My love letter to Sevilla

I firmly believe that the are some places that each of us is destined to love. Often these are places that hold special meanings to many; occasionally they may be polarizing. (For example I still can’t bring myself to love Barcelona, even though many consider it to be a magical place. And yet I deeply adore Paris, which many find cliched, overcrowded, and frigid). But the point is that which cities you are destined to love don’t always make intuitive sense.

For me, Paris makes sense. It’s full of itself, sure, but not because of its impeccable style or riches (hey Milan, which I hate). It’s because of its deep adoration for literature, which is tucked into every available corner, competing for space only with cafes serving wine or places selling cheese, which I also love. 

But Sevilla theoretically has no reason to capture my heart. Much as I’ve tried, I can’t say I’m crazy about the Spanish language, Flamenco dance, or hot landlocked cities. And frankly, there’s nothing THAT special about it. It’s old and beautiful but so are many, many other cities. It’s not usually on the list of must-see destinations, even in Spain. 

And yet Seville, for some reason, has been calling my name ever since I first looked at a map of Europe. And when I finally landed here, I felt the rightness of my being here resonating deep within me. I felt that magical “click” that I didn’t even know I had been searching for ever since I found Paris. “I LOVE this city,” I thought the second I turned a corner and landed on the square where I would have breakfast. “No wait” thought commitment-phobic me, “not so fast. Surely you don’t LOVE it. Surely you just like it, and it will disappoint you within the hour, and you will be over it just like most other cities.” But it continued to not let me down. I walked and walked and walked, turning corners, getting lost, constantly losing my bearings, constantly becoming even more deliriously happy. 

In Seville, I didn’t feel the profound sense of loneliness that I frequently experience when traveling alone. In many cities I’ve felt deeply sad, frustrated or uncomfortable being alone. But in Seville (as in other cities I believe I was fated to love), I felt that being alone there was the way I was supposed to be. I was complete. Me and the city, together, were complete.

I never thought that a city could teach me so much about love, but astonishingly, it really did. Because this is real love: It may not make much logical sense to you or anyone else around you and yet it feels inevitable. It feels too strong to be more than a mere infatuation, and yet it persists far beyond its expected expiration date. It requires nothing else but you and the object of your love. No activities, no distractions, no third wheels to make you forget the tedium of existing. It’s complete in itself. And I am so happy that I have, at least, found it in one more city (and that cities don’t require me to be flawlessly loving, doting, monogamous, or consistent in any way).

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warning: dark content ahead (re: suicide, not my own)

When we still lived in Northern Russia, my sister developed an obsession with a Russian boy band. I’m sure they seemed cute at the time and they had perfectly simple, earwormy songs about being sad and sitting in the rain. (Obviously as I was 6 years younger and thus copied everything she did, I began to love them too even though I wasn’t quite in my emo phase yet at age 8.)

There was one band member in particular who – well, I can’t remember how I felt about him at the time, but looking back today he was certainly the most striking character out of all of them. One guy looked like a goofy Ron Weasley type, not really sure what he was doing there; another looked like your typical underwear model and spent the whole time making sex faces at cameras; and the last – of course he was as idiotic as the rest of them (as boy band members tend to be) – but he had a chameleon-like quality about him, and these other-wordly, cavernous eyes – and the uncanny ability to look like he was experiencing genuine emotion even while singing rhyming cotton-candy crap…


Well, this guy, the one in the middle, with the eyes – he killed himself at age 28. He jumped out of a window.

It’s chilling to re-read accounts of this incident – he was brought into the hospital after being found on the ground, but died in emergency surgery. In that brief stint between ground and surgery, he was asked if someone pushed him out of that window and “he insisted that he had jumped out himself, but he could not explain why”. (Wikipedia)

I remember hearing this from my sister. And at 8 years old I just remember being completely unable to comprehend why, how, someone could (as I imagined it) simply open a window and step out of it. It was probably my first encounter with mortality that I could actually process. I spent many months trying to understand. Imagining what was going through his mind. Imagining what the last moments felt like.


