Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

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The Truths: people don’t actually matter that much.

The importance of a proper education:

I grew up with this burning feeling of entitlement that followed me everywhere, like a friend you don’t really want most of the time, but who is always there no matter what. It was an unhealthy relationship; Entitlement made me king, and I did whatever he asked. As a child I was constantly fishing for compliments, and was quick to anger if I wasn’t in the spotlight during every conversation. I couldn’t take critique, nor could I stand rejection. I was endlessly ignorant and hopelessly insecure. This pattern of behavior resulted in my friends and family pushing me away, and ensured that I certainly would not be the center of anyone’s attention. This realization made me feel even more angry and entitled. It was a really crummy cycle that lasted almost twenty one years.

I never worked hard at anything. I have a natural gift for music, and fell in love with the guitar at an early age. I never really practiced on my own (although I loved to tell people I practiced ‘two hours a day’), but I was naturally good enough that most people never caught on. I even managed to secure a position teaching part-time at this musical academy when I was sixteen years old. I played in a few bands and wrote half a dozen songs or so. I never played for the sake of playing. I played solely for the title and the recognition.

I often project myself onto others. As a child, I always gauged how others felt based upon how I would react in that very same situation. My family seems to have quite a knack for that – a huge part in why we all hate each other (as ironic as that is). I think at the heart of that projection is a selfish mass of cells, quickly infecting everything and everyone it meets.

I was always the ‘class clown’; a born vaudevillian. I would do anything for a laugh; anything. As a result of my efforts, I lost a lot of friends, and quickly gained a pretty shitty reputation. By high-school none of my friend’s parents wanted their kids to hang out with me. All of my teachers in high-school hated me, and I spent more time trying to convince other’s of my worth, than I did working to prove it. When someone had a bad opinion of me, I hated them for it; I knew exactly why they were wrong, and just how stupid they were for it.

I hate when people say ‘we live in a time where’… I haven’t done a meta analysis of the macro-level ebb and flow of society, so I am in no way authorized to make any such claims. All I can say is that right now I live in a time where I can interact with hundreds of people on the other side of the earth in the time it takes to pour a cup of juice. If I want, I can sit back and watch hours upon hours of video footage uploaded to an online community by members of almost every race, religion, society and country. I don’t know what anyone else is thinking, or what motivates them internally to choose the paths they chose, or what external factors have forced them down the road less traveled. I don’t even really know my own life, or who I am.

The way we feel things is not a good way to define what those things are.

I do not accept the premise that we are born with an essence, and that life is just this bland journey to figure out precisely who we are. That’s like a really bad Disney movie (probably involving a golden retriever with a predilection for playing ‘sport’). I think that I am constantly changing, and constantly refining myself. A great deal of who I am is both largely unknown to me, and lost in the memories I will never remember. If I had the answers to all those questions (like who I ‘really’ am, and ‘how I became that way’), I don’t think my life would be any easier.

There are only a few things that I know for certain are true. I know that I’m not important – at all. I know that when I die, I will most likely be forgotten. I know that I am infinitely stupid, and I know that I am constrained by my own biology just as much as I am by my culture and my society. I think there is nothing profound which separates myself from the animals, although I understand that people are ‘programmed’ to think in terms almost exclusively of themselves. I think that our need to see ourselves taken after, and wanted, and loved, comes from a place of ego and delusion. I don’t deserve love, or money, or shelter, or any of the things I get. I don’t deserve to be beaten down like an animal, either… but I do not deserve this excess that I have. Even though I have hardships in my life few will ever experience, I know how fortunate and how lucky I am.

I live next-door to a family of self-centered, ignorant character, deluded by the prospect that if their completely bull-shit, arbitrary requirements for ‘living’ were met, they’d strike gold again, and again, and again. What I’m  doing is not the sine qua non of meaning. The moment in which we shed this illusion is the precise moment that our lives actually begin.

Imagine a world without (for the most part) an entitled generation of lazy narcissists who think every step they take is this great terrestrial moon-landing. Imagine making a great cup of coffee only meant that you were left with a great cup of coffee to drink. Imagine a world where reporting what shop a celebrity left was considered creepy, rather than entertainment. Imagine all the shit we could get done if it didn’t take twenty years to realize how insignificant we are? Imagine a world where we have finally accepted that every feeling actually doesn’t need to be shared, and every impulse entertained. We are betrayed by our motivations and emotions all the time.

