Thoughts

Stop Trying so Hard to Finish Everything

Your accomplishments mean nothing. No really, I’m serious, nothing. You will die and your titles, bank accounts, possessions, and relationships will disappear, be liquidated, or slowly fade away. The end result of everything you strive to do in life is inherently meaningless.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Making grandiose pessimistic claims. Clearly this is the familiar writing tactic known as the hook: Draw my reader in with something dramatic, be it inspiring or deeply disquieting, and they’re stuck reading whatever nonsense I choose to follow it with. Though I won’t say I’m not using this tactic, I will say it has a greater purpose. The above statements, in my mind, are true. But only if you interpret them in the way I intend.

No one can really argue with the fact that material possessions, status, and other fruits of human life cease to mean much once the person they belonged to is dead. Your bloated bank account may go on to support generations of trust fund babies with your last name, but your decomposing ass won’t be around to know the fucking difference. I recognize that people have trouble with the concept of nonexistence. If you think human souls consciously reside in some ethereal nothingverse before and after death, that’s your own problem. I’m operating from the seemingly logical standpoint (as there’s no real evidence to the contrary) that nonexistence is just what it sounds like: the absence of the ability to experience the world. It is literally impossible to be aware, let alone enjoy, anything in the known universe when your consciousness does not exist. Moving on.

My point is not to drill into you that you will lose everything when you die. It’s an important concept to be aware of, but it doesn’t necessitate repeating at this point. What I would like to do is place emphasis on the phrases accomplishment and success. These are the end caps of journeys and experiences. The little star you get when you turn in your paper. The trophy. The diploma. You get the idea. People are obsessed with accomplishing things. Most of us would probably skip to-do in favor of instant to-done if we had the option. When people are obsessively goal-oriented, you get millionaires who can’t stop being entrepreneurs and folks who pay thousands of dollars to have sherpas carry their shit up to Everest base camp so they can get the “climbed Mt. Everest” star.

24954051862_d97d2580cc_b

Fucking cool: Now what?

I’m lazy so I would never fathom trying to climb a mountain. But I did notice my own obsession with accomplishment in the compulsion to finish books. If I didn’t get to the appendix, it was like I might has well have not even opened it in the first place. I needed to finish it to mark it off as done. I needed the accomplishment of reading that book. What I realized after some time is that nothing actually happens when you finish a book. When you turn the last page, you just close the damn thing and put it back on the shelf. No fireworks. No accolades. No one even knows you finished the book unless you tell them. Often, these accomplishments aren’t just meaningless after death, they are meaningless in life unless you decide to make a big deal out of them to other people.

One of the most liberating decisions of my adult life was to decide I didn’t have to finish books. I could read a book until it no longer felt interesting or important, than put it back on the shelf and possibly never look at it again. I no longer waste my time forcing myself to get to the end of a work of nonfiction that kind of fizzles out, or past the excruciatingly slow beginning of a novel (though sometimes this is worth it if you know something great is coming). There are literally millions of books out there. Why deprive yourself of a good one by using your limited attention on a bad one?

The obsession with finishing things comes from our focus on accomplishments, instead of the actual act of doing something. It has a lot to do with concept of the “disease of more,” which pushes us to constantly strive for new goals without even enjoying the ones we already surpassed. Yet, it’s hard to tell someone to revel in their success without encouraging them to act like an ass. How exactly do you enjoy success other than thinking about or telling people how awesome you are? I would challenge people to go a step further and not even focus on enjoying the success. Focus on what happens before. Focus on the struggle to make incremental improvements towards your goal. Focus on the, well, focus of your mind and/or body it takes to work on your goals. Revel in the fact that you are actually doing something with your life, when you could literally just sit around for 82 years and then die.

It’s not just the obsession with success that causes this problem for people, but our culture’s failure-phobia. Americans love inspirational quotes about never giving up and persevering against all odds. This culture is useful in much the same way teaching everyone to be a leader is useful (spoiler alert: it’s not). If you teach everyone to be a leader, you end up with a bunch of loud people who think they should all be giving orders while no one can listen their way out of a cardboard box. If you teach everyone to incessantly pursue their goals until an endpoint, because “failure” is not an option, you end up with a bunch of people killing themselves to finish things with very little benefit to themselves or society (and probably not enjoying it along the way).

