Category: psychology

They Say Old is Gold


Why do we have a fascination with old things?

A friend of mine collects coins. He isn’t all that interested in their trading value, and mostly he deals in pennies. Large volumes of them pass through his careful gaze, slid across a table and his attention just long enough to catch salient details: date, location of mint, condition. Then they go into one of a few piles depending on what’s next. Most go back into circulation, but a few are special. They possess the right combination of unusual characters to make them rare, and to someone like him, that is precious. Chief among these characters is age.

I gave him a large glass bottle of pennies I’d been collecting for years so that he could look for anything he liked, and one solitary penny in the whole group caught his fascination. It was an older penny that just happened to be in very good condition for its age. He was certain, he told me, that it had come from someone’s collection. Someone had cared for it, kept it safe from wear and even from the harm that uncontrolled environmental air can inflict upon copper. Someone gave a real shit about this particular penny, that I had probably been handed by a convenient store clerk to break a bill I spent on an eggwich and coffee. They’d looked at it with a magnifying glass. Written down its details. Looked it up in current publications made by others bearing this same preoccupation with coins. To me, it looked just like any other newer penny. I might have left it in the give-a-penny-take-a-penny tray.

Once, I asked him why he spent so much time sorting and inspecting pennies. To be honest, I said, to me it seems quite boring. Like counting beans or sifting gravel. He explained that some were special, like the old collector’s penny that I’d given him in a jar with hundreds of others. But why does it matter, I asked. He said that it was just fascinating to hold that little piece of history in your hand.

Human beings’ obsession with things that have stood for long years is visible everywhere. The veneration heaped upon old ideas, old buildings, old land, old institutions. Fictional characters that have lived for multiple lifetimes are cast as wise, powerful. Trees that have endured centuries are protected. We see the aged things among us as carrying an intrinsic value associated solely with the passage of time that it has withstood. Why do we not tear down historical buildings to make room for new ones that will be built with better craftsmanship and materials? Why are we reticent to replace old ideas with new ones that have learned from and improved upon the old? Indeed, many of us refuse to even believe that anything new could be better than the old, and cling to the ancient under the notion that it is somehow better, even when this can be proven untrue.

Is it because we remember the old thing, and resist change? Is it because we cling to traditions and established ways, a known human trait? Is it because we hope to achieve some sort of immortality by extending our influence beyond the scope of our lives (more about that here)? Are old things symbolic to us of other things we value, like an event, a person, or a time gone by? Is it the long-established lack of mystery? If we know a thing, we are more likely to trust it to be what it is than to try out something new, right? Is there a purpose relevant to the present moment that the protection of something from the past serves? What is the root psychological purpose of preserving, say, a historic location?

I’d love to hear your ideas. What do you think?

The Source of the Value of Hard Work, Part 2


Welcome back to The Octopode. If you’re joining us mid-topic, here’s a summary:

Last week I made the claim that the value of hard work lies in the way it forces one to culture self-esteem. I then drew a direct line between everyday modesty and the denial of the self. Today I’m going to proceed from this premise to make the original point clear.

In another topic I recently I stated, “Emotionally, the value of successfully working toward a goal is far greater than the value of successfully achieving that goal.” In that statement I was invoking the value of hard work, though tangentially. I was implying that the act itself carries great value, and it does. The mechanism by which it does this is by culturing self-validation, and proving to the self that it has value by proving that it is effective.

The formula is very simple: Stated Goal + Hard Work = Accomplishment ±Result

Like a proverb, the above seems simple and intuitive, yet in application the effects are broad and deeply significant. It is a basic truth of our psychology and a fact of nature, not nurture. That is to say that it’s as human as farts and you don’t need to be told how to do it.

The plus-or-minus symbol preceding the Result in the formula is of great significance. The result of the hard work, while important, is not required for this formula to work. Cumulatively, human societies put far too much emphasis on the result of labor rather than the labor itself. Consider the way this devalues the work itself, and by extension, the worker. Imagine how crippling total primacy of the result would be for the one who undertakes the task of reaching it. And this is true of the writer who is so concerned that their book must be a success that they find themselves unable to write at all, to the farmer who isn’t sure that their crops will yield enough to pay for the winter’s resources and spring planting. The threat of a failure that to some extent is beyond the actor’s ability to prevent takes away their ability to act, for fear of consequences outside their purview and prediction, always looming and developing.

But it is in the work itself that the value is received. And there is where the emphasis should always be. This is because the work is the more significant accomplishment. The writer who failed wrote a book. Yes, the market rejected it. Or the editor did. Or it sucks, the author realized after the fact. So? These outcomes were uncontrollable from the get-go. The writer succeeded in doing what they set out to do: write. The farmer is similar. Though his failure will result in more concerning outcomes, and this makes it difficult to de-emphasize the result, he has still done what he set out to do. He has toiled hard and farmed the best he could. He may now be faced with poverty, but he has validated himself and, hopefully, another opportunity to make his house whole again will come to him soon.

The writer whose book fails and the farmer whose yields fall short of budget have reached accomplishment, and if they bemoan themselves or become angry with themselves, it is because of only two possible reasons: they did not do their best to begin with, or they put too much value on the result.

