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Misanthropy no more! (part 1) August 22, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve had people think of me as a misanthrope, sometimes even a cynic. Some people might see me as unfriendly, shy, or aloof. There are reasons for these opinions; I am a little aloof (I chose to study philosophy, after all), I am a little shy, and I can be, in some cases, unfriendly.

Sometimes this unfriendliness is because I’m in a bad mood, and therefore I’m sorry because you probably don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s because someone’s being an asshole, in which case go fuck yourself. Sometimes it’s because I don’t, in fact, like someone, in which case do better or get used to me being unfriendly. But this dislike is an exception, rather than the rule. And being a person who used to feel the opposite, I have some thoughts about my former misanthropy and why I now choose to not exercise the misanthropic aspects of myself, when I can help it.

Our views about people, whether individually or as sets, tells us a lot about ourselves, especially our ability to perceive and to judge well.  Whether those conclusions about other people are tentative, well-considered, or reactionary are part of the analysis we should consider. Whether they are fundamentally emotional and subsequently rationalized is, perhaps, among the most important questions we can ask of our views of others. How we see people tells us about what aspects of our perception we focus on.

There is a place for things like anger, judgment, and criticism. These are tools which can be used well or poorly, and how we use these tools is the important factor. We cannot simply claim that anger is bad, being judgmental is wrong, or that criticism is not warranted.  We have to understand the context of those things, because it is often our emotional states, focus, and values which determine how we use such tools. The tools have to be wielded. How we wield them, whether towards liking and trusting others or dislike and distrust, will help shape our characters.

But before we get there, I want to take a look at something else, which is related.  I want to look at some simplified categorizations of attributes which contribute to how we form opinions about ourselves and others.  I will call these attribute sets, for the sake of the habit of hitting on tropes, the good, bad, ugly, and even the beautiful.

 

The “good” ideal

Let’s take a look at a fictional, and yet popular philosophy (which in some cases is actually a real religion in some places), one which started as science fiction. (Not like that ever happens).

This type of philosophy is fairly universal, and has its roots in many real philosophies such as Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and has been utilized in many tropes from various cultural origins such as Westerns, Samurai myths, etc. I am talking, of course, about the Jedi philosophy.

Here is the quintessential Jedi, Yoda, while training Luke Skywalker:

YodaYoda: Yes, run! Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.
Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.

As we see in the saga that is Star Wars (a flawed execution, so far anyway, of a wonderful universe.  For many reasons), this view is positioned against the Sith, who use the “dark side” of the force which includes manipulation, lies, and the raw power of the dark side of the force to achieve various kinds of goals with little to no appeals to compassion or care of any kind.

The Jedi emphasize an almost ascetic, Buddhist-like, approach to life. No attachment, passivity, peace, and knowledge. This is the worldview of many people who might be classified as scholars, poets, and even religious mystics. It is one that focuses around compassion, empathy, and patience.

Nietzsche might have some comments about this, calling it a morality of “ressentiment” perhaps (cf. Beyond Good and Evil and The Geneology of Morals). And some of those comments might be valuable and true, but that moves too far from the scope here, so I’ll leave that aside for now (but seriously, read more Nietzsche!).

With this perspective on how to live, we are left with patience, kindness, compassion and empathy in how we view people. And this has value because, at bottom, we all have flaws, struggles we’ve overcome (and more we have to work on!), and so the flaws we might see in others are a reflection of ourselves. This view encourages us to reserve judgment, not because judgment is wrong or undeserved, but because pulling out the judgment tool too quickly gets in the way of our ability to sympathize, understand, and see those other people as mirrors for ourselves. By training ourselves to put away that tool, especially early on, we train ourselves to be patient and to allow our opinion to grow with experience, not quickly and with the bias which attaches itself to critical tools.

This approach to ourselves and to others will allow our patience and judgment to form over time, giving us the perspective to make better judgments, so long as we have the courage to actually dig in and use our critical and judgmental faculties in our patience, from time to time. It allows us to look more deeply at ourselves, others, and the similarities which overlaps ourselves.

The problem, however, is when we see this ideal as the only means to health, truth, or behavior. The problem is when passivity leads to complacency, being manipulated, or allowing the powerful to remain too powerful over us. Sometimes, we need to be more than merely reactive to harm. The problem is also when we allow ourselves to accept a self-deprecating view of ourselves as incapable, inferior, or unworthy.

 

The “bad” ideal

Ugh, people are so fucking frustrating sometimes! How can they be so damned stupid? Why can’t they just do things the right way? Why do I always have to explain this to them, again and again? Why can’t they just learn how to think? Why can’t they just grow up?

That’s it, I’m done with them. I hate people. A few, of course, are exceptions, but people are just stupid, the world is stupid, and I’m superior to them.

SithIf you’ve known me for a long time, you very well may have heard me say things like the above. In times of frustration, I may still think such things. Because some people are frustrating. Some people do actually seem to be clueless, privileged, and fractally wrong much of the time. And it’s frustrating to be around, sometimes.

Such ideas don’t spawn out of our minds without a source. They come from the same places as pride, self-worth, and self-confidence. Such things are valuable, and have a place in a healthy person. But when these attributes are not tempered (Aristotle, anyone?), they can become  alluring, stroke our need for validation, and even become addictive.

This set of feelings is just as human as the “good” ideal above, and is not, in fact, “evil” or even necessarily “bad.” (Nietzsche fans are possibly gripping tightly at the potential conflationary association of the two…). They are, in many respects, the yin to the “good” ideals’ yang; as part of a balancing act that human emotions play on our sense of self worth, perception, and self-narrative. Humility and confidence, if we want to be simplistic about it. Both are part of the human experience and valuable in themselves, so long as they don’t become self-deprecation or arrogance.

