Me Connected to Me

Just finishing Joseph E. Davis: Chemically Imbalanced. Here is what he says:

“Movement toward a richer and more accurate understanding of ourselves involves our temporality (our memory and history) and the social and dialogical relations–with ourselves (internal conversation), with others, within a community and a tradition–that have helped make us who we are. Self-elaboration, in this view, is an ongoing ethical activity, an effort to see ourselves clearly, to gain a fuller picture of who we are, what moves us, and–critically–by what standards we live. And this elaboration can serve as a basis for the cultivating of sociality and solidarity with others.”

Don’t you love that term: Self-elaboration? It makes you stop and think. We are explaining ourselves all the time. To ourselves. To each other. How do we understand our actions, our feelings, our thoughts? Am I a good person? Selfish? Toxic? What happens when the outcomes don’t match my intentions? Am I fooling myself with too optimistic a picture, or perhaps too pessimistic a picture of who I am? How do I understand myself in my life? My choices? My personal projects? Can I be accurate?

Understanding ourselves and our world is a complex, difficult, and uncertain task. We can’t quite conquer it, and we can’t quite stop trying either. We live in the world as curious, active, seeking beings, making what we can of the life we’ve been given. Reality shifts, and so does our understanding of it. We can’t conquer it because it keeps changing. Just when we get the hang of making our lives work, everything is different.

This examined life, haphazard as it is, moves us toward a more nuanced and deeper relationship with ourselves, and that makes possible more real relationships with other people too. The profound experience of being deeply grounded in ourselves, of understanding our own complexity and intentions, of pursuing a life in line with what we care about brings us to a place of peace of mind, appreciation for the journey, and freedom to look at and know our own personal reality.

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Seeking a Viable Self

I am in the midst of reading “Chemically Imbalanced,” by Joseph E. Davis, who is a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. Among many thought provoking ideas, he describes people as describing themselves seeking a “viable” self. By this he means, “productive, functional, efficient, rational.” There is, he notes, a rather mechanistic way we can understand ourselves, and the challenges we face are about fixing problems with the mechanism, according to this view.

There is a reductionistic way of understanding ourselves: by our usefulness, our wage-earning potential, our self-sufficiency. But that is not how we actually feel subjectively. We are feeling human, limited, disconnected or contented. Our self definitions give more or less space for the human side of our experience. We allow ourselves to be human to different degrees. We might feel very split on the issues of function versus happiness.

Some of the dissatisfaction we feel with our lives might be a contradiction between how we feel as ourselves and how we measure our value. In pre-pandemic times we might have been driven to succeed, working harder and harder to achieve, to “move forward,” to get promoted. But internally we might have been feeling alienated and isolated. Maybe we didn’t pay too much attention to that internal voice of disconnection. Maybe we didn’t notice that we were not fulfilled by our way of life.

Having lived through, and still living through, a global trauma has stopped us in our tracks, many people have seen a different side of their lives and been forced to rethink what they are doing with the limited time they have on the planet. Some people have told me: “I have had a year of not hurrying. I don’t want to hurry any more.” I think what they mean is that life felt so pressured, like some kind of all-out race to somewhere. But they realized, in the stillness of this time where the world stopped, that maybe that is not the only way of being themselves in their lives.

We are seeking in some sense a relationship with ourselves: Learning to feel positively about who we really are. A viable self, yes, because we want to be functional in our worlds. But that is not enough. That is a subsistence level of subjective experience. A bare minimum. How would we define the fullest, most ideal way of relating to ourselves? There are many words we use for this elusive concept: happiness, satisfaction, well-being, contentment. But it is deeper than that. There is a conviction of our existence as meaningful. Not to be evaluated, but to be appreciated. We can learn to rest in the deep pleasure of an accurate and natural intimacy with ourselves.

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I’m Sorry

I had an experience. I was with a dear friend who is African American. We went somewhere and for some reason I had the visceral experience of being somewhere where you think you are not wanted, but you can’t be sure. It is a feeling as much in your body as in your head. I’m not sure I had ever had such a distinct and clear feeling of being avoided. Or was it devalued? And was it because of his race? How would you know? There was a well-mannered icy-ness about it. The uncanny thing was how incredibly physical it was. Like the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

So I thought about it. I thought I should go around and say I’m sorry to everyone who has been devalued and dismissed. Even if I am not the source of that experience. I’m sorry to everyone who has been reduced to one identity. Because no one ever says “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Just that.

To people who are ignored; to people with addiction problems who are excluded and thrown away. To people who are disabled and unseen. People who are disempowered and defeated. To people who are “not trying hard enough.” To the people who are “essential workers,” but not essential as people. To people who never did get a chance at a good education. Or people whose schools did not see them; did not believe in them; and did not take the time to educate them. I’m sorry about the inequities of resources. Everywhere. I’m sorry to the parents who are struggling to raise children with no support and strained finances. To the other human beings, who, through an accident of fate or birth, cannot even try for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m sorry.

