The Genre of Life

I have been obsessed with two thoughts over the last few days, and I suspect they’re related somehow.

The first is the Buddhist (and philosophical) idea that the “self” – that part of our mental existence that identifies as “me” – is a construct that is flexible, malleable, and holds no real meaning in the physical world beyond that which we assign it.

To be more specific, the Buddhist idea of Anattā states that there is no permanent “self,” and is largely used as a strategy to practice non-attachment by recognizing that nothing is permanent, everything is in flux and largely beyond our individual control.

Believing that the “self” doesn’t exist can simultaneously be freeing and crippling – I have the freedom to be whomever I wish to be in any given moment, but I am denied the comfort of truly being someone or something concrete. While it helps in the quest to not become attached to the physical things of this world, it can be debilitating sometimes to not truly know who you are.

The second is a discussion I happened upon concerning movie and TV tropes, and how characters in certain types of movies and TV shows tended to act in a certain way despite all common sense, just to further the plot or storyline. The quote was something like, “a character cannot be reasonably expected to know what genre they are in.”

This idea struck me and has stuck with me, because I am one who actively and willingly engages in the suspension of disbelief while watching a show or movie, right up until the point that a character acts in a non-sensical way. I had never stopped to consider that the character doesn’t know what I know, specifically the genre of the story I am watching. So no, I would never go down into the basement to check on an odd noise if I knew I was in a horror movie, but I have gone down to the basement to check on odd noises in my real, non-horror-movie life. Had I suspected I was actually in a horror movie, I would never have acted so rashly.

The differences between these two scenarios is very obvious. In the fictionalized world of entertainment – even shows that purport to be based on true stories – the genre is very evident. Some genres even have “true” in their titles – “true crime podcasts” springs immediately to mind. In “real” life, however, we are left with a hodge-podge of different genres, all occurring simultaneously. They overlap to the point where you cannot tell where the “action/adventure” stops and the “romantic comedy” begins.

More importantly, it often leads to frustration. We want our lives to be like a romantic comedy, or an action/adventure flick, or any of a thousand other options. And when it doesn’t happen, we feel that we’re missing something, that there is something wrong with our lives.

This is where non-attachment comes in. The freedom to choose, and the realization that things happen and we will be much better off mentally and emotionally if we just accept that some things happen and we have no control over the outcomes, is a welcome relief. We are free to act in such a way that causes no harm, and we let the chips fall where they may. We accept responsibility for our actions and their effect on the outcome, and learn from our mistakes.

The truth is that our lives are not twenty-two minute sitcoms, or two hour action movies. Our lives defy categorization, genre-ification.

We are who we are. Nothing more and nothing less.

Yay!

I’ve spent a lot of time – a LOT of time – over the past couple of years “working on myself” in order to mitigate feelings of resentment and anger, resolve feelings of loneliness and depression, and come to terms with who I really am as a person. This involved both in-person therapy and extensive reading. I’ve consumed everything from the early Greek philosophers to Sartre; from early stories about Guatama Buddha to the most recent writings of Thich Nhat Hahn; and from the most basic, condescending self-help books to the wonderful books and videos of Dan Harris, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg.

I’ve adopted a daily meditation practice. I’ve attempted to eating healthier, with mixed results. I exercise regularly – some weeks more regularly than others. I’ve tried to cultivate healthier, more loving relationships. I’ve tried to see the big picture more, and to not let minor setbacks affect my general outlook on life – again, with mixed results.

But none of that has had as deeply focused, deeply profound an effect on me as three little words sent to me by my health & wellness coach (and best friend) this past week. She sent me these three words as a matter of course during one of our frequent email exchanges, and the simplicity of the phrase instantly struck me to my core. It spoke to me on the most basic, primal level possible. It peeled back all of the layers of self-help, self-modulation, and self-flagellation and revealed to me a basic truth to effective relationship building, both with myself and with everyone around me.

You are you.

There it was, in three little words – the perfect summation of everything I’ve read, everything I’ve listened to, everything I’ve tried to incorporate into my relationships over the past two-plus years.

