Yes, I think too much

Archive for the ‘reality’ Category

It’s not real

with 9 comments

In the previous post, I mentioned that I used to be part of an on-line newsgroup community. I was heavily involved in this group for about 4 years, possible more, and developed a status and a “celebrity” of sorts. This sort of fame that one can derive from being a big fish in a little pond is gratifying, if your life is unsatisfying and something is missing which it fulfills. People knew my handle and tended to respond to any post I wrote whereas “newbies” or lesser-knowns often found no one replied to the threads they began. It was like being in a room full of people and having everyone listen to and acknowledge you when you spoke, while they didn’t attend to others so assiduously.

Since I live in a foreign culture which is sometimes hostile toward me for my alienness, I needed what this community gave me and that was being surrounded by people who shared my common interest and who related to me in the easily casual and familiar way that people of my own culture had related to me before I went abroad. It was a community that embraced me (such as I showed myself) and did not perceive me as an outsider.

In such groups, inevitably, there are character clashes among various parties and those who see you in a certain way or misread your intentions based on their interpretation of your message rather than your intent. This is the nature of communication. One must expect that something as inadequate as words on a screen will fail to carry intent accurately, and that the emotional status of the listener will color their outlook. The more mature parties would communicate outside of the newsgroup via e-mail about misunderstandings, clarify them in the group in the politest way possible, or simply shrug off their worst interpretation Such mature people choosing the best course of action were exceptionally rare.

The most common response to perceived slights or character clashes were personal digs, snide comments, sarcastic remarks, emotional outbursts, or outright accusations. One particular man was a lightning rod for dislike among some members of the group and he aggressively fought back when attacked. He was accused of lying about his wealth, his possessions, his experiences as a soldier, etc. The testimony of those who claimed to have met him in person did not dissuade his detractors from saying he made baseless assertions about his lifestyle. Once people harbored a grudge, they held onto it like a dog with a rag in its mouth.

I tended to be rather diplomatic most of the time, and tried to nurture new members so that they would feel comfortable posting and taking part. I went out of my way to respond to people who others ignored because then their threads would get responses as a result of my participation. However, this was a very active group and I didn’t have time to deal with every person’s post, and in particular I tended not to jump in and reply to the posts from “old timers” who already had friends who replied to them all of the time unless I definitely had something to say. My “neglect” of one of these old timers created an unexpected situation in which one of them grew increasingly hostile toward me for my lack of attention. In his mind, he had created a scenario in which I was willfully ignoring him and he imagined some sort of tense or antagonistic relationship existed. It was purely in his head. The person he imagined and the person I was, and the relationship he concocted were not real. Nonetheless, he eventually attacked me and asked me why I “ignored” him. The oddness of this was that he did not target anyone else in this entire large and active group for their lack of a response. He had created an imaginary bond with me, so only my attention was of interest to him.

During my involvement in this group, I had some times when I was so upset, angry, or involved that I would be brought to tears by the frustration or mistreatment I was dealt. I took it all quite personally because this group and the relationships I had in it were very important to filling a hole in my life. In the end, I left the group because I realized that this focusing of my energy in this place where the people were real, but the relationships largely imagined, was not good for me. In such internet-based groups, the reality is but a bare frame in which we paint a picture of a community that we concoct in our own minds. It has no substance though, and indeed the whole group eventually was “destroyed” by spammers a few years after I left, proving how ethereal and transient in nature the “community” was. The perceived bonds did not survive the loss of the fragile frame that formed it.

I mention this at this time because I am reminded of it after reading several posts by kind folks who followed my former blog about weight loss who have written lately that turmoil in the weight loss blogging sphere is causing people to back away from their blogs, and I think (but am not sure) some of them misunderstand my abandoning my weight loss blog as being a result of an attack by a certain hostile and aggressive blogger (who attacks many people so it’s hard to take it too personally). The truth is that that party’s actions were a catalyst for my realization that I was cured of my dysfunctional relationship with food and that it was time to move on. I left my former blog because I don’t want to spend every day of my life thinking about weight and food now that I no longer need to spend everyday thinking about weight and food. People likely don’t believe that is really true that I am “cured” since so many people lose weight, pronounce that they are “cured” and then later regain weight. It’s important to note that none of them have done what I have done (moderation, a focus on psychology and behavior modification), and that I am not yet at a healthy weight (but I continue to lose). Their criteria for “cure” was a number on a scale. Mine was a mindset and control around food. The number will eventually follow, and is of lesser consequence than the what I consider a true “cure” for me personally.

