Listening For Our Voice

When thinking of our personal growth, it is important to realize that no one ever really changes who they are. At best, we simply learn to mitigate our extremes and soften the rougher edges. If anything, as we age and learn more about ourselves, by concentrating on healing and living a life that is right for us, we can become more who we are. Self discovery, not self improvement, should be the ultimate goal; for with it, the improvements come all by themselves.

My late teens and early twenties were particularly difficult for me in terms of identity and social anxiety. At that age there is a strong internal drive to declare definitively to the world: “I am here! This is who I am!” But at the same time, we are not yet sure who we are. We have been living an identity that has mostly been constructed for us by others: stuck with all the labels and perceptions of the people who have known us for our whole lives. In getting out in the world, we make new friends, who form their own notions of who we are, and this often clashes with the notions of folks who have known us longer. Often the people themselves then clash, leaving us stuck in the middle of conflicts that also represent an internal conflict of personal identity.

It is tempting to embrace these new people’s version of you, because they are usually responding to what you consciously presented as a new identity. At this stage of life it is useful and fun to try on different personas; to experiment with your identity. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it is important to remember that none of this is really, truly who you are. Your inner core, your true being, is still buried, trapped in all the layers of culture, upbringing, social convention, and trauma that you carry within you like sedimentary layers.

You will find people and groups that feel so right, so you, and then, suddenly it will all turn to shit as you realize everything was an illusion; that you were all play-acting a fantasy together. Don’t take this personally, it is all part of the process.

Then there’s the closeted gay boys at your new job who befriend you with creepy intensity before behaving like a clingy, fifteen-year-old girlfriend and getting in our face with vague condemnations like: “you aren’t being a good friend because I feel like you’re holding things back from me, even though I can’t say what things those are.” (It’s cock.) But we internalize this and search for those deficiencies in ourselves.

Oh, wait, that last bit’s not a universal experience? Sorry. However, you will be meeting people who get ignorant because they want to fuck you, don’t have the courage to come out and say it, disguise their needs and hopes as friendship, and then start blaming you for not reading their mind and making their dreams come true.

This is all relevant because as we age, we hopefully learn that the perceptions of others need not be our truth. People will develop notions of you based on your utility to them, and will more often than not resist any change in your behavior that doesn’t reinforce their own choices. Even when these notions are positive, they can be problematic for our personal growth. They may be flattering, certainly, but to build our identity out of them is an inherently dangerous enterprise. We then are stuck seeking out more and more validation from others and can get sucked into traps like consumerism, religion, and the false community of shared drug taking.

This all amplifies the noise that interferes with hearing the voice of our true selves, deep within us. There are times in our lives, especially when we are young, where it is of vital importance to unplug. Take a break from everything and everyone that has become normal to you and do your best to isolate yourself for a while. And when that anxiety takes over that makes you want to rush out to a club or put on a dumb movie or post pictures of yourself to social media so you can track the reactions for six hours, fight through it. You are anxious because you are leaving your comfort zone, and it is fighting through that anxiety that can take you to a place where you can start filling some of those holes within yourself.

There can be very real consequences to not taking this time to examine ourselves.

In my case, I spent most of my twenties in a kind of emotionally catatonic fugue state. I just drifted, relying on a defense of humor, cynicism, and, at the extreme, explosive rage to keep people at bay. And in this state I did a lot of ignorant, hurtful shit.

I’m sorry for it.

The lesson is that I am not the coping strategies I adopted to manage life. I am not my rage. I am not what was done to me. I am not the music I like, the games I played, the cigarettes I smoked, or the booze I tried to kill myself with. Who I am has been altered by all these things, for how could I not have been? But I am not these things.

As I discard these crutches and identities I can shed the layers of sediment and, more and more all the time, become closer to myself.

That is the gift of aging and of (sometimes) taking our time doing it.

Addict

For many, substance abuse is a way to avoid figuring out who you are. It was for me.

To learn who you really are is not easy. You must dig down through all the layers of childhood trauma and the fossilized coping mechanisms you created to deal with it. Dig until you find some little ember; some small part of you that remained untouched, somehow. Then you must care for that ember. Give it fuel, breathe upon it to stoke it up into a flame you can light your way forward with.

This is hard. It can mean letting go of the person many people think you are. It can mean letting go of those people when they can’t accept who you need to be now.

It can make it very hard to relate to people for a while. This can be a lonely, alienating process.

So much easier to grab hold of something external. The bottle. The pipe. The little baggies. These alternatives to developing a personality. Taking this shared experience of partaking as a substitution for a true community. For a family.