In conclusion, through much pain and suffering I have learned to question what it means to be happy and content. I have learned that the often black and white ideals I hold as standards for behavior are as much the product of understanding as the big-bang theory is  the result of comedic genius. (Which is a very pretentious way of saying ‘I haven’t got a fucking clue’.) I don’t know every answer, and I only really know a tiny fraction of the questions. But I know that I’m not all that important, and that no one will remember me for ‘who I really am’. That small fact was powerful enough to change my entire view of my life, and of life itself. If you live life with that thought constantly consuming your mind, you will treat people more nicely, have much more realistic expectations, and be much more open to change and hard work. Once you accept that no one is inherently important, you will begin to understand the true meaning of equality.

p.s.: if the world exploded tomorrow and every person was destroyed – along with all the evidence of people altogether – do you really think the people who believe they are so important and powerful will somehow emerge unscathed? As if existence alone etches their very essence into the fabric of our universe? No, the answer is no. They die and are forgotten, just like everyone else. You’re not born more important than anyone else, so grow the fuck up and do something with your life.   

Philosophy of Virtue: prudence and fear (part 1)

The key to fear isn’t any one thing. It isn’t some misdirected sense of courage and honor, abstaining completely from any thought or any pretense of thought pertaining to fear.Luca_Giordano_014 Neither is it giving yourself completely to fear, hoping to learn some invaluable truth by totally offering yourself up to its unforgiving arms.

The key to fear is balance, it’s harmony.

For the longest time I have been vacillating between those two poles. At the one end stands this stolid creature, unwavering and immovable; ready to take on any and all fearful things. And at the other a man who for all intents and purposes appears completely absorbed by his fear, absolutely and completely entrenched.

Both of these ways of addressing fear and living with fear are imprudent and incomplete, but few of us ever understand why. Our society offers up these binary oppositions to us all the time. This time it’s what a man facing his fears should look like, and what a man facing his fears should not. It’s a lie, though; I can tell you from first hand experience that neither work – that is, they are not inherently useful.

So lets take a brief moment to look at our options (options as dictated by society and the media):

  • Option A, distance yourself from feeling fear.
    • entails reckless abandon (only not the romantic type).
    • It involves abandoning your feelings and never thinking about the harsh realities of life
    • It is by definition passive, non-action. It does not entail an active attempt to control fear. 
  • Option B, give in to fear
    • entails, for the most part, a pathological need, an insatiable desire, to obsess and ruminate over all the negative possibilities.
    • It is defined by catastrophising

Society favors option a. It’s clean, it’s easy to mimic,  and it inspires a generic sense of hope. The only problem is, it’s nearly impossible to meet the standards required for execution; or at the very least, it is entirely draining, leaving little room to ride on horseback across the desert shooting Indians or lead the vanguard on Stalingrad.  Some can play this game, but they have won a certain type of genetic lottery. The point is, it talks of reachable conditions nearly impossible to replicate in the average joe’s life.

In response to the impossible nature of option A, most people romanticize their own journey with fear (which usually parallels option b). They talk about addressing your own fears and emotions and sharing those fears and emotions. They say this is ‘healthy’ and ‘it’s what real men, with real  courage do’ (I realize the irony in using the masculine form… but I can only include so many layers of analogy). They talk about their struggles with obsessing and catastorphizing as if they were desirable. They are playing the same game they lost at; pretending they’re something they’re not because facing that fact is too hard.

The real key to fear isn’t option a or option b, nor is it c, d, e, or f. The key to fear is just a balance. It requires wisdom and knowledge to keep yourself afloat.

For the longest time I have been trying to find a way to rid myself of fear altogether. I have been trying to find some nice clean-cut category to fit everything into. I wanted to say ‘fear is totally bad, and we are all better off without it, completely’, or I wanted to say ‘fear is totally good, it was the driving force behind evolution’. But it’s a balance. It’s more nuanced and subtle than any one cliché allows.

In order to get the upper hand on fear, we have to be constantly on guard and diligent with what goes on in our lives. We have to know when to let go, and when to hang on.

There is no such thing as good stress, or good fear. Eustress is a lie, and fear and stress are always bad. So long as we live in this ‘broken’ (I use that word very lightly, and so not in the same way a Christian would) world, we will always have to deal with that fact. One day I hope that we live in a world where no one has to suffer or fear. But until that day comes, all we can do is distance ourselves from fear when appropriate, and try to control ourselves when we need to face it.

I know how obvious this sounds, but look inward into your own life. How many of you are able to successively balance fear? Or have even recognized addressing fear as a scale rather than a categorical imperative? It’s easy to read through this and go ‘oh yeah, that’s just obvious’. Many of the structures in our lives are characterized by an equilibrium, not these black and white categories (shades of grey).