On a personal level, we all strive to accept who we are – we try to change the things we don’t like about ourselves while simultaneously accentuating those aspects of our lives and personalities that bring the best, most positive response from the people with which we are interacting. It’s an often delicate, often frustrating dance with ourselves as we continue to attempt to define throughout our lives just who we are as a person. We adopt and adapt to so many different roles throughout our lives – daughter or son, student, friend, lover, wife or husband or significant other, mother or father, aunt or uncle, loyal employee, boss, believer or non-believer, follower, leader. The list is seemingly endless, and we try to shoehorn all of these roles (and more) into one self-identity, often succeeding but just as often failing.

On a more social level, it is convenient and time-effective for us to label our friends and family with one generic label so that we know how to interact with them, and we often use the exact same labels for them as we do for ourselves. This lets us know how to interact with someone, based largely on how we’d want to be treated in the same role. How we interact with our mother or father differs from how we interact with our co-workers, or partners, or acquaintances. And once we assign someone a label, it gets increasingly more difficult to reassign them to a different role the longer we know them.

But it is never that cut-and-dried, never that simplistic, and we do ourselves and our friends and loved ones a great disservice by not being able to cut through all of this surface level bullshit and accept that fact that each of us is a multi-faceted individual, with multiple (and often conflicting) wants, needs, and desires. We are not one-size-fits-all, and the internal role we adopt often changes from day to day, from week to week, from year to year.

I am not just a son, a father, a partner, an employee, a writer, a musician – I am all of these things simultaneously, and so much more. And you are no different than I am – you are not one aspect of your personality, you are all aspects at the same time. You are everything, everywhere, all at once.

I challenge you to adopt this way of looking at yourself and the world around you – for an hour, or for a day, or for a week, or for as long as it takes you to realize that life is a rich tapestry of colors and conflicts and experiences, a messy tableau of incongruence.

The next time you are ready to beat yourself up for some mistake you’ve made, the next time you are ready to fly off the handle at someone for some wrong committed against you (real or imagined), the next time you feel that sadness or anger or confusion welling up in your breast, try to pause and remember that we’re all in this together, and that we are all individuals just trying to do the best we can.

Take a deep breath or two, and think or say to yourself, “Yay! You are you!” And be thankful for the experience of being with yourself and/or with others, of being able to live in this moment in this time and place, and of being able to see the situation for what it truly is – an opportunity for growth, for acceptance, for understanding. An opportunity for enlightenment – not the pie-in-the-sky enlightenment of so many different religions, but true enlightenment, in the sense of being able to see something a little more clearly than you did before.

And know that the next time we interact, I will be thankful for the fact that you are who you are – that you are you.

ritual.

Growing up in a relatively strict, but by no means dogmatic, religious household, I was raised to follow and respect various rituals. We attended church on Sunday morning and Sunday evening, as well as Wednesday night. There were youth groups and youth retreats and summer jobs at youth camps.

In addition, there was the ritual of school – lessons and tests and homework and after-school activities, five or six days a week.

When I joined the Air Force, almost a year out of high school, the rituals shifted but became more prevalent. Inspections and marching and even more classroom time, followed by active duty assignments that required pre- and post-activites, as well as active participation during.

As I entered my 30’s, I begun to shun anything that smacked of ‘ritual.’ I became, almost overnight, a student of the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants school of living life. I was still punctual for appointments, still a dutiful employee that would show up early and leave late, still a doting husband and father (to varying degrees, depending on which ex-wife or child you ask). But making plans was something I had no taste for, no interest in.

I became very much a go-with-the-flow partner and friend, always happy to be along for the ride, but rarely engaged in making plans myself.

Don’t get me wrong; nobody would consider me a “free spirit” or anything like that. I like to have a plan in place, and follow it as closely as possible. I just dreaded the work of having to come up with a plan myself. I much preferred having others do that dirty work for me.

However, now that I am well into my 50’s, I am learning to appreciate, and even love, more structure. Over the last couple of years, the importance of (secular) rituals has begun to resonate with me again.

It’s been said that in order for a ritual to truly take hold, you have to repeat it for anywhere from three weeks to two months, depending on which scientific study you’re reading. The best illustration I’ve seen of this is from the author Sarah Bakewell, who compares the process of learning a new habit to digging ditches in your brain that allows the thoughts and habits to flow freely and without effort, as rain water drains from a field into a river.

