little bit to give people a sense of the traffic, the amount of the volume of calls that are coming in. Do you think you have enough people to cover?
Oh no, not at all, we answer about 40% of the calls that come in. And that's doing really well. We get on a busy shift, we have six or seven people getting back to back calls for the entire three or four hour period.
And, I think it's important to mention that not all of the people, in fact, a small percentage of the people that call, are actually what we call “imminently suicidal”.
So I've been at Samaritans for like two years, I've answered hundreds of calls. And I've had only five or six calls from people who, at that moment in time, we were concerned that they're going to try to take their life. But we get a lot more of people who have been struggling, people who call, you know, once or twice a week, that have been struggling for years and that need a place to bent. We try to be that mirror that I was talking about earlier.
We have a policy, a strict policy, actually, of not giving any advice for two reasons. One is that we're very removed from these people's lives and we don't know what the best course of action is. The only advice we do give as advice on how to keep people safe if they are indicating that they're going to try to take away their life.
The other policy that we have is that we're really there to listen and be supportive, so we always believe whatever the caller tell us, even if it's something that we know isn't true. Like, if someone were to say “Oh I'm Barack Obama's lover” or something like that, the point is that you have to believe them. Because a lot of people that call are alienated, they’re people who suffer from mental illness that makes them truly believe things that nobody else believes. And a lot of times you’ll just need to be heard and listened to. And that's really what we exist for
Fei Wu 33:35
How long typically are each one of the phone calls? And I wonder, how people could detect a change from the beginning to the end?
So the thing is - this is actually one of our most controversial policies - we end every phone call after 10 minutes unless there is a concern that the person is about to end their life, in which case, we continue the phone call until we know that person is safe. But every other phone call, no matter how much someone is struggling, we end after 10 minutes. And that's tough. And sometimes it's awful. And you're in the middle of talking with someone. And we always give people a minute warning, but you're in the middle of talking with someone and they're starting to open up and then their time is up. We always encourage people to call back, but we just wouldn't be able to answer any calls. We answer, like, three calls a day. And it’s three calls a shift instead of, like, 30.
So it's hard. And in many ways, that points to the fact that the work we do is rooted in pragmatism. I would love to say that I save lives there. I don't think that's true. I think I'm just a person who listens. And that's all we are, we're people who listen for 10 minutes, for as long as we can spare until someone else needs to be listened.
Fei Wu 35:11
So as a result, I realized there was a lot of my curiosity in the questions of this particular domain. And I feel like if I want to learn more, you know. Perhaps one day I should stop by. I don't know what the policy is around, but…
I don't actually know either. But I do know that they have a website Samaritanshope.org, and it has all kinds of information. They have a lot of different services, like, they will have people drive out to your home if you have a loved one who's committed suicide and provide you with support, they have support groups for that kind of situation. So they have all different kinds of services. And all of them are actually well described in the website. I don't know, I could always look into having a guest there, but I don't know.
Fei Wu 36:01
I heard great things about it. And unfortunately, one of my co-workers suffered from an event with a family member, and he informed me that Samaritans are super helpful when it comes to support group. And they were very surprised.
So, you know, even before your volunteer role at Samaritans, you had spoken up very early on in your life, if I remember correctly, 12-e13 years old, and you talked about wanting to be helpful to other people in your life. And I feel like this might not even be an accident, I think, it's done almost on purpose.
I think I definitely stumbled into it by accident. I did do like a 24-hour training period plus another nine hours of listening to calls in order to actually start working there. So I owe them because I went through that training, I owe them nine months of three hours a week. So I filled that at this point. But it was a big commitment. So I wanted to do it. And I think I wanted to do it because of what I said before, and then, I think, it's a fundamental human desire to be wanted. And one of the best ways to be wanted is to be helpful. I think I get as much out of feeling helpful as the person who I have helped, sometimes more, to be honest.
And you know, it works, it's a pretty positive cycle. Because when you help a lot of people - I mean, it sounds like something that you'd read in a kindergarten book, but it's true - when you help a lot of people, they're much more willing to help you when you're struggling.
And the biggest difference, I think, is that everyone will help someone if it's convenient. When it's inconvenient, who helps you is who are your real friends.
