Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

The Secret

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Every now and then, I post an article based on personal experience and subjective observation, not scientific evidence and objective observation. This is one of those articles.

- - -

I love being horribly straightforward. I love sending reckless text messages (because how reckless can a form of digitized communication be?) and telling people I love them and telling people they are absolutely magical humans and I cannot believe they really exist. I love saying, Kiss me harder, and You’re a good person, and, You brighten my day. I live my life as straight-forward as possible.

Because one day, I might get hit by a bus.

Maybe it’s weird. Maybe it’s scary. Maybe it seems downright impossible to just be -- to just let people know you
want them, need them, feel like, in this very moment, you will die if you do not see them, hold them, touch them in some way whether it’s your feet on their thighs on the couch or your tongue in their mouth or your heart in their hands.

But there is nothing more beautiful than being desperate.

And there is nothing more risky than pretending not to care.

We are young and we are human and we are beautiful and we are not as in control as we think we are. We never know who needs us back. We never know the magic that can arise between ourselves and other humans.

We never know when the bus is coming.

Rachel C. Lewis

- - -

As a social dancer, I have the privilege of entering into the bubbles of my fellow humans on a regular basis. It’s not so hard as it seems -- after seeing me whisp someone onto the dance floor, a friend asked, “What did you say to her?”

“I said, ‘Hi. Would you like to dance?’ “

Not everyone will dance with you, of course, but this happened to be someone standing alone watching the band. The same friend told me I probably made her night. Not everybody expects to be danced with, but most people don’t mind being swept off their feet.

After the dance, you usually say thank you, double-check you remember their name, and then… what?

Sometimes, you never talk to them again. Many of your dances you may not remember. But sometimes people leave an impact on you. Halfway through the song you suddenly find yourself discussing your favorite place to travel -- or maybe they rebutted, “Picking a favorite is hard.”

“Okay, tell me the place you went that humbled you the most.”


“The place that taught you something about yourself. The place that made you realize or remember you don’t know everything.”


“Europe. Because the people there showed me that there was so much more to life than the way I’d been living it. Europe opened my eyes to the rest of the world. It gave me the travel bug.”

These conversations don’t happen with everyone, of course. Some fall flat after discussing your dance experience, or maybe you don’t talk at all. Some of the most profound connections I’ve with people are wordless: our relationship is defined by the synchronized movement of our hips or the wisp of a twirling dress; maybe in a dip we realize that’s the first time we didn’t communicate clearly, and that the past three minutes we’ve been not two bodies, but one.

What is it to have a meaningful connection with someone? Is it a lifelong of sharing love -- and then, romantic or friendly love? Is love binary? The touch of a hand, or must words be used? Can it happen in a minute, or does it take a lifetime? A dance? A glance?

Sometimes you meet people and they take your breath away. You leave with a sense of bereft newness about you, as if they have simultaneously given you a new perspective and yet created a void where you know you have something to learn. They open the door to a room you never knew existed. Inside? Mystery, discovery, maybe friendship, a story.

- - -

In Egypt, I'm told, it's rude to ignore a stranger, and there's a remarkable culture of hospitality. If you ask someone for directions, they're very likely to invite you home for coffee. We see these unwritten rules most clearly when they're broken, or when you're in a new place and you're trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

In other cultures, people go to extraordinary lengths not to interact at all. People from Denmark tell me that many Danes are so averse to talking to strangers, that they would rather miss their stop on the bus than say "excuse me" to someone that they need to get around. Instead, there's this elaborate shuffling of bags and using your body to say that you need to get past, instead of using two words.

Sometimes in conversation, people ask me, "What does your dad do?" or, "Where does he live?" And sometimes I tell them the whole truth, which is that he died when I was a kid. Always in those moments, they share their own experiences of loss. We tend to meet disclosure with disclosure, even with strangers.

So here it is. When you talk to strangers, you're making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life and theirs.

Kio Stark

- - -

And then you go home, and undress, and hang up your sweaty dance clothes to dry. You lie in bed and think about the people you met, and wonder if there was something more there, and what was holding you back from getting their number, or finding some other way to see them again.

Is there a stigma around the way we meet and connect with each other? Can we be friends with people not because of shared interest or mutual attractiveness but simply because we have the ability to touch each other in beautiful ways? What does that look like?

And how do we let go of these people once we’ve met them? Do we reflect on that dance or the answer to their question with fondness, maybe a sense of longing? Are most of our connections fleeting, and if so, can we still find the beauty in them?

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Paul Ford,
How to Be Polite

I like to think that even when our efforts fail, it is when we conceive of the possibility of success that are we most alive. When we strive to connect with each other, our hearts beat a bit faster, our pupils dilate, our selves are on the line. We can choose to forgive people; can we choose to fall in love with them? Can we choose to see the light in someone we’ve never met before?

I like to think that in that moment when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we ask something besides “how are you?” or answer something besides “good,” when we tell someone “I want to see you again” or “you have had some impact on my life,” when we put our feelers out to connect with people on a level beyond being chunks of carbon on a chunk of rock flying through space -- that is when we are our most vulnerable, and our most alive.

Sometimes at night I lie awake, missing this something. I yearn to be vulnerable, to connect, to play, which as children we so readily did or were forced into, but now we give it second thoughts as strangers are dangerous (right?) and there seems to be an unspoken rule on the bus not to talk to others or even make eye contact. We might be judged. But I think what we all need on some primal level is to know that we aren’t alone on our rock. I think what we all need is to find each other.

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel: that is the purpose of life.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

That I want to love and be loved and reach out and be emotionally naked with strangers and have that be okay -- that is my secret. That is what keeps me up at night.

Make Me Uncomfortable

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My karate instructor recently shared a story by one of her old students. He was a police officer who received a call about a “dangerous person.” He was to approach with his gun drawn. When he got there, he watched the person from a distance for a while, sheathed his gun, walked up, and said…

“Hey. Nice moves.”

The perpetrator was practicing Tai Chi. The operator had been told someone was “moving strangely” and that the “lives of those in the park were in danger.” Fortunately, the officer also practiced Tai Chi, so he recognized the practice as entirely non-lethal.

Americans are creatures of convenience. We have mastered the lazy lifestyle: we watch more TV than anyone else1 and buy more fast food2 than anyone else. We have more internet users per capita than anyone else3 -- people who stare at a screen, that is, instead of at other people. We pay to have our trash ferried miles away and buried underground. Depending on the year we have the most cars per capita than any other country4 so we can drive ourselves to work instead of carpooling with other people or taking the bus. We have our clothes made in other countries. If we spend 8 hours at work, 8.6 hours asleep,5 4.7 hours watching TV,1 and another 4.7 on our phones,6 that leaves... quite literally negative time for socializing. Granted, TV and phone use are easily multitaskable (if my data are correct, something must be multitaskable, and it’s probably not sleeping), but do we really want our only social interaction to happen while we multitask?

