A Problem Of Lighting

In trying to properly document my beliefs concerning human morality, existentialism and justice I’ve had to write mostly about things that people don’t really enjoy experiencing – let alone reading. Things like suffering, loneliness, abandonment and mourning; important experiences to me but a little heavy on the negative.

I got in a bit of a tiff with my father the other night. I asked him what hearing the news of my spine disorder made him feel; I just want to get inside his head to understand why he chooses to dismiss the problems I bring to him, rather than comfort me and help me figure things out. He responded by telling me that I’m too negative; these events and problems in my life stress him out too much. And that got me thinking: am I too negative.

If the only picture of my life you had was this blog then you would probably think I’m a fairly negative person. Today I went to apply for a provincial benefit so that I could get a new bed. This past Saturday, on a whim, my younger brother and I decided to check out some beds in Sleep Country Canada. One of the sales-reps asked me if she could help with anything. Pushy sales-reps usually really get under my skin, but she was nice and pretty and most importantly not pushy at all. She helped me look at a few beds, and when I described the nature of my back problems she seemed to be genuinely concerned. All in all, it was a good experience. When she asked how long I was planning on keeping this new bed for (whether it’s a five ten or fifteen year investment makes a huge difference when it comes to price), I let her know that I had just purchased a bed from this store not three years ago; the bed I bought then was now broken – the sides collapsed, huge indentations from my body and uncomfortable springs poking through the mattress. Long story short, she spent a solid twenty minutes making phone calls to various distributors, and I ended up getting a full refund for my current mattress; a ticket to go towards the purchase of a new mattress.

So today I went down to start the application process; in two weeks I should have about 850$. To put that into perspective, my current bed costs somewhere around 600 dollars. That means I’ll have $1450 dollars to put towards a new bed. Awesome news, but not exactly the point of this story. The place I went is called the ‘Housing Stability Center’. People from all across Hamilton, Ontario come here when they’re down on their luck. The people you’ll find applying at any given time paint a scary picture of a future most of us fear having. And that got me thinking.

When I first applied seven months ago or so, the other people applying scared the absolute shit out of me. They made my fears real. They were homeless, disabled, forgotten and abandoned. They lived hard, hard lives. And even though I had a moral philosophy at that time built from the idea that the weakest and most at-risk are the most valuable and need the most help, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at them for too long. I’m not quite homeless yet. I’m still young, fairly attractive, and I still have my wits about me; I haven’t suffered for too long. But perhaps to someone like my father, or my brother, or even my old friends, I bring out their fears and make them real.

How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?

I realized something as I was walking my dog tonight. I’d be having a fairly good day; I was thinking positively. But I heard something and for whatever reason that triggered this anxiety-response. And that too got me thinking. Chronic anxiety is so difficult to just ‘will away’ because it’s very compelling. Anxiety is like an alarm. Your body senses a problem and an alarm goes off in your head alerting you of that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you’re anxious. When you have problems, like I do, which persist, it’s hard to shut that alarm off. Right when you think you’ve accepted your fate, that alarm will start ringing and you find yourself again piercingly aware of what’s wrong with you.

Maybe I can be a trigger for others without even knowing it. The solution to that is obvious: don’t be a trigger. If you don’t paint a more positive picture, no one is going to help you. The problem with that solution is that it’s not very just to ask the person suffering to suffer more quietly because their pain makes others uncomfortable. But maybe that’s what I have to do. So I’d like to briefly acknowledge some things that I’m incredibly grateful for.

I’m grateful to be born to the family I was born to. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and although there are many, many things that make my life very difficult (unsupportive parents and siblings, disease, pain, disability etc…), I know that things could have been so much worse. I’m grateful to be Canadian, and to have live in a Country that meets my basic needs for me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to live, and to grow, and to help others.

I’ve always been grateful for these things, but I’ve never shown that I’ve always been grateful for anything. Even though it seems slightly unjust that I have to work even harder for attention, help and normalcy, It’s the only way I’ll ever accomplish the things I wish to accomplish.

Personhood and Applied Ethics

An application of mathematical principles requires a basic understanding of the purpose of mathematics, and the function of mathematics. But more than that,across-the-universe it requires knowledge of when and where to apply mathematics – to what problems, and to what end. It also requires an almost intuitive understanding that it’s most basic principles correspond to the natural world.

Math is written into the universe; it is a natural law. The system of principles and axioms we call the Science of Mathematics, is in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy (for most people, it’s a way to solve problems). When we engage in mathematics, we realize that we are a part of the systems we’re studying – in likeness, and more often than not, in function. Within our awareness is an innate capacity to observe and understand these mathematical truths. This capacity transcends awareness of the science of mathematics: we are able to ‘do math’ without having ever opened a text-book.

