We Are Who We Like and Why You Can’t Change

The problem with asking ourselves questions is that we might get honest answer because we don’t want to think of ourselves as bad people. We might want to avoid admitting deficiencies in our social behavior, like lying or our more abstract moral principles, like being open-minded. If you ask most people if they are liars, they will probably say they aren’t. But you’d have to follow up to see if that matches reality. In the same way, if you ask people if they are close-minded, most would tell you they aren’t. But, in this case, I can assuredly refute those claims. Almost no one is as open-minded as we say we are. And we refuse to believe it about ourselves (though can see it more obviously in other people. Like those dang close-minded friends of ours!)

Positive assortative mating. The data show that people tend to marry people like themselves. We can all see it in the incestuous nature of movie stars. They routinely date and marry other celebrities. What’s less noticeable is that professionals of all kinds do the same thing. Lots of professors marry other professors. Steven Pinker himself has married two psychologists and a novelist/philosopher. (I know one example isn’t that impressive, but I just found that out and shoehorned it in here. Sorry.)

“These findings – that we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves – always annoy people. Confronted by the data, the most common response is a challenge: I’m not like that, my husband’s not like that. Why are we so affronted? Because we all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.”

This is the sort of free will question that I’m interested in. We want, and feel,   more control over our actions than we have. You might look at your own life and realize that you happened to marry a fellow liberal Christian who happens to do the same work as you, or have the same belief that there should be a stay at home parent. You might not have planned it out and you might argue that it just happened to work out that way. But it’s probably not true. So much data continues to roll in showing that we aren’t good at identifying what motivates our decisions. The only way to get any better, is to acknowledge the truth of this situation. That way we can notice when we ignore the good ideas from someone we generally don’t agree with. Or when information changes, we aren’t stubbornly holding on to outdated concepts.

“There’s a circle here: We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us – or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe.

[. . .]

We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.
The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.”

There’s this need to be comfortable. It’s not very fun to be anxious and tense, but it really is necessary if we want to live a full and complete life, and have good reasons for how we act. You may not want that, in which case, continue ignoring everything outside your current set of worldviews. But I would guess most people don’t like to think of themselves as cut off to the vast majority of truth and possible experiences out in the world. We don’t like the idea that we limit ourselves by only paying attention to what we already believe (part of our confirmation bias). The problem with having a blind spot covering most of the suite of ideas out there, is that we are unable to progress in any meaningful way.

“This is how willful blindness begins, not in conscious, deliberate choices to be blind, but in a skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don’t sense our perspective closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich. But our blindness grows out of small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values.”

Now try to accept change or challenging information. There is no motivator there to drive us toward new ideas. In fact, so much of what we do is to protect ourselves from anything we don’t already know or believe. But say you are in an unpleasant place in life. What can you do to fix that? Chances are you won’t want to see it in the first place, but assuming you overcome that hurdle, you might not want to see that YOU are doing anything wrong. Your ideas, your choices, your behavior is all fine in your mind. You’re locked into a certain mindset that you can’t break free from or even want to break free from. It’s possible you don’t even see that you’re stuck.

All the quotes are taken from Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan

We Are Who We Like and Why You Can’t Change

Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve never read a book by Hunter S. Thompson, but I find him fascinating. I’ve seen Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read a few articles about him and such, but still never got around to one of his books. Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas both sound alright and are highly regarded, but there’s nothing about them that makes me want to push them to the top of my list. Plus, he seems like the kind of author that you need to be huge fan of or not a fan at all. I don’t know if I’m ready for that sort of commitment.

But once again, thanks to brainpickings, I’m impressed by his thoughts. A friend wrote him a letter asking for advice, and a 20 year old Hunter S. responded with annoying, envy-inducing, brilliance.

He starts with a caveat more people could do with tacking on at the beginning of their blog posts (possibly even myself though I think I usually skimp on advice).

“To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”

Oh, brilliant. I marvel at the confidence some people display when telling other people how they should live. Then I’m often disappointed in the content. Yet, at 20, Thompson was self-aware enough to realize his advice might well be terrible. Impressive for anyone, but at an age when so many of us are hanging on to the certainty of the rebellious teenage mind, I have to applaud.

He continues,

“whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned”

The advice itself is pretty solid. Introduces a good idea that I think most people would go with, if only to see where it leads.

“The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things.”

Isn’t this nice so far? We are too focused on the goal and not ourselves. Who am I!? And who will I be? Setting a goal may satisfy me in this specific instant, but what about the future me?

“Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?”

Ahhh, the goal is static, but we are changing. So how does a goal make sense? And nice job asking questions, right? The reader is coming to the conclusions you want him to all on his own!

“The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.”

Bam! Up front with his own limitations yet again. To drive home the point that these are just thoughts. They may be good thoughts or bad thoughts, but you should take time to think about them too. Do not blindly accept the words of anyone else.