I walked away from that blog the same way I walked away from that newsgroup and for the same reason. There comes a point where you do more damage than good when you invest your energies in such pursuits. In the newsgroup, I realized that the imagined relationships others had with me were no different than the imagined ones I had about them. I didn’t need this fantasy supported by the bare bones of reality. I needed something real. Similarly, I don’t need to ruminate on food or weight anymore if I don’t want to be the person who loses weight by making it the centerpiece of her existence. I have to stop focusing on it if I don’t want to be that person. I need another life and another direction.

Because of my experiences with that newsgroup, and some other online activities and communities, I know that all of this isn’t real. The relationships, the drama, the perceptions of friendship and who other people are and are not are much more imagined than real. Yes, there are real people out there and the personas they offer online are facets of who they are, and they do care or hate or feel kindly toward you, but that is the “frame” and there is no picture in it. Until and unless you go a step further (meeting personally, for instance), it’s almost all imagination. It’s internet shadow playing.

The great beauty of the lack of reality of these dynamics is that they cannot touch you unless you let them touch you. You don’t have to fight with angry people because they want to fight. He’s not your neighbor next door who keeps trampling your flower beds because he doesn’t like your dog barking. You don’t have to take the imagined observations of your personality or character as a reflection of who you really are because people are inventing “you” in whatever image suits their purpose or needs. It can be hard not to take such things too seriously or to heart because sometimes the observations are so flattering and kind and the support so seductive and badly needed, but they are no more “real” than the negative ones. It’s still people connecting unnumbered dots to create the picture of you that they want to see and that they believe is true. Granted, some people are better at it and more accurate than others, but it’s dangerous to think that just anyone out there is your friend or enemy because of what they say to or about you online.

In the end, we’re all people sitting in our homes, offices, etc. typing on our keyboards. We are, essentially, alone. The connections we feel are real to us, but they are not true bonds of friendship or enmity. They cannot touch you, unless you imagine that they do.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

October 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

Posted in reality, relationships

Thinking “Gray”

with 2 comments

A few posts back, I mentioned that I believe that people who experience things like UFOs and ghosts are having what I would term a “perceptual event”. I created this term as result of what I would call “thinking gray”, and it is a process which I believe helps not only in adopting a different perspective toward information and how to interpret it, but also can lead to greater self-awareness.

As an example, I’d like to consider how a basic statement is generally regarded by the majority of people. That statement is, “I saw a ghost”. The usual interpretations are as follows:

  1. The person is of sound mind, but imagined it for some reason.
  2. The person is mentally disturbed.
  3. The person actually saw a ghost.
  4. The person misinterpreted some existing phenomenon or stimuli.

Each of these thoughts falls into what I consider “black and white” thinking. That is, the information is to be regarded as fact or fiction. Each statement rationalizes the experience to help categorize it as one or the other. If one were to “think gray” one would set aside the possibility that such a statement is to be placed entirely into the “fact” or “fiction” or “truth” or “lie” categories and seek an alternative line of thought. In regards to this topic, I mentioned my thoughts in the comments on the aforementioned post, but I realize fully that my thinking may be completely wrong. I’m good with that, because this isn’t about finding a “correct” answer.

Gray thinking isn’t about distilling experience, reality, or information into tidy categories to make order of the chaos of life. It’s about thinking outside of rigid mental boxes in order to expand perspective and seek other possibilities, or to form more interesting questions rather than to close the door of inquiry. It sets aside the need to validate one’s existing preconceived notions and the box they place us in. Note that I don’t believe that jumping to conclusions such as “ghosts must actually exist” when you are skeptical is “gray thinking”. It is merely the other side of the coin. If “black” is saying the statement is a lie of some sort, then “white” is saying it is the “truth”. “Gray” is considering the possibility that it is neither a lie nor the truth, but something of another order.

The process of thinking gray requires one to consider the “true” and “false” answers or issues and to find something between or beyond. The method is slightly different depending on the issue at hand. In regards to self-awareness, I often try not to gravitate toward the obvious answer to questions of “why” or “how”, but rather follow other lines of thinking. For instance, in the argument with my husband that I discussed in the previous post, I did not concern myself with “blame”. When most couples argue, the preoccupation is with who made the mistake and who was harmed by it. It’s about figuring out who was “wrong” and then getting that person to act in a more “right” fashion. This handles the issue in a very superficial (though crudely pragmatic) manner. It’s expedient, but yields no deeper meaning and squanders the opportunity for enhanced self-awareness.