Last night for some reason he re-surfaced again in my mind, probably for the first time since that year. Mortality and helplessness in the face of it have been on my mind. And (frankly) having experienced depression, and witnessed many instances of it far more severe than my own, I feel that now I understand better why, and even perhaps what was going through his mind. But even so, when I think about it now, I still feel the same sense of bewilderment and helpless frustration that I remember feeling at age 8. It’s not fair that depression happens to people. It’s not fair that humans are capable of making and acting on stupid irreversible decisions. It’s not fair that we can’t read each other’s minds when we need it the most.

There is no sense to this post because it’s about a senseless thing. But it’s been going around in my head and I’ve decided to let it out. You can never understand someone fully by looking backward, despite what my English Literature courses might have taught, but that hasn’t stopped me from poring over the videos for the past 3 hours, reading his face, reading their body language, listening, trying to understand. It sucks that he died. That’s all.

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Let me be upfront about this: this post relates to a relatively recent break up. Obviously I am not one to shy away from sharing feelings on this blog but this somehow feels more visceral and personal than ever so tread lightly (oh and hello, I know you are going to read this post eventually, and I’m sorry for the bad publicity). Here goes: 

I want to say that I have stopped feeling guilty. But the truth is that I still catch myself wrecked with it, constantly in its grip, in everything that I do.

It is still inexplicable to me what happened to us, or why, and so far no theory that I’ve thrown against it has made even a little bit of sense. But what has fallen out is a lot of residual hang-ups that are starting to come to light.

Some of these hangups are simply exaggerations of my natural tendencies, such as an oversensitivity to fighting and an intensified flight instinct. But the most deep-seated issue that I’m struggling with is a particularly firm belief that has somehow been wired into my brain (that I think was not there before): that I am, and always will be, a disappointment.

This leads to some odd behaviours. There’s the rabid aversion to expectations. A fear of any kind of display of self-appreciation. And perhaps the most insidious – that I am  now deathly afraid to make promises about my own future behavior.

It seems I’ve learned that I will always be a let-down. And this means that (unless I prevent making absolutely any promises or commitments that imply that I should or will do something), I will always create more situations for myself to feel guilty, simply by failing to comply. In other words, I’m always going to fuck it up, so I may as well try to save face pre-emptively (by refusing to commit to absolutely anything).

I’ve also noticed that I’m pathologically opposed to allowing anyone to do anything nice for me, for fear, I suppose, of it being seen as entry into some sort of reciprocity contract my end of which I will inevitably fail to uphold.

Basically all of it makes me seem like an indifferent, insecure, stone-cold bitch to my friends, coworkers, etc., because it cuts out an essential part of making human connections – the vulnerability to (inter/personal) failure.

I don’t think this belief is necessarily something that my ex explicitly or intentionally caused through any kind of mean or callous behaviour. Frankly I think it’s due to the fact that I was frequently a disappointment. I was to him and he was to me. Somehow the things we thought we were didn’t line up with the things we were in real life to each other. Again, I have not even started to understand why. But the point is that (I think) this constant letting each other down interacted badly with my existing over-sensitivity to people’s approval of me (or lack thereof), and it has left me mildly scrambled.

There was a line on a recent episode of Girls (of all things) that reflected exactly the level of commitment I am willing to take on literally any issue in my life at this moment:

“You know that I would never disappoint you on purpose, right?”

So that’s the best anyone is going to get out of me for a while… But know that it comes from a place of trying to be a good person. Not a stone-cold bitch.

xo. V

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the killer question

I used to struggle a lot with meeting new people; beyond the classic introvert tendency of ‘disliking small-talk’ I simply panicked at the thought of having to (as I saw it) entertain another person in an attempt to get them to like me. Then I finally internalised the (also classic) rule that it’s actually all about asking them questions. But I still struggled with coming up with the right questions to ask.

Lately I’ve found it much easier to stay engaged in conversations with new people, though I don’t know if it ever leads to them liking me. Because perhaps my method has now become a bit of an interrogation. I’ve noticed that no matter what the topic of actual conversation, the questions that I end up asking, over and over again, are all digging relentlessly towards one (perhaps somewhat inappropriate) query:

Are you happy?

Happy. It’s such a nebulous concept. But I mean a very specific kind of happiness. The enjoying being the person living your life kind. The kind that’s ongoing, perpetual. Where you regularly experience waking up light and comfortable and secure. And going to sleep calm, satisfied.