Most of us think in black and white terms, but be diligent for fear is a mix of good and bad. We cannot rid our lives of fear totally, but sometimes fear can save our lives (when we find Allegory of Prudenceourselves in an area plagued by some viral disease, fear makes us diligent and helps us avoid situations which might land us in our death-bed). I’m sure most of us have encountered this evolutionary argument for fear, and anyone who has graduated high-school has learned about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, of fight-or-flight. Fear in non-conscious beings is a great blessing; it turns on when there is a threat, informing the animal of immanent danger. In a way, fear bridged the gap between non-consciousness and consciousness; its the first form of artificial intelligence. But it’s not such a great thing in us conscious beings. We can think and that has proven oftentimes much more vice than virtue.

We cannot evaluate every aspect of every situation, and so fear kicks in and instinctively promotes an adequate response. The problem, is that for the most part people don’t live in conditions requiring around the clock diligence anymore, and so fear has mixed with consciousness, forming this ionic bond – weighted heavily in favor of conscious fear. Our conscious thoughts create this dense mine-field around the central kernel, the real threat. We spend most of our time navigating that minefield trying to reach that kernel, and identify that real threat. The problem is, we rarely get there, but we’re almost always stuck somewhere outside the gates.

We can talk about two different formats of fear: unconscious fear and conscious fear. Unconscious fear  is the form of fear produced by natural selection in order to keep us alive; it is reflexive and instinctive, rarely consciously initiated. Then we have conscious fear; cognitively based, produced by thoughts we create (often takes the form of obsessive rumination and catastrophising) carrying varying degrees of epistemic value. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself afraid of the most trivial things; losing a pen or paper, wasting time, spilling a drink. We understand the function of fear (to keep us alive), but our biology wreaks havoc on the rest of our lives. The ratio of unconscious to conscious fear is sharply titled in bias towards cognition. The problem isn’t any one format, the problems arise when both are at play.

For the time being, all we can do is control our conscious fear. We cannot control our unconscious fear, and nor should we. There aren’t many problems associated with unconscious fear. The problems, again, arise when we start thinking of all the negative possibilities. We have to learn to respond to unconscious fear with instinct and intuition, not with conscious fear, worrying and obsessing. We can learn to allocate a certain degree of distress depending on how threatening a particular situation is.

Exercise prudence:

  • compare the risks of failure 
  • the rewards of success
  • the odds of success.

In respect to fear, the risk of failure could mean death, humiliation, losing social status or financial wealth. The rewards are various and generally universal. This all hinges on the odds of success. That might seem odd, talking about fear, but if we take a different perspective it makes more sense.

The odds of success can mean one thing or another, depending on the perspective you take. You could look at it in respect to the odds the outcome you picture through fear will come to fruition. Or the odds you will be able to control fear.

Allocating attention to distressing emotions depends on these three key things, but most importantly, the odds of success. Ask yourself “what are the odds this fear will be successful” . If you’re afraid of public speaking, and more specifically afraid that you will mess up and lose respect of your friends and colleagues, calculate how likely this is to happen. You can quickly form and test beliefs for each specific situation (fear of speaking generally, or of losing respect to friends or the public more specifically). With more general, conscious fears, the outcome need not be known (there is more epistemic wiggle room). But when it comes to something as precious as your life, you should take a little extra time with your addition and subtraction. A good rule of thumb is not to use belief as a truth-bearer.

When it comes to fear, generally ‘mums the word’. However, upon closer inspection, we find the walls of these traditional archetypes quickly fall away, revealing a vast array of different approaches to fear, and different definitions of what fear is. Some look at fear as a process or a unique entity. I take a secular humanist approach to my analytics, so I opt for the definition which says fear are, not is – that is, that fears exist, and that fear is just the collective abstraction, not a distinct entity. The key here is nuance and prudence. Nuance in understanding ourselves, and prudence in how we respond. Fear is not an entity, but a product of our biology, and the thoughts we create. Fear seems very real and is often very crippling, but it is not fear that brings us down, it is our fears… and we can control those.

There is hope, both that one day we will live in a world without fear, and that we have the tools at hand to respond with control and resolution to fear.

The old man smiled. ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son.  I shall die of having lived.” 

-Willa Cather, Death Comes For The Archbishop.

Fight or Flight

It seems to me that we suffer under the illusion that panic and anxiety enhance our problem solving in times of crisis and duress. Like that gripping, tight feeling of panic when your confronted by a potvaliant bare-knuckle brawler you accidentally eyed at the bar, who now wants to knock the living shit out of you, or when you’ve fallen ill. Or the moment you realize accidentally did send that text to that person you didn’t want to send that text to. We are deluded in believing that giving in to that feeling of fear helps us; but it’s easy. And fuck me if in that moment our bodies sure don’t make a good case for it. But it’s not.