The same I believe is true of morality. I believe morality to be a natural law. Unfortunately for the sake of that statement, I cannot reliable draw parallels between morality as a natural law and math as a natural law. Math doesn’t go wrong; the constants of the universe, as we are told repeatedly by theists, are fine-tuned. Certainly there are probably theoretical cases of math going wrong, but my ignorance leads me to believe that if they exist, they are far from common – and probably the result of our own misunderstanding of the antecedent problems from which they apparently arise. Math doesn’t betray us, but morality does.

Morality isn’t written into the universe in the same way that math is; and so it might seem odd that I’m calling it a natural law. Christians believe that morality is written into the fabric of our universe, but the fall of man broke the world and everything in it; man still retains the capacity for libertarian free-will and moral reasoning, but the world doesn’t follow those moral constants in the same way that it follows mathematical ones.

But even with that admission fresh in my memory, I still have no problem saying that morality is a natural law. Morality is, in it’s most basic form, a reliable problem solving strategy. The problem morality solves for is a universal constant: the problem of suffering. We are guaranteed two things in this life: personhood, and suffering. We are aware of our own suffering, and unlike mathematics, which exists without our awareness, morality doesn’t. It may appear that I’ve contradicted myself, but give me a chance to defend my thesis – I have thought about this a great deal.

The moral precept isn’t well-being – it can’t be. Because well-being depends upon something else (functionally, and theoretically). Well-being can be evaluated biologically as flourishing (and in all the other ways, as maximizing potential within a system). Our assessment of well-being, though, requires us to match well-being with suffering. That is to say, it requires us to take an individual, posit the maximal good (flourishing) it could be likely to achieve, and compare that with where it is in the present moment. Or, (and more often than not) it requires us to look at where an individual is, and posit the maximal suffering it could experience. In either case, well-being requires suffering. Going forward then, it makes sense to use suffering as our moral precept. Not only does flourishing require an individual not to suffer, but suffering is a universal constant; the natural constants in our universe predict suffering, always.

Morality functions as a way to get us towards well-being and away from suffering. The big question has never been why, it’s been how. Well, it’s not practically functional to use well-being as the standard qualifier of moral action (that an action is moral if it increases well-being, and ammoral if it does nothing). This is because definitions of well-being can vary wildly between organisms, people, groups – you name it. Secondly, there are different areas to measure well-being. So which area do we give primacy? Is it existential well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being. Or is it all? Thirdly, who decides when well-being is being negatively affected, and when it has been achieved? It can’t be universal, because people have many different expectations of what well-being means. It can’t be left to the individual, because often people may be objectively unaware of what is ‘best for them’. Then you run into the problem of ego (telling someone you know what’s good for them), civil rights, and the potential for abuse. So what, if any, is the alternative?

Well, what if we could still utilize the moral truths given to us by brilliant men like Nietzsche, Kant and Sarte, even though the moral theories they have proposed have fallen out of fashion and haven’t proven to be practically effective – all you have to do is walk outside and talk to a few peole, or even observe, to find out that their hard-work hasn’t been applied very consistently in the lives of most people. I think we can.

So morality is born of a need to combat chance and suffering (the degree of a persons suffering as dependant on who they were born to, where they were born, how most importantly, how other people around them treat this individual person, and what type of environment they create). We combat suffering for ourselves, but the only way to do that, is to combat suffering for everyone (present and future generations; people born, and people not yet born). Suffering is a universal constant. In order to combat suffering, we have to combat all of suffering, for people. Given that you could be born to any person, in any place, you have to be guaranteed that the morality (as a method of combating suffering and chance) will apply to you equally. Luckily, the other natural constants of the universe (the ‘sciences’) work in our favour. We know that every new person can only be born in the future, or in the present. No new person can be born in the past. If they could then it’s possible our morality would fail them (and morality as defined by different means, our morality could theoretically thus be immoral). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, given that this idea just popped into my head, but if we agree that a new person can only be born in the present or the future, than it remains a very meta problem.

