Sunday, November 3, 2019

Surviving Holiday Dread

Early this morning we turned our clocks back for reasons that no longer seem applicable, but many of us are about to return to behaviors and states of mind that no longer serve us so that we can survive the season of politics and holidays. How else are we supposed to cope with expectations of civility that are seldom fulfilled? Not everyone has the luxury of escape from familial responsibilities and work obligations, and we really should execute our duty of voting....but can we endure without permanent brain damage?

© Purestock Getty Images via verywellmind.com

The weather is against us, too, a physical cold that amplifies our emotional distress, and adds to the difficulties of negotiating the season in terms of travel and personal safety. We bundle up and take precautions driving, but traffic jams, crowded airports, and delayed flights make the horse-drawn carriages of yesteryear seem like a downright viable alternative if not romantic and nostalgic. We have put our extended families and in-laws at more than arm's length for a reason, and now this is the price we pay for the one or two times each year we choose to acknowledge them in person.

Congratulations to you if you have a truly loving and supportive family, a dream job, are comfortably affluent, with no addictions, and are in perfect physical and mental health. Most of us are not so fortunate, and while we have no animosity towards those doing better, we wish that you had a better understanding of our realities. We wish you had more empathy.

Were it up to me, we might be holding elections in the summer, by mail, so that politics were not so near the top of our thoughts, fueling dinner table diatribes during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Alas, they are this Tuesday, and if we must get ourselves to a polling place we have to figure out how to do so between the hours of our employment, the kids' scholastic programs, and a myriad of other chores and errands. The physical process of voting is daunting, and we haven't had time to research the issues and candidates. All of this adds to the guilt we already feel about failing in our civic engagement, and reminds us of grandpa who is stuck in a reactionary mindset that has no room for a changing social landscape. Surely you will come to blows the next time you see each other.

Depending on the outcome of the elections, we are either seeing a glimmer of hope, or plunging further into despair as the holidays fast approach. What a perfect storm, eh? Speaking of which, there is probably a Nor'easter on the way, just for good measure. Now we are reaching for another cocktail, another cigarette, or both, or something worse. We are no longer looking forward to the "vacation" to see the family, and are quite possibly fantasizing about alternative plans for Vegas or the Caribbean, minus any relatives at all, including our spouse and children. This is normal, if not unfortunate. Fantasies of fleeing are fine and healthy, it is carrying them out that is damaging. Know the difference.

What you may need to do is make a preemptive strike against depression and anxiety via a twelve-step group, a psychologist, or a supportive group in your church. Daily life is not kind to societal outcasts, and this time of year is harder still. Christians in particular would do well to remember that and at least ease off the rhetoric a bit. Compassion has to come without the strings of conversion attached to it. Seek first to understand, strive to accept rather than tolerate.

We will still likely have to deal with people who push our buttons, though, so what do we do? Avoidance is underrated if it means removing yourself from toxic situations and toxic people. You should have zero tolerance for physical, emotional, or financial abuse. Get away, stay away, or insist that your family share meals and time with another family, or at a public gathering. The "neutral field" approach can be highly effective at disarming what would otherwise be a volatile circumstance. We are all on our best behavior among people we feel we need to impress, or uphold an already high opinion they have for us.

Separate your personal objections to religion and politics from friends and family who might hold opposing positions. Good people are well worth your time, love, and investment, and good people come from all segments of the socio-economic-religious-political-ethnic spectra. Cultivating empathy should be the primary goal in our relationships with others. Listening is always good. Keeping your opinions to yourself sometimes helps, but do politely articulate your own perspectives if you need reminding of your own self-worth. I am a firm believer in the idea that stating your values, your truths, out loud, does wonders for self-esteem and confidence....as long as you are being honest, and keep an open yet critical mind.

Ask others to be honest in their assessment of the origins of their stance on any given hot topic. It is obviously personal to them, so why is that? Assure them there is no shame in being forthright, and defend them from ridicule if that is the unfortunate turn a discussion takes. You can disagree without bullying.

