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.

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.
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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, clich├ęs, 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.
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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.

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