On feelings: expression vs. endorsement March 2, 2014Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society.
Tags: fear, insecurity, jealousy, relationships
1 comment so far
Courtesy of two great conversations I had recently, I’m pondering the difference between having a feeling, expressing the feeling, and endorsing the feeling. And, specifically, how to operate all three when you’re having a feeling that you think (or suspect) is unjustified.
Having a feeling is, well, having a feeling. Whether you feel it as a surge of emotions, a pattern of thought or sensations in your body, the feeling is there. Feeling angry. Feeling scared. Feeling resentful. Feeling elated. Having the feeling is the strictly internal experience.
Expressing the feeling is making the feeling known to people outside yourself. That can be verbal and direct, (“I feel really angry,”) it can be nonverbal (punching a wall), or it can be verbal and indirect, (“That person sucks and I hate them!”) In both the nonverbal and verbal-indirect expressions, you don’t ever identify the feeling as anger, but it’s fairly evident to observers that anger is what you’re feeling. (Sometimes, it may be obvious that you’re feeling something but unclear what. Or you may express a feeling in a way that’s easily misinterpreted, such as someone who expresses anxiety by acting cold and standoffish, leading people to assume they’re feeling something like contempt instead.)
Endorsing the feeling is saying, implying, or believing that the feeling you have is justified and appropriate. Or, if you don’t like applying concepts like “just” and “appropriate” to feelings (I’m not sure I do either), it’s affirming that if you were the ideal version of yourself, you’d still have that feeling in response to the same circumstances. It may (but doesn’t necessarily) involve believing that you should continue to have that feeling, or that other people should share that feeling. It’s believing that the person you’re angry with really has done something wrong; believing that the person you’re giddily in love with really is the finest human specimen to walk the earth; believing that the people at the party you’re anxious about really are all judging and criticizing you behind their smiles.
Having vs. expressing
There’s a common trope around emotional management that goes something like, “Feelings aren’t bad or good, they just are; it’s what you do with them that’s bad or good.” In general I agree with that statement, but it really only deals with the gap between having a feeling and expressing the feeling (where “expressing” can be anything from, “I feel resentful toward you” to leaving flaming bags of dog-poop on their doorstep.) Bringing in the endorsement piece adds another dimension. So you’ve decided that a flaming poop-bomb isn’t the most beneficial way to express resentment in your situation; that still doesn’t address whether you feel that your resentment is, on the whole, justified.
Having vs. endorsing
The gap between, “I feel this” and “it is good or right for me to feel this” is an uncomfortable one, and a lot of people try to erase it. You can do this one of two ways: you can assert that any feeling you have is justified, that of course any right-thinking person in your situation would feel the same way. This gets in the way of critical thinking ability at a fundamental level. The most easily identified people who do this don’t use any kind of rationalist or justifying language, just state their feelings as if it’s self-evident that their feelings are justified: everybody they’re angry with is an asshole, everything they’re anxious about is a dire threat, everybody they love is awesome and wonderful. Those of us who are steeped in rationalist and critical thought principles, though, still do it: we just rationalize our feelings, and sometimes we do it so skillfully that even we don’t notice it’s happening. (I feel fairly confident that every human on earth does this to some extent, even those of us who tend to err more in the opposite direction.)
The other direction is to suppress and deny any feelings you have that aren’t in line with your ideal self or sense of justice. This is the direction I went (hi, religious upbringing!) and it’s pretty crippling. “I know that anger at this person would be unreasonable, therefore I’m not angry. The grinding in my teeth and obsessive-hashing-over of imaginary arguments with them must be something else.” It’s a quick road to completely blinding yourself to some of your emotions. Over time, it leaves you unable to interact sincerely and authentically with people, because everything you feel has to go through the justification-filter, and you will strenuously deny having any feelings that you don’t endorse.
Contrary to both these approaches is being able to acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it. “I’m really pissed at Ryan. I know what happened was both our faults and I might have done the same thing in his place, but I’m still angry.” Once you get past the cognitive dissonance, this is really liberating. The emotionally-reactive self and the critically-evaluative self are not good harness-mates: they have different jobs to do and yoking them together impairs both of them. Freed from the need to rationalize or suppress, it’s possible to process through emotions effectively while retaining your sense of justice and critical thought. (At least, this has been my limited experience so far. It’s still very much a work in progress.)
Expressing vs. endorsing
Once we’ve settled with ourselves that we can acknowledge a feeling without endorsing it, there comes the question of whether, and how, we express it to others. On the one hand, there’s the view that your feelings in the moment are what they are, and honesty demands openly acknowledging them even if you’re not necessarily proud of them. On the other, there’s the view that expressing a feeling is tantamount to endorsing it, so you don’t express anything that you don’t also endorse. This latter view makes sense if your natural tendency is to suppress or deny feelings you don’t endorse: if you struggle even to acknowledge it to yourself, of course you’re not going to admit it to others.
I think in general there’s a lot to be gained from openly expressing feelings, even if they demonstrate that you don’t meet your own standards. They’re a real part of you, and people close to you deserve to know the real you, not just the filtered, approval-stamped version of yourself. (I’m still working on this, and it’s hard.) Expressing these feelings aloud can also help you work through them and bring them into balance.
I also think there are pitfalls in doing this, especially when you don’t make it clear (to yourself or to others) that these are not feelings you endorse. Group consensus is a thing, and when you express a feeling you automatically make it easier for people to justify having that feeling themselves. If we’re not careful to demarcate the line between having/expressing a feeling, and endorsing it, we’re in danger of creating a social feedback loop where one person admits to feeling something (say, an unwarranted level of resentment toward someone), and others feel more justified in their feeling and voice that, leading the original person to begin letting go of the cognitive dissonance in favor of justifying their own feeling. And suddenly the resented person is the scum of the earth within that social group.