Lets take a pragmatic approach: fear is important. Fight or flight is important. Not giving in to the psychological manifestations of panic, the prolonged shadow of fear, is something everyone has to learn how to do; that is, everyone who wants a happy life. If you die tomorrow, and you spent the last year worried straight, especially when you didn’t have cause to always worry, you’ll feel like you never had the chance to live. Listen to fear. Flee when necessary and fight when possible. But never give in to panic. Don’t spend all of your days worrying and afraid. listen to what your body is telling you, respond, but don’t for a second believe that your body knows exactly what its doing. Life is nothing if not imperfect.

All worldviews agree: fear is a manifestation of weakness and a vestige of our past. I’m not religious. I believe in the order of science; I believe in cartesian doubt. I believe in classical theory and romantic theory. I believe what I think is believable.

Evolution paints a grim picture of existence, depending how you look on it; in this instance, it sheds light exactly where we can’t see.

We also live under the delusion that right now, this point of history, is super important. I’d wager everyone ever believed the exact same thing. Conscious beings place themselves, their time, at the center of the universe. Why? Because we are the center of our universe. Sure we can consider a priori knowledge, but its a posteriori that has the greatest influence over how we act an behave, what we choose to believe, and what we choose not to.

We think that we are the culmination of billions of years of natural selection and evolution. And in a way we are. But fuck me if it ends here. Were just one small dot on a giant non-linear graph. We will evolve further. Millions of years from now, who knows what we’ll be. Or even if we will be.

You may be wondering how that at all helps us with fear; I just told you that your not that important, and that most of what you believe is horse-shit – encouraging stuff… really. This information carries with it the weight of a promise. A promise that so long as things do stay alive, they will tend towards positive progression; they will get better.

Our response to fear is a conditioned response and a programmed response. We have been given the gift of consciousness. That’s the meaning of life, the beauty of it all. That’s why we think that our lives, right now, as your reading this, are of some grand plot – things are going to end with me…. We an change our lot in life. We can be the force of natural selection. Sure there are limitations to what we can do, but so long as we are conscious and capable of rational inquiry, we can surely change our selves – who we are.

the only thing lately that imbues me with a deep sense of confidence is this very fact: that our ‘calling’ is to self-evolve. To take humanity from the weak fucking subordinate position it currently resides in, and elevate that to the tip of the fucking world. That’s what Nietzsche was all about too. Everyone thought he was a weak crazy man, and Christian crackpots love saying he was a deluded schizoid, but he knew exactly who he was, and what he had to do.

Our natural response to fear is to panic. To curl up. Why? Because we associate whatever is causing the fear with its potential negative consequence; the harm it will cause us. Fear is like a phone call or a fax; fear is only a mediator. It is not real. Fear tells us that harm is coming. It’s aversive because it must warn us not to engage. Panic is the opposite; it is non-engagement. So when we panic, we think that we have separated ourselves from the conflict. Panic is also just a mediator. It’s also potent because it has to get our attention. Fight or flight. And this is the psychology of it; the romantic interpretation. Lets look at the classical interpretation.

Take a grazing zebra, for example. Say the Zebra catches a stalking predator in its periphery; the stress response is activated. In order to escape from the predator, the zebras body has to expend intense muscular effort and energy. The sympathetic nervous system activates to provide for these needs (panic). In response to a novel stimuli perceived to be dangerous, the locus coeruleus releases  catocholamine hormones (epinephrine norepinephrine) to fuel the immediate physical reactions, the often violent muscular action.

Fear is complicated and dense; our understanding of all its underpinnings and extensions and interactions will come only with time. In the meantime we have to deal with the problem at hand. If we want to have an enjoyable life, we have to be courageous. It will be hard, and it will take extreme effort; it will be the very hardest thing you ever have to do. But with a little wisdom, a little time and a lot of balls, we can look death in the face and say fuck you; we can turn stress, into eustress. And take any negative situation and turn it into a challenge.

It’s trite and slightly banal, but why wouldn’t you want to try? Why would anyone want to live their lives curled up in a ball, fearful of whatever comes their way? No one does. They just think there’s no way out; their lot is cast and that’s it – there’s nothing left to do. Wrong, as long as you’re still conscious, you can still fight. And I’d rather die fighting to live, than die in a confused panicky stupor… which is where we are all headed if we don’t man-up. This is the key. Listen to the panic; let it say its peace, and tell you what’s the matter, but don’t let it set up camp. Kick it out. Take all that stress and transform it into eustress. Your body is still telling you something is wrong, you’re not going around delusionally believing everythings perfectly fine and kicking all bad thoughts out, you’re just subtracting panic; you’re taking away the aversive feelings. Those are great for the savannah – but were not living on the savannah. Lets replace panic and the subjective feeling we call ‘fear’ with eustress. Lets face fear and stress with a smile and a shit-ton of determination. Everyone is going to die. Lets do it fucking epically!