I know, I know. It’s easy for me to say, since I’m not a farmer trying to support a family. And you’re right, and I have no defense for this. But I hope that this example helped pare away the fluff surrounding the concept of self-validation that I have attempted to elucidate.

Hard work takes time, and whole-self dedication. It requires that one apply themselves rigorously. And afterward, you feel positive. Not just because you have this thing you’ve worked on, but because you have worked on this thing. It validates you. It forces you to acknowledge the efficacy of you, even if the work does not lead to a useful result. It is a mirror that shows you the value of doing.

There is this psychological concept of flow as a state a person enters into when applying themselves fully. It is the basis of occupational therapy. There is a peculiar set of things that occur to someone who is in flow, or in “the zone”, as some call it. It is a profoundly positive thing, and the basis of self-esteem. The proof that you are capable, effective.

And that is the grounds upon which my original claim lies. When you work hard, you prove your value to yourself whether or not you want to believe it. Even the self-deprecatory or self-hating individual must go out of their way to devalue themselves after working hard and truly applying themselves.

Those of us who loudly endorse the value of hard work do so because we have felt the way it fills us with esteem. The way it gives meaning to everything in our lives. And we despair to see it lacking in others. Some would go so far as to say that there is a great sadness in the world that comes on the back of modernity directly due to the leisurely lifestyles of the privileged in a world that no longer forces them to sweat and bleed just to get by.

What do you think?

The Source of the Value of Hard Work, Part 1


Today I’m going to bring up a very old value and explore it with you a little. What I’d like to discuss is the idea of the value of hard work.

What is it? Where does it come from? Why do those of us who know what it is feel so strongly about it?

I have developed a theory about it, and it’s coming today because it flows naturally from the assertions I’ve made in this blog in recent weeks. I propose that the reason those of us who value hard work do so with such force, is because it prompts us to short circuit the guilt and self-denial that robs us of the ability to achieve real self-esteem.

It comes down to being able to savor your own accomplishments. We all know people who can’t do this. You might be one yourself. Always giving credit where it’s due unless in regard to your own achievements. Mild rebukes to appreciation like, “Nah it was nothing,” or, “I was only doing what anyone would have done,” or the like are assumed to be expressions of modesty, but are they really? Is modesty even virtuous?

To that last question I would answer: sometimes. As long as credit is given where it is due. Being unpretentious is fine; it is a form of honesty. But denying the value of your deeds is not.

These folks tend to be assiduous in giving credit where it’s due because they believe in the principle of doing this, and this underlines the significance of their own rule of not accepting credit for their own labor and/or wise/generous choices. They know that a good turn deserves appreciation, and so their denial of it holds meaning.

They tend to be achievers too. Do-gooders are often this type. Looking out for their fellows, and keeping themselves in order well enough to continue in this fashion. Stringing along accomplishment after accomplishment, and sidestepping the reward offered by those whom they have helped.

What they are really doing here, is denying the self. They are committing themselves to the absolute altruistic ideal that the self does not matter, only what one can do for others. They are acting “selflessly” in an effort to do the right thing, and therefore it would be the wrong thing to accept credit for it. And indeed, we live in a culture that greatly values denial of self, destruction of pride, omission of ego, and total dedication to the betterment of anyone but oneself. That is a rather involved subject for another discussion perhaps, but for the sake of this conversation let’s just agree that accomplishments are good, helping others is good, giving due credit is good, and holding oneself accountable for all one’s good deeds, is also good.

There is nothing morally positive about discounting one’s achievements. Modesty, when it is a denial of reality, is a corollary of self-killing altruism. These people throw away the value of the good they’ve done and believe this is a righteous act (notice also that acting righteously is itself a contradiction of modesty). They work to do what they say they believe is right, then belie the same act’s rightness by blanking out the goodness of the act. It is a lie, and it is done under the pretense of a lie, which is rooted in self-hate.

And the negative effects beyond this are long-reaching. It may result in an irrational fear of death due to failure to meet real goals, as per the topic discussed here in the last two weeks. It may result in failure to state one’s goals and think them through, preferring to evade that kind of self-oriented thought. This results in a life filled with a long string of small accomplishments and the failure to do what is truly important to the individual. And the scope of one’s own life is not considered, since no goal-planning is effectively conducted. We talked about the value of this in the Grok Death topic.

Today I’ve drawn a line between self-hate and what is typically considered virtuous modesty. This is the first step in making the point I stated at the beginning of this entry, which is that the value of hard work lies in the way it forces one to accept self-esteem. Next week I’ll tie up these assertions to show the mechanism.

Emotional Elasticity Sucks (There’s a Puppy at the End)

This week’s blog is a note on the elasticity and, unfortunate whorishness, of our emotional states.

Depending on what you choose to do with your life, if you do give yourself a goal and purpose, there are seminal texts you must read. If you’re a writer, you are expected to have read The Elements of Style. If you’re an economist, you are expected to have read The Wealth of Nations. But if you are someone who hopes to do anything at all, I make the claim that it is essential for you to read The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.