I’m not talking about social Justice exactly, although that matters. Because these things are socially embedded. There is no intention, or partial intention, or perhaps there is intention to be dismissive. But that is a bigger problem embedded in the systems we swim in. Sometimes the pain is not caused by people but by structures that people operate within. But I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about feeling personally sorry about another person’s distress. I’d like to change the world. But first, person to person, I’d like to learn to remember and recognize the difficulties that one other person is dealing with. I’d like to acknowledge and take responsibility for the ways that I don’t notice, don’t do anything in the moment, or don’t put my energy into advocating where I can. As Bonaro Overstreet wrote:

stubborn ounces :: bonaro w. overstreet

(To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

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What Shall We Do With Our Rage?

For the most part, as a culture, we are uncomfortable with anger. We have convinced ourselves that if someone is angry, they are doing something wrong. It is not only that we are not supposed to express anger, we are not supposed to feel it at all. This is in line with our notion that any unwanted feelings represent dysfunction, but that is another post. Right here, we are talking about anger.

When anger becomes destructive; when it has an element of intentional harm, then it is rage. Even when it doesn’t feel that angry. And trying to never be angry, and feeling like a bad person when we are angry, and trying not to hurt people with our anger, all of those cultural “shoulds,” make a person into a kind of pressure cooker. And all of that energy has to go somewhere. It is exploding outward or it is exploding inward. It’s pushing itself somewhere.

Anger comes from motives that are frustrated, from seeing or feeling injustice, from unexpected pain or losses. It starts early, with all of the other standard emotions. Anger is part of our smorgasbord of feelings. We don’t get to have some human feelings but not others. We’ve got the whole shebang: seeking, rage, play, panic/grief, fear, lust, caring, Panksepp’s seven emotional systems. And the experiences that activate any particular emotional state are learned, and that means they are unique to each person. What makes me angry doesn’t bother my friend. That means I generate my emotions in response to something.

So how do we take care of ourselves and take care of other people in the face of the “negative” feelings, particularly anger. How do we invent ways of being together, ways of caring about other people, ways of staying connected, and still, at the same time, expressing, sharing our feeling states?

Maybe it is not as difficult as we think it is. Maybe we acknowledge the connection, express the inner emotional state, and take responsibility for it. Like this: “I don’t want to be difficult but I’m feeling frustrated because I ordered my eggs scrambled, not fried. What can we do?” Or, in more serious situations, “You and I have been friends for a long time, but I’m feeling angry because you don’t respond to my texts. I don’t know whether to stop texting or to try to let go of my frustration. So I decided to talk to you about it.”

It’s more difficult with bigger issues, with more serious relationships, and with greater rage. Sometimes there is nowhere to go with it. But acknowledging it, accepting it, and taking responsibility for it can prevent us from unwittingly directing it at other people or internally at ourselves. We can write it down, we can tell a friend who is uninvolved, we can just say it out loud to ourselves. There is a lot to be angry about–in the bigger world, and in our own small universes. We want to be good people–kind and caring people–and so we don’t like it when we have feelings that make us feel like we are not kind or good. The point is, repressing feelings doesn’t really work. They cause damage anyway. We can have them, we can learn to process and express them, and we can have self-compassion in the face of them. It really is better to be human than to be perfect.

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Finding Your No

In the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, there was an article called “Getting to No.” It described a woman’s experience of saying no: how difficult it was for her, how she worked to learn how to say no to another person. Although even now, even in our heightened awareness of inequity, women are generally socialized to be agreeable, there are plenty of men as well who have a hard time asserting their own motives in their lives. Many people feel trapped and unable to do or say what they want to because other people do not want them to.

Much of the substance of pleasurable relationships rests on similarities between people and agreement about ideas. We are drawn to people who are like us, and we are comfortable with people who are like-minded. Differences require effort from us. Effort to accommodate, effort to understand, and effort to connect. Yeses are just easier than Noes. We want to relax with people who are more agreeable, more predictable, and, well, more like us. So every “no” can erode the comfort of being together.

The problem is, you cannot have a yes if you cannot have a no. Agreeing with someone has no meaning if you cannot disagree. The social interactions that rest on being agreeable have an important place in our lives, but we’d also like to have deeper, more real connections. And that is only possible if we challenge ourselves to be autonomous and intimate at the same time. If we can be different and still feel close to another person. And that is a very very sophisticated kind of relating.