It’s not always easy to gauge whether or not someone is happy, of course. In fact I suspect it would be a difficult question for anyone to answer if asked directly. But it’s not impossible to get a hunch from reading someone’s voice, eyes, intonations, word choice, story selection. It’s an imperfect science, but I believe that it works well enough.

So what have I gathered so far in my year of this super-imprecise hunting -for-happiness experiment?

So far I’ve learned that people who have a life outside of work tend to be happier than those who don’t…

…And consequently that many people in advertising are not happy with their lives.

I’ve learned that people who are destined to be travelers and explorers seem to be perpetually unhappy when forced to do any kind of regular job, no matter how rewarding or fulfilling…

…And conversely that there are people who need the comfort of home, and so will find themselves truly miserable on a tropical island beach after a four-month-trek around some beautiful tropical country.

I’ve learned that people who spend too long thinking about “what they really want” to make out of their lives without doing anything about it tend to be constantly unhappy even if they’re living a hypothetical dream life (e.g. living on a Caribbean island surrounded by friends, daily parties, and no need to work for a living)…

…And that people who never think about “what they really want” are also pretty damn unhappy.

And that there are some people I truly can’t figure out…

And that I’m not really at the level of happiness I’d like to have.

And all of it just makes me ask myself, why the hell does any one of us continue to put up with a life that does not make us happy, if not every day, then at least often enough to be able to confidently answer “yes, I am happy”?! What on earth is the point of all of this if not to be happy, and how is it that we can let weeks, months, years pass by of waking up and going to bed miserable, in total complacency?

I am often criticized by others for my stubborn resistance to all kinds of long-term commitments, but the reason I refuse to definitively decide on a country to ‘set up a life’ in, or so adamantly rage against the idea of marriage, is that my biggest fear is having my personal life turn into the equivalent of my professional one – where you’ve signed up to do something for a long-ass time, you’re living it every day, and trying to change it is insurmountably difficult compared to just going along with it.  I can’t say that the alternative (my desperate clinging to freedom and independence) makes me happy either but at least it guarantees that I can make new choices every day.

So here’s to freedom and independence, and breaking routines, and finding our way towards the answer to the killer question being “yes!“…

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making space

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time meditating on (and attempting) making space. There has been a popular thought floating around the internet for a year or so on the importance of boredom in stimulating intelligent and creative thought, hence the urging of various lifestyle blogs to put your phone the fuck down and get off Facebook to give your brain some time to process and breathe and come up with new things. I absolutely think this is true. But I also think that this concept goes beyond creative thinking.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to deal with the unhappiness I felt in my work and personal life by making myself as busy as possible. When I was busy at work, time went by faster. When I was busy outside of work, I didn’t have time to fight or brood or drink myself to sleep. And the more I felt like my life was slipping out of my control, the more I felt compelled to fill it up with things:

I filled my (ever-shrinking amount of) time with dance classes, side gigs, and going out to brunches, coffees and dinners.

I filled my empty, uncomfortable house with stacks of books, unworn jewellery and clothes, and kitchen accessories.

I filled my (ever-emptying) life with anyone who would be willing to spend time with me, even if deep down I knew that I never would be, or would want to be, friends with them.

I filled my (constantly buzzing) brain with podcasts, music, and industry news.

It’s a compulsive reflex that many of us have – this desire to fill empty spaces. When we go on vacation, our brain comes up with new stresses, worries and panics to replace the ones that were normally created by work. When we remove a person from our lives, we almost without thinking try to fill the gap with someone, anyone else. When we wake up on Sunday morning with nothing planned, our fingers unwittingly type ‘’ in our browser windows, the other hand snapping open the Instagram feed.

But once I stopped filling up my time with random events, the skills I really cared about developing suddenly flourished. Once I stopped grasping desperately for social contact, I was able to connect on a more in-depth level with those who mattered. And once I stopped creating stress for myself at a job I was done with, a new opportunity came along.

In the past week that I’ve been temporarily unemployed and not on a seaside vacation, I’ve been trying (and struggling) to make space. To just give myself some breathing room. Whether that’s sitting at home and doing nothing but reading a book, or choosing to miss a dance party just because, or just biking to my desired destination without putting headphones in my ears.

