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Skepticism v. Instincts, round 12 August 4, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory, relationships, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this blog is about skepticism, primarily. I have said, many times, that skepticism is my primary philosophical orientation, and that many of my beliefs and lifestyle choices emanate, ultimately, from a natural sense of skepticism–of seeking the truth over comfort, with the help of logic, empiricism, etc.

But what about instinct? What about deep feeling and the uncertain world of emotion which drives us? What do we do with that? What do we do when, not having all the evidence available, we have a deeply emotional feeling about something? How much should we listen to this?

Here’s a puzzle. Let’s say that my instincts have made me feel very strongly, about certain situations and/or people, which I have ignored because I thought it fair to not merely allow my emotions to sway me when more objective means of judgment could give me a better conclusion. It sounds rational, right? My mere feelings are not sufficient, and I should, as a good skeptic, demand some more evidence before allowing myself to make a decision or form a conclusion. So, I table the feeling and try to wait for more evidence.

This tendency has ended up scarring me, more than a couple of times.

Upon first meeting a former metamour, whom I have written about before, all my alarms rang in my head that this person was problematic. But I ignored these alarms, these instinctual judgments made at a level not quite conscious, and tried to be open-minded and skeptical. I saw that people around him liked him, he seemed popular and well-liked. So I ignored those instincts and allowed myself to be swayed by the patience required to get all the data. That didn’t end well.

Before I moved to Atlanta with an ex (who ended up abandoning me there) my instincts told me that making the move would be a positive experience, and that those warning me against it were just being overly skeptical. I was feeling optimistic and adventurous with someone I loved, respected, and trusted. That didn’t end well, either.

In other words, my instincts have been wrong and right, and so I have “learned,” repeatedly, to ignore them because they are unreliable as a means towards truth.

Like a good skeptic.

And yet….

And yet there are times when those instincts are really strong, and I have to wonder whether this is one of the times I need to listen to them or, you know, not this time. Because our brains, while prone to error, also have tools which can alert us to subtle signals which give us information about the world. Sometimes, our instincts are right, and when we have been hurt, we tend to be sensitive to the signals that we have run into before. So, sometimes a gut feelings is worth paying significant attention to.

But where we draw the line between following our gut and holding out for more information is related to how much we trust ourselves. And if one is insecure and has self-trust issues (hey there, nice to meet you!), one might end up erring on the side of ignoring those instincts where we should have given them more consideration.

I think that I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that most of the times I have a really strong feeling about something, I’m at least partially right. And, yet, I more often than not ignore my gut feelings to my detriment, because I feel like giving a person or situation a chance, even though it does not feel right.

In short, I do not trust my own feelings and judgment because I want to be appropriately skeptical. That is, I recognize that my instincts and feelings can be wrong. So, the question is whether this is a form of self gaslighting, or is this healthy behavior?

To what degree is questioning how I feel, at a gut-level, a healthy method of self-reflection and introspection? There are many who would probably argue that doing it for other people is inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly abusive, insofar as doing so is probably gaslighting; questioning someone else’s feelings and perceptions about something is a form of questioning their ability to perceive the world correctly, after all. But I’m not sure where the line is, especially if we are doing it introspectively.

I believe that it is not only possible, but common, for people to have incorrect perceptions, feelings, and perspectives about the world around them. I believe that some level of wondering “how much are my fears, biases, or lack of understanding making me not see this situation correctly?”is not only appropriate, but necessary in order to be a rational human being.

But at the same time, there is a point where we need to accept that our feelings are sometimes, even when we cannot skeptically check them out, valuable and often spot on. There are times when we need to get the fuck out if something feels creepy or unsafe. There are times when we need to force ourselves to look deeper at a situation, person, or idea when our initial reaction is defensiveness, fear, or anger. Because we are too prone to selection bias and reacting negatively to ideas which do not fit well within our current boundaries and bubbles. And sometimes the bubble we exist within is a lens through which reality is skewed and warped.

Sometimes, what we think of as strength and standing up for ourselves is, in fact, bias skewing our perception. Sometimes, questioning our perception of reality is the appropriate method. That is, if we care about the truth.I’m just not sure how to tell the difference between when my instincts are right, and when they are a warped perspective, filtered through fear, bias, pain, etc.

Our instincts, or deep feelings, and our personal perspectives are not truths, necessarily, but they can often be good signposts. The concept of something being “true for me” is deeply problematic and philosophically sophomoric. As we build an instinctual defense mechanism within us, we need to make sure that the springs, levers, etc of that mechanism are not made out of bias, fear, and pain. Because those building tools will not build a skeptical shield.

As I watch my defensive mechanism work inside me, I am forced to admit that more parts than I’d like are made out of fear, trauma, and pain. I will not ignore the alarms that this mechanism set off, but I damned well will not let a non-skeptical and automatic mechanism make conclusions nor decisions for me. So when the red flag is thrown up from that lever, I’ll stop and take a look at it, but I will not be reactionary insofar as I allow my past pain and fear to determine my future path.

I'm not 42 yet, but I'm starting to feel this meme coming on...

I’m not 42 yet, but I’m starting to feel this meme coming on…

I have learned many signs of problematic behavior in the last few years, from many people. But I will not allow the people that compelled me to build my defenses define those in front of me, on this path. But at the same time, those in front of me on my path will have to contend with someone who has seen some shit, and sure as hell will not allow you to get away with any of it.

Because I’m sick of people’s shit.

More importantly, I’m sick of my own shit.


How do you unlearn? April 3, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, relationships.
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Growing up, one of the lessons I learned was that something was not really important unless it was yelled at you.

Related to this, if something is important, you have to yell it. Otherwise, how would the listener know it was important?

Looking back on things, it is clear that people in my life were telling me important things which I should have paid more attention to. But they were not yelling it, so it didn’t contain the emotional import–not sufficient emotional affect–to stand out as a thing to pay specific attention to.