Pressfield describes in great detail the mechanisms by which we stop ourselves from achievement, and he lumps them into a single entity called Resistance. Feel like what you’re doing is pointless because it’s been done before? Feel like starting the work would be something better done tomorrow than today? Find yourself making excuses or easy-outs for actually putting your nose to the grindstone? These are Resistance.

And it is ubiquitous. Once you have learned what it is, you see it everywhere. Its presence is so enormous in our lives, that it is astounding how little we perceive it. But that too, is part of it. It disguises itself.

Anyway, this blog entry is not about The War of Art. What I am writing about here is our emotions.

Last week I sat down to do some writing. Some fiction writing. That, my friends, is a big deal for me. I quit writing under duress years ago and have been trying to get back to it for a long time. During that hiatus I read The War of Art, and let me tell you, I am loaded with Resistance. I think you are too–all of us in fact–but the point here is that I have a lot of stuff going on in my brain that stops me from doing the work of really writing.

To overcome that stuff by brute force can be daunting. Overcoming Resistance is a mindfuck. You have to work, you have to push, you have do what feels like hurting yourself. It’s the psychological equivalent of getting out of bed in the morning when you have had little sleep and want nothing more than to remain under the cozy covers. It is anathema. But necessary, if you are to do something with yourself and not sleep all day, or live a creatively absent life.

I sat down in front of a word processor and started to write a story, after years of “meaning to get to it”. Resistance flared up so deeply, I couldn’t help but marvel at its intensity.

Once I had stamped “bullshit” on every excuse and delay that came to mind, and declared in a clarion voice that I had no reason not to write, and actually marched to the place where I’d begin doing just that, Resistance clutched at its last resort: an all-out war of emotion.

There was no reason, no rhyme, no convenient truth and corollary excuse. I had set all that aside. So I was battered by unfocused, unattached emotion. The sense of being forced away from my work was stifling. I lost every single ounce of motivation. I wanted to put away the computer and never return to it. I was emotionally ready to quit writing for the rest of my life. There wasn’t even the vaguest flicker of desire to work.

The inspiration for the story was wiped away from me like rain off a windshield. I was dry, and so repulsed by the idea of writing that I even felt the blank screen like a physical assault on my senses. I’d have done anything–any other thing–to get away from it and do something else. Anything. Eat. Sleep. Chew on broken glass. Whatever.

But in my head I knew that I wanted to write, a purely academic thought. This is a trick I learned in therapy. I declared my desires before actually facing the prospect of making them into reality. And then clung to the statement when the desire left. I knew that I wanted to write but could not feel it yet. I knew that my mind was racing from the act, but that I had to wrangle it and force it to happen, or it simply never would.

So I did. I was as rusty as you could be, and lost. I could not feel the story at all; it was like speaking another language. But I put word after word, and kept going because I knew it was what I had to do.

After three hours I had a single page of copy. Exhausted and beaten, I quit and congratulated myself on winning the war of art for one day. After a couple days I returned to the text for a first revision, and found that though it was indeed rusty, I still managed to bring out the character of my narrative voice fairly well. I finished the story, and a revision of the finished draft is next on my list.  Resistance has relaxed its deathgrip on my writing a bit, and is now busy helping me put off losing weight.

So I suppose I lied when I said that this entry was about emotional elasticity, as I’ve spent the length of it talking about the struggle to be creative. But the thing that got me there was the fact that my emotions, my honest, real feelings, aligned themselves with Resistance so completely and easily. Resistance was lying to me to stop me from working, and my emotional mind just hopped right onboard that train and took it all the way to the station.

Our emotional selves are curious things. Though this example was a particularly visible one to me, I also know that our feelings are constantly in this state of utter tractability. We are all emotionally fragile, and constantly at work to manage, conceal, and stifle the tumultuous output of our myriad profound emotions.

Well that’s it for the topic. I don’t have anything more to say about it, so here’s a picture of a cute puppy:


Employers: Surrogate Parents

There are two types of people in this world.

How many times have you heard that one?

Well, there are.  Those who reject their jobs, and those who adopt their jobs.

Ernie is a job rejecter.  A job denier.  He shows up a little bit late each day, and leaves a little bit early.  He barely does enough of his duties at his job to get by, and will do even less if he thinks he can get away with it.  The work is a chore for him, every minute of it.  There are no joys to be taken.  Little or no sense of accomplishment when he does something well.  He moans and groans about going back to work after the weekend.  He finds petty excuses to call out, or flat out lies.

Annie is a job adopter.  She shows up early when she can, and stays late sometimes, just to finish up what she was working on.  She perceives her assigned duties as a starting ground, and does more as often as she can.  She takes special interest in understanding the jobs of the people around her.  She makes responsible decisions in her home life to make sure she has enough sleep and solid transport to work.  She builds work relationships because it facilitates the work environment.

I bet you have some defined feelings about these two types.  You may feel that you identify with one or the other.  I bet you know someone at your job that you’d categorize as an Ernie or an Annie.

What I have elected to relate to you today, in this entry of the Octopode’s bloggotron, is that I think both types are wrong.  I think they’re both improper ways of handling this ubiquitous phenomenon we all have to deal with, this….employment thing.  Why?  Because both of them take their job personally.

