Philosophy

Woke AF (But Still Not Happy)

(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)

It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.

The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?

In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.

The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.

My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.

In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.

Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.

Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.

In other words…

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Louie always says it better.

Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.

What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.

Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.

I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.

The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.

Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.

I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.

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Your One-Word Ideology Sucks

Here I go making brash, vague, and mildly irritated statements with my title again. And here I go attempting to explain the rat’s nest that is my neurotic brain again.

What is a one-word ideology? Simply put, it’s a boring, limiting, and underdeveloped way of looking at the world. It’s allowing yourself to subscribe entirely to pre-conceived ideas instead of absorbing information on a case-by-case basis and developing your own opinion. Probably the most familiar one-word ideologies are religions and political affiliations. However, I think it’s entirely possible to have religious beliefs and political leanings without letting a collection of them become your ideology. Just because you believe in being nice to people and praying to a certain god doesn’t mean Christianity governs your life.

Religion and political profiles aren’t the only one-word ideologies. Basically anything that someone identifies as in a public forum without proper credentials could be an example. By “proper credentials” I mean legitimate, practical reasoning for referring to yourself as such. Do you clean people’s teeth for a living? It’s probably ok to call yourself a hygienist. Have you worked as a researcher and professor at a prominent university for years? You might be an academic. These aren’t ideologies, these are just short, information-packed words that describe what you do with most of your time.

Ideologies are much more nebulous. Despite dictionary definitions, their meanings and rules fluctuate based on whom you’re talking to. It can be difficult to pin down exact meanings for ideologies, but that doesn’t stop people from using them as powerful identifiers. People assume a lot about someone that identifies with a certain political group, philosophy, or lifestyle.

The obvious trouble with subscribing to a one-word ideology is that it deprives you of open discourse and even limits your cognitive ability by refining your thoughts to a matrix of pre-conceived, internally confirmed ideas. Adopting a rigid set of rules that govern the way information is processed by your mind can lead to a warped perception of actual facts such as statistics. If you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, you may jump to an opinion on an issue without even analyzing the facts because others of your “tribe” feel a certain way. We are all familiar with this and I don’t think I need to expound any further. You’ve seen Facebook.

A less obvious drawback to navigating the world through one-word ideologies however is that it can actually screw up your relationships with people. And I don’t mean getting into an argument with your racist, homophobic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner; that guy is a dick and you shouldn’t care if your relationship with him is ruined. I’m talking about assuming you understand someone when you really don’t. I’m talking about accepting a word as an explanation of how someone sees the world when what you really need is a library.

People cannot truly be defined by one-word ideologies. And if they think they can, they’re not thinking enough. If you can really explain the way you choose to live and think in one word, I’m willing to bet your ideology just sucks. Instead of telling me you’re a vegan, explain the mental process you used to determine that eating meat and consuming animal products is wrong. And moreover, is it wrong for you or is it wrong for everyone? These are important details. A lot of people hate vegans because they assume their decision to abstain from something is an indication of their wishes for everyone to abstain from it. This isn’t always the case.

Taking one-word ideologies as an indication of personality is also fraught with peril. You might choose friends because they share your religion or lifestyle, but you may quickly find out these choices aren’t prerequisites to being a decent human being. Jumping too quickly into relationships with people based on their prominent self-identifiers can surround you with individuals who offer you little more than surface-level affinity and confirmation bias.

I feel it’s important to point out that I understand the value of identifiers in the social lives of human beings. With more than seven billion people on earth, it’s kind of hard to be friends with everyone. You need to start somewhere in picking who you choose to spend your time with. It takes a long time to delve into someone’s mental process to determine how they see the world, and it’s a lot easier to build a picture of them based on a collection of cookie-cutter identifiers. But a lot of people are actually starved for good conversation. In a world where the “appropriate” topics of polite conversation leave a lot to be desired, I tend to find many people are relieved to have someone ask them about the deeper workings of their mind, such as their motives and core values.

But good relationships are hardly ever quick and easy to build. Just like good ideas, good relationships take time, thought, and understanding. I believe investing in the quality of our own ideas can help us understand the complexity of others’. If your worldview takes more than a word to explain, why would you accept a one-word label for someone else? Seeing opinions, values, and beliefs in this way opens up a conversation abut the roots of those ideas. I’m far more interested in the logic and reasoning behind someone’s opinion than the opinion itself.

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Why is Socialism So Scary?

Why is everyone so afraid to be called a socialist?