Rather than look to blame the party who has made an error, it’s of more value to approach the issue from multiple angles. I question why my husband forgot, but I also question why I’m so upset. It’s easy to conclude that I’m frustrated because this has been a pattern and indicates he has not changed, but it’s more valuable from a personal understanding viewpoint to ask why my pattern of response had not changed. Shouldn’t I have adapted to his forgetfulness by now? What is so persistent about my character that I become so troubled by such behaviors? Rather than address “right” and “wrong” or “blame” and “victim”, I try to look at the entire dynamic of our exchange and  how our respective characters and histories come together to create a particular undesirable experience.

To offer one final concrete example which some of my readers may relate to more readily, I would also say it is worthwhile considering how black and white thinking undermines weight loss. For example, people focus on the fact that they eat as a result of stress (and they do), but this is a dead end and does nothing to help alter behavior because stress is an immutable part of life. You may think, “if only I could escape my stress, I could lose weight,” because you are (correctly) linking stress and eating, but this link does not help you. You are “right” about the issue, but it is of little value to you to be so. When I dealt with this issue (and subsequently overcame stress eating through time and applied effort), I looked not at the stress and eating angle, but at the aspect of routine and routine breaking. Yes, we are biologically compelled to eat when stressed and stress stimulates appetite, but addressing habitual behavior when stressed and focusing specifically on what can be done about that behavior is coming at the issue from a grayer angle. It’s not about finding “correct” answers and direct connections, but about an angle that is of value in improving your quality of life.

If you want to start to think “gray”, the first thing you need to do is divorce yourself of the idea that you need to be “right” or validate your viewpoint. You need to abandon notions of “fact”, fault, blame, and responsibility and focus on the complex components of any issue or problem and then further focus on the components of the components. In essence, you need to set aside the thoughts that are ego-driven and deal more open-mindedly with whatever topic is at hand.

Consider the idea that you are presented with a tree and told to think about it and its existence. Don’t focus on the branches, the tree or even its roots, but rather focus on the nutrients in the soil, the water, and the weather patterns. Think about where the seeds that the tree grew from came from and how they got there rather than the seed itself and how it grew. Consider the myriad ways in which the seed may have landed on that spot, including esoteric or absurd ones. It could have blown there, fallen from another tree, or been carried in the matted fur of an animal. It may have been carried by a stream of water during a hard rainfall or been dropped from the beak of a flying bird. Think about seeds as a method for plant reproduction and the evolution of this way of spreading plant life. Think about other ways in which it could have happened that might have been better or more effective or the things which may have prevented it from being there. Step far afield of the most obvious to find other perspectives. Thinking gray means not focusing so much on the tree that you can see, but rather on every possible thing (and some very unlikely things) that lead to it being there and things that might have been.

So much superficial thinking is linked to thinking in black and white that I’m sometimes surprised at how many people continue to apply such perspectives well into adulthood. I think that most of our thinking is lead by a need for validation which in turn is fed by insecurity. We seek to prove our perspective is “right” and to make sense of the world based on our default position. This locks us into a perspective, lifestyle, and behavior patterns and make us feel that there is no escape because we do not even realize that “gray” thinking is possible or that other options exist or are equally valid. I know many people believe they “think outside the box”, but what they really are doing is inhabiting a different box. It’s still about “black or white”, but it’s just a matter of switching sides or choosing another justification. The first leap is the hardest in terms of changing polarized thinking, but it is very much worth making.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 30, 2010 at 12:32 am

Posted in psychology, reality

Tagged with

The Unexplainable

with 3 comments

During a discussion with a work-related acquaintance, I posed a question about believing in ghosts. I offered her the following hypothetical: If there was a house in which a hundred different people stayed and each claimed they saw a ghost in the dining room, would she believe a ghost actually appeared? She said she would not. I asked her then if a thousand people said they saw it, would she  believe it, and again, she said she wouldn’t believe it. In fact, when it comes to ghosts, the only way she would believe they existed would be if she saw one herself.

I believe that her skepticism was interesting in light of the fact that she does believe the results of scientific studies, often conducted by a handful of people that she doesn’t know anything about. It illustrates how hard it is for us to believe in things which have been classified as not being real by our cultures, even when there may be ample evidence to support the existence of such things.

I’m not offering this scenario up to say “ghosts exist”. I actually think that the question and its answer are irrelevant. I’ve never seen a ghost and expect that I never will. Frankly, I believe that they are what I’d term a “perceptual event” which some are capable of having and others are not, but that they are neither “real” nor “imagined” in the commonly understood sense of those words. The same goes with what are seen as “aliens”. Such perceptual events are interpreted differently based on the person and the culture, but they are not hallucinations so much as mental “translations” of some stimuli which a small minority can perceive under certain unknown conditions. This is merely my theory though, and I don’t expect others to agree with it as it is unprovable.

