The Many, the Few, the Stuff

Is there a lot or a little?

Who has it?

These are the basic questions of how we struggle and endure on this pale blue dot. As flesh-and-blood creatures, humans are dependent on all kinds of stuff for our basic survival. Food and water, soaps and medicines, walls and roofs, clothes and shoes. We’re also dependent on other flesh-and-blood humans. To get, give, and exchange stuff with. To nurture us and teach us. For communication and community. For friendship and love.

Our existence is thoroughly material. Stuff and people. Things and bodies. We can only survive by sheer will for so long before we must sip water and chew food. If you left a newborn by itself, it wouldn’t make it very long without nourishment and the protective care of a guardian.

Loneliness at any age is disorienting and dispiriting. We are wired for touch, talk, and relationships. Poverty and homelessness are agonizing and imperiling. Everyone needs a baseline of stuff to protect and care for their body, and a safe place to rest and call home.

Whether there’s a lot or a little, and if it’s evenly distributed or held by just a few, make a significant difference in the quality of our lives and how much struggle it takes to get by. If there is abundance & equality, it’s much easier for everyone to meet their bodily needs and move beyond surviving to thriving. If there is scarcity & inequality, we’re much more likely to come to blows with neighbors or a police state, to have fewer trusting and supportive relationships, to scapegoat others for the lack of stuff or its uneven distribution, and to claw and scrape just to make it another day. Abundance & equality is the future we should fight for. Scarcity & inequality may be the future we end up with.

Today, we’re faced with abundance & inequality, but the kind of abundance there is can’t last forever. We extract, process, and ship far more than the planet can support and renew. It’s overabundance. And yet, much of the bounty is wasted–while too many needlessly go hungry or lack other stuff all humans need and deserve.

Even in the allegedly best and richest country in history, the average American struggles to cover their needs paycheck-to-paycheck, while the Few in the upper class makes tens or hundreds of times more and fortress themselves with excess. The inequality between the Many and the Few is stark and ingrained.

Even amongst the struggle of the Many, some have a much harder time of it than others. In a society with a patriarchal, white racial frame, being black or brown or a woman frequently adds additional obstacles to meeting material needs. Individual people have an individual experience within the broader tug-of-war between the Many and the Few. We need to pay attention as each person points out the intersecting injustices they encounter simply for being who they are.

To have a future of (sustainable) abundance shared equally, there’s a lot of work to do. Protesting and pressuring the Few. Voting better people into office. Imagining better futures. Right now, there’s more stuff out there than the planet can support, with an elite Few controlling and enjoying most of the overabundance. This isn’t coincidence. It’s the long-term result of extracting, storing, and selling stuff without laws and distribution channels that ensure everyone’s needs are met. The result of pursuing more and more, without reasonable restrictions to prevent a small group of people from ending up with it all–and wrecking the Earth along the way.

It’s immoral and insane—making the lives of the Many much more difficult than they should be. There’s solidarity to be found in the universals of our material struggle. If we can achieve that solidarity, we can start building a different, humane arrangement of stuff that gives everyone a chance to thrive.

How (Not) to Apologize

People make mistakes. That’s not an earth-shattering observation. But it’s important to remember. People trip and fall and attempt boneheaded stunts that end up on YouTube. Some people drink too much and make an ass of themselves. Others confidently assert they know something and are quickly proven wrong.

When you don’t know how to cook, there’s an assortment of (sometimes dangerous) mixups and missteps. Maybe you’ve scored on your own team in a game. Hit the road with only a drop of gas left in the tank. Spilled food on your shirt.

We all make mistakes. Many of them are hilarious and become good stories.

There’s another kind of mistake, and they aren’t funny. They don’t always have happy endings. These are the mistakes that hurt other people. Emotionally. Physically. They damage someone else’s sense of self and their outlook on life.

We all make these mistakes, too. Unlike the ones where we make a fool of ourselves and joke about it later, mistakes that hurt people aren’t something we like to take credit for. When you screw up in ways that hurt someone, you can experience a whirlwind of shame, guilt, denial, anger, sadness, and more. You know you blew it, but you’d rather find other causes to blame. You know you should apologize, but that means admitting you messed up.

