I am simple. Everyone wants to proclaim their intricacies; expounding endlessly on the ways they are enchantingly singular. But I am simple. You are simple. We are the same, you and I. There is not so much between us as there is underneath us. Just like a cat in a box that might be both dead and alive, I am both enduringly unique and painfully bland.
Posts Tagged With: people
As my time living in a large US city comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experiences and general observances of life here. Setting aside the astronomical (and totally not worth it, in my opinion) price tag, I found Washington, DC to be clean, well laid-out, and often charming. So why would I almost never consider living in a big city again? People are dicks.
Are you surprised? Probably not. Everyone says people in New York can be rude as hell, and DC is just a smaller, lamer New York with politicians. Gross. But I think this rule probably applies to almost every large, ambitious city on the globe.
When we live in big cities, we are surrounded on all sides by people. This is what we would traditionally call a “community.” But if you consider yourself part of a community in a big city, it’s likely your neighborhood or profession, not the greater population. It’s literally impossible to befriend everyone who crosses your path in a day, let alone everyone who lives in your city of choice. You can’t possibly remember the details of 600,000 lives. There’s an important difference between being introverted and just recognizing the futility of your social advances. In big cities, people stop being people and become hordes, numbers, and statistics.
Quite often, I just have no interest in talking to other human beings and would rather focus inward. But on rare occasions (typically when I’ve had a good amount of sunshine and food), I could fathom the idea of striking up on conversation with a stranger. Yet I still almost never do. The times I do, it’s with an individual I’m highly likely to see again. The concierge of a building I work at frequently, a person who lives in my apartment complex, you get the idea. The reason behind this is obvious: building relationships with people helps us to not only enjoy our interactions with them more, but to win their favor in the hopes it might benefit us someday.
This is what being a social animal is all about. But what happens when you force human beings together repeatedly, but remove the reward of these relationships? Rudeness. That guy on the subway who takes up two seats for no reason, the person who collides with you on the sidewalk while looking at their phone without so much of an “excuse me.” Anyone who’s lived in a city will probably complain that the people they cross paths with every day just don’t seem to give a fuck.
But why should they? For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands or agricultural communities. Each individual’s survival and wellbeing relied heavily on his or her relationships with others. Be a dick to one of your neighbors, and it would almost certainly come back to bite you in the ass. Be a dick to everyone, and risk ostracization—a prescription for a swift and definitely not painless death. Much like small living spaces force people to pick up after themselves, small communities literally force people to value positive interactions with their fellow humans. Don’t shit where you eat. Once a society or gathering becomes large enough, individuals stop caring as much about how they treat one another. The likelihood that you will have to deal with someone you’ve been unpleasant to shrinks dramatically.
Still, some people in cities seam to be interested in friendship and communication, while others are walking nightmares for everyone around them. It’s not uncommon for city-dwellers to point out that upper-class folks tend to be more dickish. This goes to show that the old rules of human social structures may still apply, but only for those below a certain economic threshold. As a pleb, be a dick to your roommates, boss, or a police officer, and you’ll find yourself in a world of pain and financial trouble. But for many (a shrinking number, I’ll point out), a steady supply of magical green paper ensures beyond any doubt their needs will be met regardless of whom they piss off.
The recipe for a community of dicks goes like this: Take a bunch of people from all over the world and put them very close together. Add in the privacy obsession of sex-negative and body-shaming cultures for some reclusiveness and paranoia, if desired. Stir in a heavy dose of the individualistic ideals touted by capitalist economics. Simmer for at least a half-century.
Cash flow has replaced social support as a means of overcoming challenges, thus success and independence have eclipsed social interaction as the prime directive. Even lower class individuals will often turn to crime rather than ask family or friends for help. In capitalist society, pride is not a deadly sin but a central aspect of a person’s self worth. People respect “the hustle” more than vulnerability, honesty, and friendship. With no dollar sign on politeness and little opportunity to build lasting relationships, where does the incentive even lie for the average person to be kind? The poisonous result of this cocktail of individualism and population density does not just cause the wealthy to condescend and the impoverished to resort to crime however. It entices absolutely everyone to only look out for number one.
