Saturday, November 15, 2014

Literal Metaphors

I just watched 'Walk the Line' the Johnny Cash, June Carter-Cash biopic after many years of never getting around to it. You know the man in black has written and performed some of the greatest love songs of all time, and yet he was for the most part not a very good lover to his partners. Even the love of his love, his muse that inspired most if not all of those very great love songs.

Anyway whatever you can presumably watch movies for yourself or if time poor read wikipedia articles that have more peer review than this blog.

What got to me though, was the Tractor scene. A Literal Metaphor, though in another more literal sense a nonverbal communication. Johnny Cash's dad sees that his son has left a tractor stuck in the mud after unsuccessfully trying to pull out a stump. It's a metaphor for Cash squandering his talents to drug addiction, but it's also a clear cut piece of communication.

He is literally leaving an expensive piece of equipment out to rust and deteriorate - and it says something about Johnny Cash that he would do that.

I watched this in the comfort of my room where plates and laundry glasses and garbage have been piling up for a couple of weeks now. The house has fallen into a state while I played video games. I hadn't shaved my face in a week and no, I am not growing a beard nor desire to.

In other words, I am exhibiting all the physical/non-verbal tells of somebody who is grieving, or depressed. Ironically, when getting out of the house I've been practicing mindful walking and when my thoughts return to me, they are generally appreciative of the quality of life I have achieved here and now. Yet I could not prove to an outsider that I am not depressed or in a funk.

I don't feel like I am, but why am I living like I am? That is the question.

So I wrote down on a piece of paper, a brochure for my local Greens Party candidate 'something is wrong' and stuck it to my wall.

Today I started cleaning, and will keep going until it is done. It is strange to think though, that whatever problem I have that I am not conscious of, I might make it untrue by removing the physical symptoms.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fixer Upper Fallacy

Frozen is undoubtedly one giant leap forward for Disney. I can only fault it on two points -

1. The Disney Princesses still promote unrealistic body images for girls.
2. There is a song about how a guy is a 'Fixer Upper'

Which you know, was dropping the ball. Olaf wasn't a fixer upper at all. He was kind, handsome, courageous, generous, honest, risk taking etc. Olaf is one of the least flawed love interests Disney has ever offered young girls. The one redemption being that Olaf's shortcomings in the song are superficialities, like manner and presentation.

Those things, ironically are the easiest to fix, or change. That's a relative term though. Clothes and appearance are a matter of self expression and attempting to change them can be met with a surprising amount of resentment and hostility.


I conflate the 'Fixer Upper' concept in a partner with the 'Op-Shop Find', I think that's the myth people are drawn to and it has its roots in a persons self esteem, or lack there-of. I speak from personal experience and much reflection. I just suspect it's a really common belief.

What do I mean by the 'Op-Shop Find'? I was reminded last night of the Simpson's episode where Marge finds a Chanel dress on sale in a thrift store and subsequently enters a new strata of society. Making the story of the Op-Shop find, practically proverbial. So everyone going into an Op-shop I believe is looking for a bargain. They are looking for the items there that don't belong there. They are looking for something they can't afford at a price they can afford.

The trouble with the analogy is that we know Op-shop finds exist. I have no direct observed data point that when it comes to relationships, someone has ever snatched a bargain.

I would use this fascinating article to support my observation that this is a pretty common fallacy/human driver.

What I feel is human, all too human, is to actually go looking for some superficial flaw in people, like a dented soup can, We can handle a dent in the soup can, because the soup is still delicious but the store might give me a discount for taking the 'damaged' stock.

Hence you get a bunch of people, lots of people (especially me) that decide they can put up with lying, anxiety, depression, greed, narcissism etc. I'm not saying some hellish combination of all these traits, but rather - "I can take the dishonesty this person displays because they are so intelligent, beautiful, vivacious, enthusiastic etc. "

The result in my case has been to constantly overestimate the superficiality of a character flaw. And overestimate my abilities to withstand it, to 'put up' with it.