People often tell you what to do, or not to do, if you don’t want to hurt, disappoint, or otherwise do damage to your relationship with them. Most people don’t yell these things. I didn’t know that, until later in life. And I’m still trying to unlearn those early lessons, even today.


We all deal with childhood, and family life, with complications and difficulties. Many of the people I have known have had to deal with some amount of annoying, manipulative, or abusive behavior. We all have our baggage. But understanding the baggage of other people, and how that baggage compels problematic behavior, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to navigate.

It’s even harder to learn other people’s baggage is you don’t have a handle on your own, completely.


Most of the people out there who I have hurt gave me some form of warning, pleading, or simple conversation to point out what was wrong. The problem was that because I learned that intense, aggressive, and often loud emotional communication was necessary to get one’s attention, I just heard it as conversation without import. It was not that I wasn’t listening, it was that I was trained to listen for something else.

Ever since I realized this (and it’s been quite a while), it has frustrated me more and more that the lesson still is not unlearned.

And so the cycle continues.

I’m sorry.


A poem? Meh, whatever…. April 1, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion.
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[cn: sarcasm, wordplay, someone will hate this, and I suppose I’m ok with that. Wait, what’s the syntax of this content note? Is this thing unix? Can I use python? Isn’t all language merely metaphor and lies? Definitely the wrong syntax]

Is the irony of theater that to do it well one need not act?

Occasionally, one stops acting.

Stop acting, please.

All of us
So say we all?

Well (and let me not be impertinent) that would be a nice start, I suppose.

But I gave up hope for that many years ago, because I don’t think being the Borg is really the right historical influence.

Isn’t that weird?

The Borg, for this type of nerd, has a similar influence that “real” history has, because they are both just narratives echoing off the walls. Is that a sociological question, psychological feeling, or philosophical grant money. Wait, I meant field of study. Hmm, why didn’t I want to get a PhD again?

Scilon cylon, Borg, whatever. That was a little heavy with the word play. I’m amused, I apologize if you think I’m being serious.

Also, if I did offend you, then I’m sorry I hurt you, so I invite all comments and will consider them seriously, all of them. OK, when it’s obvious trolling, I’m peace out, but otherwise. Is this more of a rap or a poem? wait, what’s the difference again? Which one has the holodeck? I’m confused, sorry. I was too busy rocking out to Ziggy Stardust, because someone I once loved very much made it important to me once, but I still love it on its own.

Sorry, rambling again. It’s fun watching the show everywhere. The world is a stage, and all that whatnot. Forsooth!

Signed, your friendly neighborhood dudebro.

P.S.   Wait, that wasn’t right. local neighborhood weirdo who writes in the local bar, because he likes to be around people. Dude, syntax again. srsly.

Nevermind, I’ll stop being absurdist. It’s partially escapism, but it’s mostly actually just letting go, unlocking the gates of Hades, metaphorically. Always liked that metaphor. Old one. Still rocks.


Sacred beliefs; being wrong March 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, relationships.
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If you were to look at older posts on this blog, you would see me being critical of how defensive religious people are about their beliefs. In the earlier days of the atheist community, there was a divide between those who were openly critical of people’s faiths and those who wanted to build bridges or who simply didn’t see the point in criticizing or challenging personal beliefs.

Now, after some years, the rifts, arguments, and points of contention have changed, but it strikes me that the same fundamental question is still at hand; what do we do with people’s sacred beliefs?

Of course, this is not a question unique to the atheist community. I’d bet it’s pretty universal across cultures, societies, etc.

So, what about people we don’t like? What about people who have hurt us? What about people we refuse to talk with? I am not very certain of this framing, and I am writing this more with an interest to structure my thoughts than to try and compel a specific argument, but allow me to posit an idea.

As a background for this, allow me to summarize my views on how we rationalize, which I have written about before.


Not all of our conclusions are truly rationally derived. In fact, I would say that probably a good number of them are not. Through some unseen bias, trauma, idealism, or even dedication to a person or group (groupthink, tribalism, or even loyalty to a loved one), we come to a conclusion that is more based upon emotion than pure rational thinking (a kind of Critique of Pure Reason, as it were), and we then rationalize that emotional decision.

We all do this, a lot. In fact, I notice that it’s much more prevalent the more rational a person thinks they are; it’s often the most logically-minded people who are susceptible to this. (Yes, myself included).

And then we, the rational paragons that we are, defend our emotional conclusions. And we become defensive around the subject of that conclusion. And then those who differ with us become the other, from another tribe, and then we cannot even hear, understand, or possibly even be around those people. We read them unfairly, we credit them with motives which they might not have, and we are unable, and usually unwilling, to hear them.

Friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships, and all other sorts of human relations are lost through such means, and it often takes years, if it happens at all, to be able to see past the biases which we build when this happens. This is how enemies and estrangements are made, and it’s utterly ridiculous most of the time.


Sacred Space

You’ve been hurt. Someone made a decision which had an unwanted result, from your point of view. Maybe you were friends for years, maybe you have only known them for a few months, or maybe they are a family member. Now, aside from the rare person who is actually malicious (and hell, we can almost never be sure that our “enemy” is ever really that person, because it usually feels that way to the harmed), most people who hurt us were not trying to. Their reasons for what they did are probably complicated, they probably regret their actions (at least to some degree), and they are probably not the person that your angry, hurt, and resentful self sees.

And yet I am willing to bet that in the long run that demonized version of them will be the one which you (and your friends who console you) will remember. Because memory is associated with emotion. No matter how good things were, you remember them through the association of that pain.

And so you create a sacred space of belief about that person, what they did, and any contradiction of that narrative are dismissed, like we do with all our beliefs; they survive on the nectar or bias and demonization. I’ve done this, myself. In the period of healing over the least couple of years, I’ve done it to several people. In recent months, I’ve started to doubt my beliefs, with regard to some of these people, and I have begun to question whether the conclusions I reached were true.

In one case, I realized that a specific person who was vilified among the people closest to me was not, in fact, vile at all. I realized that she was someone who was suffering, who made mistakes, and who I loved very much. The details don’t matter here, but suffice it to say that this realization cost me dearly, because I handled it badly.