Many of us get around this by saying something that seems like an apology but isn’t. You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m sorry, but…” That but is a wrecking ball. They almost owned their mistake, and then smashed it to the ground with qualification and rationalization. “I’m sorry I blew up in your face, but you were being a pain in the ass.” Not an apology. Not gonna go anywhere good.

Or maybe you’ve said, “I’m sorry if…” “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” If? What’s that doing there? If can be just as destructive as but. It makes the other person question whether they were actually hurt or not. Are my feelings hurt? Was it really that bad or a big deal? Am I’m being too hard on the person who hurt me? If is a conditional thing–muddying the waters of certainty. “I’m sorry if…(but maybe that’s not the case and I’m off the hook)”. It’s a doubt-sowing non-apology.

How about an “I’m sorry you feel that way”? Ever tried to sneak that past someone? It’s some not-so-clever blame shifting. It looks like an apology on the surface. But it’s really you saying you acted perfectly fine and for some (inexplicable) reason, the other person is going through some emotions about it. I don’t know why you’re all worked up about it, but hey–I’m sorry you feel that way.

In a real apology, you own your mistake and what it did to the other person. Nothing more, nothing less. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions. No qualifications, no muddying the waters, no blame-shifting. Say what you did, and be open-minded and curious about what they’re going through because of it. Someone who’s hurt wants you to get what they’re feeling and care about it. An unqualified “I’m sorry that I…” can open the space for that connection to happen.

In a real apology, both people are validated in the process. The person you hurt is affirmed and cared for. You, the mistake-maker, show that you’re trying to be objective and accept your human shortcomings. And that you respect your relationship enough to make things right. Real apologies create the potential for healing instead of hurts that smolder. And give relationships strength and a future instead of enlarging the animosity and space between you.

We’re all human. Making mistakes is in our DNA. If you screw up and hurt someone, own it and actually apologize. We need more healed relationships in the world.

 

Your Improvising Imagination

You have a remarkable imagination. Did you know? Imagination isn’t limited to the small percentage of humans that design rides at Disneyland or write bestselling novels. We all rely on the flexibility, keenness, and creativity of our imagination to make it through the day. Arranging and rearranging your schedule to get everything done. Mentally rehearsing how a conversation with a significant other will go. Planning a dish to cook that will fit in at a friend’s potluck (and thinking through the process of getting the ingredients and preparing it).

You are also a remarkable improviser. Improvisation can conjure images of a jazz musician effortlessly writing a melody on the fly or a comedian bringing the house down with jokes seemingly pulled out of thin air. But improvisation doesn’t require artists, stages, and audiences. We improvise in conversations with other people, in making our way through the surprises and challenges of parenting a child, while navigating the flow of highway traffic, and in getting a group of co-workers to complete a project.

All human beings, all the time, imagine and improvise. The two powers are inextricably linked. We each have an “improvising imagination” to creatively achieve the things we need to do and want to do. Stephen T. Asma’s illuminating and enjoyable book, The Evolution of Imagination, is all about how our improvising imagination works, how we got it, and how culture is shaped by it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in awhile.

After years and years of evolution, human beings now have a rich mental space–what Asma calls a “second universe.” The early human adaptations of anticipation and mimicry became layered with emotion and image-making, which became layered with language and self-consciousness. The second universe we now enjoy is a robust “environment of possibilities that exists concurrently with the stubborn physical world.” In it, we can run virtual simulations of the real world “offline.” What we want to say in an upcoming job interview. How the half-marathon this weekend is going to go. How we would have written the plot of the movie we just watched a little differently.

Our second universe is also a “repository of adaptive behavioral responses.” As we experience and learn while we grow, we come to acquire habits, information, and patterns that we can draw from. Chess players study an endless variety of moves–creating a mental encyclopedia of plays to watch for and use in a current game. Musicians and composers internalize scales, rhythms, and patterns of melody and harmony so that they have a rich foundation when performing and writing. All humans develop social cliches for small talk, attending meetings and concerts, and waiting in lines.