Unfortunately for us, not all the "bad" are as easily identifiable and Darth Maul

Unfortunately for us, not all the “bad” are as easily identifiable and Darth Maul

A feeling of inherent superiority can come from this path; not as a passing feeling, but as an attribute and part of our vision of our very self. It becomes part of the narrative of our essence, rather than a description of some particular success or achievement. Winning the debate, the game, or the promotion are instances of success, but it does not necessarily mean that we are superior, essentially. Essential superiority is an illusion, one which can only separate us.  Perhaps a misanthrope seeks this separation, but I find this attitude toxic and unhealthy. I now this from experience of having felt this way, previously, and having lived among similarly toxic narratives.

In dealing with the world around us, sometimes we can only take so much. People hurt us, frustrate us, or just bore us, sometimes. There are times when leadership, instruction, or correction are necessary. There are also times when passion and power are needed, so long as they are not abused or excused when they over-reach.

The problem is when we universalize this feeling of being better, not merely at this thing or right now but in general. When we start to feel like we are better than most people, whether morally or in terms of wisdom or maturity, we can sometimes achieve a perception of superiority over people which is an illusion. This power creates a sense of being entitled to make decisions for people and even to disregard their feelings, thoughts, or experience. In time, if maintained long enough, it turns into a kind of arrogance, wherein the thoughts and feeling that we have are inherently better, because other people are inferior.

And why, if we are superior, would we like inferior people? What’s to like about a person who has not done the work (or might even be incapable) to become superior as well? Perhaps they are not even really people at all, or perhaps only trivially so. Perhaps they are merely plebs, without any real content or importance except as pawns, NPCs, or tool in our own personal quests (in fact, RPG’s tend to poke at the trope of the superior hero, relative to the mere characters around them who you can overpower easily). Misanthropy is when we tip the scales a little towards seeing ourselves as an exception to the set of people in the world; we don’t count the same way as they do because we’re the special hero, an exception to the common rules.

It is a tendency which can lead us to lead groups of people towards many things, become leaders, and become respected. But at the same time, contained within this tendency is one which may make us feel qualitatively different from other people, and to look down upon them, and then we might begin to manipulate people, use them, and to abuse them.

For such superior people, self-knowledge and the perspective which comes from patience, empathy, and compassion is a threat to the narrative of superiority. When we allow ourselves down this path, we become critical of people in general, disliking all the flaws that they exhibit, and become too distracted by this perceived superiority to see any in ourselves to see anything else, most of the time.

And, of course, we rationalize this. We see the people we take advantage of as weak, stupid, or in some other way actually inferior.  We create an entire rationalized worldview around the fact that we become so short-sighted, so selfish, and in some cases (though not all) so scared that we end up othering everyone else into mere objects, rather than people.

With exceptions, of course. We will find others who feel similarly, and create societies of superior people, tittering about the poor, the stupid, or the immature all around. (Ayn Rand, anyone?).

We start to celebrate our unique superiority, laughing at all the incapable people. Atheists often do it to theists (and the other way around), some people who view themselves as poly-capable do it to people who, they think, are doing polyamory wrong (or just badly), and humans do it to humans.

And isn’t that the point? Humans do it to humans! By some vain sliver of reality we humans are capable of carving out a whole pie of superiority, turning some small advantage in this space into the whole of advantages.  We turn small bits of being “better” over there to just being better.

And these, the “good” and the “bad,” are the scales upon which we dance. We are capable of each tune, to our varying degrees, and I think most of us have experienced some amount of both sides of this scale. I certainly know the bitter, lonely lows of self-deprecation as well as the seeming highs of feeling powerful, capable, and superior. Whether it’s brain chemistry, treatment by others, or whatever cause, I have known both.

So now we venture into the realm of the attributes of humankind which pull us towards either direction. There is, in short, ugliness and beauty within all of us (I hope, anyway). These attributes will tug us towards the excesses of confidence or humility, and are the true sources of power within us. Let’s move forward, then.

 

On to Part 2, where I will discuss the ugly, the beautiful and sum up my feelings about misanthropy.

 

 

 

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Speaking of tribalism… August 14, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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Ingress_logo_512pxSo, due to the pecking and poking of some people I know, I downloaded Ingress yesterday. I’ve known about the game for a little while, but didn’t get it immediately.  

If you don’t know what Ingress is, look it up. It’s a game played with GPS smartphones, and is based upon a science-fictiony story-line based upon some “transdimensional intelligence that may be infiltrating our dimension through XM Portals.”

Aside from all the background story, it’s a game about claiming territory by use of phones in order to maintain control of areas and, metaphorically, people. But instead of playing sitting at a computer, you have to physically go to locations to play.

So, since I love walking through the city anyway, it seems like something which might be fun.

Fictions, Factions, and Fractures

yin-yang-ingressThe first question I asked myself, is what side would I take?

The Enlightenment are defined thus:

Faction attempting to help the Shapers infiltrate Earth.  Followers believe that the Shapers bring a powerful Enlightenment that will lead to an evolution of humankind.

And the Resistance is defined this way:

Faction defending the Earth from the Shaper ingression. They are seen by some as being fearful of change or progress, but the Resistance is firm in its belief that it is protecting humanity.

I admit that I felt some affinity for the implications of both sides of this game, but as someone pointed out to me last night, my love of The Dark Tower might make me lean towards the Resistance.  Anyone who knows the series will know why, but briefly: powers within that fictional universe seem to be using the powers of the Tower in malicious ways, while claiming to be bringing order and peace. Roland and his ka-tet are the Resistance against these attempts. I, obviously, side with Roland Deschain, of the line of Eld.

But at the same time, I have previously considered myself more of a Vorlon than a Shadow, even if ultimately I side with John Sheridan.  And this got me thinking about the forces of chaos and order, and I re-discovered, in a new way, something about myself.

Order out of Chaos

Having had so many tumultuous emotions most of my life, I have craved order, rationality, and structure. For so many years, I sought to bring together the forces, impulses, etc within me into a structured, controlled, and rational whole. 

