The Bootstraps BS

It’s hard to comprehend that the United States has such insane economic inequality with very little happening to change it. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a net worth of over $100 billion while countless others are trying to scrape by in debt or homelessness. The contrast between a handful of people with tens of billions of dollars and everyone else couldn’t be starker. And yet, it continues to get worse—without a lot of collective action or governmental change. What the hell?

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the disparity and callousness, and it seems clear that it has a lot to do with the ol’ bootstraps myth. You know, the idea that every American can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they choose to do so, and rise to great wealth and social standing. A handful of people have a net worth of billions of dollars because they’re the smartest and hardest-working. The homeless man shooting up on the streets of San Francisco is there because he hasn’t pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He made bad choices or is lazy or isn’t taking advantage of his opportunities.

So the myth goes. And so class divides persist and worsen. A particular person’s situation is deemed the inevitable outcome of how hard they’re trying. Stark inequality throughout the whole country is shrugged at as the resulting separation between the people who tried hard and the people who didn’t.

A widely referenced 2009 Pew survey suggested that a majority of Americans think this way. 71% to 21%, those surveyed said that “personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions.” If you’re financially successful, you’re an all-American bootstrapper. If you’re struggling, you’re an outcast from the American social contract and you’ve only got yourself to blame.

If economic and social standing are the outcomes of personal character, why would anyone think much of it or work to change it? That’s just the way it is. If you think someday that could be me with billions if I work hard enough!, you probably want things to stay as they are. I’m gonna be in the top income bracket one day, so don’t tax it too much. And don’t give people a *handout* or a leg up who aren’t trying as hard as I am.

But, of course, none of this is really how it works. Wealth in the United States is not some perfectly laissez-faire, unbiased, meritocratic system–where those who have the most worked the hardest and those who are destitute are there because of their lack of effort. Some of the people who are absurdly wealthy just goof around all day. They coast as their fortune–often starting as a sizable inheritance–grows. Meanwhile, millions of middle class and poor Americans hardly have time to rest—working long hours or trying to live out of their car or on the street. America’s inequality, and the particular people who are rich and poor, are not simply the outcomes of effort.

The disparities start at birth, then later continue in second, third, and twentieth chances for some while oppression and shaming for others. Consider how bootstrapping is linked to race and sex. White men with a huge advantage of inheritance and a foot in the door from their white, male buddies are proclaimed to have gotten to the top by virtuousness and industriousness.

While “welfare queens,” “ungrateful” black and brown people, and “reckless” single moms are believed to have every opportunity and support they could need, yet fail to rise up the ladder. They’re accused of not trying, and considered a terrible burden on society. Sometimes a black CEO, or a single mom hustling through night classes, get spotlit as the good, bootstrapping individuals that other black people and women should aspire to be like. The bootstraps bullshit is fully weaponized by loading it with racism and sexism.

The harsh, simple truth is that the majority of us are going to go through costly personal tragedies and uncontrollable struggles to make ends meet. It’s not easy to afford all your material needs all of the time, or to live through the traumas you can’t do anything to prevent.

When you’re knocked down, it’s difficult to recover in America. The United States doesn’t have anything close to a foundational system of social services that other countries do, which ensure that whatever you aspire to and whatever kind of luck you encounter in life, you’ll still have your basic needs provided for. Things like universal healthcare with virtually zero patient cost. Elder care. Child care. Housing. Robust maternity and paternity leave. And more.

In Texas, a 38-year-old teacher, Heather Holland, recently died of complications from the flu when she couldn’t afford the $116 copay for a prescription. Some internet assholes very unhelpfully chimed in to say that she should have had a rainy day fund to cover something like that. That’s some classic bootstrap shaming.

I’ve mentioned before that close to half of Americans couldn’t cover an emergency $400 expense if they needed to. It’s not just Heather Holland and her supposed moral failings. Many unexpected expenses are a lot more than $116 or $400. Cancer treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars per month. Who’s got a rainy day fund for that? There is no perfect lifestyle and financial plan to prevent everything and afford everything.

While Jeff Bezos sits on billions, hundreds of Amazon employees are in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly known as food stamps). These sad realities say a lot more about the way wealth is immorally distributed than whether or not individual people are trying hard enough to make it.