And the second universe is a sort of playground. It’s a space in which we daydream. Construct words, notes, and ingredients into stories, songs, and recipes of our own. Envision that we’re on the street in a place we want to travel. Play around with ideas and see how they fit together.

The mythological idea of imagination is wild flashes of originality as if from the heavens or a muse, or discovered in a state of ecstasy. But most of the time, imagination is a patient and deliberate process of trying, examining, and moving things around in the second universe of our minds. A process of taking perceptions, memories, ideas, images, and feelings, and making small tweaks and combinations of those existing things to create something new. If you deconstruct a favorite movie or song, you’ll likely discover it’s a clever blend of a handful that already existed.

Asma refers to this patient and deliberate use of our imagination as cold cognition. It has the benefit of time and conscious attention to run through simulations and new possibilities. Then reflection and revisions and reruns, on and on. Improvisation, on the other hand, is hot cognition. It’s reactive, instinctive, voluntary. In full-blown improvisation, you are simultaneously “composing and performing.” You don’t have the benefit of time to patiently think through several possibilities in your second universe, or stop halfway through the “performance” and start over.

In the most common improvisational situation, a conversation, once you say something the cat’s out of the bag. An insult, poor word choice, or incoherent sentence can’t be sucked back into your vocal chords. But by the nature of conversation, you also can’t leave the other person hanging for five minutes while you come up with the perfect next sentence. This is why conversations–depending on who it’s with and what it’s about–can be intimidating, stressful, and confusing. You have to rely on the repository of your second universe for facts about the person that will cater the conversation to them, cliched sentences you can modify for the moment, and shapes of previous conversations that you know had a good beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, you’re watching, feeling, and interpreting the verbal and non-verbal response of the other person. It tells you how your message went over and where to go next.

In a mostly involuntary and unpredictable way, when you’re in a conversation, you’re spitting out sentences with little or no time to form and revise them before they’re said. And then the other person responds and you–again, mostly involuntarily–interpret and analyze and say another thing. Back and forth, instinctively drawing from your second universe and absorbing feedback, until the conversation over. A conversation seems simple but is pretty damn impressive.

Our improvising imagination is what enabled human beings to survive over thousands of years and become the complex, creative people we are today. Some researchers think our biggest brain expansion occurred in the face of past climate change and the dynamic landscapes our ancestors found themselves in. “Reality is messy, always changing, open-ended, and relentlessly coming at you at hot speed.” We need hot and cold cognition to be able to survive and make it through the many situations and challenges we’re presented with every day.

Our improvising imagination has also opened up space to play and explore and seek understanding. It has given humanity everything from amazing films to Michelin-starred restaurants to inspiring attempts at describing the meaning of life. We all have tremendous capacity in our second universe for need and play. Whether it’s a conversation or something center stage, enjoy the adaptive creativity you have, and see where your imagination can take you.

Dunkirk

I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.

Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.

Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.

(Spoilers Ahead)

By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.

The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.

Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.

Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.

War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.

But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.

Internet Brain

“When we go online,

we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,

man working on the smartphone in sunny day

hurried and distracted thinking,

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and superficial learning.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Internet culture and the Internet itself are now so ubiquitous that you may not even think of life as being separated into online and offline. If you have a smartphone (and the odds are good that you do), you probably keep it in a pocket or bag–somewhere very close to your body–throughout the day. And overnight, too, lots of us will keep it on a bedside table or right on the mattress or pillow we’re sleeping on.

Even if you’re not actively using your phone, you could receive a text, social media notification, or some other message at any time because it is always connected. It could, of course, lose the signal. But there’s a good chance you’ll see that as a frustration rather than a benefit. I try to be judicious about my phone usage, but I found myself annoyed on a recent camping trip when I couldn’t post to Instagram without any signal at the campsite.

Even if you don’t have a phone or don’t have it on you, you’re likely surrounded by an expanding array of networked things. Everything from fridges to things that we wear to shops and theme parks are becoming more connected in some form or another. Whether cyberspace is taking over the real world, or the real world is diving into cyberspace, we are now thoroughly immersed.

