Putting comets on the calendar

The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually, we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land. T. H. Huxley, 1887

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. Paul Graham, 2006

I always wanted to be a scientist as a kid. In the good days, before I realized being a scientist would require extensive courses in chemistry, I carried around little notebooks and set up experiments in my bedroom to figure how the world worked. I made volcanoes and rockets and speculated significantly about dinosaurs.

The decision was tough, but I was generally torn between a career in astronomy or forensic science. Aside from a brief stint of being afraid of the dark, I’ve always loved the night, especially the sky and the stars. I leaned toward the former.

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I can’t explain why the sky was always a draw, but I don’t usually need to; most people who feel the same tend to understand, like people who speak a secret language. It’s always seemed like a place of such possibility; a reminder that human beings are both incredibly complex and woefully simple in our understanding of the world. This has always been reassuring to me. It means there is more left to do.

The sciences are amazing that way; they remind me of the intricacies of life and the universe in a way nothing else does, even history or literature. As an elementary-school practitioner, I wasn’t worried about college choices or publishing or succeeding in advanced math. I just did it because it was fun.

Sometimes I miss that; not the naivete of my attitude, but the confidence of being a kid. Back then, I never questioned what I was good at. I hadn’t learned how to overthink every interaction, to stay up nights listing my inadequacies or playing conversations over in my head. I was surely more foolish, but I was happier.

I didn’t end up becoming a scientist, not because I stopped loving nature or asking questions, but because I’m more suited to writing and analysis than chemistry and calculus. Sometimes I wish I had thrown all that to the wind and pursued something impractical just because I enjoyed it.

At some point when we’re becoming adults, we stop enjoying things and start calculating them. Or at least, these become separate things; the enjoyable and the calculated. Our identity becomes something outside, defined by quantifiable achievements, relationships with other people or career advancement.

Even enjoyable things are often things we show other people as trophies, rather than hobbies or things we like simply because they exist. These things can be wonderful additions to our lives, but are not, in fact, our identities.

“Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?” Paul Graham asks in his 2006 essay on work. “If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do.

“Just as houses all over America are full of chairs that are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of chairs designed 250 years ago for French kings, conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things.

“What a recipe for alienation. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking ‘I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.’”

Many of us, living in this world of identities often separate from our daily lives and activities, feel a bit stranded on a regular basis. Some truly do love what they do, but most people make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it’s arguable our identity shouldn’t be so centered on work in the first place.

However, as Annie Dillard says, how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. It’s worth thinking about how our identities and values are connected to our daily activities, if they are connected at all.

Every year I watch the Perseids meteor showers (and the Leonids if I’m feeling brave against the cold). Most nights I walk on the bluff near our house and search for stars or read about astronomy to get my night sky fix. We’ve put a (theoretical, but it’s there) date on our Google calendar to watch the next arrival of Halley’s comet in 2061, like good star nerds.

It’s good to get outside and remember, on the days that seem a bit dark, that darkness is also beautiful and full of galaxies. Sometimes I write about what I see. It’s a good balance for now.

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A Map of Sorrow, Part II

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.
What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun;  all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, v. 3-14

Part 1 of this post is here.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings I like to read the obituaries. This is a perfectly normal hobby (said no one ever) but I like to read them for what I think is an unusual reason. Hear me out. The little details of people’s lives always interest me; the places they’ve traveled, where they moved before arriving in my city, the jobs they held and names they gave their children; the small things that make us human. When I visit cemeteries, there is nothing left of this.

This is one of the things that bothers me most about death, when I really think about it. Not even the sadness and immediate loss of someone who was so alive and present, but the flattening of a person.

The transition from a vibrant and multi-faceted being into a list of dates and characteristics has always seemed like a disservice on top of a loss. I feel this way about people I know, and about people I will never know; almost as if I’m mourning the loss of whatever made them them, and the process that makes it so.

I don’t think this is a very normal thing to worry over, but normal is just a setting on the dryer anyway.

Reading the obituaries, even if they’re a bit flat (they usually are) or paint the person as some type of saint (they usually do) is one way I get around this.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death, which prompted me to write these two posts. Not in a morbid sort of way, more as a reflection on the circle of life. I’ve just noticed how we handle it and don’t handle it in society (usually we don’t).

