Generally, when I write anything in public, one of my personal rules is not to complain or be negative. The internet is full of people complaining, and all of them will insist they are justified in this because their cause/problem/whathaveyou is legitimate, and unless you have the same background, you will never understand. I haven’t followed this rule strictly through all my writing in all my life, but I’ve tried to for some years. Focusing on the bad things gives them strength and power, while focusing elsewhere puts strength and power elsewhere- hopefully on more positive things.
Thus said, I think it’s fairly impossible to engage in politics without complaint or negativity. I deeply and honestly believe that evolved humanity looks like something completely other than political activity, and there is no path through that belly of the beast. There might be a bushwhack, but most people will perish on the way.
So what are the tools one has for promoting and protecting the values that one cherishes, in spite of a world that so often wants to tear them down? What does one do when angry and bitter thoughts course through the body, other than spout them onto the internet and amplify them so all one’s friends can suffer too?
This is an essay about that.
I spend a lot of time controlling my thoughts. The sensation is like a physical effort, of building an opaque mental wall against that which I don’t wish to dwell on. The effort is exhausting, and so I am evaluating whether there’s another way.
What is the garden variety advice for dealing with free-floating anxiety about issues outside your control? It’s breathe, focus on something else, address what is within your control, live and let god, and so forth. Or take valium and blot it out.
I know the way most people do deal is through alcohol, or prescription drugs, or non-prescription drugs, and since I’m not using any of those things, I’m left with coffee and climbing and foreign language.
And that’s all well and good during waking hours. There’s nothing better to shake one out of a negative thought pattern than some exercise that involves a nice dose of calculated risk, or some time immersed in a foreign language thus completely occupying mental resources that would typically be spent worrying. These are the tactics that work quite well for waking hours, but they don’t work well when trying to fall asleep.
And so, with that realization, I don’t know if they work at all, because clearly they do nothing to salve the subconscious.
Daniel says I always look worried when I write. This makes me a little sad. Writing is a chance to grapple with some of these ideas, the how/what/how of moving through a world both rationally and positively. Rationality and positivity don’t typically align well, and it’s that strain of fitting them together that no doubt shows up as worry on my face.
(Maybe I should just turn my computer to face a wall so he can’t see.)
And so, I make lists of the things I’ve discovered about how to manage the emotional/psychological/thought life. These are evolving, complicated, and inter-linked lists that might better fit in a many to many database structure or something. In the hours of post-thanksgiving automobile riding yesterday we talked through my recent list. Daniel’s comment was that it reflects a “highly ordered and regulated belief system.”
This is perhaps true, though one never really has much context for the content of others’ belief and thought structures. As I’ve written about for years, my proclivity is towards thought systems that become codified and rigid, until I need to shake them out and beat them back or try to replace them with a better one. The sum is, all the thought control is exhausting.
I took a close look at the belief systems that I’ve been holding on to most recently, and how these are or are not continuing to be useful.
And so it goes like this:
+ OUTMODED BELIEF #1: Our thoughts create our reality.
On the surface, this looks like a lovely belief, right? And it is, until it become codified with additional rules. My belief structure had gotten so rigid that it required copious mental effort to not think about the realities which I do not want to experience, or only to think about them in structured, careful, and mediated way. Controlling one’s own thoughts constantly is exhausting, and results in an internal struggle that has other unintended consequences.
Plus, there’s this giant existential debacle that results: a feedback loop of whether my beliefs create my reality, or not, and either way, who is responsible for them, and finally how to work through that belief system to a place where I can actually maybe change some of the beliefs to newer, updated, freer versions and move on to a better way of dealing with reality?
Because, really, how much does our outward positivity or negativity reflect our experience of reality? I referenced, in the beginning of the post, the many online acquaintances I – and everyone else- have who only post in the form of complaints. It’s the prototypical form of a negative interface with reality, amplified by the internet. Most of us have sufficient socialization to not begin every IRL interaction with a neg, you know, but many demonstrate no qualms about this being their primary interface with the internet-world. Political opinion is negative, op-ed writing is negative, and most discourse about social structures is negative. (And so, I’ve just finished a meta complaint about complaining online.)
The question I ask myself, when I see pieces or posts such as referenced above, is whether said-spouters’ quality of life is ever adversely affected? I mean, of course, quality of mental life, of internal satisfaction.
Which is really a way of asking, would I feel less stressed/ controlling/ or otherwise bad if I too engaged in negative online behavior and complaints? What about in real life?
And so we go on to
+ OUTMODED BELIEF #2: Put Good Energy Into The World, Focus on the Positive.
