New Game: Social Justice Autocorrect!

I need a break from horribleness. Let’s play a game! Let’s play Social Justice Autocorrect!

Do you ever find that your assorted autocorrect thingies (phone, word processing, blogging software) don’t recognize social justice terminology? Do they come up with amusing autocorrect suggestions?

This came up during a Twitter conversation with Not All Misandrists (@artfulscientist). They were clearly attempting to ask someone to stop mansplaining, but it got turned into “plz stop mans plainsong.” I said that “mans plainsong” was my new favorite autocorrect — and they said that their autocorrect had also turned “dogwhistle” into “doge buster.” (To which I replied, of course, “Who ya gonna call? DOGE BUSTER!”)

So what are your favorite social justice terminology autocorrects? I’ll collect my favorites and repost them. Your time starts… now!

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.

On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for. Including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, and work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

dumb-bellLet me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back — time and money that I’d love to spend elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and enticed by a dozen other things — including the sofa. When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there… what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym, I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I typically spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational.

So the question is: Do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, as irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted, and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk cost fallacy, but actually use this fallacy to my advantage?

Which is the rational choice?

Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.

And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.

ten_dollar_billTotally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.

So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?

I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?

I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:

There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.

“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. This preference may not be rational — okay, it’s definitely not rational — but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality, and an acceptance of it.

God from Monty Python and the Holy GrailOn the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.

And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.

But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.

Humanist Performance Anxiety

This piece was originally published in The Humanist magazine.

Does anyone else do this?

jump for joyI have this set of humanist values, among which is the notion that since I only have one life, I want to live it to its fullest. Back when I had religious beliefs (mine were of the New Age variety, including reincarnation), I was often lazy about taking advantage of life’s opportunities, since I thought I could always pick them up on the next go-around. Now that I know that I only have one life, I feel intensely motivated to make that life matter: to create meaning and purpose, to make things better for myself and others, to be fully present in moments both large and small. Humanism 101. You know the drill.

But lately I’ve been noticing that, in moments when I’m not richly experiencing my life or taking full advantage of its opportunities, I feel this sense of guilt, and even panic. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “humanist performance anxiety.” And ironically (although pretty predictably), this performance anxiety actually interferes with my ability to enjoy my life and imbue it with meaning.

Here’s an example. Throughout my life, and more so in recent months, I’ve been working on being more present in my life: fully experiencing my life, and being conscious of it, and letting it sink in. But in stretches of my life when I’m not being fully present — when I’m just spacing out, watching bad TV or messing around on Facebook or simply staring out the window having little self-aggrandizing fantasies and letting my mind wander — I sometimes snap back into consciousness, almost in a panic. ACK! I’m not being present and mindful! I’m not living up to my humanist ideals! What am I doing? My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching “Top Chef”?

It’s not that I think every moment of my life has to be spent battling theocracy and helping the poor. But even in my small moments of pleasure and frivolity, shouldn’t I be fully present? If I’m going to spend an hour messing around on Facebook, shouldn’t I be richly conscious of that hour: savoring my deep sense of connection with friends and family and community, and marveling at the wondrous sprawling web that binds us with all of humanity?

I know that’s ridiculous. I know that my brain needs down time. I recently did a day-long secular meditation retreat, during which I worked to be as present and mindful as I could for as long as I could… and at the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was an extraordinary experience, but once it was over, my brain needed a break. I strongly suspect — although I’d have to ask the neuropsychologists about this — that semi-conscious spacing-out is essential for our brains to function, in much the way that sleep and dreaming are essential. It’s pretty clear to me that some sort of back-burner processing is going on during that down time.

And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that even the hamster-wheel in my head — the near-constant nattering of distracting worries and regrets, harsh self-judgment and harsher judgment of others, endless rounds of “if A then B, if C then D” strategizing for how to live the minutest details of my life, rehearsed conversations and imagined triumphs and worst-case scenarios, all the things that pull me away from experiencing the present moment — is also psychologically necessary. After all, if I lived with no worries or regrets, no plans for the future or lessons from the past, my life would be a hot mess. And if nothing else, I come up with some of my best writing ideas when the hamster wheel is spinning and trying to figure out the world.

