In Search of OK

I haven’t been polictial on this blog, and I don’t think I’m going to use it that way. I could tell you that I was at the airport this Sunday protesting the unjust travel ban created by an administration I don’t support at all and in fact fear quite a lot. That probably wouldn’t surprise you. I could go into more details about my political preferences and current disgust, but I’ll spare you. I’m not interested in assigning labels to myself in any capacity, least not political leanings. My Facebook political views are this: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Buy me a beer sometime and we can hash some political debates. Instead, I’d like to focus this post on how I deal with negative feelings like the ones I have now, and maybe you can find something similar in you, dear reader. I think how to deal with it all is the larger theme I’ve been thinking about since November, rather than any particular (if offensive) set of events.

This won’t be a “how to” post. I can’t answer questions of how you’re going to feel OK, because I can’t answer that for myself.

I noticed tonight I was compulsively searching multiple news sources for some hint that things were not as bad as they seemed. Some words I could read between the lines to feel better. They weren’t there. If I had to estimate, reassuring words probably won’t be coming from the news for the next 20 years, if ever. So what mechanism was powering me to graze over cold, upsetting facts even though no good is to come of it?

I think we’re pretty bad as humans of knowing how to just sit and be humans. Negative emotions must be distracted away by something entertaining, or at least that’s the modern way. I admit I’m guilty of it. If not reaching for this very phone screen I’m typing on, I may find fleeting entertainment in alcohol or food that doesn’t nourish. The times I have sat and purposefully avoided leaving negative emotions turned out to be illuminating. One time I noticed how tears are quite hot on your face if you just let them run. Another time I noticed a particular pain in my body I had been ignoring that needed attention. I’m far from being a practicing Buddhist, but I come closer to being a sane animal when I don’t get caught up in words and simply feel. Maybe this applies externally to not getting too caught up in words from news or social media, and focusing more on the present sensations at hand.

I learned from a seminar on hope that “to stand with your face to the cold wind and move forward is the bravest thing you can do as a human” (paraphrased). Incidentally, I was falling asleep to a documentary about Antarctica and carbon dioxide history in ice this weekend. (I watched most of it, and enjoyed what I was conscious for.) I’ve been walking to work almost every day this winter in a cold region, and I don’t feel that brave, just beaten down. Maybe that’s what bravery really feels like. It’s not glorious at all, less a state of feelings than a state of integrity. The Finns have a word that I’m obsessed with that translates poorly to English and means roughly the quote above; that word is sisu. I believe my grandma embodies sisu. I would like to, but I’m afraid of not living up to it. Maybe you grow into it with more scars, windburn, lost loved ones, and time. Many cold winters probably also help.

I don’t consider myself depressed. (Mom, don’t worry too much.) Low energy lately. I think with some practice of quiet moments and breathing, along with long walks in warmer weather, my energy will be higher and better. I haven’t journaled or written essays or blogs in a while, and that likely also contributes. Something in me decides to write as a way of sussing it out when I’m upset. I like this maxim: “When in doubt, sort it out.” I will probably leave this post feeling slightly more OK than before I wrote it, if only for the increased understanding of my feelings.

Realistically, most things are decent or OK. I think we tend to focus more on the extraordinarily pleasurable or disgusting than the unremarkable decent in our lives. Breathing is decent and always there. Carpets are decent. Light bulbs are decent. Most people on public transportation are decent. If you graph out the majority of things along the acceptability axis, it’d look like a bell curve, with the enjoyable and the terrible as several standard deviations away from the norm. In that way, it’s probably not fair to expect pleasure as often as we do, and it’s likely damaging to our sensitivities to indulge in too much pleasure, or, for that matter, pain. Knowledge of this is probably part of sisu, but what do I know? I’m Swedish.

My friend D asked me yesterday if there are any foods that I think taste bad. He is quoted as saying I have a “broken mouth”, i.e. an unrefined palate equal to that of a goat or a garbage disposal. But I threw the question back to him, and he couldn’t come up with anything. He used to hate cilantro, but doesn’t anymore. He doesn’t like some foods for the texture or appearance, but it’s not the flavor that drives him away. Maybe the tongue is a wiser organ than the eyes.