The simplistic mode of interpreting this is “be kind. kindness is the solution.” Now, I’ve never believed that, because I think, mostly, kindness and honesty are at odds, and honesty is a higher value and greater good than kindness, which is not to say that honesty should not be delivered with kindness, but rather, that the inverse ordering of the pair rarely functions.
Personally, I am seeing I could benefit from greater honesty in my personal expression. I live in a social sphere (north-east educated academic types – link points at one small aspect of the nearly complete thought uniformity among academics) in which people, mostly, express values opposing those I believe in as true. The coping method I’ve used for years is expressed in outmoded belief #2: be positive and put good energy into the world. The result has been a form of social dishonesty- prioritizing social graces and peace over truth. I’m tired of it, simply, and hope to gain new friends by being more honest.
+ OUTMODED BELIEF #3: Success.
This is the belief that I am perhaps most surprised to see that I hold onto intensely, despite not even intellectually believing in it. It’s something about success being a quantifiable thing and a point in time, and I can’t seem to get past the idea. I would like the entire notion of “success” to disappear completely.
+ OUTMODED BELIEF #4: A well-regulated thought life.
Thoughts are visceral and vivid, and an unintentional tangent easily causes me to have an adrenaline spike or spiral into panicked breathing. As a child, I trained myself to not have nightmares- when I have dreams which portray violence, the dreams are censored- no blood or gore – for the most part, I don’t have bad dreams- I’m snapped back into the woken body at even the hint of a dream not going in a neutral or positive way. The extreme vividness of my thoughts- especially frightening ones- has been the reason I’ve built such intense regulatory structures for managing them. But I don’t think the structures are working any more. I would like to no longer fight my own mind.
One of the best things about having a romantic partner is having someone who knows you through and through and is capable of working through these sorts of questions together. It’s refreshing to be reminded of the reality that not every experiences their mental life in the same fashion.
And so we come to:
+ NEWMODE BELIEF #1: Consider the plurality of realities.
Instead of the archaic, black and white, and simplistic version of “our thoughts create our realities”, I’m going to be dabbling in the plurality. When the tendency is to consider problems as only having one of two outcomes (good/bad), consider the idea that there are actually dozens, hundreds, no- unlimited potential outcomes or paths. Actually think about all the potential paths you can, good or bad. Fill up the thoughts with the unlimitedness of potentialities.
Some experiences I’ve had have led me to believe this is a more accurate way of assessing reality. For instance, for years- over a decade- I was really caught up in the body issues/ eating issues thought pattern. It consumed a vast amount of mental energy. It served a purpose- being hungry restricts one’s ability to feel emotions- but, ultimately, was a pain to deal with. The “outcomes” I had typically envisioned were not plural- they were to be skinny and forever obsessed with food, or fat. The actual outcome, when this thought pattern eventually died off, was neither of the two I had considered. The actual outcome, which I thought would have been completely impossible, is a completely normal relationship with food, which includes eating many times and day, whatever I want to eat, being mostly full as opposed to hungry, and still being thin, but not that skinny. In retrospect, the idea that this was a completely invisible and unconsidered outcome fascinates me.
A second for instance – for years I was caught in the love/loneliness quandary, only to find myself completely and totally happy with someone who I insisted, for a long time, would be a terrible match for me. The happy outcome to the love/loneliness puzzle was one that I never even considered, and when it was suggested to me I strongly disagreed with. How surprising.
+ NEWMODE BELIEF #2: Be honest with the world.
It’s hard to be honest with your world when the truth you see runs counter to the majority opinion. Divisive conversations about politics and society make me sad and angry, but so does my own intellectual dishonesty by not speaking more clearly. Neither path is a win-win. At least the latter is honest.
+ NEWMODE BELIEF #3: True Success Isn’t Easily Summarized, So Stop Looking For the Simple Answer.
Does success mean creative impact? How is that measured? Can it be accurately measured within the frame of a day or year or personal lifetime? Is “measurement” really the best way to think about this at all?
+NEWMODE BELIEF #4: Leap of Faith: Complete De-Regulation of the Mental Sphere.
Is there room to encompass all the angry, hateful, horrible, and boring thoughts that pass through everyday? Not just your own, but those inspired by the people around you?
I’ve long been a proponent of the idea “don’t expose your mind to crap” (i.e. reading news, reading facebook), and thus, have continued to make and break rules about exposure. So here’s a new way to think about it- all this negative crap is there, in our thought/society/political eco-system, being spouted by your actual friends and acquaintances practically non-stop. Looking the other way, abstaining from the flow of shit- maybe it doesn’t work. Maybe it’s contributing to these massive chinks that are forming in the armor of mental regulation.
And so, a leap of faith, with the hopes that it will result in an improved and strengthened mental ecosystem.
Think about the multitudes. Think about the pluralities. The potentials are not binary. Think more, not less.