Some have been easier than others. At the insistence of both my son and my girlfriend, I have quit drinking coffee and switched to black tea in the mornings. I’ve noticed no ill effects from the switch, and my stomach seems to appreciate the loss of the acidic quality of the dark French roast that I so loved.

More complicated is my relationship with the meditation practice I began nearly a year ago. That continues to grow in fits and spurts; I’ll go a week or two with my daily practice, then slack off for a few days until I realize that I’ve become tense again and need to realign my perspective.

As the weather has begun to warm, my current favorite (begun at the end of last week, and by no means a ritual yet) is to spend an hour on the back porch first thing in the morning, listening to the birds, completing my daily Duolingo lessons, and reading. I find it to be very calming for me personally, and both the language learning and book reading feed my intellectual needs quite nicely.

Rituals, it turns out, are not such a bad thing after all. They are just another tool to help me navigate the daily grind.

knowing

I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in
I think
     and know that I am thinking
I hear
     and know that I am hearing
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I taste
     and know that I am tasting
I listen
     and know that I am listening
I feel
     and know that I am feeling
I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in

I eat
     and know that I am eating
I touch
     and know that I am touching
I drink
     and know that I am drinking
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I breathe in
     and know that I am breathing in
I am distracted
     and know that I am distracted
I breathe out
     and know that I am breathing out

I begin again
     and know that I am beginning again

moth.

try as I might
it floods, unabated
not enough fingers
too many holes

if consumes and subsumes
my every waking thought
how can I stop it?
why would I want that?

and I've no-one to blame
it is my fault alone
I've constructed this dam
in the lowest of plains

I am a foolish architect
for building such a structure
using the best of materials
in the worst of locations

leaving it unguarded against
the vandals and thieves
who would breach its walls
destroy what they could

and those untrustworthy souls
to whom I gave the key
only to tear the place down
I guess those are on me

I'd gladly accept my fate,
my part of the blame
if only I could find respite
if only I could find peace

try as I might, though
I cannot give up
I'm the idiot moth
to your bright, burning flame

and while I have few regrets
I have earned every scar
each lesson I cherish
but this one, above all:

I should not have bothered
with building this structure,
this dam to encompass
my damn heart.

winter comes too quickly.

a beautiful jet-lagged day
with a snowy forecast
     on the horizon
     that will not dampen
          these feelings of joy

it's been far too long
we've been too far apart
     my soul craves yours
     as yours does mine
          winter comes too quickly

temporary displacement of
my everyday life is what
     my soul craves
     as does yours
          the days ending ubruptly

the smiles and giggles
the conversations in whispers
     of subjects so unbecoming
     those of our maturity
          but I value this above all

I see my future self
          in you
do you see your younger self
          in me?
are we each other,
     out of place,
          out of time?
               can we dream of
               what the other has?

is this how it is now?
will we always be reaching,
     me into your future,
     you into my past?
          is that even an issue?

for I have other minutia to attend to
other itches to scratch
     for me,
     for now,
          this is enough.
     

Another Day by Debbie Vandenberg

A good friend of mine, Debbie Vandenberg, shared with me this beautiful poem she wrote this morning as she was enjoying the sunrise from her porch, and has given me her permission to share it with you...
Another Day

Sunset gently waking me
Kissing away the night before
Wiping sadness out of my eyes
Then teasing me
To play some more

I take a sip
    hot
    strong
    creamy
I can taste the opportunity
In the warmth
Cup to my mouth
Toying with me
As I hold it in my hands
To make the best of this day
That is all it knows
And this, too, I understand
My clothes hit the floor
I need to be ready in an hour
So the shower takes me in
Washed away
Every ounce of sorrow
Then like a mad man
I let the water go cold
As the shower
Boldly reminds me
It is up to me to decide
Hold on, or let go

My chair wants to be one with me
It is the softest
Space I have
So I bring my legs up from the floor
And relax every muscle that I have
My breath I begin to watch
Breathing in, then I release
A sweet sense of joy surrounds me
My chair shows me how to find peace

It is time now for the mirror
Without the above
I could not face
In there I see lines of wisdom
And eyes that have seen
What it is to find grace

Now I am walking out the door
The world is mine to
Explore
I thank the
     sun
     shower
     chair
     mirror
For waking me,
Cleaning me,
Holding me,
And letting me see the truth
Now I have the power
To face another day.