But you can’t structure chaos, at least not from the beginning. Chaos, when unleashed, is too messy, too complicated, too undefined to be stacked and sorted, and so it’s often best to let it make a little bit of a mess. And then it struck me; all those years of trying to put everything away in their correct places have built up a very strong and useful strength of creating order out of chaos, so why was I afraid of the chaos?

Why not allow my emotions to flow freely? Why not allow the creativity to just flow, unafraid of whether it was good, worthy, or structured correctly? I didn’t need to edit or govern my emotions and creativity as it came out, because I’m really good at doing that after the fact.

My emotions are not dangerous, in themselves, but when they are restricted, governed, and held back they become a problem. My creativity is not bad, but when it’s restrained and given too intentional a shape, it’s not as raw and vulnerable.

In short, I need to trust myself, because what is inside me is not a monster, not stupid, and not unworthy. What is inside me is interesting, caring, and sometimes beautiful. All these years of governing what fell through the portals of myself has been a kind of voluntary censorship. It will take time to retrain my instincts to do less of this restraining, governing, and controlling, but I think it’s a worthy goal.

Oh, right, Ingress….

I went with the Resistance. Not because I necessarily believe that the “Shapers” are trying to take over and enslave us. This is not a conservative reaction of fear against what might be an actual change and enlightenment. I chose resistance because all of my life I would have made the other choice, and this time I don’t want control to win. 

I want a little chaos. I want a little Shadow. I want a little Resistance of the order I’ve enforced on myself for so many years, because I know that if that control is worth utilizing, I already have that muscle toned. I want to strengthen my muscles of resisting that order.

Also, which side you choose doesn’t really matter. The game cares little for the science fiction behind it.

Skepticism: Orthodoxy v. Orthopraxy August 13, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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One of the criticisms which has appeared over the last several years, in response to the rise of the atheist/skeptic community, is that we atheists/skeptics are just like those religious people (as if that were a criticism worth taking seriously). But even while that criticism is silly, we can still step back and take a look at commonalities of human behavior, including how these behaviors inform and compel behavior of people in both religious and non-religious communities.

In the skeptical community in particular, emphasis is often on methodology.  What tools are we using to figure things out? How much emphasis do we put on empiricism? How about rationalism? Most skeptics utilize, primarily, the scientific method which utilizes logic, empiricism, and applies a probabilistic approach to truth.

But these tools are used with the intent of discovering what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right answer?

This tension, between the best methodology and the best answers, is reminiscent of the tension throughout much of religious and theological history between orthopraxy (correct action/practice) and orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine). If you look at the history of religion, this tension plays out over and over again and can teach us quite a lot about human behavior.

My general view of religion is that it follows the rules of how culture operates.  If you want to understand religious behavior, understand cultural, social, and idividual behavior. As a result of this view, I could also say that if we were to track some of the arguments between skeptics/atheists about whether it is the conclusions (or definitions) which matter more than the methodologies we use, you might see the similarities start to emerge from the mess.

The Best of Religion and Skepticism

If we were to be forgiving of the many atrocities (both of practice and of beliefs) of religion, we could take a look at the many mystical, introspective, and social boons which religion provides to so many people. At its best, religion provides a perspective of ourselves, our communities, and the world itself which is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. So long as we can avoid the metaphysical bird-catchers* that these perspectives are often glued to, we can walk into and within religion without detriment to ourselves or the world around us.

Of course, we could have those same perspectives and experiences without religion. Science and logic do not strip away such things, although they may often cause our minds to reject them for the sake of what appears to be a cleaner and more precise description of the world (and it often is such, but perhaps not always).

And whether or not we step away from religion, insofar as we are capable of practicing good skepticism, we will be armed with a methodology which can aid us in a plethora of ways and provide us with yet more peep-holes into reality, including the murkiest part of reality; ourselves.

Skepticism gives us a sieve through which falls bias, delusion, and deception. What remains is a jumble of truths, in need of structure and meaning, which we can push and pull with our fingers like children at play with rocks, toys, or sand. 

What may become a problem is what happens when we start to build castles out of that sand. For, in a sense, we are prone to see what we make as the truth. Objects made of truth do not necessarily make larger truths, for truth is also contained within structure, and not merely components.

Getting caught up in constructions

We create narratives, structures, and often monuments of truth. Now, I personally believe that a real world exists, and in many cases our descriptions of this reality are reliable and ‘true’, if by ‘true’ we mean that it coheres with our experience and stand up to scrutiny. Some Platonic TRUTH simply has no meaning, at least not one that we, sentient and subjective beings taht we are, can participate in. 

So I believe that it’s valid to say that we know something, insofar as that thing has survived skeptical analysis, especially if it has done so repeatedly and without significant contradiction. So we can say that our understanding of how gravity works (insofar as we understand how gravity works) is true because the description keeps predicting and explaining results. Similarly, we can say that evolution is a fact which is explained by the theory of natural selection (among the other parts of biological theory related to evolution) because the theory keeps being supported by evidence.

These facts about the world are real things which we can point to and demonstrate why we accept them as true, but this demonstration is dependent upon the methodology. Methodology is the thing that determines the structure of truths, after all. Again, trye structure is as important as true components. The “correct” answers which science provides for us would be meaningless without the methodology by which we discover and construct those answers.

If we are to have a new set of facts replace such an answer, it would be the methodology which would bring it to us.

Deconstructing our sand castles

Let’s go back to religion. I’m going to unequivocally say that the largest failure of religion, in general, is the set of facts it proposes as the truth. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that when science and religion butt heads, science always either agrees or it wins. In the places where science and religion agree, all religion has done is either used, somewhere in the past, some skeptical methodology to find that answer or it simply got lucky. It is the accidental nature which leads us to the second reason.

The second reason that religion fails in the face of science is that when it comes to belief, the very methodology of religion is backwards. Where religion finds answers that work, it can only do so by borrowing from science or by getting lucky. Religion does not try to prove itself wrong, it looks for support for what it already believes or merely asserts without an attempt to provide evidence, and then calls it “faith.”