There is nothing wrong with being a little lazy every now and then; in fact, one might argue that taking time for oneself is healthier than not. The problem with convenience is that it removes the substance of a task. If you drive to work every day, you might not appreciate how far you are traveling (the US has the 2nd most motor vehicles per capita17 and one of the longest commutes in the world).8 Bury your garbage out of sight, and you might not appreciate how much you produce (I hypothesize that trash from the US travels among the farthest of all trash in the world, which may be why the US produces the most waste per capita).7 Shop more? The US has more purchasing power per capita than any other country19 and ranks the 21st most expensive out of the 123 countries with an evidence-based cost of living index.9

Any one of these, of course, could be considered circumstantial. What doesn’t seem so circumstantial is the correlation between convenience and social isolation.

Technology is seductive. Homes, offices, domestic appliances and clothes now play a crucial role in our lives, but not many of us question exactly how and why we perform so many daily rituals associated with them. Showers, heating, air-conditioning and clothes washing are simply accepted as part of our normal, everyday lives, but clearly this was not always the case. Available technology has increased vastly over the past 100 years -- in the early 1900s, there were no washing machines, TVs, computers, radios, cars, trains, and the list goes on. With all this technology has come convenience, and the United States along with many other countries have lapped it up.

Certainly, there are some ways we are better for these adoptions. The medical impact is the perhaps the most obvious: between 1930 and 2014, life expectancy has increased by 31%, from 60 years to 80 years.10 In 2013, the three leading causes of death were heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases; in 1900, they were pneumonia and the flu, tuberculosis, and diarrhea.11 There is little to no evidence to suggest, however, that we are at all happier despite these advances. In fact, one study indicates that we are less happy than we were 30 years ago.22

Even if there was conclusive data on happiness, of course, there are still many nuances to consider. What about crime rate? Quality of life? Variety of food? Certainly, technology has affected many of those. The point I’m making here is not that technology has had no effect -- the antithesis there is self-evident -- it’s that with the increases in convenience technology has permitted us has come an increase in social isolation and closed-mindedness.

Technology is not inherently good or bad. Take nuclear technology, for instance. Nuclear energy has produced millions of kilojoules of energy at incredibly low cost. It powers much of the world -- 19% of the US16 and 80% of France,17 for instance -- and is the cleanest of any source of energy baseload energy source.15 Yet the two nuclear bombs dropped in mankind’s history killed 220,000 people (not many compared to hundred million or so losses in the wars of the 20th century, but the point stands). Any given technology can be used to improve our lives or destroy them.

It is the way we use technology that matters.

And sometimes we aren’t even aware of the way we are using it.

The way we use much technology narrows our focus. It isn’t poorly intended, of course. It’s very well intended: by filtering out the things we aren’t interested in, we can spend more time focusing on what we want. We drive faster farther to work so we have more time to spend at home with our families (right? Well, not really because as I mentioned before, we have among the longest commutes in the world). When we use about 10 billion K-cups a year, enough to circle the earth more than 12 times stacked end to end, we’ve just had a lot of really convenient coffee, but also just added 88 million pounds of plastic to the landfill (but who cares, right? It’s in a landfill!).

Yes, we do a lot of filtering. Our Google searches are filtered of links we are less likely to click on, our Facebook feeds are filtered of opinions we might disagree with, our solo commutes are filtered of other travelers. This makes our lives very convenient -- but also very isolated.

In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, when the survey was given again, the most common response was zero.20

Consider the following activity:
  • With a pencil, make a list of ten items that are near you.
  • Choose a color on one of those items (for instance, if your computer monitor is black, you might choose the color black) and erase all items that are not that color.
  • Do nothing with the list for a week.
  • After that week, bring the list with you the next time you leave your home, and try and remember all ten items you originally wrote down (you can look at the list).

It should go without saying that listing the items you’ve erased is much harder than listing the items you didn’t. What you’ve done is made a list of indexed items -- in this case, items indexed by color. And what Google and Facebook and targeted advertising and friend lists do is they index people and opinions. And so you never see the opinions, the articles, the viewpoints, or the people that aren’t on your list because they aren’t in your index. Sure as those items near you exist, those opinions and people still exist. And they aren’t any less valid because you don’t know about them.

The immune system, for instance, functions very well at a young age. There is a hypothesis for which information is still being gathered called the hygiene hypothesis: children in hyper-clean environments are more disease prone at older ages.25 Why? Their immune systems never learn to defend themselves. The wider a variety of germs children are exposed to, the better their body learns to cope. If we are germ-isolated as children, what happens later in life? Those with poor immune systems separate themselves from the rest of us. They have to live in hyperclean environments later; they can’t survive in environments they haven’t build immunity to (or they can, they just have asthma, allergies, and get sick more often).

Similarly, I would argue that the wider a variety of people and opinions one is exposed to, the wider a variety of people and opinions one can come to understand. Our perspective of the world is shaped by our experiences, and our definition of right and wrong is not immutable -- it is defined by how wide the variety of humanity is that we experience. Grow up in the US and you probably tip your waitstaff, but go to eastern Asia and doing so is an insult. In some countries, it’s rude to sit in the back of a cab; riding shotgun lets the driver know you consider them your equal (more country-based cultural differences here). Are any of these behaviors “right” or “wrong?” Of course not! Known as the mere exposure effect, this is a widely substantiated phenomena: we prefer not what is right or works better, but what we’re familiar with.13, 14

And technology keeps us from being familiar with more. Again -- and I can’t say this enough -- it is well intentioned. If you play soccer and not tennis, it’s certainly a waste of your time to be shown ads for tennis rackets instead of soccer balls. But isn’t it possible those ads could change your perspective of soccer? Or what if -- based on the fact that most people who don’t play tennis also don’t play football -- you are never shown an ad for football, even though that’s something you might like if you were exposed to it? You will never know.

These are grossly simplified examples of the vast and complex inner workings of your brain, but the same principles do apply to concepts such as race, gender identity, social norms, and any given stereotype. Stepping outside our comfort zone is valuable besides it is humbling -- it teaches us that maybe, just maybe, what we’re familiar with isn’t the only way of doing things. Maybe there’s a much better way: Europe’s sex-positive education has led to a teen birth rate one-eighth that of ours;26 Germany’s charging $2/lb for trash has resulted in a 50% decrease in waste since implementation in 1994; many countries have implemented polymer bank notes which create 60% less environmental impact, last 2.5 times longer, and allow for more security features than traditional paper notes.28 There are some great ideas out there.

But technology is, intentionally or not, segregating us from other people, opinions, and ideas. The average child now spends less time outside than the average prisoner.30 Almost half of adults spend less than 30 minutes outside a day.31 And as I mentioned before, we spend more than 8 hours combined watching TV or looking at our phones. How do we meet people nowadays?

