What would a bad man do?

I always found this cartoon amusing. I went into academia because I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. And to a certain extent, that’s true. I have tenure. I can’t be fired unless I do something egregiously bad. Sure, people might expect a lot from me, but I’m free to tell them to fuck off – right? Right?? Isn’t that the luxury of having tenure? Isn’t that why I tolerated all the suffering and distress on the tenure track?

So why do I feel like I have so little control over my time these days? Why do I fantasize about leaving academia and working a 9-5 job?

The answer is service, the little blue wedge in the graph on the left. Or more accurately, it’s the interaction between service expectations and my complete inability to say no. Service in academia includes serving on committees within the university (like promotion and tenure committees or hiring committees), as well as service to the profession (reviewing articles for journals, organizing sessions at conferences).

That’s why I found this article – A Good Little Girl, by xykademiqz – so enlightening. Good little girls are people-pleasers who play by the rules. And when a good little girl become a professor:

The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.

Now, I’ve never really thought of myself as a good little girl. I’ve always thought of myself as fairly independent, someone who doesn’t like feeling obligated to conform to others’ expectations. I mean, didn’t I go into academia – and fight for tenure – because I wanted to be free from having to do others’ bidding?

But in reading this, I realized that in my entire career, I have almost never missed a deadline for reviewing a paper for a journal. The few times I did miss a deadline, it was by less than a week. I also used to say yes to every request to review papers. Every. Single. Request. After all, don’t I send plenty of papers out to journals to be reviewed? Isn’t it important to be a good citizen and repay the favor? But recently I became an associate editor for a journal, and I started sending out my own review requests. And I learned – to my absolute shock – that a lot people say no. That’s when I started being more selective about which papers I was willing to review.

Within my institution, I’ve rarely turned down requests to serve on committees. I mean, isn’t it important to be a good citizen and contribute? When I was a junior professor, didn’t I benefit when senior colleagues took on this kind of work and protected my research time? Don’t I need to pay it forward? Sure, some academic committees are pretty useless. But the university would come to a standstill if everyone refused to serve on promotion and tenure committees, search committees, or other such crucial committees. But serving on these kinds of committees has eaten away at my time for research, teaching, and fun. It has exposed me to a shit-ton of toxic academic politics and sent my anxiety levels through the roof. Chairing these kinds of committees has put me in the thankless role of cat-herder, someone who needs to cajole a bunch of academics – remember, these are people who don’t like to be told what to do and also can’t be fired – into staying on task.

Now, I probably do also spend more time on teaching than most of my colleagues. But I’ll set that aside because I find teaching rewarding. I don’t resent the work I put into my teaching. It’s the service that’s killing me.

xykademiqz is right when she says that service doesn’t help your career. Publications are the currency of academia. That’s how you get ahead. Certainly not by doing thankless service.

So I don’t think I overestimate the value of service for my career. Then why can’t I say no? The answer is that I can’t stand the thought that someone, somewhere might not like me. I have a pathological fear of my colleagues seeing me as a selfish jerk, a bad citizen, or a lazy-ass. That to me is just as bad as the threat of getting fired, the threat that tenure removed.

xykademiqz goes on to give some refreshing advice:

  • Go, right this minute, and put a “Not available to review” status at journals that often prompt you to review for them. Commit to rejecting all new review requests, no matter who sent them, for the next 2 months.

  • Get off of any new committees that you were put on in the past month. Or the past six months. Cite a scheduling or personal conflict. Apologize profusely. Many people think women are flakes anyway. You might as well act like one, for once.

  • Stop attending faculty meetings till the end of the semester. Cite a scheduling or, better yet, a research-related conflict.

And most importantly:

  • Vouch to never again miss out on family fun (or quality time with your dog/marathon/whatever) because of stupid service.

But as refreshing as this sounds, a part of my brain was protesting furiously as I read it. Academia is full of egotistical, selfish jerks. I don’t like these people or admire them in any way. Why would I want to be more like them?

But that’s the good little girl speaking, and it misses the point completely. The point is that right now, being a good citizen doesn’t feel like a choice that I’m making, a free exercise of my values. It feels like I’m being forced into it at gunpoint by my own fear. And it’s making me miserable. It’s making me question my career choice. It’s one thing to perform adequately in service. It’s another to consistently – in one’s annual performance review – receive the highest possible rating on service.