When Ernie’s supervisor tells him he sent a copy of the TPS Report to the wrong auditing office, Ernie gets mad.  He gets upset that he’s just been told he did something wrong.  If someone notices his lateness, if someone calls attention to his lack of output, it inspires anger.  If he is turned down for a promotion, he is insulted, and this may lead to anger as well.  His apprehension about how he is perceived at work may extend outward too, making him sensitive about other aspects of his presence there.

Annie’s output is higher, and like an overachieving child, she uses her good behavior to look for approval.  Her work is very important to her personally, and she thinks about it even when she isn’t at work.  She finds ways to improve, ways to increase productivity, and ways to improve the systems her workplace has in place.  Her ideas, and her effort to implement them, are the things she works hardest at in her life.  They represent the best of her.  When they are rejected, it hurts her.  She may react with deep sadness, anger, or by telling herself that the one who rejected her work doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The way their feelings are wrapped up in their jobs is the problem.  Their personal validation hinges on what they do in the workplace, and the way it is received.  Ernie wants to do as little as possible, but this is mostly a defense based on the explicit idea that he doesn’t care about his job and how he is perceived there, a lie he tells himself to protect himself from being recognized as a failure or as a fraud.  Annie pushes herself too hard and is far more productive than is called for at her job because she is desperately trying to prove herself, to herself, and to everyone else, particularly those whose opinion of her she values.  This is why when a negative opinion is expressed, she devalues that person in order to save herself from their disapproval.

They’re not opposites, these two.  They’re actually substantially the same:  Both of them need to be validated by their workmates/supervisors.  Both of them are using their jobs as one (likely of many) mechanisms to culture appreciation from others, which they need just to feel OK.  In short, they take their jobs personally.

And it’s not acceptable.

If I could reach into these two employee archetypes, which in my perspective are at least nine of ten employed people out there, I would switch their regard for their jobs from personal to business.  I’d make a third type of person, the type that I try to be.

The businessperson.  That’s what it is, isn’t it?  It’s business.  It’s employment; it’s a company paying a person for their time and effort, working on tasks the company needs done.  But this nonsense is childish bullshit, and no supervisor should have to coddle their staff just to keep morale up.  Since when are our jobs a daycare?  Forever, I’ll bet.  People walk into their jobs with all their issues in tow, and express them there as they do everywhere else.  And the bait is strong—you see a paycheck for what you do there.  A chunk of money is a big deal, its delivery on a regular basis is nothing short of life-sustaining, and it adds quite a lot of weight to what the employee who earned it is doing.

But this is not personal, folks.  It’s a transaction.  It’s buying groceries.  When was the last time the grocery store manager came up to you as you’re pushing your cart to the register, and with a sullen look on his face, said, “Were you okay with the selection of spaghetti sauces?  I tried to get the best ones but I don’t know….I guess I don’t really know what you want but I hope you’re happy with it.  I always try.  Sorry if it’s not OK.”

You shouldn’t have to make that grocery store manager feel better about himself.  And likewise, he shouldn’t have to make his employees feel better about themselves.  Yet he likely does.  And what’s more, he thinks it’s normal.

When you go to your job, there is an expectation placed on you.  You’re being paid to do X.  Not X minus anything, not X plus anything.  If you give more than is required, your supers won’t complain, but if your extra work is not accepted and you become unstable as a result, you’ve just failed to do X properly.  Further, anger over your behavior on the part of your coworkers may interfere with their ability to do their X.  And if you’ve got an office full of Annies and Ernies, that’s an even bigger problem.  Employees who are already validating themselves do not heap insecurities upon their boss.  They just do a good job and go home.

So, how to make it just business?

The goal is to meet what is expected of you, your X, at a level consistent with your own work ethic.  And that concept contains the key:  you are working for you.  You are earning money for yourself.  Focus on what you think is the appropriate response to the work that you are being prompted for, not what it feels like your supervisors will like.  Ask yourself, “What am I really being asked to do?”  Make a list.  That list might include going above-and-beyond, as some employers do look for that.  But this only means that going the extra mile isn’t really extra at all, it’s required.

Many employers are highly experienced at giving employees emotional validation for doing good work.  Be a foil (and likely sweet relief) to that.  Give them what they want, simply and easily.  They’ll quickly learn they can count on you.  And you in turn will receive job security.  But most of all, you’ll be at peace about your job and your performance there.  You’ll feel simple satisfaction, and you won’t worry about it anymore.

But, how to do this if you are naturally an Ernie or an Annie?  That’s hard to say, since one’s own security and self-validation are the things that lead to the negative behaviors they exhibit.  But there is one simple, mechanical thing you can do to help, in addition to making a list of your duties and adhering to it:  you can refrain from making personal connections with coworkers.

Stop making them your friends!  So they’re great people, so what?  So you want them to like you; overcome this feeling.  They are not your friends when you walk in, and hanging that mantle on them invites the kind of personal connection that will enable validation-seeking behavior.  Keep them professional colleagues.  Do not associate outside of work.  Do not trade phone numbers for any reason except work-related.  Do not send personal emails.  Do not confide about your personal life at all, in fact deflect questions about it.  Don’t be a dick about it, just hold your horses.  Find your friends elsewhere.  You and your coworkers are teammates, not friends.