So, the moral theory has to apply to persons, not just to ourselves. The moral philosophy applies to person-hood, then; rather than to any individual person. Consequentialism defines moral action based upon the consequences of an action. For example, utilitarians like Mills believe that if the consequence of an action increases the general good (well-being) and provides the most amount of happiness, it is moral. But this theory doesn’t address the underlying issue of chance, because it still views individuals as separate unique entities. We feel justified in eating animals, killing bugs, and generally decreasing the well-being of the earth, because we are so separate and unique from the earth. Similarly, people believe that they are separate and unique from each-other. We are unique and separate, but in ways not determined by chance. Utilitarianism doesn’t address this huge gulf that exists between most conscious people. People think of themselves as entirely separate from other people. That’s not the case – and most rational people, given enough time and enough examples, would agree to this. But that we’re not so different doesn’t disable this thing inside most people telling them that they are. And it’s that belief in some almost metaphysical difference, that ‘I am different than you’, that causes a lot of suffering – and a lot of unethical choices. Furthermore, there’s nothing ultimately protecting you against the existential suffering you feel at the hands of meaningless suffering – the type of suffering utilitarianism allows.

An action is good if it increases well-being, and bad if it doesn’t. But if it’s bad, that really sucks for you – we’ll try and do better next time. For some people, there is no next time. The very fact that some people are born into suffering, and suffer for the duration of their lives, is unjust and re-introduces this need for a more comprehensive moral system – an applied ethics that addresses the very idea of existence, not just bad things that happen after you already exist.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m proposing that we use person-hood as the unit of measurement. That what is moral is moral for all persons, and that what is moral combats against suffering and chance. That chance thing is important. Because we can decide what is moral for a specific action, and a specific situation (like stealing from someone), but doing so without also helping people who have suffering by chance, is immoral and impractical. It’s immoral because we are leaving people to suffer. And it’s impractical, because you could be anyone – you could have been anyone. Our moral theories not only apply to us, they apply to those to come. A moral system has to be consistently effective for everyone.

We are very tied in to our own existence, so it may seem counter intuitive to say something like ‘you could have been anyone’. Strictly, that’s not true, but if you view yourself as having person-hood (being a person, not just being a person), then it does.

Looking from the point of person-hood allows us to apply our moral reasoning to lives other than our own – it allows us to see other types of experiences, and introduces us to many huge problems many people face. As those problems become more familiar, and we start to reflect on what is right and wrong and just, we start to realize that those problems are our problems, and are everyone’s problems. Because if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have been born in a poor country, to incredibly horrible and abusive parents, with a disability, for example, common sense justice and ethics make sense to you. And trying to just ‘put yourself in another persons shoes’ is too difficult and ultimately ineffective – it requires you to find someone specific, talk to them, sift through their suffering with your own bias, and the number of times you can do that is limited, and whatever information you glean is limited to yourself (how can you disseminate it if the method of obtaining it is as important to the new understanding, as the understanding?).

When you separate yourself from your ego, and your well-being, or your suffering, you can see yourself as just one of a type of consciousness. You can see yourself as a person and make moral decisions that apply to person-hood, rather than a (individual, unique) person.

That’s where I stand. That’s something I see as very important to moral understanding. Other moral theories don’t work universally because they don’t take person-hood into account – or that they don’t give it primacy. They apply to groups of people, or individual people, not to the idea of people. We’re guaranteed suffering, and the degree of suffering is largely dependent on chance. You (as acting for someone, or) as someone who could be born in the future, or is being born now, have a very basic need for a way to combat this suffering, and this chance. In order to meet that need, you have to meet that need for every possible person. In order to meet that massive need, you simply have to meet the needs of the idea of a person. From there, you can make rational moral decisions for others, you can act morally in your life, and you can have a way to solve moral problems that arise in the world (whether at random by chance, or by individual people acting in ‘evil’ ways).

Genetically enhancing our genome won’t do. Guaranteeing food supplies and a safe environment for individual people won’t do. We can’t just make a world where everyone who may come into it, has an equal chance, without acting for person-hood, rather than meeting the needs of every single possible person as they come and as those needs arise.

I’m afraid I may be doing a poor job explaining, so I will come back to this again. If it doesn’t make sense, just think about it. We’ve all had intuitions, thoughts like ‘why did I have to be born to you. I don’t think that we have a soul. I just think that humans are very similar. We don’t have the gap between us that we have between other animals – not really. That gap that we see exists in our minds (as a product of religious teaching, ignorance, social and cultural factors etc…). We are capable of putting ourselves in others shoes, because we are capable of putting ourselves in all ‘shoes’. Given the right circumstances, you could find yourself in many, many unpleasant situations. And you could find yourself developing into someone you would never picture yourself as – given the right conditions. An ethical theory that serves the fortunate first, and the consequences of our actions second, ultimately serves nobody.