Expressing the feeling as well as to what extent you endorse it is a way around this. Saying something like, “I know X meant well and isn’t entirely to blame here, but I’m still furious and right now I’m not able to move past that” is a fuller and more accurate expression of your overall state of mind than just, “X hurt me and I’m pissed.” It also encourages your social circle to continue viewing the situation in a complicated light, rather than sliding towards, “I’m angry and therefore this person sucks.” To my view, it’s maximizing honesty and self-awareness, and people who express themselves this way tend to earn my respect.
Tags: cunning minx, polyamory weekly, polyweekly.com
A couple of days ago, Cunning Minx posted an article on polyweekly.com which I read yesterday, entitled “Everyone is doing poly wrong and needs to die in a fire.” The post was about how we need to step back and be more tolerant of differences in evaluating the many philosophies of polyamory. The gist seems to be that there is not one universal way of doing polyamory, and we should not hold our own lifestyle as superior to how others approach non-monogamy.
Overall, I believe that Cunning Minx made some accurate and true observations, but I have a few things I want to explore related to the question of whether there are better ways to do polyamory. Essentially, I believe that there may not be one best way to do polyamory, but I do believe that there are some non-monogamous practices that will be better in general and specifically (for certain people). Let’s look at some parts of Cunning Minx’s article and see if we can tease out some things.
Let’s start from the basic premise: those of us participating in online forums, posting opinions on blogs or Facebook and attending conferences with poly tracks are all either practicing or interested in practicing polyamory. Or non-monogamy. Or swinging. Or open marriage.
We all have opinions, some of them quite strong. And those opinions are not all the same.
So why are so many of us so vehement in our desire to demean, judge and exclude others?
Well, to answer that, we have to remember that judging is not necessarily a bad thing. Criticism is not always uncivil. Demeaning others is a different story, and I try not to do it, and I will only exclude people from my life, not from the community (as if one could do such a thing). I will not use mere semantics to ostracize anyone, even if such an attempt made any sense.
There are some times when someone acts in such a way that perhaps they have merited some criticism (I’m certainly not immune to that). Or perhaps a poly triad, network, etc has created a set of rules, guidelines, etc which end up not working for whatever reasons. Those facts are empirically and logically valid subjects for criticism, so long as we practice good critical thinking skills, compassion, and listening skills. As a community, if we seek to make ourselves better and to improve our understanding of ourselves, relationships, and each other we may occasionally need to judge and criticize one-another. We also need to accept such criticism from others.
We may, in fact, need to keep our critical thinking skills sharp, and thus judge pretty regularly. The question is whether our judgment is sound, fair, and compassionate.
To be fair, I understand why we do this. Since polyamory is an alternative relationship structure, most of us have worked very hard at defining what polyamory is for us. We try poly once and make a mess of it. We try again, and it works better, so we decide that what we did the first time was wrong. We try again, and it works better for us, so we decide that we need to advise everyone coming after us that the way we are doing it now is the right way to do polyamory, and every other way is wrong.
I understand what Minx is saying here, and I agree with what I understand to be the point; that we should not conclude that we know that our way of doing things is universally best and that there might be different structures that work for different personalities, circumstances, etc.
But I want to make sure that we are not missing the nuance here. There may, in fact, be things that newer (or even more experienced!) polyamorous people are doing, which we have seen or done ourselves, which might benefit from our experience, judgment, and criticism. It may even be possible that some practices are almost always harmful, whether generally or to specific people. Or, it might be the case that we see that the behavior is not ideal for these people, for these reasons. Now, I agree that in our attempts to talk about such things we should approach the problem in a way conducive to understanding rather than demeaning, but I don’t want the conclusion to be that we should never criticize or judge other people’s way of doing things.
As she says:
But please, I beg of you, let’s stop judging others so harshly, even after we’ve discovered a brand of polyamory that works for us. Before critiquing others based on your personal definitions of what poly is or isn’t, first perform a quick self-check: would you like it if someone told you you weren’t really poly? Would you want someone telling you that your marriage wasn’t real? Would you like for someone else to define what love or commitment means for you? So let’s not impose our definitions and experiences on others.
Right. Agreed. However, there is a difference between imposing our definitions and experiences and putting them in context in order to evaluate the effects of behavior, (again) whether generally or specifically. In short, the conversation about how to best do polyamory is not purely subjective or relative (although, just like ethics, it is partially both of those things), but is rather intersubjective and contextual.
I also agree that the “you’re not polyamorous” discussions are not especially helpful in terms of figuring out what is good for us, since it’s hung up on the term itself rather than its antecedent. Just like the conversations about “you’re not an atheist” or “you are an atheist” are not especially important in the larger scheme, even if having a clear definition of the term “atheist”might be of some importance in itself (at least to people interested in such things). So long as we don’t slip into the realm of stretching terms such as “polyamory” and “non-monogamy” into meaningless terms that could mean anything (and therefore nothing), I don’t see a problem.
The larger issue is a wider understanding and acceptance of more relationship styles, as well as the ability to try to figure out what works best for people, in terms of relationships, and why. Whether we call someone “polyamorous” is, perhaps, an interesting semantic conversation, but whether a group of people fall into “polyamory,” “swinging,” “monogamish” (ugh), etc is not as relevant as whether what they are doing is fulfilling, healthy, and consensual.
In the BDSM world, there is a philosophy that folks are encouraged to embrace. Since BDSM involves exposure to a plethora of fetishes and kinks that we may only not share but may actively dislike, folks are encouraged to be accepting. Even when exposed to a kink that incites disgust, we are encouraged to embrace the notion of “your kink isn’t my kink, but your kink is OK.” Let’s please do that with polyamory as well. Let’s stop spending our time judging others and telling them they are doing poly wrong and simply agree to say:
Your polyamory is not my polyamory, but your polyamory is OK.