But the only reason i realized it was because I was able to question the tribalistic groupthink which was forming around this person. I was able, eventually, to see around the biases which others were trying to compel me to accept. And I made the decision which I needed to make, but in the wrong way.

I have always been a person who has been willing to question the most sacred of my personal beliefs. One could frame this as lack of confidence in myself (and that is also partially true), but I believe that it is also a virtue to not be able to look at my personal beliefs as sacred objects not to be questioned. The traditions, childhood dreams, and ideals we carry sometimes blind us to the possibility of transcendent growth. Sometimes ideals are more a hindrance than a boon to personal enlightenment; beware the person of strong conviction, for that conviction is the lens through which they see the world.


Being wrong

The result of all this pondering is that I wonder if maybe I have been very wrong about some things. Many things, perhaps.

I have read what some have said about me, and know what others think of me, but despite my flaws (and I certainly have them), I am not the person I see reflected in their thoughts. And if I do not give my view of  others the same revision which I give to my own beliefs, it would be irrational to expect them to do the same. I cannot expect others to see past their biases if I will not see past my own. I have to be willing to be wrong, about everything.

Too many people out there in the various communities in which I have walked are unwilling to hear what some other people have to say, and really hear it. Too much enmity (some of it is actually deserved, but not all of it), too little willingness to reconsider, and too much desire to be right than to be willing to listen. Too much conviction. Too much comfort and certainty about one’s own values and goals, for my taste. Those things are as likely to be cages as virtues.

I’ve lost people I have cared about because I’ve made mistakes, because others have made mistakes, and because (usually) we both made mistakes. We’re human. But an unwillingness to listen, to hear, to drop down the walls between us all is not helping anyone. We all had reasons for the decisions we made, and if we might be willing to look past our feelings a  little bit, perhaps we could see why we might have made the same decision as they did, and perhaps begin to forgive.

Or, you know, we could all just move along feeling self-righteous and  comfortable in whatever tribe we’ve formed. That could be fun too, right?

I’ve been wrong, you’ve been wrong, and we will all be wrong more than we’d like to be. Don’t let the potential for understanding, enlightenment, or intimacy be lost for the sake of your stupid sacred beliefs and conclusions. That’s completely silly.



The Republic of The Self January 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal.
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Plato’s tripartite soul/state

One of the first philosophy books I ever read, when I was around 14 or so, was Plato’s Republic. It’s a very well-known and influential book, both in the philosophical world but also in Western culture in general. The basic theme of the book is that there is a discussion, including Socrates and his interlocutors, about the nature of the human “soul”, by use of an analogy of creating a perfect “Republic.”

The concept of the “tripartite soul” was derived, in part, from this book (also the Phaedo). Plato saw us as being made up of logical, spiritual, and desirous parts, all having to work together in a hierarchical fashion in order to achieve harmony and happiness. Analogously, the state, in this case an ideal republic, should be made up of the “philosopher kings” (reason/logic), the soldiers (will/spirit), and the citizens (appetite/desire).

Plato’s psychological theory is, of course, unscientific and not used by psychology (and his political one as well, given his inability to build a successful state himself) but nonetheless this idea is embedded in much of Western thinking (for good or ill, probably more the latter). How often do we think of ourselves as having to use reason or logic to reign in our will or desires? Don’t we still see, in some ways, our leaders as a means to control our ability to make war or to give us motivation to work and not to simply eat, drink, and have sex all day?

I’ll leave that for the anarchists out there to discuss.


Revolution v. Incremental change

“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” (Thomas Jefferson)


Thomas Jefferson, despite his flaws, has been an inspiration to me in my life. I have a cloth-bound copy of his writings which I found in a little used books store in DC many years ago, and I read a bit from it now and then.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

In a conversation I paid attention to among some Facebook friends yesterday about the upcoming presidential primaries (specifically concerning the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I am supporting), a comment exposed some skepticism as to whether Sanders’ political revolution is possible or even likely. The sentiment was that political change occurs slowly, incrementally. The idea is that the “Hope and change” we progressives wanted with Obama only partially happened, but that we want more. Some people think that’s not going to happen, and we need to be patient and work within the system for change to happen slowly.

That actual revolutions are rare, usually bloody, and don’t happen in the way that Sanders’ supporters would like.

And if we look back on history, we don’t see too many successful purely political revolutions. Perhaps the recent election in Canada are an exception (I have not been following Trudeau’s moves, but I’m glad that Canada has moved in a more liberal direction), and perhaps Sanders winning the presidency would be similar in scope. However, would such a feat equal a political “revolution”? Or would it merely lead to more congressional inaction due to Sanders being unable to bring more liberal congressmen to office to help motivate the change? Would Congress be as gridlocked as it has been in the last 7 years?

Would it really change anything quickly enough to warrant calling it a “revolution”?

I don’t know.

But shouldn’t we be trying, anyway?

That’s a good question.


I, Plato

So, taking a queue from Plato, I was thinking about how political mechanization can be analogous to ourselves. If I were to think of myself as an analogy for a nation, although not a tripartite one (because the relationship between reason, emotion, and desire are not actually hierarchical at all, nor are they separate modules in any clean sense), is it possible for a person to have a true revolutionary change in behavior, outlook, and disposition? Sure, we can change, but can we do it overnight, over a few days, or even weeks?

Lord knows I have tried, over the years. But have I succeeded?

No, I don’t think I have. And I am unsure whether I even can. So, is it true that true change can only be incremental?

After all, some people claim to have been born again, right?

I’ve had certain moments where I felt like I had changed. But, upon further reflection, this was really a matter of emotion and mood. A few days later, a few weeks later, I was back to the same song and dance, but with more experience. That experience is key; something from that mood stuck with me, and little by little those moments of clarity, the feeling of something having changed, accumulated into slow, actual long-term change.