We see this in the world – you just have to walk outside, talk with someone, or observe. The world is broken, but we have a contingency to generally safeguard against massively immoral actions. We don’t have a contingency to safeguard against chance – or at least, to guard against meaningless suffering. The hardest part about seeing suffering isn’t  the fact that due to our biology (mirror neurons, memories etc…) we can experience others’ suffering, it’s an unconscious recognition that ‘this is how it’s always going to be’. That recognition, braids meaninglessness into life. It’s that meaninglessness, that unncessary yet somehow unavoidable suffering that produces what I believe to be the worst feeling we could possibly feel. People sometimes say that emotions are relative – citing some post-singularity sci-fi A.I. conscious logic machines as reference to living within a world of suffering unnaffected. But I don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s possible not to feel something when confronted with that thought that some suffering is meaningless. But for the first time in my life, I don’t feel that way. It’s a tragedy that people have died so unjustly – not just people, but animals, and species, and things we never could have imagined. Because there is an answer. That answer is rational, and applies always. We don’t need a God to have absolute Justice, or to defend us against the fortunate, strong, hard-evil Chance and suffering occasionally create. We just need the idea of person-hood, and people. So long as there are people, there will be morality and justice.

I was just watching the second season of House of Cards. In a moment of sincerity Francis Underwood turns to the Camera – a personification of his psychotic ego-self – and says ‘… for those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’. The message is alarmingly clear, and it’s one we hear all of the time. The fortunate elite who resist any ethic of compassion or empathy, betray themselves. The need to hunt is a product of being hunted. You hunt, because you fear being hunted. Others hunt, because they recognize you’re hunting, and fear being hunted. Which in turn, affirms the belief. What they take as sophistication and superiority, is just impractical and ineffective weakness – and immoral. They all have their emotions, their own suffering. Sustaining a sadistic self-centered ethic is impossible; what they end up effecting, is a broken shadow of the theme they marry with their story. Anything that is ‘immoral’, that hurts others, can be broken down and demonstrated as false. Replacing what is broken is the hard part – and knowledge of a replacement almost always needed before most people will even consider taking on these power structures (eat or be eating ethics and their real-life benefactors).

These power structures exist as ideas too; they are ideals and the people who follow them always fall short. It’s the ideal that keeps them afloat; the idea.

Morality is a natural law not because it’s as obvious and consistently observable as physical constants, but because it fits perfectly with the physical constants that shape our universe.

A Moral Sketch of Psychopaths

In psychopathy intention plays an integral role in the observers evaluation of the moral weight of the psychopaths actions.

So a psychopath slices and dices a person up. Is the psychopath wrong. Well, consequentialism would tell us yes, duty would tell us yes, and so would utilitarianism.

But, his motives may have been largely determined. Such that, an incapacity for moral autonomy decreases the ethical weight of motive in the context of an ethical crime.

This understanding of a psychopaths moral autonomy only serves the purpose of developing the idea of choice. That choice depends upon many different things. For psychopaths, the choice is comparatively very narrow.

Living things have certain biological needs. Humans have a biological need to eat. That need is reflected in us evolutionarily as a desire (explain complexity of that need-desire relationship). Yet we only call eating in certain contexts a ‘choice’.

A choice is presented when there are two or more options, reflected in one or more alternatives. In respect to people eating, there aren’t generally any choices (irrespective of feeding tubes, liquid diets, supplements etc…). The alternative to not-eating increasingly grows in complexity, leading up to fatality. If you choose not to eat once, the consequence is hunger. So the options are ‘don’t eat’ or ‘eat-later’, or ‘be hungry’ (without any plans to eat later). The third choice, is almost never a choice – because eating is a need, the third option represents an implicit understanding or admission that food si readily available, and so the choice to eat has still been made (eating later). If you repeatedly ‘chose’ not to eat, over time, you will suffer and eventually die. So in that sense, eating isn’t a choice, it’s a need.

Needs are reflected in people internally as a very compelling requirement – as a non-option (you have to do it). If you were to apply the same logic used above for ‘choice’ to ‘needs’, for the individual the options would be: a) fulfill need-requirement, or b) die. Needs represent vital biological requirements an individual must meet to survive. They are quantifiable in the life of an organism. If the needs aren’t met, there are consistent, and obvious biological implications. (There are social needs as well, but we don’t have to get into them for this explanation.). Needs are the function nature uses to awake awareness within an organism or individual.

