Monthly Archives: September 2016

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The Other Side of “We”

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Imagine a large field. Populate it with images of people. Close your eyes and think for a minute about “We.”

Here’s a happy little field with a stream running through it to help you out:

When you envision “We” who joins you in your field? If I say to you “religion”, does the population change? What if I say “politics”? How about “nation”?

We are…

In your mind’s eye, what are the people wearing? What color is their hair, eyes, and skin? What are they thinking? What do they believe? What are their traditions? What makes them part of your “We”?

Here’s a peaceful waterfall to admire while you contemplate:

We are bound together by…

Now, in your mind you should have a picture of your “We”. You know what makes your group special. You know what ties you together. You know what makes you a “tribe”. If you wanted you could actually see the bonds between each individual, see each link that connects people to each other, and to you.

Perhaps one of the links says “family”. Maybe it says “community”. If you try you can break the links down even further into individual concepts. The link called “religion” breaks down to its constituents: beliefs about god, purpose, sacred rites, holy books and all those strands that make up the religious ties between you and your “We”. The link called “politics” does the same. As you imagine this you can see all the connections vividly, the most important connections thick like steel cables, unbreakable. When you imagine this you feel whole. A part of something bigger than yourself. Part of a tribe. Part of a family.

You now have your mind map of “we.”

Pause for another moment to internalize this picture you’ve created.

Here’s a cool visualization of the links that make up the Internet to get lost in:

“I” from “We”

Now that you are firmly rooted in your “We”, I have to wonder, what part of the whole makes the individual? Was this image created over time based on your upbringing, your income, or perhaps your genetics? Why is this your tribe and how tightly do you feel bound to them?

What would you do for the people within this cloud of connections you’ve created? Would you give your hard earned money to support them? Would you give them your time? Would you give them your life? What would you do to continue to belong to this family?

I find the dichotomy in many cultures that profess the importance of individuality while simultaneously stressing the importance of family, tradition, and loyalty to be confusing. Does your “I” depend on strands of approval those connections? Does your “I” venture out into the darkness of that beyond your tribe, or does it stay close, comforted in the knowledge that “We” have all the answers “I” need?

When you think about “I”, how much of you is held together by “We”?

Bonds, or Bondage?

I’ve seen it said that no man is an island, but I am. In fact, there’s an entire subset of people without the innate ability to create, visualize, or depend on those bonds that make “We”. Like most people, I was taught from an early age the importance of “We”. We are Family. We are Christian. We are Muslim. We are Jewish. We are Republicans. We are Democrats. We are rich. We are poor. So many different versions of “We”.

But I can’t see it. My mind map is empty when I do this exercise. I would guess that for many that thought is depressing, overwhelming, and possibly unimaginable. Maybe you feel sorry for me. Maybe your “We” does too.

I’ve chosen to see it as a blessing, because I am free. Once I stopped believing that to exist I had to belong, which I never could figure out how to do, I was able to stop trying to force those strands that make up the connections of “We” into existence . I was free to be wrong. Free to examine other forms of “we.” Free to see that:

With the bonds of “We” comes the bondage of “We”.

How many of your deep down core beliefs you hold as “truth” are really bonds that help you feel part of “We”? Is that thought too difficult to face? How many of life’s potential experiences have you missed because some of the bonds of “We” determine your actions? Do you find safety in the limitations or regret at lost opportunity?

How many good people will you never know because they are not part of “We”?

How many people in this world are “they”? When you imagine “them”, do you feel disdain and distrust? Are “they” evil? Are “they” scary? Are “they” they cause of your problems?

Most of all, what do you fear if you started cutting some of those strands? Will you be bullied, pitied or ostracized? If you identify those fears could you face them?

What will fear cause you to do in order to maintain your status as “We”?

Will you compromise your ethics to avoid becoming “one of them”? Will you support an undeserving leader? Will you become the bully? Will you refuse to speak up when you see wrong doing? Will you refuse to give “them” a chance to be heard, just because “they” aren’t contained within your mental image?