In the skeptical world, the tension between method and answer works differently than it does in religion; with religion, the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy ultimately revert back to the right answers; to orthodoxy. Even in religious traditions which tend to lean heavier on practice over doctrine, it is the doctrines, or at least metaphysical beliefs, which anchor it as a religion rather than a philosophy. 

Even with religious interpretations which focus on moral action, personal growth, etc, it is the beliefs of that group which act like a gravitational center. Otherwise, you would not have a Buddhist or a Muslim, you’d just have people who value certain ways to live, surrounded by Buddhist or Islamic scenery. The more individuals in religious communities move away from doctrine as their focus, the more they move away from religion and towards secular philosophies.

We humans must be more careful with how closely we attach ourselves to conclusions.  Conclusions create a center of gravity, which does help create a community, but it also can be the parent of tribalism, groupthink, and ultimately the narratives which become doctrine.

Within the skeptic/atheist world, certain centers of conclusion-gravity exist as well, and they define the borders between factions, not unlike what has happened with religion except that so far those lines have not become full walls which define different sects.

Not that some of the distinctions are not important; and not that I don’t think that some factions in the rift are more right than others, but I worry that the focus will become, just like with religion, the conclusions themselves, rather than the method by which they came to those conclusions. Tribalism breeds orthodoxy and diminishes focus on methodology–on orthopraxy.

Over there on this side, they all know that this thing is true that this person over there is like that and so they all dislike that person. This person becomes not part of the other group, and any contribution from them is suspect to them. Next thing you know, all the friends of this person have created their own narrative and then we have factions, tribes, and points of conflict. They have banners to put on flags, for when they arrive at the field of battle. They have identifiers to make sure they don’t kill their own.

You know, “friendly fire.”

And rather than focus on how we got to that battle field, why they chose that banner, or even what the other people with another banner think, the soldiers focus on the narratives, gripes, and injuries that their friends have suffered. And thus skeptics, atheists, and other people who think of themselves as intelligent fall prey to the oldest of humanities weaknesses; rightness.

Righteousness.

What orthodoxy do you cling to? How do you know that thing and what are you going to do, how are your going to live, and what right actions are you going to practice to either confirm or deny that right doctrine. How are you going to justify that righteousness of yours?

Is skepticism or atheism like religion? No

Are skeptics and atheists like religious people? Yes

Because we’re all people.

Let’s focus on why we disagree, more than what we disagree about. Once we have a better handle on why we disagree, the disagreements will still be there, probably. In the end, we may still hate each other, but at least we didn’t merely bow to a flag that may or may not even be true.

Good luck out there.

*”To confront man henceforth with man in the way in which, hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature, with dauntless Oedipus eyes and stopped-up Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have all too long been piping to him “you are more! you are higher! you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task” (Beyond Good and Evil,§230)

New GP post! No such thing as safe sex August 13, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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My long-overdue next post at Grounded Parents is up! Wherein I fisk an article that bemoans the teaching of safe sex. Didja know that sex is only sex if you’ve been married for 20 years, otherwise it’s just masturbating with assistance? And that if you have sex without a Spiritually Sanctioned Union you’re going to need to load up on terrible things like pills and condoms and explanations of your intent? I didn’t, but I do now. Well, and then I wrote a post arguing against it, so now I don’t again. Or something.

The sum of all my likes August 5, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this should exist in the world. You’re welcome.

 

epsilonloveBTW, if an image like this does exist, put links in the comments.

Enjoy!

Family as a Ka-tet: The Dark Tower as a lesson in living well August 4, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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dt7-12So, I really love the Dark Tower series. I’ve read the books twice (I read the first three before the 4th came out, then read them again when the fourth came out, and then all of them again before book 7 came out). I’ve listened to the audio books, twice, and am listening to them again on my work commute. I’m currently on book three.

I also own some of the graphic novels, but am more interested in the earlier ones, which filled in the gaps of the story, rather than the ones which re-tell the story in graphic novel form. I’m not a huge fan of the graphic novel style, and prefer the details of the books.

As I was listening to the audio book this morning, something occurred to me. There are many reasons I love the story, the universe, and even how it ended (I know many people don’t like many things about how it ended, or even the direction Stephen King went with the later books), but something else poked it’s head out at me about the series which has, perhaps unconsciously, created a set of expectations about how the concept of family has formed for me.

I will not give any major spoilers, but if you plan of reading the books, graphic novels, etc in the future and don’t want to be spoiled at all, skip this.

 

Ka-tet, Vulnerability, and Family

Starting in book 2, we start seeing the formation of Roland’s little pack of gunslingers, on their way to the Dark Tower. We meet them, as they are drawn into Roland’s world through detailed and often deeply life-altering ways which expose the dark corners of these characters. Each character has to confront major personal struggles in order to find their way on the path of the beam, and each of them finds inner strengths through their adventure together.  It is a metaphor, I believe, for the intimacy which people must share to truly be a part of another’s world, at least as much as we can be a part of each-other’s world.

This is a story of people drawn together by what in the mythology of the universe calls ka, and is related to the concept of fate. As they become entangled into ka’s web, they become ka-tet.  They are more than friends, more than family, and they are intimately connected in ways that only the closest of friends, family, etc ever reach. Any of us are lucky if we ever have one person who gets this close, and some people may have a few people who become as close as these travelers become in Stephen King’s fantasy.

darktowerkatet

If you understand why this image pangs my heart, remember well all the times you find true love and success, and say thankee sai

They, in short, are completely vulnerable with each other, sharing their lives, thoughts, minds, and bodies with each other in ways which defy distance and secrets (as well as actual possibility; it is fantasy, after all). In the end, they are as close as people can be to each other. There are moments of anger, regret, arguing, intimacy, victory….and defeat. But whether they will all reach their goal or not, whether their heart-breaking story ends well or not, all the while they were together, they were vulnerable and intimate with each other in ways that draw me closer to them, and has inspired me to become closer to the people I love, especially myself.