I first noticed it when an acquaintance died a few years ago in a recreational accident. What I realized about his death was how utterly unnecessary it was, and how ridiculous it was to be angry about this. Yet still, I was.

Before his death, I’d always had the idea that at least if we had to die, it would be better if it happened in the service of some type of worthy cause. I know how silly this is; thousands of people die every day from heart attacks and unintentional injuries. Still, like most people, I looked for some meaning in his death, and finding none, I was incredibly frustrated.

The years I’ve spent editing the world news sections of the local paper should have prepared me for these types of moments. One can only edit so many versions of ‘Suicide bomber attacks wedding party, kills 57’ before becoming a bit numb to the whole business of death. But it didn’t. I still felt something, if only an impotent rage at the inanity of it, the waste of someone’s life spent so early.

Who am I, you might be thinking, to determine if someone’s life is wasted? It’s a good question. If someone dies doing something they love doing, isn’t that as good a way to go as any? After all, most of the time death doesn’t mean anything, like it does in stories. It’s not saving someone from burning building or a speeding car, usually. It’s mundane, or slowly agonizing, or an emptiness so sudden we don’t realize it’s there until we pick up the phone to call someone who can’t answer.

To save this post from being completely sad, although I don’t believe in fake happy endings, I’ll leave with a bit of a poem, one that’s stayed with me ever since I read it. All we have are the moments right in front of us, with those we have now, because there are no guarantees about getting an interesting obituary.

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

(Ellen Bass, If You Knew) 

A Map of Sorrow

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed) 

Part II of this post is here.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. This has been a busy year, with a new job and a lot of work to take on. I felt this week, though, that I needed to write this post.

I had a conversation with someone recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. This person had a loved one die, and we talked about what it was like to grieve in today’s society. Namely, that it is difficult, because people who grieve are generally expected to move on quickly from their feelings and resume normal activities and attitudes, as though grief were a temporary illness one could recover from in short order.

My own experience with grief has been nothing like that. I am not an outwardly emotional person, but I feel almost a kinship with sadness and grief; these emotions are familiar to me for reasons that don’t always make sense, but they often seem as though they have always been part of my life. I feel a deep grief for relationships or possibilities that might have been, or ones that once were treasured and meaningful, but no longer hold what they once did. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, as it seems pale compared to the grief of those who have lost someone physically. But the loss is there, all the same.

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

One of my favorite authors died this week. For a while after I heard of this, I sat in stunned disbelief at my desk, unable to process the news. She was so young, the age of my friends and I, who are in our mid-30s. Her death was completely unexpected.

What I never feel about grief, at least at first, is sad. It’s the suddenness that gets me, every time. That phantom-limb feeling, that the person is actually still there, surely they’ll call or post online or pop up at the next family gathering. This is all a terrible dream, isn’t it? I just saw them. They can’t be dead.

Then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this.

I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

For a long time, I have grieved the loss of my relationship with my father. He is not dead, but he’s not part of my life and other than a few visits during my childhood, never has been. I used to think that I could not mourn something I never had. But sometimes, in weak moments, I do.

I see other people with their fathers and I wonder what it would have been like to know him. To have him come to my wedding and my graduation and see the milestones in my life that other dads cry over and chronicle on social media, as though they are meaningful events that they would like to remember. I don’t often think of this, because it smacks of self-pity and has little use. But sometimes, I wonder what that would have been like.

I grieve for the death of my favorite author because I think she provided me with something few people have; a sense of truly being understood, and welcomed despite my broken pieces. I am fortunate to have acceptance and love from many members of my family, and that is valuable beyond words. But sometimes, it is hard to feel that anyone, even those who love me, truly understand my darkest places. At the heart of that feeling is the fear that if anyone did understand, they would not like what they see. After all, isn’t that what most of us fear?

This feeling is something I grapple with on a monthly and yearly basis, not something to be gotten over and neatly put away in a drawer, as seems to be expected of people experiencing grief. That’s the thing; there is not a textbook version of how to grieve.

Many people are grieving for someone who is still alive. It may be someone they walk past every day, who is as far away from them as if they were living in another country.

If the person you’re grieving has died, it’s not as if things will be the same again, usually. A person may recover from their most painful sadness and emptiness, but the death of someone deeply loved, or the loss of a truly beloved relationship, is not something to be papered over, sanded down and forgotten.