As we become more mature, more centered in ourselves and who we are, more comfortable with the reality of who we are, we are more able to see other people as interesting, enriching, and appealing. Differences are no longer problems but benefits. Our response is one of curiosity rather than disappointment. We will still choose to put effort into relationships with people who have compatible values, but we will have a broader range of people we can appreciate and feel close to.

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Bogged Down Trying to Be Happy

Our days are comprised of moments and our experience of those moments makes up how it is to be ourselves. We try to make that experience feel good. We seek happiness. We know that feeling good comes and goes. But we want as much of it as possible, and we want to hang onto it for as long as possible. We just want to be happy. We’d like it better if the people we care about were happy, too.

The thing is, feeling good has nuances. There’s feeling good because we are comfortable, or feeling socially engaged, or enjoying a movie. There’s all kinds of feeling good. There’s looking for evidence that we are a good person. That feels good. There’s helping someone. Are we doing that for the other person, or is it to make ourselves feel good? Or maybe both? There’s feeling good about ourselves and there’s feeling good about the things we are affiliated with–our church, our sports team, our country.

It’s complex. Feeling good is definitely preferable to feeling bad. We make a lot of efforts to ensure that we will feel good in the future. We use our feelings as a guidepost to making decisions when feelings themselves are learned, labile and unreliable. They just feel authentic, accurate and permanent. It seems sometimes we pay so much attention to the sensation of feeling that we forget about the deeper kind of satisfaction that comes from living toward what matters. We end up emphasizing what is more transient and superficial over what is lasting and deeper.

But really, it is not that we are trivial but that we forget who we are. We are bogged down in chasing feelings when all the while our more fundamental commitments are calling to us and affecting our choices and the quality of our lives. It is only the disconnection that misleads us. And then we try to connect with other people, and we end up on some level of acquaintance without presenting ourselves and without getting to know the other person.

So we feel a sort of alienation from ourselves and other people. We have a hard time tolerating our own vulnerabilities and limitations and so we figure other people won’t want to know about them either. And we end up as cardboard cutouts of ourselves and the people around us look like cardboard cutouts too. It’s dangerous to see the true, three-dimensional nature of people–ourselves and everyone else. So we are endlessly managing the dilemma that true intimacy requires depth and authenticity and at the same time knowing that depth and authenticity can backfire and wreck a relationship. And the only thing that carries us forward is our innate wish for depth and connection and the courage to keep trying.

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Our Relationship with a Self

I am reading “Technologies of the Self,” a lecture by Michel Foucault given at the University of Vermont in 1982. It is surprisingly interesting. What Foucault is talking about is how we have understood the ways we ought to have a relationship with ourselves. He goes back to the Greek and Roman philosophers to explain what they told us. What is interesting about this explanation is the distinction between “Knowing oneself,” and “Caring for oneself.” Foucault shows that originally the advice was to care for ourselves and in order to do that we have to know ourselves, but then this advice was reduced to “Know yourself.” And we lost the “caring for oneself” part, which was the point of it all.

By caring for oneself, the ancient philosophers meant seeking “wisdom, truth, and the perfection of the soul.” Embedded in the philosophical tradition is the assumption that taking care of oneself is part of a contribution to the larger community. The traditional notion of self care has been reduced in modern life to taking a day off, getting a massage, or buying something. But what was meant was caring for the deeper parts of ourselves: our larger commitments, goals, and our sense of meaning and purpose. Caring for oneself meant refining ourselves by seeking a more clear resonance with our most important ideals.

Over a lifetime we are perfecting ourselves in one way or another. If we have a reflective awareness of what matters to us, it is easier to make choices that match our values or ideals, which leads to a deeper sense of life satisfaction. That is where “Know yourself,” comes in. First we have to figure out what exactly are our ideals. But that intimate relationship with ourselves is just step one. After that it is the self compassion, self regulation, and self aspiration that form the quality of our seeking. It is the choices we make and the actions we take that create ourselves as we go.

When we can step back and see that much of our worry and busy-ness and distress represents a dissociation from what matters to us internally, we can attain a kind of inner freedom. Of course we will be impacted by and react to the vicissitudes of life, but what is important is not controlling the outside world but choosing where we put our resources of time and attention and how we choose to respond to what life throws at us. Our most intimate relationships are with ourselves. Are we satisfied with the choices of thought, feeling, and action that we are making? Even though we are social animals and we learn so much in our outside relationships, all of our subjective experience is filtered through our internal relationships with ourselves. And that relationship can be built and polished.

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Say It Out Loud

When you say something out loud, it reminds you of that observation, and it also joins with other people who have the same experience. We are aware that putting our feelings into words is important and that naming our pain and reflecting on it is part of a process of growth and healing. But we don’t always realize it is equally important to say out loud what is working well, what we are enjoying or appreciating, what we are noticing about the people and relationships that are important to us.