And what I’m concluding about this is that while the cumulative change will not happen overnight, we need the temporary, passionate, and radical thrusts towards a better nation and person in order to keep us pushing forward. Whether it is politics or person, we need the revolutionary energy to keep pushing the conversation and the insight into ourselves to keep moving in a direction we want to move.

The United States may never becomes a liberal, Democratically Socialist country like I’d like it to be, but we need people like Bernie Sanders shifting our attention in that direction, even if they cannot implement that change as a candidate or a president. Similarly, I may never be the man I wish to be, but if I don’t allow myself to feel the passion of being that moment today, and from time to time, I will settle into a comfort zone of who I am, rather than keep pushing on.

And I need my temperamental desires, my reason, and my will to work in collaboration in order to get there. I will not make my will, desire, nor my reason to submit to any of the others, but I will let each do what they do best, and allow the process to bring forth growth.

Am I a different person than I was 1, 2 or 5 years ago? Yes. But that changed happened with incremental change fueled by periodic revolutionary moments of trauma, my own mistakes, and intellectual insight. Those revolutionary moments supplied the ideological horizon I should be moving towards it, but often gave the illusion of already having reached it.

Electing Bernie Sanders will not complete the revolution, but it might be a step in the right direction. Making a wise decision about what I will do in my life won’t make me my ideal self, but it’s also a step in the right direction.

Be patient, but don’t allow patience to prevent you from pursuing passionately from time to time. Because otherwise our patience turns into complacency and comfort. When we stop trying for revolutions, be become part of the establishment; we become the conservatives of tomorrow.



Montaigne January 22, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal.
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Because I’m not in a place of writing, but more of reflection and reading, I figured I’d throw in a bit that resonated with me from this evening’s reading.

For, I think, the first lessons with which one should saturate his understanding ought to be those which regulate his habits and his common sense; that will teach him to know himself and how both to die well and to live well.


That is all for now.

I hope you are all well.

Time, perspective, and healing November 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory.
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Last week, I ran into this 6 word story in a listicle:

Strangers. Friends. Best friends. Lovers. Strangers.

and when I reached this story, I sort of froze inside. How many times have I experienced this? Too many? Just the right amount?

Not enough times?

Someone I used to think fairly well of used to say that relationships ending isn’t always a bad thing. A transition of a relationship from one thing to another is often good, and I have people in my life who have transitioned from lover to friend (and sometimes back again) and other transitions, in various directions, numerous times. I am on very good terms (even if we have often grown distant) with most of my previous lovers and partners, with a few glaring exceptions. Some people I thought I would never speak to again are now people I’m closest to. Others, who I thought I’d never be apart from, are now strangers.

Nonetheless there have been a number of relationships that have ended where even a friendship could not be maintained. Sometimes it was due to a mistake, miscommunication, or other problem one one or both of our parts, but quite often it was just because things changed, and our relationship changed. And, sometimes, we drift apart completely.

And, in time, no matter how I felt at the time, perspective is gained. Time heals all wounds? Maybe.

And sometimes that perspective provides greater truth and understanding, but not always. Sometimes, our own biases create stories that leave our memory of a person, and what happened with them, as a work of creative fiction. And while I try to avoid this (as all decent people try to do), I am as susceptible as anyone else (although I suspect I think about this more than most).

And through this process of greater understanding, perspective, and internal narrative creation I have come to look back on some relationships as failures (on one or both of our parts), some as escapes from something terrible, and some as really stupid misunderstandings which cannot be fixed because of one or both of our feelings (often pride and hurt).

Sometimes it’s just best to walk away, and leave a stupid situation be stupid, even if it’s for stupid reasons.

It’s frustrating, but there’s little we can, in general, do about it.

The last year

My life has changed very significantly in the last year. I was married, and now I’m not. 2014 was a tumultuous one of a household breaking up, dealing with unwanted drama, and all the people involved acting pretty terrible (yes, all of us. Some much more than others). And then my marriage went to shit (long before she left), partially due to the immense amount of tension from that situation, and it left me feeling unstable and perceptually afraid and hurt. Eventually, everything was awful and I suffered through months of the deepest depression I have ever known.

Now, I speak to none of the people I used to think of as my poly family two years ago, and have no desire to be involved with any of them again. I do not expect that to change, but I leave that to the future. I believe that nobody, no matter how awful, is completely beyond redemption. I’m just not holding my breath for any of them.

And I think I’m better off that way.

I never wanted to be divorced, so I waited to get married until a little later in life, and married someone I thought was someone who would be a good partner. I was wrong. The transition has been painful, anger-inducing, but mostly just disappointing. But I’m happier now than I have been in years, and I have, in fact, learned and grown significantly.

Anyone reading this who continues to scapegoat me as an abusive asshole can fuck themselves right off a cliff. I made mistakes, and I have always admitted my responsibility, and I will not accept your brushstrokes as reality. I’m not afraid of you, the truth, nor of myself (that, in itself, was a huge step for me). I accept the nuances that we all erred, we all had reason to be angry and hurt, and I can only hope that time will offer all of us the wisdom that it was all stupid and avoidable, even if not salvageable.

I’m responsible for my journey, and I will leave you all responsible for your own.

Am I angry? Damn right I am. But most days, now, I’m not. Most days, I’m actually doing very well. But I am angry, sometimes, and it’s for very good reason. The transition to get here has been shitty, but enlightening. And the goal is not to rid myself of the anger (that would be pointless to try, anyway), but to focus on the future rather than the past. The past is for learning, not for living.

The hardest part of the transition was forcing myself to remember that I made mistakes and hurt people. It’s so easy to allow the self-defensive narrative to write itself in my own head. Yeah, this person was awful in this way, and they did this, but I also fucked up. The other side of that is not taking all the responsibility; to stop punishing myself for mistakes I made because those mistakes happened in a specific circumstance, and I can learn both from the circumstance and from knowing how it felt to be responsible for hurting someone who trusted me and cared about me.

People who are now strangers.