But what if it isn’t? There must be room for us to evaluate whether how someone’s relationship affects everyone involved might not be optimal for them. Granted, the fact that some practice or another didn’t work for me (or us) is not sufficient, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it could also not be a good practice for others, either. The question is not whether your relationship structure could work for me, it’s whether it is working for you! And it is sometimes the case that we (all of us!) are not the best judges of what is best for us (not to say that anyone is a better judge necessarily, just that we might be wrong in our opinions, for many reasons). Sometimes, the perspective of others is the only way to see past our blinders.
Let me be clear and say that I think that this criteria is relevant for all human behavior. Following Sam Harris’s concept of the Moral Landscape, I believe that there are actual empirical (and thus, not merely subjective) ways we can (in principle) evaluate whether a (set of) behavior(s) is better than another. Similarly, I believe that there may be be many “peaks” (continuing Harris’ metaphor) in the polyamorous landscape which represent a set of possible healthy ways to be polyamorous. What makes them healthy is partially subjective, partially based in personality dynamics, and partially ‘objective.’
To summarize what that analogy implies, I believe that while there may be no single universally better way to approach relationships (whether polyamorous or otherwise), I believe that we can identify unhealthy or even immoral behaviors within the logically possible space of (polyamorous) relationships which, once we can evaluate them, we should be willing to criticize and avoid. The other side of that coin is that there may be many better ways, many “peaks” in the poly landscape, to be polyamorous well.
In terms of this analogy I think that Minx is saying, in her article, that when we yell at each other from our various metaphorical peaks to criticize the lifestyle of another peak, we may be stepping off the edge of our own peak. There is a difference between the benefit of your experience allowing you to see potential cliffs and shaky ground in the path up to the various peaks and seeing another peak as inferior to ours because it doesn’t work for us. And sometimes, we may even understand that some person or group might be on the wrong mountain, and maybe we can point them to another one as an alternative. Some peaks are better than others for some people.
Cunning Minx’s discussion next is about how we should approach situations where we might be concerned or critical.
When someone is kind enough to share with you his poly situation, it is our job to listen, to ask questions and to offer support if asked for it. Labels are the beginning of a discussion and an invitation to ask more questions, not the be-all and end-all. So when someone says, “I’m polyamorous,” my favorite tool to whip out is:
Tool #1: “Cool! So what does that mean to you?”
I believe it’s not anyone’s job (including mine!) to judge and tell someone she is doing poly wrong. Criticism like that only serves to puff up the speaker with a sense of power and to disempower the person sharing his story. If you truly believe that someone you’re speaking with is doing something horribly wrong, a good way to offer an option without judging is, “My experience has been… ” and share your story. See? No judgment necessary.
I hate to jump on this pet peeve again, but this is judgment. When you offer another perspective, in order to address what appears problematic to you, you are judging. I would ask Minx to consider that rather than frame this as “don’t judge,” we should all think about this as “judge fairly and with compassion.” Judgment is a neutral exercise, and can be done harshly or with compassion, but it is all judgment.
Tool #2: “My experience has been… “
One caveat, since I know someone will ask: yes, I do have a personal belief about a “wrong” way to do polyamory based on the dictionary definition involving the “full knowledge and consent of all parties involved.” So if, for example, a person self-identifies as poly and has an additional partner that his wife is unaware of, I personally am more inclined to label that “cheating” rather than polyamory due to the fact that his wife doesn’t have knowledge and therefore can’t consent. However, my response is not “you’re not really poly” but rather, “In my experience, poly tends to work best when everyone involved is honest, open and consenting. Have you tried talking with your wife about that?” to open up a conversation rather than impose a judgment.
This is good advice if your concern is to not to activate the defense mechanisms of biases, cognitive dissonance, etc within your interlocutor. Some people don’t care about that, and will ignore this advice because of that lack of empathy or concern. I am becoming increasingly sensitive to this, and am making an effort to be more compassionate and constructive in my judgment and criticism. The bottom line is whether you want to have a constructive conversation or if you just want to finesse up some clever quips. I do love me some clever quips (Hitchslaps, anyone?), but in most cases I want a conversation and will try and heed this advice.
I’ve read a few assertions from intelligent poly folk of late that claim that anyone who defines poly or poly family as [fill in the blank] is wrong and needs to “die in a fire” because that doesn’t match the writer’s or speaker’s own experience.
I don’t know about you, but I dislike it when someone who isn’t in my shoes and who hasn’t lived my life tries to tell me what my poly experience should be. It brings to mind right-wing extremists who claim that they have the right to define what marriage is for everyone else. Or what “family” or “family values” are for everyone else.
If we don’t want others to define marriage or family for us, let’s not do that to each other. The person who gets to define your brand of polyamory is YOU. No one else. And the ONLY person for whom you get to define polyamory is you. Share your definition with your loves, your partners and anyone who asks for it, but please don’t impose it on others or judge others who have chosen to do poly a different way from you. Offer to listen; offer support; offer discussion,;offer your own anecdotes. But please do not offer judgments or critiques. We have the aforementioned right-wing extremists for that.
If you don’t like it when others judge your lifestyle, maybe you should stop judging theirs.
But I don’t mind when other people judge my lifestyle. I like it a lot less when they do so without compassion, fairness, or when they don’t know me well, but I don’t mind judgment per se.
Further, I don’t think other people should mind judgment per se. So while I agree that the arguments about whether someone is a true polyTM are not especially helpful or interesting, the conversation about whether one’s actual relationship structures are healthy are helpful, and we should all be open to such judgment and criticism.
If you are lucky enough to have found a brand of non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging or open relationships that works for you, GREAT! Many of us take months or years to figure out what we need in order to be happy and healthy in our relationships. And please do share that with others when asked: many of us are looking for models, ideas and roadmaps that might work for us.
So please, share rather than critique. Listen rather than judge. And communicate your definition as an option rather than imposing it as a rule.
