A week before Christmas, this from Joshua Fields Millburn came to my Inbox. Then, a couple of days later, I read this edgy piece by Tina Lear about erasing our future.
I’ve been thinking about these two pieces of writing as I clean out cupboards, pack, and work on finding a temporary storage unit to help smooth the process of moving house.
To outsource is to obtain something from an outside source. I loved Millburn’s article about outsourcing our happiness because I’ve noticed this, too. We outsource our success. We outsource our sense of style and beauty. We outsource our power in all kinds of ways. We don’t even notice we’re doing it most of the time. What it really amounts to is permanently putting ourselves behind bars.
I had an interaction recently at work that perfectly illustrated outsourcing our power. It was the end of a 10-hour day. I was tired. We were trying to close the pool, which requires several complicated chemical and maintenance tasks. We had some late swimmers we were working around. A woman walked in asking for information about joining. I launched into our well-rehearsed spiel about paperwork, reservations, COVID precautions, and our policies and procedures.
Our population is mostly elderly, and this woman was grey-haired. There’s a lot of information to absorb, and we’re used to people being confused or anxious and needing to ask several questions. We can also anticipate problems with filling out the paperwork correctly, so we show newcomers all the places they’ll need to sign, date, and initial.
She interrupted me abruptly in midflow, saying she was busy and didn’t have time for all this. She didn’t smile. I shut up, handed her the paperwork, and thanked her for coming by. She left and I went back to what I had been doing. I was busy, too.
A half an hour later, on the way home, I realized I was upset. I went back over the interaction to figure out where it had gone wrong. I rarely have interactions like this. I’m usually good with people. Had I said or done something wrong? Had I been impatient or unhelpful or unpleasant in some way?
All at once, I felt as though I’d had a “bad” day at work. I’d screwed it up. It hadn’t gone well.
I realized, of course, it wasn’t about me. This woman is a stranger. She doesn’t know me well enough to dislike me. I knew I was being oversensitive and I let it go.
She came in a few days later to swim, which means she took her mask off. I recognized her immediately, though she took no notice of me. I watched her as I guarded and noted, once again, how attractive she is. I also noticed how sad she looked. She’s got beautiful bone structure, but she has an air of iron self-control and her face in repose as she enjoyed the warm therapy pool was stoic, her mouth secretive and folded in upon itself. She looks as though she’s suffered in her life, and is determined to bear it with dignity.
It takes one to know one, I thought to myself.
That thirty seconds of interaction with a stranger tilted my whole day. In a moment, I lost my sense of competence and confidence. One interaction erased all the dozens of positive interactions I had and all the things I did right over my 10-hour shift and before.
This is outsourcing our satisfaction and happiness with ourselves and our lives. It puts our power outside us, into the hands of someone else. It doesn’t matter if the someone else is a loved one or stranger.
The second article, by Tina Lear, suggests we consider erasing our stories about the future. She’s coming at it from a minimalist perspective. She realized she was keeping lots of things “in case.” In case collapse comes. In case the power grid fails. In case we suddenly become different people. In case we lose weight. In case things come back into fashion. In case we suddenly love doing something we’ve already tried doing and didn’t love.
This is a big one for me. I always want to be prepared for anything. If I’d had the money and focus, I’d have been a prepper.
I don’t think being prepared is bad. Not at all. In fact, my partner and I are having considerable friction right now around preparing to move. I want to do a little cleaning, a little packing, a little organizing every day. He’s not interested. He won’t be interested until his back is against the wall and then he’ll begin taking action. I can’t work that way. He drives me nuts. He thinks I’m exhausting myself for no reason.
Aren’t relationships fun?
Anyway, Lear is right. When is the future ever what we think it will be? We can’t prepare for all eventualities. (Didn’t I just write something about leaping?) What we can do is be sure we don’t outsource our happiness, our confidence, our sense of self. We can be on our own side. We can validate ourselves and cheer ourselves on when we need it. We can love ourselves, even in the moments when it seems no one else does. Especially in the moments when it seems no one else does.
We can stop scaring ourselves with stories about what might happen in the future and trust we’ll survive and thrive, no matter what does happen, because we haven’t outsourced our happiness, our confidence, or our competence. We may have discarded something we suddenly need, but how serious is that, really? We can buy another. We can borrow it. We can use something else. The sky won’t fall. We’ll figure it out.
Life will go on. Let us be in charge of our own lives rather than outsourcing them to someone else.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves. Sometimes we do it out of misguided compassion.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
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 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 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 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 acknowledging and even honoring differences within a framework of checks and balances so 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?