Holding on too tight

One time a friend described someone as “holding on too tight”. I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time, and it’s probably of his own design. He said it’s when someone has gotten to the point of being deeply emotionally invested, and in a general way – not like obsessing over something specific, but more like holding on too tight to life itself. He was talking about the kind of person that has lost sight of things and is just emotionally volatile because they’ve come to care about everything so much that they’re overwhelmed by the slightest of events.

Caring is important. We need more people to care. But we can’t care enough to make up for anyone else. We can’t care enough to change something with our care alone either, that takes action. We need to care enough to take action and make meaningful, lasting change for the better. Holding on tight enough is critical to being able to navigate this world and its struggles.

However, if we care so much that we lose sight of the bigger picture, can no longer prioritize, or are unable to look for solutions, then we are holding on too tight for our own good. This is not only unhealthy for us as individuals, but as a society comprised of those individuals. When we’re so emotionally charged about everything we can get to the point of being unable to even articulate our concerns let alone overcome the challenges they represent.

Of course it can be disheartening to see some folks check out inside – seeming to not care about anything, or at least not enough to do something about it. Again, it’s not possible for our caring to make up for their lack (which is also probably perceived more than actual lack). But, whether or not we could make up for others, let us not rob them of the opportunity to step up to that plate. Let’s leave them a place to belly up and eat well at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood of caring for each other.

While we’re checking our expectations of each other, it’s a good time to reflect on what we ask of ourselves. Hoping to save the world is honorable and noble, but it’s a tall order for a short order cook in a diner. Sometimes we dream like our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and we bite off more than we can chew, let alone swallow. Chewing the fat don’t make for a great dinner, we need to know when we’ve had the meat of the matter and when to push the gristle to the side of our plates. We can’t solve every problem, but even if we could, some of them don’t need our solutions. Some things need to pass as extraneous, superfluous, outside of our concerns.

Let’s narrow our focus on things of importance and lay off of the pressure to perfect the whole of existence. There will be more messes and disasters than we could possibly clean up or address in lifetimes uncounted. Giving our best is no less than we should offer. But, no more than we should falter should we push ourselves harder when we’re already on the right path. We can’t travel any faster than our legs will take us down the paths of life, be they well beaten paths or weak and threadbare. No need to fret about how far we get when all we can do is carry our own load and try to be there for others carrying theirs as they walk beside us.

There’s no use kicking people when they’re down on the road of life. Surely if they can’t find the strength to carry enough, it’s not out of spite as much as they’re tired, pulled a muscle, or never learned how to center their load for long hauls. For whatever reason if they can’t help out, we have to remember that we don’t have to carry everything anymore than they do. Sure we care, and it’s important to us, but hurting ourselves or each other won’t get the job done. (Besides, who are we to decide how much anyone else should carry on this road?)

Let’s hold on tight enough for a sweet hug of comfort, not a bone crushing bear hug of destruction.

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Praise be to chemistry especially in anatomy

Humans love feelings, and yet the masses largely know little about the chemicals that cause those feelings. This lack of knowledge places feelings in the same mystical category as magic, religion, or the otherwise unfathomable. Biology and chemistry are closer than kissing cousins. We love to feel feelings about biology and because of biology, but it’s chemistry that defines many of biology’s boundaries. And feelings can be a beautiful thing. But we sometimes attribute incorrectly more substance than is due. Sometimes feelings are really not feelings as much as symptoms of lack of feelings. And all feelings are the result of chemical reactions.

Like darkness is not a thing, but rather the absence of light, in the same way, some sensations like depression are evidence of the lack of certain neurochemicals – not necessarily the presence of any.

There is an important pair of industries that have done their research in this field – mental health providers, and medical suppliers. They’ve thoroughly and exhaustively tested and plundered data to determine what makes us happy, sad, and everything in between. Now, stimulus triggers physical responses for the most part. I won’t get semantic about every trigger and will just stick with solid generalities here. Once something has set our mind in motion, things tend to happen quickly.

Neurochemicals are released into the brain, then receptors receive and use each chemical, because each type of receptor is designed to chemically interact with a specific substance. The reason we are able to feel the whole pantheon of feelings we have as humans is a small set of neurochemicals mixed together in various proportions are used as signals in our body to tell it how to respond to stimuli. For our topic today we’ll say the mind is a kitchen, or, a restaurant. Like any good metaphor, there’s varying parallels with a kitchen atmosphere that will help get a rudimentary understanding how our minds work.