The tendency, among progressive minded people, to demonize the practices of judgment and criticism is wrong-headed, in my opinion. Criticize and judge after listening, and continue to listen while you communicate your judgment and criticism. We, progressive-minded people, need to stop looking at criticism and judgment as bad, reactionary, right wing efforts. They are critical thinking tools, not weapons. They can be used as weapons, sure, but so can hands. Hands are also one of the means by which we can show affection, love, and lust. Similarly, if wielded properly, judgment and criticism can be wielded with affection, love, and, well, maybe not lust (but who knows!).
And as a final word, absolutely no person or concept should “die in a fire” or “burn in hell.” Let’s just say “My experience has been… “
Amen. My experience as been that many people may not be doing relationships in a way best for them, and we should all be open to the conversations which will evaluate whether that is the case or not. So long as we try to listen and understand first, of course.
Humanism and polyamory (a video) February 24, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: humanism, Jess D, YouTube
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Here is a video by youtuber Jess D, wherein he talks about humanism and polyamory. I think the video is generally good, although I have some minor issues with his discussion about whether polyamory is “natural” or not. This has mostly to do with my pet peeve of making a distinction between “natural” and human actions, but I also believe there is some equivocation going on there. Otherwise, it’s a fairly good introduction to polyamory from a humanist;s point of view, and worth the 14 minutes or so.
Quick update February 24, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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In recent weeks, there have been some significant upheavals in my life, and those upheavals have effects on PolySkeptic. I’m not entirely sure when I will start writing again, but it is possible that it might be a while. As some of you may have noticed, Gina and Wes are no longer listed in the bio, and will probably not be writing for PolySkeptic again. The reasons for this are not relevant to readers, but I consider this a loss for the site as a whole.
In any case, the blog will continue to exist. The podcast may also be reborn in the future. Know that I am thinking about what direction to take the blog, and that I will hear any input from readers, whether in comments or through email.
I’m still and atheist, I’m still polyamorous, and I’m perpetually a skeptic. I’m just taking time to evaluate the major recent changes in my life, and trying to rebuild.
5 years February 12, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: 5 years, blogiversary, favorites
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On February 12th, 2009, I started a blog with this post. I had just been laid off from a job that I really liked (and was good at), I was living in Philadelphia (it was several months before I moved to Atlanta), and the blog was called ‘The Atheist, Polyamorous Geek’. That was 5 years ago today. Some things have changed around here. New logo, writers, and more followers have been added since 2009, and I still enjoy writing.
In the beginning, most of my writing was about atheism and religion. Early on, I dropped the “Geek” at the end and replaced it with “skeptic”, due to my increased exposure to the larger skeptical community. It would be some time before I would add writers, some of which have moved on due to interpersonal issues. Who will be writing down the road is something I don’t know. Will it make it another 5 years? If so, what will it look like? I don’t know that either. But with that said, let’s take a look at some of my posts that I like from over the years.
Very early on, I wrote a post aimed at agnostics, because I had had so many conversations with people who disliked and avoided the word ‘atheist’, even though they were one. The word ‘atheist’ has become somewhat more mainstream in the last 5 years, but this post is still relevant, and will probably be so for years to come. Shortly after that, another favorite of mine is this short story about a conversation with God, which was intended to be a response to the design argument and the special pleading fallacy inherent to irreducible complexity. Recently, DarkMatter2525 made a video which reminded me of that post:
Shortly after that, a post about death and the appreciation of life was apparently translated to French, and then back to English, which prompted a post about translation (since, at the time, I was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in language). This post actually led me to have a brief email correspondence with Douglas Hofstadter, who commented on the translation himself.
Of course, I would have to poke at Christianity now and then, and my favorite post about Christianity is this one about how Jesus’ death (even if it happened) is not a sacrifice at all.Also, I wrote about how the love of god is misplaced, with a little science geekery mixed in. Late in 2009, I wrote a long, 3-part post about how God is a metaphor, which was originally not written as a blog post (hence the length). Parts one, two, and three.
One of my all-time favorites is the post, from 2011, where I argue that I prefer atheism to humanism, mostly because I find humanism to be atavistic and still steeped in the mistakes of religious history.
Also, there were a couple of posts looking at history and culture, and showing how religion (Christianity specifically) contribute to diminishing culture, rather than making it better. I especially like the McDonald’s post.
Of course, I can’t forget my take-down of Alain de Botton (who I still despise).
Eventually, i started writing more and more about polyamory, and one of the posts that stands out for me is the one about jealousy, where I argue that jealousy is not a reason to not be polyamorous. Also, sex-positivity is a good thing, and we should all be comfortable with being slutty (if we want to) and we should sin responsibly. What else did I write about polyamory? When it comes to love, we should do so authentically.. We should be creating a new and improved polynormativity. We were in some documentary, apparently. another personal favorite is my post about accidental monogamy, where I started thinking about how there is no reason to ever want to be monogamous (one should get there only by accident), which later led to a post about relationship agnosticism. Of course, I got nerdy with set theory and polyamory, but much more recently I wrote about the space between being friendship and being lovers, which is still quite relevant this very day.
Of course, having a MA in philosophy means that I will occasionally become erudite…ok, more like smart-assed and long-winded. Some of my favorites include Facts or it didn’t happen: unhooking the bra of reality, Thorough and perpetual Sskepticism, and this post which got a little too meta, even for me. Also, let’s not forget my tendency to try and simultaneously criticize monogamy and religion.
There is also my post about the history of Christmas, which I have reposted a couple of times and always put on Facebook around the end of December.
Sometimes, I got political. I liked this short post where I quote from a book about the American Revolution that demonstrated that political tropes we use today are not new. But my favorite post about politics was where I essentially declared that I could never be a conservative.
Lastly, I wrote about the various wars going on in the atheist community. In this post, I utilize Moral Foundation Theory to talk about the “great schism” (as it is called by some) in the atheist community. I also talk about feminism, both in terms of the #shutupandlisten debacle (as it pertains to lessons from Zen Buddhism) of last year but also as it pertains to the history of technology.