“I always enjoy our conversations.” Or “We have such a sustaining relationship.” Or “I love my home.” The person who does this absolutely the best is Jessica from Youtube. When we say out loud what we appreciate, enjoy or recognize, we affirm it to ourselves, we make it more conscious and more real. And we get a little boost of the good feelings associated with that good thing.

I met a man once who told me when he was 8 or 9 his uncle used to come over to his house and they would sit in the back yard and barbecue with his family. HIs uncle would lean back in the lounge chair and say, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” He told me that he had learned then, and practiced his whole life, stopping and appreciating good moments.

It is not merely affirmations or positive thinking. It is about pausing to recognize the good in the current reality. Even when it seems very difficult. Recognizing those good moments gives us a more balanced view of our experience. Life itself is mixed. There are good parts and parts we don’t like. We pay a lot of attention to what we don’t like, which makes sense because we want to improve that part. But the motivation and energy to keep growing and building comes from our successes and progress. And saying it out loud makes it more powerful.

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Radical Responsibility

Because we are social animals, much of our experience and attention focus on our relationships. We try to make relationships, improve relationships, analyze relationships, and worry about relationships. We worry about losing the people we care about one way or another. We react to who they are and what they do. We appeal to them and try to manage them. We look to their reflections to understand ourselves.

Here’s the thing. Each person is a center of agency. That means each person is in charge of his or her own life, and therefore responsible for it. We cannot prevent our children or friends from experiencing pain in life. And we cannot blame them for our own pain. We cannot take responsibility for their decisions or their feelings. And we do have responsibility for our own.

We live autonomous lives in the context of a web of connections. The quality of caring and connection we have form the fabric of our lives and sustain us through the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Our very survival, but also the quality of that existence, rely absolutely on the people around us.

The paradox is that no matter how central our relationships are to our feelings of safety, well-being, and peace of mind, we ourselves are responsible for our internal state. We develop allegiance to our values, we interpret other people and our connections to them, and we assign meaning to what we experience.

As we understand our experience in one way or another, we strengthen the meaning structures we are building. Each choice or perception is added to some belief we have about ourselves, other people and the world. We create layer upon layer of support for the structure of reality we picture.

There is no “there” there. Our lives are wonderful, difficult, stressful, glorious, or peaceful because we see them that way. It is not denial to be grateful to be alive, even in the face of extreme difficulty. Other people have their own paths. They will be selfish and generous, smart and not so smart, interesting and boring. Just like us. They have their own karmic homework in this lifetime.

Too abstract? Ok. Here’s the thing: so many people that I take care of tell me that if someone else were just different somehow they would be happy. When we do this, and we probably all do this at some time or another, we are assigning control of our lives to someone else. Not only does this not work, it is destructive all the way around. Other people impact us profoundly, this is true, but taking charge of our own minds is where we find freedom.

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So I was thinking this morning that everything seems a little bit surreal. Then I was thinking about what makes something “surreal,” and I think it is the putting together of things that don’t seem to go together. Or it is things not behaving the way we expect them to. So I began thinking about expecting things to be a certain way. And that, of course is based on how they have been in the past. And that is not working.

It’s amazing the many, many predictions both from experts and laypeople about what is going to happen–over the short term and the long term. It seems reasonable to look at what we know and at what has happened in the past and make our best guess about what is going to happen next. We want to make choices that will be useful in the context of that prediction.

So just as your stomach is an organ that takes food, breaks it up, and builds your body, your brain is an organ that takes data (information) and looks for patterns and makes predictions. We want to be happy and healthy, and we know that our choices affect our outcomes. So we are very, very serious about figuring out what is going to happen so we can figure out the best choices.

I think that is part of what makes this time so difficult. While there are many people who are suffering concrete life problems, like job loss, illness, bereavement, and inequity, there are many other people who are not dealing with those kinds of losses. If you can point to something and say, “this is why I feel so untethered,” it feels more reasonable somehow.

But the stress of uncertainty is hard to define. We can’t really figure out what is going to happen over time, and we are left with very short term choices or very speculative long term choices. As current events unfold, we are continually surprised and trying to make sense of them. But nothing prepares us for what we are experiencing, and we don’t know what is going to happen next.

So one of the big losses of this pandemic year is the comfort of certain kinds of predictability in our lives, which we used to have. None of the measures we had put in place was able to prevent the level of destruction and social disorganization that we have encountered. How do we regain a sense of calm in the midst of such a great unknown?

For each person our strategy for re-centering ourselves and re-establishing some stability will probably vary. We can move our bodies, connect with other people, look for the anchors in the world–whatever they are for us. And we can learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, with the inevitability of loss, with the limits of our own power, without becoming bitter, pessimistic, or despairing. That is the job.

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