Sometimes you just have to give up. But I would argue that giving up is synonymous with failure only in rare cases. To me, the word failure only applies when you actually eroded yourself in the attempt. Quitting rehab and relegating yourself to being a crack addict would be considered a failure. Letting your friendships atrophy when you move away to a new city would, in most cases, be considered a failure (unless your friends really sucked). In most situations though, the only things “lost” by a supposed “failure” are time and/or money. As I’ve previously stated, money is inherently meaningless and while I can’t say the same for time, chances are if you were wasting it before you quit you sure as hell would have been wasting it if you hadn’t. Payouts at the end of a struggle don’t give you back any of your time, they only serve to make you feel as if you haven’t wasted it.

Unless your goals are really out there, you probably have to do some learning and personal growth to attempt to achieve them. This doesn’t all evaporate when you end the pursuit. My experience working in a startup wasn’t erased from my brain the second I left. Sure, quitting a job you hate after two months doesn’t really look good on a resumé. But people often delude themselves into thinking career prospects are their only reasons for staying, when in reality it’s pure failure-phobia.

Next time you find yourself struggling to finish something you hate, do an experiment and try quitting. See if the universe implodes. Obviously, don’t be a dick. You should probably finish writing that birthday card for your mom and scooping your cat’s litter box. But quitting things that don’t affect anyone other than yourself can be shockingly empowering. Accomplishing things can often feel like taking charge, but really you may just be stumbling downhill, gaining speed as you go but loosing the ability to stop or change course. Choosing to withhold your time, energy, and attention can bring back a sense of control and serve as a reminder that you’re driving this fucked up train called life.

Categories: Advice, Culture, Humanity, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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…

imgres

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.

Categories: Humanity, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Insufferable Practice of Gifting

Common adages of gift-giving tend to center around the idea that nothing should be expected in return. True gifts are given to elevate the happiness of both the gifter and the giftee, not to further personal agendas. But the Darwinian concept of altruism leads me to believe this is, to put it bluntly, a lot of horseshit. Most who have taken any kind of animal behavior or evolution class may recall that instances of “altruism” in the animal world aren’t so warm and fuzzy. Most “selfless” acts of animals are indeed selfish on the genetic level, as Richard Dawkins has so thoroughly pointed out. Altruistic deeds such as sharing food or grooming a friend have been linked mostly to one of two explanations: kin selection or expectation of return on investment, so to speak.

Adult male birds of some species may forgo having their own “family” in favor of helping mom raise the next generation of chicks. This occurs because the male somehow recognizes better odds in passing on his genes by aiding the survival of his (likely half) brothers and sisters than by trolling for bitches (passing along his genes directly). Why does this happen? Maybe that bird is fugly. Maybe he’s really directionally challenged. Or maybe he’s just more of a grey-ace. Whatever the reason, his nanny-like role in this weird Brady bunch bird family is for his genes’ gain, not charity. This is referred to as kin selection.

In a different example, unrelated primates who live together in troops often groom one another or share food. Now, sometimes the primate in question happens to be one of those adventurous foodie types that like to eat bugs. In this case his grooming is of a bit more symbiotic nature, not altruistic. But in many other cases, the debris removed from the back hair of a comrade are not valued, and the job is being done as a sort of friendly service. How altruistic! Except no…well, sort of. Most biologists and behaviorists would probably agree that primates engage in these activities to strengthen social bonds and up the chance that a friend will come to their aid in the future. In short, they expect a return on their friendly investment someday. Primate friends that are always on the receiving end of these good deeds are more likely to be ignored by their so-called friends, and eventually even expelled from the group.

01413597-1200x800

“If you find anything good in there Steven, let me know. I don’t know what to get Clarice for Christmas, she has everything.”