Which is where you move from 'Op-Shop' find, to 'Fixer Upper'.


Let's be charitable. Let us suppose that it can be done. But I should be clear, I am being charitable.

Let us suppose that somebody can be 'fixed up'. What does that mean? It means that somebody changes, to suit you. The italics part is the crucial

I do believe people can change, people have for example beaten addiction and achieved lasting sobriety. People can have mental health issues that are episodic or transitional. People become Vegans and, permitting me to be facetious, Vegans have been known to become people again.

Virtually everyone develops from childhood into maturity. People also generally adopt the norms of their social environment, change in the social environment is perhaps the biggest driver of change in individuals.

Having said that, a 'personality' is functionally a collection of behavioral traits that are stable over time. The best predictor of future behavior is subsequently, the past relevant behavior.

That is not the change we are charitably believing can happen. I'm talking about the process of changing someone into who you want them to be.

Let's say it can be done. This change could take place independently and spontaneously. In which case you are the recipient of dumb luck. Good for you, but it doesn't sound like a plan.

A plan sounds like building compassion, empathy and understanding to create strategies and incentives that bring about the desired change. It requires a mutual undertaking and investment of considerable time and energy that is expensive. It is a huge project of indeterminate duration, that we are charitably speculating can be done. Can be achieved.

I say the project is an expensive one. At whose expense?

The obvious candidate is you. In Gordon Livingston's book 'How To Love' where he advises against the pursuit of Narcissists, Hystrionics, Deppressives, Anxious, Borderline and Foolish partners the key cost he outlines is that these people 'waste our time'. The single most precious resource we have.

The second candidate is your partner, or prospective partner, though they remain the most likely candidate to also benefit from the change. After all if a person can beat a substance abuse problem thanks to your efforts and caregiving, regardless of how the relationship turns out they are objectively better off.

The third, and perhaps most crucial candidate who pays the price for the (presumed successful) endeavor to enact change - and this has become an article of faith for me, though the evidence is coming in slowly - is that our efforts to make somebody become the person we want them to be, is at the direct expense of the person who actually is that person already.


That pair of jeans you found in the store that just needs some 'minor' repairs to be 'good as new' may come with a $20 discount over the non-defective pair of jeans they were sitting right on top of. 3 months later they have simply become your 'round the house' pair because you never got around to fixing them and the fly never closes. And you saved $1 on the can of soup that had been dropped and dented, only to find the warp in the metal took you 15 minutes to manually get the can opener to chew through it. And you wound up spending 3 hours driving across town to borrow an obscure book from a library when you could have bought it at a cover price less than your hourly wage.

There are conceivable scenarios where we underestimate the superficiality of flaws in physical goods. Personality defects, even when only relative to our own preferences are several orders of magnitude greater in our ability to underestimate. Some of us, even idealize them.

There is to my understanding no book in the world that advises looking for a partner that is 'broken' and to fix them up in order to obtain a partner you would not have been able to obtain in the first place. The underlying assumption is that your efforts to fix will be rewarded with loyalty and appreciation, rather than resentment and frustration.

Even though nobody has ever that I know of, given this advice explicitly, I feel like it is one that is commonly subscribed to. It possibly sustains many a psychoanalyst's practice.

Understand though, even allowing for the possibility that the strategem might work, it remains a costly and unethical one.

Monday, November 10, 2014

To Feel Offended

I was once told, by a nutritionist that guilt was a useless emotion. Not useless in and of itself, except as a call to action. There was no reason to sit around feeling guilty. There is no way to un-ring the bell know what I'm saying.

Though I was told it once, I'm fairly certain I've written about it a number of times.

What I can't get a grip on is why I get offended. I actually have found it hard to find out what offense is. Look it up, and you get the legal definition. Not the psychological/emotional state.

But I certainly can get offended. I can feel offended. I'm not sure if I can truly be offended. As in I don't think it is within the power of others to offend me, it is an emotional state, a response that originates from within me.