But our inequality-generating system is rarely challenged in public. The bootstraps myth obscures the crazy head-starts given to some, stifling structural prejudices against others, and the dire need for a strong social support system. People in debt or poverty or failing health are told you need to do better or you failed, so figure out how to get out of it.

That’s really the best this country can do? That’s all we owe to each other?

Everyone deserves to have their basic needs taken care of. Everyone should be supported through misfortune. Not because people are trying hard enough, but because we’re all human beings who want to enjoy life in the face of universal challenges.

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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A World of Hurt

Our bodies are shaped and altered by our experiences.

There’s a scar on my left ring finger that runs from the top knuckle through the nail. Anytime the scar catches my attention, the memory of the injury that caused it flashes into my mind. Here I am carving a stick with my pocketknife at summer camp as a teenager. One second, everything’s fine. The next, there’s a deep gash down the middle of my finger and red beads of blood dripping onto the dirt below.

When the memory pops back into my brain, it’s vivid–like I’ve traveled back in time. The place I was sitting. The trees. The streaks of sun beaming between them. My finger throbbing and anxiety starting to rise. The hike from where I was to the medic on the other side of the camp. Sights and feelings and even smells from years ago return. Crazy how a little scar can do that.

Each of us carries the stress, body blows, and trauma from our past. Everything from short-lasting irritations like kitchen burns and poison ivy to the deep, long-term effects of abusive family members or struggling to pay the bills. They leave physical marks and psychological wounds.

Bags under the eyes. Cuts, scrapes, and scars. Cavities, hangovers, and extra pounds in the midsection from emotional eating and drinking. Shortness of breath. A weakened immune system. Trouble concentrating. Self-doubt. Depression. Feeling guarded or on edge. And many other impressions and effects.

We are natural, physical beings. We have these strange and fascinating flesh-and-blood bodies. We are not indestructible. Nor do we float through the world as untouchable, immaterial spirits. Sticks and stones do break you. And words–in fact–hurt, too. Sometimes a single word from a certain person in a certain situation feels like a punch in the gut.

Our experiences change us inside and out. Hopefully, there are plenty of good experiences that change us for the better. It is universally human, though, that through the course of our lives we will live through a world of hurt. Things we didn’t ask for or want. Some heal soon afterward and are mostly forgettable (like a careless knife gash at summer camp). Others linger and fester and undermine our ability to function. After some hurts, it’s hard to go on at all.

As flesh-and-blood creatures shaped by an endless variety of hurts, there’s a deep need for each of us to really know ourselves so that we can move forward. Where we’re at and how we got here.

How do you feel right now? Content? Deflated? Energetic? Weak? Flexible, light, and free? Or tight, heavy, and aching? Do you have cuts and bruises in the midst of healing? New wrinkles in the corners of your face? A racing heartbeat? Has someone’s cruelness thrown you off track?

When we more clearly see what all of the different hurts we’ve experienced have done to us, we’ll better understand what needs to heal so we can find wholeness. Oftentimes, we need people we love and trust to help us fully see and recover. No one can go it alone–especially when you’re wounded.

It’s hard to be human. We each go through many unique hurts. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that’s a lot of damage in need of healing. How can you and I encourage each other’s healing instead of increasing the damage?

This Week in Upgrades: Jan 30

OK. So that was not a good weekend for humanity. The Trump administration’s Muslim ban on Friday was already a lot to handle. The shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, and the six people who died there, was a terrible bookend to the unfolding drama. If you’re trying to wrap your head around the immigration ban, this is a good place to start.

These kinds of things are the reason that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about human nature and the common good. I know it’s not as fun or easy to digest as cat videos and comfort food recipes. I would love to quietly mind my own business and go about enjoying those things all day. But we’ve got some serious individual and social issues to work through, too.

Just in the last few days, we’ve clearly seen that people are a mysterious mix of altruism and fear. Humans can be the worst, and the best. Sometimes there is a unified, compassionate weAnd other times we seek to erase those who are different. Things can flow in a direction of community and hope and kindness, or toward despair, cynicism, and cruelty. We’re not anywhere close to realizing our individual and collective potential. Sometimes we take steps backward.

So keep organizing. Keep aiming for the best of who you can be, and believing that every other human being can get there, too. Keep searching for empathy and commonality. Keep donating. Keep looking for the truth behind the illusion. Keep looking for–and being–the helpers.