In my previous post, I discussed the role of science as proving the explainable. In this post, I want to talk about the unexplainable and the role that religion and spiritual beliefs play in that. It is my opinion that the role of religion has always been a way to explain broad patterns of experience or common thought patterns which cannot be proven or logically validated, but seem to come together in a manner in which humans find meaning.

Before I continue, I must labor to make a point and that is that I am not a Christian nor do I subscribe to a particular religion or follow any dogmas. I don’t believe in “God” (or “gods”) as conceptualized by most people, nor am I an atheist. I was raised a Christian, but abandoned those beliefs at the age of 15 in a moment of clarity while sitting in a junior high school history class. Yes, I remember the exact moment, and how it felt and what I was thinking. However, I do not reject religion as something of value nor do I believe any religion is “wrong” or a fanciful way of dealing with fear of death as many people believe. In fact, I think if you want to talk about fear of dying, religion is a far scarier path than atheism on that particular topic. With atheism, you face oblivion which offers no pain or pleasure. With religion, you live in fear everyday of making incorrect choices and you face the prospect of eternal torment, toil, or suffering. Which is a scarier belief to follow when it comes to dying?

I want to make it clear that I have no religious agenda to validate. I don’t think religions are “wrong” or “right” but merely different ways of framing and conceptualizing that which is unexplainable in accord with ones culture or upbringing. I think that whatever greater truth there is, if indeed there is one, is too vast and hard to understand for any one way of addressing it to suffice. If there is an explanation, we all get to see but glimpses of it through our respective spiritual lenses. We’re all just a tiny bit right, and lack the perspective or mental capacity to be more than that in my estimation. That is an opinion that everyone is free to disagree with because my perspective is certainly no more “correct” than any other on these sorts of issues.

Getting back to the point though, I believe that the role of religion for human beings, is to explain and attempt to control the unexplainable. When bad weather destroyed crops and we didn’t understand why such bad things happened, we created gods who we angered but could placate in order to control the next season’s harvest. Comfort could be derived from such rituals, even when results were not necessarily what we had hoped for. Unfortunately, then, as now, the rituals that comforted the devoted masses often harmed the unlucky few. Then, lives were sacrificed. Now, we see people harassing, murdering, and judging others who do not believe as they do.

While religion as a force, particularly when fundamentalists are part of the equation, can be highly destructive, it can also serve a productive and interesting purpose. Puzzling out the nature of the unexplainable is part of our nature as thinking beings. Answers to larger questions are needed, and sometimes whether or not the answers are “right” is less important than whether they are helpful psychologically. As long as those answers remain personal, and are only shared amongst like-minded people and not inflicted on those who are of a different mind, there is absolutely no harm and certainly there is some benefit in using spiritual perspectives to explain the unexplainable.

The main and undeniable benefit is that it provides people with comfort. The secondary and less recognized one is that there is sometimes wisdom and information hidden in such theories and even in dogma. The story of Eden, for instance, may be traceable to a transition from a comfortable hunter-gatherer existence in a certain part of the middle East to a transition to an agrarian life when the resources of that area were destroyed by changes in weather patterns or depleted. The questions and stories of religion often create a stepping off point for questions of science and psychology. They reflect the answers we need and want, and propel us forward in seeking them. They make us reach for the unreachable, and find unexpected answers along the way.

Unfortunately, the entire science and religion problem occurs when one side decides that it should perform both of the major roles. Science starts to operate to explain the unexplainable such as the question of whether or not God exists. Religion counters and tries to explain the absolutely explainable in dogmatic terms. As long as both play in their own sandbox, all can be well and harmonious. Proponents of each side, however, are not content to merely fulfill their respective roles, but act to dominate entirely in fits of insecurity over their value in society. Religious people fear being marginalized and dislike being ridiculed by scientific assertions and explanations and scientific people fear that willful ignorance may become the order of the day, and there’s a big fight in the sandbox.

I advocate that people respect the limits of both sides of the issue. Science shouldn’t seek to prove that which is patently unprovable, like whether “God”, an ambiguous and varying concept across cultures and faiths, exists. And, I also believe the answer to the question is irrelevant because the effect of the concept of “God” is more important than its actual existence. Science should never seek to explain something so ill-defined and ambiguous and should stop wasting time telling religious people that everything they know is wrong. It’s not science’s job to stick its tongue out at religious beliefs and blow them the big raspberry. Religious people should cease to rewrite observable reality according to their particular dogma. Doing so not only makes them appear irrational, but insecure about the validity of their particular faith. It’s not the job of religion to shoehorn scientific discovery into fictions that reshape data into a more comfortable dogmatic framework. Anything other that acting with respect for the limits of the role each side should play is just the result of respective egos kicking sand at each other, and is a waste of time and energy.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 24, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Your Mental Diet

with 3 comments

I have a friend who has been interested in celebrities for as long as I have known her. She reads gossip magazines and papers and is interested in things like whether or not her favorite celebrities tip when they go out to restaurants. On her FaceBook page, she posts pictures of herself at various conventions with actors who appeared in her favorite shows back in the 70’s. Her life and the topic of most of her conversations revolve around people who have no interest in her and who she knows only via gossip rags and popular entertainment.