Lastly, I wrote a book. This is significant because I started writing that book around the same time I started the blog. And as I move towards another 5 years of blogging (perhaps), I will also consider finishing the second book (I’ve written 3 chapters or so).
Thank you to everyone who has liked, commented, and continues to read. I do this because I love it, and I also love when other people love my work.
If you think I missed a post you loved, let me know in the comments.
I’ll leave you with this song.
Reflections on loss and regret February 11, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: insomnia, loss, relationships
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I’ve been here before. It’s after 3 AM (as I started to write this, anyway) and I’m awake, tired, and anxious. I’m sure many of you have been here too, from time to time. The thing about this, however, is I was sleepy and went to bed hours ago. I slept for 2 hours and woke up thinking it must be 5 AM (which it is now, as I am about to publish) or so because I felt awake but it was still dark. Anxiety is fun.
The last few years have been the theme of my thoughts, which are admittedly disorganized and barely consciously available, despite my intense desire to glean them. Sometimes, even being deeply introspective is not enough to dig that deep. I very much want to understand my mind, especially where the fears, insecurities, and darkness lay. I believe, quite strongly, that one of the most moral things we can do is to know ourselves; not as we want to see ourselves but as we actually are, under all the bullshit we create to hide the terrifying truths hidden within. Only through such labors can we even hope to effectively grow and contribute well to our environment. Without such a desire for self-understanding, I would be but a shadow of the person I am today. I would not (could not) love myself (and yes, even in the depths of sadness I still love myself).
How do obtuse and oblivious people survive without deep introspection? (is a question I wonder frequently). Probably because success and superficial contentment are not dependent upon self-knowledge or the courage to dig into oneself critically and honestly. One can get along quite well, in our current human culture, being myopic because depth of spirit is not the root of the social and political games which bring ‘success.’
Such myopia is an ideal firewall to the insight that would prevent someone from valuing such ‘success’ as highly as so many do. Without insight, one would never know that something was amiss and keep themselves in the delusion that they are healthy and good people. I have come to learn, over the years (especially the last couple), that myopic, obtuse, and oblivious people tend not to think about such things often or deeply. I am not even sure they are capable of understanding what I mean. I hope they will, sooner than later, for all our sakes.
What’s worst, however, is that many who read this will not understand that it is them I am talking about (such people seem immune to such self-criticism), and yet there are many others who will assume I am talking about them (for them, self-criticism is usually the default). But such a self-deprecating thought usually implies the depth and complexity of a mind who couldn’t be myopic or obtuse, even if they might think such things of themselves quite often.
And yet, such deep and complex people are quite forgiving of such obtuse banality in others, for reasons which escape me. I don’t think it’s mere compassion and forgiveness, although that’s often a part of it. Such sensitive people often excuse and even come to accept and love that which they would never be, usually because the insensitivity that compels banality also often makes one seem confident and attractive. Like a moth to a flame. Nothing is less attractive than undeserved and so obviously pea-cocked confidence (but you have to be able to see through it, first, I suppose).
Vanity and illusion attract those who are neither vain nor delusional but who seek to be beautiful. What such-attracted-people often don’t understand is that they were already beautiful, and they needed no salvation from anyone else. Yet, they so often attribute their concocted ‘salvation’ to the smoke and mirrors of illusion because once you invest so much into the illusion (religion is the most obvious example of this), it’s hard to see it for what it is because we are prone to cognitive dissonance. It’s why people tend to not leave religion, unhealthy relationships, or their own bad habits. They rationalize and make excuses for what habits they have acquired. Eventually the illusion hides within their own mind, and their very memories are forged to reflect the lie.
And it’s more obvious from the outside. Atheists see it in Christians, polyamorous people often see it in the monogamous world, and most of us have seen it in the unhealthy relationships of friends, family, and acquaintances. Not that those relationships could not become healthy if both parties were willing to actually deal with their shit honestly by tossing aside their illusions. This rarely happens, however, even among the intelligent and relatively enlightened. It’s nearly impossible to have the affected see it for what it is, and so in the vast majority of cases the dissonant song plays on, unchanged and unchallenged, sometimes for many years. Some never see it and die in the illusion, never knowing there was a better way.
I will never let the above happen to me. And I don’t have time for people in or adjacent to my life who will allow it to happen to them. That thought is what has been keeping me awake. In the last week, I have not slept more than a few hours per night and I have bouts of sadness between moments of joy and relative contentment. You know; I’m human. But at night, when there are no distractions, I rake myself over the coals of the past, wondering what there is to learn, knowing all too well I’m just making this worse. But I can’t turn it off.
This week, I’ve also had some good times. I have to keep moving forward, or the sadness and regret will take over. But when I can’t sleep, alone in the cold and dark, I can’t escape it. The fear, the uncertainty, and the loss are palpable.
It’s just like it was 4 years ago when Seana left me, in many ways. Just like back then, I know I have made mistakes and those mistakes led to lack of trust, but there is more here that I may never understand. Most frustratingly, I’m not completely sure what I am supposed to be learning. The loss feels surreal, and I don’t have a direction in mind. I don’t know where the goal is, or what game I’m playing.
As I sit here, writing in the heat of emotions and uncertainties, I reflect once again on what happened 4 years ago. It was within 2 weeks of losing that relationship when I awoke, in a fever of creativity, and made a truly terrible and sappy video for the woman who left me. I have no idea if she ever watched it. It doesn’t really matter, because that creative burst was the beginning of moving on. It was the first glimmer of what became an understanding that I was better for the loss, even if i did still love her.
But right now, the problem is that I don’t know what side I will land on, when that time comes soon, with this loss. I do not know what I will want in the future. There is no lack of love, but the fact is that I have never stopped loving someone who I genuinely loved. I miss Gina. I loved her more deeply than most, and miss her more than I will try to express. How will I feel in a year? I don’t know. I’m scared to know, and perhaps that’s why the mind refuses to settle on any one feeling so close to the event. Perhaps I’m stuck in my own illusion.