A lot of the knee-jerk, frothy-mouthed repulsion to socialism can still be attributed to fallout from the red scare. Americans have been programmed to worship the virtue of capitalism and lump socialism in with communism, fascism, and other “scary” political systems that are incompatible with capitalistic ideals. But even Americans who aren’t completely brain washed and dried by past propaganda and fear-mongering media outlets often still cringe at the mention of the “s” word. So what’s the deal?

With the rising popularity of self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders comes a debate about what his ideas mean for the United States. Although the U.S. is a country with social safety nets on paper, these programs often fall far short of lifting citizens out of poverty and homelessness. In a country where the minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, housing prices continue to climb, and universal healthcare is in its troubled, complicated infancy, more people than ever struggle to make ends meet.

Yet voices from the right call for further constriction of the social safety net. Welfare encourages people to live on the taxpayers’ dollar they say. Hardworking people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, and escape poverty with that good old-fashioned American ingenuity, not help from Uncle Sam.

In stark contrast, there exists the Nordic model of government. Scandinavian countries, often cited as some of the most statistically happy in the world, have much more robust welfare programs. They have a free-market, capitalist economy like the United States, but tax rates between 30-50% (some of the highest in the world) that support healthcare, education, public housing, and other social services. Wikipedia calls Scandinavian countries “welfare states.” While to many Americans this may sound like an insult, it’s actually just a highly logical and intelligent way to ensure citizens in a society have their basic needs met.

I could spend years writing about what socialism actually means to me philosophically or what Bernie Sanders does and does not stand for. I could also delve into the facts that show Denmark’s form of capitalism to be more successful than ours. But in the interest of brevity and relevance to everyday conversations, I’m going to focus on the main arguments I hear from people who hate the idea of socialism or welfare states, and how I might verbally (but in most cases mentally) respond.

 

  1. The Robin Hood Economy

Why should we take one person’s hard-earned money and give it to another? In the words of every 4-year-old ever, “That’s not fair.” People with large incomes generally work very hard to bring in that money and forcing them to pay higher taxes to support those who don’t work as hard is wrong.

 

This objection is based on the flawed assumption that people who earn less do so because they work less. It ignores the existence of privilege, institutional racism, cycles of poverty, and education inequality. It conveniently forgets that college tuition in this country has increased 1,120 percent (for comparison, food prices have only risen about 244 percent due to inflation). Overwhelmingly, those with advanced degrees, thus greater opportunity and earning power, are those who could afford to go to school; not those who worked the hardest to. It also forgets that if everyone had the ingenuity or risk-taking personality to be a entrepreneur, we’d have a bit of trouble functioning as a society.

Those who did overcome all odds and adversity to succeed often don’t help the situation. People who pulled themselves out of poverty by working four jobs, starving, or abandoning the idea of sleep throughout college in order to be successful and debt free are shockingly not the first to speak up for social safety nets. In fact, they’re often some of the strongest opponents. “Well I worked hard for my success, why should someone just get it for free?” They miss the point completely that they shouldn’t have had to jeopardized their health or sanity just to ensure they didn’t spend their life in government housing while their peers’ parents simply paid for tuition. They also seem to suffer from the delusion that if things get better or a little easier for people around them, or in the generations below them, it somehow invalidates their success. It doesn’t. And their insecurity over their own self-worth is hurting people.

 

  1. Competition is King

Natural selection dude. Some people succeed, others don’t. It’s “natural” to have poverty, homelessness, and income inequality.

 

Wow, there are just so many things wrong with this one. Where do I even start? First, as I’ve already said several times in this blog, just because something is “natural” does not mean it is right, desirable, or appropriate. Infectious diseases are natural, yet we generally try to stave those off. Reproduction is natural, yet most (sane) people support the use of birth control. The provision of a social safety net is meant to ensure that all people enjoy basic human rights. It’s not so someone can afford a new video game console, it’s so they don’t have to sleep in a tent under an overpass every night. To me this is an ethical no-brainer.

 

  1. But won’t everyone just become lazy?

Giving people stuff for free will just discourage them from getting a job. We’d be encouraging people to sit around all day.

 

Who cares? Take a second to think about all the people you know. Now think about their occupations. How many of them are actually engaged in maintaining or bettering society? Are they working in healthcare or public service? Are they generating products or services people actually need? Are they working for the common good in politics or research? Or perhaps creating beautiful works of art? On the flip side, how many are just busy? Busy pushing paper around in an office, doing a job a robot could do, or hocking stuff no one needs.

Chances are, many of the busy people would choose to leave their soul-sucking jobs if their basic needs were met. Could they choose to then pursue more worthwhile careers that benefit society? Yes! Could they also choose to sit around on their asses all day, living on food stamps and jerking off? Probably! However, I would bet both my kidneys the number of healthy, functional people who would choose option B would be comparatively very low. The number of people who would choose to pursue more worthwhile careers would more than make up for the “tax burden” of the few who chose to live on government money.