It’s possible that for some people, certain things are biologically encoded as needs which do not represent a vital biological requirement, but are gross exaggerations of other needs taken to extremes. For instance, we can all agree that organisms have needs that positively increase with the organisms complexity, the communities complexity and the complexity of it’s environment. So things like ‘competition’ which isn’t a vital biological requirement to keep an organism alive in isolation, become vital needs in the context of a community. In certain environments (most, actually) competition is required for survival. Other needs will then act on that need depending on the environmental cues. If food is at stake, the need for competition increases. If a mate is at stake, the need for competition increases. Those needs then will evolve into requiring other needs. So aggression becomes a need in certain circumstances. (These needs can be represented giving increasing and decreasing primacy (primary, secondary etc…)

 

In psychopaths, it’s been consistently demonstrated that certain things distinguish them from any average representative in a given population of humans. They tend to be male, have a reduction in non-verbal communication, empathy, cortical dysfunctions (prefrontal cortex and amygdala), higher-than-normal levels of testosterone (there are other correlates as well) as well as certain personality traits (narcissism, a-social, detachment etc…). What all of these things share in common is that they express a decrease in the individual for a capacity of what we would call ‘free-choice’. To the Psychopath, killing, hurting, is a need. It comes at a cost – ‘choosing’ is as compelling as eating.

In the psycopath, choice is subjectively, as well as objectively, expressed far differently than in the general population. This effect has a noticeable effect on psychological functioning, on survival, on mental health and well-being, on happiness, and on morality. It’s grossly dysfunctional, but in the context of morality, whether or not the psychopath can be judged as similarly as a ‘normal’ average person (a morally autonomous individual) is still up for debate. This is particularly confusing giving the extreme weight of the moral violations which are so common to psychopaths. The crimes represent moral polarities, and so the need for conviction in our moral outrage is high. But I think this added complexity needs to be matched with added complexity – if we’re to establish some equilibrium. Or else we risk losing sight of our moral philosophy and the principles that cement it to our reality.

For a psychopath, the intention to do harm is not present like it would be in someone like myself. I understand the consequences of a wrong action, and so if I am motivate just to hurt someone, than I am intending to be immoral. For psychopaths, it’s much different.

A Big Fat Lie

Functionally, a lie has no inherent power; as if the mere utterance of a falsehood were capable of shaking the very foundations upon which we build our lives. No, quite the opposite. A lie has power only insofar as we engage it; we play into the lie, become a part of it.

The same is true of the many qualia of existence. Take fear, for example. What is fear? Does it exists in-and-of itself, inherently? No. Surely, though, there do exist object complements related to the active presence of metaphorically ‘fear-filled’ things. The words we use to describe things are only semantic place-holders. They are visual and auditory representations of phenomena in this world, used to aid understanding and communication. Is it not probable, or at least possible, that the object and subject complements we have adopted to modify written and spoken language has embellished the true nature of these fear-causing things; of fear itself?

‘Tanner was punched’ by itself, is not too frightening. It doesn’t teem with the qualities of a sadistic machination, or of unbridled passion. Tanner could have been punched in the leg, or in the arm. He could have been punched by his girlfriend, in a playful manner. ‘Tanner was punched hard’ is slightly more disconcerting. You get my point.

The descriptive, oftentimes florid language used to recount events does not necessarily match up 1:1 with actual phenomenological entities and states of existence in reality. A ‘hard’ punch is easily distinguishable from a soft playful one, existentially. But is that fact a fact of necessity? That is, is that just the way our universe is? Is it possible things could have come about in another way? Or even just a slightly different way; change in degree, not type. If that is the case, than our understanding of the various phenomena in our lives as intractable truths is more a matter of opinion than of universal objectiveness.

Fear is, in many ways, a lie. A lie is not some completely foreign concept or idea; it’s just an inaccuracy. Either representing something which could be, but isn’t, and representing an impossibility of some sort. Fear quite often is like the first lie; informing us of something which could happen, but doesn’t. We are the active party there. Fear can often become so distorted that it represents an impossibility.

What I’m getting at can be summed up in a quick procession of statements concerning the nature of… well, reality (at least a small branch of reality). Firstly, fear does not exist inherently. If one day all the consequences of feeling fear were ablated, fear would disappear. Secondly, and proceeding from, fear (much like a lie) only gains power if we engage it. Much like we cannot remove all the liars and all of the lies in our lives, we cannot remove all the fear, and all the fear-causing-stimuli. All we can do is refrain from engaging them, thereby taking away their power. We will hear a liar, and hear the lies (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when a lie is being told), but we do not have to become part of the lie. Likewise, we will feel fear, and observe and understand fear (and it will be a test of our wisdom to determine when we should listen to fear, and when we should tune fear out), but we do not have to become a part of the fear.