They were all in, withholding nothing.

 

Taking lessons from fantasy and real research

Related to this, I have just started reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly at the recommendation of a friend, who daring greatly, recently reached out to us to reconnect. This book, and other resources of my continuing project of allowing myself to simultaneously find my inner ability to love myself and make myself more open, intimate, and vulnerable to other people, are stepping stones to a better me and a better life. And as I was reflecting on these things over the last few days, I suddenly became aware of another facet of love I have for Stephen King’s magnum opus of a series; the concept of ka-tet.

The characters in this story of The Dark Tower are imperfect, complicated, and all have traumatic personal stories. They overcome shadowy pasts of various kinds to find within themselves strengths that they needed each other to cultivate.  They have all made mistakes, have the capability to do so again, but their relationships are built upon a level of sharing and honesty which has few parallels in our culture. This leads to a level of trust, respect, and love which acts as a mysterious goal of my own–a destination not unlike Roland’s Tower.

We, in this culture, are not trained to be vulnerable, and so when we see true vulnerability we may admire it but find it difficult to do ourselves. Vulnerability, like responsibility, is an attribute admired in others and feared in ourselves. In reading Brene Brown’s book, I’m seeing that the values which our culture holds in esteem are counter-productive for mental, interpersonal, or social health. These are concepts I have been aware of, at many levels, for many years, but seeing it articulated in such a compact, vulnerable, and honest way is refreshing and perhaps a little bit of a slap to the face.

In a world (this real word) where there are no gods, no actual ka, and no Dark Tower weaving our fate, what are we to do? There is no actual ka-tet; no overarching and unavoidable power forcing us together in circumstances where intimacy is almost unavoidable. We will not literally experience the inner minds of others in order to draw them to our world, like with The Dark Tower’s second book, but we might be able to take a few pages from book three onward into our own lives.  Whether it is shared traumatic experiences, overcoming uncertainty and fear of our capabilities, or facing death together there are things which we, as real people, can relate to in book three and many other examples of literature, mythology, etc.

JericoHill-HileForwardIn walking our own paths towards our goals, we find ourselves together and have a desire, almost a need, to share our stories, find strengths and skills encouraged by each other, and to dare (greatly) to achieve successes together we will inevitably create bonds. These bonds may be rare, but however many of these deep bonds you have in your life, for your father’s sake appreciate them and cultivate them well. This is what family is. This is the only refuge of the meaningless, cold, empty universe which cares not if you are happy, sad, or bored. It is only with the people we walk the path with that make the difference between living well and living poorly.

There is a moment, I believe it is in the early chapters of book three (it’s all a blur), where Roland is thinking to himself about what he has done (there was a boy!/there was not a boy!) and the tension for his quest for the tower and the relationships he is forming. He is reminiscing how many have fallen next to him in his quest. In a sense, he has sacrificed them all, and this haunts him. He’s thinking about the balance for the ultimate goal and how he treats the people who walk with him.

It occurs to him that this developing ka-tet provides him with an opportunity for redemption, to change his ka. Whether he succeeds in this redemption is up for debate, but the moment of realization holds powerful emotional potency for me. He stands at a cross-roads, of sorts, looking back at the many people lost in his path of the Tower. He has sacrificed so many others for his quest, and the moment when he becomes aware that he’s gathering more sacrifices, like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers more snow, he decides not to be a monster. For if he were to become that monster, he would sacrifice everything that his quest represents.

Would he hurl his friends, like weapons, at anything in his path? Will his ka-tet be another means to his ends? Such is the future; all of our futures. The ends, he realizes, do not justify the means. Utility, consequentialism, and all other mere goals are not enough to rationalize the path he could take. He recognizes that in the quest for his goal, he is almost certain that these people will almost certainly die like his Hawk, David, which he chose as a weapon in his very first step in the direction of the Tower (whether he knew it then, or not).  But he decides, in that moment, that he will not use his new ka-tet as mere tools, as weapons. He will make them partners, and share a goal with them.

All the while knowing that they may all die, in this quest. As we all, eventually, will.

 

Stopping to smell the crimson roses

tower_rosesIf you have not read The Dark Tower, but you want to, I want to alert you to something. There is a point, late in the last book (book 7), where Stephen King gives you a choice. He tells you to stop reading. But before this, earlier in the book, he also asks you to stop and appreciate a moment of victory. He reminds you to stop, take a look around, appreciate the circumstances you (because you’re invested in his characters, hopefully) are in, before moving on. Later, he simply asks you to stop reading.

In both cases, you have a choice. In the first, the choice is whether you will take a break in your reading at that point and reflect on the gathered ka-tet and appreciate them, or simply turn the page. Later, your choice is whether to keep reading at all. King actually suggests, knowing you will almost certainly not do so, you to put the book away and not finish the story. The reasons for this are not important for us here (it’s also a spoiler), but it is this kind of moment which stands stark against the wall of eternity, for me.

We need to stop, occasionally, and recognize what we have in our lives. We need to halt, take stock, and appreciate when there is something to appreciate, so that we can look back later and see those moments for what they were; beauty, love, and good feelings. But there may also come a time, in our stories, where there may be nothing left to see. There may be times when you should put the book away.

And yet we do not, much of the time.

The first time I read book 7, I actually did put the book down, and didn’t continue immediately. I thought, seriously, about taking the advice and not finishing the book. I walked away, thought about it, but inevitably picked it up again. I wanted to know, needed to know–burned to know–what would happen. Many uncertainties and blind-spots in my life are represented by this metaphor, and no matter how much I might know that it’s better to walk away, I feel the pull of curiosity and (sometimes) hope. What happened next in the book, in both cases where I paused, was hard to read even if it was necessary and compelling.