100 years ago our hobbies were chucking dirt clods in each others’ eyes, going for walks, dancing, making music, entertaining, and just in general being active. Ask almost anyone what their hobbies include nowadays and Netflix is sure to top the list. When you walk down the sidewalk or wait for the bus, nobody’s talking, everybody is on their phone. Friendship and trust are created through spontaneous connection,33 but we spend 93% of our time indoors.31

Photo credit Brightside

While the average American paycheck has risen over the past 30 years,22 its happiness-boosting benefits were more than offset by a drop in the quality of relationships over the period.

"The main cause is a decline in the so-called social capital -- increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair," said Stefano Bartolini, one of the authors of the source.22

A recent story in the LA Times:

We lead increasingly comfortable, atomized lives. Our cars feature separate climates for driver and passenger; our mattresses offer separate degrees of firmness. Comfortable? Sure. Convenient? Yes, but if we can't compromise on the small stuff, like mattress firmness, how can we expect to do so for truly pressing problems?

We'd also be a lot wiser if we were to embrace difficulty rather than run from it. In the 1990s, UCLA psychologist Robert Bjork was studying how students learn and noticed that when students faced obstacles, they retained more information in the long run. The techniques vary — making learning material less organized, varying the setting, using fonts that are harder to read — but the principle is the same: When we break a sweat, we learn more. Bjork called this phenomenon “desirable difficulty.”

Or consider a 2014 study on note-taking. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, of Princeton University and UCLA, respectively, asked half the students in a college lecture to use laptop computers, and instructed the other half to use paper and pen. The laptop users took more notes, but the paper-and-pen group scored considerably higher on comprehension.

Mueller and Oppenheimer surmised that the longhand note-takers couldn't mindlessly transcribe the lecture verbatim. They were forced to condense and synthesize the material — in other words, to think deeply about it. They benefited from desirable difficulty.

Human beings benefit from boundaries, obstacles and, yes, inconvenience. Scratch the surface of our frothy lives and you see this truth laid bare. Take, for example, Buddhism. It is not the easiest religion, as anyone who has attempted to meditate for five minutes knows, yet it is immensely popular. Why? Because
difficulty works.

The late philosopher Robert Nozick’s thought experiment offers further proof of that. It’s a simple experiment: imagine you can push a button to be happy. Would you? Most people answer “no.” Yet isn’t happiness what we all desire? Of course it is, but we don’t believe happiness comes without work. And you know what? it doesn’t.

Experiencing difficulty, pain, and discomfort actually makes people happy. The simplest form of this is the euphoric high many feel after exercising; additionally, groups of people that experience pain are brought closer together than those that don’t,21 people who recently experienced physical pain enjoy food shortly thereafter more than those that didn’t,24 and people who experience emotional pain are more resilient to it in the future and more likely to be happier.23

Technology makes life easy. It protects us from experiencing opinions that conflict with our own, meeting people we otherwise wouldn’t meet, and going places we otherwise wouldn’t go. If you feel like I’m attacking you, like I’m challenging your way of life -- good. Let’s make each other uncomfortable. I’d rather live inconveniently and be more aware of the way the world works, having experienced both things that make me uncomfortable and things that make me comfortable, than having experienced only the things I’m comfortable with. Every now and then do I want to sit on the couch with a drink and watch my favorite TV show that I know I’ll like? Yes. There is absolutely a time and a place for that.

But for all its boon, technology hasn’t made us happier. There is a time and a place to learn about other people and to be open towards and accepting of ideas, people, and actions you’ve never heard of. Too often we use technology in ways that narrow our perceived perspective.

Every now and then, turn off the TV. Call someone instead of texting them. Buy your groceries from a new store. Friend someone on Facebook you don’t share political views with. Ask a stranger for directions instead of using Google Maps. Make yourself uncomfortable. That’s how you know you’re learning something. That’s how you know you’re connecting with other people.

1International Communications Market Report. Ofcom. 12 Dec, 2013. 2At least 5 different website cite this fact, but none list their source. I believe the information comes from Euromonitor International, but cannot access any of their studies without paying a significant fee. 3ICT Facts and Figures 2014. Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union. Retrieved 24 May 2015. 4World Statistics Pocketbook. United Nations. Retrieved from on 29th Aug, 2016. 5Jones, J. “In US, 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep.” Gallup. 19 Dec 2013. Retrieved from 29th Aug, 2016. 6Internet Trends Report 2016. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. 26 May 2015. Retrieved from 29th Aug, 2016. 7World Statistics Pocketbook. United Nations. Retrieved from on 25th Sep, 2016. 8Combined data from the European and US Census Bureaus. 9”Cost of Living Index for Country 2016 Mid Year.” Numbeo. Retrieved from on 25th Sep, 2016. 10”Life Expectancy at Birth by Race and Sex, 1930-2010.” Retrieved from on 25th Sep, 2016. 11”Leading Causes of Death, 1900-1998.” Retrieved from on 25th Sep, 2016. 12R.A. Easterlin and L. Angelescu. “Modern Economic Growth and Quality of Life: Cross-Sectional and Time Series Evidence.” Handbook of Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research. Springer, 2011. 13Bornstein, R, et. al. ”The Generalizability of Subliminal Mere Exposure Effects: Influence of Stimuli Perceived without Awareness on Social Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Dec 1987. Vol 53, 6. 1070-9. 14”The mere exposure effect is based on implicit memory: Effects of stimulus type, encoding conditions, and number of exposures on recognition and affect judgments.” Seamon, J, et. al. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. May 1995. Vol 21 (3). 711-21. 15"IPCC Working Group III – Mitigation of Climate Change, Annex II I: Technology - specific cost and performance parameters" (PDF). IPCC. 2014. p. 10. Retrieved 2014-08-01. 16"Summary status for the US." Energy Information Administration. 2010-01-21. Retrieved 2010-02-18. 17Eleanor Beardsley (2006-05-01). "France Presses Ahead with Nuclear Power". NPR. Retrieved 2006-11-08. 18World Statistics Pocketbook. United Nations. Retrieved from on Sep 29th, 2016. 19”The World Factbook.” CIA. Retrieved from Sep 29th, 2016. 20McPherson, M, et. al. ”Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review. June 2006. Vol 71, 3. 353-75. 21Bastian, B., et al. “Pain as Social Glue Shared Pain Increases Cooperation.” Psychological Science. Nov 2014. Vol 25, 11. 2079-85. 22Bartolini, S. “Did the Decline in Social Capital Depress Americans' Happiness?” Social Science Research Network. Aug 2008. 23Franklin, J., et. al. “Feeling Worse to Feel Better: Pain-Offset Relief Simultaneously Stimulates Positive Affect and Reduces Negative Affect.” Psychological Science. April 2013. Vol 24, 4. 521-9. 24Bastian, B., et. al. “Gustatory pleasure and pain. The offset of acute physical pain enhances responsiveness to taste.” Appetite. Jan 2014. Vol 72. 150-5. 25Okada, H., et. al. “The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ for autoimmune and allergic diseases: an update.” Clinical and Experimental Immunology. April 2010. Vol 160, 1. 1-9. 26Sedgh, G., et. al. “Adolescent Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion Rates Across Countries: Levels and Recent Trends.” Journal of Adolescent Health. Feb 2015. Vol 56, 2. 223-30. 27Fishbein, B. “Germany, Garbage, and the Green Dot: Challenging the Throwaway Society.” Inform, Inc. New York, NY. 1994. 28Lang, B., et. al. “Polymer bank notes.” Reserve Bank of New Zealand: Bulletin. Vol 62, 2. 30Burt, J., et. al. ”Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment pilot study: visits to the natural environment by children.” Natural England Commissioned Report NECR208. Feb 2016. 31”NRPA’s Park and Recreation OUT is IN Survey: National Findings.” National Recreation and Park Association. July 2014. 32Foot, H., et. al. “Friendship and Social Relations in Children.” Transaction Publishers. New Brunswick, NJ. 1980.