 

Here are some other things from the last week worth checking out:

Loneliness is terrible for your health. No one can go it alone all of the time.

Some of our best creativity happens when we’re bored, but we’re too busy on our phones trying to make boredom disappear.

Alcohol has been shaping culture for a long time.

Butter makes everything better. These guys take their butter very seriously.

Props to the restaurant, Syr, near Amsterdam, which was set-up to help Syrian refugees settle into the country.

Rachel Carson was a hero.

I like the occasional soda or box of Sour Patch Kids as much as the next person, but human beings consume way too much sugar. France’s ban on free soda refills is a step in the right direction.

Millennials are spending a lot to exercise.

Here’s a nice little side-by-side video of several references La La Land made to older musicals.

I hope your week is full of love and calm.

 

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 are the Worst…And the Best

The categories of good and evil have been around for so long, and are so ingrained in our ways of perceiving and judging, that it’s easy to interpret our daily lives as battles of the two forces like we’re in Lord of the Rings or something. This business is the epitome of evil. That pop culture thing is absolutely sinful. This woman is a saint. My co-worker is the devil.

More often than not such judgments are, indeed, about people (though some non-people things like mosquitos and brunch-flavored candy corn are obviously straight from hell). And–also quite often–we give ourselves a pass while condemning most everyone else. I am a good person. They are bad people. It’s easy to see the brokenness in the world; harder to see the brokenness in ourselves.

The truth is that we are all just a bundle of potential yet to be realized. We are born neither evil nor good. We are like a ball of clay waiting to be shaped into something more.

People can be the worst. Destructive. Deceptive. Ignorant. Dominating. Injurious. Lazy. Self-centered.

People can actively destroy the planet even as researchers make clear how damaging the effects are and what the long-term consequences will be.

We can know the truth and yet mislead others in order to avoid blame or to get credit/power/compensation/respect.

We can belittle, cut off, and cut down the people around us in damaging and disabling ways.

We can actively choose or passively allow ourselves to be ignorant of basic facts and features of our world when there’s good reason to know and act on them.

BUT people can, sometimes, be the best. Generous. Creative. Wise. Humble. Courageous. Engaged. Inclusive.

If we work to realize our human potential in a beautiful, flourishing way, we can:

Live long, robust lives by taking care of our bodily health and the health of our environment.

Donate our time and money to important and urgent causes.

Build vibrant relationships and community.

Strengthen other people’s dignity and self-love by making sure they get the spotlight and credit they deserve.

Be kind, forgiving, and reconciling–even with people who have hurt us.

Experience real joy and contentment as we better understand and fit ourselves into the world that we’re an interconnected part of.

At any given time, your actions are shaping your human potential for the worse or for the better. These directions of better or worse are how we ultimately start categorizing people as good or evil as we so often do. Others have described these possible paths in different terms. In The Great Turning, David C. Korten describes them as the way of empire or the way of earth community. The film The Tree of Life depicts them as the way of nature or the way of grace. The Harry Potter character Sirius Black (shout-out to Harry Potter) metaphorically says that, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” Good/evil, earth community/empire, grace/nature, light/dark are all ways of describing the dual ways our potential can unfold.

And, of course, most of us are not fully one or the other. There are few human beings of the billions who have ever lived that could be described as completely evil or wholly good. We are, each of us, always on the way rather than at the final stop: on the way of empire or on the way of earth community; on the way of nature or on the way of grace.

It’s actually unlikely to be very beneficial to think about someone as good or evil. These are the extremes. And they’re also quite static. People are constantly changing–for the worse or for the better. Someone could seem hellish one day and the best of humanity the next. Our human potential is a long-unfolding thing–clay taking shape and being reshaped until it starts to finally harden into something more permanent over time.

So rather than classifying other people as evil or the worst or whatever else, and writing them off as irredeemable, perhaps think of them as having not yet realized their potential as a human being in a flourishing, gracious, communal kind of way. Maybe one day they might. God knows it’s not today–you’re going to try hard to wish them the best even though you half wish their iced coffee spills all over them. But hopefully one day. Because people can be the worst or the best. It’s not predetermined, static, or absolute. And certainly, you, me, and most everyone else haven’t fully realized our potential in a flourishing way either. Let’s aspire to the way of earth community, light, and grace (or whatever you’d like to call it), and be patient with one another as we go.

Why Do We Care So Much About Sports?