I feel this is a pretty good assumption because it's pretty easy to observe that people are offended by different things. There are people that get offended by swear words. There are people that get offended by portrayals of violence towards children. There are people who aren't offended by either of those things.

The Buddha says:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

So if you think of 'offense' as the antonym of defence, then maybe feeling offended is to percieve oneself to have been attacked (presumably effectively). This feeling though holds open a door to multiple responses - counterattack, defense, retreat, pain, suffering.

It certainly feels involuntary, and maybe the key word in the Buddha's offering is 'Holding on to' much like sitting around feeling guilty.

The question 'Why do I feel offended?' often yields curious answers, or no answers at all. The offense evaporates under scrutiny. It virtually always reinforces that it is indeed me that generates the feeling of offense.

I don't have the answer, it is an active and ongoing investigation. I need to observe what happens within me as my sense of self and esteem keeps growing, will others be stripped of any percieved authority to threaten my ego? Will I always be vulnerable to extrinsic validation? Will mindfulness and the shattering of illusion of ego result in their being nothing to offend? Will my physical reality, physical and psychological health deteriorate without feeling offended and defending myself somehow?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

A Dream I Once Had... 4?

Been so long since I turned the blog dream journal.

I had a particularly vivid dream a couple of weeks back. Graphic, and vivid and horrific. I was not my confident and borderline psychotic self in other dreams that have stuck with me. I was under siege, in a flimsy caravan with a door that is hard to shut and lock. It was some kind of apocalypse, and I kept having to let straggling survivors into the caravan, while death approached on their heels.

Then in the broken continuity of my dreams, this frustrating and terrifying process was abandoned and we were dodging abandoned vehicles on a highway overpass fleeing. We took momentary shelter in a multilevel parking garage. My companions were unfamiliar to me, but one of them here was suggesting that they give up fleeing. That nothing bad would happen and everything was fine.

Continuity broke again and I got to watch what happened to this companion. They were infected, their face deformed and grotesque, yet their manner was one of confusion and bewilderment. The infection was some kind of parasite taking over their body, it grew through them and out of them putting down roots of some kind. All the while they remained conscious and simply questioned what was happening to them. It tore them open without killing them and rearranged them, grafting them to the ground. Their confusion turned to terror as they could cry out nothing more than 'what's happening?'

Victims were grafted together, into some mural of living flesh. The alien parasite itself was unintelligible but seemed to be serving its own design. I simply watched organs and people being rearranged first onto the ground like some root system, then onto a large concrete wall.

And that was as much of a conclusion as my dream offered.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Learned Helplessness

see here: learned helplessness

I am struggling with the irony of learning that in the face of learned helplessness, we can be rendered helpless. Impotent even.

Your country is being invaded by horrible fascist communist aliens. They round up civilians and use them for horrible experimental testing that results in much pain, suffering and eventual death. All you have to do to avoid this horrible fate is get in the car and drive north. Yet you don't. You just sit there frozen. You don't even have to drive, your family and loved ones are imploring you to just get in the car and flee with them.

You insist that it is 'hopeless' and lay your head down on the table and fold your hands behind your head as if pinning yourself down.

This 'you' of the story is exhibiting learned helplessness. Actually, I'm not qualified to make the diagnostic. There's not enough backstory. Let's just assume they do.

Here's the philosophical question of relevance - are they or aren't they capable of helping themselves?

Physically capable seems to be the case. They are able bodied, and have the material means to flee. They seem psychologically incapable of perceiving this, or constructing the possible reality where this works. They also appear to not be able to formulate that the downside risk of trying to flee is exactly the same as doing nothing at all. Which is to say if you don't speak in terms of 'downside' and 'upside' risk like I do. Your fate is no worse if you attempt to flee and fail, than if you merely surrender. But there is some possibility that fleeing will provide a better fate than surrendering. Furthermore, surrendering does not make your eventual fate any more pleasant.