As someone who can remember life pre-Internet (I’m old…ish), it’s crazy to think how quickly and thoroughly things have changed. How natural it feels now to be connected all the time. Most of us could not function without it–whether for the demands and obligations of work or school, or for the more pleasurable things like entertainment, relationships, and staying in the know so you’re not missing out. Constant connectivity, and our reliance on it, has become a way of life.

But because of the dramatic and comprehensive saturation, we should take time to examine the kinds of things it might be doing to us that we’re not immediately aware of. Specifically, how it shapes the way we think, feel, and act. Our brains are the epicenter of concentration, emotion, intelligence, and imagination. We better make sure that anything influencing our brain function–Internet or otherwise–isn’t hampering our ability to be ourselves and be fully human. A person is not just a brain but a fully embodied creature embedded in society. Any changes to our brain will shape how we act with other people and move and breathe in the world.

In some ways, heavy use and reliance on the Internet have boosted our mental and relational powers. Rapid communication and new ways of speaking (emoji, GIFs, memes, and short videos), the way we share stories and experiences, quickly finding information, surrounding ourselves with diverse points of view, and certain improvements in abstract thinking and visual-spatial skills.

But the Internet doesn’t just boost and supplement what we can already do. It also shapes us in its image. Our brains have what’s called neuroplasticity–they adapt and rewire themselves based on what we subject them to. In Internet immersion, our brains start to resemble the things that typify the web.

A preference for the short and sweet–the informal and immediate–because that’s how tweets, texts, and other notifications are packaged. An attention span that defaults to skimming the surface because it’s acclimated to scrolling and swiping with few pauses. Extreme multitasking and information overload that mirrors the bustle of several apps, windows, and tabs all in play at the same time. A reliance on servers for memory rather than our own mind because it’s easier to offshore it. And a reliance on links and searches in a browser to move between ideas rather than an internalized understanding of what’s true and how it’s interrelated with other things.

Kind of a big deal. Maybe you notice these things about yourself, maybe not. But if you’re using your phone or some other kind of device for hours a day, this is the kind of shaping and reshaping that’s happening. For all the perks connectivity brings, we’re at the same time being rewired in some concerning ways.  “The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” We are losing a centered, integrated sense of calm, attention, and deep thinking.

So what do we do? Few of us can disconnect completely. But you should disconnect when you can. You’ll crave connectivity–at a visceral level–so this isn’t easy. Once it’s conditioned, your brain is waiting for the sweet neurochemical hit of a notification and the habitual frenzy of swiping through apps. But carving out some time to not be connected or near a device can help you get back to a better baseline. Maybe try things like no Facebook days or setting a timer for how long you’ll allow yourself to wander through messages and pages. Keep your phone in another room when you go to bed. Maybe that sounds lame or laughable. I get it. You’ll have to figure out what works for you.

Spend some time doing activities that encourage focused attention and long, deep thought. Things like reading, writing, painting, cooking, listening to music (where you focus only on the music). They’ve been a part of the human experience for a long time because of the individual and cultural benefits they bring. They can be a strong counterbalance to the scattering effects of the Internet.

And get outside. Since connectivity is there at every turn, a change of scenery and the restorative benefits of nature can be especially vital. You may find yourself without any signal to connect to at all, and hopefully you’ll see it as a godsend rather than an annoyance like I did.

Internet brain is the standard model we’re all conforming to. The struggles and limitations that result from being constantly connected outweigh the perks. We can reduce the struggles and limitations by taking time to disconnect, diving into things that take the neuroplasticity of our brains in welcome directions, and immerse ourselves in nature. The more connected we become, the more the Internet will continue to shape us. But we can choose to make it one among many things shaping us, rather than the predominant force guiding how we live.

Listen to Your Body

Whenever I haven’t worked out for a week or two, I can feel my heart beating a little harder when I lay down at night. There’s a bigger rhythmic thud in my chest. And if I have an ear buried in the pillow I can hear and feel my pulse in my head more than usual. A more noticeable heartbeat and pulse have become a clear signal that I need to get back to exercising regularly. If I’ve been lazy, or have lost track about how long it’s actually been since the last time, I’m more aware now of ways my body is telling me where I’m at.