If anywhere near thousands of people read my blog (hahaha), hundreds of those people would now be clamoring to say “well yeah, animals are selfish because they aren’t evolved like us, and don’t understand love in the dimension we humans do.” And I would say, that’s a fine argument and a notable possibility. But it’s just a possibility; I’d argue a small one at that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant to the roll so-called “gifts” play in human social record keeping. Folks in business and politics exchange money, goods, and services every day in the hopes of getting closer to a desired outcome, loosely camouflaging their contributions as “gifts.” Most people seem to accept this fact yet refuse to entertain the idea that almost all gift giving might be tainted with similar intentions of self-service. As above, so below.

To me, the question is simply whether these intentions are conscious or not. You may not think you’re giving someone a gift to strengthen a social bond and increase your chance of receiving something (either tangible or intangible) from that person later one, but it’s still entirely possible this motive is buried in your subconscious. If you’ve read anything in this blog before this post, you’re probably aware I’m not of the opinion that humans are a chosen species existing in a moral and emotional realm head and shoulders above all other life on Earth. I recognize that our cognitive capabilities have developed to a level so as to serve as our primary survival mechanism and have thus surpassed those of other species. But I do not believe we have extracted ourselves entirely from survival-oriented mental processes.

My understanding of the biological function of altruism coupled with what I would characterize as moderate to severe introversion have led me to hate the practice of gift giving. I find myself continually searching for exchange rates. If this person gave me an unexpected gift, what is an appropriate gesture to exchange for this at some point down the road? Regardless of whether or not that person “thinks” they want something in return, the imbalance of social cues that has been created in my brain becomes at best an irritant, at worst a source of stress and shame. Sure this can occur in other ways besides gift-giving. Maybe a friend has helped you through an emotional crisis, or helped you out financially and you haven’t had an opportunity to return the favor. This creates and imbalance of social exchange as well. However, nothing seems so direct and superfluous as gift-giving. The imbalance is created for silly, arbitrary reasons and the course of action to even the score is not always clear.

Occasions hardly make the situation better. Those who know me well are probably familiar with my distaste for Christmas. They may also know it arises almost entirely from the practice of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. To me, Christmas time is a social minefield of opportunities to be ambushed by surprise gifts. I take almost no joy in receiving gifts unless I have an equivalent one to give. This explanation of why I hate gifts does not even touch on my hatred of “stuff.” That’s a separate rant though. See this post from 2015 if you’d like that angle.

I don’t really have an agenda here. I’m not advocating we abolish all gift giving in the name of science. Nor am I trying to call bullshit on people who insist they just really like giving gifts and never hope to receive anything in return. If you’re one of those people, I appreciate your intentions and commend your kindness. Mostly I just find it interesting to dissect things that most people find normal but I find odd or uncomfortable and look at why this might be. Furthermore I know there are other people who feel this way. The more validity I can add to our viewpoint on the subject, the more likely people are to start listening to us when we say we don’t want gifts. However, if you’d like a concrete take-home message from this rant let it be this: the greatest gift you can give me is not giving me gifts. Happy holidays or something.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Philosophy, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

 

tumblr_nvv9z3J9lJ1ufxs4ho1_500.jpg

Categories: Humanity, Philosophy, Politics, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

6a00d8341d417153ef01a73da91d55970d-800wi

Categories: Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

I want my childhood back

I want my childhood back. Not because it was wasted or unfulfilling. Not because it was taken from me at a young age or ruined by bad parents. I want my childhood back because it was a golden time. I want the long summer days spent outside yet not worrying about what I should be accomplishing inside. I want the late nights with friends sans alcohol and drained paychecks. I want the day that is my own, not to be hijacked by the demands of an employer or the poltergeists of worry and responsibility. Most of all I want the state of mind; the naïve selfishness that tells me my life is a journey, not a trap for the foolish.

However, if I am to be an adult let me flourish. Let me use my newfound wisdom and fervor for life to shape the world around me. Let me fill the corners of my space with my talents, knacks, quirks, and flaws. Let me stimulate instead of snuff the brilliant fire that is a human mind. Let me expand my power of choice by choosing ethically and logically, adding a new voice to an ever-expanding conversation.

If I am to be an adult, do not force me to be led. Do not force me into a mold forged by other minds. Do not tell me there is only one way to do something. Do not define me by my “success”.

You don’t know the meaning of the word.

Categories: Thoughts | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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?

Categories: Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.