Leveling Up

super-mario-brosBeing a fan of RPGs (Role Playing Games, for all you n00bs), the concept of leveling up is very familiar to me. For the uninitiated, the basic idea is that when solving puzzles, slaying enemies, or using skills in the world (of the game, of course), your character  eventually gains enough experience to go from one level to another. With the new level, comes new powers, attributes, and in many cases the ability to access new things.

In real life, we gain new experiences all the time. The quality of the lessons of those experiences depends, greatly, on how difficult the task was. Are you getting really good at remembering to put the trash on the curb on trash day? Are you learning the streets of your new neighborhood? Did that argument with your friend, partner, or family member teach you something about yourself or even them? Did surviving some trauma make you more resilient?

Obviously, in real life there are not quantifiable levels. I don’t gain more “hit points” as I get stronger, but I may have a noticeably improved ability to withstand criticism, manage difficult feelings, or even to allow myself to be increasingly vulnerable (thanks to a friend for recommending this book to me, it has been a good read so far). And after a particularly difficult ordeal, we may feel such a significant difference that we feel like we are, in some ways, new people. The difference after some growth can feel more than merely quantitative, and in some cases it can have a qualitative feeling.  The best analogy I can think of is that it’s like leveling up.

Recently in my real life, I feel like I’ve leveled up.


Different directions

Good/Evil character images from Fable
Good/Evil character images from Fable

But here’s the thing. Experience and growth can go in many different directions. We have many cultural tropes which I could pull from, to make my meaning clearer. Perhaps the most recognizable would be the distinction between Jedi and Sith, as in the Star Wars universe. I could also refer to the game Fable, which has you not only level up, but your actions move you along a continuum from more “good” to “evil.” In this game, if you steal something, kill someone innocent, etc then you lose points, and slide a little (or a lot) towards the “evil” side of the scale. The decisions you make in the story line determine what kind of character you are in the long run (I usually lean strongly towards the good side, in games like this).

Either way, you have the opportunity to become more powerful, effective, and you can win the game. You can win the game as an evil character.


(But at what cost! What about the children!!!)

I find this analogy simplistic, compared to real life, but as an image to use it is at least somewhat helpful so I’ll stick with it. In real life, the decisions we make do determine our character. But unlike the game Fable, turning evil will not make you look demonic nor will making good choices make you look more like a wise sage or saint.  As with a saying which we get from Christian mythology (which Fable is obviously dependent upon), the devil may often appear to you in a pleasing shape, but it’s also true that the good may also not be easily recognizable. This is because in real life the experience of leveling up after an ordeal may indeed make you more powerful, but it will not necessarily make you better or healthier.

Power, in some sense, is neutral. Leveling up  does not necessarily make us better people. If the attributes you work on making stronger are attributes which make you less compassionate, more defensive, etc, then you may be stronger, more capable of success in many situations, but perhaps your increased power will be more of a detriment, if not for yourself than maybe for other people. Many a sociopath has become very successful and powerful, after all. Also, many a sociopath can blend in to the crowd, getting away with all sorts of shenanigans unseen.


What attributes do you upgrade when you level up?

wpid-skyrim-skills-to-level-100-quickly1I’m a big fan of The Elder Scrolls games, especially Skyrim. I started playing again recently (although I simply can’t play more than an hour or so these days without wanting to rejoin reality, which I think is a good thing).  In Skyrim, when you level up, you get to add points to one of many possible attributes, whether it is one-handed, speech, or smithing. What attributes you choose to upgrade will have implications for how successful you’ll be in making various decisions throughout the game.

So, if we were to try and stretch this analogy to real life, we could talk about what personal attributes we want to focus on improving, as we find ways to take lessons from events in our lives. Do we want to build a wall around ourselves, like armor? Do we want to improve our ability to communicate, like increasing persuasion? Do we want to add a point to archery, so we can do better damage to our opponents from a distance? (OK, the confusion between analogy and reality here makes me sound like I’m doing target practice in my basement, or something…). Do we want to improve our critical thinking skills, in order to tell the difference between truth and illusion? (This skeptic always says yes to this last one, but that attribute does not really come up in a world of magic, dragons, and gods like Skyrim, or Tamriel in general).