Furthermore, needing to work more than full-time just to stay alive creates a desperate populace that falls right into the hands of unscrupulous and socially irresponsible businesses. Personally, I’d rather someone stay home than spend their time selling sweatshop-made items at Wal-Mart* or convincing customers to upgrade their Comcast plan.

*The three largest private employers in the U.S. are Wal-Mart, Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC), and McDonalds. Still glad everyone’s employed?

 

When you really take some time to look at it, you can grind this whole issue down to a very simple dichotomy. There are those who believe life should be a lottery, and if you’re unlucky enough to draw a shit number (for example by being born poor or disabled), you should have to work harder your entire life to get the same things others obtain easily. Then, there are those who believe the playing field should be leveled to the best of our ability, and all people should be given relatively the same chance to succeed.

I’d like to reiterate again that arguing the first option is right because it’s natural is absolute, unrefined bullshit. Society itself is not “natural.” Nothing humans do in 2016 meshes with the normal order of the world. The economy does not exist, country borders are imaginary, and your job is made up. But even at a fundamental “natural” level, the whole point of animal social structures are to benefit the various members of the group. If we are going to insist society function in a dog-eat-dog fashion, I’d prefer to just not have one frankly.

The hilarious thing to me is that proponents of the first model consider themselves to be “anti-entitlement” and “against handouts.” Yet, for some reason, they ignore the fact that life is just one big handout for those who were lucky enough to be born into a privileged setting.

“Well, rich people don’t cost anything to support, while government handouts cost the taxpayers money,” they say.

Wrong again. The tendency of rich people to soak up more resources than most other human beings absolutely costs something. The very wealthy can afford to consume more, produce more waste, accrue more land, and even pay off pollution disincentives. Our modern economic system places an infinite growth model on a planet with finite resources. The result is that anyone who can save up enough intrinsically worthless paper currency can buy unlimited amounts of the most precious substances, such as water, land, and food. Make no mistake, concentrating large portions of the resources needed by all of humanity into the hands of just a few people costs a great deal on a much larger scale. Mitigating the water crisis in Flint will now cost millions in state and federal government assistance; investing in insuring all citizens had access to safe water from the beginning would have cost far less.

To me, there are really only two reasons why someone might be vehemently against social safety nets. The first option is pure ignorance. People don’t understand where our tax money actually goes, what privilege and institutional racism are, or what degree luck has played in their success. Or, perhaps, they really just don’t understand the scope of the problem in the first place. If you’ve never lived in a big city and seen the struggle homeless and impoverished people face, you may never truly understand.

The other option however is much more depressing. If you understand how unlevel the playing field really is and how much a country, as a whole, can benefit from evening this playing field, yet you still don’t think people should pay into a system that supports others when they fall, you might just be an ass hole.

There, I said it.

You might just be the kind of person who thinks so lowly of your fellow human beings, that you’d rather believe they’re lazy than misfortuned. You might be the kind of person who attributes all your success to yourself and ignores those who helped you along the way.

Regardless of the genetic, developmental, and environmental factors that led to you feeling this way, I can’t help but see you as someone I do not like.

At the end of the day, if you can look at another human being and say “you should be homeless while I should be warm and well-fed,” I just honestly don’t know what to do with you.

 

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Fuck Your Selfie (and other thoughts)

There’s nothing cute about being obsessed with your own reflection. There is nothing endearing about obtaining your entire self worth from the opinions of others. There is nothing commendable about narcissism. I’m the furthest thing from religious, but I think pride was one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for a reason. Yet we spend hours each week, perhaps even each day, looking at or posting self-serving images, videos, and announcements on the Internet. We reward each other for this behavior regularly with comments and “likes”…and the portion of our ever-shrinking time on this earth it costs to post them.

Although the phenomenon can hardly be called the most troubling characteristic of modern humanity, I still find it rather disconcerting. One of my favorite podcasters, Dr. Christopher Ryan, the author of a fantastic book called Sex at Dawn, recited an interesting story on an (old) podcast I listened to the other day. He described a friend who had traveled to Africa to live with a small village of hunter-gatherer/subsistence farmers. At his departure, he wanted to give a gift to the people. He took great care to select the finest ox for sale, inspecting it for all health aspects and spending a large chunk of change. However, he was devastated to receive nothing but ridicule from the villagers. “That ox is a bag of bones!” “We won’t have enough meat for the whole village, we’ll have to hunt still.” “You don’t know anything about buying meat, do you?” Seeing the friend’s disappointment, a man pulled him aside and told him not to be so offended. “This is just how we are” he explained “we can’t let you be proud of your gift, because when people get proud, they start telling people what to do and then they end up killing somebody!” Now as dramatic as this explanation may seem, take a second to really consider the man’s point and see it might not be so far from the truth. Pride can be the root of all sorts of nasty behaviors. Ryan went on to point out “this is the exact opposite of how our society works” in reference to Western, or perhaps more broadly to “civilized” culture as a whole. For generations, our society has been built on the hallmarks of “hard work” and “success” (instead perhaps on cooperation). The definitions of both these phrases are subjective, yet they are treated as defined, measurable qualities with certain sets of rules. As a result, people compete to meet these definitions and become proud of their accomplishments, especially as they triumph over others.