The Head, the Heart, and the Hard Work In Between

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions. Augusten Burroughs

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I want this blog to go; since I put a lot of myself in this blog, I’ve also been thinking about where I want to go. I’ve been thinking about whether I should listen to my head or my heart.
Allow me to explain.
Following your emotions is easy. Feel fear? Run. Feel hate? Fight. This is the trend I see the world following. On almost any video or article posted on the internet with more than a few thousand views you will see some form of ad hominem. The comment threads are rarely people citing sources or facts; almost exclusively they are people calling each other idiots and stating strongly formed opinions backed by personal experience instead of statistically significant data. There’s nothing wrong with having emotions or opinions, but few opinions formed in bubbles hold up to the wideness of the world.

Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge. Carl Jung

The political world seems to have taken on this flavor too. There is one US presidential candidate in particular that seems to feed on fear. Watch any videos of his followers and it isn’t too hard to see that fear often fathers prejudice and ignorance. Not too long ago Newt Gingrich was interviewed on the crime rate in the US. He stated it was on the rise because “he felt it,” despite the newscaster interviewing him citing a study conducted by the FBI that the crime rate had decreased over the past few years. Yet Newt continued to insist that crime was on the rise, and -- surprise, surprise -- the candidate he backed was the only one who could “save” the US from this heinous, mystical crime.
I have written before about how it is hard to follow the facts when feelings seem so overwhelming. I implored the world to stop and think about what they say before they say it -- that there are thousands of different viewpoints in the world, all based on millions of combinations of experiences, and each may be as equally valid as the next. People seem so eager to fight with each other based on emotions and personal experience; while emotions and experiences are never invalid, they don’t make the best basis for arguing about the future, which is often fairly unpredictable. If emotions were a sure way to predict the future, there would be many more people getting rich off the stock market. Certainly, emotions can be a valuable guide through many aspects of life, but using one person’s feelings to dictate policy for many millions is foolish for obvious reasons. Facts about the many millions are what is required to accurately establish the best policies.
Using facts is harder than ever nowadays because those facts are few and far between. Indeed, debates on complex subjects such as gun violence would be easy if we had at our fingertips all the relevant information -- what kinds of guns were used in every identifier possible, all distinctive information about who used them, how and when they were used and purchased (or stolen or borrowed), etc. etc. With information like this it would be much easier to draw conclusions such as, “95% of gun violence occurs with x type of gun acquired in y manner by z kinds of people, so implementing y+x+z changes would likely have prevented 95% of those incidents without impacting lawful gun users.” Not only would policies like these be much more effective than wide-sweeping, emotionally charged, inaccurate and ineffective ones like “banning automatics,” they would allow lawful gun users to continue on their way (note: I do not intend to argue gun control, this is for example purposes only).
Furthermore, the information that is readily available is often inconclusive or misinterpreted. Most researchers are careful to state how certain they are of a conclusion or that a given certainty is merely certainty of correlation (as opposed to causation). Uncertain conclusions and definite correlations, however, do not sell papers or get clicks. Emotion is what’s attractive: it’s why we love soap operas and characters like Charlie Brown, Bones, and Grey. It’s why we watch the Olympics, why the best movies have characters with crystal clear wants. So the media twists the words of legitimate research to better suit their needs (“Cut belly fat with this one weird trick!”). “News” means less “fact” nowadays than it does “a circumstantial thing that happened, but will generate ad revenue.” Sometimes it seems our headlines bring us closer to 1984 than any sort of utopia our modern technology might permit. Nobody has reported on the fact that you can order a week’s worth of groceries without getting out from under the covers (pretty cool, right?).
My greatest fear is being punished for something I didn’t do. There is indeed miscarriage of justice in the US, including execution of falsely implicated criminals. But it is not nearly so frequent as my fear makes it out to be -- the US has an incarceration rate of about 0.7%, and only about 5% of those incarcerated are miscarriages of justice. If I am innocent and the miscarriages are chosen at random, my chances of being unjustly imprisoned are a mere 0.03%. The real problem is that by commenting in public forums (such as the internet) more than the average person, I experience prejudice and ad hominem more than the average person. I tend to make myself more vulnerable in romantic relationships than the average participant, leading to a higher chance of suffering emotional injury. I experience emotions more than facts; furthermore, my emotions are distorted by my perspective. This is the process that leads people (myself, Mr. Gingrich, both sides of the gun rights argument) to believe their emotions are facts: nothing trumps reality.
Everything in our immediate experience supports the deep belief that we are the absolute center of the universe: the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our brains at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. Excerpt from This is Water by David Foster Wallace
So Newt seeing crime on TV becomes his universe. My hearing news of miscarriages of justice becomes my universe. Stuffed ballot boxes having an impact on the election. Automatic weapons being used in mass shootings.
And so on.
All of our deepest fears are realized not by experience or statistically significant data, but by our emotions.
So when I say I’ve been thinking about where I want this blog to go, that is why the thinking has seemed so monumental. I’ve written very many well cited articles, and they seem, all at once, justified and directionless, substantial and empty, full of promise and lacking in purpose. Facts can influence emotions, but they don’t control them.
I guess, then, this post begins stage two: I’ve got facts. I’ve got feelings.
Now comes the hard work in between.

Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here. Q: You just don't get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did. Picard: When I realized the paradox. Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. *That* is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence. Star Trek: Enterprise

Books are people too

Monday, August 8, 2016

The essential work of literary art is to make us more human than we were before.

We need books because we are all, in the private kingdom of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend. Someone who isn't embarrassed by our emotions, or her own, who recognizes that life is short and that all we have to offer, in the end, is love.