I’m sure many will throw up their hands in frustration and proclaim that I’m ignoring the silent kindness that goes on every day. The people who, to no apparent benefit of their own, are continually kind to every stranger they meet. These people are emblems of altruism, and the true representation of human nature. The others are just assholes. This leads me to two unsavory logical conclusions: 1) the majority, if not vast majority, of humans beings are assholes and 2) kindness is some sort of mental disease suffered by a small, but noticeable, portion of the population. However, these individuals are to be held up as “correct” human beings.
Like many bad logical pathways, this one’s error lies in an assumption early on in the reasoning: the assumption that kind people are selfless. The truth is that kind people have simply decoded the truth about the world: that independence does not make you happy, relationships do. Many people misunderstand this to mean happiness lies in a perfect romantic partner, family, or the right number of friends. They focus on having “their people” and often end up saying “fuck you” to the rest of the world. They still fell under the spell of self-reliance and isolation that tells us there is no inherent value in non-repeatable positive interactions. And they have been severely misled.
The truth is that positive interactions, be they with strangers or long time friends, have both immediate and lasting effects on happiness. I know this because science. But I also know this because of my own day-to-day struggles. As a severely introverted and under-confident person, I typically avoid social interaction as much as possible. Conversations with people, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, are so stressful and taxing, that I feel I need an hour of solitude to recover from every one I have. However when I’m forced to let this wall down, either by work or an activity I’ve chosen to take part in, every positive experience I have improves my day.
Using cognitive behavioral therapy tactics often referred to as “taking in the good,” I dwell on these positive interactions and they create lasting impacts on my brain, helping to battle the depression and hopelessness I struggle with each day. My motivation for being kind to people could not be any more selfish. I am literally doing it to improve my own mood temporarily and my life as a whole. As far as I know, the person I have been kind to has received nothing tangible from our interaction (except for maybe some awesome customer service at the place I’m working). Yet, when I’m kind to people, they are (almost) always kind in return. My guess, which isn’t really a guess, is that they are receiving a boost from this interaction too, whether they know it or not.
Many people may never realize the degree to which they have isolated themselves. They may have a family, a good job, and friends so society tells them they’ve done everything right. But they continually search for a nonexistent community. Many find supplemental happiness in the tribal institutions of sports teams, churches, or political parties. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have a group to associate with. I know I find serious healing power in the community environment of small music festivals and artistic gatherings. In today’s world, a common interest is often the only tool we have to sift through the masses of people who exist around us, and help us decide who is worth investing our social energy in.
But what these groups really do is take the community process and turn it on its head. They allow us to decide we like people’s hobbies or opinions before we decide if we like them as people. Meanwhile these “friends” probably don’t live near you, and they probably value you more for your utility as someone to spend time with than as a trustworthy and caring member of their extended family.
Perhaps this is part of the reason so many people in the United States struggle to make friends in adulthood. While their school years gave them plenty of time to sort through the people they interacted with, deciding if they were a good fit for them or not, their work life or social group friends are just kind of, well, there. I wouldn’t exactly tell someone to drop everything in their life to pursue their old high school or college mates, but I think everyone could stand to be a little more invested in the community they build around themselves.
And hey, if you do live in a big city. Stop being such a dick. It can’t possible be worth shoving an old lady down the escalator to make your metro car. The place where you’re standing is VERY CLEARLY a thoroughfare and you’re impeding dozens of people a second with your idle chitchat about the weather. It’s rude to stare. Give a homeless person a fucking dollar while you’re standing in line to get into a overpriced club and buy drinks for people you hate. Give someone a hug. A real one. With both arms.
Do you feel it? The pervasive vibration that makes your insides cringe and reject all the love you think you’ve put in.
Do you smell it? The putrid smell of failure, of crying, of trying but never holding on to all that you win.
Do you taste it? The foul taste from the cup that you’d sworn was pristine.
Do you see it? The demons that hide, safe and quiet in your dreams, their shadows remaining though your mind is wiped clean.
Do you sense it? The sneaking sensation that you could just be right.
Do you want it? The hope that the dawn may still defeat the night.
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.
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.
(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…
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.
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.