Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The simplest theory of human nature is that we work as hard as we can to avoid such experiences. We pursue pleasure and comfort; we hope to make it through life unscathed. Suffering and pain are, by their very nature, to be avoided. The tidying guru Marie Kondo became famous by telling people to throw away possessions that don’t “spark joy,” and many would see such purging as excellent life advice in general.

But this theory is incomplete. Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for.

Think about your own favorite type of negative experience. Maybe you go to movies that make you cry or scream or gag. Or you might listen to sad songs. You might poke at sores, eat spicy foods, immerse yourself in painfully hot baths. Or climb mountains, run marathons, get punched in the face in a gym or dojo. Psychologists have long known that unpleasant dreams are more frequent than pleasant ones, but even when we daydream—when we have control over where to focus our thoughts—we often turn toward the negative.

Some of this is compatible with a sophisticated version of hedonism, one that appreciates that pain is one route to pleasure. The right kind of negative experience can set the stage for greater pleasure later on; it’s a cost we pay for a greater future reward. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or serve as a cry for help. Emotions such as anger and sadness can provide certain moral satisfactions. And effort and struggle and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.

But many of the negative experiences we pursue don’t provide pleasure at all. Consider now a different kind of chosen suffering. People, typically young men, sometimes choose to go to war, and while they don’t wish to be maimed or killed, they are hoping to experience challenge, fear and struggle—to be baptized by fire, to use the clichéd phrase. Some of us choose to have children, and usually we have some sense of how hard it will be. Maybe we even know of all the research showing that, moment by moment, the years with young children can be more stressful than any other time of life. (And those who don’t know this ahead of time will quickly find out.) And yet we rarely regret such choices. More generally, the projects that are most central to our lives involve suffering and sacrifice…

But chosen suffering is a different story. A life well lived is more than a life of pleasure and happiness. It involves, among other things, meaningful pursuits. And some forms of suffering, involving struggle and difficulty, are essential parts of achieving these higher goals, and for living a complete and fulfilling life.

Some people report more meaning in their lives than others. In a landmark 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister and colleagues asked hundreds of subjects how happy they were and how meaningful their lives were, and then asked other questions about their moods and activities. It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning—both are correlated with rich social connections and not being bored. They are also correlated with each other: People who report high levels of happiness tend to say the same about finding meaning in their lives, and vice versa. You can have both.

The more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are.

But there are also differences. Health, feeling good and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. Moreover, the more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. The same goes for stress and worry—more meaning and less happiness.

All of this suggests that meaning and struggle are intertwined. In another study, done by the software company Payscale, more than 2 million people were asked what they did for a living and how much meaning they have in their lives. It turns out the most meaningful job is being a member of the clergy. Others at the top of the list include teachers, therapists, physicians and social workers. All of these jobs involve considerable difficulty and a lot of personal engagement.

What about day-to-day experiences? In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2019, Sean C. Murphy and Brock Bastian asked people to think back on their most significant experiences, to describe each one in a paragraph and to rank them for how meaningful they were. Participants were also asked to indicate the extent to which the experiences were pleasurable or painful. It turned out that the most meaningful events tended to be on the extremes—those that were very pleasant or very painful. These are the ones that matter, that leave a mark…

Few of us voluntarily surrender our appendages in the pursuit of a good life, but we often do seek out more minor negative experiences, in part for their transformative effect but also because we might simply want to possess these experiences later. We want to store them in memory and consume them in the future. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.” They are part of what we see as a meaningful life…

Perhaps the self-conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think a lot about how happy you are, and this gets in the way of being happy, in the same way that worrying about how good you are at kissing probably gets in the way of being good at kissing.

But another explanation is that the happiness-pursuers often focus on the wrong things. A meta-analysis by Helga Dittmar and her colleagues, published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, summed up more than 200 studies and found that “respondents report less happiness and life satisfaction, lower levels of vitality and self-actualization, and more depression, anxiety, and general psychopathology to the extent that they believe that the acquisition of money and possessions is important and key to happiness and success in life.”