Each person who means something to us acquires that meaning by changing some piece of us. That piece doesn’t go away because they do.

We’re resilient creatures. We’ll get up again and keep going, because what else can we do? It’s alright to remember that people who truly mean something to us will probably leave a hole in our lives for a long while. Perhaps forever.

We may move on and be happy again. We should be happy again, if we can. Or content, or pursuing something that fulfills us, because happy is a narrow definition of happy. It’s alright to admit that loss has changed us, no matter what kind of loss it is.

To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’

But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. His whole way of life will be changed.  At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again. (C.S. Lewis) 

Learning the art of solitude

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train in the tube stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot

East Coker, The Four Quartets

 

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Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

It’s been a while since I added to the ‘things I’m reading’ series.

This essay by Zat Rana, called The Most Important Skill Nobody Taught You, is about the work of mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. It’s incredibly thought-provoking and I wanted to share it with you. The whole thing is worth reading.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal famously said in his book Pensées.

I had a lot of time to do this as a kid. Being an only child has its advantages, and this was one of them. I learned early and often that only boring people are bored, so if I wanted something to do, I had better figure out how to entertain myself.

It wasn’t that hard. I read a lot and had a really weird set of air castles. I’ve said this before, but this skill turned out to be valuable later in life.

“Today, more than ever, Pascal’s message rings true. If there is one word to describe the progress made in the last 100 years, it’s connectedness,” Rana says.

“Information technologies have dominated our cultural direction. From the telephone to the radio to the TV to the internet, we have found ways to bring us all closer together, enabling constant worldly access.

I can sit in my office in Canada and transport myself to practically anywhere I want through Skype. I can be on the other side of the world and still know what is going on at home with a quick browse.

I don’t think I need to highlight the benefits of all this. But the downsides are also beginning to show. Beyond the current talk about privacy and data collection, there is perhaps an even more detrimental side-effect here.

We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves.”

Nobody taught me how to be connected to myself. I learned when I was young what it was like. Then for a while, I forgot. But somehow through the years, I remembered that feeling. Something in me liked and missed it.

I think I’m weird in this, my enjoyment of hours of silence. Most people I know dislike being alone. We instinctively run from it.

Even I feel uncomfortable with myself at times. Much of my solitude is spent with the company of nature or books, rather than truly alone with myself. Often I don’t like what I see there.

Why does this matter?

“The less comfortable you are with solitude, the more likely it is that you won’t know yourself,” Rana says. “Then, you’ll spend even more time avoiding it to focus elsewhere. In the process, you’ll become addicted to the same technologies that were meant to set you free.

Just because we can use the noise of the world to block out the discomfort of dealing with ourselves doesn’t mean that this discomfort goes away.”

Who really cares, other than our therapists, if we’re comfortable being alone or not? I’m not going to post the whole essay here, because it’s worth a read by itself. But this paragraph really stood out:

“Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.”

Psychologists call this the hedonistic treadmill; this constant seeking of entertainment and highs. Many of us are on it without realizing it. Even me.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years, and nothing rings truer. People will do almost anything to avoid being alone, or feeling alone. Hiding from the growing terror of nothing to think about is as universal as being human.

Learn about yourself in solitude 

In that emptiness is everything we’ve been running from. Beyond it is the peace most of us are seeking. One can’t be faced without the other, and many don’t have the courage to look at both, along with everything else we face in our daily lives.

Instead, we turn to the noise of the television, the distractions of social media, the highs of whatever makes us forget how to feel. We’ve gotten quite good at avoiding ourselves. While that is the case, we can never see clearly, or move forward. It’s worth a little time facing the awkward silence to see what’s beyond it.

“Without knowing ourselves, it’s almost impossible to find a healthy way to interact with the world around us,” Rana says.

“Without taking time to figure it out, we don’t have a foundation to built the rest of our lives on.

Being alone and connecting inwardly is a skill nobody ever teaches us. That’s ironic because it’s more important than most of the ones they do.

Solitude may not be the solution to everything, but it certainly is a start.”