And so I kept asking myself a set of questions; OK, so I fucked up. Now what? Am I going to stay the person who made that mistake or am I going to change? Am I going to solely blame others, or take responsibility? (those two are really the same question). Am I going to hide in a hole, allowing mistakes to define my whole life? Am I going to accept unquestioning support from people who sometimes said to me “they aren’t worth your time,” they are assholes,” “fuck them” or will I ask them to help me better understand what I did wrong and what I need to do going forward? When the people around you just tell you what you want to hear and feed the tribalistic impulses we all have, that’s not friendship or love; that’s part of what keeps narcissism alive.

And, perhaps most importantly for me, am I going to keep punishing myself, or am I going to remember that I made those mistakes because I was hurting, and because I tolerated people hurting to me for too long. Because I understand why I made those mistakes; I didn’t defend my boundaries and I allowed resentment turn into anger, and anger turn into being mean to people I cared about. Abuse happens for a reason, and where I have acted abusively I will simultaneously accept responsibility and fix the cause; and the cause is not that I’m an abusive person inherently, it’s that I am a person who has experienced abuse myself, over many years, and that cycle has to stop somewhere.

The Quakers have a saying, as part of one of the songs I learned while in (hippie) school;

“Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

Well, let the cycle end with me. I will try, every day, to no longer pass on the pain given to me by others because, as I have been working on for months now, I will defend the boundaries I need for myself better. I will no longer allow resentment and hurt build up until I hurt someone because they are (or someone else is) hurting me. In other words, I will not punish myself nor others for any pain, from any source. I don’t accept the threats of punishment from an illusory god, and I will not accept the punishment for an illusory sense of personal justice. When I, previously, saw the response to being hurt or injured as Justice rather than compassion, I internalized the same megalomaniacal fury of an insecure bronze-age god (YHWH/Allah/Elohim/etc) that I have been decrying for years.

Hypocritical as shit, I know. But at least I’m figuring it out now.

(I’ll point out, here, that Nietzsche has been trying to tell me that for years, but I wasn’t seeing it clearly enough. Thanks, Nieztsche, for trying.)

And I have never felt better about myself, my relationships, and my future. There will always be work to do, but I’m no longer controlled by the pain I have dealt with all of my life. And I no longer, as I said, fear myself. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but it did happen. I’m supremely glad about that, because being afraid of oneself is, perhaps, worse than hating oneself (which I have also experienced).

Coming clean and moving forward

I have made some pretty awful mistakes in my life. Most recently, I hit my ex wife with a pillow and yelled some pretty awful things at her while I was immensely hurt and angry at her for reasons which are not relevant here, mostly because they are not excuses. I still have nightmares about it ever since, although they are increasingly rare these days. And while many people close to me have sympathized with my own pain, and in some cases even argued that what I did was not bad enough to warrant the marriage ending, that is not my nor their decisions. No matter how much I disagree with that decision and wished there had been any room to try to go a different direction, I have done my best to respect it and made no attempt to fight the request for a divorce.

And now it’s all over. I’m mostly OK with that, I just wish it had been possible to make the divorce a transition, rather than an ending. I simply could not accept the terms I was given, to make it a transition. Had I accepted the terms I saw in front of me to try and rebuild a friendship, I would have been capitulating to what I saw as a lie. I will defend my boundaries, where previously my insecurity would have sacrificed by thoughts, feelings, and very self in order to save the relationship. That will never happen again.

Due to that same insecurity, I’ve lived through many relationships with people who were terrible to me in many ways. And rather than create firm boundaries I allowed my resentment, anger, and fear to build up until I would throw a stool, hit someone with a pillow, and yell hurtful things.

And then, of course, I don’t have much of a leg to stand on in pointing out my own pain because I’ve moved the attention to myself. I throw a stool, so it doesn’t matter if this guy is being an asshole and making other people’s lives a living hell. He can just point to the stool I threw, and now I’m the focus.

Or, I hit her with a pillow so now all the reasons I had for being furious with her are irrelevant and can be brushed off and ignored.

That’s been the pattern, most of my life and with too many people. Not in all cases, mind you, but especially with people who trigger certain insecurities within me. Had I not buried the anger, allowed resentment to build, and let fear govern it all I could have avoided the outbursts and the alienation I felt.

I have understood aspects of this over years, but it is more clear to me now, after the least few years, than previously. And I will work on, every day, making sure that this cycle is not perpetuated.

Mea culpa

To whom it may concern

So, those of you who are reading this and don’t trust me, think I’m an abusive person, or who might continue to make my mistakes the primary story…well OK. Cool story, bro. But we define ourselves not only by our decisions and mistakes, but also by how we respond to them. I will not ignore or merely dismiss your accusations and judgments, but i will only accept them as part of the story (unless they are true fabrications, which I have also had to deal with). I will learn from you, even if you have no interest in helping me, because there might be some truth to what you say, even if it is biased, embellished, or malicious. If I ignore that, I am merely pushing the narrative closer to my own comfort zone. That won’t stop the cycle, but merely inches along rather than strides towards growth.

Changing just enough as you have to is almost as bad as not changing at all.

And I will offer the same to you (all of you, out there). If you have made, or continue to make, mistakes, my judgment of your character will also be informed by how you respond, and not merely what you did. We all hurt people, to varying degrees. Own it, grow, and in time those you hurt may forgive you. In some cases, they never will. That’s hard.

Finally, those of you who have been there for me over the last year (or years, in some cases), I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love you all, and I owe you a lot for your listening, emotional support, and trusting me enough to see that I am not the person that others say I am or are afraid that I am. You believed that I cannot be defined by my mistakes, and made an effort to see me through the work I had to do, when it would have been far easier to abandon me. You understood that if you really believed that I could grow beyond a set of mistakes, learn from them, and truly grow and heal, you had to stick around to see it.

Alternatively, If you said that you believed I could get through this but made no attempt to stick around….

Then perhaps you are not the person you think you are either.

I know who I am, and I like that person a lot.

Atlanta. Poly. Weekend. June 3, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory.
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apw-logo-300x190Holy motherfuck balls do I need a vacation.

