The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering

First, the cons:

When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, or to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.

You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to number one on the Billboard chart), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.

You waste a lot of time arguing. Indeed, much of your time is spent trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently and asked people to say something about it, many of them argued that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time; that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) Arguing certainly can be effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and gets other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent doing the damn work.

And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you feel a little bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.


Thus begins my latest column for The Humanist, The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering. To read more — including the pros, of which there are many — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons

chicago bean 01

When I first started seeing pictures of the Chicago Bean, and started seeing it described as a Chicago icon, I was irritated. “How can that be an icon?” I thought. “I don’t remember it! It wasn’t there when I was growing up! It just went up in 2006! That’s not a Chicago icon — not like the Sears Tower, or the Picasso sculpture, or…”

Oh. Right.

The Sears Tower and the Picasso sculpture were new when I was a kid. The Picasso sculpture was dedicated in 1967; the Sears Tower was completed in 1973. They both became Chicago icons almost immediately — they quickly started showing up in postcards, in travel brochures, on book covers about Chicago, in vacation photographs of visitors from around the world. And to me, that seemed totally reasonable. Of course they were icons! I’d seen them dozens of times, hundreds of times, I’d been seeing them for most of my conscious life — it made perfect sense that they were icons. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago, Part 3 of 3 – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. I’m posting my favorite pics, in three separate posts so the posts aren’t super-huge and hard to load. Part One is here: Part Two is here; this is the last set.

chicago architecture boat tour 18

Another little bridge house! They’re so awesome!

chicago architecture boat tour 19

According to the docent, this building was inspired by champagne bottles. Normally I don’t like architecture that looks like things — “It’s a milk bottling plant, and it looks like a milk bottle!” — but I have to admit that this is pretty cool.

More after the jump. [Read more…]

Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago – Pics!

When I was visiting my brother in Chicago last week, we did this somewhat touristy but seriously cool thing: a boat tour of the architecture and architectural history of downtown Chicago. Chicago architecture is world-renown for its beauty and innovation: it’s been that way ever since the Chicago Fire of 1871, when architects zoomed in for the chance to rebuild the great city from scratch, and it’s lived up to that reputation ever since. (Well, except for the same bad stretch of boring glass boxes that every other city went through…)

I grew up in Chicago, but have never been on this tour before. Here are a few of my favorite pictures.

chicago architecture boat tour 01

chicago architecture boat tour 02

chicago architecture boat tour 03

(More after the jump.) [Read more…]

Is It Ethical to Conceal Your Atheism?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Let’s say you’re an atheist. Let’s say you’re a college student. Let’s say your parents are supporting you, including paying your tuition. And let’s say your parents are adamantly opposed to atheism — so much so that if they learned about your atheism, they would stop paying your tuition, cut off all financial support, and cut you out of the family. (Not a hypothetical situation, unfortunately.)

Is it ethical to conceal your atheism?

Coming Out AtheistWe often treat this question, and questions like it, as a no-brainer. In my book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, I repeatedly counsel atheists to hold off on coming out if they don’t think it’s safe — if they think it will get them fired from their jobs, cut off by their parents, kicked out of their homes. I do think coming out is ultimately the right choice for most people — overwhelmingly, most atheists who have come out say it made their lives better and they’re glad they did it — but I think it makes sense to hold off if the timing is bad. As I delicately phrased it in the book, “Don’t screw up your life.” I give this advice without hesitation, and it’s mostly accepted without hesitation.

But I’ve gotten some questions about this — yes, from atheists — that have made me look at this question more carefully. I’m still coming to the same conclusion — but I think it’s more difficult than I’d originally thought, with a more nuanced answer.

The issue at hand: If people are giving you something, and they wouldn’t give it to you if they knew something about you, is it ethical to lie about that information, or even simply to withhold it? If a boss were considering hiring you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew about your embezzlement conviction, is it ethical for you to conceal that? If someone you were dating were considering marrying you, and you knew they wouldn’t if they knew you were a Republican, is it ethical for you to conceal that? I think most people would say No.