In any case, in real life it is the actual practice of said attributes which leads to the leveling up, I think, than the other way around. My ability to communicate my emotional needs better is a means to my becoming stronger. My ability to look self-critically at my mistakes and to work to learn about myself in order to not make those mistakes again have made me stronger. My ability to resist (for the most part) the desire to simply demonize and blame other people for succumbing to flaws which many of us share is a result of that increased strength.

But I could have gone down a different path. I could have taken the lesson that I should just keep more people at a distance, proclaim my superiority, and blamed everyone else while deflecting all accusations coming my way. I could have strengthened the all-too-human impulse to rationalize and defensively push away all culpability, and attack relentlessly anyone who would threaten the illusory shell that this move requires.  I could have made attributes within me stronger which would indeed help me in the world, but they would not help me be a better person. Because sometimes protecting oneself is not one of strength. Sometimes armor makes us weaker. Sometimes maintaining the illusion of strength actually hurts us.

Sometimes, as I have learned over the years, exposing all of our vulnerabilities and standing naked to the world, with all of our scars and imperfections exposed, is the only way to become strong.


And you can’t be vulnerable when you spend so much effort on creating armor and weapons alone. In real life, strength comes from investing in inner strength. The more you hide, defend, and attack, the more you can be hurt. Over-committing to an attack puts you off balance, exposes the holes in your armor, and all that hiding can have only left you atrophied and weak under that armor.

I am stronger, today, than I was a year ago. I am better, today, than I was a year ago. But not all people are better then they were, having traversed the ordeals of time and space. Simply having been through something does not make them better, even if it does make them stronger. A strong sword arm, after all, can only hurt people.

A person can indeed hurt me if I willingly expose my vulnerabilities, but the fact that someone might actually try to do so is what causes me pain. It’s when we forget that we are also scared, vulnerable, and imperfect when we feel justified in attacking others or hurting them even if we don’t want to do so. I’d do better to resist such sets of behavior myself (so would we all), but I am less likely to stop calling out behavior when it is genuinely hurtful to me or people close to me. If anyone wants me, or anyone else, to stop talking about the pain which they have caused other people, then take responsibility for it, do the work to actually grow, and make yourself less likely to do it again. If not, we will have every right to keep calling those people on their shit and being critical of their behavior.

Same goes for me. If I’m not continuing to do the work I need to do, then I welcome compassionate criticism.  I will hopefully be stronger in another year, and I will try to put my efforts into strengthening the attributes which will make me more compassionate, less afraid, and more vulnerable.   I hope, deeply, that we all do the same to the best of our ability.

Shane, come back!

When I was younger, say in my early to mid 20’s, I had a pretty close knit group of friends, mostly from high school, who I hung out with pretty regularly.  We were spontaneous, throwing a BBQ at the drop of a hat, and we were all very privileged, educated, 20-somethings living in Philadelphia.   This time in my life started towards the end of college, but really lit up around the time I started graduate school.  It was a little before I discovered the atheist community (my earlier exposure to any such community was limited to online conversations with the long defunct Knights of BAAWA. If any other atheists out there remembers them besides me, you get serious props).  And while I knew of polyamory, I was monogamous, at least when I was not single.,..which I was for a considerable part of my early 20’s.

Me, c. 2005 (earliest digital picture I could find of myself, for context)

It was long before I got any grasp of who I was, what I wanted, and even knew what the problems were, let along the solutions.  On any given weekend, I could be found with my buddies (mostly guys, most with money) drinking out on the town and generally being stupid young people.  It was a lot of fun, mostly, but I’m glad I’m past that part of my life.

There was a point for me back then, while drinking, where I go through a personality change.  I am there now more frequently while sober, which is part of my growth over the years, but back then it emerged almost exclusively after, say, 4 -5 beers.  This persona I became was more social, funnier, more forward, and would talk to strangers without any sort of self-consciousness or fear. He was flirtatious, got along with everyone, although he did slur a bit.   He was the me I wanted to be while sober, but couldn’t be because I was afraid.

He was “Shane.”  At least that’s what one of our group dubbed that part of me as.  He was this part of me, hiding inside, who was happy to be alive, and enjoyed it (often to the detriment of the “Shaun” that woke up in the morning).  He was not always ideal, however, as he was also known to be a little bit of an asshole (but in a funny and friendly way, except a few rare cases when I was angry which went a different direction…that’s a post for another day, or never.).  Shane was openly emotional, affectionate, and was not inhibited.  It was the same part of me that would, in high school (when the nick-name originated), get naked in the back yard with some of the other hippies in the circle, passing around a pipe, bong, or joint.  Hey, I went to s Quaker school, what do you expect?