We all have our Dark Towers to climb, I suppose. Perhaps it is better to not open that door, when we get to it. Perhaps we would all be happier if we simply took in the sight of reaching our destination, then moved on. But as Eve learned (metaphorically, of course), the fruit is too tempting. And just like Eve, warned against tasting the fruit, no matter how long you may be warned against the consequences of such an action, eventually, in all of eternities (and eternal returns; yes, even Nietzsche is relevant to The Dark Tower) you will eat the fruit, open that door, and climb that Tower.

Imagine Eve, obediently avoiding the fruit for years, decades, millennia! Eventually, curiosity will get the better of her. Imagine a reader, at the end of a 7 book series, poised at the edge of the secrets of the story and never finishing it (I imagine at least a few have done so…so far). Gods! No creature capable of curiosity can withstand such a temptation forever, if forever were given to us. In eternities contains all things, I suppose.

We want to know. We want to understand. We can avoid looking for a while, but eventually, we must peek.

tet2I see the inner lives of people the same way. My tower is understanding, of myself and of others with whom I  walk the path of the beam. Many have been lost from my path, whether through death, enmity, or because we were questing for different Towers, ultimately (“Go then. There are other worlds than these”). And each meeting and separation is a moment of choice, where we have the choice of putting the book down or to turn the page. Sometimes, I turn the page and experience the heart-break that follows, and sometimes I put the book down. Sometimes, I turn the page and find my tower where intimacy, vulnerability, and love welcome me in. And perhaps, worst of all, sometimes I put the book down, and leave the hope of all that is beautiful behind.

We don’t know what is inside each Tower, and whether we open them, walk away, or stand with curious grasps at the handle to that great door with indecision, those moments tell our stories. I look forward to the many quests for towers I will find, and I hope that those who walk the path with me will not sacrifice me, or be sacrificed by me, on the way to their own towers, because that way lies madness. Because we are the only real towers, dark or not. All the other towers are illusions, idyllic distractions, and ultimately vanity.

Just like the Dark Tower series, the beauty is in the quest itself, not any hypothetical goal. All the goal will do, ultimately, is put us back on the path where we will either make the same choices or try something else. As Nietzsche observed, if we look at any moment in our lives as a metaphor for all choices, as an option to do this again, eternally, how would we behave? With such a perspective, does the goal matter? If we are forced to reflect on this life and all its choices, would we do the same? As we approach each Dark Tower, each person, will we open it? Will we walk the path with them? Will we hurl them as weapons? Will we sacrifice them for something else?

There is only one final destination we will all approach, either suddenly or with clear foresight. That “clearing at the end of the path” is the only goal we all must travel to, and no Tower lies there. But what friends, family, and ka-tet we bring with us to the edge of that clearing will allow us to look back at our lives with the complexity and unambiguous reality. What we see there may cause us pain, a smile, and most likely both.

It’s only what happens before that which matters. Make the most of it.

Being a good helper July 29, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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There’s been a lot of conversation going on in one Captain Awkward post about “helping” relationships, where one person is needier, more vulnerable, and often advice-seeking, and the other is giving, caretaking, and wisdom-dispensing. I looove when the Awkward Army addresses this topic because it’s been a very common dynamic in my life, and there are a lot of ways it can turn sour for both parties. The helper can become overly invested in their helping role and refuse to see/accept when the helpee has developed strength and wisdom of their own. The helpee can feel completely entitled to the helper’s support forever and suck the life out of the helper. The helper can use the helpee’s perceived weakness as an excuse to control and dominate them. The helpee can consciously or unconsciously keep generating problems because they feel like that’s the only connection they have with the helper.

It’s potentially bad news all around, if both parties aren’t careful about boundaries and responsibility and self-care. That said, sometimes a person is in a more vulnerable or more needy place and needs extra care and support from loved ones. And some of us *cough* find that pouring out love, support, and nurturance just feels good, feels satisfying, makes us feel at home in the world. I don’t think that all relationships need to be perfectly balanced forever. But I do think that both parties in a helping relationship need to be very careful and self-aware, if the relationship is going to sustain time and growth and avoid becoming toxic.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a lot of attitudes and skills that have helped me have some functional helping relationships. These are all from the helper side, as I have very little experience being the helpee. I’d welcome further thoughts and additions.

1: Take care of yourself. Since I went to school with educators and therapists, we talked about “self-care” a lot. Every single one of us is way better at preaching it than practicing it. Have your own support network in place, the people you can go to with your stuff no matter how trivial or burdensome you feel it is. Have your personal rituals for when you need to be kind to yourself and recharge. If you’ve never taken all that compassion and lovingkindness you have and directed it at yourself, do that. Figure out what that looks like for you. And do it, on the regular, and especially when you’re in the middle of a strenuous helping situation.

2: Own your shit. I think most of us helpers have some not-100%-healthy baggage behind our helping instincts. Narcissist parents. Feeling like we’re only valuable if we’re giving. Feeling like helping allows us intense intimacy without making ourselves vulnerable. I don’t think you have to be past that and come at helping with an entirely balanced, zero-dysfunctional-history perspective in order to be a great helping person — I don’t think that’s even possible. We’ve all got our shit, and learning to use our shit in ways that make us and the world better is a pretty stellar way to handle it. But definitely know what your shit is, and how it can turn toxic.

Owning your shit can help you spot the line between those helping dynamics that feel good because they’re meeting both people’s needs in a productive way, and the ones that feel good because they’re scratching an itch deep down inside you that keeps getting inflamed. It also protects against internalizing the sense of “I’m mentally stable and healthy, and you are damaged and fucked-up” that can sometimes come into helping relationships. You can be mentally stable and healthy and damaged and fucked-up all at the same time, actually. Drawing a sharp line between the two just makes it harder for the helpee to ever imagine being in a position of strength. And it makes it harder for the helper to actually work on their own damage, because you have to see something in order to fix it.