Radical empathy isn't the fashion of the day. Late-modeled capitalism works overtime to keep us focused on the product, not the people.

Run towards darkness, and shine.
Steve Almond

The "haves" and the "have purposes"

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Trigger warning: this post theorizes extensively about possible reasons for suicide and mentions specific methods of committing suicide.

Purpose: it’s that little flame that lights a fire under your a**.
Princeton, Avenue Q

Consider the following two scenarios, both excerpts from from Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness:1
- - -

1. You are a young German immigrant who lives in the teeming, dirty city that is nineteenth-century Chicago. A few wealthy families -- the Armours, McCormicks, Swifts, and Fields -- have monopolized their industries and have the right to use you and your family as they would use machines and horses. You devote your time to a small newspaper whose editorials call for social justice, but you are no fool, and you know that these essays will change nothing and that the factories will churn on, producing paper, producing pork, producing tractors, and spitting out the tired workers whose blood and sweat feed the engines of production. You are dispensable and insignificant. Welcome to America.
One evening an altercation breaks out between some factory workers and the local police in Haymarket Square, and although you were not present when the bomb was thrown, you are rounded up with other “anarchist leaders” and charged with masterminding a riot. Suddenly your name is on the front page of every major newspaper and you have a national platform for your opinions. When the judge sentences you on the basis of fabricated evidence, you realize that this ignominious moment will be preserved in history books, that you will be known as “the Haymarket Martyr,” and that your execution will pave the way for the reforms you sought but were impotent to establish.
A few decades from now, there will be a far better America than this one, and its citizens will honor you for your sacrifice. You are not a religious man, but you cannot help but think for a moment of Jesus on the cross -- falsely accused, unjustly convicted, and cruelly executed -- giving his life so that a great idea might live in the centuries to come. As you prepare to die you feel nervous, of course. But in some deep sense, this moment is a stroke of luck, the culmination of a dream -- perhaps, you might even say, the happiest moment of your life.
- - -

2. Rochester, New York, 1932, the midst of the Great Depression. You are a seventy-seven-year-old man who has spent his life building empires, advancing technology, and using your wealth to endow libraries, symphonies, colleges, and dental clinics that have improved the lives of millions. The happiest moments of your long life were spent tinkering with a camera, touring Europe’s art museums, fishing, hunting, or doing carpentry in your lodge in North Carolina. But spinal disease has made it increasingly difficult for you to lead the active life you‘ve always enjoyed, and every day you spend in bed is a sad mockery of the vibrant man you once were. You will never get younger, you will never get better. The good days are over, and more days merely mean more decrepitude.
One Monday afternoon you sit down at your desk, uncap your favorite fountain pen, and write these words on a legal pad: “Dear friends: My work is done. Why wait?” Then you light a cigarette and, when you’ve enjoyed the last of it, stub it out and carefully place the nose of your Luger automatic against your chest. Your physician showed you how to locate your heart, and now you can feel it beating rapidly beneath your hand. As you prepare to pull the trigger you feel nervous, of course. But in some deep sense you know that this one well-aimed bullet will allow you to leave a beautiful past and escape a bitter future.
- - -

The first scenario is one possible description of the death of Adolph Fischer, hanged for inciting a riot he did not incite because his labor union challenged Chicago’s industrialists. His last words as he stood upon the gallows: “This is the happiest moment of my life.” 2, 3
The second scenario is one possible description of the suicide of George Eastman, founder of Kodak cameras and a revolutionary management philosophy including shorter hours, benefits, annuities, life insurance, and profit and stock sharing -- one of the most influential and successful humans of his time.4
The juxtaposition of these two stories suggests that success as the U.S. seems to have defined it -- put simply, the achievement of wealth and glamour -- leads to suicide, whereas having nothing but grit and purpose leads to happiness (though sometimes the gallows as well). Indeed, in what is often touted as “the happiness-income paradox,” happiness does not rise as a country’s income rises.5 In some cases, with enough wealth, happiness has even been found to decrease.6
If less happy people are more prone to commit suicide, then the paradox is even greater. A series of suicides on Kansas City, MO left scientists with the “Richard Cory” phenomenon, where people with nicer houses were more likely to commit suicide than those with less expensive houses or who lived in apartments or trailers7 (Richard Cory is a poem by Edwin Robinson about a wealthy, well educated, admired man who shoots himself in the head). This paradox also existed in a series of suicides in Italy8 and was noted in a study of Japanese culture in 1986.9

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king— And admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place. [...]
Richard Cory by Edwin Robinson

Since there are obviously holes in the theory that wealth makes us happy, let’s examine it a little. For starters, accumulating wealth in almost every traditional fashion relies on destroying the environment. This is fine for those at the top who can afford to have their trash taken hundreds of miles away, but visit them slums of India and you’ll see that said trash doesn’t simply disappear. Additionally, humans have a tendency to base their happiness on subjectivity instead of objectivity (read: we compare ourselves to others),10 and thus, unless you are always among the richest, you will never feel you have enough (and once you are among the richest, you just might commit suicide).

I've got gadgets and gizmos aplenty I've got whozits and whatzits galore You want thingamabobs? I got twenty! But who cares? No big deal! I want more!
Ariel, Disney’sThe Little Mermaid

Fun fact: In the original (non-Disney) ending of The Little Mermaid, after getting legs, the prince, and riches, Ariel tries to kill herself by jumping overboard.
In my last post I quoted David Foster Wallace, stating:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. [...] And the world will not discourage you, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.11

So it would seem that the less we have, the happier we can be.12 Research indicates that what we do matters more than what we have,13 and I posit that what we do matters more to us the less we have. If we have something to gain, then the work we do is more meaningful than if we have everything we need -- otherwise, why are we working? Why are we alive? And indeed, residents of poorer nations indicate they have a “greater sense of meaning in life” than residents of wealthy nations14 (so perhaps it’s good that the so-idealized meritocracy -- the idea that wealth is the result of hard work -- is a myth15... but more on that in another post).
Maybe what we really start pursuing when we have nothing is happiness. Maybe when we stop worshipping and wanting stuff we start worshipping and wanting humanity.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.
David Orr,
Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

I can’t help but feel there’s a connection between my emotional state and my 8-5. I have everything I need. I could stay at my current job for the rest of my life -- I’m good at it -- get married, have kids, and have a nice chunk of change for retirement. But staring at the screen day after day I find what I really want to do is to travel. I’m working on a project to be revealed in more detail later which, if it comes to fruition, will involve a form of circling the globe with only what I can carry. And that is what gets me up the morning.
I suspect, but cannot really substantiate that what excites me about this idea is that I will have so little. There’s anecdotal evidence: the jeweler named Melissa I met on a plane recently who once had everything: a stable job, a flourishing company, a husband and kids; but, was never really happy until the company collapsed, she divorced her husband, and found her true passion in teaching development to small businesses. That aptly titled book which more or less describes an entire religion based on having nothing, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.
I suspect, but won’t know until I’m doing it, that having to work towards something, having to experience the raw reality of the unpolished parts of the world -- instead of just being handed stability and the upper class lifestyle on a silver platter -- is what will really bring me happiness.
But for now anyways, it’s just a theory.