(Crap, I just remembered that my mom reads this blog sometimes…)

Anyway, back to embarrassing myself publicly (you’d think I’d be used to it by now).

After some time, say my mid to late 20’s (after grad school), this character began to show up a little bit in every day life (and not because I was drunk all the time, either), and became part of “Shaun.” I was able to find this part of me more easily, as I learned to allow this part of me to surface as I grew comfortable with it.  It became a perpetual part of my growing, a part that I think may have slowed too much in the least few years.  I know that I have another part of me that’s buried most of the time.  Ginny and Gina (and to a lesser extent Jessie and Wes) get to see this person more frequently, and he is certainly amplified after a couple of drinks, but around people I know, trust, and like, it has become the case that I no longer need “Shane,” because “Shaun” has become more and more like that person inside.

I think that all of this is great, but I’m slowly becoming more and more aware that there is more to me inside.  There is another level within me that I need to explore, an urge to grab life by the horns and ride it hard.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  My personality is not the kind which will be consumed by burning the candle at both ends, and this is not what I mean anyway.  What I mean is I feel a strong impulse, buried under emotional control and fear, that has a lot to teach me.  I would very much like to know now what I’m going to know about myself in 10 years.

But right now I have two problems; I am not sure how to let it out, and I’m terrified to do so.  And so I find myself thinking, this night, whether Shane might have some use.  Not that I need to start drinking heavily with 20-somethings, but that I might need to start pushing myself harder to let myself explore the limits of my capabilities.  I need to be more assertive, flirtatious (for a poly guy, I am very shy around women…especially if I like them), and I need to talk with more people about things that are not merely safe topics for me to talk about.

Let me explain.

I tend to talk about things like philosophy, polyamory, and atheism.  I have other interests, of course , but those are the things I know well, and so I feel comfortable talking about them more than other topics.  I am intimidated to talk about other things because I have this completely irrational fear about sounding stupid or dorky most of the time.  It’s irrational because sometimes I do stupid shit and I’m a bit of a dork sometimes, and so the fuck what?  The bottom line is that I need to engage with people more, and get over myself.  And I think that finding spaces, times, and people to do so with would be a good step in figuring out how to do that.

Oh my good lord what was wrong with me? (c. 2005)

So, I don’t want to bring back Shane, per se, but I do want to utilize the part of me that was able to tap into a deeper part of me, to be an archaeologist of my soul (as Nietzsche put it) and find what yet lies beneath these layers of control and fear.  I want to do so because it will help with my anxieties (which are usually about wanting to do things I’m not doing, or doing things I don’t want to do because I have not been assertive enough) and will therefore help me be happier and more fulfilled.  I want to do so because I think I will like myself better if I do.

Also, chicks totes dig that side of me, or something….

But in all seriousness, it may help me gain new friends, lovers, and partners in my life, where sitting back thinking about it is gaining me acquaintances at best.  I can do better.

So, that is my project for myself for the next few months, and for the rest of my life.  If you are reading this and will be seeing me regularly or at all, you might have to give me a nudge now and then and tell me to let a little Shane out of the bottle.

But for me, that starts tomorrow morning.  For the moment, I need some sleep.

BTW, if you are not familiar with the reference of the title of this post, watch this clip from the movie, Shane:

Where polyamory is sometimes about you

It is often true that people in our lives are able to perceive aspects of who we are which we do not or cannot know.  Many of the processes which influence our behavior are unconscious to us, and through our facial expressions, body language, and even tone of voice people can pick up on patterns of our behavior and mood of which we are wholly or mostly ignorant.   This is how many of our close family, friends, or partners are able to predict, better than we can ourselves, what we are likely to do next under certain circumstances.

When we enter into relationships, part of the relationship is getting to know our partner(s).  And while it is true that we will never know them completely, it is true that if the relationship is base upon honesty, openness, and a meaningful and long-lasting intimacy develops, you will get to know your partner(s) fairly well and will learn to anticipate their needs, wants, etc.