 

 

How to listen to people you disagree with

Update: Part II of this post is here

It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide, but more important, commonly, to explore what we take to be nearby. (Noam Chomsky)

As a kid, I saw the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. As a future primatologist, I was mesmerized. Years later I discovered an anecdote about its filming: At lunchtime, the people playing chimps and those playing gorillas ate in separate groups. (Robert Sapolsky)

The name of this post probably surprised you. It was supposed to be ‘how to talk to people you disagree with.’ But the more I started researching this topic, I realized that title wasn’t right.

I’ve felt the need to write about this for months, and it’s not just because of our current political climate, although that’s a big part of it. More and more, we are a culture of talkers. We love the sound of our own voices, to debate, to argue, to have the last word. We love these things right up until they make us question our own dearly-held beliefs.

Doubts and flaws are all well and good, but they belong to the other guy. We know things, and we have the funniest quips to win the argument.

The problem with all this is apparent enough (if you checked the news or your news feed anytime in 2017 you probably agree) but we keep doing it. I’d like to examine why we do, how even the most well-intentioned people can get like this, and how we can do better.

Our boxes, our selves 

We don’t like uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable and we quickly search for a way to get rid of it. Some of this is unavoidable. Our brains simply can’t process all the information going past us at light speeds, so we use categories to help make sense of it all. That’s not inherently bad. It’s how we identify something we’ve never seen as a chair.

Categorization gets dangerous when we start to use it as a shortcut for other things, like getting to know people, or figuring out who we are.

We reach for the simplicity of boxes because they make sense, but people and the world don’t always make sense. We don’t want to spend time thinking about that, or being afraid, so we grab onto a cause or a stereotype and stop thinking.

When these shortcuts become the building blocks of our lives, we build them on foundations of sand. But usually we don’t realize this until it’s late in the game, and we don’t want to look stupid or start over. Instead we cling harder.

One thing I’ve noticed in some discussions I’ve been part of is how much people care about issues that don’t seem to immediately affect them. It’s pretty common – the straight person who’s never been in the armed services angry about the transgender military ban, or the rural resident who’s never met an immigrant who worries about illegal immigration.

Why do we get so heated over issues that don’t immediately affect us? They might, especially if a wider law is passed, but statistically the chances are low. Yet these and other issues become top of mind, ones that divide friends and even families, sometimes forever.

In his 1984 book The Psychology of Influence, Robert Cialdini discusses why we identify so strongly with things that don’t seem, in the big scheme of things, to change our daily lives.

Cialdini tells the story of a war veteran recovering in a hospital ward. The man remained silent for 30 years. One day as he heard a game on the radio being played by his hometown team, he sprang to life and yelled at the radio. After that moment he never spoke again. Why, of all things, should that have made him speak? Cialdini says it’s because he didn’t see it as a game. The vet thought he was the one losing the game, had gotten a bad call.

“When viewed in this light, the passion of the sports fan begins to make sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent form and artistry. The self is at stake.”

These things aren’t just abstract issues affecting small groups. They’re lenses that change how we see the world. Or maybe more accurately, they’re mirrors in which we see ourselves.

Successful politicians and public figures have mastered these portrayals, pitching issues and their own candidacies as reflections of a voter’s psyche.

The reason it seems like we can no longer have rational, calm discussions about many of these issues is because for most of us, they are not rational.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt believes no one is above it.

“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means,” he says.

“And if you don’t believe that about yourself, just note how true it is of everybody else.”

If we all cling to our issues, using them as building blocks for our very identities, is there any hope for discussion or listening between people who think differently?

Forming identities is part of who we are as people, and we could no sooner leave behind these identities than we could cease to become human. It’s not wrong to find meaning or identity in things like gender, race, religion or politics.

The problem occurs when we can’t see around them, when we have certain ideas about people from other groups, or even our own groups, that grow so strong that we decide we don’t need to meet them, to listen to them, to hear their stories. The ideas become the people.

The Us and the Them 

In a recent article for Nautilus, author Robert Sapolsky discusses how easy it is to divide the world into an us and a them. Science shows it’s actually hard-wired into the way we think and react.

“Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture.

We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality.

Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.

When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this.

Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.”

Haidt, the social psychologist, has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.”

Getting real 

All this psychology and theory is helpful for understanding our blind spots, but how does it apply to real life? Can we face Uncle So and So easier across the table at Thanksgiving because of any of it? And where do we start?

