Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letting it Slide

Yesterday the Facebook interface changed slightly.  If my newsfeed was to be believed, the world had just ended.  My entire social network was up in arms.  This was an outrage!  How dare they?  It was as if a couple of hundred otherwise intelligent and reasonable people had been suddenly and collectively personally affronted and decided to throw a hissy fit.  Oh, there would be hell to pay.  The jig was up.  It was all over now.  Threats were being leveled.

I looked at this yesterday, as I spent the less than a minute it took me to learn the new interface, and I thought to myself, "Something is very wrong with this picture."  Obviously, I'm not going to generalize an entire behavior based upon one specific instance, but part of my thing in life is to look for patterns, and I see how what happened yesterday is a symptom of something larger.  This larger pattern is what I want to talk about.

I was standing in line at the New Hampshire Highland Games waiting for a strawberry shortcake from the bakery tent when the whipped cream machine suddenly broke on the poor woman trying to serve us. After about two minutes of waiting while she fixed it (and did quite a heroic job of it too, I might add), the line began to grumble.  "We're never going to get it," one person said.  "We've been waiting forever!" complained another woman.  Even my own father-in-law said to me "I think you're going to be waiting a while."  The service was atrocious, claimed another.  The glaring and the whining were beginning to get to the poor woman, and when I got my strawberry shortcake after about three minutes of waiting, she apologized profusely to me.  I told her I knew it wasn't her fault, thanked her for the shortcake, paid her, and left.  But that didn't seem to stop the glares and glowering coming at her from the line.  What struck me the most as I exited the line with my shortcake and began walking back to the arena, where the rest of the family was waiting for us was how unnecessary the entire exchange had been.  Minor inconveniences are a daily fact of life.  Yet there are a substantial number of us who seem to treat them as the emotional equivalent of a deep personal crisis.

That's just slightly hyperbolic, of course, but I can't help but wonder what this says about our reactions to stress, and our relative stress levels.  At every large public gathering I've attended in the past year and a half, there has been a noticeable tension in the air.  It isn't loud; it's more of an atmospheric tinge, and very subtle.  Nobody speaks of it out loud, anyway.  But it's there in the little things: having to wait in line, something you wanted being sold out, a change to the Facebook interface.  I can't go a day without seeing a post with the acronym FML ("Fuck my life") attached to what seems to me to be a relatively minor setback.  What could be driving this discrepancy between the severity of our problems and our responses?

The greater part of this seems to be about our expectations, accompanied built-in sense of dread, like any difference in outcome, or really any change at all will inevitably be bad.  The two are closely related.  Let me offer a theory.  Expectations easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.  It works one of two ways.  If you expect to be disappointed, chances are you'll find a way to be disappointed in whatever happens.  Whenever human beings have a belief like that, we usually find a way to make it come true.  How could we not?  When you have a belief that you consider absolute, it doesn't matter what you experience.  Your experiences will be shaped to fit the belief and not the other way around.  But that's not the only way in which we can warp our perceptions to fit our beliefs.  Our expectations can also be too high--so unrealistically high that we can never satisfy them.  If that's the case, disappointment is inevitable and becomes self-reinforcing.

To continue the point, if there is anything Americans want more than anything these days, it's instant gratification.  Our entire culture seems to be based around it.  I'm reminded of a story sequence from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in which Calvin mails away for a beanie cap he's convinced will let him fly, but that takes 4-6 weeks to arrive.  He waits and waits and waits and waits and slowly drives himself mad waiting, only to discover when it arrives that his beanie cap won't let him fly.  We want a miracle cure, a quick fix, and we want it now.  Think about that for a second.  Think about how that expectation affects how we view change.  People take changes to the Facebook interface very strangely personally.  I was once told off and unfriended when I commented on a friend's status that his excessive ranting about what was then a relatively minor change was perhaps a bit unreasonable.  He was, essentially, a junkie who couldn't get his fix.  This instant gratification culture is a culture of chronic masturbation.  His form of masturbation had been taken away.  That really pisses people off.  Same when you're waiting in line for a strawberry shortcake and it takes you more than thirty seconds to get it.  Or you wait for a beanie cap that you think will make you fly, and you discover that the wait was all for nothing.

It doesn't have to be this way, however.  We can, if we choose, ignore these feelings and let these inconveniences and irritations slide.  It's easy to say, but not so easy in practice.  By themselves none of these little annoyances amount to much, but they add up to big trouble.  And that is something that people struggle with.  I hadn't planned to write this post until last night, but it dovetails perfectly into what I want to talk about over my next arc.  Let me finish making my case.  Then, hopefully, I can show you how to find a way out from all the negativity I see pervading almost every place and person I encounter.  It's no big thing that put us in this mess we find ourselves in.  It's lots of little things adding up.  We need to recognize it for what it is.  Only then can we fix it.