-Debbie Vandenberg, October 2021
©2021 Debbie Vandenberg 

August 2021 Update

Got a lot going on, but not much of interest. You know how it goes – work, dealing with the dog days of summer, worrying about the surge in COVID cases. It’s time-consuming, both physically and mentally.

One thing I have started doing is Joshua Fields Millburn’s and Ryan Nicodemus’ 30-Day Challenge. The idea behind this particular game is that, starting on the first of the month, you rid yourself of one material possession. On the 2nd, you get rid of two things. On the 3rd, three. And so on.

Today is August 10th, and so far I’ve gotten rid of:

1st – donated one bag of men’s clothes to Goodwill.

One bag of men’s clothes

2nd – threw out two old boxes of X-mas decorations.

3rd – donated three books to the library.

4th – donated four pair of gently used shoes to Goodwil.

5th – threw out five boxes of miscellaneous crap from the garage.

6th – donated six books to two different Little Libraries in my neighborhood.

Six books to Little Libraries

7th – seven old computer cables that I’ve been hoarding for no reason.

8th – eight old phone cases for phones that will never be used again.

9th – nine old phone and laptop boxes that I could never bear to part with previously.

Nine old boxes (smaller ones inside the bigger ones)

10th – ten ball caps that I will never wear again.

Ten hats that will never see the top of my head again

All of this has made a very small dent in the sheer volume of stuff that I have, but every step is a step forward.

Learn more about the 30-Day Challenge/Game by clicking here.

And as always, thanks for reading.

-Steve

The Heart of Theseus

Modern literature and pop culture is rife with references to broken hearts. From Whitney Houston to Shinedown, from Nora Ephron to Rupi Kaur, from New Girl to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, you can’t turn around without bumping into someone who has survived a broken heart, is surviving one now, or is about to suffer through the debilitation of having their heart ripped out of their chest and stomped on.

And yet, this imagery has never rung true with me. The most glaringly silly example that I can think of is Padme dying of a “broken heart” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and I’m not the only one who thought this was silly, albeit for different reasons.

The imagery of a broken heart carries with it the idea that something inside of you is broken and in need of fixing, when the opposite is actually true. When someone betrays you or acts in such a way that is contrary to what you were expecting, it is not an indication of some short-coming within yourself. It is in indicator of something missing within them.

Setting aside the fact that your (emotional) heart is located in your head and not your chest, I prefer to think of the heart – that part of you that feels and cares and loves – as an ever-evolving entity that is constantly changing and growing. It is not stagnant; it learns new things, forgets old pains, overcomes previous prejudices, perseveres onward.

When I was young, my mother and step-father tended to punish my sloppy ways by yelling at me or threatening me with a beating with one of my orange Hot Wheels tracks, but occasionally they’d get fed up with trying to correct my behavior, so they’d gather up all of the comic books I’d left lying around and throw them in the burn barrel. My ten-year-old self was traumatized by this betrayal, but it didn’t break my heart. It was an experience I internalized.

When my first marriage ended, I truly felt broken. Not in the “oh-how-will-I-go-on?” sense, but more in the “what’s-wrong-with-me?” sense. I felt I had failed in one of the most basic tasks in life, making a home with a partner. How could I possibly be successful in any other endeavor if I couldn’t do this one simple thing properly? However, I was still able to fully function on a day-to-day basis, so obviously I wasn’t that broken.

Over time, I have come to realize that the heart doesn’t truly break. It takes on more experience, letting old situations go in favor of new ones. My heart is not the same today as it was when I was ten, or thirty. And yet, it’s the exact same heart I’ve always had. How is that even possible?

When something is broken, it doesn’t work any longer. Well, that’s not entirely true – even a broken clock is correct twice a day. But for all intents and purposes, a broken clock is useless for anything more than decorating the wall in the guest bathroom.