Perhaps you get similar messages. From your heart or the tightness of your chest. Jitteriness, shortness of breath, or a general feeling of anxiety. Aching muscles and tendons. Rumbling and popping in your digestive system. Difficulty getting your mind to focus on more than simple, short things. Headaches and bags under your eyes. The color of your pee and the (ab)normality of your poop. (Yeah…poop. You know about the Bristol stool scale, right?)

All of these things–and more–are signals of how your body is doing and what needs attention. How near or far you are to being balanced and healthy. The fewer, more regular signals you have, the more likely you are well off. If every inch of your body hurts, or you feel like you could close your eyes and pass out, you need to slow down and heal.

The signals are not always easy to detect or interpret. Maybe you don’t feel something until you turn a certain way or lie down. Some signals can be unfamiliar until you look into it a little more. You need to do a bit of Googling or ask professionals what’s going on–while making sure you keep cyberchondria in check. Other signals you only begin to pick up on clearly when you do some kind of mindfulness or meditative practice that gets you more in tune with yourself. Things like stress, worry, or sleep deprivation can drown signals out completely.

The causes behind the signals are not always obvious either. Am I short of breath because I’m out of shape? Because I’m at a different altitude than usual? Because I forgot to eat before I had coffee? Because I freaked the hell out when I thought I saw a giant spider 20 minutes ago?

But even asking such probing questions at all is a revealing and meaningful start. Ultimately, the signals are there so we can do something about what we’ve put our body through. The food and drink that goes in, the sleep and rest we make time for, the stressors we’re being bombarded with, and the things in the environment around us that are impinging on our cells. The signals have a source, and if we can identify the cause then we know what to change or adjust to find balance again. Emotions are their own special kind of signal, often revealing where we’re at with our relationships and attachments.

Every so often, I get lightheaded and have a harder time concentrating and spitting sentences out. I put it together a while back that it happens when I didn’t eat a big enough meal or the right combination of food. In those instances, I need to stop what I’m doing and find some applesauce or a handful of gummy bears. After that, I can feel my energy and focus come back online, like WALL-E after soaking up the sun’s rays. I’m glad I’ve got that signal figured out now.

So listen to your body. Try to be aware of the signals it’s sending, and figure out what’s causing them. We’re all meant to have balance, energy, strength, and focus. Homeostasis. Listening to your body will help you understand what you need to do to get there.

How to Be Outside

In 2014, a United Nations study revealed that for the first time more people live in cities than in the country. Humans have officially become an urban creature, with an increasing number living near city centers every day. Many of us are more familiar with sirens, subways, and smog than the deep woods, open plains, or desert.

Like anyone anywhere else, city-dwellers acclimate to their surroundings. The pace of life, the smells, the organization and interrelationship of streets and buildings, the sounds, the dialect, the level of optimism, and the rest. Much of it becomes so ingrained and habitual that it’s unconscious. This is the way things are. This is the way the world works. But the gradual fading of awareness to surroundings does not mean they don’t have a significant impact.

We’re only beginning to understand what things like traffic, pollution, and frenetic days of production and consumption do to us biologically. Sometimes, we’ll get a clear signal from our bodies that we need more rest, less stimulation, cleaner air, less noise, or other conditions that will allow us to return to homeostasis. We know that somewhere out there–5 miles or 500 miles–we could be in greener and freer places. In a bit of fresh air that might clear our minds and blow away the accumulation of stress and urban artifice. Not everyone is an outdoors person or longs to get away from the city. But the woods and plains and desert represent a kind of Eden that we could return to and find rejuvenation if we wanted.

The trouble is a lot of us don’t know how to be outside. Even if we choose to go there. The city clings onto us as we venture miles away, with smartphones acting as a tether and transporter no matter how far we travel. The forces of the city that have shaped urbanites often causes them to–at least initially–continue to act like they’re in the city when they’re in the midst of the outdoors. Anxious activity and reactivity, big speakers and constant out-loud commentary, and an expectation for comforting amenities of every kind. It overruns cabins, campsites, and hiking trails.

Unless you consciously try to let the outdoors act on you instead of you acting on it, there’s a good chance that most of the reason to get outside will be lost. You can even ruin the outdoors itself in the process. A littered plastic bottle in a random bush along a trail seems much more out of place than one on the sidewalk on Main St. We know in our bones that the outdoors is relatively pristine and elemental (without trash here and there), which should be a reminder that its benefits are available to us if we’re able to get out of our own way.