1Gilbert, D. Stumbling on Happiness. Random House, Inc. New York. 2005. 87-88. 2Boyer, R. and Morais, H. Labor’s Untold Story. Cameron. New York. 1955. 3Avrich, P. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 1984. 4Brayer, E. George Eastman: A Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. 1996. 5Easterlin, R., et. al. “The happiness-income paradox revisited.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. December 28, 2010. 107, 52. 6Guoqiang, T. and Liyan, T. “A solution to the Happiness-Income Puzzle: Theory and Evidence.” Economic Research Journal. Tsinghua University. Beijing, China. November 2006. 7Young, T., et. al. “The Richard Cory Phenomenon: Suicide and Wealth in Kansas City, Missouri.” Journal of Forensic Sciences. March 2005. 50, 2. 8Pfeti, A. and Miotto, P. “Social and economic influence on suicide: A study of the situation in Italy.“ Archives of Suicide Research. 1999. 5, 2. 141-56. 9Iga, M. The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan. University of California Press. Berkeley, California. 1986. 10Parducci, A. Happiness, Pleasure, and Judgement: The Contextual Theory and Its Applications. Lawrence Erlbaum. Mahwah, NJ. 1995. 11Ward, S and King, L. “Poor but Happy? Income, Happiness, and Experienced and Expected Meaning in Life.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. July 2016. 7, 5. 463-70. 12Tamir, M and Ford, B. “Should people pursue feelings that feel good or feelings that do good? Emotional preferences and well-being.” Emotion. October 2012. 12, 5. 1061-70. 13Oishi, S and Diener, E. “Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations.” Psychological Science. December 13, 2013. 14Foster, D. “This is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. May 21, 2005. 14McNamee, S. and Miller, R. The Meritocracy Myth. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Plymouth, United Kingdom. 2014. Ed 3.

Paradigm Shift: This is Water

Monday, July 11, 2016

A few months ago animal psychologist Stanley Coren upset the internet by posting his casual findings that hugging a dog can raise its stress and anxiety levels. As one might expect when the antithesis of the status quo (that dogs like being hugged) is posited, the internet was rather unhappy about this finding.
"Apparently we shouldn't hug our dogs as it causes them stress," one twitter user wrote, along with a photo of herself with her dog, portraying none of the stress signals mentioned in the study. "No one told my dog."
Another user: "My dogs actually wrap their paws around my neck and cuddle. These scientist are clueless."
We’ll forgive the latter user his egregious failure to pluralize the victim of his assault and instead focus on what’s really going on here: everybody seems to forget that there are exceptions to every rule. If you tell someone “dogs don’t like being hugged,” likely what you mean is “most dogs don’t like being hugged;” likely what they will hear is, “no dog likes being hugged.” Cue battle because... how dare you insinuate that their dog doesn’t feel the same way they do!
While many dog owners are probably in the clear -- their dogs may, in fact, like being hugged -- what is unforgivable in my mind is what seems to be a universally permeating sense that each of us is the center of the universe. The counter-argument to what was presumed to be a fact (“my dog loves being hugged”) involves no consideration of the facts at hand; what is most important about the argument is that I am right and you are wrong. There is no pause for reflection, not a second spent thinking that maybe there is some consideration we haven’t made for our dissenter or that maybe -- gasp! -- they have evidence to back their claim. Whether it holds true or not, what matters is that we hold our ground, that we win -- not that our feeling is fact or that, heaven forbid, we learn something.
It is readily evident that being open-minded matters in more contexts than that of our furry companions. One of my favorite examples of this is Susan Basham’s story about her paradigm shift after being cut in line and yelled at in a Starbucks. Instead of returning anger with anger, she chose a different approach, the results of which you can read here.
The point is, we all make assumptions and we all have built-in, automatic biases when it comes to how we view the world. Sometimes these biases are about what our pets really think of us, sometimes they are about the person who cut us in line at the coffee shop. Sometimes they are about politicians or political movements or police officers, compatriots or terrorists, neighbors, friends, or exes. You can see this hate spread all over the internet, closed-minded ad hominem attacks on well backed challenges to what seems like common knowledge. The result of time and effort put into thinking differently is not, “okay, let’s talk about that” but “oh no you don’t!” The result of “hey, maybe this isn’t the status quo” is too often “anybody who thinks differently is an idiot” (sheeple, swine, a**hole, take your pick -- I’ve been called them all).
The below is an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. For the purposes of this essay, the excerpt skips over much of the substance and does not do the piece justice; if you have time to read or listen to the entire thing, I highly encourage it. You can read it here or listen to it here.
- - -

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how's the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, “What the h*ll is water?”
If at this moment you're worried that I plan to present myself as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.
In these day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullsh*t pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.
- - -