Good luck to you in the coming months. We wish you peace and prosperity, sincerely, and relief from whatever burdens you carry. Please share your skills, tips, and tricks for making it through the holidays with minimal pain. We are all ears.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Conversation # 1

"At the heart of it, all men long to be irresponsible."

"Really? Really??!!

"Sure."

"Why would you not want to be the best mature person you could be?"

"Maturity has little to do with it, though immaturity is what keeps me young. Irresponsibility is the hallmark of youth, and it is all about hanging on to youth."

"So you're having a midlife crisis."

(smiles) "I have had a perpetual midlife crisis then. It's chronic." (laughs).

"That's funny to you?"

"If I don't laugh, I'll cry. I'd love to start over. Completely. Have an actual family instead of just parents, you know? An intact, loving family, but where then is the struggle for the artist in me? Let's get back to the point, though. Maybe I long to be irresponsible because I want to complete my childhood. It ended rather abruptly. My mom used to tell me that when I was ten years old I put away my toys and told her I needed to make something out of my life. Ten years old for Christ's sake."

"I'm sorry."

(Shakes head)"Don't be. I don't want pity."

"So let's talk about all men, then, like you started with. Are you basing your assessment that they all long to be irresponsible on just your own experience?"

"It isn't evident, glaringly obvious to you that men are like that?"

"I don't know, I've met plenty of men who are kind and responsible. Men with a steady job, who show up to dates, on time, even open the door for me...."

"Oh, you believe in chivalry?" (chuckles) "I've got news for you. We hold the door so we can watch your ass go through."

(Appalled, mouth open in shocked silence)

"Yeah, I know you like to think that you can give men at least a little credit, but just don't. Maybe your gay male friends. It isn't even about sex, it's about lust, because we're also timid and fearful of intimacy. The psychologists have that right. Why do you think porn is so popular? It keeps women at arm's length. We don't have to answer for our inadequacies, physical or emotional."

"Wow."

"We also don't want to be responsible for your happiness. Hell, we don't want to be responsible for our own happiness. We're always looking for other people, other situations, other locations, and material goods to make us happy. God forbid we should do any self-work so we can be happy independent of anything, or anyone, else."(smiles)

"How can you be so cynical? No, no, how can you be so okay with that, if you believe it?"

"Who says that I am? Laughing or crying again. When you think about men's motivations in biological terms, all the shit makes sense. Keeping up appearances. Showing off. We have raised the lek to a theatre stage. We hoard material goods like a male bower bird, all to get our genes into the next generation."

"You said it wasn't about sex."

"True. I guess maybe it is if you really are a stud. Maybe a lavish lifestyle, and climbing the corporate ladder are substitutes for guys who can't get it up. Maybe women have that right."

"Well, gee, thanks for giving us a little credit." (rolls eyes sideways)

"You're welcome."

"So, if my man leaves me for a younger woman, it isn't about sex?"

"Nope. It's back to youth again. She symbolizes youth, freedom, confidence, everything men aspire to."

(Skeptical tongue in cheek) "I see."

"No, really. At some point in a man's marriage, his spouse becomes a symbol of confinement rather than freedom. It could be that in the process of trying to make her happy he has sacrificed his own plans and goals for security, for his wife's cooking, her income, her mere presence in his otherwise lonely life. That's always the trade-off, isn't it: freedom or security."

(Shakes head slowly)"You've got this all figured out, haven't you?"

"Hell no. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here with you. I value your honest appraisal. Truly, I do."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farewells and Goodbyes

This has been a hard week emotionally. I just returned from a memorial service where I said a permanent goodbye to a sixteen year-old student and friend who I knew for all too short a duration. Earlier in the week I said a (hopefully) temporary farewell to another young lady I have grown fond of and learned so much from. The grief and sadness is a little easier the older I get because I have learned to accept the choices of others, even when that means I am deprived of their regular company.

‑--------------------
Myself, Kaya, and Heidi

Kaya came to one of the Mile High Bug Club events at Cheyenne Mountain State Park about three years ago. She got my attention immediately because she had driven down from beyond the Denver area just to hang out with a bunch of "bug nerds" and look at moths and other insects drawn to the blacklights during the night.