“To put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES. ”

and he closes pretty well.

“I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.”





That S is a bit pretentious, huh?

for a more interesting and intelligent dissection of this letter go to http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/04/hunter-s-thomspon-letters-of-note-advice/

Hunter S. Thompson

A Couple Thoughts on Children

I get to babysit tomorrow and here are some thoughts running through my head.

It seems I’m thinking about children 40% of my time. Life is a crazy, weird experiment. It’s a mixture of absolute misery and pure joy, and sometimes it’s hard to sort out the two. Then throw meaning into the equation and things get fun. I’m one of those people who thinks everyone gets to decide where meaning comes from. For you it can be finding a reliable job and taking care of a family. For me it can be attempting to destroy myself once a week to see what survives. But I also happen to enjoy love and beauty. I wonder if any sort of love – from the insane and unstable to the strong and slow moving – is as fulfilling or complete as love for your children. I see it first hand and though I love my niece – possibly as much as I can love – I can’t touch the level of her mother and father. But life isn’t accommodating. I choose instability too often. Some ways of life don’t or shouldn’t mix, so I have to make a pretty interesting decision. One that happens to rebel against millions of years of evolution. The definition of biologically successful is the number of grandchildren you leave. It makes sense that saying no to a drive that ancient would take up a bit of my time.

Darwin had a fair few children and loved them a ton. The death of his daughter almost broke him. Here’s what he wrote to a friend.

“Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none, — perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan”
Charles Darwin

Darwin looks at what he could do without any distractions. I think of that too, but I also worry about messing up in the opposite direction. Neglecting any potential children because I get too wrapped up in my work/thoughts. I don’t actually think Darwin is being serious here but highlighting a conflict that will arise with that sudden appearance of children.

Kurt Vonnegut was a little more positive but still realistic. In a letter to his daughter he comforts her in his classic style of funny and hopeful and serious and sad.

“You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wanderer named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wanderer named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.”
Kurt Vonnegut

I think that’s true and beautiful, but I see how sad it is at the same time. I want to be a space wandered named Matt. And I’m okay when the hilarious accident of calm fails to materialize.

I can’t wait to see my niece tomorrow. I see all her potential in her unknowable future. But I also see the inevitable crushing sadness and how nothing can stop it. I hope she wants to be a space wanderer, too.


Oh, and I hope she reads Vonnegut.

“You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the year in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.”


Adventure is out there!

Damn it, now I want to cry thinking about that stupid movie. Stupid Pixar.

A Couple Thoughts on Children

Fan Friday 10: Charity

After what happened in Paris this week it seemed like the obvious thing to do. I have no stakes. I have no name. No one sees what I do or reads what I write. My risk is zero when I speak. It’s not the same for plenty of people around the world. The proceeds go to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 61 journalists were killed because of what they do for a living last year (source).

So, I can sit here and type out all the offensive, critical posts I want and not make an ounce of difference. Or I can help a little. Even though I don’t really have the money for this shirt I think it’s the least I can do. (Well, the most I can do, which is little.) This cause is important to me. I wrote about Ai Weiwei a few weeks ago and how impressive what he and others like him do. The Charlie Hebdo attack just brings it all up again.

If you want to donate and don’t need to stroke your ego with a t-shirt, like I do, there’s a link on the Committee to Protect Journalists page.

It doesn’t have to be this cause. But something you value, you should give a little, if you can manage. And anytime you need a little item – a shirt, mug, waterbottle, tote, whatever – try to remember a site that gives a little back. Even signing into amazon.com through smile.amazon.com to donate a small amount of every purchase to an organization of your choosing.

Care about something today. It’s one of the most important things we can do in our lives.


Fan Friday 10: Charity

Hey, Me!

What would you say to a younger you?

I’ve seen a lot of these posts. I thought I’d give it a go, just to see what comes out. I guess the point is that in taking the time to explain the little ways to deal with the world better, you are also reminding your current self to not return to those earlier and worse responses? I just don’t want to end up realizing that this current version is doing everything way worse than I was when I was younger. I’m gonna to talk to an around 15 year old me. Any time before that I was too alone for most of the social advice. All the other comments hold true for any of my younger ages.

Alright, let’s go.

1. School. You were pretty right on about school. Fuck that shit. Music is way more fun and it’s more important than the garbage they teach you. However, it’s a necessary evil because college can be awesome. While I still encourage you to skip class and have fun whenever possible, give your schoolwork a look every once in awhile. Not for grades, but for yourself. You do actually like some of these topics. You know that, but hormones and silly girls and independence and self discovery took over. All important things to explore at your age, though. Just keep in mind school is an option.