3: Give yourself permission not to help. This really incorporates both #1 and #2. Not helping, whether it’s for the afternoon or the week or maybe forever, is sometimes the only self-care that matters. But it can be really hard, if you’re dealing with some of that baggage that says you always have to help or you will be unloved and unworthy and alienated. Being able to say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t listen today” and walk away without guilt (hahahahaha ok I mean without soul-crushing guilt that will make you spend your time off just as focused on the helpee as if you were actually talking to them) is a pretty essential skill — I think it’s a prerequisite for a functional helping relationship.

Taking a short break also tests whether the thing is sustainable on the helpee’s side. It takes two to have a functional helping relationship. If they cannot go a day (or whatever) without drawing from your well of support and compassion, it strongly suggests that they are not up for their side of this tango. They need to have some level of respect for the fact that you are also a person with needs and priorities that don’t revolve around them.

There are kinder and less kind ways to take a break. “Hey, listen, I need to take some time for myself right now, I will call you again on X day to hear all about it, ok?” sends the message that you are not abandoning them forever, but that you also have needs that are a priority for you. Helping and helping and helping until one day you just can’t take it and stop answering their calls — not so kind. (I have done this. Urgh, and I’m sorry to those people.) It’s one reason I think it’s so important to work in self-care and time off early. If you’re suffering severe burnout, you might just have to do that, especially if they roll right over your first “Hey, I need to deal with my own shit today,” but it’s better to avoid that situation by taking regular breaks and making that an understood part of your relationship from the first.

If you say “I’ve got some of my own stuff going on, I need to take a break,” they may come back with “Oh I’m so sorry! Let’s talk about you!” This might be okay, but it’s often a (likely unintentional) trap. We have this idea in our culture that all good relationships are balanced with equal give and take. The helpee likely feels uncomfortable with the idea that this relationship is unbalanced, and would welcome the chance to be the one helping you for a change. The problem is, if they’re usually the helpee in relationships, their helping skills may not be very well developed. Listening and lending compassionate, appropriately critical but non-judgemental support is hard. Setting our own stuff aside to be present for another person and their needs is hard. To us helper-types it often feels easy and natural, but someone who isn’t practiced in it will likely end up floundering and feeling inadequate. Or they will end up listening for about 45 seconds and then turning it around and making it about them, because they just don’t know how else to operate. Or you, the helper, will find that you’re not actually comfortable being vulnerable with them, because that’s not how your relationship functions and you likely have some vulnerability issues that mean it’s only a select few people you can feel okay going there with (high-five, fellow vulnerability-averse helpers!)

So I think it’s better, if they counter-offer with “Let me help you!” to say, “Thanks, but I really just need some me time, that’s how I process best.” Me time can mean talking to your go-to support buddy, they don’t have to know. And if they can’t deal with this or have a shit fit or try to get you to help them process their feelings of rejection around not being allowed to help you, that’s all the more reason to get away. Which brings us to…

4: Boundaries. You get to have them, they gave to have them. Everybody has to respect them or this thing is fucked. Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean you get to know or comment on every little detail of their life. If you’re giving them a lot of care and support over their relationship with their mom, that doesn’t mean you get to tell them how to relate to their boyfriend, if they don’t want your help there. They are a grown-ass adult who is talking to you because they respect your wisdom and perspective in one area. That doesn’t mean you get an all-access pass to their life, or that you’re responsible for making sure they don’t screw up elsewhere. Maybe they’re making a mistake. Grown-ass adults get to do that.

Just because you’re a helper doesn’t mean they get access to you all the time for everything. YOU don’t have to listen to details of their sex life if that’s uncomfortable for you. You don’t have to invite them to everything you do (or anything you do). As discussed above, you don’t have to and probably shouldn’t be available to them at all hours of every day.

When one person sets a boundary, the other person needs to respect it, period. If the boundary is confusing or upsetting to you or you think it means something really uncomfortable or bad, you can say this: “Okay, I will respect that, but I have some concerns. Can we make time to talk about them at some point?” And the boundary-setter gets to say yes or no, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation happens, and the boundary-setter gets to decide when that conversation needs to be over. And the other person respects the boundary before and after the conversation (with any revisions or improved understanding that happened in the course of the conversation.) If anything else happens? Run away and don’t look back.

I’ve had a lot of helping relationships go bad. I’ve had a lot of helping relationships successfully convert into more balanced relationships. (Because I lean helper, I tend to gravitate toward people who lean helpee, and a lot of my intimate relationships involve me doing more listening and caretaking than vice versa. I can and do turn around and receive support from them; it just happens less often than the other way around. That might be another whole blog post.) I’ve had a lot of helping relationships that were good for both of us at the time, and then we drifted apart because they were moving on to a new stage and there wasn’t enough in the relationship to sustain a friendship built on anything other than that one helping dynamic. That’s an okay outcome too. These are the principles I’ve found to be essential to making a helping relationship constructive on both sides. I’d love to hear from others who have insights of their own, and especially from people who tend to be helpees, on how things look from their side.

I used this one simple trick to make my language more gender-inclusive! July 27, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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The clickbaity headline is there because it amuses me, but also because when this dawned on me today it felt pretty much that way: there’s a really simple tool for gender-inclusive language that I feel like I didn’t fully appreciate before. We use it a lot, but it hadn’t dawned on me just how many applications it can have.

The tool is “people.” The word itself, not the referent. People are not tools. The word “people” is a fantastic tool that most of us have already recognized as being a pretty great way to talk about … well, people, in a gender-neutral way. But this week I’ve been discovering more and more ways of using it effectively, and it’s surprisingly cool.

It started when I was preparing a lecture on anatomy and physiology for my online sexuality class. (Wait… have I not written about that here before? Bad blogger! Bad!) One of the perennial problems of being a sex educator is that we do a lot of talking about things that are mostly gender-specific: things like penes* and vaginas, or gendered socialization. Most people with vaginas are women, and vice versa, but not all of them, and it’s very important to me to acknowledge this verbally so that the women-without-vaginas and the not-women-with-vaginas feel fully included in the discussion. And yet saying “people with vaginas” gets unwieldy fast, especially when the sentence you’re trying to construct goes something like, “People with vaginas sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” Ugh, no. Way awkward.