Though the tendency of individuals in a competitive, free-market, individualistic society to be self congratulatory is relatively long standing, it has become particularly apparent in recent popular culture. Announcing your accomplishments via small blocks of text directed at large groups of acquaintances (and/or strangers) is a part of the average person’s day now. Seventy-four percent of online adults use social networking sites* and there are now almost as many people on Facebook as there are in China.** The craze of announcing your presence to the world beyond your immediate, physical location became even more involved when people became obsessed with posting photos on social media. Vacation photos, baby photos, workout photos, yoga photos, food photos, “selfies”. Selfies. Let’s take a second to address the term. The term “selfie”, for those living under an html-based rock the last couple years is a picture a person takes of his or herself, generally with a phone camera, for no specific reason other than to share their physical appearance with their “followers” (be those friends, social media acquaintances, “fans”, or other). A recent study found the taking a lot of these photos to be linked with callous-unemotional traits in individuals such as narcissism and psychopathy***. Yet most perceive this behavior as a “normal” use of social networking sites.

I speak of this phenomenon as a participator, not an observer. I recognize the value in sharing my life and accomplishments with those not in close physical proximity to me and I too am guilty of the occasional “selfie”, albeit almost exclusively when I am in the company of my cat (because she’s just so CUTE) or have dyed my hair a shiny new color. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the competitive, self-congratulatory, “look how GREAT I’m doing” culture we’ve found ourselves knee-deep in isn’t doing more to our psyches than we realize. Is social media just dragging our species’ preexisting narcissist tendencies into the light or is it breeding a wicked new strain of egotism, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria breeding in the harsh landscapes of human bodies.

The argument for heavy social media use as a normal part of our interaction however has, in my opinion, large support from primate evolution. Humans have evolved to be highly social individuals, interacting with our peers to accomplish almost all daily tasks. It is imperative to our primate brains to consider the impression our actions leave on others. When you can no longer beat up the largest chimp in the group to gain respect, you have to prove yourself more worthy than him in other ways. That could include making it as apparent as possible that your life is important, your appearance is alluring, and your accomplishments are noteworthy. Perhaps instead of evolving to be cooperative and empathetic, we managed to take a page out of bird survival strategy and evolve to be showy. However, just because something comes naturally, does not mean it is positive. The consumption of fat-laden foods and infidelity come quite naturally for most as well.

Additionally, I believe there is a not-so-fine line between sharing your life with others and electronically shoving it down their throats. For example, if I could gather 50 of my closest friends and family members in one room, on one day and show them pictures from my most recent trip abroad or my new hula hoop tricks, I probably would! However, I think I’d be a lot less inclined to sit them down and demand they look at my face for no reason. “See my face? Isn’t it nice? Why don’t you all just look at it for a bit. I got new sunglasses or something.” This is how I see selfies and why I find them embarrassing and disturbing. You also probably wouldn’t show a room of 50 friends the meal you ate last Tuesday or tell them three separate times how in love you are. But you might tell them you’re moving to Chicago.

I think the take-home of all this is to maybe not spend quite so much time seeking or feeding praise. Social media can be a beautiful, convenient tool for keeping in touch with those who matter and sharing your life with them despite physical limitations. However, if this is truly the goal, feedback shouldn’t be needed and the information shared shouldn’t be shallow or mind-numbingly pervasive. Give credit where credit is due, but try not to contribute to a culture that puts people on pedestals for images that are not objective, but self designed at best and manipulative at worst. Just as they say don’t feed the trolls, don’t feed the egomaniacs. You don’t need to shit all over their choice of oxen…but please don’t like their selfies either.

P.S.
Please do check out the sources/links below, they’re interesting!