Does this mean you can’t joke around?  Sign the birthday card going from desk to desk?  Of course not.  Participate in the office food event.  Use first names.  Encourage your coworkers in their work-related endeavors.  But draw a defined line.  Deflect personal conversations about others and absolutely about yourself.

One way to facilitate this feeling is to dress at least a little formally at work.  Dressing casual at work is a quick way to invite casual interaction.  Another thing to do is adhere strictly to your own work ethic, which means that you should explicitly define it (write it down).  Being lazy about tasks or producing subpar output is a gateway to perceiving disapproval in your supers, often that isn’t even there.  Another trick that I’ve found helps psych myself out about what I do, is to write down at the end of each day a short list of what I’ve accomplished at work.  Just brief notes that I can understand.  Then when I get a paycheck, look at the check and the list at the same time.  Get a visual of exactly what you’ve been paid to do.  It throws all the superfluous fluff that goes into holding down a job into contrast.

If you can manage to make your work less personal, you can only benefit, no matter your employment future.  In the immediate, what you will find is greater job satisfaction, better overall performance, and a quieting of worries.  In time, you’ll get praise from your supervisors (though you won’t need it), and maybe even opportunities to take your game to the next level.

But the big payoff is that you’ll drive home from your job every day feeling calmer, less stressed.  And the ridiculous games that Ernie and Annie play all day at work, and which infect and detract from their home lives as well, will stand out in high contrast.  You’ll be above that nonsense.  They’ll look up to you in time, jealous on a level they don’t understand.

It’s your job, folks.  It’s business.  Don’t take it so personally.

The Rule of Skeletons

Here’s a thought for you:

Physically, we are hardest in the center—our bones.  The skeleton is the hardest part, then the softer tissues layer outward from there.  But psychologically, we’re hardest on the outside, and the least concrete in the center, where we are unbuilt, and where our concepts and ideas float without metaphysical moorings, like print written delicately over a soup skin.

I think that the skeleton itself is an uncomfortable concept due to the unconsciously understood notion that we are softer inside, not harder. Beneath the representations, posturing, and defenses, is the utterly vulnerable core.  We see a skeleton in a scary movie or in a classroom and it smacks of cadaver, so we feel that fear that comes from seeing things associated with death, but beneath that I think there is a discomfort that comes from seeing something that is supposed to be human but is intrinsically opposite.  Like a mirror image, except instead of being a dimensional opposite, it is an inversion.

We do not carry hard centers.

Even just saying it makes me aware of my defenses and my armors, like they were glasses of water on a table someone nudged as they walked by.  Just mentioning my mechanisms of self-protection perturbs them. I see their surfaces lurch and rebalance.

Let’s extend the metaphor.  Look at the exceptions to this…rule of skeletons:  the marrow in the bone, the brain in the skull, the organs in the ribcage.  In particular the ribcage.  A bizarre thing.  As though the architect, knowing the organs needed protection, assembled a crude basket with sticks.  And with time our soft tissues loosen and sag, our skin and all else, and droop in the basket like rotting fruit.

In the ocean it wasn’t always like that.  Beneath the waves we had bones, but if you go further back you find a time when we did not.  When the rigidity required to make a brief stand against the more severe effect of gravity on land was not a concern.  And they’re still there:  the other ancestors.  The ones we could have been.

Some with rigid bones, others soft.  Some with outer shells, some without.  Some soft through and through.  Many, for which the only durable portion of their existence is the teeth, the beak, the mouth.

There is a moment of recognition when you see an injury and white bone shines through.  Even if it is blood-covered, you see the white beneath the red.  You know that the bone is seeing light, and you are witnessing a small portion of the inflexible system that scaffolds the body, girds it, and is an invisible part of every move it makes.

Let’s stretch that metaphor even farther. Engage your imagination for a moment.  What would you say if you met your skeleton in a pizza shop down the street?  Somehow it has escaped, and had a hunger for cheese and pepperoni.  It slipped out your mouth silently while you slept, and now you’re chasing it down, your soft flesh struggling to support you.

You see it standing there near the garbage can, using the posture you do while you’re eating pizza.  Slightly hunched, shoulders bunched, leaning slightly on one foot.  It has a paper plate in one hand and a napkin pinched in the fingers holding it, its head is downturned but still gazing out the window, jaw slowly rocking back and forth.  The other hand is holding the crust of a piece with several bites removed.  The crust is bent into a V, index finger in the cleft, thumb and other fingers on the outer sides of the bend.  It is chewing with distracted slowness, gazing out the window at the busy street.

You address it like a lost lover, I imagine.  You grab its attention with a  touch or a word, something quick and too strong, then there are long moments of no communication.  As though it were very important that you know you are near each other, but nothing needs to be done.  You tell it that you do not walk well without it.  It tells you that it does not taste well without you.  Nothing changes.  And you watch each other without seeing, across a gap of inches, or miles, or years.