In the moments after the Green Bay Packers lost the 2007 NFC Championship game, I sat in disbelief in my small, college apartment. Brett Favre, now in the Hall of Fame in 2016, inexplicably played like anything but a future hall-of-famer in his wintry final game as a Packer. The New York Giants, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the NFC Championship on an overtime field goal set up by a Favre interception–amplifying the finality and devastation of Packers fans like me.

What was the point of all this?–I wondered to myself. I had put off a paper that I should have been writing so I could glue myself to the television for a few hours instead. And I had invested several hours more watching, celebrating, and agonizing through the course of the whole season–believing that whatever turns and bumps along the way, the road would lead to a championship and corresponding elation.

But like so many sports teams in so many seasons, it didn’t end in ultimate victory. And instead of elation, I felt an odd combination of sadness, anger, sardonic amusement, and confusion. Sports are utterly meaningless, I decided. Who the hell gets so invested in this stuff? How did I let myself get so invested? Come next NFL season, I would not waste my time again spending hours in front of a screen watching my team play when I could or should be doing other things. Or allow myself to hope against hope that the Packers could overcome the statistical unlikelihood of them winning a championship that season either.

But when the season started again in the fall of 2008, I eagerly tuned in for as many games as possible, and have done so every season since. And now here we are the start of the 2016 NFL season, the most popular sport in America by far, with hope springing eternally for millions of fans that this will be their year!

Why do so many people care so much about sports?

In the context of society as a whole, sports teams and the fanaticism they generate do not have an obvious contribution to the common good–save for maybe a local economic bump or some additional jobs under the right conditions. Even then, most economic benefits go to team owners and a handful of other powerful interests. And surely the tens of millions of dollars spent on new sports stadiums–sometimes funded publicly–could be spent in a way that more directly benefits the communities in which they’re being built.

Sports fandom is less about the economic, and more about the existential.

I think my college paper avoidance is a clue. Given the choice between writing a paper (about a topic you don’t get to choose) or watching your favorite team in a playoff game, which one would most people pick? Sports is a form of escapism from the rest of life. However awful the workweek was, whatever political disaster is transpiring, whatever relational turmoil you’re experiencing, sports are there as an escapist outlet. The world can be tough and crappy. Here’s something that allows me to get away from that for a little while.

But hardcore fandom is more than just simply escapism from the everyday. Researchers have discovered that “…highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.” Being a fan of a sports team–much like the group identification of a gang, religion, or attendees of Comic-Con–“leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.” Sports, and other groups with die-hard adherents, create a sense of transcendent belonging and purpose.

Even though I now live in California, as a former Wisconsinite, the Packers are typically the second thing I’m asked about after cheese. It’s a bit stereotypical, but finding out that I’m a Packers fan alerts others to symbols, sports rituals, and a type of community I’m likely to be associated with simply by being a fan.

As a fan of any team, you can be walking down the street amongst strangers and suddenly when you see people with a shirt or hat with your team’s logo you feel that you have “friends…that you feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has discovered that there are nearly two-dozen well-being benefits commonly associated with sports fans. “Self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy”–and more–show a statistical correlation with degree of fan identification. The more one identifies with a team, the more one feels a sense of belonging, meaning, and enjoyment from it.

Does that mean that sports fanaticism is wholly good? Of course not. The economics of sports–the incomprehensible millions in player contracts, coaches’ salaries, advertisements, endorsements, and executive income–can spark indignation and outrage. Violence is always a possibility when fans and players experience similar blood pressure, testosterone, and other physiological increases. Players are regularly connected to on-field and off-field aggression: concussions, fisticuffs, playboy criminality, and serious domestic violence. The us versus them of fans–hooligans attacking others in the stands or the streets–can get carried away in the same sort of militaristic tribalism that has long been a part of our human history. And the absurd amounts of alcohol, chips and dips, red meat, and other calories consumed on gameday only add to the society-wide health complications of the Western diet. All of these are the things we often downplay or ignore as we aspire to keep sports a place of happy escapist belonging. That denial is when sports are at their most dangerous to individuals and society. Fandom can be fun and provide meaning while we, at the same time, work to address the dark side of sports.

So as the NFL season is set to begin, look behind the sexist commercials, showboating player celebrations, and cliches about winning and losing, for the larger pattern of identification, community, and meaning. Sports fandom is just one among many forms of escapism and finding purpose. And we’re all just looking for some kind of belonging and enjoyment in life–even if you think a little less of me now because you hate the Packers.