* http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/
** http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/29/almost-as-many-people-use-facebook-as-live-in-the-entire-country-of-china/
*** https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/close-encounters/201501/are-selfies-sign-narcissism-and-psychopathy

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Judge Me: Why Judgement is Both Unavoidable and Healthy

Judge me. No really, seriously, judge away. And don’t keep those thoughts to yourself, please share what it is about me that bothers you in some way. These phrases may sound like snarky text messages from your 13-year-old sister, but I actually expect them to be read as literally as possible. I am almost 100% in favor of judging.

Of course, to explain an opinion like this I need to do a bit of refining of terms and meanings. To me, being judgmental and being an ass hole are not the same. However, passing judgment where it is neither constructive nor warranted can turn you into an ass hole quite speedily. Furthermore, using judgment as a pretext for malice will seal the deal. I’d like to pull a quote from a book I just started reading, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. This is my first foray into the ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy developed in Ancient Greece and popular in Rome that bears some similarity to Buddhism. Although I’ve only read a few pages, and thus have gained only minimal insight into the inner workings of the late Roman Emperor’s mind, I am already stumbling upon useful ideas:

 

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it is in the same intelligence and the same potion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are all made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 
 

Taking a second to ascertain the meaning behind ancient Rome’s longest run-on sentence, I sensed within it the same opinion I’ve harbored for years: It is not inherently wrong to judge someone. This is a rather unpopular stance in modern culture, where the phrase “don’t judge me” is a favorite mantra among the overly defensive, the ill advised, and guests of Maury. Yet as Aurelius hints at the beginning of this “meditation”, we all go through life each day encountering people whose beliefs and actions do not align with our personal code of conduct. We judge them against this code. To call for a society in which no individual passes judgment on another is not only impossible, it’s actually just a terrible idea. The goal is not to abstain from judgement, but to abstain from irritation, anger, and cruelty. Having said that, are there still millions of petty circumstances in which a person has no business sharing their opinion of another’s choices? Certainly. But are there also circumstances in which a healthy dose of judgment is not only warranted, but desperately needed? I say hell yes.

I judge the person who refuses to acknowledge their privilege, the person who thinks animals are ours to torment, or the person who lives upon the planet with no regard for the greater Earthly community just as Aurelius judges the ungrateful, the arrogant, and the deceitful. Simultaneously I judge myself for being “unsocial”, for being quick to anger, and for being overly concerned with self image. Without judgment there is no reflection; without reflection there is no progress. Do those who announce that no one has the right to judge another still reserve the right for a person to judge his or herself? If so, why is your own person so vile that you would do unto yourself what you should never, ever do to another? And if not, then how do they expect individuals to grow and mature? Loving yourself really does lead to loving others, but loving yourself so much that you never question your own beliefs is a recipe for disaster.

The problem is not judgment, but dickishness. The personal codes of ethics that exist (hopefully) within each of the 7.something billion human beings on this planet will never “synch up”. There will not come a day when we all collectively wake up and realize hitting your kids is wrong or that mayonnaise is just gross. Barring some terrifying, Brave New World-esque overall in which humans become standardized from birth, difference in developmental pressures, culture, and perception will always produce individuals with different neural maps, thus opinions. To decide someone is less deserving of your kindness based on your judgment of his or her behavior is the folly. Ideally, I should judge people in much the same way I judge myself. I should see the ways in which a man’s actions negatively affect himself, those around him, or the planet and think to myself that he is wrong for those things. Yet just as I do not berate myself, I should not go over and push the man in dirt.

Although I see the righteousness of Aurelius’ Philosophy, I still struggle to live true to it. A couple weeks ago I beckoned to any of my Facebook friends who supported Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration” act to promptly lose my number. “Anyone who believes it is ok to treat a fellow human being this way has absolutely no place in my life!” I internet-screamed to the masses. I felt it was necessary to both judge and act against those who had acted against others in such a grotesque way. Simplified: I was being a dick to the dicks. This is the kind of behavior I have trouble avoiding. The better approach is obviously to judge silently, forgive ignorance, and should the issue ever come up in a civil environment, do my best to explain why their behavior is unacceptable to me. However, I am just not a big enough person yet. I feel compelled to be a dick to dicks. In this case, fundamentalists hating on gays irritates me in and of itself, but I am able to stay respectful and silent until something they do actually affects people.

I recognize that in order for us humans to have the type of beautiful world we’d like, we must learn to love and accept each other unconditionally. However this is the definition of “easier said than done”. Just how do you love the racist, the homophobic, the animal abuser, or the misogynist? I haven’t figured it out yet and am open to suggestions. Perhaps getting through the rest of Meditations will give me the tools I need to bridge the gap…but it’s an awfully short book.

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A for Effort

I had some mildly interesting thoughts about effort the other day. What spurred these on was an errand I had to run. Some back-story is necessary to explain this errand. My cat Lita,

This is my daughter, Lita. Also known colloquially as "The Floof".