Life at present seems to be a war fought between people and fear. All the psychological and emotional maladies which plague our conscious minds in some way stem from fear. And they all stem from the ultimate fear: the fear of death. We can learn to live happy lives coping with that fear; however, it’s my hope this modality is on its way out. I share the  same conviction as many great thinkers (Ray Kurzweil, Dawkins, Feynman, Goertzel, Krauss etc…) that one day in the not too distant future (maybe only a century or two from now), humans will be rid of this conventional model of existence. Instead, we will trade this mortal life in for an immortal form of existence. A life where the words ‘human’ and ‘computer’ are functionally indistinguishable. Where by reverse engineering and wide-spread cross-disciplinary collaboration we are able to overcome our limitations. We will seem to be, in many, many ways, like gods; but to an earthworm, doesn’t a chimpanzee seem a god? When we merge with machine, will we finally understand the difference between ‘feeling’ a punch to the arm, experiencing it, and simply thinking about the sentence ‘a punch to the arm’, and  imagining it? Is fear just one big lie?

Intellectual Growth: a problem with our modern health-care system.

“Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire.”

– The Odyssey of Homer

Today I had an appointment in Toronto with my primary care physician. Over the past two months or so, I have, in our meetings, expressely stated in no uncertain terms that I was afraid; I made it known that I have anxieties. I also established that I believe in many intricate ways that several of my pathologies are influenced by my own cognition.

I am a psychology major first and foremost. To me, psychology is both a passion and a promise. I have a gift. I am a very adept problem solver and listener. I have a high degree of integrative complexity, so when I match that up with my eclectic bank of knowledge, and my natural ADD tendencies, I can often find more than half a dozen novel solutions to any given problem. Although this talent extends to all areas, for whatever reason I find it works particularly well when applied directly to humans, and to human psychology. (Let the record show that for every virtue I claim to have there is a matching vice of equal tempo).

Now, the reason I say this is becuase in my meeting today I noticed that my doctor has developed an availability heuristic which he comes primed with when I make the long trip to come meet him at his office. He sits down and evaluates my complaints. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; he projects a scepticism towards my claims of illness and feelings of foreboding pathology, and I pick up on that and as a result respond in a timid, side-ways type of way.

Basically he thinks I’m kind of a hypochondriac. I pick up on that, and act like a hypochondriac would, thus confirming his suspicion.

I see this time and time again in the healthcare system especially. I wrote a paper for my intro to social psychology class last year (one of the most influential and benifitial courses I have ever had the pleasure of taking) on problem solving in the health-care system. I shared stories and integrated like four social phenomena. I got an A, but most importantly, I learned a lot about myself and doctors and the doctor patient relationship.

I explained to my doc. that I wasn’t returning to school this semester because I have an oustanding balance and its not their policy to allow students with an oustanding balance to continue with their education – at least not until their is proof of payment, or of funding, or if the balance is cleared in full. I don’t mean to make my school look badly; they quite graciously went against this very policy and allowed me to return to my studies in the fall semester with an oustanding balance on my account.

Anyways, my doctor told me that I was going to go crazy (faceteously, of course) with nothing do all day – which I fervently affirmed. He mentioned that I should try and set up some sort of project to keep my mind busy. I agreed; but in sort of the hollow ‘I’m only agreeing becuase I don’t really want to talk about it’ sort of way.

But the appointment got me thinking. And tonight as I popped open my Kobo Desktop software and started to read the Odyssey I started thinking. The line ‘to be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction’ caught my eye. My doctor, as most doctors do, abstracted a general principle in regards to my character, and without question, applies that heuristic every time he evaluates my health.

The strongest force working against knowledge is the illusion of knowledge. My doctor is going to miss out on enhancing his diagnostic skills. He’s going to miss out on helping me the best he could. He’s basically going to miss out on opportunities that would have led him straight in the direction towards self-actualization.

I get the feeling that this situation isn’t unique to my relationship with my doctor. I get the feeling that its a widespread infection. An infection with no cure. Becuase when the patient revolts against the affronts he perceives directed towards him from his apathetic doctor, he meets a brick wall. Not to be too banal with this analogy, but our healthcare system, specifically ‘best care practice guidelines’ and ‘patient-doctor relationships’ require a fix.

I’m not so arrogant that I believe I am that glue that can hold everything together. But I have the resources, a certain degree of skill, and most importantly, the time and determination to really put a dent in this problem. I’m going to spend the next eight months really getting to the root of this problem, and finding a way to help solve it – for the good of both the patient and the doctor.