Because this is an online class, a lot of my lectures are written, which means I can be very precise and thoughtful about my language, and so it was that it occurred to me: I can just say “people.” If I’m talking about vaginas, I can say “people sometimes find that their vaginas lubricate more…” and nobody is going to be confused. People pretty much know what sexyparts they have, and can apply the appropriate sentences to themselves without my needing to specify a gender category.

I also like it because it increases the universal identification. One of the things I hate most about the way our culture uses gender is that it’s treated as such an essential categorical distinction. Men are a completely different type of people than women, and men can understand other men the way that women can’t, and vice versa. As a slightly genderqueer person myself, and someone who has always been closest to people who have a lot of cross-gender traits, this has always irritated me. My innate instinctive understanding of Femme-Lady-Women is just as poor as my innate instinctive understanding of Manly-Man-Men. (Nothing against people who are strongly gender-identified and gender-congruent at all… I just don’t really get you.) I get really uncomfortable and grumpy when I’m expected to consider Men as a category strongly distinct from myself.

And I think it’s better for human relationships all around when we start to think of other people as people, first and foremost, rather than as members of a gender category. We listen differently to a sentence that begins with a person-descriptor that doesn’t apply to us: a man, hearing a sentence beginning “Women often…” is going to listen differently to the rest of that sentence than if it began “Men often…” By starting the sentence with “People…” I feel like I’m more likely to have everybody tuning in as if the sentence following might apply to them. And even when they find it doesn’t, maybe they listen to the rest of it with a closer sense of identification with the people to whom it does apply. If I hear the sentence “People on cruise ships often get seasick” I don’t feel alienated from the people described, even though I’ve never been on a cruise ship and likely never will be and don’t get seasick. I feel like we’re all people together, those people just have different circumstances and experiences than I do. And that’s the feeling that I hope, maybe, using “People…” can encourage about even very sex-linked things.

I used it again today, when asking a question about typical male socialization and how it impacts an exercise we’re doing for the class. As I was asking for feedback, the automatic way to write the sentence would have been, “Men, what do you think about this? Is this true for you?” Instead I wrote, “People who were socialized in that ‘be tough and manly’ way, is this true for you?” This does more than be gender-inclusive: it also allows for the fact that cultures and families differ, and some men didn’t receive much if any of that “be tough and manly” socialization (and some women did!). It allows the reader to determine for themselves exactly to what extent the sentence applies to them, rather than being automatically included or excluded by a gender category that only imperfectly matches the category we’re actually talking about.

People. It’s a good word. I’m going to use it more often.

 

*Little-known fact about me: I find the irregular plural of “penis” delightful for reasons I cannot explain, and I often go around repeating it to myself inside my head.

Hell July 21, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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I know I said I was done with the Ayn Rand, but this is just too good not to post.

Oh, please no...please....

Oh, please no…please….

Moving on July 21, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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The clouds are parting.

The last three nights I spent no time unable to sleep due to immense anxieties, self-doubts, or anger. For context, nearly every night over the last few months have been full of anxiety, anger, and pain keeping me up way too late, and this my not getting enough sleep. I know that this does not mean I will never have insomnia again. I know that this does not mean that I am forever out of the woods of mental health concerns. What I also know, however, is that I have dealt with the majority of the trauma that has plagued the last several months of my life, and I am finally ready to move on.

Yes, I will still have some processing to do about what to learn and how to grow, moving forward. Yes I will still have to deal with the presence of our former family as part of our local poly network, which will cause continued tension for us. But rather than drowning in the effects of those things, they will become small obstacles now, and I can try and create a newer, better, sense of self. I can re-build and re-define what this blog is and what I have to say with all of my experience as am atheist, polyamorous skeptic.

I have seen a lot, done a lot, understood a lot, and been completely vexed and overwhelmed by a lot more. What I have been through has made me stronger, wiser, and better able to see myself and the world around me. One consequence of this is I will be writing things which will contradict some older posts which exist here.

But this is not a contradiction in any personal sense. Anyone who would potentially quote something I wrote 2 years ago, compare it to what I would say now or in a month to demonstrate that I’m inconsistent, confused, or perhaps just a flip-flopper will fail to understand what growth and change means on a personal level. The person I was 2 years ago is, in many ways, not the person I am now or who I want to be. I was very angry 2 years ago, about things I didn’t even understand at that time.

Take, for example, the tag line of this blog: “criticism is not uncivil.” The idea behind this, originally, was that the truth is primary to any other concern. The idea was that if a disagreement about some fact, interpretation, etc poked its head up, rationally constructed criticism was not an inappropriate response. If you believe that a god exists, my criticism of this idea did not have to consider your emotional association to this idea, because there is a distinction between attacking an idea and attacking a person (is what I argued). And no, emotional attachments do not change the truth of a thing, but they should change how we have the conversation.

Now, if we were unemotional robots we wouldn’t have to worry about such things. The problem is that our very rational thinking itself is at least partially dependent upon not only emotion, but cognitive biases and self-justification. Our opinions, even if they happen to be opinions which would stand up to careful and empathetic scrutiny, exist in a soup of feelings, associations, rationalization, and will often have room for improvement.

So, what of that tagline? I am not sure yet. I don’t know if I want to keep it or change it. I could still keep it, and have it mean more that criticism, at least when done with consideration of all our human facets, is not uncivil. I still believe that criticism is essential for our personal and cultural growth, I just don’t accept that our criticism has to be unconcerned with our emotional realities.

Empathetic criticism is not uncivil?

Nah, I don’t like that.

In any case, the blog will indeed go on. The podcast may also continue (we did some recordings, but much of it was either lost or was not really good enough to release), but we’ll see when and how often that happens.

If you have any suggestions, thoughts, etc, please share them.