This is my daughter, Lita. Also known colloquially as “The Floof”.

love of my life and best friend since 6th grade (I am now 23, she’s getting up there) has a condition known as CRF—Chronic Renal Failure. It basically means her kidneys woke up one morning, said, “fuck that” and decided to stop coming to work. It is a very common condition in older cats and often can’t be prevented. There is also no cure but there are a myriad of things you can do to control the symptoms and expand both the quantity and quality of time you have with your cat. One of those things is giving doses of subcutaneous fluids to re-hydrate the cat because kidney failure causes chronic dehydration. So my errand was to get to my vet to pick up a big box of fluids and a case of prescription food for my fur child. This wouldn’t be something to think twice about for someone with a car, but for me it was a little tricky. There were several ways I could have completed the task. I could have rented a Zipcar for the trip, asked a friend to help out, or even taken the bus to the vet and then grabbed an Uber or cab home. Simple, elegant solutions to a minor problem. I instead chose to take the bus both ways. Which meant I was hauling a large box of medical supplies and a backpack full of cans of cat food on two busses to get home. F for efficiency, but A for Effort.

The easiest answer to why I chose this route is I’m a cheap-ass. The bare minimum I would have had to spend on a Zipcar or cab would have been around $8. I have a bus pass so the bus was free. I chose free. However my mental process is almost never that simple. Ok never. I have to think of about 37 different angles to every option before I choose one. This is probably part of the reason I have so much anxiety. But that’s a topic for another day. This experience got me thinking about the ways in which people choose to, or not to, expend effort and how they make those choices. I chose to put in about double the effort and time in order to get home without spending any money. However some of the externalities of that effort were positive. For example, the day I ran this errand was a beautiful spring day (we only get about 5 of those in Michigan so it’s something precious). I got to spend more time outside while I waited at the bus stops. I also got the added bonus of a small arm workout from carrying that big box around. These may seem like silly benefits but in my strange little world they were noteworthy.

The broader idea I’m getting at with all these internal cost-benefit analyses is that I think a lot of people neglect to consider how they are spending their effort. If we treat effort as a finite resource (renewable obviously with rest, food, etc. but finite within a giving time period), the question becomes: how do we want to spend it? My decision to choose the more strenuous option for my errand makes sense in the context of another, larger choice I made prior. That was to stop going to the gym. I have belonged to a gym since the age of 16. My mom was always somewhat of a fitness freak and we used to work out together; I always really enjoyed it. I’ve never been one of those people who hates running on a treadmill. I always saw it as a kind of meditative time where I could listen to all the new music I downloaded that week. Yet I NEVER liked the act of going to the gym. Getting to the gym might as well be traversing Middle Earth to submerge the one ring in the fires of Mount Doom: I usually need a friend to come with me and it takes like 9 hours.

During my three months in Costa Rica however the jungle became my gym. And no, I don’t mean I turned vines into pull-up bars or ran laps carrying coconuts, I mean I didn’t really “work out”. Most of my downtime was spent reading in a hammock or sitting on a porch drinking awesome coffee. I was actually really lazy. Yet I felt fantastic and looked great. I figured this was because, overall, I was still expending the same amount (or more) physical effort I had been at home, it was just rolled into my daily life instead of banged out during 60 hardcore minutes at the local gym. Not only were work tasks physically demanding (maintaining trails, leading hikes, changing dozens of beds) but even small things just took more effort. Hand washing your laundry burns a lot more calories than using a washing machine. Carrying weeks worth of groceries in from a boat on the beach and up two flights of stairs to the kitchen is a bit more strenuous than walking 10 feet from your car to your apartment. These seemingly small, insignificant expenditures of physical effort added up to a lifestyle that kept me in fabulous shape.

Taking those principles with me into the modern world has, so far, not been as difficult as I thought it would be. Although I am fortunate enough to have a physical job (I know leading an active lifestyle is a lot more difficult when you work in a cubicle), I also have introduced effort into my life in places where most people opt for efficiency. In our busy world, time is king. If something can save you a half hour of time, it’s worth its weight in gold. I don’t really subscribe to that anymore. Choosing the more difficult route (such as biking to work or walking 15 minutes to a bus stop) may cost me both time and effort, but my return on investment is huge when you consider I’ve eliminated the need for two expensive, often unpleasant things—a car and a gym membership—with one simple act. In a country where one in three people is obese (I think that’s the statistic, right? Someone fact check me if I’m wrong), do we really need to prioritize physical effortlessness? I would obviously say no. I’m not saying don’t own a car or never choose the time-saving option. Sometimes our lives necessitate these things. To me it just seems silly to, as a rule, pay more for transportation in order to spend minimal effort all day, only to use the time and effort saved to get to a gym (with a membership fee) in order to run literally nowhere. As far as time goes, that just depends on how busy you are. But if you really don’t have time for longer commutes or errands, you probably don’t have time to go to the gym every other day either. That sort of lack of free time is another issue entirely that I’m not prepared to address right now. Let’s leave those worms canned.