2. Girls. You were somehow too cynical and overeager to fall in love, at all times. I really don’t know how you were able to critically analyze everything about love and relationships while falling in love with every girl who had been to The Bottom of The Hill. I guess I’d say just calm down in general in this regard, but at the same time I appreciate those times. A little rough while experiencing them but teens are the right age to go all out. You never really get to love that crazy again, and for good reason. Try to enjoy it more.

3. Drugs. Way to stick to your guns here. Almost everyone you know is straight edge, and it’s nice to have that sort of reverse rebellion in common, buuuuuut, most of them are going to jump off that trend soon. They’re still cool, so don’t judge.

4. Friends. Maybe invest a little less in them. Friends are awesome but about 98% of them you won’t see again a year after high school. Watch out for the religious ones. They get super weird pretty soon. This should be a warning sign.
Again, enjoy it all more. Oh, and there’s gonna be some fights… try harder to make people get over that shit that ruins friendships.

5. Worry. Sorry, that’s not changing for you.

6. Ideas. These are good. Spend more time on these. They are everywhere but you tend to only pick up on the big ones. Give them all a look. It’s amazingly fun to destroy ideas. And good ones will help out a lot in your future.

7. Fashion. Cut your goddamn hair, a little. I know you don’t want people looking at you and it’s nice to separate yourself from the people who make fun of you, but it gets out of hand sometimes. Yes, you learned what gender deconstruction is, well done. You just don’t need hair that long. It’s a pain to keep looking nice and washing it wastes water. Keep it longer than most if you want, perfectly fine. Clothes-wise: I don’t know. I’m out of it still. Wear jeans more.

8. Parents. I swear they aren’t so bad. There’s not much I can say to you that would help. They want what’s best for you but also have their own ideas of what’s best for you. It may seem like they don’t understand, but they do, they simply hope you change your mind. It’s hard for parents. You won’t be one anytime soon, you’re welcome, but it isn’t fun to watch your child struggle. Listen, but don’t take things too seriously or too personally.

Hey, Me!

Loved Ones

I wonder what it must have been like for my parents.

I was a sad kid. I was a sad kid as far back as I can remember. I was quiet. I didn’t like being around many people at a time, whether a family event or a mall. I wouldn’t interact with other people if I could help it. I’d often play alone. I did have a handful of friends as a kid so it wasn’t exceptionally odd or worrying. There was little indication of any serious issues. I could be happy and was sometimes. But the personality signs were always there.

I think my parents could have lived with that early level of sociability. I had a couple friends at school. I ran around and had all kinds of fun. I was a little too quiet in the majority of situations, but oh well, I could be social enough.

It wasn’t until around 6th grade that things got bad. My group of friends was breaking up because the size of that school was much larger than my elementary school. Something like 4 elementary schools fed that middle school. And while they were making new friends, I was becoming more and more isolated. It wouldn’t be accurate to describe it so simply. My group of friends did eventually break apart but it was slow. Things were simply changing and I wasn’t equipped to cope. Every single day terrified me, which isn’t the best mindset to be in when trying to meet new people even if you’re good at it. And I wasn’t. It was getting sad. By 8th grade, I would go to school and not say a single word the entire day. I sat alone near a group of people I would occasionally talk to. It at least gave me the illusion of company, which was more for other people. I was worried that if I was too obviously alone, I would be targeted and beat up regularly. (While I was in 8th grade the Columbine massacre happened and people started looking at me differently. It was a very strange thing because I was and am the opposite of violent, but I remember hearing “be aware of the quiet kids” frequently around then. And I was the very definition of the quiet kid.)

It was difficult for me, but it must have been equally trying for my parents. There was nothing they could have done to make me feel better. It was a mixture of a whole lot of stuff that I probably can’t identify anymore. I can only clearly remember the feeling. The “why?”
of it all is lost somewhere. Somewhere in the natural loner tendencies and sadness and the building isolation and overwhelming sense of not belonging anywhere. I was 12 years old and wanted to kill myself. That’s a very troubling thing to think about. I don’t mean because I’m involved. That people so young want to die is upsetting. Now imagine it was your kid. I don’t know how much my parents were aware of. They aren’t stupid, or as clueless as I liked to think when I was younger, so they probably had a good idea of how miserable I was. The problem for them: I wouldn’t allow them to help. I don’t know if it’s because they trusted me to work through it on my own or because they knew it was fruitless to try too hard, but they didn’t butt in often.

I remember one time specifically. My dad asked me if anything was wrong, and I shook my head. He paused for a moment and looked at me, and asked if I was sure. I said yes and the moment slowly passed. He had to have known. But he also had to have known I wouldn’t say anything no matter how many times he asked. He could have tried to force it, but I would have retreated further. It was simply how I was at that age.