When you are on a drug, you become like the drug. When you are drunk, you are a drunk. The drug obliterates the nuances and subtleties of personality that make an individual unique; but in doing so, it gives users something in common with each other.

Your little user squad becomes like a group of shipwreck survivors, each clinging to a bit of flotsam. You have found each other and cobbled your bits of wreckage into a life raft to share. There is camaraderie and the exhilaration of finding other people like you.

Except they aren’t like you, it just seems like they are because you are all high in the same way.

This is not to say the experiences might not be meaningful. For a time. Or that you won’t find a precious relationship here. You might. But as you spend more time in this place, you will increasingly feel the hollowness of it. It will become strained; difficult; unpleasant. As the dabblers become addicts, the pathology of the drug will weigh heavier upon the group. Upon you.

If you are lucky, you will realize early enough that you must leave this place. That you are now creating more fossils to deal with. More weight to drag with you. That you have come no closer to that ember within you. Indeed, you are probably further away from it than you ever have been.

If you are unlucky, though, you’ll have substituted your personality, your essence, with a simple label:

Addict.

This label can become your identity, and will cling to you like a fossilized exoskeleton. Weighing you down. Dragging you under. It is not an easy one to put down.

Best to avoid it, if you can.

Better to find out who you are.

If you can.

Humble Selfie

“Humble selfie” is the perfect oxymoron for our times.

I realize that most people who do the whole selfie thing probably have no idea what I’m talking about here. Not just that they don’t know what the word oxymoron means (although most probably don’t), but that they aren’t able to get why it is oxymoronic. It is like saying something like “noisy flower.” It’s just nonsense: does not compute.

The play on words that makes an oxymoron humorous is the juxtaposition of two opposing concepts. It’s funny because there’s no way for a selfie to be humble, but a lot of selfie takers probably have the self-delusion that some of their selfies are. So it’s funny. Ha ha.

Here’s the thing about selfies: they are inherently narcissistic and self-involved. It’s the whole point of them. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad, though. Don’t get me wrong: I like looking at tits and ass as much as anyone, so keep em coming.

Something can be narcissistic and still be okay. It’s one of those things that can be a harmless indulgence if taken in moderation. Like chocolate, alcohol, or murder. It only becomes a problem when it gets excessive.

The problem is, collectively as a society, we have decided that narcissism and self-involvement are not a problem. In any dose. As with so many other things the consensus is: well, if a little is fine, then a whole shit-tonne is just fine too. Just as we have decided that obesity is okay. That mass cyber-bullying is great as long as the target “deserves” it.

However, just because you’ve decided that big is beautiful and you can be healthy at any weight, it doesn’t mean that you really are healthy at that weight. Diabetes, heart disease, and a bevy of other ailments are rampant because of obesity. Society may have moved the goal posts on what is “normal,” in order to make sure that everyone doesn’t feel excluded or upset for any reason, but that doesn’t change our physiology.

So it goes with narcissism, and the problems that come of that are psychological.

The human mind is a product of the brain, which is an organ. There are physiological reasons why some people behave certain ways. Mental illness is real. Just as type one diabetes is caused by a malfunction of the pancreas, schizophrenia is caused by a malfunction of the brain. Sufferers of both these diseases had no chance to prevent or avoid these illnesses; they were dealt a shitty hand by genetics.

There are many illnesses, though, that humans give themselves through their shitty behavior. Get obese and drink two liters of sugar soda a day for a couple of decades and guess what? You’ve given yourself type two diabetes. Work shoveling asbestos everyday without a respirator and you’ve got lung cancer. These truths are now self-evident.

So it goes with mental illness. The most observable and self-evident of these is addiction. Take alcoholism. Someone drinks too much for too long and what happens? They change their brain and their behavior shifts to match the pattern of an alcoholic.

“Oh there he goes! Come on, now! Alcoholism isn’t a disease! Addiction isn’t a disease!” some might proclaim.

I see why you would say that. I used to think the same. But then I went through alcohol recovery and was educated on the physiological process of addiction. So I am no longer ignorant on the matter.

What constitutes addiction, medically, is an observable change in the brain of a user. When scanned, an addict’s brain functions differently than that of an non-addict. With prolonged use of certain substances, people essentially change their brain’s wiring. (Or chemistry, if you prefer. Choose the oversimplified analogy that works for you.) This is observable. This is medical fact.

So I ask you: how is alcoholism any different in principle than type two diabetes? Drink too much soda and you fuck up your metabolic system and become diabetic. Drink too much beer and you fuck up your brain and become alcoholic. It’s just a different organ under attack.

If addiction isn’t a disease, then type two diabetes isn’t either. You can apply whatever moralistic code you want to it, it doesn’t change the science.