Objectivity vs. Freedom & Why’s It Always About Sex?

 “I would say any behavior that is not the status quo is interpreted as insanity, when, in fact, it might actually be enlightenment.  Insanity is sorta in the eye of the beholder.”
-Chuck Palahniuk

This blog entry is wordy and not particularly funny, fair warning. And I’ll tell ya, bringing this one up gets people heated!  Even just exploring the topic, most folks start getting defensive right from the get-go.  I’m curious what you delightful readers think.

What is perversion?  Specifically, is it subjective, or objective?

If you ask people, and I have, you may find that most people divide everything into two groups:  what is acceptable, and what is unacceptable.  But there also seems to be a danger zone on your way to unacceptable behavior, i.e. this behavior is okay, that behavior is questionable, and that other behavior is not okay.

Another interesting aspect of this topic and the way people handle it, is that in nearly every case, when posed with the question of what is deviant, perverse, or unacceptable, people answer with information regarding sexual behaviors.  Not violence, not language, not politics….sex.  Always sex.  It’s not really the focus of this blog entry, but my position on the taboo nature of sex is that it is completely arbitrary and inappropriate.  Sex is as natural as scratching an itch and the fact that it is so universally illicit in human cultures is a strangely beguiling phenomenon, especially when you consider how utterly pointless this is.

So people stratify behaviors into what is acceptable and what is perverse, and then they classify somewhat loosely the things in between, that flirt with being unacceptable, but are not, strictly speaking, categorically reprobate.

But in order for a thing to be unacceptable, there has to be an acceptor.  One who deems it unacceptable.  For instance, a person finding a way to cover the Earth in a mile-deep layer of poop is unequivocally unacceptable…to me.  However, if I did not exist, this behavior might be acceptable.  If no life existed on Earth, wouldn’t it be just fine to coat it with excrement?  If not, why?

If you look up words like aberrant, deviant, depraved, you find that the definitions all include directly or indirectly subjective terms. They’re tied to a subject, a person, an acceptor.  And if you look hard enough, you can find people in the world who do not believe that the behavior you condemn is damnable at all.  These same people will likely see ordinary behaviors of your own as debauchery.  Who’s right?

I asked some people if they believed that there are perversions that are objectively unacceptable, not just subjectively.  And I found that folks enjoyed being able to further stratify behaviors according to the level of personal offense.  For instance, non-life threatening sexual violence was deemed perversion, but not something to put a stop to.  That is, as long as all parties consent.  You may share this opinion.  But why?  If the parties consent, why is what they are doing even questionable at all?

And if they do not consent, why is it unacceptable?  We mostly agree that this is the case, but why?  It seems that we share a value in this regard:  that it is proper to do what you would like, as long as you do not hurt someone who does not want to be hurt.  But is this not a personal value, and one that not everyone shares?  Additionally, it is one that is flexible for many.  For instance, is it okay to hurt someone who does not want to be hurt, if they are themselves hurting someone else who does not want to be hurt?

My point here is that it is a personal choice of what is right and wrong, therefore is it not subjective? Isn’t it all subjective?

If you look at a broader view of humanity, you do see trends in values.  Things that are virtually universally accepted, or mostly so, etc.  I think this stems from universal concepts, things that arise from the facts of our shared perceptions of the world.  Folks are fond of pointing out that colors may look entirely different to different people, for instance, but I do not think so.  The way light plays against the machinery in our eyes and brains is not different, and I think we experience it very similarly.  Why else would favorite colors tend to be so telling, personally and culturally?

As a rule, I believe in an objective reality.  I believe that our perceptions of this reality lead to concepts and ultimately to values, which largely (but incompletely) determine our behaviors.  Less intuitively, I believe that the degree to which someone aligns their concepts and values to objective reality is congruent to the degree to which that person will succeed in life, as in achievement of valuable experience, as well as noble achievement (accomplishments).

So if our mental constructs are basically “takes” on reality, wouldn’t it follow then that there is an actual objective basis to morality?  Couldn’t you trace concrete, logical values from the basic axioms of metaphysical reality?  And wouldn’t these values provide clear delineations of what is acceptable, and what is perverse?  These boundaries would be definitive, insofar as our reasonable arrival at them is unflawed (which cannot be known for certain, but can and must be reliably assumed).

The application, however, is another story.  And it acts against the premise I’ve laid out above.  The concept of objective morality is dangerous, to say the least.  In practice it is terrifying.  Is this why I prefer to see perversion as a completely subjective concept, when in fact my basic value system implies it is not?  Am I lying to myself to save myself?  This could be.

Must we as a thinking, reflecting species allow fluid boundaries between what is acceptable and not acceptable, worldwide, in order to maintain the understanding (illusion?) that we are free?  Knowing that in some contexts what is unacceptable may be acceptable helps each of us to feel that we live in a world where anything is possible, and the constraints of the objective reality we’d like to assume exists do not extend so far into our choices as to restrict them.  In other words, ignoring the truth so that the lie will set you free.

A curious concept.  Cognitive dissonance on a global level.

Your thoughts?