And this difficulty attaches itself more closely to an age in which progress has gained a strong ascendency over prejudice, and in which persons and things are, day by day, finding their real level, in lieu of their conventional value”. 

Overcoming Fear: breakthrough.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night. Oil on can...

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night. Oil on canvas, 73×92 cm, 28¾×36¼ in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For most of my life I have suffered from crippling fear; fear of death, fear of illness (hypochondriasis), panic attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder etc… I have always had an active anxiety level to say the least. My only saving grace  was that for the most part these fears were totally biased and irrational.  In short, I had nothing to fear; I was healthy, in no immediate danger etc… However, that being said, like any human eventually the reality of death set in.

I became really sick about a year ago. After searching for years for a diagnosis, I was eventually told I had  a rare genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. (I have talked about this before, so I won’t go into great detail now.) Due to increasing chronic pain I take a few narcotic pain-killers; medicines which help a tremendous deal, and which I wouldn’t stop for anything – not even threat of death. I take these medicines as prescribed (actually far less than what I am prescribed), and have never abused them. This summer, though, I developed Central Sleep Apnea. During the first half an hour-hour of sleep I would constantly wake gasping for breath. And when I awoke in the morning I never felt rested, or as though I got too little sleep – a remedy for chronic pain in and of itself.

My first intuition was that this new symptom was sleep apnea, so I asked my doctor to refer me for an over-night sleep study. In the morning, after my study, the technician said ‘you stop breathing’ – so my fears were real. For the next month until I saw the sleep specialist to go-over my results I held firmly to the belief that my apnea’s were few-and-far-between; that I had a very mild case. After a while I even started to believe that I didn’t have sleep apnea at all, hoping that the tech’s were wrong.

The day was finally here; I was to finally, once and for all, find out what was really going on. After a spirometry, the tech quicly reviewed the lab. She told me that I stop breathing; that I have central sleep apnea. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach; I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me. It was hands-down one of the worst moments of my life. I was in a stupor after that; nodding and just walking where I was told to walk. The last doctor I saw was very kind and thoughtful; I think he could tell I wasn’t handling the news well. He reassured me that I have nothing to worry about, and that it’s very common for long-term opiod users to develop Central sleep apnea; he told me my oxygen saturation never drops below 92% and basically that other than my subjective symptoms, there’s nothing to worry about – that this is the usual course this type of Sleep Apnea takes.

As we were about to leave and he was going to write me a prescription for a CPAP study, I asked him if I could ask a ‘stupid question’. In keeping with his collected personality, he said ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’. I asked him if I was going to die in my sleep. Silence. He told me ‘of course not. You are not going to die in your sleep’. I actually started tearing up. It took everything in me to restrain the water works and keep my composure.

Even though both of my doctors reassured me that I wasn’t going to die, and that my life-expectancy was normal, I couldn’t shake the fear. I just knew, deep inside me, that I was going to die. That once my head hit that pillow, I was a goner.

This has been the last four months; crippling fear. All day, every day. I have thought about death in every single capacity, and analyzed it in every single imaginable way. I tried to reconcile my religious convictions; I tried to think of a way to save money for mind-uploading and maybe cryogenic freezing. I tried everything, basically.

Eventually though, the fear subsided. I have effectively ‘shed’ that anxious skin. I no longer fear things with such an intensity; it’s as though my whole software system for dealing with fear-causing-stimuli has been replaced with a tougher, more bad-ass program.

I don’t fear death; I don’t even really think about it. When a new symptom crops up, I’m more angry at it than anything; more frustrated at the inconvenience. I have this new strength and confidence about me; like I can overcome anything.

So, ‘how does one over-come death’. Well, you know the saying ‘stare death in the face’. I don’t necessarily recommend doing that… I say live with death; make death your roommate. When you’re doing the dishes, death should be there drying them off. When you’re eating, Death should annoyingly nag in your ear.

Me and death signed a forty year mortgage. I’m sure as hell he’ll pay up. And I’m oddly okay with that.

Pain:

Petal for life

Petal for life (Photo credit: Leonard John Matthews)

I used to find myself confused when I thought of all the suffering in this world. I thought there must be some sort of line, some place where a person can’t take anymore; almost like a requirement. Like ‘Oh, you have 35 degrees of suffering. Oh, well, would you like to die now?’

I used to fantasize about death; think that respite from life some sort of retreat at a great resort, offering pain-free-days lounging out in the sun, enjoying… well, certainly not living.