Last summer I was camping in the mountains with my family. We had just finished a series of hikes into the North Cascades. Everyone was dirty and tired, but it was that content, wrung-out tired won only after a long, hard day of playing in the woods. A burn ban was in effect, so we huddled around a lamp instead of a campfire, toasting s’mores over a portable stove.

“So,” someone said as we settled in to talk – talking is our television in the mountains, and it’s nice – “what does everyone think about the NFL protests?”

Silence reigned around the fire as we made our calculations. It was a mixed crowd around the lamp/fire that night, not a comfortably homogeneous group of politically conservative or liberal people who held the same opinions. We only saw each other a few times a year. Yet we were friends and family. We wanted to say what we really thought and felt, but how could we do so?

That experience made me pause. Somehow, the easy camaraderie of conversation had become a field of land mines, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. And for these people, I cared.

They weren’t anonymous images on the other side of a screen, they were people I’d known for years, who sat at my wedding, who gave me furniture for my house and helped me make eggs for breakfast that morning. We don’t agree on every social and political issue and probably never would, but our relationships transcended that. How do we navigate these relationships now, in 2017?

It’s easy, usually, to say what we think when perusing message boards and social media. Like shots fired from a military drone, our words are chosen with less regard for our targets, because we can’t see them. We can talk to more people than ever before, most who we’ll never see in person, and if the conversation upsets us, we can block, delete, unfriend or ignore.

“I can’t talk about things like religion or politics,” friends have told me recently, “Because it’s never a conversation. It just becomes a shouting match. Everyone assumes things about me before I’ve even started, so I figure, what’s the point?”

“Twitter is the worst,” someone else said. “It’s just people one-upping each other over and over. There’s no room to discuss anything. It’s like you get points for being mean.”

So now what? 

Right about now, this may seem dark. Our biases are hard-wired into our thinking, and studies show our reactions are usually visceral, immediate and unconscious. We can’t necessarily think our way out of them. But we’re not helpless.

We can be aware that something beyond our conscious choice is shaping our thinking and the way we perceive the world. Many people don’t think about bias, or they think everyone is biased except them. That’s not true. You are biased. I am biased. We all have lenses – let’s accept it and work on it.

We can take time to build and nurture relationships in real time, with people who might be different from us. Not to get them to convert to something or to win an argument, but just because we want to know them. No one is born with their views, they learn them. Life shapes them. So how did they get there?

Individuals and relationships are the antithesis to the Us/Them way of seeing the world. When we see someone as a person, it’s a lot harder to make them a box or a category. Your cause and beliefs may be very different than a friend’s, but it’s not your list of talking points that will change minds or increase empathy. Just knowing you does that.

Finally, we can try a little more listening. It sounds like a small solution because it is. It’s not a substitute for policy change or fixing racism or ending poverty. But big things start with small things. Governments and organizations are just people. Someone who seems worlds away from you might not be that different, if you knew more of their story. That’s the beginning of big change.

The end of the book

I remember when I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was seven and starting a newspaper out of my bedroom, reporting on the activities of my pets and our neighbor. The former tolerated me and the latter didn’t. It was a good time, being that certain. 

For a while, in the indeterminate teen years while many things outside were going wrong, everything inside fit just right, like Goldilocks’ bowl. My talents, faith, life path – I had a plan. I was sure where I was going and who I was.

The exact moment it fell apart isn’t clear to me. Perhaps it was about the time life started to look more conventional on the outside. I don’t know that the universe allows people to have too much convention at once – to be all together on the inside and on the outside.

In a way, that makes sense; if we have nothing left to pursue or perfect, what are we here for? Being slightly restless gives us purpose. It means there is still something to learn, someone to meet, a place to visit and a new skill to master.

Still, I miss my old certainty about things, especially my confidence in my own abilities and life choices. Today, many friends are parents, some of them twice over. I’ve never felt that specific calling (except to our cats, who still tolerate me) but sometimes I envy those who have found at least part of their purpose in being a parent. 

We’re the same age, my friends and I, yet we aren’t. They’re responsible for another person’s life and well-being, and I can’t remember to take my library books back without ridiculous fines.

Most of us are just Googling and bluffing our way through the day, but some of us have a clearer map than others.