But I still have performance anxiety about it. I get anxious that if I’m spending even a minute of my short, precious, fragile life on fretting or spacing out, I’m not being a good humanist.

gravestonesHere’s another example, a somewhat more serious one. In my humanist philosophy, mortality is something I accept. Of course I grieve when my loved ones die — I wouldn’t want not to, I can’t imagine what it would even mean to care deeply for someone and yet not be pained by their death — but I accept the reality and inevitability of death. I have a whole assortment of humanist philosophies that console me in the face of death and mortality, and that let me accept it with some degree of peace. I’m actually convinced that humanism is a better way of coping with death than religion — if for no other reason, it doesn’t demand cognitive dissonance and the denial of reality.

But lately, I’ve been noticing myself experiencing something that can best be described as “proto-grief.” When I look at someone I love or care about, I sometimes get gripped with a horrible sense of how I’m going to feel when they die. When I look at my wife, my friends, my family, even my cats, and I think about how intensely I love them, my mind sometimes gets sucked into imagining the moment of their death, thinking about saying goodbye to them, picturing my life without them… and I get overwhelmed with a despair that, in the moment that I’m feeling it, feels inconsolable.

Again… totally understandable. I went through something of a personal Armageddon a little over a year ago — my father died, and less than two weeks later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer (fully treated and recovered now, by the way) — and it’s not surprising that mortality and death would be in my face for a while. It’s not surprising that death, and fear of death, would be both more painful than usual, and harder to set aside.

But I still get mad at myself about it. I still scold myself: “Are you going to despair over life just because it’s temporary? Are you going to let these rare, delightful moments be destroyed because you can’t deal with the fact that they’re going to pass? Shame on you! Bad humanist! Bad!”

And you want to know the truly ironic thing about this humanist performance anxiety? It actually interferes with my ability to live up to my humanist ideals. Getting sucked into perfectionist self-criticism is not exactly the way to deeply experience my life and instill it with meaning and value. When I can let myself just feel my proto-grief, instead of judging myself for it — when I let myself accept the horrible suckage of death as much as I accept the reality of it — the suckage passes more readily. When I can accept my need for back-burner processing and down time, I can slip out of it, and slip into focused consciousness and presence, more easily and naturally. My anxiety about not living my life to its fullest is one of the things that distracts me from it. It’s as if, in order to see myself as a good humanist, I can’t let myself be human.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m betting that I’m not the only one who does this. And recognizing this pattern is part of what’s helping me deal with it, and helping me let it go. So if anyone else is reading this and going, “Holy mackerel, I do that, too!”… maybe that moment of absurdist, “What fools we mortals be” self-recognition will ease the anxiety. After all, being a humanist means accepting reality — and part of reality is the reality of our own imperfection, our weaknesses and quirks and foibles. If we’re going to be humanist, we have to accept that we’re human.

Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My 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. If these ideas resonate with you, and you’re thinking of trying this practice, talk with your mental health care provider. Also, while evidence does suggest that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, it is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

I was on Facebook a little while ago, and the subject of depression and mindfulness/ meditation came up. And someone (of course I now can’t remember who it was, or what their exact words were) said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

I can see that reaction. There is something counter-intuitive about this. Sure, there’s a reasonable amount of research suggesting that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of treatment for depression — but I can see how some people might go, “But how on earth would that even work?” So I want to write a little about how, exactly, using meditation to help manage my depression works for me. There’s almost certainly neurological and neuro-psychological stuff going on that I don’t know about or understand — but this is what my subjective experience of it is like.

camera lens1) Practice in shifting focus. I’ve written before that meditation is a practice — not in a vague woo-ish sense, but in the most literal sense of the word. It’s like practicing a tennis stroke, or practicing the piano. I set aside time to practice certain skills, so I can get better at those skills and use them when I want them or need them.

And among those skills is the ability to shift my focus. Much of what I do when I meditate — in fact, the core of what I do — is to focus my awareness on something (my breath, a part of my body, an activity); notice when my awareness has drifted away; observe this without judgment; and gently return my awareness to its intended focus. So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else. I am, literally, more practiced at moving my focus to where I want it. I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m better than I was. And that helps with my depression enormously.

no judgment2) Acknowledging my experience without judgment. One of the central features of MBSR meditation isn’t just focusing awareness on one object or experience — it’s noticing when that awareness has drifted, observing this drift without judgment, and gently returning the focus. And when it comes to helping with my depression, the “observe without judgment” part is, I think, almost as important as the “focus” part.