It’s great to understand that different mixes of ingredients will lead to different results. But for my purposes, I’d like to talk about materials, ingredients, tools and equipment as well. If our brain’s the kitchen and the goal is to have a steady stream of food ready for the table at mealtimes, it needs raw ingredients and the means to prepare them well. If we have a faulty wiring system for our electricity, none of the kitchen appliances will function as intended, nor will the lights work for the chef. If the pots and pans we have are warped, handles loose, or improperly suited to our projects in size or character, our product will suffer. Even if we had the best ingredients, a chef in the dark with inadequate equipment cannot make the best meal.

If we have imbalanced levels of water, salt, sugar, proteins, etc… these weaken or strengthen the dish, and they can increase or reduce the volume of food we can produce. Ideally, we have a kind of soup with little varied parts floating around our brain, they would all be high in nutrients from different food groups, all necessary for a healthy functioning body. When we have a good diet of enough nutrients, water, and genuinely restful sleep, our healthy body can use all of that to make our brain’s neurochemicals like the best souffle, sushi, roasted pig, green beans, tamales or anything else, and serve it up in just the right proportion at just the right time.

However equipment or materials can be limited, which in turn limits results either way – but of course both together is worse yet. And sometimes the chef is untrained, misinformed, or bad tempered, which are all threats just as real to overall success in the brain’s kitchen as faulty supplies or facilities. Even without any issues with all of the variables covered therein, too much pressure, timing issues or even bad luck can be of detriment to the mind’s abilities to cope with and respond to stimuli. Because stimuli are like orders in a restaurant, they may often follow patterns like busy times in the day, or that in the winter people eat more soup and want holiday favorites, whereas in the summer cool drinks and salads prevail. But sometimes we want ice cream in January, and sometimes we run out of it in July, and sometimes we want it at midnight.

Speaking of running out, that’s where the rub lies. A well stocked kitchen will serve a hearty breakfast, and a lean one will serve rations. A kitchen in poverty conditions will gorge on new stock leaving little to be saved, or will horde every precious drop while still starving. The conditions of the kitchen drive the product, setting the menu. Some of us have a five star restaurant, while others have a bare a soup kitchen.

Some of us are frugal in using our mental resources, while others are frivolous. Some of us serve the same thing with regularity while others, no set menu at all. Being able to adequately parse out and use mental resources effectively is not a matter of willpower, fortitude… it’s a skill not acquired by all any more than fiscal responsibility or social graces. Most of us would like to believe there is an unending font of happiness, but that’s not true – any more than there’s an endless supply of cakes. Cakes are made and eaten, and run out – thus the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Because, once you’ve eaten the cake, it’s gone.

Our mind uses dopamine like ice cream, it makes us happy, excited, and feel accomplished. It’s a treat. Our mind uses seratonin like comfort food, making us feel safe and loved. We rely on it to feel alright. Our mind uses norepinephrine like coffee for a thrill in the beginning, or for maintenance after long enough use. Our mind uses endorphins like medicine to kill our pain, except that’s where the metaphor breaks down because actually pain medicine just mimics or triggers those very endorphins, that’s how they work. We need enough building blocks to build our mind’s menu, so we can order a steaming hot plate of job well done satisfaction, or a cold dish of revenge, or egg on our face or humble pie or anything else and get it just like we want it. If we’re out of ice cream, we’re going to feel bummed out about that.

If our brain’s receptors are the patrons of our mind’s establishments, then those in the five star restaurants are seated in an orderly fashion, disruptions are ejected, orders are made and meals are served up with relative smoothness. These nerves can end up showing small signs of wear when overworked at peak periods or during unusual circumstances, but typically maintain their composure. With enough time to clear the tables and refresh the area, ongoing business can proceed with minimal inconsistencies. However, if we have soup kitchens open limited hours to a rowdy, demanding crowd that eats all the food quickly, fighting over scraps, then of course the area is either in complete unhealthy disarray, or is locked down to a grim efficiency to maintain a minimum stability.