So I need to detox. I’m going to follow the advice that xykademiqz gives for at least the next year. I’m going to commit to saying no to almost every new service request. There’s a line from the movie War Dogs: “I’m not a bad man, but in certain situations, I have to ask myself: ‘What would a bad man do?’” I’m going to live by that. Once I start getting lower ratings on my service, I’ll reassess.

 

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Digital Crack

I used to have a job where I was basically expected to be on email 24-7. I had an employer-issued Blackberry back then. When it buzzed – at 10pm, at 3am, on Thanksgiving, whenever – I was expected to respond in a timely manner. Would I have been fired for not responding? I don’t know and I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to do my job well, and that meant responding quickly when something important was going down. The job was temporary and that was a good thing. While it was a fantastic life experience, it wasn’t sustainable.

These days – as an academic – there’s absolutely no need for me to be on email 24-7. Nothing in academia is that urgent. Yet I still find myself checking for messages in real time – at 10pm, at 3am, and on Thanksgiving. New messages take on the urgency of a fire alarm, demanding my immediate attention and a swift response. Sometimes it feels like I spend my entire day putting out fires. It’s exhausting. From the little I’ve read, it sounds like scientists have shown that it’s basically an addiction – each time you check email, it’s like a hit of crack. I can see that. Each time I check, I’m seeking reassurance that the sky isn’t falling, that work problems are being resolved just the way I want, that I am in control of how life unfolds.

So I decided to quit cold turkey. Not entirely, of course – that would be impossible. And email has in many ways been a godsend for a shy and socially awkward person like me. It’s much easier for me to express my thoughts in writing, after having time to reflect. But, with the help of an app called Boomerang, I’m checking email only twice a day. Boomerang “pauses” my inbox so that messages stop coming in, though I can still send them whenever I want.

The first few days of detox were hard. There were huge amounts of boredom (“what am I supposed to do with myself??”) and anxiety (“what if the sky really is falling and I don’t know because I didn’t check my email??”). But now it’s mostly just liberating. As I said, nothing in academia is that urgent. So let the sky fall.

I’m trying the same for Facebook. Opening Facebook is also like a hit of crack. I’m seeking reassurance that people are responding positively to what I post, that my costume of identity is on straight. Unfortunately there’s no Boomerang app for pausing Facebook. (I so wish there were!!) But I’m trying to log in only twice a day and stay on the site for a limited time. Definitely no on-demand, boredom/anxiety-driven checking for that alluring red notification. Instead, I have to sit and squirm.

In Hand Wash Cold, Karen Maezen Miller wrote, “What we pay attention to thrives. What we do not pay attention to withers and dies. What will you pay attention to today?” I’m becoming painfully aware how easy it is for my attention to be hijacked by emails, by Facebook notifications, and – perhaps even more insidiously – by my own incredibly urgent and important thoughts. (Unfortunately there’s no Boomerang app to pause thoughts, or a way to log out of my brain :-)) Meditation has taught me that attention is like a muscle that can be trained. My attention muscle is pretty out of shape. Actually, that’s an understatement. We are talking serious flab and atrophy here. But, through meditation practice, it’s getting a little stronger. It’s tough, but I’m trying to be more aware of what I’m paying attention to.

Mindfulness and Selfishness

I came across a Washington Post article entitled, “Mindfulness would be good for you. If it weren’t so selfish.” The author, Thomas Joiner, argues that “authentic mindfulness” is a pretty good idea:

True mindfulness recognizes every instant of existence, even those of great misery, as teeming and sundry. It encourages adherents to be dispassionate and nonjudgmental about all thoughts, including those like, “I am hopelessly defective.” Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect and gain distance and perspective.

This is about recognizing that each thought is inconsequential and thus not worth getting depressed or anxious about. Viewing the mind’s moment-to-moment products as of a similar standing as floating motes of dust — myriad, ephemeral, individually insignificant — is admirable and requires genuine humility.

However:

[M]indfulness has become pernicious, diluted and distorted by the prevailing narcissism of our time. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it’s practiced and more to do with how it’s promoted. People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are counting on those breathing techniques to deliver almost magical benefits. And, all the while, they are tediously, nonjudgmentally and in the most extreme cases monstrously focused entirely on themselves. That is troublesome for mental health practice and for our larger culture.

This version of mindfulness inevitably “tends to be described in terms of what it can do for us as individuals.”