Keeping the World New

Have you ever felt bored and cramped by routine? Wake up, work, waste time on your phone, do chores, go out, wake up and do it again? Going through the motions feels repetitive and stale. Even food, one of the greatest of all human pleasures, can become the same old same old–familiar fuel to shove down instead of a hedonistic respite of self-care.

When we get stuck in the routine of everyday life, the world begins to feel small, all figured out, and uninspiring. I’ve had weeks where I did essentially the same activities morning to night, spending all my time either at work or at home (which are only a short distance apart). I felt like I was about to go crazy. Have you ever felt like that? What did you do to break free?

For me, I’ve come to value more and more the need to be adventurous and travel. The routine inevitably does get boring and cramped. Choosing to learn new things and explores new places keeps the world new.

This can be as easy as picking up a book or watching a documentary. People have long freed themselves from smallness and sameness through the escapism of books and film. Or, perhaps, find a neighborhood, theater, hiking trail, coffee shop, volunteer center, or other local place that you haven’t checked out yet. You can widen your world by experiencing more of your own community.

And you can definitely widen the horizon of your sense of the world by traveling even farther. Are there places you can take a day trip to or camp at a couple hours away? How about bigger cities that you’ve yet to experience? When your hometown starts to feel like the beginning and end of the whole world because that’s all you’ve seen for weeks on end, you have to physically extend your felt boundary of the world by going beyond your city limits. Travel, perhaps more than anything else, keeps the world new by exposing you to other communities and ways of life that you’re not otherwise being exposed to. Different plants, landscapes, weather, buildings, fashion, art, language, transportation, and food.

And, curiously, when you come back home, your hometown may feel new itself. It has a fresh context thanks to you broadening your horizon of experience. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds unfamiliarity. Have you ever returned from a vacation and felt like home looked and smelled a little different? What is your home or apartment’s after-vacation smell?  (Hopefully something other than the trash you forgot to take out before you left). What does the view of the sunset look like when you get back?

After vacation, did friends, family, and acquaintances seem a bit different–a little more complex, fascinating, and enjoyable to be around? Or, inversely, did some people seem palpably toxic and in need of being avoided to a degree? Is that primarily because other people changed, or because you did?

The world and all of us in it are a lot more diverse, interesting, and enlightening than we’re aware of most of the time. It’s just that as we get caught up in the bubble of the routine the world in our experience of it starts to get smaller and smaller, and we get sucked into a pattern that oversimplifies and bores. That’s not what life’s supposed to be about.

It can be difficult to avoid the bubble, and perhaps even natural to get encapsulated in it in a culture that is so purposefully routinized. Most Americans, even if they earn vacation time at work, do not take it. We organize time in an endlessly repeating loop of five work or school days (Monday-Friday) and two rest days (Saturday-Sunday). Monday is the deflated, is the weekend seriously already over? day. Wednesday is the wait, it’s only the middle of the week? day. Friday is the woo-hoo, time to go wild and forget about this shit day. Do you know that Friday feeling? What if you could keep that kind of Friday feeling more of the time?

I really think we can by aspiring to be more adventurous at home and abroad. Does that sound a little cheesy? I suppose. But try scheduling some vacations–day trips or weeks away–to break up the endless Monday through Sunday loop. Try breaking up the daily routine by picking up a book, watching a documentary, or grabbing lunch at a new spot instead of filling the day by checking social media every couple minutes and getting the same takeout meal you had a couple days ago. See if it changes the way that you feel and perceive things. I think there’s a good chance it will.

The world is too interesting for same old same old. Be adventurous. Travel near and far. Keep the world new.

 

A Cup of Coffee and the Two People You Like

Do you ever feel like you want to hide because you can’t stand other people?

My wife has a t-shirt that cracks me up every time she wears it. Across the front reads:

All I care about is coffee and like two people.

Hyperbolic, obviously. But the exaggeration that makes it hilarious is based on a relatable truth. Sometimes we long to retreat to a bubble of comfort and intimacy to protect us from the barrage of inhumanity we feel from others. It can be overwhelming.