And that is the core of it all. From the beginning of this post I’ve had you creating mental images. Visualizations of what makes your reality. But if you stop to think about it that is all it is: a mental image. A picture in your head of how the world should be, and who should be in it. It is an ephemeral painting that you fight to make eternal and unchanging. And often with that fight comes intolerance, divisiveness, and hatred.

I’m not damaged. I’ve been given a gift. I can see both the power for good and the corruption that comes from “We”. I am the equivalent of a Mars rover, a robot observing and collecting data, weighing things based on logic and reason.

I’ve also been given a curse. I look in on all of the various versions of “We” from the outside, and I don’t know how to relate to you. I don’t know how to say “please just open your eyes to the bigger world” without offending. In fact, the minute I started asking people to consider their fears, some who read this became offended. Who am I to ask them to question their “We”?

So on my island, I sit alone; having loved ones around me. Part of me wishes that I could have that desire and ability to be part of a group. Despite the limitations that may come from a need to belong, I do see the advantages. Part of me wants to scream at the top of my lungs “HEY EVERYONE, YOU ARE HEADED ON A PATH THAT LEADS TO GREATER PAIN BECAUSE OF YOUR FEAR OF LOSING YOUR “WE”!”

I don’t have the right answer. So I leave it up to you. You have to decide. You have to have the courage to choose to expand your version of “We” to include everyone, despite the fact that it will break many of the ties that make your reality. For me, that process was painful, but nowhere near what I imagine it would be for someone who depends on those connections to be whole. I would guess the thought is terrifying. But I feel it is important to at least ask you to consider it. You can work to simplify the kinds of bonds that connect you to others, you don’t have to erase the whole picture.

As you tear away the pieces, you will find that you only need a single strand: “human”. When you do, there can be no more “they” or “them”.

“We will work with them” becomes “we will work together”. But I fear that it is still easier to choose to remain “We” and “they”.

Because after all is said and done there is comfort in:

“We are righteous”, “We have truth”, and “We know what is best”.

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Limp Balloons (or Erroneous, Targeted Deflation)

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Someone reading the title is expecting me to open with a deflategate joke, so let me do a little panderin’ for just one picture:

Good news is I can make a real slick segue with that picture into today’s topic: Does stress ever make you feel like a football before Tom Brady gets his hands on it?*

Yes, today we are talking about good old fashioned stress, that thing that causes heart attacks, strokes, anxiety, sleep deprivation and all kinds of other badness. And, like most of you, I don’t particularly want or need any more badness in my life, so it sounds like we all should strive for stress-free living. In fact, if I google “stress-free living” I find that there are millions of entries, some by really smart people, with advice, books, pills, and pictures of happy people in open fields spinning around with their arms held wide…the universal symbol of people without stress (or inner ear dysfunction.)

I do love me an open-field, and and while spinning around isn’t my thing, apparently I’ve stumbled upon a goal we should have. Let’s all get rid of stress!

Trying to live stress-free is stressful

Is it just me or is the idea of all the work involved with living stress-free stressful?There are soooo many steps involved. Sure decluttering my life would be good, exercise each day sounds smart, and creating lists for the tasks I need to complete would prevent worrying over forgetting things. But, if I let myself become obsessed with all of the stuff I should do to avoid stress, I’ve added a gigantic pile of things to remember to do each day. Yay, more stress.

Seems we’ve found a situation like the one I talked about in Make Happy Little Cognitive Dissonance: Believing that we should be trying to be stress-free causes stress, just like believing we should be trying to be happy all the time causes us to be less happy. We’ve got our priorities out of whack again, and I think it is because we misunderstand stress.

Stress, on its own, isn’t the evil we think it is

Did you know that the idea of emotional and mental “stress” has been around for less than 100 years? Not only that, “Stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is such a highly subjective phenomenon that it defies definition.” I find it odd, that we try to eliminate something that is so ambiguously defined that even scientists feel the term is useless. Fundamentally, stress is just pressure exerted by “stressors” on our lives. As people often tend to do, they latched on to the negative connotations of stress, ignoring the fact that it also a necessary part of life.

