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 "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.