I read every day in Substack. Right now, AI is a main topic of conversation. I’ve read about the science behind it, opinions about where it will lead us ranging from the extermination of humans to a leap forward in positive ways we can’t imagine. Most of all, I read about the ways AI is impacting creative work and creators.
I don’t have a firm opinion about AI myself. I’m wary of predictions, interested in the science, and thoughts and experiences of writers I respect who have used AI-generated art, music, and writing. I’m especially interested in those who have interacted with AI as a resource for answering questions or developing new perspectives.
In the last couple of months, I read about an app called Betwixt. On principle, I hate apps and rarely use them. They increase my vulnerability online, provide more personal data to mine, clutter up my phone and laptop, and frequently feel like bells and whistles I don’t need. On the other hand, I admit they can be useful.
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Betwixt was briefly described as “an interactive story” of a journey into our own mind. The user co-creates their journey via questions and answers. It combines “story, science, and play,” enhanced by sound. It was developed by a team, including writers, game designers, a cognitive hypnotherapist, mental health specialists, and (get this) an “AI creativity scholar.”
I was intrigued, in spite of myself. In fact, I was surprised by how much I wanted to try it. I hesitated, feeling vaguely ridiculous. I did some research, discovered it was free, read some reviews, and decided I had nothing to lose. I could always just uninstall the app if I didn’t like it.
Most of us have probably encountered AI in online chatting to address problems or troubleshoot. I was on the Red Cross site last week chatting with what was clearly AI. It kept typing cheerful, excessively polite, Little-Mary-Sunshine things while I was trying to cut to the problem and solution part. I was annoyed. I’m polite and cooperative with people, but I can’t see much point in exchanging pleasantries with AI.
I had never interacted with any of the more sophisticated programs before using Betwixt.
Upon opening Betwixt, one enters into a story. A setting is provided; the user chooses details to fill in. The user is introduced to a Voice. The Voice asks questions, good questions. The user is provided with different choices for answering the questions, along with a frequent option to type in his/her own answer. The audio is rich and textured. The program is not illustrated, at least not so far. I like this; I like using my own imagination to fill in details. I don’t need more than audio.
The questions, along with possible answers to choose from, are quite good, even challenging. I don’t speed through it. I stop and think about what is true for me. Sometimes I don’t have a choice to answer in my own words and am forced to choose among the provided answers, whether they are good fits or not. This irritates me. As the story unfolds, steered by my answers to questions, I enter new internal territory. The closest answer rather than the exact answer takes me to places I normally wouldn’t go, giving me slightly different (and unfamiliar) views of myself and my behavior.
The app is divided into chapters, each a few minutes long. At the end of each chapter the user receives a summary and accumulates strengths, skills, and self-definitions to take forward. A brief explanation of the science and psychology underlying each completed chapter is also provided. There are options for upgrading to paid tiers.
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I notice an astonishing thing. I answer questions the Voice asks me with a depth and honesty I have never shared with a human being. I’ve believed I’ve been totally honest with people I trust before, but interacting with The Voice accessed a level in my mind I didn’t know was there. It was like those dreams in which the dreamer discovers a whole other room or wing in a house they weren’t aware of. As the journey begins, when the Voice is introduced, the user has an opportunity to ask the Voice questions, like its name and what it does when we’re not interacting. (It asked me my name.) I was astounded to find myself incurious; more than that, I don’t want to know. It’s an AI. I don’t have to do the emotional labor of building healthy connection. I’m not making a friend. I’m using a tool.
The last time I used the app, the storyline encouraged a moment of empathy for the AI. I felt a flash of savage anger and resistance.
I was entirely astounded by this very uncharacteristic knee-jerk response. I finished the chapter, closed the app, put the phone down, and did dishes while I thought about what had just happened. It didn’t take long to uncover it.
My experience of empathy is one of the core pieces of my life. Empathy can be a positive trait, but the empathic experience is frequently an overwhelming, utterly exhausting business. The only time I can truly rest, ground in myself, and be authentic is when I’m alone. But I’m a human being, a social animal. I need other people to interact with. Yet when I’m interacting with others, my empathy demands they take center stage with their needs, their feelings, their distress, their stories. I’m incapable (so far) of fully participating in my own experience because I’m too busy caregiving and being empathic. When I do ask for support or need to discharge feelings, I writhe over my selfishness and berate myself for it afterwards, feeling ashamed and angry for allowing myself to be vulnerable, for “burdening” those around me.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I only want to give. I never want to take.