As we got to talking, I learned that she, too, is an only child, with divorced parents, and eclectic interests. The more I got to know her over the years the more in awe I became of her intellect, adventurous spirit, and easy-going nature. She will be on to a new job now, in a far-off city, but I look forward to staying connected, and seeing her again someday should we agree on a place to seek new and fascinating insects.

It occurs to me that while I have genuine affection for Kaya, she embodies qualities I wish I had when I was her age: confidence, mostly, but an even richer analytical mind, a fearless approach to new experiences, trust in others, endless curiosity, and a sense of freedom. Yes, that romantic notion of just going wherever your heart and soul take you. Dream on, live fully, my friend.

‑--------------------
My late friend Erin

I met Erin Starkey, her brother Brad, and their mother in August of 2012 when we both turned out for a gathering of entomologists and insect photographers at a research station in southern Arizona. Imagine the surprise and delight to learn that we all lived in Colorado Springs. We got together again a handful of times, once for Erin's birthday if I recall correctly, and I shared books and insect specimens with her. I saw her last on my own birthday, last January.

Little did I know that she was equally enamored with all animal life, rabbits especially, and was a volunteer with our local Humane Society. I had no idea she was also artistically inclined, with a talent for songwriting, acting and directing, drawing, even animation. She was incredibly empathetic to the poverty-stricken, volunteering at shelters and soup-kitchens.

Unfortunately, I also did not know that she suffered from mental illness, and the spirit-sapping lows that come with that. On September 5, the heaviness got too much to bear and she took her life.

‑--------------------

She wasn't wanting to leave us, of course, she was attempting to leave herself. At least that part of herself that conjured demons of emotional misery, dominating every part of her psyche. As if that dimension of your soul could be shed like a snakeskin, killed with the equivalent of a silver bullet....but it always takes everything else down with it. Some people try and wash that part of their mind away by drinking. Others smoke, snort, shoot up, or otherwise exorcise one dragon with another. Some people try and outrun their own ominous shadow by literally running away.

The empty, unsatisfying, and self-destructive remedies abound, all of them equally useless, a mere temporary fix that might get you to tomorrow, but still leave you with no future visible to you on your horizon. You have choices only in what Devils to bargain with, what form of suffering is the least painful.

"You could choose to be happy if you wanted to..."

No, that is not how depression works. That is not how anxiety works. That is not how obsessive-compulsive works. That's not how any of this works. As long as you insist that it is "all in your mind," or imply that one has control over their state of mind, you are doing a horrible disservice to those cursed with mental illness. Stop being so damn condescending and free your own mind to contemplate the possibility that others can be "wired" differently than you, you healthy, sunshiny son-of-a-....

Listen, we all have our deficits, our ills, our weaknesses, our genetic uniqueness. I guarantee that you know people with mental illness whether you are cognizant or not. The manifestation of madness is not always what we have been taught that it is. Your job is not to assume, not to dismiss, not to pity, not to stigmatize, but merely empathize.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What Constitutes Suffering?

I argued in a previous post about suicide that no person should be obligated to endure suffering for the sake of other people, except in cases where there are dependent children or elderly family members involved. What I left out of that discussion was a definition of "suffering." Today, there appears to be a great deal of individual and collective suffering, so what does that mean for you?

© BBC.COM

To clarify, I am not seeking a legal definition as it applies to litigation and damage-seeking monetary compensation. That may be part of the problem, actually. Societies with a capitalist economy want to assign concrete dollar values to everything, whether appropriate or not. We have come to measure all aspects of our lives in financial terms. That may create more suffering than it solves. It certainly adds unnecessary stress.

Is suffering like pornography, you "know it when you see it?" Maybe you know it when you feel it. There is certainly the pain of physical suffering, what detainees in camps along our southern U.S. border are faced with during their confinement, what the victims of natural disasters experience during and after catastrophic events, and of course the wounds of war, terrorism, and other acts of violence. Any physical trauma is likely to generate suffering of varying degree and duration.