Fei Wu 38:12
I completely echo that. I remember this was maybe a year ago, there was a survey at work and to talk about, you know, on a scale from 1 to 10, how do you feel about these questions? And one of the reasons was “What makes you love most about your job?" And at the beginning there were questions like “I'm learning something new”, “I like my clients”, “I get to experience these, like, cutting edge technologies”. And I remember, the last question was “Because I'm able to help others, I'm able to help people”. Yeah, and it came to me as, my goodness, that's a 10 for me. And I'm always curious to ask other people. So I did speak to a few of my friends and it was the same thing for them. You know, I realized the beauty of me going to work. That's interesting, there could just be a co-worker of mine who's not even working on my project and you cannot solve that Excel problem. The problem itself could be completely insignificant. But yeah, I love that. And those moments, those are the moments I always cherish for.
Yeah, absolutely. Making that human connection, I think, is really important.
Fei Wu 39:21
Mm-hmm. And to really help people who are struggling, like I've been trying to solve the problem for two weeks now and you’re like “Oh, I’m familiar”.
It's so much when you are on top of the world and feeling great, it does not take that much energy to help someone for the most part. I mean, there are some truly intractable problems. But for the most part, you can lift a finger and make a pretty sizable difference in someone's life. And then, when you were in the other end, and you are devastated and you have no energy to spare, that other person lifting a finger for you will make a huge difference for you.
Fei Wu 39:58
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I suspect that my audience right now could be people span across a pretty big age difference. There could be teenagers, 20s, 30s, possibly older. What is that message? Looking back to what you didn't know, when you're younger, 12-13, to what you do now? Or, like, the struggles that we all have. What is the message that you could potentially send out to someone your age or younger or older?
Sure, um, when I was little, I spent a lot of my time trying to figure out how to become an adult and trying to convince myself that I was an adult. I've since given up on the quest, mainly because as far as I see it at the moment, nobody is really an adult, people are just varying levels of kids. What I mean by that is, no one really has everything figured out.
Everyone is just sort of stumbling through life together. I think as soon as you stop trying to convince yourself that you have everything figured out and trying to figure out everything, you can spend a lot more time living.
Fei Wu 41:16
That's very deep. I was listening to Jonathan Fields about the quest of becoming your own mentor, your own guru. You know, oftentimes when we're younger - I don't know, movie star, singer, sure, when we're older, I look at work of very accomplished people. And you know, Madeline Lee's are a really good example. Someone that you're your brother looks up to very much. It's much easier for us to say “That is the guy I want to be”, but, to your point, if we seek for inner peace and seek for the best person we could be, respect our talents, but also limitations. Yeah,
One of the things that attracted me towards the meditation thing that I did was the philosophy associated with it. And one of the key doctrines of the Zen Buddhist philosophy is that you have everything you need to be happy already. It's you don't have to go and get anything, you have everything, you need to be happy already. And that is easy to confuse with laziness, you know, say, oh, you can just chill, and eat chips and, and watch TV all day. And then you don't need to go and get anything. I think that's not the point. I think the point is rather that you don't need to be getting that next promotion or getting that new car or finding that perfect significant other in order to be happy. And it's actually more, it’s actually a process. It's the living that is happiness. It's looking for the car, or the girlfriend or the new job. That is, that should be happiness.
Fei Wu 43:13
The process is the journey. Not just an event or a destination.
And I think the key to knowing if you're on the right path is if you spend your whole all this time and energy, going through the process, and then you fail - everyone's gonna be bummed when they fail - but if you look back and genuinely believe that the entire process was a waste of time, then it was a waste of time, even if you succeeded.
Fei Wu 43:43
Interesting, wow, it’s very deep.
So, we opened up with the rap song that you sang, and I've the luxury to experience, like, a version of your album with a series of songs. And, you know, I recently attended an event at Auburndale library that was an event (brilliant, by the way), hosted by kids from Newton North, for people to come together and just play an instrument, sing a song for you, and you were rapping… And I feel like that has something to do with your mentality and your growth. How do you feel when you rap? What does it enable you to do, to feel?
I mean, more generally, I think it's about art. I think that I love to feel like I'm producing art.