One of those most simple, yet convincing arguments for alternative transportation I've ever seen.

One of the most simple, yet convincing arguments for alternative transportation I’ve ever seen.

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“Hello, I’m poor.”

The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease. I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave. After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work fulltime. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.

Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.

I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.

So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.

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Since when was anything black or white?

Today I was thinking about some of the hot button issues that people seem to get so upset about nowadays. I started to notice a kind of pattern with the things people have strong opinions on: a lot of them aren’t inherently good or bad. Yet, they’re treated that way.

So, I started wondering: at what point did people decide these things were black or white? Moreover, how did inanimate objects, concepts, or ideas gain free will and choose to be benevolent or evil? If you’re not sure what I mean by this, let me take a second to explain what I’m getting at using some of the actual issues I have in mind.

Abortion. Genetically modified organisms. Drugs. Firearms. To name a few.

Aside from having the capacity to send entire groups of people into screaming matches, what do these things have in common? Well for one, they aren’t sentient beings. Meaning, they don’t have intentions or motives of their own. Abortions don’t come out at night and go on the prowl for unsuspecting women and shotguns don’t load themselves and save families from burglars. So why do people act like any of these things are inherently good or evil, destructive or constructive? To me, what these concepts and items have in common is they are all tools. Tools humans have developed over time for use by other humans. The good or evil happens when these tools are used a certain way. My current personal belief system holds that abortion is a very important tool for the early stages of an unwanted pregnancy, but a pretty shitty thing to do halfway through. It holds that GMOs are important to feeding a growing population and improving food security, but not when the rights to them are owned by one giant corporation that routinely abuses its power. It holds that drugs (especially psychedelics) can be important tools for understanding one’s own consciousness and overcoming medical hurdles, but can be a force of destruction in the hands of an addict (especially narcotics). Finally, it holds that firearms are important for both defense and recreation but not everyone is fit to own one.

Take notice that not only do these beliefs lie somewhere in the middle between something being inherently “good” or “bad”, but that I used the phrase “current personal beliefs”. I used the word current because my beliefs can, and should, change when I receive new information. The problem I see with so many activists and opinionated people, even ones I agree with, is that they pick a standpoint and then refuse to let in any new information or viewpoints on the subject. Not only is this completely unscientific, it’s just downright ineffective. When you decide, perhaps based on some burning conviction in your heart, that something is a certain way and nothing will ever change, all communication breaks down. Pretending there are only two sides to an issue and yours is the correct one is an insult to intelligent, freethinking, skeptical people everywhere. Only presenting data that supports the most extreme of your views is just going to make people question your research abilities. Deciding something is either completely bad or good and then setting out to convince everyone of this extremely narrow view has little to no impact. Yet so often do I see issues completely polarized, it’s no wonder people can’t agree on any of this shit.

So please, can we just stop treating issues like they are as easy to answer as the questions “do you want chocolate cake?” or “would you like a swift kick to the vagina?” If we could all just take a second and be honest with ourselves that the thing we are fighting about might be situation-dependent, might be a little more complicated than we’re making it out to be, and might lie somewhere in a damn GREY AREA, I think we’d all get along a lot better. Instead of latching on to a cookie-cutter “pro” or “anti” standpoint, why not try taking a minute (or even a few!) to do your own research, read actual scientific, philosophical, and ethical arguments and create your own opinion that reflects your individual judgments about the different components of a complex issue? Although this is not an obligation, I consider it mandatory to be part of a serious discussion and really to be opinionated on something at all. Although I can’t enforce this, just be aware that if you choose to remain mostly ignorant on a subject, refusing to consider alternate viewpoints while screaming from your spot in the black or white camp, I will judge you, I will not take you seriously, and I will kill you—oh whoops, went a little Liam Neeson there for a minute. I meant to say write you off. I will totally write you off.

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On Not Being a Dick

A post with this title could easily be one sentence or an entire book to rival the page count of Atlas Shrugged.

The fact that there’s so much debate surrounding how not to be a dick is pretty amazing, considering most people are pretty apt at discerning who is a dick in a crowded bar.

I’d like to believe most people strive not to be dicks, so with that in mind lets take a look at some simple ways to avoid it.