But what I am fairly sure of is that part of what causes such losses are out of my control. No matter how much responsibility I have for what caused her to leave me, there remains the parts I could not control. Whether fear, unhealthy attachments to ideas, people, or things (on both our parts)—whatever the cause, there comes a point where punishing myself will have to end. There is a point, and I see glimpses of it already, where the pieces of the puzzle become more clear from a distance.
Will my face appear in that completed puzzle? I don’t know yet. And I still am not sure what exactly I am supposed to learn or what I will want. There’s still too much debris from the destruction, too much sifting through the ashes, looking for surviving relics that I may or may not take home with me.
Where our lives were entwined, they are now days away from essentially being estranged. What was to be home is now a place of pain and sadness. What was a source of hope now has become a source of sadness and emptiness. What was certain has become uncertain.
Can I sleep now, please?
Lost and Found February 6, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: break-up, depression, loss, relationships
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A little over 4 years ago, I lost a relationship which was, at the time, important enough to move me away from Philadelphia. The same day that relationship ended, just a few months later, the origins of my relationship with Ginny started. And that, ultimately, brought me back to Philadelphia. More importantly, it brought me back to myself, and possibly a better self due to the struggles I had with depression and other emotional difficulties caused by that loss. In my opinions, the gains outweighed the losses in that case. Ginny is my rock. She always stands besides me and loves me, and I am extraordinarily lucky to have her.
And up until a few days ago, another person was as integral to my life as Ginny is, in many ways. We lived together, laughed together, and when things were wonderful they were amazingly wonderful. Gina was a person I intended to spend the rest of my life with, and now that possibility is uncertain. Now that relationship is gone, at least for now. And I feel lost again.
So, now I spend a lot of time analyzing what it’s like to struggle through painful times, while looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. And being the cynic I am, I’m not seeing beds of metaphorical roses.
Pain, struggle, and all the related emotions and circumstances are hard, especially for someone who struggles with emotional stability and proportionality. The increased introspection brings forth more self-awareness, emotional maturity (at least, hopefully), and forces me to take some more time for re-evaluation. At least, that’s what I have told myself, before, when I healed from such times. But right now I’m not sure if I buy that narrative; at least not completely. It’s true that I think more than usual, but not really that much. I just think about specific, painful things more. I just hurt more. I may not actually be any more introspective at such times (but I’m definitely outside the norm in terms of my normal level of introspection).
I’m starting to think that maybe the narrative of ‘painful times are periods of growth’ is not completely correct. Our brains do their best to maintain the illusions and narratives of a whole self who does not act completely crazy and unpredictable, let alone simply irrationally and unreasonable. Our memories are altered by a process that maintains this illusory narrative to put together our selves and lives into a sensible story. As we remember those times of pain and struggle, we have to put them in a context of where we are when we don’t feel that way any longer, and growth is as good a narrative as any other. In order to maintain some level of consonance with our self image as a stable and grown person, we humans tend to construct a narrative of how the pain we went through made us stronger, better, and more prepared for life. It never feels that way when in the midst of it, though. At the time, it just sucks.
I hope I’m a stronger and better person than I was 4 years ago, but the fact is I can’t be sure. I have painful memories which give me pause when approaching similar mistakes which helped precipitate those painful events, sure, but is that strength? Isn’t that just conditioning, a la Pavlov? Is it not possible that I would actually be stronger today if those painful experiences had never happened? How would I know? Because if I’m stronger and better today, perhaps that would have happened whether I went through those painful times or not.
Then I think of all the utterly obtuse and non-self-aware people I know, and I think that maybe I’m just being too pessimistic and cynical. Why are so many people apparently oblivious to not only their own issues but the cues of others? How have they avoided actual emotional growth for so many years? It seems weird to me to not be introspective, but I guess my introspective nature looks weird to them, too. I’m getting off track.
What I want to know, essentially, is whether the pain we go through when dealing with loss–whether through death, break-ups, etc–is actually ever good, or whether we create a narrative which makes it seem good in retrospect. Because when we’re better, things look better. And so in that case we can weave memories to fit how we feel. If we are fine after the shit is all over, then the crappy days, weeks, or months we just plowed through must have been worth it, because here we are! Right? But that’s not how the brain works. Sometimes, we just feel better because we forget the pain (or, at least, most of it), new good stuff happens, or because we ate the right foods that day to help support a healthy mind. And then we reconstruct the past to fit the present state of mind.
I really am being cynical and pessimistic, aren’t I?
I’m dealing with loss right now. I’m hoping that I will run into some ‘finding’ as well. The fact is that I am on the verge of starting a new relationship, so I may be repeating the pattern of losing and finding simultaneously, but it’s also premature to make any hay out of that. The happiness I am feeling from that is somewhat mitigated by the pain of that other loss, but it’s still happiness and hopefulness. But mostly, right now, I’m feeling sad, hurt, and angry (mostly at myself).
And I miss her. Badly. I’m trying to make sense of my life without her in it, and it just doesn’t make much sense at all. I think of things I would usually share with her, and I can’t. Too painful to talk right now. And everyone keeps telling me that this might just be temporary, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. I’m just going to have to wait out the worst of this, and hope that when I feel better things will be different. The scary thing, however, is I don’t know how they will feel better. The uncertainty of it is terrifying. I guess I just need to practice patience, and hopefully all will be better soon.
In the mean time, I can’t stop moving forward, otherwise I will spin my wheels into a rut of listless sadness. I need to keep moving forward, and hope that maybe that lost relationship might be found when things feel better.
But for now it hurts too much.
“Your Character Needs More Character…” February 3, 2014Posted by Gina in Skepticism and atheism.
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“Have you considered giving him a limp?”