So by the same token, if your parents wouldn’t pay your tuition if they knew you were an atheist — don’t they have the right to make that decision? Isn’t it their money, and their right to decide what to do with it? Isn’t honesty a core ethical value — especially when people are making decisions that would be affected by your information? [Read more…]

25 years ago today

25 years ago today, I was on Durant Street in Berkeley, on my way to Kip’s sports bar to watch the World Series, when I felt a sharp JOLT, as if someone had yanked the rug I was standing on — except the rug was the sidewalk. Sharp jolt, and then a rumbling, rolling shake, for what felt like a longish time. When it was over, I thought, “Hm, I wonder how big that was?” — and went on to Kip’s to watch the game. (I’d been through earthquakes before. I was jaded.)

Loma_Prieta_Shake_MapBut the game wasn’t on. The cable was out. Someone had a portable radio, but it was hard to hear in the crowded bar. It wasn’t until the TV came back on that I realized, “Oh. This was big. Oh. OH. Part of 880 collapsed. Part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. The Marina is on fire. OH. This was BIG.”

I headed immediately to my friends’ house (hi, Eric!). I was living alone, and I didn’t want to be alone. I stayed there for several days. I remember buying donuts, because it seemed like in a natural disaster, there ought to be donuts.

That jolt shifted my life in more ways than one. My main workplace. BASS/Ticketmaster, was damaged beyond repair, and they took the opportunity to move their offices from Oakland to Walnut Creek… thus inspiring me to get another job, at the San Francisco Bay Times… thus inspiring me to move from Oakland to SF. The Bay Times also eventually became one of my first regular paid writing gigs, doing film reviews… which led to my gig for the Spectator doing film reviews about sexual themes in mainstream movies… which got me noticed in the sex-writing world… which led to me editing my first book, Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients. Funny how the totally unexpected, out-of-nowhere jolt can drastically shape your life.

In memory of the 63 who died.

Coming Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.

How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

What is it like being a humanist with depression?

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. I freaking hate it when people give me unsolicited amateur medical advice about my mental health, so I’m very careful not to do that with other people. If you have depression — your mileage may vary from mine. Take what you need from this, and leave the rest. (And if you’re not already doing it, get professional help if you possibly can.)

So. Caveats are in order. What is it like for me to be a humanist with depression?

As regular readers may know, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. My form of it is chronic and episodic: I’m not depressed all the time, I’m not even depressed most of the time, but I’ve had episodes of serious depression intermittently throughout my adult life. I had a very bad bout of it starting about a year and a half ago: I’m pulling out of it now, but my mental health is still somewhat fragile, I still have to be extra-careful with my self-care routines, and I still have relapses into fairly bad episodes now and then. And I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a humanist with depression, and how these experiences intertwine. [Read more…]

Depression, and the “Throw Everything Against the Wall” Method of Care

Please note: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. Also, please note that while the self-care techniques I’m talking about here can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, none of them is treatment all by itself, and none of them is a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

I wish I had something to say about Robin Williams’ apparent suicide. I don’t — nothing other than “Fuck, that’s awful, that’s so sad,” nothing that hasn’t been said by many other people better than I could say it. But a lot of people have been talking about depression in the last couple of days, and I have some stuff I’ve been wanting to write about that, so that’s where I’ll go.

partly open windowI’ve written before about one of the smartest pieces of advice I ever got about depression, one that’s become a cornerstone of my depression self-care — both when I’m in a depressive episode, and when I’m not and am working to stabilize and improve my mental health. I was talking with a friend about the horrible self-perpetuating nature of depression, and how the depression itself saps my motivation to do the things I need to do to take care of my depression, and what a fucked-up vicious circle this was. The advice I got was this: If I ever have a window in which I feel any motivation at all to do any form of self-care, I should do it. When I’m in the middle of a bad episode, those windows don’t open very often, so I should walk through them when they do. And even when I’m not having a bad episode, I don’t always feel motivated to do mental health self-care — but doing it whenever I do have the motivation makes my mental health more robust, and makes a relapse less likely.

Now, if you asked me which form of mental health care was most important, and which I would do first if one of those windows opened up, I could probably give you a roughly prioritized list. But a more accurate and honest answer to “which form of mental health care is most important?” would probably be: All of them. What works best for me is to do every form of effective mental health care I know of, as much as I have time and energy and money for. What works best for me is to throw everything I have against the wall, and hope that some of it sticks.