Personally, I believe not being a dick can be broken down into a handful of categories:

1. Don’t be a dick to other people.

The golden rule, right? This one is pretty straightforward yet people mess it up all the time. I’m not going to go very far into this here but how about if something you do physically or emotionally hurts someone else, try your hardest no to do that thing because it’s dickish, ok? Ok.

2. Don’t be a dick to other beings.

I think we’re far past the point in history where we think animals don’t feel pain, suffering, fear, etc. I’m aware of the circle of life and that some animals eat other animals or use them for beneficial purposes that may not be so beneficial to the later animal. But how about we just try to minimize the degree to which we make other beings suffer? Perhaps by not cramming them in cages roughly the size of their bodies for their entire lives or chaining them to a tree in our backyard and never feeding them. Just a thought.

3. Don’t be a dick to the environment.

I honestly kind of hate the phrase “the environment” because it gives the impression it is something existing outside the context of human civilization. I use it however because it’s easy, useful, and recognizable. “The environment” however would be better served if we all just admitted that the entire planet is “the environment” and it happens to be the only one we live on. It also so happens that the earth does not care whether we as a species live or die, so although I do love trees, birds, and other nice things like that I mostly care about our prolonged existence on this planet. I like this one and Mars looks kind of shitty to be honest.

4. Don’t be a dick to yourself.

This one can get dicey because when you start telling someone never to be hard on his or herself you start leading them to believe they shit gold. I think people need to judge their own actions and change where appropriate and no I do not believe everyone is a unique, beautiful, and special butterfly. I do however believe that judging yourself based on the ridiculous standards society outlines and generally hating yourself can lead to unhappiness not just for you but for those around you. So stop being unnecessarily dickish to yourself.

I tend to stick to these principles when I’m trying to decide what to do with my obnoxiously self-aware being and also when people ask me why I do something the way I do.

For example,

“why are you mostly vegetarian?”

“Well inquisitive someone, I’m fairly certain eating conventionally-produced meat is being a pretty big dick to both the environment and sentient beings!”

Nifty, right?

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What I’m All About

There are a lot of reasons to start a blog.

Some people blog because they have genuinely interesting, intelligent things to say.

Other people blog because they think they have interesting, intelligent things to say.

Still others blog simply because they like writing and find it an enjoyable use of their time.

I like to think my intention sits somewhere among the three of these reasons. I can’t rest solely on the first because I’m not actually certain the things I have to say are interesting but I tend to think at least some of them are. However I am certain I enjoy writing and am starting to think it may be a better method of expressing myself than forcing my friends and family to listen to my daily rants. This way, people can choose if they want to listen or not.

Now that I’ve explained why I’m doing this, I can get on to the title of this post. The truth is, I’m 22 and I’m not sure what I’m all about. If there are any 22 year-olds out there who are sure, please tell them to email me immediately so we can discuss their earth-shattering revelations.

Who I am up through this point has been shaped by a bunch of seemingly random phenomena that may or may not have a lot to do with cats. Regardless, in the past several years I have lived through a set of events, and undergone a slew of changes that have brought me to the crux of a very interesting point in my life. What I mean by this is I find myself discontented with the majority of things so-called “average” life has to offer. I can blame this partly on my education in natural resource science, which confirmed my suspicions that humankind is in fact destroying our only planet. I can also blame this partly on my decision to skip out on “real life” for 3 months in favor of a very simple existence in a Costa Rican lowland tropical rainforest. Wherever the blame lies, I can’t be too upset about it because although these decisions have often led me to a state of mind plagued by worry, depression, and hopelessness, they have also given me a great sense of direction in my life.

Direction is a funny thing in the context of life because if you’re down with Darwinian biology (and I am) you’re at least somewhat aware that life has no direction. Evolution is not a means to and end and natural selection is not trying to achieve anything. I’m even a fan of entropy and chaos theory, generally believing things don’t happen for a reason and the whole of the universe is one big cosmic clusterfuck.

Ironically, this is precisely why direction and purpose are important to me. Being one of the only self-aware organisms on Earth, we as humans have the rather special yet excruciating task of deciding what we want to do every day. As irritating as this can be at times, I believe the ability to find purpose and meaning in complete chaos is nothing short of fantastic. So what this really comes down to is while I’m floating around in beautiful, hideous, cosmic chaos I want to make something of it. This doesn’t mean I believe I can “change the world” exactly (shh, don’t tell my 8-year-old self) and it definitely doesn’t mean I was destined for some specific purpose. It means I choose to live my life in a way that I see as not only fit to satisfy myself but in a way that might, at some point in time, make someone go “huh well that was an interesting way to go about it”.

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