For me, a big part of what makes depression worse is judging myself for it. That can turn into a nasty feedback loop: I get down on myself for being unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then that self-judgment makes me feel worse about myself, and adds to my depression… and then I get more unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then I get down on myself for it… around and around and around. Depression can be very self-perpetuating, and a lot of what I’m looking for in depression treatments are ways to cut into these vicious circles.

And the “observe without judgment” part of meditation is one of those ways. When I notice that my awareness has drifted from my intended focus into feelings of torpor or pessimism or despair — and instead of hammering myself for that, I observe these feelings, acknowledge them without judgment, and return my focus to my breath or whatever — it’s extremely liberating. It doesn’t make the feelings of depression go away — but it makes them less all-encompassing. It makes the depression feel more like something I have, rather than something that has me, or that is me.

This even helps with the meta aspects of depression. If I notice that I’m getting down on myself for being depressed or for having a hard time keeping my focus where I want it… that’s also something I can observe, and acknowledge without judgment, before returning to my focus as best I can.

serenity-rock3) Letting my feelings be, instead of frantically trying to fix them. MBSR isn’t just about formal, set-aside meditation sessions. It’s also about being more present in everyday life. So in everyday life, if I’m having a moment where I’m feeling anxious or restless or sad for no reason, I’m now better able to just notice that, and acknowledge it, and let it be. I’m less likely to desperately search for the non-existent reasons behind my anxiety, restlessness, or sadness. And I’m less likely to immediately try to fix the feeling or distract myself from it.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, the frantic search for things that make me feel better is often part of what makes me feel worse. (Especially since things that make me feel better in the short run — television, junk food, long stretches on Facebook — often make me feel worse in the long run, and even the medium run.) The frantic search to fix my feelings and perfect my life just makes me feel anxious. It makes me even more aware of all the ways that my life falls short of perfection. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I feel anxious or restless or sad for no reason, and because I can’t find a way to make myself feel better. And it makes it nearly impossible to really savor, and really experience, the parts of my life that are wonderful and satisfying. (Plus, it’s just fucking exhausting.)

Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness, I’m better able to just sit with the anxiety, the restlessness, the sadness. I’m better able to let myself simply… have it. I’m better able to say to myself, “I’m just sad right now. I don’t know why. My brain sometimes gets sad for no real reason. I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames. It helps keep me from adding self-judgment to the mix, or anxious and exhausting and utterly pointless attempts to find the non-existent problem and fix it. And that makes it easier for the anxiety or restlessness or sadness to pass. It doesn’t make the emotions better, exactly, but it helps keep me from making them worse.

question mark sign4) I don’t know how or why it works — it just does. Apart from everything I’ve been talking about here, there seems to be something going on, on a deep neurological and neuro-psychological level, when I meditate. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why. I just know that when I meditate, I feel better. I feel both calmer and more energetic. (Very much the opposite of depression, which tends to make me feel both twitchy and torpid.) I feel more focused. I feel more at peace.

Meditation helps with my depression in the long run and the middle run, in the sense that when I meditate every day, I’m less likely to get depressed, and my depressive episodes tend to be shorter and less severe. But it also helps in the short run, in the sense that if I felt depressed when I started meditating, I almost always feel less depressed when I’m done. I don’t entirely know why it helps me. I just know that it does.

Again — your mileage may vary. I really am just talking about my own experiences here. And again, if any of this resonates with you and you think you might like to try it, do talk with your mental health care provider, and remember that this is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Other posts that might interest you:
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be
Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.

Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult

“I don’t feel like an adult.”

Perhaps that or any of the following statements sound familiar to you: “My adult life looks nothing like I thought it would. I thought I’d have it a lot more together by now. I thought by now I’d be finished with school, or have a stable job, or be married and have kids. Sure, I’m doing (insert list of awesome, inspiring, difficult things) but I can’t balance my checkbook/ I do my laundry at the last minute/ I eat like a teenager/ I’m scrambling for money at the end of every month/ I have eight thousand unanswered emails/ I clean my house for parties by shoving all my junk into grocery bags and sticking them in the closet. What’s wrong with me?”