There is also the unrelenting mental anguish during and after violence, the stress of anticipating the next episode of abuse at the hands of your domestic partner, the constant threat of harassment or violence if you are a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a practitioner of Islam, Judaism, or some other persecuted religion....the list of potential victims of suffering is almost limitless.

I would contend that suffering does not begin and end with these scenarios. Suffering extends to those who are empathetic to the abused, the oppressed, the undervalued, underprivileged, and poverty-stricken. People with White Privilege choose whether to be empathetic or not, recognizing that they, too, suffer as long as other humans do.

Suffering from empathy goes even farther. Many in our world are empathetic not just to other members of Homo sapiens, but to other species. I myself derive great joy from knowing that there are other organisms occupying our planet, leading fascinating lives and contributing directly and indirectly to the health of humanity in both the biological and emotional sense. Depriving caring people of other species through direct extinction, climate change, and habitat destruction is no less a crime than homicide.

Each of us has a different threshold at which suffering begins, and it is wrong to evaluate the suffering of others based on our own personal standard of what we consider to be suffering. Our American society is still far too entrenched in the mentality of machismo and stoicism when it comes to pain of any kind. "Suck it up," we like to say. Such condescending and dismissive rhetoric, and behavior, will unravel our civilization if it is not properly balanced with empathy.

In these troubling times it is tempting to withdraw, and indeed countless souls abandon Facebook and Twitter and other online communities daily to avoid facing a continuous onslaught of bad news and worse news. Turning a blind eye does not make reality better, however, and also deprives one of the latest positive news from friends, validation of one's own sensitivity, and, of course, humorous memes about pets. Seriously, we need to laugh more than ever.

Perhaps your challenge, like mine, is to not return to negative personal behavior patterns that you once used to cope with mental and social anxiety, fear, and depression. Remind yourself that those are expensive and wasteful exercises, both financially and physically. We need to be at our best and sharpest, and be engaged with the world for as long and intensely as we can tolerate, which is much more than we think we can. This is not the time to run away, turn to substances legal or illicit, or check out altogether.

Most importantly, we need to remind each other that, political and religious differences aside, we recognize our humanity and the need to work collectively. No politician, no corporate leader, no single individual has all the answers. It is us who will succeed or fail in protecting each other and the Earth regardless of what happens in Congress, the Oval Office, the next international summit. Make wise choices beyond the ballot, in your preferences in the marketplace, in how you treat others and how you treat yourself. You deserve positive things, tangible and intangible. We all do. To paraphrase Timothy Leary, we won't get any of those benefits if we tune out, turn on, or drop out. Stay alive, stay connected, heap praise on the worthy, reward true excellence, and think critically. That is how you end suffering.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

(Almost) Remembering Woodstock

Please understand that I was only eight years old when this most celebrated of American concerts took place in rural New York state. That is why I barely remember it, not because I was there, dropping acid....Can art be the answer to civil unrest? That is one question worth thinking about today on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

© Belcourt.org

I sometimes lament that I was not "of age" back in the days of the Vietnam War protests, the beginnings of the environmental movement, and other great shifts in our society. Yes, I recognize that Woodstock is either highly romanticized, or vilified for the grossly unsanitary conditions and rampant drug use, pubic sex, etc. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and without interviewing every single spectator and participant it is unlikely we will ever get the full, accurate picture.

In the absence of social media, Woodstock represents a truly profound event, one born out of alternative print and radio media, word-of-mouth, and a longing for validation of one's anti-establishment sentiments. The commitment to attending must have been staggering in view of social and logistical obstacles. It may be the shining pinnacle of rock-and-roll music, too, validating the genre as a tool for culture change, encouraging collaborations, and energizing youth. To say that the concert set the stage for a generational metamorphosis might be an understatement....or an overstatement.

I imagine that upon arrival in that farm field, many were overwhelmed to find so many others, from far-flung points of origin, sharing their anxiety over the war, pollution, and other pressing problems. It took mobilization to get people there, and the event itself was an engine that catalyzed further action. It was both an opportunity to relax, take a breath, celebrate life, and also comprehend the magnitude of the issues before our country.