It had to have been almost as bad for them as it was for me, possibly worse. I, at least, knew what was going on. (In that I knew I had no idea what was going on.) My parents were left mostly to speculate. We aren’t an open or emotional family, but I know they loved me. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to watch me struggle so completely. Some people may criticize my parents for not stepping in and taking some sort of action. I can tell you with (near) absolute certainty that that would have been the worst thing they could have done. I can’t predict the outcome, but I know it would have been bad. You can argue, that in the long run, it would have benefited me, and I would have come to appreciate it. That’s likely true, if I didn’t end up turning to something absolutely destructive first.

Now I feel like mental anguish is, in some ways, desirable. Spending unwanted hours inside my head helped me in many ways. Life is hard more often than not, and being secure and comfortable in that uncertainty and pain that defines much of life is something I highly value. I feel as though life isn’t much up against my own thoughts. I can survive failure. I can enjoy the process of failing. I can be unsure and try anyway. When things go wrong, I’m ready for it. I still have bad periods of time and I doubt anything will prevent them. But I’m okay with that, too.

I probably had to go through most of that to think how I think now. And I quite like how I think now. But given the choice, I’m not sure I’d choose to relive any of it. I made it out, so far, but I can’t say exactly how it worked. How I lived while 6 kids in my various schools killed themselves.

There’s the dilemma. I (more or less) like who I am now (at least compared to some of the alternatives), but I can’t justify the means. They bullying. The self hatred. The suicidal ideation. And all the worry and debilitating anxiety. The depression. The fear. Everything was pulling me in all sorts of directions. One was death. Another was figuring out, to an impressive degree, who I am. I’m now on track to the latter, but I think the former runs right next to it. It would be easy to jump tracks, still. There’s no real chance to leave that behind. In fact, sometimes the tracks overlap.

I’ve watched friends go through something similar and it was almost as bad as being in it myself. I’m not sure how I’d get through if it was my son or daughter. Even if it makes them stronger, better in some way, I cannot wish those experiences on the people I love. But then again, if he or she is, then I have to let them. (If help was wanted, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it, but it’s not always wanted and it doesn’t always help.) I don’t get to control how the world works.

I feel bad for my parents. Sorry about that.

Loved Ones

Life and a question

I’m listening to a podcast saying to write a diary of all mundane stuff in your life. The boring, uninteresting parts that make up about 99% of actual life. The random “deeper” thoughts are fine too, but the details are what you’ll forget as you age. So write your daily activities. The stuff you’ll look back on and laugh.
The big stuff will always be there nipping at your heels, but the milieu drifts off. When you’re fifty or eighty or two hundred, you can sit down with a spouse, life partner, best friend, son, daughter, niece, nephew, or maybe even your mom and dad, and relive the small events that escape recollection.

I’m a fan of this idea. I want to be able to look back and laugh at the terrible writing and the poetry and my thoughts on free will, determinism, deontology, utilitarianism, and religion. But I also want to be able to read a random post and think, “Goodness, I don’t even remember being that mad at you for refusing to do the dishes during my finals week.” Or “remember when the water heater broke and we didn’t shower for two days?”

Which brings me to my preemptive apology.

I might need to apologize for inundating you all with posts about babies. I hope to keep the posts vague enough to apply to more than just me (in relation to kids), but I will be unsuccessful at times. I hope you don’t have to suffer through too many “babies sure do change things don’t they?” posts. I know you can just scroll on by, but I like to be considerate when I decide to post something. And I’m well aware of how torturous baby posts can be. But I’m nothing if not a hypocrite.

Something you won’t have to worry about but an idea I had was to start writing a sort of diary for my niece. I was curious to know if they were a common thing to do, or if anyone had thoughts about the idea in general.
There will be a million pictures and videos, half of which are uploaded to Facebook already, but I think it’d be nice to have some stuff down in writing for her. I’ve written a couple of letters already about how crazy it is that she exists. I’d like to add more little details. I don’t live in the same city as she does so I don’t see her as often as I’d like, but I still see her frequently and want to write down the experiences for when she’s an old lady.
She’ll have plenty of pictures and videos, so I’m not sure if this would be excessive and unnecessary. I wonder if she’ll find the mundane life of her infancy interesting written down. It’ll be filtered through my eyes, of course, and I’m not sure how that’ll shade things. I might add annoying musings. It’ll be easy to make the entries boring and/or melodramatic. I guess it could come down to execution, but I worry that writing too much about a baby is intrinsically embarrassing.
There’s a demanding impulse to remember every tiny, innocuous moment even though it isn’t possible. The time she laughed a lot. The time she kept spitting her pacifier at me. The time she slept through lunch at the Chinese place down the street. The time she grabbed my finger and wouldn’t let go and though I read about how strong babies are, I marveled at the fact staring me in the face. And the general feeling of seeing her.

I won’t post those type of entries here, but I was wondering if anyone had input on the idea.


Life and a question