But if you care enough to interact and learn about yourself, the other people we are involved with will have things to teach us which we will not find elsewhere.  Because even a highly observant, self-reflective, and introspective person will miss more about themselves than they knew existed.  There are other perspectives than our own conscious awareness, and those perspectives give angles to what we are which are not available to us without mirrors.

And while other people are not always the best mirrors, sometimes what they perceive about us is extremely valuable if we want to understand more about ourselves and how we interact with the world.

Seeing ourselves from the point of view of others is, therefore, invaluable.

For one, certain aspects of our personality only become relevant through interaction with other personalities.  And the more types of personalities we interact with, the more we will have experience with those behaviors, and thus to aspects of ourselves which would otherwise remain hidden.

Secondly, those other people will be able to observe things about us which we may not see even when they do surface.  They will likely have access to information that, due to biases, lack of a mirror, etc, we simply cannot see.  And by listening to what other people may say about us, even if they will sometimes be very wrong, we can get clues to aspects of ourselves about which we would otherwise remain ignorant.

The importance of relationships

The above is why it is important to have relationships with many people.  It does not mean these relationships need to all be sexual, romantic, or even always friendly (our enemies have many valuable things to teach us as well!), but they need to be transparent and honest, at least to some degree.

That is, simply having interactions with people is not always enough.  We need to say what we think, openly feel what we feel, and express our actual desires (when appropriate, of course).  If we keep communicating and being genuine and authentic people, those around us will give us opportunities to learn important things about ourselves, even when the conversation is not about us directly.

We need to be paying attention to how people react to us, how they initiate (or don’t initiate) interaction, or even to what type of language they use in response to something we say or do.  If and when the time is right, we may choose to interact with people about what they see in us, what we see in them, and both may gain perspective on who we they are.

Of course, you may not like or believe what you hear in all cases, but don’t simply reject what is said.  They may see something about ourselves that we don’t like but also may be true.  They may also see something about ourselves which we like but don’t believe, and it also may be true!  No matter how much we like what we hear, how much we believe it, or how true it is, something will be learned from such interactions.

They may be biased about us as well, after all.  And sometimes their biases draw them to us despite our imperfections, even if we should know that such a bias will eventually wear off and they will start noticing those imperfections, becoming a clearer mirror for our self-awareness.  So long as we keep being real, these types of relationships will give us more perspective, in the future, about how to improve ourselves for your sake, their sake…for everyone’s sake, perhaps.

And we can become better people, in better relationships, who can be better partners and friends to more people.


Polyamory as parallel processing

We are complex beings.  Our romantic, sexual, and day-to-day living wants and needs are complicated, diverse, and sometimes conflicted.  Figuring out how best to live, to love, and to lust is a life-long learning process.  The more relationships we have in our lives, the more we know about how to satisfy our desires and needs (while simultaneously learning ow to satisfy the needs of many types of other people, hopefully).

And while learning these lessons serially can give us plenty of information and perspective, there is no comparing serial to parallel processing.  Being able to see ourselves reflected in many multiple relationships simultaneously is a crash course not only in how to maintain relationships, but also in who we are as people, especially as we evolve socially, romantically, and sexually throughout stages in our lives.

If we care to be fully authentic and self-aware individuals, we need to start by being honest, first with ourselves and then the people close to us.  And then we need to listen to them, not only about themselves and their needs but how we tend to respond to such things, how they see our strengths and weaknesses, and what concerns they have about us.

Through such methods we can reach levels of self-knowledge unavailable to most.  It is a difficult and often emotionally destabilizing climb, one which takes courage and a willingness to look into the dark recesses of the soul (metaphorically speaking, of course), but it is worth it.  It is worth it even if we will never know all of ourselves.  In the same way that we can never fully know another person, we can never completely know ourselves.  But the process of trying reveals possibilities for happiness and satisfaction previously unavailable for our consideration.

Plus, it makes you look wise and shit.  Chicks (and dudes) of quality dig that.

Desires, tentative goals, and polyamory

γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself)


“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

-Martin Buber

Goals are fine, but allow your destination to evolve in relation to the type of walking you like to do.  And don’t forget to experiment with many types of walking!