I’ll start by admitting something up front: what motivates me to practice meditation is relieving my own suffering. When I sit with my Zen meditation group, at the end of our practice, we recite: “May whatever excellent qualities we have gained from this practice be extended for the benefit of all beings.” That’s all well and good, and it certainly feels like a noble aspiration. But what actually motivates me to sit is not all beings. Sure, I care about others and it would be nice to help them. But I mostly just want the excellent qualities for myself. I wouldn’t spend so much time on my cushion if I didn’t expect it to have benefits for me as an individual. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest. If mindfulness were not marketed in terms of what it can do for us as individuals, I doubt anyone would bother.

When I was a kid, I read a short story called “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” by Roald Dahl. Henry Sugar was a guy who started to meditate because he wanted to develop superpowers. Specifically, he wanted the ability to see through cards and predict the future so he could make a lot of money gambling. (The Yoga Sutras describe some of these alleged superpowers – siddhis – that come from meditation. I’m pretty skeptical, but who knows.) Anyway, Henry’s love of money motivated him to practice hard, and he eventually developed the powers he wanted. He went to a casino and won a ton of money. But then he realized that all the hard practice had had an unexpected side effect: he no longer cared about money. So, he started using his gambling winnings to fund orphanages instead. It kind of makes you wonder if Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness initiative – presumably aimed at improving employee productivity and the company’s profit – might “backfire” in a similar way.

So, while I can’t deny that I practice for mostly selfish reasons – to improve my life – I hope the practice is strong enough to handle that. I mean, if I were truly enlightened enough to be motivated only by helping all beings, I probably wouldn’t need meditation. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher, once said, “Don’t think you do zazen [seated meditation]. Zazen does you!” Of course we bring all our baggage and narcissism and self-absorption to the practice. But maybe we can trust that – if we continue to show up – the practice will do us despite all that. I sure hope so.

That said, the way mindfulness is marketed bothers me too. For example, Joiner writes about how mindfulness is often equated with “self-care”:

Indeed, self-compassion and self-care are intertwined with the popular concept of mindfulness. The notion seems to be that it is not selfish to tend to and even to prioritize one’s own needs for care and understanding. After all, this line of thought goes, how can one be available for others unless one is fully present, and how can one be fully present unless one’s own needs are met? …

Of course, self-care in the sense of adequate sleep and nutrition is eminently sensible. But it seems that the most ardent fans of self-compassion focus on things like relaxing vacations, restorative massages and rejuvenating skin-care regimens. This preoccupation gives the impression that “self-compassion” is code, and a rationalization, for doing things people already find pleasant.

I see that a lot, particularly in the yoga community. It drives me nuts sometimes. The thing is, I’ve always been the queen of self-care (of the self-indulgent rather than just the basic variety). This was true long before I started meditating. I indulge in regular pedicures, massages, and me-time. I love spa vacations. I love taking walks by myself and getting lost in good books. I love savoring cocktails at fancy restaurants overlooking the beach.

And let me tell you, meditation – at least for me – does not feel like any of those activities. It isn’t relaxing. It doesn’t make me feel special or pampered. It is often unpleasant. Getting a massage is a far more enjoyable use of time than meditating. Hell, getting a cavity filled or standing in line at the DMV is often a more enjoyable use of time than meditating. I mostly use self-care as a distraction. “I’m feeling bored. Maybe I’ll go get a massage. That’s a pleasant way to fill time.” “I’m feeling stressed. Maybe I can lose myself in a novel.” And these things do help me get through the stresses of life. But meditation at its most effective offers no such distraction. If I’m bored, I have to sit there and be bored. If I’m anxious, I have to sit there and be anxious. All exits are blocked.

I did not turn to meditation because I was looking to add to my already extensive repertoire of self-care activities. I turned to meditation because self-care was simply not cutting it in the relieving suffering department. And I’m slowly discovering that meditation can bring about a deeper form of relaxation than any kind of self-care activity. It can help me relax even while I’m not relaxed, even when the moment that I’m in truly, deeply sucks and is the exact opposite of a blissful self-care experience. And in doing so, it can soften my sense of entitlement to a constant string of blissful self-care experiences.

