The kindest person in the world isn’t much different from the rest of us.
I’m doing okay.
The kindest person in the world isn’t much different from the rest of us.
I’m doing okay.
I’ve been trying to write a post all weekend but I’ve been too busy. That sentence isn’t exactly accurate. I wasn’t too buy, I simply didn’t have the energy to follow through on any idea. I did a few things over the weekend, but nothing so time consuming I had absolutely no chance to sit down and write for a while. Or break it into segments and write 20 minutes here and 30 minutes there. There is always enough time, we just don’t typically use it all.
Over the weekend I stumbled upon this article. The One Word That Can Kill a Friendship. Headlines like that annoy me, but it worked, and I was curious enough to click. Turns out the word is “busy.” The author breaks it down into three reasons why it’s a bad word.
All three reasons above are more-or-less the same thing. Busy is a vague word so we fill in the blanks.
I think my point would be that if it becomes a trend then it gets annoying. I bet most of us have been in a situation in which we had a friend repeatedly cancel or reject plans to the point where we question if this person likes us at all. Sometimes we might even be the person doing the cancelling. Because it’s true, sometimes we get too busy. We have a thesis to write and though we definitely don’t spend every moment of every day working on it, knowing that it’s there does make us feel too busy to go out. More accurately, sometimes we get overwhelmed and lose our energy. And sometimes the idea of going out isn’t appealing and there isn’t much of a reason. And so we come up with a poor excuse, maybe say we’re busy and leave it at that. When that happens occasionally, it’s not a big deal at all. But when you talk to someone and they just hammer home how busy they are every single time you talk, then it becomes an issue. it becomes an issue because it feels dishonest. Sure, you have to write a thesis, but you can’t take an hour break at any point this week? You are seriously so busy you can’t eat lunch or drink a cup of coffee?
And just another note: There is a difference between being busy and filling your day with bullshit and saying you’re busy. If you worked a 12 hour shift, you were pretty busy. If you went grocery shopping, hit the mall, stopped off for some coffee, read a magazine, then went to the gym, you may have filled out your day pretty well, but that, intuitively, doesn’t look busy, to me.
*Psychology Today is a strange website. I’m undecided. Half the time it looks and reads a lot like Cosmo, but there are PhDs writing for it and a lot of insight at the same time. Headlines like the one I linked to are a bit of a joke. It’s clearly click bait and I find that annoying but the content isn’t bad even if there isn’t much material to support any of the claims she makes. This particular idea is more general and intuitive than psychological in any rigorous sense, but I guess that doesn’t make it any less plausible.
I’m reading all these books about meaning in life and happiness. It’s all rather confusing. I’m not sure if I want to be happy or if this concept of happiness, and needing to achieve it, is holding me back in an overly simplistic mindset. This idea that happiness is worth pursuing rather than a byproduct of living. Or maybe happiness is just lower in the hierarchy than I imagine it is. It could be that happiness is not grand or fulfilling. That simple pleasure – a delicious meal, a good movie – are all that happiness is, and the more important fulfillment comes from meaning. Susan Wolf thinks that meaning and happiness are distinct and that one doesn’t necessarily lead to or motivate the other, and I tend to agree with her. Meaning doesn’t always lead to happiness, but perhaps fulfillment. And happiness doesn’t always motivate or stem from meaningful acts.
When asked what the purpose of life is, James Watson said, “I don’t think we’re here from anything [. . .] but I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” He was obviously being a bit flippant and a bit of a sarcastic ass, but he hits on something. Maybe a good lunch is enough and everything else is excess that we fill our lives with to add an extra layer on existence. It’s meaning and it isn’t necessary to survive or even to have a good time doing it. Allowing ourselves to enjoy the pleasant little moments is what happiness is built on, but it isn’t always what meaning is built on and, like Susan Wolf, I think we need meaning to feel fulfilled (though not to feel happy). Meaningful things aren’t always enjoyable. Much of what matters most to me in my life is difficult the majority of the time. Spending time with my niece is fun, except when I need to worry about her running into the street, or when I see her pick up a little rock and wonder, “Is this a thing I should eat?” and I need to run over to stop her yelling in my head, “Why do you keep trying to kill yourself!?” And I worry about that stuff, and a million other things, 100% of the time (nearly). Even learning an instrument isn’t always fun. I haven’t seen it, but I’m told the film Whiplash is a good example of exactly how much work and frustration and anger and failure goes into playing an instrument well. The things that matter to me expose me to untold stress and potential emotional pain. And I accept that because I find the acts fulfilling. Most of the time when I’m playing the drums or writing something, I’m thinking, “Why am I so terrible at this! I should really stop.” That’s not fun. Sure, there are moments of enjoyment throughout the process, but to do it for those brief moments would be a strange decision, teetering on madness. Certainly a misunderstanding of proportion. More reasonable is the explanation that we do it out of love. And that driving desire is what motivates you to pick up the instrument and care about your sons, daughter, nieces, and nephews, even when you’re tired, frustrated, or scared.