I can’t tell you how many people I know who feel this way. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of an adult in my life who doesn’t feel this way, at least to some degree. And recently I’ve started wondering: What’s up with that?


humanist magazine coverThus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist magazine, Imposter Syndrome, and What It Means to Be an Adult. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Are Addicts and the Mentally Ill Responsible for Their Behavior?

Are people with mental illness responsible for their behavior, and for how their behavior affects others? If so, to what degree? Does the degree of mental illness affect how we answer this question?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a long, long time. Many years, in fact. I’ve been thinking about it harder in the last year or so, since my father died, and since my most recent bout with depression. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of my own life and my own mental health; I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the lives and mental health (healths?) of my friends and family members who are dealing with mental illness, or who have dealt with it in the past. But mostly, I’m thinking about it in terms of my father.

My father died on Oct. 1, 2012. Dad was a pretty mixed bag: many wonderful qualities, many not-so-wonderful ones. Specifically, he was an alcoholic, apretty bad one for many decades, and a significantly worse one as the years and decades wore on. And largely due to his alcoholism, he often behaved very badly. He wasn’t abusive, but he was often selfish, irresponsible, callous, quick with a barbed comment or a cruel joke just for his own entertainment, dismissive of other people’s feelings, unconcerned with how his actions affected others. It got worse, much worse, as the years went on and the disease of alcoholism progressed.

By the time he had his first stroke, the alcoholism had advanced to late-stage, brain-damage, memory- and speech-impairment territory, and the accompanying selfishness and irresponsibility got worse with the deterioration. (According to the doctors, the years of alcoholism almost certainly contributed to the stroke itself, and may have even been a primary cause.)

I don’t want to get into the litany of the details of his behavior right now. It’s too upsetting, and it’s kind of not the point. The point — the question I’ve spent decades asking myself, as I kept taking step after step away from my father and it kept not being far enough — is this: To what degree are mentally ill people — including alcoholics and other drug addicts — responsible for their behavior?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Are Addicts and the Mentally Ill Responsible for Their Behavior?. To read more about some of the many sides of this complicated and difficult question, read the rest of the piece.

Some Thoughts on Beauty and Ownership

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

jaguar xke in mad menThis is the fictional tagline that Sterling Cooper Draper Price comes up with for the Jaguar ad campaign in “Mad Men.” (It’s in the episode The Other Woman — warning, synopsis has spoilers. Yes, I’m re-watching old episodes, it’s getting me caught up on where we are in the new season.)

And it’s gotten me thinking: What does beauty mean?

So the idea behind this tagline, and the ad campaign, and indeed this entire episode, is that the Jaguar XKE is like a mistress: beautiful, sexy, desirable, impractical, temperamental, unpredictable. And the tagline is, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The implication being that you can’t really own beautiful women, and that many men feel this is a sad sad thing (one of the major themes of this episode) — but you can own a Jaguar XKE. You can get that sense of deep satisfaction from it — and you can keep it, and own it, and have that experience of beauty whenever you like.

But the thing is, as Michael Ginsberg himself says (the copywriter who comes up with the campaign and the tagline): It isn’t just people who you can’t own and keep. It isn’t just people who are elusive and changeable. Possessions are like that, too. Or at least, the experiences of pleasure we get from possession are like that. As Michael says when he’s pitching this idea to Don: Even very rich men, who already own many beautiful things, are still dissatisfied. The beautiful things they have aren’t enough. The Jaguar ad promises that this thing — finally, at long last, unlike all the other things — will satisfy their longing for the unattainable.

It’s a false promise, of course. And I started thinking about why that is.

Beauty is, literally, in the eye of the beholder. And by that, I don’t mean that it’s a matter of taste or opinion (although of course, that’s also true). I don’t mean that different people experience different things as more or less beautiful, or that duck-billed platypuses see each other as beautiful and see us as fugly. Well, what I mean is close to that.

I mean that the experience of beauty is literally in the eye, or the brain, of the beholder.

I mean that beauty is an experience.

And that means that it can’t be owned, or kept, or held onto.