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire: the importance of a good fix.

I recently added like 400 ebooks to my Kobo touch ereader. I have over two thousand ebooks downloaded, but I decided to choose the best of the bunch and add em on. So today on the train to Toronto for my monthly doctors appointment, I started reading ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance’. It’s a great book, and although I’m only 50 pages in, I think its going to be a favourite.

A drop detatching from a dripping faucet. Imag...

There a section early on where the author talks about his friends disdain for technology. Although I thought he was going to go a broader, more profound route, he tended towards a specific goal; and that’s great, but I had hoped for a different conclusion. Anyway, at that point he gives an example of how when he was at this friends house recently he noticed that their tap was dripping. He thought back and remembered that it was dripping the last time, and the time before that, and the time before. So he approached this friend (we’ll call them Sue and Tom – because I forget their names). He asks Tom why he hasn’t had the faucet fixed. Tom replies that he had tried to fix it but couldn’t so he just gave up. He thinks on this; so after failing to repair the dripping faucet, Tom accepts that it is now his station in life to live with a  broken faucet.

A little while later while sitting with Sue in the living room, the faucet dripping noisily in the background, Tom and Sue’s daughter comes in the room and proceeds to ask her a question. Sue can’t hear the question properly because of the faucet dripping in the background, and after having asked her daughter to repeat the question a few times, becomes angry and hostile and briefly but potently erupts in a verbose explosion of words.  The faucet dripping in the background was the fire-starter, but she’d never admit it.

If Tom had  fixed the Faucet instead of giving up, Sue would not have been angry and upset; she wouldn’t have yelled at her daughter. The daughter wouldn’t have become angry and upset, and wouldn’t have taken that out on someone else. And that person who received the daughters anger… you get the picture.

I have always felt that there is a tremendous value in doing things the right way (even though I so often failed to do so) . I remember growing up my father quite often used to half-ass jobs around the house; total Tim Taylor style of repair. He would put a new shower door on, but it wouldn’t be totally right. He would say it’s not so big of a deal – he was probably upset because his wrench set wasn’t in the right order… which at the time probably wasn’t a big deal either. The door of the shower eventually broke right off.

My point is this: when we ignore things because its easier to do so, especially when those things we are ignoring are broken or otherwise dysfunctional, we are in a way setting up little snares in our lives; when we don’t mow the lawn properly, or fix a faucet, or properly assemble a door. We are the direct cause of a great deal of our own suffering and sorrow.

There’s a quote from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that I keep written on a folded piece of paper in my wallet; ‘how needing of compassion are those who engage in actions conducive to suffering’.

When we half ass a fix around the house, or fail to get to the root of an interpersonal conflict with a loved one, because ignoring them is easier than fixing them, we are setting ourselves up for more suffering and more conflict. This becomes an even larger problem when our inaction produces suffering in the lives of others; we have a responsibility to do no direct harm to others.

Everyone complains when they’re sad or when something bad happens in their lives. I ask you this: how much of that suffering do you think is preventable? How much of it is caused by a failure on your part, or someone you love, to complete something properly.

I find that we are often just getting unstuck from one trap, when the next moment we’ve fallen into another. And quite ironically, what we often think to be a small frustration in a moment of weakness, down the road snowballs into a massive future conflict.

Don’t be irresponsible and lazy; be farsighted. If there’s a problem with a loved one, dig deep and find the root cause; don’t just slap on a band-aid. If your faucet drips loudly, or there’s any other impeding force in your environment that threatens your tranquility, fix it. Small things quickly become big problems.

Disability Claims: the mental toll of proving your own failures.

For the past two years I have been unable to hold down full-time – or even part-time – employment due to a progressing, chronic medical condition.

I am disabled. 

Last year I officially switched my major to ‘pre-med’. I was determined that despite my progressing disability, I could still find a productive way to give back to society; nail down a vocation that would both utilize my goals and by stimulating my intellect, help me to constantly form new ones. I was looking for a short-cut around my own physical limitations. I was looking for a way to avoid a particular type of conversation.

Half an hour into the first Chemistry lab of the year I knew something had to change. That night after I returned home from a grueling 15 hour day at school I found myself in an all too familiar situation.

Everything has to change. 

My performance that semester ebbed with every single twist and turn; my body was totally unreliable and equally unpredictable. Biology labs were particularly hard on my neck, which had over the summer become increasingly painful and unstable. Even though I was suffering extreme chronic pain, fatigue, depression and frustration, I ended the semester with a B and two A’s – I had to drop two courses and missed about twenty hours of Lab time.