Joiner further argues that there’s not much evidence that mindfulness helps with health conditions anyway. He’s probably right that mindfulness is over-hyped relative to the actual scientific evidence. As a social scientist myself, I sympathize. But honestly, I’m not sure I care what the scientific evidence says about mindfulness. I’ve occasionally told health care providers that I meditate. And their reaction inevitably is, “So, has it helped with [condition X] yet?” Somehow this always makes me bristle. It feels kind of like asking someone, “So, you say you’ve been praying daily for three months. Has it helped your arthritis yet?” In other words, I get annoyed when health care providers treat my spiritual practice as a mere medical treatment, as something that’s supposed to work exactly the way we want it to work, and on our time rather than God’s (as some religious folks might put it). I feel like it totally misses the point.

But that’s just my knee jerk emotional reaction. A more reasoned version of this is that most of the studies on mindfulness are done over a few months. Over that time frame – at least in my experience – meditation sucks royally. It took me years of daily practice to start seeing benefits. I’m not sure if that’s typical, but I remind myself that in the religious traditions from which mindfulness is derived, real change takes place not over weeks or months or even years, but over decades and lifetimes. Yes, multiple lifetimes. Even if you don’t buy into reincarnation, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the pace of progress and the patience required. I said above that I turned to meditation because self-care wasn’t cutting it in the relieving suffering department. Well, medical treatments were not cutting it in that department either. Trust me, if they were, there’s absolutely no way I’d have the patience for such a tedious and mind-numbingly boring practice.

I have one final reflection – and this is kind of tangential to Joiner’s main argument. Joiner attributes the self-absorbed version of mindfulness to the narcissism of our modern society. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers argue that it comes from divorcing meditation from Buddhist – or any other form of – morality. But as I was reading the article, I remembered that it was actually the Buddha’s own behavior that used to bother me the most in this regard. According to Buddhism’s founding story, the Buddha was raised in luxury as a prince. After starting to notice and be bothered by the fact that human life was full of suffering, he chose to leave his wife and newborn son to try to find enlightenment.

I don’t know how much of this story is factually true. But I used to spend a lot of time worrying about it. How could I possibly practice a religion in which it’s okay – even admirable – to abandon your family responsibilities? To claim to be doing what’s best for humanity in the abstract while being an asshole to the specific humans in your life? Plus, the Buddha was a privileged male. The path he took of abandoning his family to practice probably would not have been open to a woman. It probably wouldn’t even have been open to a man who had to work to support his family. How can such an elitist, sexist, self-centered path possibly lead to the truth?

When I first started practicing, I spent months trying to figure all this out, to justify it to myself. I read books to try to reconstruct the facts of what happened. I concocted explanations – all thoroughly unsatisfying – for how the Buddha’s behavior could be consistent with my values, with my notions of what “true” religion should be. And since there’s no shortage of analysis out there on the internet, it was easy to keep the hamster wheel spinning.

I’ve gone down similar rabbit holes with other religions I’ve explored. In Christianity, for example, I could not get past the belief that people who did not accept Christ – that’s, like, two-thirds of the world – were going to hell. Again, I’d spend hours trying to understand, rationalize, explain. I read books. I googled. I researched alternative interpretations that I could live with.

But all of this – trying to figure things out, trying to find the perfect religion with nothing that offended my values, trying to make sure everything I believed and practiced was morally correct, true, and consistent – was futile. It was the same type of overthinking and overanalyzing that created misery in all the other areas of my life. It was extremely self-absorbed in the sense that it assigned enormous importance to my thoughts, to my interpretations, to my ideas of what a religion should be. And ultimately, what I needed was to cut it all off and just practice. I needed to stop feeding the fruitless speculation, sit on my mediation cushion, and bring my attention back to my breath. Repeatedly.

I don’t worry much about the Buddha and his family any more. It’s none of my business. It’s above my pay grade. And dropping that chalupa has been a major relief. But I’m still constantly trying to rationalize and figure out my practice. No matter what experience I have during meditation – pleasant, unpleasant, boring, profound – there’s a part of my mind that wants to judge, to analyze, to mansplain. If I have a “bad” meditation session, I worry, I get defensive, I problem solve. If I have a “good” meditation session, I congratulate myself, and I try to figure out the recipe so that I can recreate it. My mind is constantly trying to insert itself into things that aren’t my business.

The mindfulness practices that seem to work best for me are minimalist. Take your attention off the continuous mental chatter, the continuous analyzing and return it to your breath. Repeat as often as needed. Nike Zen, as one teacher I used to know put it. Just do it. Don’t argue, and don’t ask questions. Sit down and shut up.