Just giving myself room for processing, reflection, and dreaming. Giving myself room to breathe, to think, to be happy, to be frustrated, to be alone. To simply not be occupied by something every second of every day.

And although it is a struggle, I can feel the difference. And as much as it sounds like some zen/feng-shui bullshit, I believe it’s true that only once we make space can something better come and fill it.

So here’s to space, breathing room, and zen bullshit. Namaste.

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music is life

When I was an angsty teenager and my parents would make me come with them on long boring day trips, I used to make the music I was listening to into the soundtrack to the movie of my life. Headphones in, I would listen to some particularly fitting tune and imagine that this moment – me leaning my head forlornly against the car window as rain streaked against the glass – this was a scene in the movie of Varia’s life, and something very profound was supposed to be happening in my head (made clear by the preceding scene, obviously). It made those moments so much more interesting. It made my perpetual teenage sadness so much more  bearable.

I think it’s also related that when I experimented with playwriting and putting on plays in high school, my absolute favourite part was choosing the perfect soundtrack. I like to think I had a knack for it.

But what I really want to talk about is the incredible serendipity of shuffle mode.

There’s a series of Russian books called ‘Day Watch’ and ‘Night Watch’, among a few others, which features, essentially, people with supernatural abilities who fight each other – doesn’t really matter. But one of my favourite quirks of the main character is that among all of his “magical” abilities like seeing the future and making people behave the way he wants them to, the one constant positive in his life is his regular old mp3 player, which he always has on ‘shuffle mode’ and which just happens to ‘pick’ the perfect song for the moment every time he switches it on.

I’ve always felt like I have this ‘magical ability’. It probably sounds insane, but I genuinely feel that the universe and I have a special little understanding when it comes to shuffle mode.

I don’t (always) pretend anymore that it’s the soundtrack to the movie of me, but the music that plays in my ears when I press ‘play’ is usually exactly right. Whether it’s the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, or just the mood – it’s always a salve for a wound or an infusion of positive energy.

And just today, in yet another moment where I was reminded of being profoundly lost and alone by my own making, I put in my headphones and I received Swept Away by Parra for Cuva… and suddenly everything was a little bit better. I was able to get up off the bed and make myself some coffee. Suddenly I was back in the movie, and what had happened was simply another scene on the way to an inevitable happy ending.

Run with your life, not behind
Behind the scenes
On the street
The shadow’s broken
Swept away
Trust your body and your head

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(Obviously this is a slightly delayed post if you’ve noticed me posting vacation photos for the past week…)

The cold has gotten into my bones and as usual in February I am finding it a struggle to do anything except eat and sleep. Luckily I am on a plane to Curacao and hoping to inject some life and happiness into my system through the powers of sea and sunlight.

I spent last weekend in St. Petersburg, which probably helped to kick this winter dread into high gear. It was a trip planned around a concert, with the added-on benefits of paying a dutiful visit to my grandmother and seeing a couple of old friends.

It was an amazingly strange, and shockingly depressing, trip. Every reunion was marred by the sadness and frustration that I saw in everyone’s lives. And moreover, I was left with a deep melancholy that stems from being simultaneously overjoyed to not be living there, and yet comprehending – on a visceral level – that I will never experience life as vividly as I do in that stupid, fucked-up abomination of a country.

I don’t know if it’s the language, or the people, or the cold, but I never witness or experience such vivid reality as when I’m in Russia. The Russians have no pretense, no veneer of politeness or happiness or sugar-coating, and they have no fear or hang-ups about experiencing pain to the fullest. I don’t know whether their capacity for joy runs as deeply, but I do know that their capacity to form close relationships runs deeper than any I’ve experienced abroad. Friends there love each other, fiercely, sincerely, completely. Even my friends, whom I haven’t seen or spoken to for anywhere from three to six years – they love me, and I love them, and I would do anything for them in an instance.

And yet in romantic love they often fail so completely. The push-pull of traditional culture and Western expectations burns brightly in Russia as in any other second-world (shall we say) country. My friends have all been married and scarred by it in one way or another, they have wrecked multiple relationships because someone believed they deserved more, or better, or happier; and yet they all still cling on to the goal of a marriage with several kids immediately-if-not-sooner.