However, the real tribulation wasn’t the physical pain I felt, and the personal frustration that comes with failing to meet the standards you set for yourself (standards which you use to define your self worth). The problems started piling up when unanswered questions were given answers; my hand was forced.

In a vain attempt to sever the emotional ties, the decathat, I began to shrink away form social interaction, adumbrate of what would become a long period of loneliness, fear, and derision.

It was bad enough that my friends and family didn’t believe me, and bad enough that society and my school didn’t believe me, but it was being tasked with revisiting my own failures and limitations that made life seem briefly unbearable; I was forced to show people examples of my own short-comings and failures. I had to show them why I was unable to perform at one hundred percent. That process is at the same time the most familiar, and the greatest threat to a disabled persons sense of well-being.

I remember one night in the summer, after getting in a fight with my mom I rode my bike down to a park a few blocks from my house; I needed some fresh air. Along the way I made a de-tour, stopping at a grocery store; I hadn’t any idea what I wanted to buy, I just knew that I had to get something. It was as if I was subconsciously stocking up supplies in preparation for a big storm.

I ended up back at the park a little while later. While I was sitting there, an open knife in my hand, completely determined to end my own life, a man slowly walked by me. This particular park isn’t much of a park, but more like a small open field; there is a play structure and tennis court, but they are tucked away at one end, leaving a vast open veld which makes up most of the ‘park’ itself. I watched as this guy somberly trudged through the grass. I imagined what he was thinking, burdened by his stupor and loll. I pictured where he was going, who he was and where he was from. I wondered if he was a potvaliant character, ready to strike at any moments notice. He looked a little haggard and worn-out; he was dressed a little alternatively, bearing the unmistakable signs of someone who really enjoys ‘metal’ music. I imagined he was poor and unsuccessful. I thought his family probably deserted him because he never amounted to much, and so after a night of binge drinking and regret, he was making his way back to his mold-infested, one-bedroom basement apartment. That the greatest thing he had accomplished in his long, drawn-out life, was probably something most people would be eager to hide; or at least they wouldn’t lead a job interview saying ‘well, I own the entire ‘Between the Buried and Me’ discography, and I’ve been to every Atreyu concert.

Anyways,  to make a long story short, my mom pulled up in our van. I cried and told her about the guy I saw and how afraid I was of becoming someone like him; an unsuccessful loaf who can’t hold a job and lives in poverty.

At that moment in my life I was so enamored by this ‘ideal of success’. An incongruous standard of life, impossibly hard to define. I didn’t know much, but I did know that I didn’t want to be like that man I saw walking through the park. I knew that at all costs, I had to be successful.

As a disabled young adult, I can tell you that the picture the media paints about fairness and equality is an illusion. T.V. shows like Glee and Degrassi portray a utopian world where even though there are obstacles in life, in the end everyone gets what they want. The leading roles are played by stunningly beautiful actors and actresses. These are shows were even the ugly and downtrodden house some ineffable quality of character, or else some hidden yet profound talent or skill.

Our world is nothing if not complicated.

I think most people want to believe that life is governed by some principle of fairness; in the end good triumphs over evil, and the shy guy gets the girl. The only way our world can be fair is if we make it fair; no one is going to do it for us.

We are forgotten. 

This fall I finally made the choice to apply for Disability. Although I knew I would probably only receive  eight hundred and fifty dollars a month, I would have all of my prescription medications paid for (except for a minimal two dollar co-pay, a co-pay most pharmacies wave). This was a big incentive for me since over the summer I had to add three new (and very expensive) medications to my pharmaceutical arsenal. I treated it as ‘supplementary income’; I distanced myself from it.

Again I was faced with the embarrassing and demeaning task of proving that I am an incapable, inferior human; remembering all the while that at the end of the tunnel isn’t actually a bright, white light, but a tribunal that 50% of the time denies new applicants first applications… and their subsequent initial appeal. Not only do I have to prove I am disabled in more ways than one, the more ways which I can prove, the more likely the provincial government will be to approve my claim. In a sense, I am asked to reduce myself to my absolute worst qualities; the worst case scenario becomes the only scenario… depressing?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really think too much about it at first. I had the end-goal in sight: an income and health coverage – approval. The small stuff that happened to occur in the interim didn’t concern me too greatly. I tend to be phlegmatic.

It seemed that only during the immediate affronts to my worth as a human being was I extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. I tend to quickly forget things that are bothersome or cause great emotional distress; who has the time and the faculties to absorb and evaluate every attack on one’s sense of self-worth?

Only now, after having ‘completed’ my first semester back at school (where I only registered for one course) am I thinking back on the way I was treated with a more analytical eye.