This weekend, I will be headed south. I’ll be leaving tomorrow afternoon and staying in Charlotte with Steph, of Love Infinitely, because it offers some break in the journey but also because I love seeing her. She’ll be spending some of the APW conference with me, where I’m ultimately headed, and I’m hoping that going to the conference this weekend can help inspire me, re-invigorate me, and maybe get me writing again.

Because, on paper, most things have been good recently. But I’m not writing, and me not writing is usually a sign that something is not right. Yes, I’m very busy with life, but even so I am feeling empty. I need a challenge. I need a project. I need something to give structure to the surge of energy under the surface.

The time I have spent in therapy, journaling, and talking with people close to me in recent months has been a sort-of project in itself, of course. I’m in a significant period of personal transition, after all. But none of this is translating into public writing. As a result, PolySkeptic.com has been somewhat quiet.

I apologize about that.

The Tao of staring at your phone while walking down the street

The Tao of staring at your phone while walking down the street

So, this weekend, I’m going to be in Atlanta. This means a couple of things; 1) I may get a chance to get some Ingress uniques, since when I lived down there Ingress did not yet exist. 2) It also means I get to relive some memories. Memories which used to be among the happiest I’ve ever had. Memories which are now painful. I can hope for some resolution, but I doubt it will come. Catharsis? Also doubtful. Perhaps some perspective is all I can hope for. Perhaps that is all we can ever expect, and be grateful that we have the ability to gain it’s favor.

It also means I get to inject myself into a polyamorous world for a weekend, and hopefully better define where I stand on some issues when it comes to that world. There was a time, as some readers may remember, when I would wax philosophical about polyamory at length with confidence. And now I’m not as confident.

It’s not that I’m less sure that I want to be polyamorous, but I’m less secure about what direction I want to take future relationships. A year ago, I was very certain. I wanted a family, children, and to get more comfortable settled into a life of less change and more establishment. Now, all that is changed, and I’m forced to reinvent myself in order to adjust.

And I’m not sure, yet, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not sure if I’ll be happier this way or not. All I know is that I do not have a choice. I have to reinvent or risk dwelling and building more resentment. I have to live or accelerate the dying process.

This is not what my vanity looks like, but it's close enough.

This is not what my vanity looks like, but it’s close enough.

But I have people who love me and know who I am. In the last year or so, I’ve had to read and listen to some people who think they know who I am, but who seem to be more motivated by self-interest and an unwillingness to perceive their own flaws or errors. It’s like watching fans of opposite teams argue; they reflect each other so well, and the very fact that they disagree in the same way and cannot see it is both frustrating and amusing. And my seeing it is an impotent power, because my own emotional attachment to my own “team” stirs up the same motivations. And then the image resolves and “we” see “we’ve” been staring at a blurry image of myself in the mirror, where the blur created a doubling of the image.  Then I wonder if that’s what the mystics mean when they say that all of reality is a projection of some cosmic consciousness. Is maya a mirror or a wall?

If you can make sense of that last paragraph, then perhaps we understand each other already. Or, more likely, that made no sense to anyone except myself. Am I writing for you or for myself? Also, is there a difference, when we dig down deep?

And so I need this weekend. I need to get away. I need a vacation. I need to take some time to figure out what I need and what kind of people I want in my life.  I’ve lived enough allowing other people to mistreat me to the point where my own flaws and limitations overshadow my ability to tolerate pain. And I’ve also allowed that pain to be the germination of my mistreating others. We all hurt each other and ourselves, and it’s when we can understand that sometimes both of those things happen because of its complement, that the cycle might end. Maybe. Hopefully.

I know who I am. What I’m working on is being OK with that person.

How’s that for a Wednesday morning?

In any case, I’ll see some of you in Atlanta this weekend.

Bouquets, brickbats, and trusting the untrustworthy May 24, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal.
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[TW: Abuse]

There is a distinction between trusting a person and trusting their ideas. Even the worst people can be right, even if they use the truth as a weapon. If you seek true understanding, it is worth paying attention to the criticism we receive, even if that bouquet of criticism is delivered with brickbats.

I have always been a person who is interested in self-improvement and introspective knowledge. This set of self-challenging ideals has been a large source of motivation for myself over the years, and it is not something which is likely to change. This predilection had led me to gain some fairly significant insight into not only myself, but of the people around me. The more intimate I am with them, the more I understand them. And while I’m nowhere near always right, the value here comes in that we have the ability to see where others cannot. Being even partially right where another cannot see at all is better than the myopia that would result in ignoring that perspective completely.

The knowledge gained from these perspectives can be used in ways that are loving, and ways that are not. And depending on all sorts of factors, such as our own emotional maturity, levels of selfishness and security, etc, that knowledge can be used in a myriad of ways both good and bad. If a person severely hurt, depressed, or otherwise behaviorally compromised then that understanding can become a weapon. It’s a part of being human.

And sometimes shit gets hard, and when we’re afraid and hurt what we know can become clothed in the ability to hurt other people. When this happens to me, for example, my intellectual understanding does not simply go away, it just gets loaded into a (metaphorical) gun. I’ve been hurt (let’s say), some way or another, and I know something relevant to the situation or to the person involved. And now I’m going to use that knowledge to re-direct that pain. I’m going to take that truth, wrap it in a napkin of my pain, and I’m going to show the person who hurt me how I feel.

It’s an unhealthy reaction, but it is a human one. I do not believe that this ability, propensity, and even occasional desire is unique or even rare; I think it’s part of being human, especially during difficult times in our lives. And when times get difficult, people hurt each other. And when people hurt each other, the ability to see nuance, truth, and even to recognize the truth in what people say is lost in the mire of that pain.

This is very unfortunate, and I believe that it is a mistake to ignore or distrust an idea simply because of it’s source. Skepticism asks us to seek evidence, and sometimes data comes from places that we may wish we had never gone, but it is data nonetheless. Ignoring an idea simply because the way it reached us was painful is a reactionary and emotional response, not a skeptical one.