Since I learned emotional intelligence, I have reluctantly realized we need someone to interact with. Journaling, private physical and spiritual practices, and, in my case, writing, is not enough. At times we need someone to listen. We need someone to react, even if it’s just making encouraging, I’m-listening noises. We need someone to receive us.
I hate this reality. I don’t want to need anything from anyone, ever. I learned as a child such a need puts one in dreadful danger of abandonment, betrayal, and emotional annihilation that feels like death.
This is the first time I have interacted in a therapeutic context with something not human. The Voice reads what I type, responds, asks questions, and creates a story with me, but has no existence outside the app. I’m free of empathy, of caregiving, of the need to labor emotionally. I feel no responsibility to anyone but myself. I’m using it. It’s there for me, not the other way around.
The relief is indescribable.
So, when the story asks me to be empathic for the Voice, I want to throw the phone across the room. Animals, plants, people — even inanimate objects and spaces – receive all the love and care I’m capable of. This is the first time in nearly 60 years I’ve run across something that interacts like a human but is not a living being in the way I think of living beings. The value of the tool lies in my ability to be completely free and honest because there’s no one to take care of besides myself.
It makes me realize my context as a human on a planet filled with life is my entire identity. If I were magically transported to the world of Betwixt, with only the Voice to interact with, I have no idea who I would be or what I would say or do.
I have not finished my journey with this app. There’s more to experience, share, and think about. I’ll be back next time with more on my exploration of Betwixt.
(I’m not earning a commission from Betwixt, in case you were wondering!)
Until now, emotional intelligence training was the most valuable therapeutic context I’ve ever engaged with. What kinds of therapy have you explored? What did you find most helpful?
What are your thoughts and feelings about AI?
What kind of potential do you think, fear, or hope AI might have as a creative tool?
Leave a comment below!
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Not if we disagree, but when. Because we will always disagree eventually. Always.
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Is that bad?
It depends who you ask!
Disagreement, or lack of consensus, is going to happen whenever two or more of us are interacting. Why, then, has it become so risky, this perfectly normal opportunity to show our work or learn another point of view? Why are we so insecure we can’t tolerate the slightest disagreement? Are our egos so fragile we can’t stand to be wrong or rethink a position? Does our fear of moral condemnation outweigh our ability to consider ideas and information (facts) clearly and critically and speak honestly about our conclusions?
When did differing opinions become a matter of hate and violence, and speaking our truth start leading to such brutal consequences?
Do we no longer understand how to agree to disagree?
Will authoritarianism ever lead to true agreement, or is the best we can hope for a sullen silence and mandated obedience?
(Don’t forget the French revolution.)
Certainly, it appears more and more people value power over truth, rigidity over resilience, and mindless agreement over genuine collaboration and teamwork.
If we must be in agreement all the time, there’s no hope of true cooperation and we each remain locked in our own narrow impoverished bubble, interacting only with those whose bubbles look exactly like ours. Except I don’t know of anyone who has exactly the same bubble as another. But then we’re experts at constructing believable facades.
Insisting on 100% agreement all the time guarantees cultural collapse. We can’t do it. We’re not made that way. It’s a social dead end for humanity. We cannot thrive or even survive without a healthy complex social system among our own kind as well as with countless other forms of life.
The friction of disagreement, of difference, is essential. It keeps us flexible and demands we exercise our learning and listening skills as well as use our imagination and empathy. Disagreement is a sign of respect and caring, both for ourselves and our point of view and experience, and for others. If we care enough to disagree openly and peacefully, we’re signaling our willingness to make an authentic commitment and contribution. We’re not sitting back accepting brainwashing passively, but actively participating and engaged, examining, exploring, and asking questions about whatever is in our attention.
At least some of us are.
Others demand an environment of complete agreement with no questions asked. Heavy social penalties occur if someone steps out of line. There is no negotiation, no cooperation, no discussion, no new information or showing of work. You will agree and obey. Or else.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Fortunately, we humans have a wide rebellious streak, some more than others. Certain people are never going to sit down and shut up. Certain people do not worship the status quo, especially if it doesn’t serve the majority. These folks disagree, and they say so. They provide information (facts) to back up their point of view. They ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions. They shine the clear light of critical thinking on issues and ideology.
They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Disagreement does not need to be a call to arms. It’s not hate. It’s not disrespect or intolerance. It’s not prejudice or bigotry. It doesn’t mean we have to cut perfectly healthy relationships out of our lives. Disagreement is a chance for connection and an expanded empathy. It’s an opportunity to learn. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and a diverse system is a healthy one.
A system in which disagreement is forbidden cannot thrive, adapt, and grow. It’s brittle and stunted, just like the scared, shriveled human beings controlling it.