This is what our director told my friend Chris Herrle during one of many ridiculous rehearsals for the Drexel production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chris was one of the mechanicals but apparently wasn’t individual enough…or something. Chris heard this suggestion, and raised his one eyebrow way up high.
“A limp?” He was incredulous.
“Yeah, what do you think? The limp could have a whole back story.”
“You want my character to have a limp.”
“Yes, I think it would be a great character choice.”
“That’s…that’s not…Character choice? Really?”
Needless to say, he did not choose to give himself a limp.
Chris Herrle died last week. He was 30 years old and used to be a pretty constant presence in Wes’ and my life. Things got hard for him and he was dealing with heavy loads and he would disappear from public life for months at a time. He was a frustrating sometimes absolutely maddening man but he was also one of the few people back a few years ago that I felt comfortable telling when he was full of shit. I don’t know if it enlightened him at all, but it was something that happened and we kept being friends. At the time when he was most in my life, this was something deeply valuable to me. While I was often furious with his antics, I couldn’t hold them against him for long because he was such a big personality, often the life of the party, and caring, loving, and someone you could count on, even though he would get in his own way a lot.
Often I felt like Chris didn’t know what to do with me because I was a woman he had deemed “off limits” for romantic/sexual relationship status (he was a deep believer in The Bro Code and I dated a good friend of his before Wes. He was pretty awful to Wes for a while and then he was in our wedding, so, you know, Bro Code Shmro Shcode), but I was also a woman who he deemed “not like ‘typical’ women”. It was a sexist attitude that I got on his case for often, but I knew that he valued me as a good friend and shared with me things that he would share with his guy friends. I was a trusted mutant in his band of oddities and I was often called upon for unique perspective, much like one of the many bizarre factoids his mind teemed with on a daily basis.
That may sound like I am devaluing this status, but honestly, Herrle’s strange and extensive collection of knowledge was one of my favorite things about him. I often would consult him when trying to think of something obscure that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. His mind was a data base that looks like Wikipedia in my imagination. He was smart, articulate, hilarious, and had an ongoing thirst for knowledge. He liked to learn new things and share them with his friends. He was a musician. He was a writer. He was a singer and a scientist.
Herrle, like everyone, had gone through different versions of himself. I have two versions that I always loved: Herrle, the Poker Player and Herrle, The Glassblower. When we were still in college and Wes and I had an apartment in University City, we would have a regular group of friends who we played tournament style Texas Hold ‘Em. Chris was a good player, certainly better than the rest of us shmoes. He played in Atlantic City often and while our favorite stories are often about him feeling fabulous about losing obscene amounts of money, he actually paid back his student loans from winning at the tables. I tried to learn from him but being awesome at poker was not something that was destined to be one of my life skills. We spent hours around that dining room table, Chas buying in again three times after missing out on some really promising “pair draws”, me waiting until I was pretty much down to nothing before making my move (I was the queen of the slow play…because being aggressive was not something I could actually do), Jake drinking his Vitamin Water to get that extra advantage, Wes and Hoffman exchanging South Park quotes. It was a good time and I will remember those nights as bright spots in a time when I was pretty miserable often.
But I think he was happiest when he was Herrle The Glassblower. He worked at a lovely little shop in Old City. Wes had seen an article about the place looking for people who wanted to apprentice. Herrle had been looking to change careers and wanted to work with his hands. Wes let him know about the apprenticeships and before we knew it, Herrle was learning to make whiskey glasses. He gave a special one to Wes, one with a blue color in it that was a version that they didn’t sell. It was one of a kind and he gave it to Wes for helping to change his life.
Chris was a good man and a good friend, if not always the easiest man to understand or connect with. It took me a long time yesterday to really understand the reality of his passing. I had gotten so used to him disappearing for a while and then reappearing. But he won’t be reappearing this time. I will never hear one of his ridiculous stories again, or hear his perfect Murderface impression, or see him bring down the house at karaoke. I won’t have a chance to help him anymore, and so I wish that I had been there more when I could have been.
Chris, you will be missed. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for the host of good memories I have of you. Thank you for being in our wedding. Thank you for always working towards being a better man. Thank you for being open about your problems, even if we were never all that helpful. Thank you for everything.
There is beauty in the world.
You are loved.
Goodbye, friend. I am happy for the fleeting chance I had to know you.
Intelligence is insufficient January 31, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: cognitive dissonance, intelligence, perspectives, values, wisdom
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Intelligence is a useful quality to have, but it is not enough if we seek things such as wisdom, fairness, or even simply being correct.
I know some pretty smart Christians. I know some people who are smart and yet who still have some pretty dated and conservative views on the world. There are pretty awesome people I meet who react to polyamory unfavourably,and not just as a personal preference. They are able to think, they have impressive cognitive abilities, and yet while talking to them it’s sometimes obvious that they are missing something from their thought process. To the untrained eye, this may look like lack of understanding, but it may not be that simple. 5 or 10 years ago, when my eye was less trained, I would have argued with such people and tried to convince them of my position. Their smart, I’d have thought, and so if I present a solid argument they’ll have to agree with this reasonable belief I have. The problem, here, is two-fold.
First, this presumes I’m actually correct. I may not be correct, and starting as if I am is no help to me nor my interlocutor. If I might be wrong, then starting by trying to convince them of my position will not serve greater understanding or intellectual growth since it will either end in my convincing them of an untruth or of an endless argument where they are the one with the hopefully keener eye to see what we are missing. On top of this, there is a cognitive block that occurs when you argue from a position of “I’m already right,” because it prevents listening. While you argue your points, in such cases, it is harder to see the others’ points being made because our minds will protect our current worldview against dissonant ideas. And really smart people are really good at this worldview-protection, because they can easily and quickly think up rationalizations for why an objection isn’t relevant or right. But by doing this, we miss important facts and perspectives which may be of value to us if we could understand them. You know, just like how you want your interlocutor to think and feel while making your points. Funny how that works.