Until such a time, though, I suppose I'm going to let the public panic over a few minor changes slide, myself.  After all, it's just people being people.  It's not the end of the world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I struggled for a while trying to figure out how to tell this next story I want to tell.  My struggles became epic, and weren't limited to this blog.  In fact, for the whole months of August and September I've been dealing with a rather difficult mental block.  I thought long and hard about how to get past it, meditated on it for hours on end, and searched and searched for a way through it.  It was late last night that I finally came to that sudden realization that can only be described with the exclamation "Eureka!"  For I'd had the answer all along.  It was in fact, staring me in the face.  I simply couldn't bring myself to look at it.  If this post isn't as articulate or thought-out as others have been, I apologize, but that's sort of the point.  For after a while, the struggle to overcome the block itself had become the source of my block.  To boil it down to a single sentence, I was afraid of falling.

Not that you'll ever get me to do this.  But still, it illustrates
what I'm trying to say.
The fear of falling is nothing new to me.  I didn't fall once when I learned to walk.  That was because I didn't let go of whatever I was holding on to until I had completely mastered it.  It was a central dialectic of my childhood.  My parents impressed upon me two things above all: one, that I was flawlessly special, gifted, and had limitless potential; and two, that I was at the same time incredibly frail and fragile.  I'm sure they had their reasons, and I don't want this to go the way of so many other blog posts I've read and have this turn into a rant against my parents.  If I was mad at them for teaching me this, I wouldn't be writing this.  I don't believe in whining.  Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these two forces has had an enormous impact on my life, one that I now feel like I understand.

The fear of falling can mean a lot of things.  It can mean a fear of drowning, a fear of embarrassment, and a fear of failure.  For if the golden boy is actually a FabergĂ© egg, how is he supposed to fulfill his potential?  He'll break.  This was a central paradox of my life, one that would define how I thought and felt for decades.  I knew deep down I could do something, but I'd be so afraid of falling (or making a mistake, or just plain getting it wrong) that I wouldn't try, and even if I did try, I'd be dissuaded after only one or two setbacks and give it up, or worse, flame out.  It didn't matter where, what, or how.  If I wasn't immediately a "natural" (whatever that means), I was an abject failure at whatever I did and would never, ever succeed.  Get it right the first time, or else.  This was perhaps illustrated most directly in an episode of cowardice involving a jetty and pounding surf with my good friend Nick the Magic Unicorn. Nick wasn't afraid of falling, and so he confidently sprinted out, leaping from rock to rock between the waves to a beacon halfway out into the mouth of the bay at Fort Stark, the remains of a nearby World War II-era shoreline fortification (now a public park).  The jetty was perhaps ominous, but not impassable, and there were plenty of people who made it there and back, including Nick.  But I got about a third of the way out before I became so convinced I was going to slip, fall, and get hurt that I became paralyzed with doubt and fear, and after standing there frozen in place for a good five minutes or so, turned back, my knees wobbly and unsteady beneath me and feeling plenty humiliated.  This principle was also illustrated most dramatically during my last attempt at employment, wherein I attempted to become a Nurse Assistant and my fear of failure led me to so spectacularly flame out before I'd even completed the coursework it literally incapacitated me for a year.  That is in fact one of the reasons I wound up on disability (which in turn directly led me to where I am today, so even in my darkest hour there is always a silver lining).

What changed, then?  The greatest talent I possess--when the circumstances are right and I'm ready--is to see things as they really are.  Insight like that is as powerful as it is volatile.  To properly wield it, I've learned, requires a very demanding level of emotional awareness and discipline.  Otherwise it can be very destructive.  And for whatever the reason, that insight has always come instinctively to me.  The object lesson of the past two years for me has been, rather, not to cultivate this insight, but to learn how to tame and master my reaction to it.  This is not, either, to be boastful.  In fact, if I understand anything, it's just how much of both a blessing and a curse that kind of intuition can be.  I have for many, many years longed to be ignorant of it, as if somehow taking away that awareness would return me to some sort of state of ignorant bliss.  Clearly, that wasn't going to happen, and so the only solution was to learn how to live with it.

Now I hope you can see why I'd have a hard time blaming my parents for making me this way.  I don't really believe in black and white issues, and this to me is just another example.  But still, what to do about the original problem?  Intent matters jack shit if, when the time comes, you're still too afraid to act. Again and again, I find myself coming back to the theme of vulnerability on this blog.  But what if that vulnerability was in fact my unwillingness to admit that I might fall fail?  Now it becomes clear.  I accept the failure, I accept my vulnerability, and there's no need to admit to it, because I no longer deny it.  So the problem itself then becomes the solution.