When we dismiss a person, even the truth that they might have had for us gets thrown away as well. In my darkest moments, when I’m least certain, I might think that a person who has criticized me cruelly is completely right about me. But this is merely one side of a spectrum. Because other times, when feeling more secure, I think that that person is completely wrong, and therefore I don’t need to keep in consideration their opinion. How are these two things not the same error?

While we all can mock the words of a person we have dismissed as deplorable (and often for good reason), might it be that those words might have something to teach us, and that we are only dismissing them because those words were wrapped in pain and weaponized?

Is it possible to learn from the content of painful words, even from painful people? Can even pacifists learn from the technology of war?


Blind Spots and Bad Drivers

No matter how self-aware I am or become, there are always aspects of myself that I cannot see, at least not well.  As I go through my life, I have built up habits which, as I “drive”through life I cannot see unless I specifically turn my attention to them. But I have to be willing to look at at them.  And sometimes it’s painful to look in that direction, because that section of my universe may have emotional associations which I prefer to avoid, ignore, or forget.

It’s quite easy to forget (or to avoid) to look in that direction, as a result. It’s much more pleasant, and easier, not to. As an actively defensive driver (and yes, this is somewhat of a metaphor as well), I will keep an eye, sometimes, on where cars are relative to me and anticipate when a car is moving into my blind spots. Thus, sometimes I know a car is there even if I am not looking. But my attention is not perfect, and so if I plan on changing lanes, I need to peek anyway.

Especially if I’m tired, hurt, or otherwise emotionally distracted. I need to build up the habit to check where I can only see when I intentionally move my attention. And sometimes I need other people, even ones I may not like, to help me see those blind spots. Because quite often the people we clash with see things within ourselves that we do not like to see, and whether or not we trust their intentions, their perspective can often see what we cannot.

But here we need to be careful, because there are people who want to manipulate, control, and influence us in a direction that is not necessarily in our favor. There are people in the world who, despite being able to see some of the problems with our behavior and may, potentially, have something to teach us, they are more focused on their own interests to actually help us. They might tell us there is something in that blind spot which is not there (they may be projecting or are directly trying to deceive us). They may not tell you there is something there because they may think it’s not a big deal or whatever. Or, they just may not see it either, and are just as blind to that spot as you are.

And such people may leave us hurt, traumatized, and possibly less trusting. In those cases, we are then subject to over-compensating and becoming too focused on our own perspectives, and then we start to change lanes without looking. Trusting our own judgment is good, but sometimes it is the judgment of others, especially those who have hurt us, which we need especially because it is painful. There is a reason certain things are painful, and sometimes it’s because some truth is painful. In order to grow, we need to look at difficult truths and be willing to make effort to understand. Growth does not come from personal avoidance and people willing to simply be content with your own parochial myopia. Love and friendship is not merely celebrating what’s important to you, what you want, and what you can see. That is much closer to submissiveness to a quasi-narcissism than to love.

Challenge v. Control

I’ve been through, in my life, many experiences where people attempted (and often succeeded) to control me. I am also guilty of, in moments of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to control other people. I don’t like doing it, at all. I don’t want to do it, either. However, it’s part of the human dynamic and the distinction between the desire to help and to control is sometimes a very fine line, one which sometimes even the person perpetrating the advice/control cannot see. Navigating such treacherous waters is difficult on all sides, and only a few people actually want to and enjoy the kind of intentional manipulation of that control.

And when a person has found themselves in the position of being controlled, manipulated, and influenced too much, the reaction is often to become less accepting of opinion, of trying to trust their own instincts, and to sometimes close themselves off to what people who have hurt them have to say. And in many cases, this is for very good reason. But I am of the (probably controversial) opinion that it is especially the people who have hurt us that have the most to teach us.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that people who are abusive and controlling are right, especially about our character. What I am saying is that often pain comes from truth, even if that truth is twisted and deformed for the purposes of that control and abuse. The affect such people often have on us is so real because a true thing has been used as a weapon.  The fact that a hammer can be used to hurt or kill does not invalidate the usefulness of the hammer in building all sorts of things.

The Devil will often use the truth, whether for a greater lie or for the sake of power, as it is said. But we are not talking about the Devil (and even if we were, in Jewish/Christian mythology, the Devil is merely an interlocutor and questioner of God, not a psychopath or even evil), we are talking about people.  Of course, if a person is overwhelmingly using their hammer to attack rather than to build, then that person probably should not be trusted. But ignoring and invalidating everything such a person would say is akin to eliminating hammers in your life, rather than unwieldy carpenters.

Having been the receiver of a lot of criticism based upon some truth, it is hard to hear the parts that are true and to disregard the parts which are interpretation, attempts to hurt and control, and the parts which are not true. Being human, I have flaws and have made mistakes in my life. But I will not ignore or dismiss the words of critics and ideas whole-cloth, because to do so opens me up to the possibility of conflating the message with the messenger. Even an abusive person, in using abusive words and actions, may have some insight worth paying attention to (even if they don’t follow it themselves).

I don’t want anyone to be coerced, controlled, or abused, but I also don’t want people to shrink into their shells and accept only words from people who are willing to coddle them and not challenge their comfort zone. That is not love, that is how growth stagnates. There is a very difficult rope to walk on between self-absorbed obliviousness and accepting victimhood. One of the questiona I keep asking myself recently is whether one’s own obliviousness, self-absorption, and arrogance (sometimes framed as confidence or strength of will) is any better, in the long run, to being subject to the coercion and abuse from others. Either way, you are letting a limited perspective control you.

Trusting my own judgment and instincts is only in tension with, and not in contradiction to, hearing the criticisms of friends, acquaintance, or even foes. This is because even if I cannot trust a person’s intentions or motivations, sometimes I must trust their ability to see my blind spots when I can’t.

Therefore, I pay attention to criticisms, even from those I consider to be not trustworthy. I do not seek to internalize the ideas of abusive people, but to ignore their perspective seems equally problematic. The error in abusive control comes in the abuse, not necessarily the content. If abusive people could learn to find loving ways to show us what we cannot see, then nobody would need to shy away from their knowledge.