There’s a (disputed) story about the physicist Niels Bohr that goes something like this: Bohr had a horseshoe hanging over his office door. When asked how a scientist could possibly believe in such superstitious nonsense, Bohr replied, “It works whether you believe in it or not.” I sometimes feel the same way about meditation practice.

Nonjudgment Happens

I have a love-hate relationship with meditation. It’s been that way from the very start. The standard instructions for meditation are to focus attention on your breath, perhaps by counting it or using a mantra. If you get distracted or lose count, you nonjudgmentally note this and bring your attention back to your breath. Some teachers say it’s like training a puppy. When the puppy wanders off and starts doing his own thing, you gently bring him back. You need to be patient and not abuse the poor puppy.

I used to get really hung up on the nonjudgmental part because it seemed impossible. My mind is always judging. As soon as I get distracted or can’t follow my breath, the judgments kick in. “What’s wrong with you? Why is this so hard?” But I’m not supposed to be judging, right? So I immediately start judging the judgments. “You’re not supposed to be judging, you idiot. What kind of puppy abuser are you??” That’s just more of the same, of course. So I could treat this as a second chance, a chance to notice these thoughts nonjudgmentally and come back to my breath. But no, there are just infinite layers of judgment. Turtles all the way down, if you will. There seems to be no way to get out of this spiral, no breathing space to find even a sliver of nonjudgment. It creates a mental Gordian knot. It makes me want to give up and fling my meditation cushion into the dumpster. It makes me want to smack anyone who tells me to practice acceptance.

So I modified the standard meditation instructions for my own use. Bring your attention back to your breath – judgmentally or nonjudgmentally, it doesn’t really matter. Drag the puppy back by its neck if you’re so inclined. Or, better yet, forget the whole stupid puppy metaphor. As long as you’re sitting on your cushion for the designated time, making a half-assed attempt to bring your attention back to your breath every once in a while, it really doesn’t matter what else is going on.

That makes it much more doable. One teacher described meditation as training your “coming back” muscle. That feels like an accurate description, based on my experience. And making a half-assed effort to lift a few weights is infinitely better than skipping the gym altogether – right? Like Woody Allen said, 80 percent of success is showing up. I’m counting on that because often, showing up is all I do.

In the past 5 years or so, I’ve started noticing that there are moments when nonjudgment happens. It’s hard to explain, but it’s definitely different from saying that I stop judging. I don’t stop judging. But my thoughts – including my judgments – seem to float up against the canvas of the present moment. That canvas is amazing. It judges nothing. It provides a kind of “meta” acceptance, a universal set, that just kind of watches everything – all the infinite layers of judgment and turtles and whatnot – with curiosity. It feels like something bigger than me, and it’s there despite my brain’s best attempts to sabotage it.

Zen Master Seung Sahn frequently used to tell people to “put it all down.” A student once asked him, “But how do I put it all down?” (I totally relate to this student!!) The Zen master responded, “Put that down too.”

The canvas that I’ve discovered gives me a bit of distance from my thoughts. It helps me see that attention is different from thought, that I can bring my attention back to the present even as thoughts come, go, and get tied up in Gordian knots. I sort of understand now what some of the meditation books mean when they describe stepping back and watching thoughts like clouds. For the first few years of practice, it was like they were speaking a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but I feel like I’m starting to pick up a few words and phrases of that language. And for that I’m grateful.

Costumes of Identity

Ram Dass once said, “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.”

That quote has been resonating with me recently.

In college, I was a “straight A student.” I was “smart.” And each word of positive feedback, each A, each honor, each grad school acceptance letter, each award reassured me that my costume of identity was on straight. In a way, it was like being addicted to crack. I wanted each accomplishment to be at least as good as the last. I lived in fear of not getting my next hit, of not getting an A on the next test or in the next class, of not getting praised for my efforts.

All of this did give me an incentive to study hard. Nobody ever complained about this the way they might have complained if I’d been addicted to actual crack. I learned a lot in college, and that knowledge has served me well in my career. But – looking back – I had a pretty unhealthy addiction.

It’s basically the same today in both my career and my personal life. Each well-received talk, each publication, each compliment, each Facebook like, each show of appreciation or trust, each social invitation reassures me that I am who I think I am.