Consider the work of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. In his early years practicing in Vienna, in the 1930s, Frankl studied depression and suicide. During that period the Nazis rose to power, and they took over Austria in 1938. Not willing to abandon his patients or his elderly parents, Frankl chose to stay, and he was one of the millions of Jews who ended up in a concentration camp—first at Auschwitz, then Dachau. Ever the scholar, Frankl studied his fellow prisoners, wondering about what distinguishes those who maintain a positive attitude from those who cannot bear it, losing all motivation and often killing themselves.

He concluded that the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival were those whose lives had broader purpose, who had some goal or project or relationship, some reason to live. As he later wrote (paraphrasing Nietzsche), “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure. We know from the work of Baumeister and others that a meaningful life can also be a happy one. There are plenty of people who have lives of both great joy and great struggle.

Human motivation is a lot richer than many people, including many psychologists, believe. The point was nicely made by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.” He described a society of stability, control and drug-induced happiness—a society that sacrificed everything else for the goal of maximizing pleasure. Near the end of the book, there is a conversation between Mustapha Mond, the representative of the establishment, and John, who has rebelled against the system. Mond argues heatedly for the value of pleasure. He goes on about the neurological interventions being developed to maximize human pleasure, how convenient and easy it all is, and he concludes by saying, “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

And John responds, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” There is no better summary of human nature.

[Read more…]

Running on Christmas Day. No signal.

At 8 pm last night, I agreed with myself I wouldn’t post, wouldn’t share, wouldn’t clutter up Christmas Day with stuff on this blog.

But no, that wasn’t possible Now.  So we’ll keep it short.

I hadn’t run in weeks, but the pull to get outside, was out-of-body.  You need to get out. Today. Now.

30° F feeling like 26° F.  Sun bright and beaming.  It was high tide at the cove, a flock of Canadian geese, 25 or so, were floating at the base of the break wall, offering me their moment of silence.

He used to follow this blog, comment on certain posts.  I could feel His finger reaching for the “Like” button towards the End when he was no longer up to offering comments.

Forgiveness is not a strong suit.  Actually no suit I wear at all.  I had to stop at mid-point on the run. Toxicity from the anger made another step impossible.

Anger burns for the Health Insurer, who silently collected his premium payments, and then provided notice that coverage wasn’t provided as promised because of an exclusion.  And then to stick the knife deeper, terminated coverage retroactively for a month, causing a scramble by the Care providers demanding payment from Him, shuffling Him to a hospital, and that hospital shuffling him to another for lack of confirmation of Insurance Coverage, and this second one pressing for transfer to permanent skilled care.  “We needed to provide him with a sedative.  He’s really anxious, struggling to breathe.” And you wonder why he’s anxious?  The cauldron boils over.  Anger also burns, for those who took a vow with my Brother, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, only to let him fight alone in sickness. [Read more…]

Flying over I-40 S. With Lav #2.

Who’s the guy in the photo? No idea. Loved the shot, it goes up.

Does he resemble him? No. Hair color? No. Glasses? Hmmm, black frames, but not the polaroids. Body frame? Close. So what’s the connection? For some inexplicable reason, Tattoo runs up shouting “Ze plane! Ze plane!” to announce the arrival of a new set of guests to Fantasy Island. Not “ze plane” – “ze cane Boss“, “ze cane.”

I’ve been in here, this same room, a hundred times, maybe more. Always early morning, and an hour before boarding. The first flight from LaGuardia to Dallas.

Yes, we’re back talking about Lavs, after Lav #1 earlier in the week, and Lav Doors a while back. It’s the Men’s restroom at the American Airlines Admirals Club. Here, there are three certainties when you enter: (1) the smell of clean, before hundreds soil the floor with urine and slop the countertops with water and soap suds, (2) Musak pumping Chill music through the ceiling speakers and (3) Chill, like Arctic air, that triggers goose bumps on your skin…get dancing!

It’s July, 82° F, and he’s wearing a blue windbreaker.  Navy blue slacks. A baseball cap. 5’4″ tops, if stretched out from his stoop. Glasses, black frames; lenses…coke bottles. Age? ~ mid 80’s.