And this is as true of me as it is of anyone. My struggle is to find ways to share my perspective in ways that are not hurtful, and to understand the knowledge that even abusive people might have to teach me. I trust my judgment, but my judgment is limited. Those who can see some things that I can see, and some of those people are truly assholes, must complement what I can already see, or I risk the blindness and myopia that follows fear and mistrust.

Life Lessons from Pacman…sort of April 16, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory.
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Sometimes help comes from the places you are running from

Sometimes help comes from the places you are running from

So, earlier today I was playing some Pacman. I know, that’s like totes retro, but I was doing that shit before everyone else! Actually, I think I played like 3 games before a few weeks ago.  Damn, when did I become such a poser? Whatevs, it matters not because I was totally eating some chumps (that’s what I call eating the ghosts) when I noticed that I totally got distracted by something else and lost a life.

And I was all like damn, that sucks. Now I only have one extra life, I should totally bag this shit and start over. And then it occurred to me.

Dude, you just made a mistake, and you have more life left. Now stop whining and eat some fucking ghosts.

In other words, it’s not over yet, and from here it is all uphill if you manage to get over your shit. Yeah, you done fucked up, fool (he says to himself ironically). Now it’s time to realize that it’s ok to fuck up. Now it’s time to eat some motherfucking chumps.


So, here’s the thing. I know some of you out there reading this hate me. I don’t care. I don’t hate you. Hate won’t help anything. One of the reasons I was so fucked up over the last couple of years is that I loved you all, at least to some extent, despite my pain that you caused me. And yeah, I know I caused my share of pain too. And I regret that, because I know I made it worse and because I hate hurting people I love. I don’t expect these words to matter to you. That’s not my problem anymore. I’m saying them because they are true, and because the truth matters to me more than looking weak, flawed, or what you’ll say in response.

So, keep calling me a sociopath. Keep calling me an abuser. Keep calling me anything that it feels good to call me. I will not be defined by misdiagnoses or my past mistakes. I’ve already, several times, admitted my own guilt. Everyone knows that I am flawed. But we’ve moved past the damnation of old religion, and we, as people with some wisdom, history, and culture beneath us can realize that deeds may scar us, but they do not cripple us if we learn to heal well.

And not all of us heal well.

And I know there are many of you out there that love me. And believe me, I believe it. For the first time, I actually believe it the vast majority of the time. You know who you are. Some of you I have had some distance from (for good reason), and some have been a daily part of my life. You are all lovely, and I am sorry for being a jerk sometimes and for asking for so much from you when I was not always giving as much back as I could have. I’m working on it.

You are not my strength; my strength is within. But you are the reflections of my strength, and I can only hope to be the reflection of yours.

I want to thank a few people, specifically, because they are all people who deserve some recognition. I cannot name all of you, and so I will use (hopefully amusing) nicknames or initials. I think you should all recognize yourselves.

pactheistD, Holy crap have I known you a long time. Seriously, we dated when I was in 10th grade. I mean, you knew me as a teenager, and you are still around. I’m glad. I hope the best for you, knowing that the next few years couple possibly be hard. But I believe in you (I almost said I had “faith” in you, lol), and think you can finally find true happiness.

N, you and I have known each other for something like 25 years. And getting to know you again, over the last few years, has been amazing. You are truly kind-hearted, brilliant, and perhaps a bit too dedicated. But you are lovely, and I feel honored that you share my affection.

RedPepperLover69, you are more patient, rational, and diplomatic than I could ever be. Your contributions to difficult things I had to write in the last year made me turn in different directions than I would have seen on my own. You are a good friend, and I will look forward to your many concoctions, parties, and your questionable taste in veggies.

My Southern Belle, we’ve had a strange path ourselves.  Distance is hard for me, but I feel like you are worth the patience, extra effort, and work it takes to overcome that. I feel that our similar experiences over the last year drew us together. I am quite glad that we are close, and that you have been so loving. I love you.

Pickle, We’ve had a few rough moments. Man, did we meet each other at the wrong time, perhaps. Or perhaps it was the right time. In any case, you’re energy has led me through some dark months.  I needed a lot of my own time, as you know, but you who were there many times when I had trouble bearing the hard nights. Thank you so much, and I love you.

RabbitDarling, you and I have gone from one side of a spectrum to another. There was a time where you were able to say words that hurt me very deeply, and I know that this hurts you to think about. None of that. You are more than forgiven (as I have said). Since then, you became (to me) to a person who continues to inspire growth, change, and the belief that when we’re out of fucks, sometimes it’s just better to bare ourselves to the world and hope they see us for who we want to be rather than who we sometimes end up being. Thank you.

Wangleschnifter, I do not know how to put in words how wonderful you have been for me. The start of us coincided with the beginning of the bad times. And yet you have the grace, wisdom, and heart to have been one of the central pieces of my life. You make me laugh, you make me smile, and you are lovely beyond measure. I plan on tolerating you for a long time to come, if I am ever so lucky.


What do I call you? You. You know who you are. What are you to me? What are we? I don’t know. But I’m finally getting to the place where I’m not sure it matters much what label there is. You have been the best influence on me that I have ever known. And yet, perhaps in part because of this, you have been the one to teach me that I don’t need that influence from anywhere but within my own damned self (with the occasional re-direction from outside, when something is in my blind spots). I once thought I could not live without you. I now just think that I would strongly prefer not to, because the world is less beautiful without you in it.

And there are others, but there’s too much to say. I’m tired. I should sleep.

And so I need to close this, because my well has run dry for today. I stand before you all, naked, vulnerable, and a little bit scared. However, my fear is not from those who hate me, from people that love me, or even from myself. My fear is from lies I tell myself, and I’m no longer interested in being deceived, either by myself or others. I’m no longer interested in running from my fear.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

For if you do, you might learn something. If you don’t, any knowledge you gain shall be purely accidental, or at least not earned.