This tidbit landed in my Inbox this week. At first read, I simply agreed with it. As I’ve thought about it, though, I keep unpacking layers.
I’m sitting outside in the sun at our new house writing the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper on my knee, which is crusted with dirt. The knee, I mean, not the pen and paper! It’s too bright for my laptop out here. Inside, our plumber and his assistant are deconstructing our upstairs bathroom. Fortunately, we still have a dumpster. We are pleased to have our plumbing issues addressed: slow drains, old water damage, leaking pipes, and an unpleasant whiff of sewer now and then. We will be even more pleased to have a working shower.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
And it all costs money. A lot of money.
With no work as a distraction on this day off, I spent the morning in the garden, where I was thoroughly happy and busy. That took care of the morning. I got dirty (knees) and bug bitten. We have no water at the moment, so I’m going to stay dirty until the plumbers leave for the day, although, come to think of it, I don’t know the water will be turned back on when they leave. Hmm.
Near noon I went inside for shade and a cold drink, but the sounds of banging, sawing, and the shop vac, along with a steady stream of construction debris and old bathroom fittings being carried down the stairs and out the door on the way to the dumpster fueled my anxiety, so I turned to the comfort of writing, as I so often do. I started by catching up on my email, where inspiration frequently lurks.
It was then I read Godin’s brief thoughts about fear and footnotes. He suggests when we feel nervous and afraid about the “information” we’re writing or speaking about, we don’t show our sources, references, and work.
It made me think about my own fear about scarcity today. If I showed my work about that, about the fear I’ll run out of money and have to spend the rest of my life under a bridge, what would it look like?
Has that ever happened?
Have I ever been in serious want?
Have I ever been homeless or truly hungry?
Do I have a job I love and for which I’m paid?
In essence, I have no work to show because my fear of scarcity is nothing but an old ghost, an ancient traumatic wound, irrational and mostly in my head.
Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash
Interesting. Does lack of research and background information indicate a measure of fear in our discourse, a measure of uncertainty, a degree of irrationality, even?
It’s a fact that I like my information (facts) served up with links, references, and footnotes. Content presented as information (facts) without such foundations is suspect in my eyes, and I do further research. Far too many people in cyberspace call their opinions, pathologies, disorders, fetishes, and lies facts.
On the other hand, some information (facts) is so widely accepted, taught, and promulgated footnotes are hardly necessary. An example of this is diet. Much of our (broken) healthcare system is built on the foundation of “facts” about what constitutes a healthy and appropriate diet.
But what if these “facts” arise from corrupted data? What if the real truth is less profitable for those in power and thus has been buried? For decades?
Collecting data and testing hypotheses requires funding. Doing it well requires a lot of funding. Corporations and other entities with deep pockets may have a vested interest in the outcome of studies. It’s not impossible to imagine unpalatable findings (by which I mean findings which threaten profit) are buried or deleted. It’s also not hard to imagine studies designed to explore data contradicting the (profitable) status quo can find neither funding nor support in the most powerful scientific schools and journals.
An unhealthy population is enormously profitable for some people, and those people have a lot of power.
This sort of thing has, after all, been going on since the time of Galileo, the sixteenth century astronomer who was interviewed by the Inquisition, forced to recant his scientific findings, and spent the end of his life under house arrest.
The thing is, he was a scientific genius, and he was right.
But the Catholic Church, very powerful during that period of history, felt threatened by his conclusions.
In other words, they were afraid. So they shut him up. Fear = silencing.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he was right.
Photo by Brenda Godinez on Unsplash
Tens of thousands of articles are available online about the health benefits of a plant-based diet. The better written, more thorough ones contain resources and links to various studies and data. However, one can also find studies and data by well-qualified scientists and doctors (mostly in other countries) indicating the reverse: a plant-based diet may cause a myriad of health problems.
Critical thinking, the ability to assess a problem or question, research, look at data, ask questions, and analyze findings, is an equal opportunity playing field unless we have no access to information (like the Internet) or are unable to read and write. What this means to me is we all have a right to question information, research for ourselves, and look for a variety of sources and references. Critical thinking in the modern age means we must be able to separate a fact from an opinion, information (facts) from lies.
That’s a big problem. I’m quite confident a plant-based diet caused me years of health problems and pain and the biochemical results (demonstrable data) my current carnivore diet provides to my doctor are not dangerous or problematic. My healthcare provider disagrees. Vehemently. I want to talk about my research, resources, and links. I want to ask questions. I want resources my provider might have access to which I haven’t found or don’t know about. I believe I have some solid data to back up my questions and concerns. I also know I am frequently wrong, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else to the glamour of bullshit wrapped up in science.
My healthcare provider refuses to discuss it.
So there we are. I’m not afraid to be wrong, but I am afraid to be in pain. My healthcare provider is part of a broken system. How much power does she have, really, to deal with someone like me? How much time does she have? How much energy or even interest? It’s much easier to fill out a one-size-fits-all prescription for a plant-based diet or pharmaceuticals. Her job may be in jeopardy if she doesn’t feed me with the medical establishment’s current party line.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of some others, I’m murdering the planet, taking poor care of my health, and clearly believe in hate and violence toward animals. Any self-respecting member of PETA would set my house on fire.
Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash
None of that is true, from my perspective. None of it is even fact. I could provide several links and resources challenging those statements, many of them by scientists and including studies and data. But many, many, people would believe all those things and more about me based on my dietary choices, and they too could provide links, resources, and numerous studies and scientific conclusions supporting their point of view.