This was an impromptu little thing that grew from a post I’ve been trying to write about meaning in life. I’d like that post to be a bit more well reasoned than this was, so I broke this piece off and posted it on its own.
An eighty year old man told me a few stories today. When I looked in his eyes I could see him watching the scenes play out all over again. I could see him transport 60 years. He wasn’t seeing anything I was seeing.
He wasn’t present but I can’t figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. If his recollection is more than memories. If he has abandoned the now for a time that no longer exists outside of his head. And if all of this is too much to consider and take on as part of himself.
He was fascinating and spoke better than most people I meet (and better than I do). He knew how to tell a story. Knew where the important parts were and to force the listener to work in order to follow along. He gave the listener the benefit of the doubt and if someone couldn’t keep up, all the worse for that person. It wasn’t his concern.
There was a weight to his words. Nothing indulgent. More of an understanding that there are more things that matter than we tend to realize. But we better realize soon or when we’re looking back we’ll see nothing and wonder where the meaning went. Let it happen, force it, or ignore it. Whatever you decide, you have to live with it.
Much of life isn’t fair, and most of the time we can manage well enough. Someone else may have gotten the “lucky” break but we can keep on working toward our goal just the same.
While reading The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb I came across an exceptionally bleak section (in my opinion).
The majority of the book is rather optimistic and has helpful little hints to increase production of certain neurotransmitters (like exercise, relaxing muscles, relaxing your face, slow breathing, etc.). At the end of the chapter about how helpful relationships can be, and how we should let others in and let others help (basically encouraging us to interact with other people even when we don’t feel particularly excited about it), there’s a section called “Oxytocin Isn’t Always Easy.”
The section starts off by acknowledging the straightforward and obvious downsides of caring about other people. Doing so exposes you to the possibility of stress and feeling overwhelmed. “Stress goes up when things are out of your control, and when you care strongly for someone else, your life can often feel out of control. On top of that, caring about someone can increase insula reactivity – your loved one’s distress affects you more viscerally.”
Probably not too hard to believe, and most of the time, we feel it’s worth the risk. But the section continues on a more troubling note, “if you didn’t have a good relationship with your parents, it’s harder to harness the positive effects of oxytocin.” While it makes sense that having a difficult relationship with your parents would make it more difficult for you to let someone in, the truth is deeper than that. It’s not only that we choose not to trust or are decidedly closed off, we don’t have any say it the matter. Oxytocin simply doesn’t affect the brain the same way. In one study Dr. Korb cites, women were asked to grip a bar. The women then heard a baby cry. Women who were not disciplined harshly as children loosened their grip on the bar in reaction to the cries, presumably to comfort the baby. Women who had been disciplined harshly did not. “So if you received harsh discipline as a child, oxytocin does not automatically create conditions for warm, gentle interactions.”
The author then talks about how oxytocin works to enhance the emotions we have. In people with good relationships with their parents, they felt even better about the relationships after a hit of oxytocin. Those who had a bad relationship thought it was even worse after the oxytocin. Rather than promote love and caring interactions, it promotes disappointment and anger.