And when you look at it, art is really what humanity did after we’ve fulfilled our basic needs of, you know, food, shelter, water, that kind of thing. I think that you can really look at anything, whether it be music, or a speech, or a video game, or a painting novel. All that stuff is art. And I think the purpose of art is to try to construct meaning or maybe find meaning. But I'm more of the belief that you construct meaning, because if you make the purpose of your life to stay alive and reproduce, which is the purpose of life for most other species, then you're going to be pretty bored. Because we exist in a time when that is easy and, for the most part, readily available.
So, you have to find something else to occupy yourself. And we do that with education, so we can move to something that is in its own way an art. Like, if you're a doctor, that's the art of medicine. If you're a computer programmer, that is the art of the computer program, you're doing something that is more than what you need to do. And the purpose of that is to find meaning somehow or to make meaning somehow. And that's why we live, that's why we keep living because we're not living to assure the continuation of the human species, we're actually doing just about everything we can to ensure the destruction of the human species right now.
So we live for art.
Fei Wu 46:51
So this is definitely the answer. How did you come across rapping? Who inspired you?
I have always loved music. Even when I was a very little kid, music was something that touched me. And, yeah, I played saxophone for many years, and it’s something I plan to return to later in life. Then hip-hop, in and of itself. I think, Adam, who is my uncle, and my brother were the two people that got me exposed to it first. And since then, it's something that I've explored a lot on my own. And that I found a real connection with. I think that hip-hop is a unique opportunity to do two things. One is to take the artistry of words themselves, not necessarily have the meaning you can construct with words, but have the beautiful stuff that the physical words make, and put them together in a way that emphasizes that. And then the other thing is to take the meaning and construct beautiful, poetic multi-faceted meanings out of words. And then to take all of that and put it in the context of music. I think, for me, hip-hop is poetry “plus”. And a lot of the hip-hop that people who aren't interested in hip-hop are exposed to, is pretty uninspired. And that gives a bad rap for - no pun intended - for hip-hop as a genre. But I think that if you really search for quality music and take the time to really think about what the music is saying, you’ll find a rich variety of commentaries on the human experience and on life in everyone's perspective. And by everyone's I don't mean a universal but more like scattered different variety.
Fei Wu 49:17
Clearly, there's a list of musicians, rappers, hip-hop singers that inspire you. It’s, probably, a long list, but can you give me some names?
Okay, correct. Absolutely. Um. A$AP Rocky is an example of someone who, I think, is very intellectual in his hip-hop, and he's very much poetic. I think, Mos Def also fits in that category.
Fei Wu 49:41
Also Tayler Cole, Kendrick Lamar and AB-soul. The thing about the last three or four people that I mentioned is that on the surface level you can look at them and say, oh, this is just the same old bragging about the thug life situation that has no deeper meaning. But if you really analyze the lyrics, and you really look for real significance, you will find it in abundance.
Other rappers that I love are, you know, your classics: Run-DMC, Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan. That very much for me emphasizes the production, first of all, and also the beauty of the words themselves. And then, there are all kinds of oddball people like Brother Ali I love, just because I think his delivery is soulful. Snoop Dogg I love because his voice is just awesome. And I could keep going forever.
Fei Wu 50:52
The last question, which doesn't have to conclude everything we talked about, but money, resources aside - and this does not have to be the goal of your life or something you have to do - but if you had the freedom to do a project of any period of time, what would it be?
A project of any period of time…
Fei Wu 51:21
Yeah. Any project, you know.
That's a tough question.
Fei Wu 51:27
Yeah. Like, who would you work with? I mean, you could choose anybody.
I love the Dalai Lama. And I got to hear him talk actually this year. And it was a phenomenal experience. I think he's a really intelligent person who has a really beautiful perspective. So I think I would work with him on addressing and, hopefully, trying to find some sort of continuity between the different religions that exist in the world. I love to think that religion is about forging a connection and not about causing dissent and conflict. But we live in a world where religion is invoked for a lot of violence. I don't think that I would ever be able to get anywhere close to solving it, but I think that working with the Dalai Lama to talk about the interaction of different religions and a comparative religion exploration would be interesting.
Fei Wu 52:42
Awesome. Well, I can't really top that [laughing].
Thank you. That was so much fun.
Thank you so much for having me.
Fei Wu (outro) 52:55
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