Over the course of the last year I have suffered bouts of extreme elation, and extreme depression. I have fought and lost, and fought and won battles against my own body; my own disease – the former of which being the greater of the two. I have had to mentally digest the reality that I can no longer take my dog for a walk that lasts longer than five minutes, or stand on my feet for longer than ten.

I have had to re-learn how to live. 

Having to define myself by all the negative aspects of being disabled completely unravels all the hard work that has gone into proving to myself that I am not a useless failure; that the meaning and value to life is not found in what a person can do, but who a person is… by what being ‘human’ means, collectively. The only thing worse than having to prove to others that you are disabled, is having to do so for a group of people who don’t know you from Adam. The inculculation eventually wins over.

Picture asking a paralyzed man to fill out this questionaire:

Check Yes or No  for any of the following: 

  1. Can you climb a mountain?
  2. Can you run a marathon?
  3. Can you climb a flight of stairs?
  4. Can you do fifty jumping jacks?
  5. Can you do thirty squats?
  6. Can you win a potato sack race?

Funny yet sadistic.

Our society requires that its disabled continually prove that they are disabled. Our society forces its disabled to literally define themselves in terms of their disability; a definition, mind you, based  completely on stereotypes and stigma, and butressed by  A definition which is in no way exemplary of the many types of disability. But if any able bodied person hears a disabled person leading a conversation by stating what they cant do, they accuse them of ruminating and giving up.

Our western culture has a profound stigma and distrust towards the disabled. This impulse extends to all minority groups: homeless, racial minorities, economic minorities. Some believe it stems from our imperialist and colonialist western culture. Others say that fear drives our judgemental attitude towards the disabled, or the homeless, or the poor; we are so afraid of becoming likewise that we need to distance ourselves. Even if doing so requires profound moral deprivation.

We need to be far-sighted. 

Nietzsche said that our society will crumble around us unless we abandon our traditional approach to morality; a fear based morality will only serve to hold us back. To the able bodied, the rich and the white Protestants, such notions are not only provocative but downright socialist. I’m by no means a communist, a political theorist, an anarchist or a conspiracy theorist. I am a disabled young adult capable of maintaining a cohesive string of thoughts, imbued with a deep sense of responsibility to pursue a solution to the biggest problem facing my sense of self-worth.

That problem is long and complicated and adumbrative; the solution must therefore be even more so. I’m not interested in the social and political implications, or the economic and religious ones either. I don’t care about the reasons or causes of others behavior towards me; no matter how valid. The only thing I care about can be found right here, right now; I’ll let the more qualified, sedulous, and more skilled put all the pieces together.

In essence, I’m a reporter; coming live to you from the front-lines. And although I’ve lost the ‘joie de vivre’, and the aplomb that were once staples of my personal character, what I have to say is no less important: when we demand from our disabled constant reification, we undermine the very core of their sense of self-worth. What we are telling them is that we don’t believe them, that they are a drain, and most importantly, that we are better than them. By using a black-and-white white which pits disabled and abled against one another, our government constantly reinforces an entirely incomplete definition of disability;  presented as the ana of all things ‘medically decrepid’.  It reinforces the idea which lingers in the back of every disabled persons mind; that voice in the back of your head that tells you ‘you’re not good enough’. The irony is that the very system which is supposed to determine whether someone is ‘disabled’ reinforces the very problem that they are supposed to fix. The narrative they paint is at the same time one of extreme inequality and one of extreme immiscibility.

Now, although I admit that I don’t know the solution; I have a few ideas and, more importantly, a few hopes. But they don’t know that there’s a problem. And the most insiduous threat to knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.

The Convergence of Faith and Fact.

Descartes

Descartes (Photo credit: couscouschocolat)

A Methodic Doubt for Theists:

Of great concern to me are the philosophical quandaries that arise when one tries to reconcile current and past scientific discoveries and knowledge with basic Christian Orthodoxy. Atheism, much like theism, is very much concerned with truth. Speaking as a former atheist, when others would ask me questions I didn’t know the answer to – and in many cases knew there was no current answer sufficient enough – I never felt incredibly uncomfortable; I never felt a sense of instability in my beliefs. Rather, I knew that one day we would converge upon knowledge and truth in all areas, and have answers to solve all our questions; that knowledge was enough to satisfy my doubts. The quest of the Christian academic is to discover that same proposition: that knowledge (theological, scientific, aesthetic etc…) will come together and converge on some objective truth, and to be comfortable with it. As a theist, I do not find the same stability in my beliefs when pressed with questions I simply do not know the answers to. There’s just more at stake; being a Christian commits you to a narrow set of beliefs about our existence, whereas atheists are free to pick and choose as they see fit. I find that in order for the narrative of the bible to flow smoothly, there just cannot be massive holes. And when I do find holes in my beliefs, It’s very difficult to assent that ‘just because I don’t know now, doesn’t mean I won’t (or someone won’t) some day’. Instead I tend to question my belief in theism in its entirety. I am also a very doubtful person, naturally; I tend towards agnosticism, rather than sticking to my guns in the face of controversial evidence. My switch to Theism has brought many of those doubts to the forefront of my mind; doubts about death, Adam and Eve, sin, sickness etc… The goal of Christian Education should be tempering the feelings of anxiety and doubt when faced with an absence of answers for important, faith-changing questions. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says “I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up.” The human mind isn’t ruled by reason; we forget, we have imagination and emotions, desires and wants. That’s why, even though I have major doubts, I try to remind myself daily of the things I do believe; by reading certain books, studying certain problems I find helpful, and talking with anyone who will listen.