There’s a couple of reasons this works for me. For one thing, when a motivation window opens up, it’s often very specific. I don’t always get a general jolt of motivation to do anything at all that will alleviate my depression. Instead, I get a specific glimmer of motivation to meditate; to masturbate; to get dressed and go to the cafe; to take a long walk outside. So even though exercise is one of the highest priorities on my mental health care checklist, if I have a sudden glimmer of motivation to meditate, then I meditate. (I was actually at the gym the other day, feeling irritable and unfocused and spending as much time staring out the window as I was working out — so I quit my workout, and found a quiet-ish corner, and meditated instead. Totally the right decision. My brain needed the self-care that day more than my muscles did.)

paint splatter 2Throwing everything at the wall also gives me more options when I have more than one window of motivation. If I’m doing better, and I have a fair amount of motivation to do a fair amount of mental health care… well, I’m not going to meditate three times a day, or go to the gym three times a day. But I might meditate, and go to the gym, and go out to the cafe. And doing all three gets more care into my system.

And maybe most importantly: Throwing everything at the wall just makes my mental health recovery more robust, and more resilient. It gives it a broader, more solid foundation. I don’t always know what’s going to make me feel better, either immediately or in the longer term. But if I’m doing all of it, or as much of it as I can do, I’m playing the odds. I’m increasing my chances that one or more of the things will have an effect. If I throw everything I have at the wall, there’s a better chance that at least something will stick.

So here’s what I’m throwing against the wall.

Meds. I never blow this off. I take my meds every day.

Talk therapy. I never blow this off unless I’m sick. I sometimes have to schedule my therapy around my travel schedule, but if I have a therapy appointment in my calendar, I go unless I’m so sick I can’t think or talk.

(Note: According to what I’ve read, research shows that therapy plus meds is more effective on depression than either therapy alone or meds alone. Can anyone with more familiarity with the current research confirm or deny that?)

dumb-bellExercise. I try to take at least a 20 minute walk every day. I don’t always succeed, but I wind up doing this about 4-5 days a week. I also try to make my exercise more vigorous — going to the gym, dancing, taking a longer walk, something — 2-3 days a week. I don’t always succeed, but when I aim for this, I get more exercise than when I don’t.

Socializing. When I’m in the middle of a bad episode, or am teetering on the brink of one or pulling out of one, one thing I do if I can is make specific plans to see people. If I don’t have anything in my calendar, it’s all too easy to just stay home and stew in my own juices — but if I have a lunch date in my calendar, I almost never blow it off. And I know that seeing other people is one of the most important and powerful anti-depressants in my repertoire.

Leaving the house. When I’m in the middle of a bad episode, or am teetering on the brink of one or pulling out of one, I make it a priority to leave the house at least once every day. As a writer, it’s easy to just stay home in my bathrobe all day, and when I’m not having trouble with depression, that’s fine. But when I am having trouble, I make getting out of the house a priority. If for no other reason, it kills two birds with one stone: it gets me into the sunlight, and it gets me interacting with other people, even if it’s just a five-minute conversation with the barrista at the cafe. And working in a cafe, even if I’m just sitting alone at a table and not talking with anyone except to order more coffee, still feels less isolating than working at home alone.

Time outdoors, especially in the daytime. See above, re: leaving the house.

Meditating in urban environmentMeditating. My goal is to meditate every day. The reality is that I meditate about 5-6 days a week. It helps enormously.

Getting the right amount of sleep: not too much, not too little.

Sensual pleasures. Sex, masturbating, eating delicious healthy food, taking a long bath with bath scrubs, getting a manicure, getting a massage, taking the time to put together an outfit I enjoy… you get the drill. I try to do at least one of these every day. That’s a larger and somewhat complicated topic — there’s something weird about treating pleasure as medicine — but it helps, so I do it.

Writing. This is weirdly tricky: when my depression is bad, lots of extended time on the computer isn’t good for me. And when my depression is bad, it’s easy for writing time to turn into “dicking around for hours reading just one more thing on Facebook” time. But writing is activity, and writing gives my life purpose and meaning and forward direction, and writing gives my experience shape and cohesion, and writing makes me feel connected, and writing makes my brain feel better in ways and for reasons I can’t explain and don’t entirely understand.

That’s my mental health care toolkit. That’s what I’m throwing at the wall. What about you? If you experience depression, or have in the past — what’s in your mental health care toolkit? Do you have priorities among your tools, or do you prioritize whatever it is you have the motivation to do?

Coming Out Atheist Bendingwhy are you atheists so angryGreta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.