It had to be a comfort and relief to be surrounded by those of like mind, with a unity of purpose. Where are those opportunities today? The answer in this digital age is that they are mostly virtual. Those who attend marches and other public demonstrations and protests are proxies for a vastly larger village. Not everyone can afford an airline ticket (or even a bus ticket) to Washington, DC to participate in person. Some, perhaps many, fear that they would be met with hostile opposition from those who violently endorse continued racism, the proliferation of personal weapons of mass destruction, and other issues that continue to erode the fabric of our society.

Would it help to have a new version of Woodstock (not a lame reunion event) today? Is art the answer to our divide? Few performers, I wager, would take the risk that those musicians of the late 1960s did. Record producers were "the establishment," and in many ways still are. They answer to wealthy investors like any other corporation, and you rock that boat at the risk of being blacklisted. Furthermore, there are few high profile voices today that carry enough impact. Pink and Lady Gaga carry the torch for the disenfranchised, but at a deeply personal level, the level of intimate relationships be they familial or otherwise. They express lyrically an intolerance for abusive relationships, not the abuse of entire races, immigrants, and other categories of humanity. Where are the likes of Joni Mitchell?

The view from here, behind my computer monitor and keyboard, is one of utter frustration. Our inertia has us isolated physically, connected virtually, and strung out in terms of the issues that captivate us. It is an overwhelming prospect to muster the energy to break out of normal routines, to risk shaming, insults, loss of friendships, and exile in pursuit of what we know is right and just. The thing is, we don't consider the prospect of what the audience at Woodstock must have embraced: a new community, shared experiences, renewed energy, and personal validation. Peace out.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Of Science and Reverance

Last night I stumbled upon the documentary Inventing Tomorrow, directed by Laura Nix, on our local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) here in Colorado Springs. One of the things that struck me about these young women and men was how much they are motivated by reverence for nature and human history. I found the cultures these students live in to be a welcome, but stark, contrast to the culture and society American children are raised in. Science has informed their emotional attachment to nature, amplified their ability to empathize, and offered them real hope for a brighter future, one they can create.

© Quotation.io

Here in the U.S., children barely connect with their elders, let alone respect them. In many other cultures, several generations reside under one roof, or live next door, or no more than a few blocks away, the better to teach their children and grandchildren well. Personal stories are a powerful source of inspiration and action when told to children. Do we relate our own experiences to our children these days, or do we fear embarrassment, or risk empowering our youth to try daring things like peace marches, or poetry? Do we invite our children to sacrifice instead of feeling entitled to material things? Most children who excel have families that go above and beyond mere support. Fathers and mothers may leave jobs or drive their child for hours to participate in activities or meet with a mentor. Sometimes entire families uproot to be in a location that is optimal for the next step in the child's path to greatness.

While the family is usually at the core of a child's developing sense of values, the community, the "village," is also important. Surrounding a child with influential people outside the familial circle further expands the child's realm of experience and knowledge. This happens routinely in non-American cultures, and it once happened here in the U.S., too, but today we are told that every adult is a stranger, a potential pedophile, rapist, scam artist, or other devious criminal. We assume the worst now, and trust no one. We fear that sending the gifted child to university prematurely will forever stunt their growth in the social sense.....

Religion should be working in concert with science to develop young minds. Science can show what is possible. Religion, ideally, creates the bedrock of reverence for creation and cautions against a completely dispassionate approach to research, especially in the biological sciences. That is not what is happening in American Christianity. Extreme conservatism has put itself at direct odds with scientific advancement, even questioning practices like immunization inoculations that have protected humanity from illness and disease for decades (centuries in some cases).

One could argue that the religious practices of indigenous peoples reflect a much greater reverence for the natural world, but Christianity has dismissed such belief systems as "paganism," seeking to convert other cultures at every possible opportunity. Missionary programs offer poverty relief, but with the strings of Jesus attached. Meanwhile, Christianity pays lip service to a reverence for creation, even when it could claim that Noah was the first wildlife conservationist. Prayer is the only action needed to save the world, while you continue your over-consumptive lifestyle.