He’s standing at the urinal to my left. His cane, hard wood, weathered, has a silver wrapper for a handle. It leans against the wall, waiting. [Read more…]

Flying over I-40 N. With Lav #1.

airplane-black-and-white

I just didn’t know. Or perhaps I didn’t care to know. Or maybe it’s just not possible to know. How could you possibly know?

And then there’s a moment or two, when you cross that line, from passively aware or passively engaged to actually feeling. And perhaps you only feel when the suffering is so high, yours or others, that only just then do you begin to give-a-sh*t.

I’m seated in an exit row on an Airbus A3215, 1 seat back and across from the airplane lavatory: ~40” long x 34” wide x 75″ inches tall. Inches.

A Mother walks down the aisle. She grabs the back of one seat, and then the next, and the next, to keep her balance. The plane tips left and right in soft turbulence. She makes her way down the aisle.

There are two hands gripping the tops of her shoulders. She’s slight, maybe 5’2”, and stooped under the weight of the hands. The hands are owned by a strapping 14-year old who towers over her. Mildly handicapped?

She enters the restroom first, her Son doesn’t let go. She lifts one hand off her shoulder and turns to him. She slides her arms under his arms and begins to tug him in. Won’t fit. Not possible. Two full size humans in 40 x 34 x 75.

There’s silence, five minutes or so, which is interrupted by a toilet flush. She exits, pulling him out with her arms under his. She strains to extract him from the box, her face red, filled with rage.

She extracts him and pauses to catch her breath. Her Son claws after her shoulders to grab on as the plane tips. They head back up the aisle. She settles him in.

She comes hurrying back down the aisle.  And into the Lav.

It’s quiet again, now for 5-7 minutes. Then a toilet flush.

She exits. Her right hand dries her eyes, now red and swollen. She catches my glance, offers a forced smile, turns, and heads back to her seat.

You just don’t know. No chance. Not close.


Notes:

Trail Therapy: Watch. Just Watch.


Steve Fugate lost both his children–his son committed suicide, and his daughter overdosed. Sixty-four years old, Mr. Fugate has walked across the United States seven times to raise awareness for depression and suicide and to inspire people he meets to “love life.”

Stick with it to the end…This Man is something special.

inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life

martin-stranka

It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any. In other words, existential claims have no weight; all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

~ Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air 


Notes:

Journaling yesterday. Blogging (in the “receptacle”) today. We are all in the same boat.

journals-diary-writing

Growing old is certainly far easier for people like me who have no job from which to retire at a given age. I can’t stop doing what I have always done, trying to sort out and shape experience. The journal is a good way to do this at a less intense level than by creating a work of art as highly organized as a poem, for instance, or the sustained effort a novel requires. I find it wonderful to have a receptacle into which to pour vivid momentary insights, and a way of ordering day-to-day experience (as opposed to Maslow’s “peak experiences,” which would require poetry). If there is an art to the keeping of a journal intended for publication yet at the same time a very personal record, it may be in what E. Bowen said: “One must regard oneself impersonally as an instrument.”

~ May Sarton, The House by the Sea (1977)

(Robert) Coles himself says elsewhere in the piece, “Not everyone can or will do that— give his specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance.” To do this takes a curious combination of humility, excruciating honesty, and (there’s the rub) a sense of destiny or of identity. One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private, and one must also believe in the vehicle for expressing them, in the talent.

[…]

But I believe we learn through the experiences of others as well as through our own, constantly meditating upon them, drawing the sustenance of human truth from them, and it seems natural to me to wish to share these aperçus, these questions, these oddities, these dilemmas and pangs. Why? Partly, I suppose, because the more one is a receptacle of human destinies, as I have become through my readers, the more one realizes how very few people could be called happy, how complex and demanding every deep human relationship is, how much real pain, anger, and despair are concealed by most people. And this is because many feel their own suffering is unique. It is comforting to know that we are all in the same boat.

~ May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude (1973)


Notes:

Ever think of that?

photography,black and white

Most of the pain you’re dealing with are really just thoughts.. ever think of that?

– Buddhist Bootcamp

 


Credits: Image – Journal of a Nobody.  Quote: Thank you Karen @ Karen’s Korner

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