The heart, I’ve found, is more resilient than that. With apologies to both John Mayer and Celine Dion, rather than being broken and in need of repair, the heart goes on, continuing to feel and care and love despite all indications to the opposite. And with each new joyous experience, an older, more painful experience is expunged, until one day you feel whole again, and capable of once again giving your heart to someone. Your same old heart, though experience and attrition, has become something new.

That’s been my experience, anyway.

A Deontologist, a Consequentialist, and a Virtue Ethicist Walk Into a Bar…

One of my philosophy professors asked an interesting question today, and after giving it some amount of thought, I think I have an answer.

His question was this: Who do you think would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

First, a quick recap:

  1. Deontology – simply put, these are the rules guys (and gals). Deontologists purport that there are certain universal moral truths that should guide our behavior and how we interact with others.
  2. Consequentialism – when considering whether an action is right or moral, we have to consider the outcome(s) of our actions, both intended and unintended. All actions have consequences.
  3. Virtue Ethics – good and bad, right and wrong, ethical and unethical – these are determined largely by one’s character. Moral people engage in moral thoughts and activities, so it is incumbent upon each of us to be the best person we can possibly be.

Each of these schools of thought have their advantages and disadvantages, and when taken in concert, create a bit of circular logic.

Aristotle believed that since each person’s thoughts and actions were under their own control, an individual could learn to be a good (or better) person. However, the issue with this line of thinking is two-fold.

First, if the individual is left to decide what is moral, then it is in fact his or her cultural and environment that is coloring their decision. In an often-used example, 200 years ago it was viewed as morally acceptable to own slaves. So, by extension, it was possible to own slaves and still be considered a moral, upstanding individual. Obviously this is wrong, but I can only say “obviously” because our culture has changed to the degree that we now understand (but don’t yet fully embrace, apparently) the inherent worth of each individual, regardless of race (or gender or sexual orientation).

Second, we are using the term to define itself, i.e. “A moral act is one that a moral person would engage in.” This is akin to saying, “The sky is blue because it is blue.” We are not defining anything here, really.

One of the ways around this line of thinking is to impose certain qualifications, such as “lying is always wrong, unless it lessens someone’s pain.” However, as we do this, we move further and further away from character in an infinite regress of “except for this” and “not counting that.” We begin to dilute the original meaning behind virtue ethics, reducing it to a series of best-case scenarios that become increasingly difficult to keep track of.

This is where deontology enters the picture. By having a hard-and-fast set of rules to guide human behavior, we make value judgements concerning morality much easier to deal with. Or do we?

We again run into the problem of having to qualify each moral judgement with some sort of disclaimer. “You should never break a promise” is a moral way to act, but what if you promised your buddy that you’d golf with him, and then one of your kids is in an automobile accident. Do you skip golf to care for your injured child? Deontologically speaking, you couldn’t – you’d made a promise to go golfing, and to break that promise would be morally unacceptable.

This leads to another issue – namely, where do you draw the line when devising your qualifications to all of these moral behaviors? Do we make exceptions for family only? Close friends? Co-workers? People who are less fortunate than yourself? And on top of that, who exactly is responsible for making these qualifications? Is it the individual? That won’t work – we’d have different standards for each individual, thus defeating the original purpose of having a set of set-in-stone rules in the first place.

And this brings us to utilitarianism, and the idea that moral acts can only be judged moral based on their outcomes. Consequentialism deals with this aspect specifically – what are the consequences of my actions, how do they affect not only me but those around me?

The issue with this line of reasoning is that you very quickly run into situations where immoral acts can lead to moral outcomes. The infamous Trolley Problem is the most famous example of this – is it okay to take the life of one individual to save five others? What if you personally know the one person? Is it then right to sacrifice the five individuals on the other track to save the one person you know?

Recent years have witnessed a return to a form of Aristotle’s original value ethics as the predominant method of determining good versus bad, but in all truthfulness this just leads us back to the top of the circle, ready to start the cycle anew.

So, back to the question at hand – who would win in a bar fight between a deontologist, a consequentialist, and a virtue ethicist?

I know which horse I’m putting MY money on – what are your thoughts?