Some objects or people are “more beautiful,” in that they’re more likely than others to evoke that experience in more people. But the beauty doesn’t really reside in the objects or the people. It resides in the mind and the heart and the body of the beholder. And trying to hold and own and keep this experience of beauty is actually what makes it slip through our fingers. Letting transitory experiences be what they are is what lets them sink in deeply and resonate throughout our lives. Struggling to keep them, to make them permanent, is what makes them slip away — and makes us miss the point.

megan-don-draper-mad-menIt’s one of the themes of this episode (and indeed of the entire freaking series). When we try to hold and own and keep the people in our lives who give us pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of beauty, we actually drive them away. And when we take them for granted, when we act as if they’re ours forever and we never have to do anything else to keep them around, we drive them away. It’s only by letting people be who they are, by not taking them for granted and respecting their right to make their own damn decisions, that we deepen our connections with them — and increase the chances that they’ll stick around. If you love something, set it free, and all that. Except that if it comes back, it still isn’t yours. It never was. We don’t own each other. We can’t.

blue suede shoesEven with objects, ownership often doesn’t work. Often, the experience of beauty is one of surprise. We tend to get inured to the beautiful things that are all around us. (I think this is one of the reasons I like buying new clothes and putting together new outfits: I like seeing myself in a new way, so I can more easily see myself as beautiful.) Part of the experience of beauty is the experience of the extraordinary — and when something is in our life every day, it becomes ordinary. We can find the extraordinary in the everyday, but it takes more work.

And you know how, if you’ve had an amazing vacation someplace, you often have this desire to try to re-create it, to go back to the same hotel and eat at the same restaurants and visit the same museums — but if you do, it isn’t the same? And if the place is amazing again, it’s because you did something different, or saw something you weren’t expecting? That.

We can certainly load the dice. We can own beautiful objects. We can make connections with beautiful people (beautiful in all senses of the word, not just physical). We can create beautiful experiences for ourselves — or experiences that are likely to be beautiful. We can work to make a life that is more likely to create the experience of beauty.

We can own beautiful things. But we can’t own beauty.

In (Moderate) Praise of Not Being Yourself

legally-blonde-movie-posterElle: “No more trying to be something that I’m just — I’m just not.”

Emmett: “What if you’re trying to be somebody you are?”

-Dialogue from “Legally Blonde” (a surprisingly good, smart, funny, and feminist movie).

We talk a lot about how important it is to “be yourself.” And of course I see the great value in this. When you live in a culture that has powerful and unreasonable expectations about what you’re supposed to be like — based on your gender, your race, your age, your upbringing, your looks, your geography, and more — of course there’s value in pushing back against that. Of course there’s value in insisting that as long as you’re a basically decent and ethical person, you shouldn’t have to try to force yourself into boxes you just don’t fit into, and you don’t have to live up to anybody’s standards but your own.

Totally agreed.

But I think that sometimes, in some situations, there is value in not being yourself.

Here’s what I mean. I started thinking about this when I was talking with a fellow writer, someone a couple/few decades younger than me, who was talking about their anxieties about self-promotion. I said that I totally understood this anxiety: I have it as well. Writers tend to be introverts, remote observers, the exact opposite of the personality required to be a publicist. And self-promotion requires a degree of self-confidence, and confidence in the value of your work, that borders on arrogance — confidence that many people lack, and that women especially get pounded out of us from an early age.

But I also said that my greatest regrets as a writer were regrets over missed opportunities: large, exciting doors that opened briefly, and then closed, because I didn’t have the gumption to walk through them and announce myself. And I said that a huge part of the reason I’d gotten to a place where I could work as a writer full-time — something I wanted passionately and had been working towards fiercely, for decades — was that I was willing to suck it up and do self-promotion. Despite the fact that I hated it, that I wasn’t any good at it, that I had no aptitude or stomach for it, I had to suck it up and do it anyway. If I was going to do the thing that was most deeply in my nature — writing — and devote myself to it full-time, I had to be willing to do something that was entirely antithetical to that nature. And I had to get good at it. Or at least competent.

Learning_curve_chartI’ve found that many smart, talented people have a stumbling block: We don’t like to be bad at things. We’re used to learning things quickly, and we’re used to being good at things. So when we come across something that’s hard, something that doesn’t come naturally, something where our learning curve is slow and torturous, something that makes us actively uncomfortable, we tend to give up. Because we’re used to picking things up quickly, we often assume that, if we aren’t picking something up quickly, we’re never going to pick it up at all.