Learned helplessness is so bizarre to observe from the outside. Imagine meeting an adult whom throughout their entire schooling was told that the question 2 + 2 does not have an answer and the answer cannot be determined. When you say '2 + 2 = 4, everybody knows that.' they look at you like you just said your parents are leprechauns. When you try and demonstrate it using fingers on each hand and counting, they shake their head and say 'I don't know what you are talking about.'

This should be noted, as being a different experience from when you meet some mathematics PhD and they are telling you how Fermat's Last Theorem was eventually proved and saying 'I don't know what you are talking about.' or more likely 'buh?' because in this case, I at least am willing to believe that there is an answer and that my PhD toting party guest has an expertise I should defer to. It costs me nothing to believe her, I simply don't understand what we are talking about because of my lack of expertise. I haven't 'learned' to not believe her, I just haven't learned to speak her language. Politeness demands of me that I try, curiosity motivates me to.

So... what are we left with?

First and foremost, a frustration that somebody is seemingly capable of helping themselves, and for some reason they choose not to. This is distinct from somebody who is suicidal, because this person actually dreads their fate, they just can't/won't do anything to avoid it.

Here then do you step in? Relieve this person of their executive command over their fate and pick them up and dump them in the car and drive them to safety? Possibly, here though, it does cost you something to save somebody incapable of saving themselves. Compensating for helplessness is possibly harder than compensating for injury or physical disability.

It is September 11, 2001 and you are evacuating the twin towers down however many flights of stairs there were. On one floor you notice two people, one in a wheelchair trying to figure out how to descend the stairs, you offer to help, with two able bodied people the task should be manageable. The next floor down, you see a completely able bodied person curled up on the floor with their head between their knees you yell 'come on man! we gotta evacuate.' They look at you and shake your head.

I'm not a doctor or rescue worker, but I imagine the mind makes a physically harder obstacle to overcome in rescue than paraplegia. (It should also be noted, that people who obtain a physical disability I imagine are far less likely to come down with learned helplessness).

I suspect now I have answered my own question, though it's wholly unsatisfying.

The first is that you have to let go of the frustration, and accept that this person, though the condition may be hysterical, physically can't see the answers in front of them. They are not prone to panic, they just cannot perceive reality accurately in the first place. Their mind renders them incapable of escaping their fate. So don't get frustrated with them, it doesn't help.

Secondly, you can carry them out of the burning building only if you can afford to. You have to weigh up the costs of doing so. Will it result in the two of you dying? Is it at the expense of somebody whose ongoing survival prospects are greater? It is no good clearing one immediate hurdle for them if there are a thousand hurdles to go and you barely have the stamina to get yourself over them all.

But sure, you may rescue them once, and as you carry them out of the smoke into the clear blue skies, they may even remark 'I couldn't have done that.' and that's where you need to remember to say 'hey no problem.' instead of slapping them across the face.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

It Was A Good Day

In defiance of all my superstitions, Wednesday was a really good day. It wasn't raining, I had to go to work, and it was after all a Wednesday, a nothing day in my books. (I spent a few years of my life being afraid of Tuesdays and craving Thursdays, I actually scheduled my lessons with Zamin on a Tuesday in order to ensure that Tuesday was always a good day).

As I rode into work I almost got doored by my long lost retail flirtation partner. It is delightful to have anger transform into delight, possibly even more so than pure delight. I got to yell 'HeyyyyyAY!' at her as I rode on. Maybe one day she'll add me on facebook.

Then I got into work, which was pretty unexciting, in and of itself, I had good company that shift though and was able to impart some books recommendations that had actually helped me.

Then I got happy birthday'd from an attractive colleague whom impressively had no visible means of discerning it was my birthday. Such is a precious gift.

I came home to a response from a friend that while not in and of itself great, is at least a reminder that reconciliation is possible if not a quick and efficient process. It was cause for optimism.

I am grateful for that day.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Origin of Ethics?

Somedays you stumble upon a good starting point for a clutter of ideas in your head.

I'm thinking ethical behavior has to start by assuming there are no necessary evils.

I think the Buddha said something like this about suffering. I'm not a Buddhist and don't have the time to look up the 4 pillars.