And there’s the paradox; the inconsistency. It’s apparent in the logic employed by all who share the goal of euthanasia, or suicide, or even murder (but for consistence’s sake, we’ll not go there). Some can argue and say that under certain conditions life isn’t worth living – that it’s better, more peaceful to die (I believe ‘humane’ is the word tossed around a lot). I’d like to contend that they are certainly wrong. So long as you are still living, you have a duty; you are required to live out the rest of your days with honor, thumos and fidelity. And although I believe in an afterlife, I certainly do not believe in throwing that truth in someone’s face; let alone shoving it down their throats and forcing them to swallow.

Life is a gift; it is not a right. It’s a gift that many, many have taken from them (children, victims, the sick and elderly). So how can one somehow discover that the option of ‘taking one’s own life’ is somehow on the table, when in-front of them they also have the option of not dying open?

We all have intuitions about this sort of situation. When a wealthy westerner (or anybody, really) smashes up his car because he wants a new one, or tears his clothes, or throws away perfect food, I think there’s this universal feeling of injustice. Why? Well, because there are people out there who don’t have the luxury of such choices. People all over the world are starving, naked and without transportation. Throwing away perfectly fine clothes, or food, or cars is not only irresponsible, but unethical. And most if not all people share this sentiment – all you have to do is watch the Kony2012 video on YouTube to see what I’m saying.

So how does this pertain to life? Well, we live in an age of forgotten mortality. With the advent of modern medicine and the drastic decrease in infant mortality rates and general increases trending towards an average 82 years of life for most healthy people, we have forgotten that one day were going to die. Humans are rife with such proclivities: the proclivity to forget, to ignore, to exercise indifference, to focus attention (and conversely, un-focus attention). We are so busy that we forget how precious life is. Why is ‘depression’ a household illness? Everyone I know has either had depression, or has a family member who has depression. Most of those people have been suicidal, many have attempted, and an unlucky number have succeeded.

We’ve grown weak. We’ve forgotten what its like on the Savannah  We’ve forgotten that were going to die, and we ignore the fact that a little over 150,000 people die a day. Many of those deaths are accidents, some are suicides, some are murders and some, unfortunately are innocent children.

So I’m going back to the ‘greedy westerner’ example for insight: why do we think it’s right to throw away our lives when so many have had theirs taken from them? How is that just? How is that ethical?

It’s not; it’s downright selfish. Not only is it selfish, but its cowardly.

[Now, I think I should take a moment to explain that statement. I’m not a black and white thinker, but my spectrum of understanding on this matter leans more to one side than the other. I’m not a post-modernist, so I don’t think we should just sit back and let everyone do what they want no matter what. So I do have empathy, more than you could know, and more than I’m probably displaying right now. Because guess what, I’ve been there. I’ve been there, and I’ve been back. IT wasn’t until the prospect of death was made real, and was taken from me, that I began to realize how foolish and ignorant I was, wanting to die, to kill myself. Every day I fear that it will be my last. I live in agonizing, horrendous pain. My life is severely limited. Yet I still push on. I’ve learnt so much. And If I’m given another 10-20 years, I’ll be the happiest person on this planet.]

In the end, what I’m really what I’m advocating for is time; if you have time, Just weather the storm. Just wait it out. Things will get better.

There’s a trick I’ve learned that really helps in those moments when you just feel like you can’t take anymore: look back at the situation, step away from it, with another lens. ‘How much stronger am I for holding on and fighting, and pushing forward? How much more will I inspire others who are going through similar things?’ By fighting through, and doing so with a brave face, were making their life easier. We’re providing for them what many so desperately wanted (a quick fix when we’re at our lowest and feel like we can’t keep pushing on).

My conclusion is simple: life is ALWAYS worth living. Because so long as you are still living, you’re luckier than the 55 million who die every year. We have a duty first and foremost to ourselves. Things pass, and everything changes. You’ll learn to appreciate your illness, you’re pain – it’s the best instructor I could ever ask for; I’ve learned more about myself, and life, and living in the past six months than most do in a lifetime. That’s real power. You can find the power you feel you’ve lost by just embracing the pain, talking and sharing your problems, and having a little patience.

I’m not confused about the suffering in this world. Yes it sucks; it’s hard and lonely. But suffering alive is so much better than the ‘peace’ of death.

Life is complicated. The answers to these questions are complicated. The fact that I’ve just scratched the surface indicates how truly complicated this is. But complicated is good. Complicated means there are a plethora of choices to choose from. Complicated means that there isn’t one, but a multitude of answers buried somewhere out there waiting to be unearthed.

And at the end of the day, if you can’t live your life for yourself; you can’t find some reason to keep living for yourself: live for others. Modify Pascal’s wager here. It will be worth it, I promise.