The Kitten’s Meow-surement

Greetings ladies, greetings gents
Spread your blankets, pitch your tents

I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure.  I  make money doing this.  I have been trained, I have performed feats of math and science sufficient of one who is charged with working in a lab where measurements are performed and the performer must do the mathing and the sciencing and the sleuthing and figure out what exactly a measurement is.

And let me tell you, no measurement is perfect. I look at precision instruments all day, and I use advanced technique to evaluate them.  Sometimes I put a stamp of approval on it.  Most often, I adjust the instrument before doing so.  And it’s always to a level of what they call tolerance.  This means that it can be inexact as long as it is within X units of perfect.  They designate this because nothing is perfect.  Nothing is ever exactly what it is meant to be.  If you look close enough, you can find how far off it might be.  Sometimes you don’t have to look very close at all.

So one thing I learn from this job is that though many things are “made to measure”, nothing really does it perfectly. Not even me.  With careful consideration, an uncertainty is derived on every measurement I might do.  So I take your one pound weight, and I use highly specialized equipment, training, and thoroughly vetted technique, and I tell you that it weighs 1.001963 pounds.  Plus or minus 0.000032 pounds, because that’s how much I might be off by, if you consider the accuracy of the equipment I was using, the standards I was comparing it to, factors that may contribute to error like air buoyancy, magnetism, and things related directly to me, like the training I’ve received, and my observed capacity for error.

It’s all a balance of how far off can it be. The goal is not to get it exact, because you can’t do that.  This foe is beyond any of us.  How like life, yes?  Damage control.  If you’re good at this game, you can play it and still stay focused on the good things without withering under the illusion of perfection.  And the damage control is a means.  You pedal the bicycle, but you keep your eyes on the scenery, the smell of the air, the things that come and go and the beauty of all of this stuff.  Most of us give in to some degree, however, to the urge to focus on the strain of pedaling.  Or, the more enchanting distraction:  the place you’re headed.

That one is truly beguiling. You’ve heard the questions.  What’s it all for?  What is the meaning of life?  And you see these people pedaling along, hearing that the journey and the wondering itself is the point and hoping that’s right, yet feeling emptiness from never truly internalizing this platitude as an answer.  Gotta wonder about those deathbed regrets.  The sadness for not achieving lifelong goals that were never set.  The continued blindness to the beautiful life that came, went, and is over.

But they don’t train you for that in school, do they? They don’t teach you to validate yourself.  They don’t instruct you not to idolize perfection.  They don’t teach you to work toward the impossible goal, yet somehow realize that the work is the real goal.

Of course they don’t. That stuff is orders of magnitude outside what they can do for you in school.  Even just the rudiments that begin you working toward understanding higher-order concepts like these are hard to successfully imprint.  And as any teacher will tell you, students are already being taught harder, deeper, more formative lessons at home.  And parents?  Forget about it.  Just the fact that the bromide “these things don’t come with instruction manuals” (in regard to having children) is a thing should indicate the level of expertise we’re bringing to the table when rearing a new member of a future society.  But why don’t they come with manuals?  Why don’t we have required primers for raising kids?

Anyone who has taken any psychology course has had to grapple with the unhappy concept that our psyches are largely composed of things outside not only our understanding, but our awareness as well. The amount that is going on behind the scenes in our minds would, I think, send us reeling were we to know its proportion.  How much of our personalities is unconscious.  How much of what makes John Smith John Smith is stuff John Smith has never known, thought about, or will ever consider.  And this stuff is learning, growing, adapting, updating, changing all the time.  Our consciousness is like a spotlit pinpoint on a vast stage, and though behind the curtains there is a constant din of footsteps and conversation, all we can see and hear is the one actor in the spotlight.

Acting. Well, that’s another topic.

But we think we are so aware! Our consciousnesses delightfully frolic through the world, smugly satisfied that it’s all within our ken, and all is well because we understand everything or are at least capable of it, and what we’re not thinking about at the moment, we somehow understand it all by extension (read:  categorize and ignore).  This is what we are programmed to do.  We see what we see, and attach all significance to it.  All the significance.  There is nothing else, nothing that transcends your understanding, says your ego.  Only things that fit into it at different places.

Yet, imagine a mind that is simultaneously aware of the thoughts of two people at the same time, to as great a level of detail as both those peoples’ minds. The sum of two minds.  You cannot.  It is outside our ability.  You understand the concept as I’ve described it, but cannot actually grasp its breadth.  Now imagine a mind that could do this for a hundred people.  A thousand.  All humanity.

We are so committed to this conceit, this concept that our understanding is universally definitive, that even our fiction, which should be as far flung as our writers can conceive, rarely depicts anything that challenges it. And when it does, it’s usually described as incomprehensible, because human minds do not brook such challenges.  We just categorize each new thing into the understanding we already have.  Perhaps this is best.  I mean, imagine if an author could create a description that could reach outside your paradigm and show you something truly uncategorizable.

If I ask you to imagine a squirrel that has been magically made self-aware, what level of understanding do you give it in your imagination? Something akin to your own, right?  Or at least measurable against your own.  You have some concept of what part of existence and the world you consciously understand (effectively all of it as far as you’re concerned), and you judge the squirrel’s against that.  And in that judgement is everything, because all significance is contained within your understanding.