Most of us have goals for ourselves, which is good.  They give us direction, purpose, and something to use as a metric to measure success along the way.  But sometimes having a specific goal can be problematic, in that if it is too static and well-defined, what we learn along the way my fail to educate us towards re-defining our purpose based upon new information.

Monogamy is, for many people, a goal.  That is, while they may have any number of relationships of varying degrees of intimacy, they are seeking a partner with whom they can share a unique, meaningful, and long-term partnership.  The question is how to reach such a goal given how complicated people, and thus relationships, are.  In order to reach such a goal, many things need to be learned and practiced.

Having relationships throughout our lives gives us perspective on how we might improve ourselves in order to be ready to succeed in maintaining a healthy relationship when we meet the right person.  Or, at least, until we meet someone who we think might be the right person.  Most people go through a few trials before they find the right person.

But, by focusing on the goal–that of being in a meaningful, committed, exclusive relationship with a person with whom you are well matched–it is easy to be distracted from the skills one will need to reach the goal and be ready to maintain it well.   And if those skills are not taken in, then having a successful relationship of any kind is very unlikely.

The lessons that we could learn, if we are paying attention during those many trials, might seriously alter the shape of the goal we have in mind.  It might, in fact, change the very nature of that goal because those lessons may change us.

Starting with yourself

The foundation of being successful at relationships with other people is getting a good hold on your relationship with the many conflicting needs, desires, and emotional landscapes that lie within us.  We are a conglomeration of many unconscious drives, emotions, and thoughts which emerge into an illusory sense of singular identity.  Becoming comfortable with that complexity within ourselves in challenging, but essential, in communicating what we want and need.

We need to know what we want, and how important those desires are, before we can hope to effectively communicate those desires to anyone else.

Getting to know ourselves, finding out what we really want, and finding ways to satisfy these desires in healthy ways is an essential first step in relationships life.  We have to be completely and bluntly honest with ourselves, especially where our desires are in conflict with what is considered normal, expected, or even demanded by potential partners.

Why is this so important? Because they don’t go away.  Our needs and desires will stick with us, whether we repress them, seek to fulfill them in clandestine ways, or openly deal with them with people close to us.  It seems rational, therefore, to explore them openly with those close to us for the sake of our own contentment and because part of intimacy is sharing such desires with those we are close with.

Once you have a grip on yourself, ideally we should hope to find other people who have done the same thing.

The complexity of relationships: others

People are complicated.  When we meet someone who is complicated in ways that we like, we often want to learn more about them.  We probably want to find out what they learned in their own pursuit of self-understanding.  And if we think that who they are is compatible, to any sufficient degree, with what we need and want then we may pursue some sort of relationship with them.

I am forced to be vague here because the range of possibilities is vast.  I don’t know what you, or anyone else, will find in their own personal journey of self-understanding, and so I don’t know what compatibility with other people will entail.  If you find that you have a deep need and desire to be humiliated and beaten (with a safe word, obviously), then the kind of partner you will be attracted to will probably differ from another person’s need and desire to share quiet nights reading love poetry and having slow, sensual, nights of passion.  Of course, the same person might like both.

Like I said, people are complicated.

One of the complications that arises out of having feelings for someone, for most people anyway, is the feeling of possessiveness.  Intimacy makes the person with whom you are intimate feel like they are in some way part of you and your life.  The connections of shared needs, desires, and the satisfying of those things often binds you with them in wonderful ways.

For many people, this binding is conflated with exclusivity, especially in the presence of insecurity and jealousy.  Ideally, issues with jealousy and insecurity will have been dealt with in one’s pursuit of personal growth, but very often it is not.  The prevalence of opinion that jealousy is a sign of true love and intimacy is evidence for that.

The bonds we find with others through intimacy are unique, and may also be deeply important, meaningful, and irreplaceable.  But there is nothing about that intimacy which makes the possibility of intimacy with others impossible, nor does the presence of intimacy with other people make that intimacy less unique or meaningful, necessarily.

It is quite possible to have any kind of intimacy with more than one person, including sexual and romantic intimacy.  Your partner having another lover, partner, or even deeply close friend is no more threatening to your relationship with them than your insecurity and jealousy make it.  The only thing that can prevent true intimacy would be some emotional inability to be truly intimate (through fear of commitment, trust, etc), or your inability to share that intimacy (through those same insecurities and lack of trust).


