Familiar and New

Have you seen a movie recently? Heard a song? Would you describe it as original, or did it have echoes of other movies or other songs?

Everything around us is some kind of mixture of familiar and new. Things we recognize, and things we’re coming across for the first time. Ideas, people, experiences, sensations, places, and ways of seeing the world you already resonate with. And ones you’ve just encountered and aren’t sure about.

We each look for a desirable blend of familiar and new, whether we think of it in those terms or not. Yours is different than mine, which is different than hers. Familiarity makes us feel at home, safe, and comfortable. New things are often exotic, enticing, and compelling–though sometimes strange, distasteful, or just wrong. Being exposed to things that you never have before stretches you as a person, whether you come to see them as interesting and good or not.

The balance is regularly strained. Too much novelty can lead to overstimulation or feeling overwhelmed. My brain hurts. Slow down. That’s too much, too far, too different. At the same time, too much familiarity can result in boredom, feeling stuck, or narrow-mindedness.

When we think about the music people listen to, most of us don’t want a bunch of things we’ve never heard. We play songs we know and have an emotional connection to. Songs that you can sing along with, dance with, cry with–with a new single or album thrown in from time to time.

A similar thing is true of movies. There seem to be more sequels and remakes all the time–revisiting and remixing familiar story worlds. They take audiences back to something they already have a connection with while adding characters, places, and themes that expand that world a bit. Sequels are all about finding the perfect balance of familiar and new. Some are much more successful than others.

The tension of familiar and new is at the heart of politics. For some people, new policies, new ways of talking about the common good, and new coverages and rights are rejected as radically other—even if they would directly improve their own lives. They make a case to keep things exactly as they are–or even to go back to some supposed golden age (which usually wasn’t super golden for everyone). The political status quo is a comfortable retreat in the face of a to-be-determined future.

The thing is, none of us are meant to stay the same. We’re not meant to live in the past and the comfort of how things have always been. We need a core of familiarity so that we have a sense of self and of home. But we also need to be challenged with new things. It’s what makes you more engaged, more interesting, and more interested.

Even now, much of what is familiar to you was once brand new. You’re more open-minded and growing as a person than you might realize. Have you always thought the way you do? Eat the things you eat? Spend time with the people you spend time with? Take care of yourself the way you do self-care?

Much of what seems new and novel today–and perhaps overwhelming–will tomorrow become familiar. And then you’ll be ready to be challenged and grow some more. New things and ideas and relationships–without breaking your brain or feeling lost and untethered.

What’s familiar and what’s new to you is always changing. Life pushes and pulls you forward. It doesn’t do you or the people around you any good to guard yourself with familiarity. Know what’s home and what makes you, you–and get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

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.

This Week in Upgrades: October 31

Hello, friends! How’s life? How was your October? How is the month already over? Sheesh.

Are you a big Halloween person? If I’m honest, I’m really not. Give me a Harry Potter rewatch or It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a few pieces of fun size candy (keep the candy corn as far away as possible), and a cool fall breeze. Perfect. Yes, I am old.

If you partied it up all weekend or have an awesome costume for today, more power to you. You’re wearing something tasteful, right?

This week had some interesting things beyond the Halloween shenanigans.

Tesla unveiled beautiful solar shingles. “Check out this sweet roof.”

If you like the tang of sour candy, you may be into sour beers. Here’s a great guide to get you started.

Cast iron pans can be intimidating, but this video makes it simple.

Is it “affect” or “effect?”

Listening to Ralph Nader interviewing Noam Chomsky will make you a lot smarter in one hour.

24 countries and the EU have collaborated to create the largest marine sanctuary in “the last great wilderness on Earth.” Well done.

At the same time, we just found out that worldwide wildlife populations have dropped almost 60% since 1970. Holy wow…

Everyone should join in with the Native Americans at Standing Rock.

 

This Mess

How are you feeling? Are you managing your week OK?