This classic struggle between ‘shoulds’ and ‘wants’ mixed with this capacity for deep, intractable emotion – perhaps this is the reason that I have never been able to settle into my relationships with my last few serious, lovely, even-keeled, English-speaking, Western-world boyfriends. Perhaps neither I nor they fully understood my latent Russian darkness, my intangible ties to the suffering, the conflict, the desire for something pushed to the limits to test that it is really real. And I found their optimism and positivity revoltingly false, and their expectations of me stifling for reasons beyond my own ego (the crush of an entire culture’s expectations on my shoulders), and my own guilt over my conflicting desires for an all-consuming love yet with total freedom destroyed me, and them, and us.

And now I find myself a bit at sea, knowing only that the place I feel like myself is not a place I want to spend any time; that my fear of expectations probably stems from a background of following them blindly; and that perhaps it is simply not in my nature to feel at peace. At least I feel that in this case some knowledge (and perspective) is better than none.

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oud & nieuw

The Dutch call New Year’s Eve, pragmatically, “Oud & Nieuw” (old and new, obvs.) I still haven’t figured out why they feel the need to fire off crazy amounts of fireworks to celebrate it (instead of, like the rest of the world, politely cramming themselves into public spaces to watch someone else do it for them), but I do enjoy the general lack of mysticism around this holiday in this country as opposed to many others. Nobody expects the night to be magical, or to suddenly bring about drastic change, nobody even seems to bother reflecting (much) on what they want to accomplish in the year ahead. They just say goodbye to the old, hello to the new.

Today I had to replace my iPhone, whose screen I dramatically, fantastically smashed yesterday afternoon. My ‘genius’ helper at the Apple Store was clearly at the end of a crazy shift, and mechanically went rapid-fire through all of Apple’s rituals surrounding old and new (ha) products.

Click, click, plop, plop, a signature, a swipe of my card, and suddenly I was holding a glistening new iPhone in my hands while my old one lay in a little white box, nestled in a perfectly iPhone 6-sized indentation, with a ‘MAKAGONOVA’ sticker across the side. My phone’s little grave.

It’s strange that as I looked at it, lying crumpled and broken in that silly box, I somehow felt a sense of loss, of having to let something go. Even though I had never felt particularly attached to my phone, nor anything it contained. Even though I was holding an identical, fresh new one and as soon as I connected it to a backup source the two would be indistinguishable. Still, I felt I had to say goodbye, and I watched it being whisked away with an undeniable melancholy.

Perhaps it’s a testament to Apple’s incredible ability to make their products an irreplaceable part of our lives, or perhaps it’s that pesky New Year’s Eve tradition of thinking a little too deeply about fresh starts and reminiscing about times past. But I feel like I’ve participated in a ritual today that pays due respect to ‘Oud & Nieuw’.

Happy holidays everyone.

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There’s one quote from all of Mad Men that continues to haunt me, and it has nothing to do with advertising. It’s spoken by Faye Miller, the beautiful blonde Psychologist, to Don, when he dumps her because he has impulsively proposed to Megan on a trip to Disneyland. Understandably pissed off, Faye spits:

“I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

Of course everyone to some degree or another would agree that the beginnings of certain things – e.g. relationships – are more ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ than four or six or twenty years down the line. But I think this phrase isn’t about that. It’s about a personality trait. It’s the kind of statement that, if it applies to you, and you hear it, it sticks in your mind like an earworm.

To me, that one quote summarizes and explains all of Don Draper’s misadventures throughout the entire series. So often you watch him and wonder, in helpless frustration, why he doesn’t just not do the shitty thing you know he’s going to do: run away. Screw the secretary. Kiss someone else’s wife.

This is why. It doesn’t necessarily indicate (to me) a defect of character. More like a pathology. Like it’s something he can’t really help.

I am a notorious liker of ‘the beginnings of things’. Items of food. Jobs. Cities. Everything is best at the very beginning, and sharply drops off in its value and interest in my mind.

Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project) categorizes people as ‘finishers’ and ‘openers’, meaning that there are those who derive great satisfaction out of finishing something (e.g. a shampoo bottle or a container of milk) to the very last drop, and then there are those who relish the experience of opening the fresh new one.

Guess which one I am. My bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen are littered with half-empty containers. Often I will buy an identical item to one that is running low and impatiently open the new one before I finish the last.

In my mind it’s obvious that these two concepts are very closely related, but I’m not sure how to generalize the thought. It’s certainly true that people I know to be ‘finishers’ (e.g. my housemates) seem to be more patient, more comfortable with staying put in one place, more likely to cook something time-consuming or to finish a book. Are they also more likely to successfully cohabitate with a romantic partner, or to weather the same job (same route to work, same office building, same people), or for that matter the same career, for longer than the Don Drapers of this world? My instinct says yes but I’d like to see more proof.

Any thoughts/studies on the matter, friends?

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on the kindness of strangers

I’ve always thought, despite my grim Eastern European upbringing, that people are generally kind and helpful when given the opportunity to be.

Except that in practice, I have never found this to be true.

Recently I was reading a thread on an online forum that consists mostly of young women from well-populated places in North America, where someone had asked the group: “When someone you don’t know asks to use your phone, do you let them?”

For me it was such an obvious and resounding ‘yes’, that I was shocked when the group’s answer came back as an unequivocal, equally resounding, ‘no’.

“Of course not,” some scoffed. “Only if it’s a woman and she looks like she’s in trouble,” others wrote.

I don’t know why I was shocked, since every time I’ve asked strangers for help I’ve been treated like I’m about to fleece them for all their money and belongings, while being covered in some sort of unsavoury substance.

Once I got stuck at Amsterdam Central Station without my wallet. I asked a stranger to buy me a 2 Euro train ticket so I could get back home and pick it up. He replied, with a lecherous grin, looking me up and down: “Only if you give me something in return”.

Another time – while carrying a cat in a box! – I asked to borrow a woman’s phone so I could let the person I was meant to be meeting know that I was running late. The woman gave me the aforementioned look – one you would give a urine-soaked mugger – and coldly replied: “Uh, no.” as if she couldn’t believe I had had the audacity to ask.

I suppose it is extremely naive of me to continue to assume that people want to be helpful when they so rarely are. But what concerns me more is not the way they behave, but the abject fear with which I, a fairly harmless-looking (I think) person, have been treated on multiple occasions.

Why are we so scared to lend a hand, or a phone, to a stranger?

Is it the fact that we live in cities, where we generally do not even know our neighbors, let alone anyone in our block or other general vicinity? Even in 1970, Stanley Milgram wrote* about an experiment that showed that people living in urban areas were far less likely to let a stranger into their house to use the phone than people who lived in the suburbs. When I read this study I scoffed at it, and yet reading a bunch of New Yorkers answering “no” to the same question without a second thought 45 years later, I did start to wonder whether there might not be something to it.

Is the problem in the fact that the news, in covering horrible events (which are by definition out of the ordinary) makes them seem commonplace and like they could happen to us any minute?

Is this a microcosm of the bystander effect, whereby people are so hard-wired to assume that ‘someone else will help’ that they are unable to force themselves to give a crap?

Or maybe the very phones which started this conversation are tearing us so far away from reality that we struggle with an unscripted interaction with a strange human being that does not take place through a screen?

Are we regressing back into narrower tribes as our world (supposedly) opens up beyond our wildest imaginations?

I don’t know what’s causing this – but I know that it’s a problem.

So for whoever reads this, I have a request. I know that it’s the 26th of December and the festive season is nearly over. But I implore you to think a little longer about whether or not you can do something the next time you encounter a stranger who needs help. And if it’s something that will cost you little effort (and you’re not genuinely afraid for your life) – maybe consider helping. I’m not saying I do all the time – and I’m not saying nobody ever does – just that I know that for many, the instinctive reaction is to close our eyes and walk on by. And I just want to say how big of a difference it can make in someone’s life to have kindness shown to them by a stranger. I know I still tell the stories of the people who were assholes (see above) and the ones who were amazing to me (another time). Which one would you rather be?

*Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, Vol. 167.
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