I have a good job with people I like, and hobbies I enjoy. I know my life is meaningful. Yet often I feel something lacking. There’s something else I’m supposed to be doing, but I can’t figure out what it is. I’m following someone who is always just around the corner from me on a path. I know they are important, but I can’t see who they are or where they are taking me. 

Writers are blessed with a tendency to overthink and the urge to document it. It’s as old as human beings, this vacillation between doubt and confidence. 

Image result for book

“Why did I write it down?” Joan Didion writes in her essay On Keeping a Notebook (1968). “In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?

“Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

Is being content a learned behavior, something to master like meditation or running? Is it a function of circumstance, something to be attained with enough security or wealth, or by a life marker like being married or being a parent? Or are some people simply more restless than others, driven to question, wonder and analyze, no matter what they have or where they find themselves?

I think it’s the latter, because I’ve seen restlessness pop up in people who should be content, and content people who have next to nothing. 

So why write about this at all? Is there any value in such reflection and searching, other than accruing more uncertainty? Didion thinks so. 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.

Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. 

Maybe in five or ten years I will come back to this entry and realize I’ve discovered my life’s purpose – what it was all for, what I was truly supposed to be doing, what it meant.

I think many wiser people have gone their whole lives not knowing, not being sure of the end of the book, and that gives me some comfort. I may be only partway down the road now, but I know I’ve come far from who I used to be, and most of those changes have been good.

It’s okay not to have all the answers – to be content with a state of uncertainty. That doesn’t equal ignorance or fear – it means there’s room for more to happen. More room to listen, to be open for something we don’t yet realize exists. Maybe that was the point all along. 

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.

The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Pema Chödrön

 

Cheers,
Liz

 

 

Why it’s okay to let yourself be angry or sad

In the wake of so many sad and tumultuous events around the world, I’ve noticed a few types of responses in my groups of friends. I’d like to comment on one type in particular, as it’s made me think about how I respond to tragedy and violence.

This is not an indictment on any particular person or group, but an observation of society in general; I’ve noticed it makes people uncomfortable for me, as a woman, to be angry about things. It is okay for me to be sad. People are generally alright with this – they understand it. They can wrap their minds around me and sadness. Anger, not so much. I believe, and again this is a generalization, that the inverse is true of men and sadness. It’s socially acceptable for men to be angry, and not as much for them to be sad.

Either emotion is less acceptable than unrelenting positivity. We are not supposed to be not okay. In this age of carefully cultivated Facebook and Instagram feeds, we are encouraged to share that which is uplifting, shining, filtered – our best selves. This is a noble cause in many ways. No one desires to be around someone who is constantly whining and complaining, especially someone who doesn’t do anything to address their problems. The desire for the genuine has often given way to incivility – we confuse honesty with rudeness, and lazy manners with open and sincere friendship. These are not the same thing, and not what I propose.

The problem comes when we are not allowed to express how we truly feel, even if doing so would improve relations between friends, or express a needed truth, because doing so might upset the balance of perceived happiness. No one feels upbeat all the time. I know people who don’t feel as though they can really talk to anyone in their circles because they must put up a face of being alright when they’re together. Inside, they’re falling apart.

How many of our friendships, even our good ones, are like this? How many of our friends and family can we really be real with? Share the highs and the lows? I’d argue that without the lows, the highs lose their definition of real experience. They become flat, like an edited magazine ad or an overly saccharine Christmas letter. Without knowing what we’ve come through to achieve these highs, how can we truly rejoice with each other on the other side?

While I believe it is true that what we feel and think shapes the way we experience the world, I also believe it’s necessary to process events as they happen with some level of realism. We can look for the good in someone while acknowledging they hurt us in some way, or admit an exchange didn’t go well while realizing the overall relationship is good.

Friends, I propose we allow ourselves to be real with each other. Find people in our lives that we can answer honestly when they say ‘How are you?’ Sometimes this will be good and sometimes it won’t. Maybe that day you’ll be angry or disillusioned or depressed. Maybe for many days. A good friend will see you through this, and you will be there for them. Hopefully they will be there for your joys and beautiful days, or, like most of life, days that are a chaotic kaleidoscope of light and dark. You won’t have to put on a mask for your A-team folks, but here’s to being more genuine in all areas of our lives.

Cheers,

Liz