And it’s not just about external reassurance. There’s also a lot of inner dialogue supporting the elaborate infrastructure that my mind has created. I replay conversations and events. I tell stories. I review, edit, reinterpret, and reframe. I justify for an imaginary judge. I perform for an imaginary audience. I fantasize. I plan, plot, and scheme.

Over the past few years, meditation has helped me become more aware of all the energy I put into seeking reassurance that my costume of identity is on straight, into fixing it if it is not. And these days I’m willing to take that costume just a little less seriously. I’m just a little more willing to experiment with letting it be crooked, with sitting with the awful fear that I might not be who I think and hope and pray I am.

Yet – in a crazy meta twist that makes my head spin – it seems that even my meditation practice gets co-opted into feeding my narrative about myself. Sitting a one-week retreat, having a “good” experience during meditation, achieving a milestone (such as sitting almost daily for n years), having a positive interaction with my teacher all help reassure me that my costume of identity is on straight. And it’s even sneakier than that: meditation helps reassure me that I’m someone who is above caring whether my costume of identity is on straight.

But I do care. It’s hard to make a significant dent in an elaborate infrastructure that’s been reinforced without question for decades. It hurts when others don’t see me the way I want to be seen. It hurts when I perceive wrinkles in my costume of identity.

But I’m trying to spend more time letting the hurt be there and less time trying to fix it. And hopefully that’s progress.

Staring at the Sun

Yesterday’s eclipse was amazing. My husband and I watched from our balcony using our eclipse glasses. Right on schedule, at 1:17pm, I could see that there was a little “bite” taken out of the sun. At some point I started to notice that it was visibly darker. And then at 2:42pm – again right on schedule – the sun was more than 80 percent covered. Even though we were not in the path of totality, the experience blew me away. “Holy shit, look at the sky” seems about right:

[Source: xkcd comics]

But I was also incredibly anxious about viewing the eclipse. The internet was full of dire warnings, many in ALL CAPS, about the consequences of looking directly at the sun. There were numerous news stories about the number of faulty eclipse glasses that may or may not be in circulation. What if I accidentally looked directly?? What if my eclipse glasses were faulty? Or what if they were not faulty but had gotten damaged in shipping or storage? So many “what ifs …” And they weren’t totally crazy. I mean, experts confirmed that these were real risks. Even my glasses had a warning printed on them: don’t use them to look at the sun for more than three minutes consecutively, and inspect them carefully for damage before use. Okay, so was the slight smudge on one of the lenses “damage”?? Could I wipe it away or would that create more “damage”?? And if I looked for three minutes and one second, would my eyes be completely singed?? My imagination was running wild.

All this made me want to stay safely indoors. Why risk it? And I’ll bet some people did – I mean, jeez, the warnings were everywhere. But I’ve come to appreciate that most of the safety warnings out there – whether about the eclipse or about anything else – really aren’t geared towards people who suffer from anxiety. They are more geared towards ensuring that even the most cavalier members of society take some basic precautions. (I mean, the frigging president looked directly at the eclipse for a second or so – and, according to this article, probably suffered no damage – so there must be at least a tiny margin for screwing up.) And something else I’ve come to appreciate in the past few years is that life is full of risk. For example, most people drive to work every day despite the fact that fatal accidents happen every day. If your goal is truly to minimize risk, you will live an extremely limited life that’s controlled by fear.

So I chose not to let fear control my life – which is something I’ve gotten better at doing over the past few years. I acknowledged the anxiety but chose not to take it seriously. I chose to do what millions of people did and watched the eclipse though my glasses. And I’m extremely glad I did because it was SO COOL!!

IMG_0077

[Photo credit to my husband]

I also enjoyed reading a good eclipse day short story, “Nightfall,” by Isaac Asimov. It’s about a planet with six suns that never experiences darkness … except once every couple of thousand years when there’s a total eclipse. Since people on the planet have never experienced darkness, of course they are terrified of it. It was a nice reflection on eclipses, fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

 

I Got 99 Problems …

I used to believe that I could think my way out of any problem. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always loved math. In math, you can always reason your way to the solution. You might not be smart or dedicated enough to do it. But it’s possible, at least hypothetically. If you’re reasonably intelligent and willing to think about it hard enough, you’ll get there eventually. And there’s comfort in knowing that.

In college, I once encountered a particularly challenging problem on a statistics exam. I was stumped and felt myself start to panic. But I reminded myself that there was a solution. I just had to think about it. That enabled me to step back from my feelings. I started over and reasoned it through a different way. And I found the solution, thankfully before time ran out for the exam.