But I think that there are very few areas in life where we’re naturally good at every single aspect. You might have an aptitude for medical care, but not have an aptitude for rigorous record-keeping. You might have an aptitude for plumbing, but not have an aptitude for customer relations. You might have an aptitude for scholarship, but not have an aptitude for bureaucracy. You might have an aptitude for starting a business, but not have an aptitude for bill collecting. You might have an aptitude for writing or painting or music or just about any art form, but not have an aptitude for the self-promotion that just about any artist needs. If you want to do the thing you most love, the thing at which you would excel, you might have to learn to do something you hate, and are not very good at.

And I’ve found that, at least sometimes, learning to do things that didn’t come naturally to me had unexpected payoffs, in surprising areas of my life. I worked for years as a bill collector for a local LGBT newspaper — a job that absolutely, 100% did not come easily to me. But learning how to do it didn’t just give me the opportunity to work at that newspaper. It taught me how to ask for what I need and want and deserve, clearly and firmly, while still being respectful, being reasonably flexible, and maintaining an ongoing friendly relationship. And learning how to do self-promotion has done wonders for my self-confidence as a writer. I think I write better, with less self-doubt and more strength and clarity, because of it.

We should absolutely be who we are. (As long as “who we are” isn’t “total raging asshole.”) But if we’re going to be who we are, I think we sometimes have to work to be things that we’re not.


Should You Give Amateur Medical Advice to People With Mental Illness? A Flowchart

And now, for those who learn better with visual aids, I offer: Should You Give Amateur Medical Advice to People With Mental Illness? A Flowchart. (This is my very first snarky flowchart: I’m proud of it out of all proportion, and hope to do more in the future.)

Should You Give Amateur Medical Advice to People With Mental Illness? Flowchart

On Being on Anti-Depressants Indefinitely, Very Likely for the Rest of My Life
“The drugs are hurting us more than they are helping us”: How Not to Talk to People With Mental Illness, Episode 563,304
Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episide 563,305

Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305


In response to my recent post, “The drugs are hurting us more than they are helping us”: How Not to Talk to People With Mental Illness, Episode 563,304, I received this comment from one Timothy Matias:

Just my two cents:

“It is seriously fucked-up to undermine people’s [efforts to improve the lives of mentally ill people] for the sake of preserving their ” relationships with their health care providers.”.

Here’s a bit more than two cents, based on my experience:

[link edited out, since I don't want to reward him with blog traffic; if you really want to see it, I have not edited the link out of the original comment -GC]

Everyone’s entitled to their opinions. When you call them “fucked up” for expressing their opinions about medication, the only “fucked up” person is you!

This kind of closed-minded, self-righteous response is no different than a Christian telling an atheist that it’s fucked up to suggest that a person should quit God. HOW DARE they risk damning the person’s soul to hell because of personal experiences of feeling better living without God. HOW DARE they undermine the relationships and trust between Christians and their church elders and leadership?

This kind of closed-minded approach to medicine, and the application thereof, is nothing short of RELIGIOUS :/

I will say that again: I received this comment, in direct response to my post explaining why it was a bad idea generally to give unsolicited amateur medical advice to people with mental illness (or with any illness, for that matter), and specifically to tell people with mental illness to ignore their doctor’s advice and not take prescribed psych meds, and saying that the blog posts here discussing this matter were not the right place for these debates. (And yes, just to be perfectly clear, that policy applies to this post as well. Meta-discussion of how to discuss mental health care with people who have mental illness is acceptable (although I’ll be keeping a close eye on it); unsolicited medical advice to people with mental illness is not, and will result in the commenter being put into comment moderation.)


Okay. I’m going to spell this out as clearly as I possibly can.

Do you really not see the difference?

Apparently not. Okay, I will spell out the difference.

God from Monty Python and the Holy GrailFirst: There is a significant difference between offering your unsolicited advice about religion, and offering your unsolicited advice about people’s medical care. The existence of God is not a topic on which anyone is an expert. Some people are experts on religion, theology, apologetics, etc. — but nobody is an expert on God. You don’t need any special training to reasonably come to the conclusion that there are no gods. (The fact that nobody is an expert on God, and that nobody can say anything about God with any degree of certainty or hard evidence, is actually one of the best arguments supporting the conclusion that God does not exist.)