A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they'd be asked the "half empty or half full" question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: "How heavy is this glass of water?" Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. She replied, "The absolute weight doesn't matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it's not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I'll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn't change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes."
The psychologist continued, "The stresses and worries in life are like this glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything." It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses.
Perhaps it is ironic (though certainly sad) that David Foster Wallace, the writer of the speech above, for all his skill at manifesting words in beautiful, meaningful ways, eventually lost the game of staying conscious and alive and committed suicide by hanging himself.
For me, being anxious is not being able to control what I think. It’s worrying and wondering about past events where people got hurt and future events where people could get hurt -- do get hurt. It takes an immense amount of energy to force myself to think positive, and sometimes it seems that no matter how hard I try, I am always stuck in a rut. Depression and anxiety sometimes mean you don’t have the energy to get out of that rut -- to think differently. You’re stuck where you are. While everybody’s depression is different, I like to think Mr. Foster Wallace was stuck with a similar feeling at the end of his life. Stuck reminding himself, this is water, as I, too, am stuck in the doldrum of a bystander to the world’s events, hearing of cops shooting blacks and whites shooting cops. Being reminded that “cop” and “black” and “white” are all just labels created to pit us against each other so a few men in suits can make advertising money off headlines and a margin on the bullets used by either “side.”
I see the hate in the world and think, there’s nothing I can do. When I disagree with someone, whether it be politically or otherwise, I try and have a fact-based conversation so we can both learn something and reach a conclusion we might not have if we just threw rocks. But sometimes all people want to do is throw rocks. And I can’t get past that.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I alluded in my last post to feeling like I had some unique awareness and perspective of the world and that maybe it would be easier if I didn’t. It would be easier to default to hate. Some people choose that route, and the possibility that I or someone I love might be the subject of that hate terrifies me. Those are the thoughts I grind that I cannot “paradigm shift” out of. No matter how hard I think, this is water, they are always there. Remembering that I was physically abused. Remembering that I was cheated on. Judged for the way I dress. Remembering my friends who were raped. Remembering lies that were told, bribes that were given, unjust decisions that were made for no apparent reason. That a cop shot someone for no apparent reason, that someone raped someone else.
It doesn’t matter how you label the culprit and victim -- and even those are labels -- it matters that there is fear and hate in the world. I cannot paradigm shift away from these injustices, and too often I catch myself imagining them happening to me or those I love. I am too embarrassed to admit my own fantasies here, but I know someone with anxiety who has nightmares about her father breaking in, killing her and her husband, and stealing her baby, and my fantasies are on par with hers.
After the Pulse shooting, I mocked up a Facebook banner with a challenge to various political entities stating that the banner would remain until there were no mass shootings in the US for one year. I presented it to my friends and they reminded me that all of those people I addressed don’t necessarily have control over when mass shootings occur, that mass shootings accounted for a fraction of the armed homicides in the US every year, and that they were really a symptom of many larger problems in the rather dysfunctional society that is the US today. I knew all those things already but was so lost in my determination that this time I would do something actionable, I lost sight of the bigger picture. I became a young fish again, and my friends were the older fish, casually, patiently reminding me: this is water.
I know mass shootings and hate crimes and wars are not my fault, but I can’t escape the feeling that there must be something I can do. I become so eager to “make a difference” -- whatever that means -- that I neglect to realize even the biggest differences made by individuals often amount to very little or nothing at all (that is an essay in and of itself -- google “charity effectiveness” if you’re interested).
I guess if there’s one lesson I’d take away from all this, it’s that we’re not alone. I was able to cite the sources I did because other people have experienced this desire to think different. Evolution has caused us to fixate on the negative things, because historically, those are the ones we had to pay the most attention to. We still have to fight them. We still have to love. We still have to share stories of humanity. I just struggle to remember that we are not alone. Past all the news sources that report only negativity; the selfish, misogynistic presidential candidates that somehow get the nomination; the shooters that incite hate between law enforcement and some portion of people we have labeled a color… we have to remember that the world has more “good people” than it does “bad people.” There is less war, famine, and poverty in the 21st century than any century previous, and that is the paradigm I try and remember.
Of all the social media fluff that grew out of the recent deaths of five police officers in Texas, there is one that has gotten a lot of attention. It’s a photo of a group of people -- black people, white people, young and old, men and women -- surrounding a baby carriage, presumably in an attempt to protect it from gunfire.
This is water.

# My Mental Illness Feels Like

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

This is a guest post for musicpsychfan's project #mymentalillnessfeelslike. Enjoy! persistent and maybe they’ll give in.

In a creation of Orson Scott Card (whom you may know as the author of the popular book Ender's Game), there is an alien species that communicates with each other telepathically, instantaneously, and fluidly. As some of the human characters are ferried through the streets of this world by an alien driver, they are terrified by the style of driving. There are no rules to follow because every driver knows what the other will do just before they do it – yougoleft and I'llgoright. In a world where everyone understands each other, no rules are necessary.
A friend once described anxiety to me as the inability of an individual to process the inputs of the world. I think that's true. When I have anxiety attacks I feel as if – well, just that. As if I am being attacked. As if I'm a computer being overloaded with information. If you've ever woken up in the middle of a dream and lived the rest of the day half awake and half stuck in the dream, you know a bit of how I feel.
Sorry, I was busy, and then I forgot to reply.

My psychiatrist, along with many schools of thought, believe that mindfulness and meditation can make one happier, less irritated, less anxious, and less depressed. Science seems to agree 1. One method of meditation is to visualize the contents of your mind and to “clear them out.” For instance, you might visualize your mind as a field full of junk, and when you remove all the junk, what's left is a meadow with flowers and trees and such. It's all very fine and dandy.
No, I’m not sleeping with anyone else.

Extrapolating = interpreting = developing an opinion. The perception that people get from the type of comment you made is negative.

Except that I struggle to imagine my mind as anything but a corral. Outside the corral are thoughts. Sometimes they are people, sometimes they are animals or blobs or static, but outside the corral is everything that wants to come in. And most of the time when I visit this place, they are all knocking on the fence, waiting to be let in, to be thought about and processed. The problem is, there are so many of them. They will never go away.
Hey man, we need to talk. I consider you a friend.

I never really loved you. I lied about how I felt because I was afraid if I didn’t, I’d lose you as a friend.

Anxiety, for me, is fear that these creatures outside the fence will find their way in. Often they do, and as more and more come in, it becomes an attack – an anxiety attack – where I am stuck halfway between the world and my mind. Thoughts and images of my past, of potential futures, of have-beens and should-have-beens and fears and hatred rush through me. Soon I’m trying to stop the leak of things pouring through the fence, trying so hard I forget to breathe, and then I am washed away, drowning, and I literally cannot breathe, and I can't see because I’m drowning but I know the fence has broken. Then I'm on my knees, just trying to breathe, and...
I don’t know I consider you he and shoot me down but all she does what to say my sex life is are we out of a friend none of your business I can’t hear I do want toI are just trading sex for a ride the woods yet sorry I was a word busy and then is steal my to work? that’s to thatI won’t fall you say I forgot to reply spend time with you I’m friends, nothing happened internetare we out more true than you knowI am titanium just too busyof the woods

...then a friend is looking at me, worried, saying I look pale. I have a vague recollection of vomiting.
Yep. It definitely tastes like I vomited. I stare at a glass of water thinking, this can't make it all go away.
...even though it was an option I’d never make you go. You knew that, and you used it against me.

You get mad when I do nothing.

Days like this it hurts so much. Everyone deserves a second chance.

There is a Buddhist method of mindfulness that can be analogized as follows:
- Everyone has thoughts and feelings. These live, or are stored, in the “basement” of your mind, the subconscious and the memory.
- What you are thinking now is in the “upstairs” of your mind (if you've seen the movie Inside Out, it's on a projector screen for your personality to see and react to).
- You can't always control what is in the upstairs of your mind, but you can acknowledge it.
You were the one person I trusted to never treat me that way. Nothing is as heartbreaking as that. It has changed the way I let people into my life, how I love people, how I trust people.

Even if you don’t go, we will love you just for thinking about it.

I have no interest in you trying to defend yourself against what I have shared.

I used to try and push everything -- and everyone -- away. I would hold shut the door to the basement. Now I let them in – anger and uncertainty and anxiety. And I try to acknowledge them. I try and shake everyone’s hand as they walk in. Sometimes they come in and destroy the place.
Sometimes they come in and fly around and splatter paint on the walls. I just try and sit in the rocking chair and let them do their thing. I wait patiently for them to subside -- to join me and others by the fireplace, or to go back into the basement. Because I think when you hold emotions back, they find some way out. So I’m trying to let them come up when they want to. It’s hard. It makes me feel vulnerable and afraid. And sometimes crippled. I didn’t realize how helpless I would feel until I that first anxiety attack when I couldn’t breathe.
I’m going to make this simple.

