A Principle Bigger Than Us All

I’ve spent the past two years writing on this blog (often not well) hoping to find some answers and hoping that maybe others would find some truth in my truth. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences lately that have made me realize just how contracted my life has been. In these twenty four years I’ve been given the privilege of seeing and living many different kinds of lives. I’ve been the athlete. I’ve been the jock. I’ve been the ladies man. I’ve been the rock-star. I’ve been the ‘genius’. I’ve been the inspiration. I’ve been the loser. I’ve been friendless. I’ve been despised. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been the cripple and the burden. I’ve lived with hundreds of friends, and an in-tact family, and I’ve lived with zero friends and no family.

There’s this Becket quote that I like: there’s man all over for you, blaming on his shoes the fault of his feet. We always try to look for some meaning in the madness; some purpose. It’s an inherently human thing to do. We all at one point think that there is some great purpose for us;  that we’re some integral part of this grand design. We all hop we’re that special, and that’s one of those hopes that’s truly difficult to break away from, and incredibly hard to lose.

When I think about my purpose, and how ‘important’ I must be, I think about the disabled children abandoned because their parents didn’t want them; something that’s less frequent now, but incredibly common in the past. What about the kids and adults right now starving to death. What about the people slain for no reason but to satiate some sick sadistic warlord or sociopaths desires? When I think about these people I find it very difficult to see the great meaning in their lives. And I find it even more difficult to justify my desire to find one in my own.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me, but like everyone else I have a fairly general idea of the direction I’m headed in. I know that I’m going to have surgery on my spine to treat my Syrinx. I know that I’m going to remain disabled. I know that things are going to remain hard. When I think of my future I am stressed, but it’s not the surgery or the disability that make me feel stressed, it’s the lack of support and connection with others. And it’s the knowledge that the family I do have left aren’t going to make the world a much better place.

Recently my brother moved out, leaving me and my dog alone in this apartment. It’s made me really feel worthless, and really question the belief I used to have that I could find purpose and meaning. It was the hope that my brother would see my world and it would make him a better person that gave me purpose (I know that if I were magically cured right now I would go on to do wonderful things; the stuff that used to stress me out and prevent me from fulfilling my potential (the insecurity, the money-stress) pales in comparison to the stress of not being able to walk, or work, or really live. And so I thought perhaps it was logical to conclude that since he’s healthy, he could take that truth and completely transform his life; he could do the good things he is capable of doing). But now I  don’t know. It’s the actions that people make and the things that people believe and do that determine if the world is just and good. People make the meaning and purpose, not fate, not the ‘gods’, and certainly not ourselves. A person may be able to will themselves to greatness, but how you define greatness and the metrics you use to measure it might reveal that the greatest thing is to be good, not rich, or envied, or feared. Take the Kennedy family. Many revere them, and are inspired by them. But many people don’t know about Rose Kennedy. They had her lobotomized, and then institutionalized for life. She was very rarely visited. She was alone, to suffer and live out her existence; a causality for the greatness of others. And for what? Did the Kennedy’s change the world forever? Or was their greatness just as fleeting as the law student who passes his Bar, or my brother who gets the raise he’s been working towards.

The things we desire so much in this world are fleeting. I wanted nothing more than a nice car and fame when I was a kid. I pictured myself loved and wealthy. I am so far removed from that future I once longed for. If you had told my 14 year old self that in ten years I’d be disabled, in chronic pain, completely abandoned and alone, with too many scars to count, you would have crippled me. But I’m glad in some weird way that this has happened to me. It’s given me the privilege of seeing what it means to truly have a meaningful life. I am able to bear being sick and disabled and having such an uncertain future. I can find the good in those things and they are experiences and lives that I can use to paint a broader narrative with. It’s the lack of social connection. The lack of love and that opportunity to make someone better than yourself that comes with being in a family that makes me feel like nothing matters and I can’t possibly move on.

If my life has some purpose perhaps it’s to share that one small truth: being good (moral and virtuous – loyal, empathetic, temperant, prudent, just) and investing your future in others is the thing we need most in this life, and the thing we cannot live without. We can survive, and often thrive, without painlessness, without mobility, and without health. We cannot survive for very long (and we cannot really, truly thrive) without the meaning and the purpose relationships and connection to and with good people provides. It sucks going through hard things alone. But it sucks infinitely more going through them needlessly. Like Rose Kennedy, I don’t have to go through this stuff. It’s not actually going through it that stings the most (like I said before, humans are incredibly resilient), it’s the reason why I have to go through it that does. And that reason is the reason why people feel like the world is a harsh place filled with meaningless suffering. For me, that reason is that my brothers don’t understand that being good and moral means being there for others. It means just supporting them and loving them; calling them when they’re ill, trying to help them, and trying to learn from them. So that they can feel better, so that I can feel better, yes, but also so that anyone could feel better. It’s the principle that matters, not my particular happiness. It’s that my brothers don’t grasp that principle that makes me feel like my life is pointless and thus that life is pointless (their lives included, especially). I want to be happy, but I want them to want me to be happy more. Not just for me, but because it’s the right thing. I want them to get that one point. That being strong means going through hard things but remaining good. That the glory we can achieve in this life and the purpose we can find in some grand picture of some complex design cannot matter if there are people who are left in our wake starving, dying, and being killed. We can’t prescribe universal rights unless everyone has access to them. The world is harsh and life is often very difficult and unforgiving, but if people are good, and get that one main principle (being moral, and virtuous and supporting and learning from others) than even the most apparently meaningless fate can be transformed into the most meaningful one.

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Identity: finding a new name for anxiety.