Practical Approaches To Impractical Imperatives 1: “Grow Up”, Part 1

In a conversation with my dear friend B tonight, I had an idea for a writing project. This idea will probably take my whole life to complete, but I’m willing to work at it for that long; it would be something I would have liked to read, and I hope it benefits another reader or two. What is the big idea? Take completely impractical imperative commands that others give me and work out practical solutions to them.

Here’s an example impractical imperative: “You have no tact. You need to grow up.” (Someone actually told me this.)
How does one just “grow up”? How does one acquire said tact? Someone already “grown up” and with tact can demand this the same way someone with a job can say to the homeless, “You need to get a job. Stop begging.” In other words, the advice dealer forgets or ignores the toil involved with acquiring the state he or she is in.

Allow me to offer another take on this. What does it mean to “grow up”? In this case, it means to be sensitive to the discomfort others might feel with the things you say or do. Does it benefit you at all to “grow up” if you are having more fun playing around? There isn’t a direct benefit to you, but you may be unfairly judged just for being silly in a professional environment. But there is a practical approach that allows you to show your true self, while also being sensitive to what others might find uncomfortable or inappropriate. In the best case, everyone can enjoy each other and be themselves. In the worst case, you can just agree to respectfully not associate.

A Win-Win Approach to “Growing Up”:

  1. Around others you don’t know well, start slow. Small talk is all right as long as it is not faked. Imagine turning on your TV or car stereo at full volume. Pretty startling, right? Approach with this perspective if you would like to get to know someone whose perspective may not be as open as yours.
  2. Listen actively to these others. What was interesting about their weekends? What gets them excited or makes them laugh? If you hear something from them that actually interests you, ask some open-ended (“how”, “why”, “in what way”) questions about it. Take notes if you need to. If you don’t find anything to talk about, you can always gracefully and honestly exit with, “All right, I better be going,” (for when you can actually walk away) or “Thanks for sharing.” (for when you have to remain seated around them)
  3. When you feel like being silly, use some subject matter that the others find amusing, and that you also like. Note: If there isn’t common ground, you can keep dialog to, “Good morning, Sharon,” and NOT talk about something you don’t care about; feigned conversation is not pleasant for anyone. If you and they find logical fallacies funny, tell some stories or draw some pictures showing this. Tell some honest stories that have ridiculous endings, leaving out explicit details that may rouse discomfort; people are generally drawn to honest and funny stories.
  4. To support the points above, practice being very honest. This means to note when you stretch the truth or outright lie, and ask yourself why you didn’t tell the full truth. What emotion caused you to withhold what you really thought? Examine the emotion and ask if it can be resolved another way. For instance, you may lie about your vacation because someone else’s sounds more impressive to you. You might feel insecure that you didn’t have the resources or time to enjoy such a vacation. But you can approach another honest way. Ask open-ended questions on the other person’s vacation when you would instead lie about yours. Maybe you’ll learn a tip on booking a cheap flight. Maybe you’ll get some ideas of how to have the same, fun experience at a fraction of the cost, like enjoying a local bed & breakfast as a getaway. At the worst, asking open-ended questions here about things that actually interest you is a great way to connect with someone, and the connection can help to build a nice relationship.
    I would advocate 100% honesty with a muzzle on difficult topics around those who may be sensitive. If you are always honest, realistically saying when something will be done and showing up when you say you will, the others will develop respect for you. This respect makes your silliness tolerable. People begin to trust you, and with this trust built, they are more likely to want to know who you really are, silliness and all. They may even drop their own guard. I have personally seen this happen with a very reserved and conservative coworker (and you should know by now I’m not very conservative), where we now can both laugh about my secret cookie and cake binges even though I eat vegan most of the time.

The imperative to “grow up” can feel very restricting, but you don’t need to ignore your youth. If you are sensitive and honest, the true state of being “grown up”, you can at best be your silly self, and at worst respect and be respected.

Writing on the unwritten rules,