I can’t tell you. Somebody might get hurt.

Sometimes, I imagine a world like that of the aliens I opened with. Where we are all connected. Where we all know everything about each other. And we can all help each other. And we can all support each other. Like a web. Where one part of the web starts to collapse and the rest of web goes towards it. I have this image in my mind. Of molecules attracting to the weaknesses. Supporting them.
But we’re all too afraid of being used. Of being hurt. Of being damaged. We spend our time connecting with our devices and our prejudices instead of with each other (more on this in a future post).
Remembering moments better as we wrote them than as we lived them. Writers live better as they suffer.

I think that’s what all religions are getting at. Oneness. A sort of eternal peace and a universal understanding. The vanishing point. The part where we become one not only with ourselves, but with other people, too. The part where we all understand all the love and hate and trying circumstances.
Call it heaven. Call it god, or eternity, or the cycle. Let’s all be happy. Let’s all just forgive each other and feel everything. We can stop believing in happily ever after and knights in shining armor and happy endings and superheros and just believe in the truth. In whatever we are.
Sometimes at night I feel a sort of listlessness. I want to go to bed but there's something holding me back. It seems to be the thought that my day isn't complete. That it's missing something. I look around my room, at all my stuff, and feel an emptiness. I lie awake and want to meet the world. I want to rise up and meet it and for it all to be okay. I just want everyone to love each other.
The world does not need more successful people…

I forgot to tell you. I was too busy. I’m sorry.

I do care about you. I’m just too busy.

If we all understood each other we could spend our time building and creating. And I don’t think we’d understand the people in the farthest reaches of the world… there would still be webs unknown to us. There would still be challenges and things to do.
When you experience some of the hatred, you experience some of the fear and the way that they almost want to make you out to be the wolf in sheep's clothing. They will try to villainize you and demonize you. That way you can't try to have an honest conversation about it. - Trey Peterson, Christian rock star, after coming out as gay
There are challenges aplenty without the challenge of being misunderstood, fearing for your life, for your job, for your safety and sanity. We have the challenge of saving the world from global warming, trying to feed 7 billion hungry mouths with so many are so far from reliable sources of food, trying to fight disease. And yet it seems we spend so much of our time judging and attacking and hiding and fighting each other instead of loving each other.
There seems so much pretense. So much “goodhihowareyou.” So much to move past.
I don’t want to be seen with you if you are dressed like yourself.

So many walls. So many people being “busy.” So much to work towards.
I don’t think it would mean less if we didn’t have to try. I don’t think it would mean less if we could move past it all.
I miss our friendship, I do. But the cost is too great.

In The Matrix, Morpheus explains to Neo that the everyday person is living in a simulation. And they are so hopelessly lost within it that they will fight to defend it. They will allow themselves to be possessed by agents who will violently secure it, sacrificing their lives and the lives of others for it to perseverance.
This is often how I feel when I talk to people about the idea of oneness, about the possibility of not working a 8-5, of not goingtocollege gettingmarried havingkids. Of not greeting every person the same (“How are you?” “Good, how are you?”) instead of actually connecting with them. Of being honest with, instead of ghosting the people we don't like. There seems to be an infinite resistance to it, a permeating mentality of this is the way the world works. A mentality that the ocean is too large to change. But it doesn't have to work that way. Even an ocean is just a collection of drops.
That argument is the reason people like you are so judged.
Why? Because you choose to judge me for it?

I am not Neo. I am Cypher. I want back in the Matrix. And I don't want to remember anything. I don't want to lie awake at night unsatisfied by my 8-5. I don't want to feel helpless to enact any change in the world. I don't want desperately to be a part of the simulation, to need to support everyone simply because they are human. Because that takes time and energy and sometimes it feels like I'm the only one.
In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, humanity is in a cave, chained to the wall, watching shadows in the back of the cave. That is their world. One day, however, someone realizes the chains are just expectations, and sheds them and exits the cave. At first they are blinded by reality – the sunlight, the colors, nature, the smells, the wind. And after exploring for some time, they re-enter the cave. When they try to explain to those chained to the wall that all they see are shadows, that there is so much more to life, they are pronounced insane and executed. can’t ask someone for the innermost parts of themselves and expect it to be completely acceptable and appropriate.

I sometimes feel like I am the person outside the cave. It's lonely out here, and I want back in. But I am terrified. I am terrified to express myself and share my ideas. I am terrified to go back to people and say, “there is so much more than this.” I am scared to death because some part of me really thinks I can be persecuted for thinking differently. I have been. I have been judged for the things I wear and want to do and want others to do and experience; while it is the right of others to judge me, it just feels unnecessary.
But you knew. I didn’t tell you because you knew.

There is nothing wrong with being in the cave, or the Matrix, or whatever you want to call it. I don't think of myself as a savior or a fighter or that I am somehow privileged or special. I think of myself as weak. A neanderthal who has just emerged from the cave and has to deal with the realities of the outside world, of bears and the search for food and the creation and control of fire. I can't go back, and I feel so alone.
How would I hit the ground? Feet first? I wish I have thought of that sooner, I would have dove.

I am lost in the complexity of words and feelings and prejudices that seem to rule my life. I am afraid of what others might think, how they might judge me for living differently, for wanting something I'm not “supposed” to want. For seeking my version of wholeness, outside of the 8-5, outside of being busy all the time, gettingmarriedhavingkids, hihowareyougoodhowareyou. I am torn between living life as who I am and who feel I am supposed to be, the person who loves his desk job and the person who gets fired from it because he has a mental illness, the person who is honest and down-to-earth and spontaneous and compassionate and the person who is cocky and self-confident and sex-driven.
And people say about mental illness,
Just ignore it.
You're just being dramatic.
You just want attention.

I can check my calendar if you want.

I was just wondering how you were doing. And what you were up to.

I guess there won’t be any need for a ratty old t-shirt tonight.

Please trust me when I say that if I could live without it, I would. If I could live without random bouts of breathlessness and feeling like my mind was a corral with a fence waiting to break and thoughts and expectations waiting outside to drown me, I would. But there is not simply an “off” switch, there is no Mr. Smith to negotiate a return to the Matrix with, there is no way to re-enter the cave and pretend again to be shackled.
I do care about you.

I’m just too busy to spend any time with you.

This is what overwhelms me. This is my fight. My anxiety. My depression. This is what my mental illness feels like.
I want something that says, “you’ve said something sweet and I don’t know how to reply.” Can it be the dragon?

1Brown, K and Ryan, R. “The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. April 2003. 84, 4. 822-48.