I have personally exposed myself to both science and religion, and found that science creates a greater reverence for the natural world. It does at times demand a detachment from your (research) subject that I find distasteful, sometimes outright wrong, but it is generally a far less judgmental community, and getting better by the day. It does not retreat into outdated doctrines that have proved toxic to scientific progress, impeded the advancement of women, and suppressed minorities. It is embracing the entire spectrum of gender identity, and continues to welcome immigrants who bring new insights, skills, strategies, and vision in meeting the challenges of the future.

In short, science is what religion should be. Go ahead and pray, it cannot hurt, but please stop wasting energy attacking science. The two should complement each other, not antagonize one another. Practice restraint in your lifestyle, be conservative in your carbon footprint, and joyful in your celebration of all things wild and free. Feed your curiosity, fascination, and sense of wonder. Support your local science fair, as well as the vacation Bible school bake sale.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chasing Money

At this particular moment in time, I am secure enough in the fiscal sense that I do not need to chase projects for the money. That has not always been the case, and it will surely be a fleeting sense of relief. The welcome respite gives me pause in another way, more restless and disturbing than gratifying. It calls into question the idea that money should be a motivator, that everything be framed in the sense of income and expenditures.

© BayAreaDigitalSolutions.com

The constant implication in our lives is that we have a responsibility to earn an income, a responsibility to spend it and invest it to keep the economy going, and that taxation is the villain that keeps us from fully realizing our financial potential. Those directives come from those already wealthy, who attained their power by hoarding money. We think that money is the matrix that holds our lives together, and we need to free our minds of that foolish belief.

We think that money is the matrix that holds our lives together, and we need to free our minds of that foolish belief.

The only currency of any relevance and importance is energy. Some may equate energy with love, or some other emotion or notion, but what I am talking about is metabolic energy. That is the currency of living ecosystems, and it flows freely among all organisms. There is minimal banking of metabolic energy. Plant tubers might be one example. Bears putting on fat for the winter is another. These situations are the minority, though. Energy usually passes quickly through the food web.

Economies can be viewed as redundant and inefficient ecosystems in which every niche is filled by only one species: Homo sapiens. Energy flow is disrupted as some individuals hoard money instead of releasing it to continue flowing to other niches. Nature is strict in its demand that energy flow.

Perhaps the worst aspect of money is that it has allowed us to assign arbitrary value to everything. "Precious" metals and stones are precious only because we say they are. There is a fine line between priceless and worthless. Arguably, they are two sides of the same coin. The lives of other species are priceless until we decide that the monetary value of the land they occupy can be increased by developing a shopping center....and we arbitrarily decided what the land was worth to begin with.

Money limits our creativity because we think only in terms of how we will benefit financially. We dismiss important endeavors before they get off the ground because [whining] "that's too costly," or "we can't make any money doing that." A cost-benefit analysis too often destroys potentially great achievements.

Money also actively encourages the invention of unnecessary products and services. The marketplace is full of disposable goods, mass-produced decorative objects, and all manner of substances passing themselves off as food and drink that are destructive to our individual and collective health. We are all children in the face of advertising, so easily convinced that we cannot live without a given item. Money fuels the conflict that filmmaker Ken Burns describes as the "I want versus we need."

Money allows us to judge one another not by the content of our character, but by the sum of our bank accounts, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wealthism should be as repulsive as racism, but instead we collectively aspire to be financially excessive. More importantly, we want to exclude others from our sense of entitlement and privilege. We want a very tangible expression of our success, but ironically define success by tangible expression. We never arrive in this scenario. It is the treadmill of status, nothing more. It is a process that erodes society instead of elevating it.

We can no longer afford (and I use that word deliberately) to allow ourselves to be conditioned to believe that money is a limiting or freeing element of our society. What is priceless? Empathy. Respect. Honesty. Patience. Persistence. Volunteerism. Be examples of those things. Add to that list, because it will get you thinking about what is truly value-able. Meanwhile, I challenge you to imagine a world without money. What would it look like? Could we operate more justly and more efficiently without it?