My friend is a nice person, but she lives on a mental diet that is the equivalent of junk food. This in no way undermines the fact that she is a worthwhile and good-hearted person, but it does make it very hard to have conversations with her that go beyond how cool it is to see so-and-so from such-and-such show or how well-preserved someone is after all of these years. Frankly, I really don’t care about the habits of celebrities, their appearance, etc. I mainly have a passing interest in their “art” and whether or not it falls into the range of things I personally may want to consume.

While it may seem based on the type of writing that I do that I’m a studious sort who sits around studying books on psychology, the truth is that I do more than a little dabbling in my own mental junk food. I spent yesterday watching DVDs of “The Tick” live action series (all 9 episodes). I play RPGs with friends and family several times a week. I even play a stupid FaceBook game (not Farmville though). A little mental junk food is good for the psyche and the soul. The problem is that some people subsist on little else but such things.

While I don’t particularly care if there are people out there who want to sit around watching reality shows all night or worrying about whether or not Angelina Jolie is going to adopt another child or get another tattoo, I do have concerns about the way in which our mental diet affects our worldview through time. I realized when I closed down my old blog that talking about something or consuming information about it more and more allows it to dominate your world-view. It reaches the point where you have nothing more to learn and little more to gain by continuing to dwell on something, yet you go back to it out of force of habit or as a means of reaffirming your worldview. In essence, consuming mental junk food can be as comforting as eating actual junk food even when it’s destroying you in various ways.

When I say it is “destroying” people, I don’t mean that their brain’s pathways are rotting from disuse or that they are turning into dull couch potatoes, but rather that there is a psychological impact. If you spent enough hours reading about or watching awful people doing awful things, you start to see the world as an awful place. It doesn’t matter whether your real life experiences actually mirror the experiences you consume through various types of media, you will believe it whether it is true or not.

Personally, I have found that I have a tendency to paint the world whatever color I’m told it should be. If I read news about the fact that poverty rates in America are going up and that more people have no health care coverage (facts true as of this posting), my worldview gets a little darker. I immediately lose a little hope for the future, see humanity as selfish and short-sighted and feel bad that so many people are suffering. However, my experience is not one of diminishing quality of life, income, or health care. Without this information, my day and perspective would be a little brighter.

It may seem that I’m suggesting some sort of life of willful ignorance in order to find greater bliss. That’s not what I’m getting to at all. What I’m saying is that rebuilding my perspective based on one little bit of news doesn’t do anything for anyone, including me. Being depressed about it won’t help. I can either accept that this is a part of the fabric of life and feel blessed that it’s not in the particular weave I presently live in and move on or I can do something about it by helping out those people.

I realized a long time ago that human beings were never designed (by God or by evolution, pick your favorite) to be inundated with the type of information we are presented with about suffering on a world-wide scale. Our brains and our nervous systems are not meant to be handed all sorts of problems that we cannot do anything about and being told that people in Africa are killing each other in civil wars or that children go hungry in certain places in America is something that we need to learn to process in a specific manner. We are meant to worry about whether or not someone in our tribe or our family is hungry and then deal with it by finding a way to feed them, not have the stress of unnamed, unknown masses and their plight laid at our feet when the only response we can have is an indirect and often inconsequential one at best. The stress of this sort of information coming our way creates a warped sense of the world as well as enhances our sense that we are powerless to improve anything.

I’m not suggesting we close our eyes, but rather that the contents of the “mental diet” we have can often bear scrutiny. It isn’t a good idea to live with nothing but the sort of celebrity fluff my friend lives with (not to mention her steady diet of distorted news coverage from a particular outlet known for it’s painfully extreme bias), but rather that we should seek balance. There should be a little mental junk food, a little of what is hard to take but good for you, and a lot of what fulfills and fortifies you. I think often it is the final item which we get far too little of. For me, that means looking more to positive sources which offer a worldview that is, at worst, neutral, and at best, positive. This isn’t about trying to be a Pollyanna or ignore reality, but about realizing that my immediate reality as well as that of those who are suffering isn’t being served by a constant diet of gloom, doom, or vicarious living.

Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 18, 2010 at 3:59 am

Posted in media, psychology, reality