No Stress, Eustress, Distress:

More than 100 years ago John Dodson and Robert Yerkes came up with a law showing that up to a certain point the more stress you have the more productive you are. Now back in their days, they called it “arousal” (remember the use of the word “stress” is less than 100 years old…pay attention class!), but nowadays a curve that says “the more aroused we are” means something entirely different, so we use the current term for the mental and emotional pressure put on us- “stress”.

Because of the negative connotations around the word “stress” we had to come up with a new word for “positive stress”- Eustress, or “good stress.” And to make the distinction between good and bad stress, we call bad stress “distress.” The, artfully handcrafted by me, chart you see above gives you an idea of how this law works. Without stress of any kind in our lives we get nothing done. Though sometimes sitting around and playing videos games all day sounds good, most of us want to accomplish something with our lives. Without any factors pushing us to do so, we simply won’t get anything done.

There is a certain amount of stress (which depends completely on the task) where we are “in the zone” and feel super-productive. That’s the area of eustress, the good stress that helps us find creativity, focus our energy, and meet deadlines. Eventually, if the stress levels keep building, we become less and less productive, eventually falling into distress (where banging your head on the keyboard seems a reasonable alternative to working.)

A balloon analogy

While it may be outside pressure (stressors) that cause stress, for me, stress feels more like I’m about to burst from the inside. I’ve never felt so much stress I want to implode, I’m all about explosions.

And that leads us back to limp balloons, and targeted deflation. (Not much of a segue there was it?) Here’s why:

Life without stress is as pointless as a limp balloon.

A balloon without any air in it is living a stress free life…nothing pushing on it’s thin walls forcing it to expand. That balloon is living in the state that we have errantly set as a goal. Are we jealous of the balloon?

No, of course not! Aside from the fact that it is a balloon and jealousy of inanimate objects would be indicative of larger personal issues, if you have a balloon and you never fill it up, what is the point of having it? It isn’t serving any purpose. I can’t imagine a child’s eyes lighting up when you hand them an empty balloon, and tell them not to blow it up. You certainly aren’t going to make many balloon animals out of it. It’s just a limp ol’ piece of rubber. You’ve got to add a little pressure, but not too much.

Life with distress is as scary as an overfilled balloon in a cactus garden.

Similarly, no one wants to be handed a balloon that has so much gas in it the slightest touch will blow it up. Sure it may have accomplished the task of being a balloon, but again, you aren’t going to make any balloon animals out of it. You are going to have to handle it delicately if you want to be able to enjoy it for any amount of time. You want to see stress-levels rise- go bat an overfilled balloon around with a friend in the desert section of your local botanical garden.

Embrace eustress, avoid distress, and stop trying to live without any stress.

Stress in all its forms is something for which we should take notice. But just like with our emotions, we shouldn’t fear it. We shouldn’t avoid it. We definitely shouldn’t have stress about eliminating stress. Like most of the stuff I write about, it’s really easy to say, but not so easy to do. For me, the first step is to pause throughout the day and just try to figure out if the stress I’m feeling is eustress, or if I’ve gone over the edge into distress. Then, instead of trying to eliminate stress that is actually beneficial to me, I can simply acknowledge it and be on my merry way. When it’s too much, I don’t have to eliminate it completely, I’ve got the much smaller task of just dialing it back to more optimal levels.

So maybe Mr. Brady was on to something there: The balls clearly were in a state of distress. Had he emptied them of all the stress there’s not much to be done with a limp pigskin. Free the football from distress he cried! And then empathic ol’ Tom Brady deflated the balloons (err, footballs that is) to bring them to their optimal state of eustress. Or maybe he was just looking for an advantage in life.

The good news is, you can do the same, without the four game suspension. Instead of fearing stress, embrace it and let it help you succeed. When you do you can create things you never imagined possible.

*Does it count as a slick segue if you tell people you are about to drop a slick segue? Can we please start spelling segue segway? If we started spelling segue segway, would we all have to wear sweaters and ride around on weird two wheeled transportation devices?

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