Therefore, we should start with as neutral a position as possible, and be willing to question every assumption, value, and belief we hold. Also, we should talk to others as if we are willing to do so, because doing so not only looks more open-minded, but actually is part of becoming open-minded.
Second, it presumes that the difference in opinion is one of mere comprehension, when it very well may not be about comprehension at all. The issue may be a difference in values. A difference in values is much harder to shift, for many of the same reasons generated by dissonance theory referred to above, and and most arguments I’ve heard boil down not to facts, but values. And while I don’t believe that facts and values are fundamentally different ontologically, they are behaviourally different at very least. That is, a fact is easily proved or disproved, but because a value is part of the process of thinking and behaving, it is harder to see for what it is and how easily it can lead us stray of rational behavior and beliefs.
I believe that a value can be more true than another value (in terms of how it lines up with what goals we share. What goals we should share is another question). A fact is an external reality or claim about said reality which can be checked with empirical and or logical methods. It is demonstrably testable whether this element has those properties, this mathematical proof works, or that lead is denser than water. A value is a fact which is part of the process you use to evaluate other kinds of facts, and thus is generally out of the line of sight for your intellectual powers. More fundamentally values are ideas, which makes them physical processes (ontological dualists can exit through the door, as I have no patience for that shit any more), which also means they are also subject to empirical and logical methods as well (although the exact technique to do such a thing is still quite difficult) and thus values can be measured against reality in a similar way as mere ‘facts.’ I’m willing to submit that values can, therefore, be better or worse than other values. Honesty is better than deceit. Compassion better than harm. And, maybe, the desire for truth is better than the desire for comfort.
Or is it?
Some people don’t care about the truth, in itself. I mean, if you are talking about something as banal and mundane as ‘are you telling me the truth about this drink not being poisoned,’ then people usually care about that level of truth. But what about the willingness to try and learn, grow, and change beyond what is comfortable? What about someone who does not really care what the truth may be, because their faith makes them feel safe and loved? Arguing with such a person about the existence of the supernatural is a wasted effort; they don’t care what’s true. There are smart people who hold such positions, including people that I know and care about. Utilizing intellectual means to try and convince such a person will probably be pointless and frustrating for both of you. They value differently than you, and by applying such a method you are attacking the facts rather than their values. You need to appeal to their values, and doing that by intellectual means is hella hard, and often pointless (but I don’t think it’s impossible).
Or, what about a person who has a moral worldview which you find abhorrent, flawed, or merely not moral? I know quite a few such people, and I do not address why I disagree with them most of the time, because our disagreement is not about facts, it’s about a specific kind of value; preferences.
Morality is not a reasoned activity fundamentally, even if we can use reason and science to improve it and clarify the problems raised by morality’s mantle. Morality, especially where it is codified or systematized, is usually (if not always) ad hoc reasoning. That is, we simply have deep preferences for which we build logical boxes for storage and for hitting our opponents over the head with. Kant, for example, didn’t start from some idealized blank slate of a mind to reach his deontology, his universalization of maxims, rather he had certain preferences and quirks about his mind that made it feel right to do this and not right to do that, and created (brilliantly, mind you) a logical scaffolding to make sense of these brute facts of his mind into a systematized universal standard. I happen to share much of those preferences that Kant seems to have had, so I tend to agree with Kant when it comes to ethics (although I thought he was wrong about many other things, like aesthetics). Where I think Kant erred, in terms of his ethical thinking, was believing that his exercise was a truly intellectual one, rather than one of rationalizing values. The same is true for Bentham and Mill with their versions of utilitarianism, and perhaps even Aristotle with his Nichomachean Ethics (which everyone who is interested in ethics should read, in my opinion).
So, having intellectualized and semantic arguments about ethics is usually completely pointless (not always, mind you). When this type of conversation happens, what we tend to observe is a proxy war for our preferences. The question is not whether my scaffolding is more rationally stable than your scaffolding (I actually really don’t like that game), but whether my preferences themselves actually have better effects on people and in the right ways, and whether (therefore) I might try to shift my values. All too often, we see something like a person whose preferences are more self/freedom oriented arguing with a person who finds consideration and efficiency more valuable, but they don’t address the values themselves. Instead, it turns into a conversation about what “rights” mean or some other epiphenomenal factor, which is less helpful to everyone and merely seeks to put on display rhetorical skills. It’s like lovers trying to hammer out an intellectual solution to feeling unloved; it’s bound to not really help, in the long run, because what the hurt lover wants to just to be loved (it’s a mistake I’m prone to making).
Intelligence is a great tool but without perspective it can often be a blunt tool instead of a sharp one. Perspective requires the spirit of not only a skeptic, but an archaeologist of the soul (‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ used metaphorically there, of course. And yes, that’s yet another set of references to Nietzsche). It’s one thing to use rhetoric, logic, and eloquence to find the flaws in the argument of your opponent, but it is quite another to have the courage to take a hammer to your very psychological and emotional bones. And when a person can utilize whatever level of intelligence they have and work for the character of self-criticism, then a person begins to approach wisdom. Because while we don’t choose our level of intelligence, we have some control (assuming free will is meaningful) over how we use it. The how of our intelligence is more important than its raw power.
Our insecurities will compel us to show off our intelligence. We want respect, love, and friends. And we can get those things if we are (perceived as ) smart. That world is all vanity, the neighbour to fear. Fear is the mind killer, right? And fear has a tendency to create the illusion of confidence or even to actually create arrogance, where practicing intellectual patience instead might be wiser. Because even if we are right, we still might have something else to learn if we are not so ready to be right that we only swing our intelligence outward while not watching for the parry and counterstrike. Also, it does not help to make people like us very much. You may not care about that. I care about that, at least a little. Just don’t make the mistake of allowing your insecurity and fear make you act in such a way that you tell yourself, after the fact, that you didn’t want people to like you when you really did want them to like you. Because that’s a thing that happens. Again, it’s called cognitive dissonance, so read about it.