Even a short time in a natural setting can be incredibly invigorating and restorative. Better mood. Clearer vision. Easier breathing. Lower cortisol and overall stress. A more open and focused mind. A natural high (aerosols from forests of evergreens act as a mild sedative).

So let the outdoors tell you how to be there and do to you as it will. Do what you can to leave things as they are, rather than bringing in all kinds of gear and imposition. Let the outdoors make the sounds instead of your voice and streaming music, and let your ears tune into what’s there. Let your eyes relax and adjust so they can see things in ways other than what the pixelated light of a smartphone presents. And try to learn to be OK with the unexpected (while making sure you’re safe, obviously). An outdoor environment will present you with a whole variety of things you didn’t see coming, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not always in control and able to predict what happens next. Something near a campsite or just around the corner of the trail may uplift you and stick with you for a long time.

It can be awkward and a little unsettling to be outside if you’re not doing it often. And it’s natural to carry with us what we’re used to–needing time and reminders to break out of it. Knowing that it’s restorative and rewarding to be outdoors, we can all learn how to do it a little better for the benefit of ourselves and the places we visit.

Patreon!

Hey there! I wanted to share a bit of news. Upgraded Humans is now on Patreon! Patreon is an easy way to support creators of all kinds. In particular, my writing.

Each month, you can back Upgraded Humans at the tier of your choice, and in return, you’ll be able to get new posts before anyone else, Subscriber-only posts, and hopefully some other surprises along the way.

I want to be able to give you better stuff more often, and your support on Patreon will help me do just that.

If you’ve read things on Upgraded Humans that you found interesting or inspiring or frustrating but you kept reading anyway, please check out patreon.com/upgradedhumans and consider becoming a Supporter or Subscriber. Thank you!

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You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

Some Order in the Chaos

I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I sense that many people think the world works something like this:

If you do good, good things will happen to you.

If you do bad, bad things will happen to you.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are will determine how well or arduously your life goes.

In other words, people reap what they sow. If good things are happening to you, it’s because you did good things. If something bad happened to you, it’s a result of something bad you did. Powerful people are powerful because of the good that they do. Poor people are poor because of the bad decisions they’ve made. Etcetera, etcetera.

But in reality, things frequently go like this:

Bad things happen to people who do good.

Good things happen to people who do bad.

The way that you act and the kind of person you are seems to have little bearing on the enjoyment or difficulties that come your way.

A power-hungry asshole gets the job instead of you–the more intelligent, empathetic person. A benevolent doctor has a career-ending stroke. The corrupt businessman gets a bonus larger than you and fifteen other people will make in your combined lifetimes. You give everything to your significant other, and they leave you for someone else. Things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy–injury, illness, loss–strike all kinds of people around you.

The only discernible law about how things work is that no matter what kind of person you are, a number of good and bad things will happen to you without much rhyme or reason. Life is frequently unfair. The world is not perfectly karmic. Beautiful, awesome, rewarding things happen. But so do tragic, painful, gut-wrenching things. Sometimes, it’s because of your choices and actions. Other times, it’s pure happenstance. A meaningful and enjoyable life has a lot of luck involved.

So does that mean we should all give up on trying to be better people? If so much is coincidental, shouldn’t we just take as much as we can for ourselves and let other people fend for themselves?

I think it’s actually the opposite. With so much of what makes our lives enjoyable or difficult outside of our control, what we should do is collectively try to bring a little bit of order to the chaos.

We should think about what we can do…

To create support structures that alleviate each other’s suffering and misfortune.

To establish more accountability and transparency–especially with institutions and positions of power.

To ensure that the most vulnerable people have the same basic standard of living as everyone else.

To take care of our mental and physical health so we’re more resilient in the face of adversity.

To be more kind and patient with one another–knowing that each of us is probably struggling through something we didn’t ask for.

How the world works isn’t regularly what we expect or want. It’s up to us to come together and do what we can to make things more just, humane, and enjoyable for everyone.