With shortages in food leading to malnutrition, resources and commodities are highly traded and manipulated to best advantage, with no waste or lavish display. People need to maintain every bit they can to try to continue to feel ok, let alone great. With so many stimuli causing our minds to order up feelings, it’s no wonder we’re frantically scrambling eggs just to throw half of them away after a distracted yet dissatisfied customer wanders off again. That’s due to so many people not knowing that they don’t have to order up feelings based on stimuli or expectations alone or at least not enable them further. They can decide when and how they make things – what they put on their menu, and what price they set.

Setting our range of expectations, norms, limits, and goals can go a long way toward achieving judicious use of our resources in efforts to better our lives. Setting working hours, conditions, and minimum standards for our minds are healthy ways of making sure we are producing adequate food that hasn’t been contaminated. If we allow our mental health to deteriorate, we can easily set back any success we hope to achieve. We need to keep our priorities and processes in good working order to make best use of the resources we have and to seek better if needed. Food, water, restful sleep and feeling safe are just a few keys to our mind’s abilities that allow us to achieve and maintain happiness or satisfaction. Taking note of when we have depleted or overworked our bodies and minds is critical to avoiding complete burnout. Just like when babies cry they are telling us in their own way that they are tired or hungry, so too is our sadness or grief telling us when we’ve run out of supplies, or need to close the kitchen for repairs and maintenance.

 

 

 

Frienemy

Sometimes it’s hard to be our own best friend when we’re also our own worst enemy. We’ve been taught we need to regulate ourselves, but we haven’t been taught how, so we do it in all the wrong ways. We don’t need to curb our enthusiasm, we need to know when to employ it. We have somehow forgotten that of all the people in this lifetime we will meet and get to know, only one is sure to stay here from head to toe.

We can be our own best friend, and it’s well worth the effort. Not just because we’re stuck with ourselves – since no matter where you go, there you are, but because we’re the best resource for others who want to know us as well. No one can know us like we know ourselves, but we don’t automatically come knowing everything, since we’re inside of our experiences and living them out organically while we discover the world and ourselves within it. It takes time and effort to get to know ourselves, and then project ourselves outward.

Building our identity and growing into it is not just a selfish gesture. We occupy space and time in our communities, our jobs, our relationships – in this world. We absolutely affect those around us with our choices, even when we choose inaction or retreat. Whether or not we’d rather be noticed has no bearing on the fact that we are. Humans aren’t playing blackjack with the world as some authoritarian dealer – they’re playing poker and they trade off being dealer in turns.

As we have no choice but to be part of our surroundings, it’s up to us to define who we are and what we’re doing. It’s up to us to recognize our shortcomings, weaknesses, oversights; our failings and fears. But it’s not just our mistakes we need to learn about, since those tend to linger malignantly picking away out our confidence and self respect anyway. There’s something far more important and often neglected in our sense of self, in who we are.

We need to learn what’s best about ourselves: our strengths, our skills, our abilities, our greatness. If we don’t sufficiently find those out then how are to help them grow and flourish? We’ve got to see them as our keys to making ourselves who want to be, and by extension, remake the world into the better place it could be. It’s up to us to see and share the best parts of ourselves for the greater good, just as much as we need to own our faults in efforts to overcome them.

Loving ourselves has become an onus though, some sort of terrible obligation. Many of us have been taught to hate ourselves, or simply disregard ourselves as irrelevant. Most of that comes from disempowerment through manipulation from outside forces like the marketplace and the media (kissing cousins to say the least). But those pressures are very real and have dire consequences in the form of a highly unstable, emotional populace that is confused and scared about everything.

As much as loving ourselves has become a fad, it’s disingenuous often, or misunderstood. Defensiveness is not the same as pride or respect. It has become commonplace to see people joking about self hatred, even suicide and declaring “don’t judge me!” – both online and in public settings. These are clearly cries for self love in a time when it’s still not being achieved effectively by the masses, despite clichés and platitudes being tossed around extravagantly. It’s understandable and part and parcel of loving ourselves to accept ourselves as we are – but that means actual acceptance, not loudly expressing something we still judge as inadequate.

True self love is very difficult to achieve, I’m not going to minimize or deny that. But recent trends have led to a disturbing mix of defensive self loathing and wretched insecurity that are derived from a number of sources, notably broader societal pressure to seem “well adjusted” when we’re simply not. Or to avoid being burdensome to others, seeing ourselves as damaged or broken. In fact, that narrative of being broken or damaged has been woven into the stories and culture that are passed along to our next generation as well. We see it in in memes online, hear it in songs, and tragically, it’s been wrapped up in our visions of love.