See a theme developing here? Imagine two circles. One represents what is. The other represents what we think about what is. They are separate things. Now they might overlap, like a Venn diagram (check my favorite below, included gratuitously because it’s awesome).

Humble

In our diagram of reality and perception, where the circles overlap represents where our thinking is correct. Truth is a keytar playing platypus. The problem is, we don’t have access to that diagram in our lives. What we do have is science, which is the surest system yet devised for moving those two circles closer together.

Of course, few of us are scientists, and those of us that are are expert in only a very narrow area, and a lot of humbuggery is presented as science; so we have to put a pin in things at some point, just to get on with it. We decide what is probably true and move on with life, which is the right way to do things. But realizing that what we think and believe might not be correct is important.

Only fools are certain.

There are all kinds of reasons why our thinking might get fucked up. It might be physiological, it might be psychological, or it might philosophical. It’s usually a fun combination of all three!

One of the signs of pathological, willful self-deceit is the blind-spot. That which is glaringly obvious to an outsider is completely invisible to the person with fucked up thinking.

“No, you don’t understand, man! I know what this looks like, but Bob the Sun God is on a higher plane of thinking than the rest of us. He needs all my money because he wants to teach me about the futility of consumerism! Can’t you see that? And he needs to fuck my wife so that she can be elevated as a vessel of his love. It’s a great honor for us!”

Imagine a space alien coming to earth to study us. Or even a human person from a society that has not yet been wired. They stand on a street corner in any bustling city and what do they see? A majority of people wandering around staring at little chunks of plastic they carry with them. When they do put them down, the devices soon beep and chirp at them, pulling their attention back.

What the fuck is going on here? What has happened to these people?

“No, you don’t understand, man! It’s just like a book, or a newspaper, only better, see? Look at this picture of commuters all reading newspapers on a train in the fifties. We’re no different!”

But I don’t remember grandpa pulling his newspaper out at the dinner table. Or at church. He certainly wasn’t mailing photos of himself to the thing to be printed ever day.

And if he had done any of those things, he would have been rightly regarded as a damned lunatic.

Blind spot. The addict refuses to see the clear and obvious source of their problems. We have seen how self-indulgence in other vises lead to genuine illnesses. But what about the selfie? What does an chronic abuse of narcissism give you?

Anxiety and depression.

Do you think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop comes to exist in a world where people are engaging with technology in a healthy way?

As with other vice induced illnesses, a symbiotic relationship between the industries that cause them and those that treat them has developed. There is a lot of money being made on both side of the equation.

I don’t give a fuck whether you’re happy or not. It makes no difference to me. But do not doubt there are an awful lot people who very much want to keep you unhappy. There are whole industries devoted to exploiting the miserable. Pharmaceuticals top the list in terms of tradition, old-economy industries, but there’s no shortage. Cosmetics. Fashion.

Social media.

You have been trained your whole life to measure your self-worth in quantifiable terms: what your grades are, how many points you score, how many people come to your birthday party, how much money you make, how much your consumer goods cost, how many “friends” you have on social media.

How many likes your selfie gets.

So you get the same dopamine rush from a “successful” selfie as do from those other, real, accomplishments. But it doesn’t last, does it? Because a selfie does nothing tangible for you. Nothing good anyway.

The selfie is to your psyche as corn syrup is to your metabolism. As alcohol is to your brain. It’s no different. The good news is that it’s no worse. Have a coke. Enjoy! Have a beer. Why not? Post a selfie. Fun!

It’s all good. Just remember that we have learned that junk food, sugar, alcohol, and other drugs, for all their pleasurable benefits, have a serious down side. We have (hopefully) learned that moderation with these potentially dangerous things is important.

Balance is the key. A key to achieving balance is avoiding blind spots about our self-destructive impulses.

Don’t ever forget that a selfie is inherently narcissistic and self-centered. Like whisky is inherently intoxicating. That’s its whole point; it’s why it is pleasurable. So it is important to remember that when we get carried away with our narcissism, as with an alcohol or drug bender, it’s time to take some time off from it and detox.

Or don’t. Then you can explore the fun and exciting world of mental illness. There are so any pharmaceutical options for treating that these days.

Ask your doctor what is right for you.

On Smartphones

I recently had an exchange with a close friend that condensed some nebulous feelings I’ve been having into annoyance acute enough to distill into this. Such is my process.

My friend discovered that I don’t have a smartphone. I never thought this was a big deal, but rather than treating the revelation with the same interest and intensity that one would reserve for discovering someone boiling their water on the stove instead of using an electric kettle, he seemed to take it personally. “Why not?! Adapt or die!” he exclaimed.