One important reason why we are capable of maintaining these constant anxieties we have concerning our strengths, weakness and statuses is that most people don’t give thought to the idea that we’re all constantly growing – or that people are capable of substantial growth in the first place.

Most people find themselves with a particular set of skills, cultivate some job from those innate capacities, and merge that new profession with their identity. They don’t reason or internalize the many steps it took to get from point a to point b. They simply think ‘why can’t other people be like I am? It must be they are deficient?’

I feel fear when I think about the possibility of a human literally being inadequate. How could that person have an identity – since our identities are so closely related to our innate capacities. If that was the way the world worked, then that persons only identity could be her lack of skill – her deficiencies and her inadequacy. How could she not feel anything but anxiety? Since none are guaranteed security, this puts all of us in a precarious position.

And then it occurred to me: what if the crux of a person’s identity isn’t their ‘skills’, but a dynamic state of change? What if we are all identified with where we are at the point of identification; not at the point of birth, or at the point of graduation, or employment. What if we change how we identify ourselves, so that we can include those people who weren’t lucky enough to be born with some great skill.

Do we not recognize a different type of greatness in those who fight to acquire a skill they weren’t born with? We already value this state of constant change – and identify the role it plays in our identity. We’re just uncomfortable with disequilibrium – and those who are fortunate enough to escape that, do.

Let’s not. Who we are identifies where we are, not what we are.

Our Obsession With Pathology.

When the ill try to recover, what is it they are trying to recover from? Is a depressed woman trying to overcome depression? Or is she trying to move past her memories? Perhaps she’s trying to work with her genes and neurochemistry to find some sort of balance. No matter what we name the object of our struggle, I think that there is little benefit to focusing on the pathology itself. I’m not suggesting we pretend as if everything is okay; ‘fake it ’till you make it’. I’m simply suggesting that it is much easier to overcome a problem if you look at that problem in terms of its parts, rather than obsessing over the whole (common sense stuff, yet it is still something we all continue to do). We must set a succession of reasonable goals to achieve; we cannot overcome ‘depression’ all at once; however, if you concentrate on the whole pathology, that’s precisely what you’re trying to do. (I chose depression because mental illness is uniquely suiting, although this principle applies with relative ease to many of our problems).

When an army of soldiers stands on the battlefield waiting for the fighting to commence, would it benefit each soldier to think of the battle, of the war, in terms of its most general abstractions? Would they perform to the best of their abilities if they looked at the army opposing them as one strong, stolid body of fearless men? Or perhaps it would be more wise instead to replace  the army itself with the individual soldiers, and those individuals whom one soldier is likely to meet on the field of battle. Or to the individual battles, and objectives.

The same is true of disease, disorder and disarray. It is also uniquely true to mental illness. When a patient attempts to overcome her depression, it would benefit her little to immerse herself absolutely in that bold, unforgiving world; talking to only depressed people, reading literature on only depression, thinking only of depression. If she befriends only those with depression, her whole life will be infected with the gray dullness of depression; and it will only continue to grow until all the light is gone. They will swap stories about their struggle, about how hard it is, and about how little people understand – what good can come of that, if that is all the talk you are having? She will develop certain behaviors via operant conditioning, and will regress rather than move forward. Instead, focus on overcoming in stages, and battling back. Focus all your energy on a positive object and fill your life with hope. Depressed people are not well suited for a rallying cry. If she reads only depression, she will most likely read of the symptoms – which are all bad. She will read also of the causes, which are mostly deterministic – which will steal her volition. If she thinks only of depression, while depressed, do you think it likely her mind will find and focus upon happy, hopeful thoughts? Instead, distract yourself when you notice you’re doing poorly, fight as often as you can, and never give up hope.  In this respect, the human will is also uniquely self limiting, and one of the most peculiarly frustrating aspects of life, and of our existence as a species of sentient beings. Because our emotions exercise tremendous influence toward the direction of our thoughts, and those thoughts either motivate, or discourage us. It is our motivation which fuels our will, and our discouragement which saps it dry.

Instead, focus on overcoming the depression, rather than living with it. Trust me, the longer you live with it, the more complacent you become. And the more complacent you become, the more you live as it.

I have ADHD, but it is only now that I am most free of my ADHD. It isn’t simply that I am unaware or somehow distracted of my symptoms, or of its effects. It’s almost as if I am in remission – or at least have a firm hold on normality. I am chronically ill, so my attention and drive is focused elsewhere. I also no longer think of my ADHD often, see a doctor for my ADHD, or medicate myself for my ADHD. I read little literature on the subject, and do even less research. I do not communicate with communities of like minded individuals.

When you focus all of your attention on a negative force in your life, that object’s shadow grows darker and looms broader; its weight seems at times unbearable.

For people with any illness, defining yourself by the pathology which plagues you will not help you. When I was at the height of my ADD journey, my Depression journey and my EDS journey, the definitions of the disorders became so engrained in who I was it was, that it was almost as if I took on the form of those diseases and disorders themselves. They were negative, and I delegated a portion of my being as its representative. I cannot will the disease itself to go away – in all likelihood, it will always be around somewhere. If I define myself by a negative, permanent thing, how am I ever supposed to recover?

Do you think its more valuable to define your disorder in terms of the pathology, or rather define your struggle in terms of an object which has little to do with the disorder itself (perhaps that object is being healthy, or not being incredibly sad, or being able to read a book cover to cover without slipping away)? When we try to recover, the will to recover is the most important and powerful force at our disposal. Some have refined, strong wills, and still others are weak willed. We have to focus on our strength, not on the danger and the power of the affliction. We cannot either think of the disorder in terms of a general abstraction. We must take it in steps (if I do aX, I will move myself to stage-1). Its much easier to ascend the face of depression when we give ourselves more than one try.

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.

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.

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.