This is not the case with medicine. Medicine is a field where some people really do know more than others. Trained medical providers are very far from infallible, but they still know a hell of a lot more about medicine than Some Guy On The Internet. (It’s hard not to notice that the link you linked to doesn’t actually contain any research, or even any links to any research — it’s just your opinion.)

At the same time, medicine is a field in which some people have special training and expertise — but it’s also a field in which, by its nature, that expertise is often not precise or universal. This is especially true for psychiatry and mental health care. What works for one person often doesn’t work for another, and providers often have to proceed with some degree of educated trial and error to find a care plan that works for each particular person. Therefore, it is incredibly arrogant for Some Guy On The Internet to assume that they know what mental health care plan would work for me — better than my medical providers, who have detailed information about my particular condition and priorities and medical history, and better than me, who knows more about my condition and priorities and medical history than anyone.

It is depressingly common for sick people — people with mental illness, with chronic non-mental illness, even people with common colds — to get deluged with unsolicited amateur medical advice. At best, it’s annoying; at worst, it undermines your ability to make your own decisions, and your confidence in that ability. When you’re trying to make medical decisions for yourself, it’s already difficult enough without a barrage of uninformed, under-informed, and ill-informed advice filling your head. And it’s already difficult enough without advice that amounts to the message, “You’re doing it wrong. I know better than you. If you want to please me, you’ll do it my way.”

And for people with mental illness in particular, this is especially difficult. Mental illness has tremendous stigma, which people with mental illness often internalize, and we often (a) feel like we’re letting people in our lives down by having mental illness, (b) feel like having to get treatment for mental illness is a sign of weakness, and (c) are barraged with paternalistic messages telling us that simply having mental illness makes us incapable of making any decisions about our care. Unsolicited advice in this area is more than just annoying. At best, it is patronizing and demoralizing, which itself undercuts our mental health. At worst, it can lead people to make terrible decisions about their mental health care, with devastating results.*

Homeopathic Dilution RhustoxSo unless someone tells you that their health care provider is prescribing actual quackery (like homeopathy or something), or unless you have some crucial piece of information that you’re pretty sure the person you’re talking with isn’t familiar with (and “Psych meds are all horrible and nobody should take any of them/ the entire mental health care profession is borked and is not to be trusted” doesn’t count — believe me, we’ve heard that before), or unless you have some more substantial evidence for your position than “I know that the established standard of care is (X), but this one guy disagrees and wrote a book about it,” it is seriously fucked-up to undermine people’s relationships with their health care providers.

I absolutely want for there to be vigorous, rigorous public discussion and debate about medical standards of care — especially when it comes to mental illness. I am well aware of serious problems in the medical system (especially in the United States), and people speaking out about those problems is how they get addressed. And I understand that there is serious debate, even within the medical community, about how to best handle mental illness. I want that debate to happen, and I want people in the general public who are affected by the medical system (which is to say, everyone) to participate in that conversation. But have that discussion and debate in public spaces, where people agree to discuss and debate. Don’t shove it in people’s faces who are trying to make good decisions for themselves, and who haven’t asked you for your opinion. People who want advice will generally ask for it. If they don’t, then offer empathy, and shut your cakehole about how much smarter you are than they are.

Which brings me to my other point.

Second: Even if you don’t accept this difference between debating religion and debating medicine? There’s a difference between simply debating religion, medicine, or anything else — and doing so in a space where the host has specifically said that they don’t want these debates.

Yes, I am a big advocate of arguing with believers about their beliefs in God (for atheists who want to do that, that is). But even I don’t advocate telling believers, “You’re wrong to believe in God, here’s why,” in spaces where people have specifically said, “I don’t want to debate this.” There are plenty of other spaces for those debates.

You have every right to express your opinions about mental illness and mental health care. You do not have the right to offer these opinions in personal spaces, to people who have not asked for them. And you definitely do not have the right to offer them in spaces where people have specifically said that they don’t want to host that debate.

You have violated my clearly- and repeatedly-stated request about comments. I am putting you into comment moderation. Future comments from you will have to be approved by me before they are posted.

* Here are a few particularly eloquent things that other people have said on this topic in these discussions here. [Read more...]