Uh-huh. Well, sorry, but of all the things likely to kill us in this world, not having a smartphone doesn’t seem high up on the list. This shit is not our next evolutionary step; it is a conduit for advertisers and web companies to beam their bullshit directly into our brains. However, my friend’s tendency to engage in hyperbole aside, he did get me thinking.

This is not the first time I’ve run into this attitude. I’ve had numerous people get emotionally invested in the kind of phone I use, and then take my lack of enthusiasm for their choice in consumer electronics as some kind of personal slight. Or they skip right to the abuse phase of their shilling exercise. That’s fun too.

“Oh man! Your shit is so old! Bleat, bleat, quack, quack, honk!” *vomits Apple logo into my entree*

The tendency to take another’s choices in what to consume, or not, personally is a basic personality malfunction that’s pretty common. This is not my topic. I am here to answer my friend’s unreasonably put reasonable question: Why not have a smartphone?

My answer was and is: Why would I? I’m misanthropic enough without piping the internet into my head 24/7.

Now let me get one thing straight: I’m glad you have purchased something you enjoy. That’s swell! I will happily pretend to listen to you recommend it to me, once or twice, if that’s what you want to do. I simply don’t see why I should have to defend not buying one myself. But since that’s what I seem to be doing here, I may as well get on with it.

The reaction to my lack of smartphone use runs deeper than the simple superficial huff over someone not liking what you like; the “how could you order a fish fillet when there’s a Big Mac on the menu?” The level of the reaction is telling of the depth of the person’s love of, and dependence on, the device in question. It’s like I told them that I don’t use toilet paper: the immediate, visceral reaction is one of, “how does this neanderthal even function?”

To many smartphone users, the device slowly becomes the very center of their existence. It is the needle that delivers the heroin of internet addiction. Mainlining Facebook, Instagram, and Celebrity Star Fuck. These are all products, and on the internet we the consumers also become product to be packaged and sold to other corporations. Rather than consuming these products in scheduled times, like other consumption based leisure activities, the smartphone user is able to do this during their every waking moment.

If you fail to see why this has the potential to be very, very bad for some people, then I can only ask you how the blue pill tasted.

I’m not saying that smartphone users are all brainwashed sheeple addicted to the very source of their slavery. Smartphones are a tool, and I would say most people use them as such in healthy, useful doses. Again, I’m not saying people shouldn’t buy them. But, for people like me, who get addicted to every fucking thing they come into contact with, this shit has real potential to cause very serious harm. As well, I think for anyone, smartphones diminish happiness and true human connectivity over time.

The whole notion of connectivity as it is used to sell internet delivering technology is a big, beautiful, genius lie. Connected to what, exactly? Okay, maybe you’re using the internet exclusively to talk with far away friends and family, read important ideas, and educate yourself about the world you live in. That’s fabulous. However, for most it’s all that other stuff.

I’m speaking directly to the smartphone addicts now. So if this doesn’t apply to you, then pretend you are berating them alongside me. It’ll be therapeutic.

The problem is, this connection to whatever you want online is immediate. There are no more quiet, dull moments to fill in life. You aren’t forced to ponder your own existence at the bus stop while watching other human beings do the same. You don’t notice and appreciate the beauty of someone’s little garden because you’re too busy looking at pictures of Earth porn and worrying that you will never get to go such places. You are less likely to notice the interesting and beautiful things going on right next to you. And when you do, your first impulse, indeed your only reason for looking up from your phone in the first place, is to take a picture of it or tweet about it. All to generate imaginary internet points while you fundamentally miss the full experience of what you are meticulously cataloging.

This is the source of the feelings of isolation and loneliness so many are feeling. You are missing those quiet moments with yourself, to be filled with contemplation and self reflection. This is how we communicate with ourselves, get to know ourselves, learn to love ourselves. You are feeling lonely and isolated because you have become separated from yourself. Your inner life has been hijacked by a constant barrage of product.

Further, this technology that has the affront to claim it’s all about connecting people is actively driving a wedge between them. Maybe you actually retain some semblance of etiquette and basic human social skills and do not continually check your phone when spending time with people. Spending time face to face, in person, having actual conversations that don’t rely on factoids and trivia regurgitated from little hunks of plastic. Some people still enjoy this. But even when you’ve put that phone away, I can feel the anxiety building in you, because like Pavlov’s dog, you have been conditioned to need to know “what’s up” immediately, and consume more internet product every time your little device chirps at you.

So, given that this is what I see going on around me, and given that I can get as addicted to the internet as the worst of them, I am not going to buy a smartphone. Thank you for your recommendation all the same.

Pete Holmes said basically the same thing quite a while back but much more eloquently than I ever could. Check it out.