I suppose now I also can understand and appreciate what this blog means to me.  I write about it a lot, because to be honest, I'm not entirely sure I've always understood what I was doing here and why I was doing it.  Perhaps now my intent is clear at least.  I don't know who reads this, but I hope that this somehow helps people.  A narrative without a purpose isn't a narrative at all.  This is mine, and I'm aware of it now.  I've been holding back on you, Internet.  I think it's time I stopped.

Let this be the start.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Biggest Koan of Them All

It's taken me a long time to get where I am now.  That I'm even talking about this publicly is a testimony to how far I've come.  I've always hated talking about myself.  Even for the first fifty or so posts on this blog I danced around the subject.  I don't want my story to be some touchy-feely feel-good tale about how gosh darned great everything is and how you can make it if you just try hard enough.  It wasn't.  It was as awful as it was beautiful, and if I've learned anything about my fellow man in the course of this it's that we tend to cherry-pick one or the other.  I never looked for sympathy.  What I write here, I write for myself.  It's only public because it has to be--by admitting these things and broadcasting them over the internet, I eliminate the fear I have of them.

What's a koan, as the title suggests?  It's a Japanese word.  In Zen Buddhism it roughly translates to "riddle," a question such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping" transmitted from teacher to student that he or she then meditates on in order to further enlighten themselves.  If my life has been anything to me, it has been a series of riddles: koans.  It's what led me to Zen Buddhism, and it's why I practice it today.  It's how I perceive the world.  This practice has taken me far; far beyond what I expected or even thought possible just two years ago.  Now I have come up against what may be, literally, the mother of all of them, and I find myself not quite overwhelmed, but nonetheless totally consumed by trying to figure out what it all means.  It's not simple, nor is it easy to grasp.  This process is one I've often struggled to explain to outsiders.  My previous journey has come to an end, and a new one is beginning. Every time one of these cycles completes itself, the new one seems to build on the last.  This is no different.  This is far bigger than any one post or cycle could ever hope to cover.  Look at this as a recurring theme in my next several arcs.  For the first time on this blog, I'm going to take whoever reads this along with me as I go, rather than simply reporting back after the fact.  What I know, you'll know too.

So, without further ado, let's begin.

What the essence of this koan boils down to is trust.  Phrased in a question, I suppose it would be "Why don't I trust myself?"  Nearly every problem in my life boils down to this.  It's a belief that has shaped everything I see, and everything I do--good or bad.  Every time I hesitate at a ledge or a wet rock, it's my lack of trust in myself that does me in, causes me to lose my footing and shrink back.  Every time I want to speak, but can't; bungle a speech, blow off a chance to lead, it's that.  Likewise, however, I must also acknowledge the powers of observation it has granted me.  When you can't trust what you see, you naturally adapt by becoming very good at looking deeply.  Looking deeply is of course the essence of  Buddhism, and it was one of the main selling points way back when I first came to it.  But there is also another layer to it--both sides--one that has for most of my life preventing me from seeing myself as well, and from understanding who I am.  After all, when you can't trust yourself, you have a Matrix phenomenon on your hands.  How do you know anything is real?  When I turn my lens onto myself, all I see is blurry static.  I've groped at answers here and there, but I don't really believe them--not on that deeper visceral level.  Even here, to demonstrate how difficult this is for me, I'm writing this sentence nearly twenty minutes after I wrote the last one.  It's a powerful wall between my interior and exterior space.  But it's one that must be torn down if I am to fully recover.

There are always two layers of truth, and two dimensions.  There is what we think and what we feel, and what then is rational and what is visceral.  No one part can exist without the others.  The tragedy is that we treat them as exclusive entities; a false dichotomy where none exists.  I have some friends who believe all they do is think, in complete ignorance of their emotions.  And I have some that only ever seem to feel, in complete violation of what they know.  We need both in order to survive.  Denial of any one part is just that--denial.  It changes nothing about who we are.  Psychologists use the term "dysfunction" to describe the result.  It's accurate, but I think for my purposes here it's too detached, too clinical.  I prefer simply to see it as suffering.  Self-inflicted wounds hurt the most.  We can't know the future or predict how complex things such as destinies will turn out, but the least we can do is stop hurting ourselves.  This is my attempt to do just that.

I'm reaching the limit for what I consider to be a good length in a post.  I'd be doing a disservice to you and me both if I wasn't thorough, so like before let this serve as an introduction to what will come next.  I for one have always believed that things can get better if we're willing to believe they will.  Our attitudes shape our perceptions and vice-versa.  I don't believe that things must be either one or the other.  That is a product of incomplete thinking, just as hopelessness is the product of incomplete feeling.

Now to figure out how.