So many feel like they are incomplete, because that’s what they’ve absorbed from messages in their surroundings. When we discount and dishearten ourselves that way, we take the pain handed to us by outside forces and re-victimize ourselves with it regularly. Each one of us may have struggled in our time, and may show scars from trouble along the way. But that’s the best part about being human, we’re malleable – our parts cannot truly break like things mechanical. Our hearts do not break as we’ve been told, they get bruised and battered but each still holds some grain of hope, even in a sea of confusion, no matter how despondent we get.

But there is someone still there in the bottom of that well of doubt and misery we can fall into. It’s the only person who can remind us that messages may abound, but it’s what’s inside us that counts in the end. We may drive others away, or tell them we’re fine, or they may even leave us behind on purpose. Yet still there remains in the darkest of places, one person we can always count on. Maybe we’ve kicked this one while down, maybe we’ve left ourselves hanging out to dry, maybe sometimes we forget or give up for a little while, but there’s still one person we haven’t yet managed to get rid of despite it all.

We can and should and desperately need to turn and look at the person inside each of us. We’ve got to hold on tight and never let go, and love that one like we love comfort and fun.

I used to think it was just another pop song, but I’ll turn it into my anthem now.
I couldn’t say it better myself: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”

 

My grandma always said “That’s simply your perception.”

I had already begun to write this post a while back, but had wanted to wait until the moment felt right to start drafting specific language for it. I already had the concept, the sentiment in mind. But I needed something succinct to put this in perspective. This morning that inspiration came as I heard a woman tell another about her own experience, and it was perfect. She and the other gal had been talking about changes in our biology over time. As we grow older things change, and for fertile women many changes happen from pregnancy as well. One mentioned that migraines never afflicted her until after she’d given birth. The other responded by telling her about how until her own panic attacks, she had previously believed that health conditions like migraines or panic attacks were not real, that it was “all in their head”, meaning that to her way of thinking, these people were not actually experiencing anything. She specified that she felt that way because she had never personally experienced the condition in question.

What I find so interesting is that although this person did not follow her own logic to its natural conclusion, and she had been living with a huge misconception at the foundation of her reality. As much as she didn’t say it this way, the stark truth is that this woman believed that if she had not already personally experienced something, that it was genuinely not real – that it did not exist at all. She truly did not understand, and may still not understand, that it is possible for someone to experience something that A) she hasn’t yet experienced, but more importantly, B) could not experience. This woman isn’t alone, and across the world countless people only believe what they have personally lived through, while disregarding anything outside of their own experience.

This is at the heart of what we consider reality to be, which shapes what we do, what we tell others, what we promote and what we pass on. When I first alighted on this concept, I knew that anecdotal evidence is the key. People will trot out and polish their own experiences while denying very real evidence that may contradict their conclusions. They assume that their reasoning has led them to an accurate analysis of that situation, and by extension, life in general. They believe strongly in their own abilities to form opinions based on their own experience exclusively. Somehow, it seems to me a grossly overlooked aspect that one’s experience is not equivalent to one’s analysis. We may have our own experience, but that does not prove out any ability to adequately analyze a given scenario. In other words, we can be sure of what has transpired, but that’s fundamentally separate from understanding why or even how it all happened.

Trying to help people see that others also have their own experience that they believe just as fiercely, that might be attainable. But getting people to see the other person’s experience as no less valid than their own, that is a goal that is ultimately very challenging. The biggest challenge there is due to people identifying with their experience or analysis of it (any time people identify with something it is tragically difficult to get them to see it objectively or re-evaluate it at all).

The nature of reality is heavily influenced by participants and their perspectives. I used to be absolutist about reality, but at some point I had to re-evaluate my construction of reality because it was not accounting for how others build and maintain their own perspectives. How they see things drives their decision making, and their reality may seem to be just their own, but they carry it with them and color the things that they have agency over, including the opinions of others.

The nature of reality is an awfully big topic though, so we’ll just let this stand alone as a commentary on perception and perspective, and we’ll leave the deeper discussion of reality construction for another time.