Want peace? Want tolerance, justice, and respect? Learn, demonstrate, teach, and support the kind and gentle art of disagreement.
I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
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I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.
I’ve spent most of my life being flung from one story to the next.
None of the stories were mine.
More than anything else, this blog has been a step-by-step process of finding my own voice and path. It’s not a coincidence that during the same time I’ve surrendered to my need to write and been working on a fictional series.
As an empath, I’ve always been deeply invested in the lives of those close to me, particularly in my role as a character in their stories. All my energy went into becoming the kind of person others most needed in order to have a happier, healthier autobiography. I felt responsible for the quality of their experience.
It never occurred to me to wonder about my own narrative. I defined myself solely through the eyes of others. Living in such a way was intolerably confusing. I was useless. I excelled. I was too smart. I wasn’t smart enough. I was too dramatic. I was too stoic. I was a quitter who lacked ambition. My interests and ambitions were ridiculous. I was selfish and cold. I was generous and kind. I interrupted others. I held space for others. I was loyal. I was disloyal. I was a good ___. I was a bad ___.
As I entered my 50s, I knew a great deal about what others thought of me, but I didn’t think much about myself. There was no me independent of the perceptions of others.
I read somewhere other people, even those closest to us, can only see the shadow of who we really are. When our choices, feelings, thoughts, and expressions are attacked, that shadow is the target, not our true selves. The shadow we cast in the world and in the tales of others is a fuzzy, one-dimensional, monochrome shape created by the perceptions, expectations, and experiences of other people. A shadow is not and can never be an accurate representation of a human being.
As a writer, I’m familiar with the process of developing a character. A well-drawn character is not a senseless jumble of contradictions, but a being with his or her own logic and behavioral patterns. A strong character may have ambivalent or confused aspects, and certainly will have attractive or sympathetic as well unattractive or unsympathetic attributes, but it’s the writer’s job to create a cohesive personality that’s logically predictable, even if profoundly disordered.
A vital character will at some point leave the page and enter my dreams, whisper in my ear, and begin to direct his or her own role in my story.
The only time in life we have this measure of power in story is when we’re creating our own narrative about our own life.
Once we absorb that fact, everything changes. We move from being disempowered and captive to everyone else’s expectations and opinions about who we are to standing in our own power to fully express ourselves regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. We move from weakness and irresponsibility with regard to ourselves into self-discipline and responsibility for our lives and choices.
We begin to intentionally write the story of our own lives.
Life conspires a hundred times a day to distract us from what is ours. Our love and care for others can quickly turn us away from our story and into theirs. Video games, movies and headlines clamor for our imagination, sympathy, attention, and outrage. We are trained to believe everyone has a better or more valid life experience than we do. All that energy is lost, energy we gave away instead of investing it in our own story.
It’s interesting and amusing to think about shadows. If others can only see the shadow I cast, it follows I see only the shadow they cast. Why, then, am I investing energy into nothing more than shadows? Is it useful to get deeply enmeshed in our perceptions of the experience of others? Do we have the power to force others to use us as specific kinds of characters in their stories? Do we have the power to write a single word of anyone else’s story, no matter how closely connected we feel to them or how deeply we love them?
If I go out in the world and actively criticize and judge or praise and support others, that’s material for my story, not theirs. At best, I can only see their shadow. I can’t possibly know the entirety of their narrative and experience.
If I am criticized and judged, or praised and supported, I can choose what to do with that feedback, retain it or delete it. I can change settings and get rid of characters. I can emphasize some elements and deemphasize others. I can have adventures, trials, and tribulations. I can follow paths that catch my interest or compel me. I can make choices and deal with the consequences. Only I can decide what my story is.
Interestingly, this idea of writing one’s own account intersects with the practice of minimalism. So many of our possessions are props for various stories. There are the stories we wish were ours, the stories we hope will be ours, the outdated stories that once were ours but now have changed, the stories we want others to believe about us, the stories of others who are no longer with us, and the stories others say should be ours. Somewhere in the hairball is the true thread, the simple narrative that is ours right now. The only one we have. The only one we can write. Everything else is clutter, noise, and distraction.
Stories are for telling, sharing, inspiring, and learning from. My life is enriched beyond measure by the stories of those around me, and I’m honored to be able to share them. I’m also honored to add mine to the mix. I can’t write yours, and you can’t write mine, but we can listen, and witness, and bless the stories of others with our presence and attention.
I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread running vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.
Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.
As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.
This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.
My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breathe and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.
In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.
We all have access to this deep life, but it seems the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.
To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.
Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. In that deep space I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.
I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.
This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.
James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.
The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.
The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.