How’s your job? Is it what you like to do? Do you get along with your boss? Do you make enough to pay for the things you need?

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating well? Are you spending quality time with the people you care about?

Did you watch the first presidential debate? How do you feel about the country’s future?

How do you feel about your future?

These are pretty crazy times we’re living in. The present often seems crazy because of the unpredictability of the near future. Things could go many different ways, and so that leaves a sort of unsettling, up-in-the-air feeling in our gut. Is it going to turn out OK? Am I going to be OK?

By all measures, we’re at one of the most significant crossroads in human history. The most recent climate math tells us that “if we’re serious about preventing catastrophic warming…we can’t dig any new coal mines, drill any new fields, build any more pipelines. Not a single one. We’re done expanding the fossil fuel frontier. Our only hope is a swift, managed decline in the production of all carbon-based energy from the fields we’ve already put in production.” If we want to maintain a hospitable planet, we have to end our failed fossil fuel experiment now.

Beyond our worsening environmental tragedy, the integrity of American society has been stretched thin and perforated with a number of other tragedies. Unlivable wages. Excessive use of force. Invasion of privacy. Expensive, endless, destabilizing warfare. Crumbling infrastructure. Disturbing immigration and profiling practices. And those are just the most obvious.

If you tuned into Monday’s debate to hear what the Republican and Democratic candidates are going to do about all of this you were probably deeply disappointed. Instead of 90 minutes of rigorous, nuanced policy discussion on even one of these tragedies–climate, wages, immigration, or otherwise–the American public was given a front-row seat to two adult human beings–one of whom will be the next president–relive their grade-school days with petty zingers and disdainful deflections.

It is the absolute lowest-hanging fruit to vent about Donald Trump’s vulgarity. A five-year-old could tell you he’s an absurd, self-centered blowhard who should never be president. The endless hot takes saying as much aren’t clever or engaging.

It’s not nearly as obvious to many people that Hillary Clinton is right there with Trump as a historically unfavorable presidential candidate. When given an opportunity to outline a compelling vision for America at the debates, Clinton directed the audience to her website and recently published book Stronger Together, which has struggled to sell more than a few thousand copies. This country is in need of something other than the status quo. Many anticipate she will maintain that status quo, and no one is buying into it–literally or figuratively.

When earlier this year Clinton went back-and-forth with Bernie Sanders in an illuminating centrism-versus-progressivism debate, she now spends most of her campaigning pointing out that she’s not Donald Trump. Is that supposed to be impressive? There are millions of people who would be a better president than Donald Trump. We know he’s prone to things like body-shaming women. We know he’s said climate change is a hoax. We know he has shady business practices.

What does Hillary Clinton have to say to the millions of people working low-wage service jobs with more to pay for than they can afford?

What will she do for young people who think the entire free market economic arrangement is bullshit and are wondering how they’re ever going to find a modicum of success and stability in their decades of adulthood?

If she becomes president, why should anyone trust that she’ll do what needs to be done to restore the climate when she sold fracking–one of the most environmentally destructive practices–to the rest of the world as Secretary of State?

Why should anyone trust she will bring about peace and an end to intervention in other countries when she has an established history of warmongering?

How does her longstanding belief in child deportations make her more fair and empathetic on immigration?

Clinton will probably win–merely on the incredibly weak basis that she isn’t Trump and that he may not even be trying to win. It will be an uninspiring end to an uninspiring election. Either way, we’re faced with terrible choices for our next president.

So what do we do?

Do we throw our arms up and cry? I definitely felt that way after about 20 minutes of this first debate. What a sad situation that these are the two plausible choices we’ve been left with. Disengagement feels like a natural route to take–though not one that can be expected to change anything.

Do we bite the bullet and cast a lukewarm vote for Clinton? After all, haven’t our presidential elections been mostly a lesser-of-two-evils choice for a while now? Clinton-Trump looks like the worst instance of it yet, with Clinton only slightly “less evil” than Trump on aggregate.