Now that I am more comfortable in my faith, what can I do to reconcile the doubts that remain? I think it’s rational to assume this convergence on universal truth in all areas a) won’t happen all at once, but over a span of time, and b) won’t happen in my lifetime. In the meantime, I have decided to engage my doubts. I doubt because I find with new evidence, or a new perspective, I cannot accept the truth of a particular proposition with complete conviction. Naturally, my doubts are similar to most; they aren’t a unique, systematic approach to questioning belief. Because of that, doubt itself is insufficient. Doubting, and then stopping at doubting, doesn’t serve you in your quest for truth any more than driving to the store and waiting in the parking lot provides groceries. My quest is for truth; I want my doubt’s answered. Descartes had an answer, an answer in the form of doubting.

Cartesian doubt, or methodic doubt, is an approach to belief which determines the truth or falsity of a belief by doubting all beliefs. Knowledge in this system means knowing something beyond all possible doubt. It is broken into four steps. 1) accept only information you know to be true. 2) breaking down the truths into smaller units. 3) solving the simple problems first. 4) making complete lists of further problems.

So how can we apply that to our own faith, our own beliefs? And why choose this method? To be sure, there are many intricate methods for testing beliefs; Bayes’ theorem comes to mind. What I find so great about methodic doubt is how natural and accessible it is; we all do this, to one degree or another. I just haven’t personally met anyone who methodically and systematically spelled out their own approach to doubting belief, and then consistently applied that process to see if it in fact worked. Another virtue is its simplicity; there’s nothing too complex about it. I once gave a presentation on Bayes’ theorem in metaphysics class, you could see the students eye’s glazing over. Cartesian doubt is natural and straight-forward. The big question for us, as theists, is whether or not this approach to belief is of any real benefit, and works with our theology.   Let’s take the first step, ‘accept only information you know to be true’. Well, the ‘information you know to be true’ is largely subjective; obviously truth in its essence is objective (that is, it’s validity transcends personal interpretation), but we’re imperfect. Applying this to theological information is much more complex, because in most areas we have yet to converge on objective truth. The take home point would be to not get bogged down in strict fundamentalism on either end of the spectrum; don’t accept everything on ‘faith’, and don’t deny everything because you can’t totally verify it. There are antecedent probabilities that guide our intuition about certain things; we ease through most problems intuitively. For those that are more complex, apply methodic doubt ‘as-needed’. The second step tells us to ‘break down the truth into smaller units’. It’s not advocating for Reductionism, so don’t get bogged down trying to reduce the belief. If I believe that Christ died for my sins, I would break down that belief and analyze all the parts, and implications, and antecedent requirements, looking for something that doesn’t fit, or make sense – inconsistencies. Once you’ve done this with a particular belief, step three tells us to ‘solve the simple problems first’. This makes sense; we do this with everything. When drawing a portrait, you do a very rough sketch first. When learning math, you aren’t presented with calculus before you can perform multiplication or division. Once you have accomplished this (although, in reality, you never ‘technically’ will), make a list of further problems (step four).

I still have doubts, and new doubts still make me doubt old beliefs, but a new perspective like this one, in combination with my belief that one day the truth will be known in all areas, has decreased the running anxiety that accompanies me as I investigate Christianity more deeply. As a rational person, I realize that I’m not always rational. I know that many of my beliefs are formed and re-formed by emotion and imagination, not necessarily by reason. When I encounter problems within a specific area of Christianity, my emotions, my imagination and my anxiety wreak havoc on the rest of my confirmed beliefs. As a result, I tend to doubt for non-rational and irrational reasons. Often resulting in an anxiety so strong that I am forced to abandon my beliefs in their entirety. Having this cartesian method in my arsenal,  a lot of the anxiety that I used to feel when doubt would rear its head has been taken away, and I find myself able to address problems with a clear, rational mind.