I agree with Godin. We should show our work. It won’t make everything magically clear because information from different sources frequently conflicts, and not all information sources are trustworthy, but showing our work helps us remember science is built on the shoulders of those who came before us (like Galileo), and honors the scientific process. Heck, it honors creative process. Godin’s original post is three lines. I just wrote more than 1,000 words because he poked at me and made me think, explore, question, wonder.
We are all connected, whether we like it or not. Showing our work makes us a little more human, a little more humane, a little more thoughtful, a little more careful. People who won’t show their work set off my radar. What are they hiding? Why don’t they have the courage of their convictions? Why are questions and investigations so threatening they must be silenced or stopped?
As for the inside of my own head, I need to show my work to myself, too. Anxiety thrives on the stories we tell ourselves without regard to whether the stories are true or have ever been true. We all need to be clear about the difference between our stories and opinions and information (facts). Stories and opinions have their place, but they’re not facts we can research, footnote, and independently verify. If we can’t show our work, perhaps we’re no longer in the realm of facts. If we won’t show our work, we lose credibility with people who think critically.
Updating a bathroom costs some money. We have some money. Those are the facts.
Last week I wrote about the traumatic response of fawn, as described by Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. This week I’m tackling another of my strongest trauma responses, that of flight.
Flight, or fleeing, is a natural response to threat or danger. It’s an instinctive life-saving behavior. However, we’re not physiologically made to live in a constant state of flight. It exhausts our adrenal glands, our immune systems, and our psyches. I believe it’s at the root of much disease and chronic pain. Sadly, we reward people for operating out of this particular trauma response by calling them “productive,” by which we mean “making money” or “benefitting me in some way with their work.”
Flight, like fawning, encompasses several behaviors I’ve struggled with all my life and already written about in this blog.
Flight becomes a trauma response when we are unable to flee from chronic threat. If we cannot physically escape, we default to mental and emotional escape by dissociating or distracting ourselves with activity. We push ourselves without mercy into workaholism, extreme stimulation, and chronic anxiety. We micromanage everyone around us, trying to maintain some sense of safety and control. We cannot sit still or relax without feeling panicked. We produce, and produce, and produce. If we’re not producing we feel empty, worthless, and scared.
We lose our ability to be. All we know is how to do.
There’s nothing wrong with achievement, but we need more than that to be healthy and happy. Of course, capitalism depends on achievement, and as consumers we are romanced with uncountable ways to be more productive, better at multitasking, and faster workers, not so we have more time to relax, rest, and play, but so we have more time to produce, multitask, and work!
Hard workers and super achievers are rewarded in the workplace with paychecks, promotions, bonuses, good references, and recognition. We are not culturally rewarded for taking sabbaticals, sick days, disability leave, family leave, or vacation days.
Here are some of the ways flight behavior shows up in me:
Chronic physical tension and pain.
Working without pausing for rest or food.
Refusing to accept physical limitations of pain or illness, thereby ensuring more pain and illness.
Remember that trauma response behaviors are on a continuum. Every day I look at a graphic from Pete Walker’s website depicting the four trauma responses at their most polarized and destructive as well as healthier, less extreme options.
For example, fleeing in blind panic has become a deeply ingrained behavior pattern for me. I feel panicked, but there is no threat, not here, not now. I’m safe. I don’t need to run away from anything. Yet the smallest trigger produces a flood of adrenaline that demands I flee. If I don’t obey the compulsion, I have a panic attack, which is extremely mortifying when I’m in public.
I counteract this old trauma response by practicing disengagement and healthy retreat. Disengagement means, instead of running like a panicked rabbit, I excuse myself with dignity from situations in which I feel uncomfortable and walk (not run!) away. I don’t pick up poisoned bait. I don’t accept an invitation to have conflict. I create some distance between myself and the trigger. I lay down a boundary. I say no.
I’ve written about healthy retreat in my post on quitting. Sometimes a healthy retreat is the best choice we can make for ourselves, no matter how uncomfortable, frightening, or even devastating it can be. Unfortunately, we are often unsupported in this choice. When we understand we’re in the wrong job, the wrong relationship, or the wrong place, we have a right to choose a healthy retreat. We don’t need to drop an atomic bomb as we leave, but it’s okay to change our mind, make a mistake, outgrow a situation, or simply realize things aren’t working out for us where we are.
I’ve been challenging what I now identify as my flight response for some time. I developed a meditation practice. I developed an exercise practice and then began working with a personal trainer to ensure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard (I was). I get regular dental care and wear a mouth guard at night. I eat regularly, no matter how busy or stressed I feel. I’ve slowed down. I no longer strive for perfection. I make it a point to relax, laugh, play, and take breaks. I do creative work every day. Because I’ve learned to relax during the day, I sleep much better at night, and I’m careful about my sleep hygiene. I stopped making to-do lists and no longer engage in schedule shaming myself or anyone else. If I feel tired, ill, or just plain uninspired, I rest.
The funny thing is, I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been in my life before. I’m also far less exhausted, much healthier, and happier. These trauma responses have had enormous power over me, but recognizing them, naming them, and understanding where they come from have reduced them to habits I can break. And I’m breaking them.
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?
Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.
Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”
I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.
It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?
Maybe some people have no happiness to share?
My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?
Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.
When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.
Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.
Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.
It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.
What am I doing wrong?
As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.
I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.
This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.
It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.
Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.