These bad relationships make it seem like the brain doesn’t know what to do with oxytocin. Rather than encouraging and strengthening social bonds, it either does nothing (the women’s response to the crying baby) or increases bad feelings. It looks like an exceptionally raw deal. Not only is there the behavioral disadvantages and awkwardness associated with poor relationships with your parents, but there’s a barrier in our brains. When your parents were abusive in some way, it makes a lot of sense to be hesitant to form close bonds in the future. Your experience makes those sorts of interactions scary. But beyond your conscious hesitance, your sometimes unconsciously against it. Oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone yet here are two cases in which is doesn’t do much good at all. The negative responses are of no fault of the person either, and being aware of those responses only allows you the opportunity fight harder to avoid them – it doesn’t fix it. In the first experiment the loosening of their grip was an unconscious reaction to hearing the baby cry. The women didn’t even need to think for a moment about how to respond. It was automatic. The best the other women could hope for would be hearing the cry, consciously realize what the cry means (a baby is in distress) and consciously respond (by deciding to loosen their grip).
The author closes by optimistically pointing out that the brain is plastic and can learn new responses with training. While that is nice to hear, it’s sad that some people are forced to have a level of awareness that other people aren’t.
It’s the absurdity of needing to be aware of the stimuli around you, your reactions to those stimuli and your feelings when most people aren’t aware anything is going on at all that gets to me. No thought was necessary for the women to loosen their grip. The other women would need to notice an unconscious response and force it into their consciousness. Good luck in becoming aware of all the things we aren’t aware of.
This is what I look like when I’m reading a book explaining different ways to relax (shout out to the friend who sneaked (I can’t get over how weird that word looks but Google told me snuck is non-standard) up on me to take this). I’m not sure how relaxing this position looks, or if you’ll find it in a yoga book (that’s a thing people use to do yoga, right?). I find poses like this comfortable and calming though. I’m always in the weirdest positions when I’m just hanging around or reading. I try getting my legs as straight out as possible, and my back stretched.
I get these weird obsessions with things that I do very little to change. In this case, my worry powering this tendency is the fear of aging. I’m worried about getting old and inflexible. The thought of not being able to move well is terrifying. I understand age will slow me down and prevent me from some things, but staying as flexible as possible for as long as possible is ideal. I’m sure my weird stretches are doing absolutely nothing to help the cause, but I can tell myself I’m trying.
I’m told it’s the stories we tell that matter.
You really did change me in a fundamental way. I was a pretty awful person for one reason or another. I’d say it was because of how genuinely confused I was, but that’s not much more than a convenient explanation. I, rather predictably, acted out as a distraction. What else do you do when lost but look for a way to forget? I could drink, but I decided not to at an early age. So it was you. With you I could forget about why I was acting the way I was acting. I didn’t need to change with you.
Also, I started believing in you at the end. Too late, I know. I resisted you as long as possible. Admitting I loved you was admitting I was living life the wrong way. Was admitting I wasn’t happy at all. I ignored it and held on to an impossible idea of what love was. You, essentially. Unreachable. Unknowable. Unobtainable.
I got too old. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I was doing it wrong. I needed something else. At that time it was you. I needed and wanted you. I wanted to be with you. I wanted the excitement. I wanted to occasional fighting and the make ups. I wanted those things because I wasn’t happy with myself, not because I was happy with you.
A few weeks later, when you told me you didn’t want to talk anymore, I shut down for a while.
It took some time before realized how confused I was and how I used you as a cover. (Oh, but you were the best cover.) I stopped believing in meaning from others. I stopped trying to make myself complete by finding a missing part in someone else. That was flawed and would only help me for so long. I needed to make myself okay and the rest wouldn’t matter. No matter who I was with, how many friends I had, how much money I made. None of those things made a difference if I was already satisfied. So you made me try to find a way to be content without anything and without anyone.
I still have problems often. I think I’m clinically depressed. I think no matter how fulfilled I am, there will be dark periods in my life. I accept that. I worry I’ll never make it to where I want to go. I fear how smart other people are. I’m afraid all the time. I’m afraid of failing to live up to my expectations. But I’m trying for the first time, really. I’ve never cared much about anything before because it was all a temporary stopgap. Everything was just here until I decided to die. Or until they decided they didn’t want me around anymore.
Now I’m okay with all that. I’m okay with whatever happens in my life because I decided to put meaning before myself (or at least level). When the focus was removed from my own well-being my well-being started to improve.
It doesn’t sound romantic. It’s not. But it’s honest. And it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.