Do we look to third parties and cast a vote for a candidate possibly more suitable to the task at hand? Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are getting more attention than third party candidates typically do. Is one of them the least-of-several-evils? However appealing they or other third party candidates may be, the odds are near impossible that one of them will win. At most, they may siphon away a mandate from Clinton or Trump.

Whomever you choose to cast a vote for in November, I think there’s a longer trajectory to be mindful of. Neither of the two major party candidates can be trusted or believed to lead the kind of movement we need to improve the many tragedies we’re confronted with. It’s up to us. If this bewildering presidential election has made anything clear, it’s that we are in desperate need of a revitalized democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We need a mass movement of everyday Americans banding together and demanding what’s necessary for the common good.

A movement that holds the feet of politicians in office to the fire, and supports down-ballot candidates (senate, house, mayor, etc.) who understand what’s going on and what we need to do.

A movement that insists on fact-based, truth-telling journalism–as opposed to the post-truth, propagandistic media we’ve been stuck with over the last several months and longer. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is now to get down to the actual facts and significance of what’s happening.

A movement that Tweets, blogs, Instagrams, Snaps, and more, about where we’re at and what needs to go differently. Politics is one of the old untouchables with family and friends, but we have to move beyond avoiding mentioning how broken the world is and how we might be able to fix it because it’s not pleasant dinner conversation. We need ideas shared out loud. We need to keep bringing injustice, destruction, and inaction back into the spotlight. We need to have constructive disagreements out in the open so we can actually land on some mutual understanding.

A movement that doesn’t stop at social-media activism, but rather continues on to running for office, joining nonprofits, researching and educating, protesting and working toward reconciliation.

We may be stuck with a saddening mess for the months ahead. Nothing changes overnight. But if we can start building a movement that holds an unfavorable president accountable and steadily starts to shift the political tectonic plates, we may see things begin to heal. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” many have quoted. It only bends if we force it.

I refuse to throw in the towel. Do you? We need you and me and her and him and those guys and that journalist and this social-media-famous young woman and that up-and-coming politician and many, many more, building up a movement that demands a better future. It’s up to all of us to fix this mess.

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Find Your Lifeline

Do you ever feel like nothing makes any sense? Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time with your job or school or a relationship and wonder what am I doing with my life?

When that happens, what do you lean on? When everything feels like a chaotic, depressing swirl around you, what do you grab onto to steady yourself and move forward?

The reality is that there are moments in life–sometimes weeks or months at a time–when everything does feel like a disheartening mess and you’re not sure how to carry on. You’re stuck in a job that you hate. You find out someone close to you isn’t the person you thought they were. You develop a health complication that limits what you’re able to do.

No worldview can fully explain why situations like this happen to every human being that’s ever lived on this planet. The so-called problem of evil and the prevalence of pain, heartache, struggle, and loss have confounded even the most brilliant minds for millennia. There are no easy answers or magic solutions.

Which is not to say that there isn’t anything we can do about it. Surely some kind of footing is better than free-fall. Some kind of lifeline is better than drifting away in uncertainty, worry, and sadness. We each need to find our lifeline.

They’ll all be a bit different. For me, it’s my wife. No matter what else is going on, no matter how hard or bewildering things get, I find solace knowing that at least we’ll be going through it together. My wife is my constant, my lifeline, even as other things are continually changing and often confusing or too much to bear.

Maybe for you, your lifeline isn’t a person but a habit or hobby–like hiking, woodworking, or writing. Or something more contemplative or spiritual: books, videos, or meditative practices that help you explore meaning and your place in the world.

The times in our life of confusion, disappointment, doubt, and pain aren’t going away. These are the more difficult parts of being human, and there aren’t any easy or logical solutions to engineer them out of existence. We all must find our lifelines, and when you do you’ll at least have something constant you can come back to for relief and reflection in the midst an ever-changing and often overwhelming world.