I wish life’s problems were like math problems. I often try to treat them that way. If I think hard enough, conduct enough research, do enough analysis … I can find the solution. But that’s often not the case. Life is full of ambiguity, inconsistency, and contradictions. Yet the gears just keep spinning, leaving me exhausted and frustrated, and no closer to a solution.

Reid Wilson’s self-help book, Stopping the Noise in Your Head: the New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, suggests that when you’re worrying about a problem, the first step is to determine whether your worry is signal or noise. A signal points to a genuine problem that has a solution. The worry serves a purpose by prompting you to pursue that solution. Noise is everything else. It’s unproductive worry that isn’t leading you to a solution. It’s endlessly spinning gears that aren’t taking you anywhere.

That’s a start. If it isn’t a genuine problem or it can’t be solved, then perhaps you accept it and instead work on disrupting the spinning gears (and the book has a lot of suggestions for doing that). This seems similar to the Serenity Prayer, which asks for the serenity to accept the things we can’t change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

But it’s the last line – the wisdom to know the difference – that absolutely drives me nuts. It creates a new problem to be solved: is the worry signal or noise? Occasionally it’s clear, but many times it’s not. And maybe this is itself an unsolvable problem. Maybe our worries often don’t fit into neat boxes of “signal” or “noise.” Maybe there’s no sharp distinction between productive problem solving and useless gear spinning. Maybe this is just another example of the ambiguity and messiness of life.

But maybe it’s not so much about distinguishing between signal and noise, as if there’s some objectively correct answer you’re striving for. Maybe it’s about actively working to classify a lot more stuff as noise. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-Prize winning behavioral economist, once wrote, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” In other words, any problem you’re worried about – no matter how serious – is going to have less impact on your life than you think. And any solution you identify to that problem is going to have less impact on the problem than you think.

So I’m starting to see that just because what you’re worried about is a genuine problem, and just because that genuine problem has a solution, it doesn’t mean you need to solve it. You can use Kahneman’s insight to downgrade just about every genuine worry you have. You can choose to ignore very real problems, treating these worries as noise. Hell, you can choose to treat anything except an immediate emergency – your house on fire, a broken bone – as noise. You can choose to say, “Oh well,” and fiddle as Rome burns. And sometimes it will lead to disaster and regret. But you can choose to see disaster and regret as part of the richness of human experience.

I sometimes feel like overcoming anxiety is like being an anthropologist. You observe the behavior of this strange and fascinating tribe – the “humans” – and you try to blend in. And – being a good social scientist – you need to keep in mind that what the humans say they do (or what they say you should do) is likely to be quite different from what they actually do. I’ve noticed that the humans often ignore very real problems. They have limited attention and energy. So they prioritize. At any given time, they let some aspects of their health, careers, finances, etc. slide. They often let real problems fester until these problems grow large enough to bite them in the ass. Of course the humans will tell you that if there’s a genuine problem you’re worrying about, then you should probably try to solve it. They’ll tell you that it’s a good idea to be proactive and prepared, to strive to improve yourself. They’ll give you plenty of praise if you do that. If you present them with one of your problems they’re happy to confirm its seriousness and suggest ways to solve it. But if you look at how they handle their own lives, they’re muddling their way through – clumsily attempting to solve the most pressing problems while ignoring others. And that’s the behavior  – the clumsy, imperfect, muddling through – that you as an anthropologist are aiming for. There’s a kind of grace and beauty in living a fully human, perfectly imperfect life.

There’s a story about a man who goes to see the Buddha because he has 83 problems – his crops have failed, his family disrespects him, he’s fighting with his neighbors, etc. The Buddha says he can’t help with any of the 83 problems. Even if it were possible to solve some of them, he says, others would simply take their place. So in a sense, any problem solving we do is just playing whack-a-mole; it’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But the Buddha says he can help with the 84th problem, which is that the man doesn’t want to have problems.

So I’m working on doing what humans actually do. Life is full of problems. And for every problem, there’s an endless supply of well-meaning friends, experts, and onlookers who are ready to confirm its seriousness and help you solve it so you can achieve a problem-free life. That doesn’t mean you need to take them up on the offer.

[I wanted to post a link to the Jay-Z song, but apparently that’s not available on YouTube due to copyright issues. So here’s a nerdy parody instead.]