Adjusting your goals

So, if your goal is monogamy, while going through the work to make yourself a better partner, you may miss the possibility that another goal might also fit your set of needs and desires.  The key is questioning your own biases, challenging your fears, and allowing yourself to trust yourself and your partners sufficiently to allow everyone, especially yourself, be honest, open, and pursuant of what they really want.

Love all the people you love, as you actually love them without artificially limiting or extending that love  Do not let the goals get in the way of what you really want.  You may find a plethora of people in your life with who you can have various kinds of intimacy, and a static goal—whether it be asexuality, swinging singleness, monogamy, or polyamory—may blind you to what it is that you really want.

Focus on what you want, what your partners want, and let destinations attend to themselves.  You may find yourself in a very different place than you would have reached for, had you allowed your true desires to not be defined by social expectation, fears, and lack of trust.

Polyamory, self-improvement, and mainstream conservatism (oh my!)

I was pexting (poly texting.  Alternate ‘ptexting’.  All rights reserved.  That’s right folks, I share partners but not patented phrases) with Gina earlier and we started talking about how being in the relationships she is in is providing motivation to be a better person.

Specifically, she was talking about how awesome I am by saying…well, I will let her own words express it:

I know…becoming addicted to you has resulted in me becoming more responsible, more organized and more committed to a positive lifestyle.

And I was all like, that’s awesome.  I like being with people who are into self-improvement and all that stuff.  And I appreciate how being with her has a similar influence on me.  She and Ginny, together and individually, inspire me to persist in my own project to grow and mature further.

She capped it off by saying

My love for you makes me do dishes


See, for those of you that don’t know me well, I’m a bit on the tidy side.  I’m not crazy about it, I just do dishes after cooking (the vast majority of the time), put away clothes rather than letting them stay on the floor etc, and do things like organize my various objects.  The other people in our little polycule (I can’t claim that term as my own invention), not so much. 

But that has improved, largely due to my influence as well as their genuine desire to make me a part of their lives.  You see, I clean because to be around significant clutter makes me viscerally uncomfortable and anxious, which they know about me.  And because they want me to be calm and relaxed in the space we share, they (often, but not always) make an effort to make themselves more organized.

As demonstrated by these positive attributes, there is a general sense of wanting to actually grow as people among the people in my life.  There is a desire to actually improve ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.  It is a result, I believe, of having the right attitudes towards relationships and the world.

These attitudes are not unique to polyamory, of course, nor are all polyamorous people actually good at such things.  But in my experience, having these complicated networks of relationships with people of various strengths, weaknesses, and different levels of experiences exponentially increases your own relationship experience and makes it more likly that we will mature faster.

Either that, or like natural selection it will eliminate those who are not capable of such lifestyles and those people will usually return to monogamy because it is easier and less emotionally challenging.

My experience with polyamory has opened me up to people of quality (and some not so quality who have returned to either normality or to unhealthy poly relationships), circumstances of personal challenge, and the freedom to truly be myself in ways that I don’t often see in mainstream culture because of the conservative and restrictive nature of hetero-normative monogamous culture. 

In many ways, self-improvement is a progressive trait, even if most ‘progressives’ are too conservative in other ways to see what I see as regressive sex and relationship norms.  it’s my belief that the progressives of today will largely be the conventional and mainstream social conservatives of the next few generations.  As the current conservatism dies out, it will be replaced with a less crazy mainstream conservatism.  As gay marriage becomes mainstream, polyamorous marriage will become radical and eventually progressive, for example.  Time will tell if I am right.

But back to today….

Having now surrounded myself with people whom I actually like, as well as a more recent attitude to only spend personal effort with people I think worth the time, means that I will likely find new challenges and see new possibilities for more substantial personal growth.

My polyamorous lifestyle creates motivation to make myself a better person.  It has contributed significantly to this effort that is, frankly, invisible to much of the world.  When you live in abnormal lifestyles and have abnormal opinions, the abnormality is most of what the world sees, even the friends you have had for years but whom you don’t see every day.

I wish more people could understand what both skepticism and polyamory have done to improve my life.  Sadly, most of the people I know and see only rarely have only a superficial understanding of it all, and usually avoid talking with me about much of it.

Its a consequence of being weird, I suppose.  So, thank you, weird people in my life, for getting it.  May we continue to be weird together.