So here we are, on our stage, carefully (such delicate, deliberate, detailed care!) manipulating the actor in the spotlight, while the vast majority of our minds/psyches are busy, developing, existing, and interacting with the world just outside our perception. Kids are doing this too.  Only they’re starting with an untrained stage crew, so they’re learning bigger lessons, more formative ones.  And they do this at home, for the most part.  Kids are programmed to learn from their parents.  You know this, but you don’t really understand how much they learn.  And they’re not aware of it.  It’s just happening while they’re asking for a cookie or mommy’s attention.  Ever had any really deep therapy?   Learn a few hard lessons about yourself?  If so, you know where I’m coming from here.

But kids are in the care of their parents and nobody in the whole village is helping them by showing them even the most rudimentary steps toward raising an emotionally effective human. Just the body language and subtle manner you exhibit when you respond to requests for attention will have dire consequences on the child’s ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  But the parents don’t know that.  They don’t understand it.  What’s more, they were raised in a similarly dysfunctional way and are expressing those resultant deficiencies as adults.  Most of the time they’re playing their psychological problems off the kid.  It’s all considered normal, too.  How many of the stereotypical dispositions you have encountered are the result of severe emotional dysfunction?

As for the child’s raising, it’s a crapshoot. Even as we build a world where we are able to protect our families from the elements, disease, even lack of opportunity or insufficient stimulation, we are still taking the same chance that a mother wildcat does when rearing a litter in a shallow depression in the dirt of the desert plain.  We are grimly, totally, inexorably exposed to a harsh, brutal psychological battlefield, and we are all of us scarred, limping, barely escaping utter destruction.

And we do this by protecting ourselves. By categorizing everything we perceive (vast!) into the context of our purview (teeny!).  By attaching all significance to what we understand (thanks, ego).  By fearing, attacking, hiding, and acting.  Like the mother wildcat’s kittens, we play and growl and bite and feed when we can, because we are constantly beset by danger and the threat of injury and death.

You can see it, right? Those kittens, they don’t grasp that you understand more of the world than they do.  They have an understanding of it, and that understanding IS the whole world to them.  All significance is contained within it.  And it should be.  Without the conceit of a comprehensive worldview, no living thing would have the audacity to exist.

Now, and thanks for reading all that up there, now that you have just read it, let me ask you this: how important is where you’re ultimately going in life?  When do you think you’re going to die, and do you think you’re going to perfect anything you’re working on in yourself or your life by then?  What use is setting perfection, in anything, as your goal?  There are things you’d like in life.  What are you waiting for?  You really think it’s gonna get easier?  Or that there’s a better time than right now?

You constantly judge things in your life; you should be, that’s good. How else will you know the value or position of anything, along any standard or range?  You are in a constant state of measurement.  But let’s face it, you suck at it.  We all do.  It’s what we rely on, and we need it to exist.  But we aren’t very good at it.  It’s only useful in the context of our own lives.  The kitten on the desert plain feels proud that it killed a mole rat and thus it can eat.  That pride is a measurement, and it exists mostly to emotionally reinforce that kitten so it confidently attempts another kill.  By what rubric do you measure these values?

In regard to our own, personal goals, we’re all kittens ready to accept that killing that mole rat is everything. It is worth every ounce of our selves to accomplish.  But you’re afraid.  Maybe you don’t admit it, but you are.  Likely, you blame other things for getting in the way.  This is fear too.  Some fear is good, but some fear is paralyzing.  And here’s why:  you measure yourself against your accomplishments.

That same apparatus you use to measure the value of that kill is the apparatus you use to measure your value. And you confuse the two.  The kitten that fails to kill the rat does not do very well the next time around.  And the time after that?  It’s a downward spiral.  This is a helpful tool for wildcats and cavemen.  But like so many other evolutionary advances that once assisted us, in our world we have outgrown its usefulness, and it now hinders us.

Let what you do be your work, and what you are be what you are. Let your shitty, incredibly biased measurement system decide your value not based on the successfulness of what you do, but on the fact that you want to try, and you do try, and you accomplish some good things some of the time.  Because you are living in a world where the mole rats are already killed, and served to you whenever you want one.  But you’re still the feral kitten, battered by an unforgiving world, driven by a dire need to succeed, and ready to hinge the value of your whole self on the attempt.

I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure.  I know that the work is frightfully uncertain, but it only needs to reach a specified tolerance.  After that, the next measurement awaits.  And though I cannot achieve perfection, I can become quite effective at meeting tolerance.  So that’s the script for the actor in the spotlight.  Realistic goals, realistic valuation of a very limited grasp of the world, and the understanding that I will sadly, unavoidably, and appropriately, attach all the significance I can conjure to only the things inside it.

So, have I just taken a long-winded approach to defending setting low goals? Or defended the erection of some sort of psychological defenses?  Is this all a blustery huff-and-puff display, designed to ward off fear of failure?  Or perhaps is there a nugget of gold in there someplace?  Hmmm.  Well, thanks for reading it anyway.  Hope it gave you some ideas.

Until next time, kittens.