Because, let’s face it, default human nature is not particularly benevolent. Most of us, the majority of the time, will choose the path of least resistance, and the unevolved parts of our humanity are in full force. Self-centeredness. Power plays. Laziness. Stealing credit, ideas, or property. Excessive rationalizing. Subtle lies. Stereotyping. I’m sure you could name several other qualities you’ve experienced–even in just the last few days.

Does anyone think these things are good? Not unless they’re wrong in the head. But it takes effort to move beyond our basic nature as human beings, and so more often than not we don’t. It seems too demanding. It feels like others don’t really deserve it. It doesn’t seem like anyone else is trying, so why should you? In a world of the default, it feels natural to want to protect yourself from the cuts and bruises. With certain destructive people or situations, you definitely need to.

Expecting things from others before you give them, though, is also part of our raw nature as people. A quid pro quo community is not a very enlightened one. We know the bar can be set higher, and that we could probably reach or exceed that bar if we actually tried. If we want to receive more enlightened, mature actions from other people, we might have to be the ones to make the first move. There’s a reason a quote like, “be the change you want to see in the world,” or variations of the golden rule–”treat others how you wish to be treated”–show up all over the place, even if they seem cliche. In every time and place, new ways of bothering and hurting other people emerge. There is an endless opportunity to try to be a better person yourself and hopefully elevate others around you because of it.

Is that a guaranteed response? Of course not. People will still steal your lunch out of the fridge, or inexplicably try to make you look weak or unintelligent, or fail to do something when you had hoped they would. But the intriguing challenge to climb to a second nature–a better human nature–is always there. It’s one you learn and develop; not the one that comes easy or instinctual.

There is a rewarding, transformative way of being human that you can grow into if you try. I think deep down most of us know it’s the journey we’re all meant to take. A cultivation of empathy, patience, humility, generosity, cooperation, honesty, and much more. It’s just that it can be a painful one personally so we’re discouraged or avoidant.

Sometimes we really do need a cup of coffee and the two people we like. But it’s precisely because that affectionate, core experience reminds us that there is a better way of being human in the world. That it is possible and meaningful even if it’s uncommon. And that the comfort and reinvigoration at the center of our lives are there so we can step out again amongst everyone else and try to expand the circle.

Maybe this is the week someone–perhaps someone unexpected–becomes the literal or figurative third person you like. Or, at least, a person that you intentionally try to get to know better instead of playing tit-for-tat games with.

May you now and going forward strive to be the person of your better nature.

 

How to Adult: Eating

From the moment you’re born you have to put food in your pie hole to stay alive. But because human beings can consume practically anything, it makes it difficult to know what we should eat. You could survive on everything from the latest Taco Bell mashup to vegetables grown in your backyard. But your health will probably look a lot different depending on if you eat more things like fast-food Tex-Mex or more things like fresh-picked veggies. I gained a good twenty pounds in my first couple years of college on a pizza-, nachos-, and ramen- centric diet. Cliche? Sure. Filling? Yes, and then some. Healthy? Decidedly not.

So how do we navigate all the different things we can consume? No one really teaches us how to eat as we grow up. We mostly end up feasting on whatever is served to us by family or whatever we can afford when we’re buying groceries and meals for ourselves.

The latest science and health news isn’t a very reliable guide. Over the last several decades, it’s vacillated between very pro this or that–carbs, fat, protein, etc.–and villainizing them. Empirical studies of nutrients have given us vastly different answers on different occasions.

Either way, a full-fledged diet rarely works. They’re often too restrictive and make you loathe eating altogether. Or cut out foods that are actually beneficial for you. Or help you for a time, only to have you falling back to earth when you plateau or can’t maintain it.

So if stringent self-limitation and the lack of clarity over good and bad nutrients are ineffective, what can guide us to eat well?

The best thing I’ve come across is in the writings of Michael Pollan. If you don’t know his work, you should check it out. Not in a fad/cult kind of way. We don’t need another Oprah or Dr. Oz, and I don’t sense that he’s trying to be one. As a regular-person journalist, Pollan’s books and speeches are primarily investigative–trying to comb through research, culture, and real life to get to the bottom of our relationship with food and what constitutes eating for wellness. Appealingly, his advice can be summed up in three short sentences.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

You can’t simplify things much more than seven words. So what does it mean?

Eat food: As in consume things that are real food. Not food-like stuff–processed science projects, tweaked for shelf life or taste, that your body can’t easily recognize. Soda is out. Most things that come from a drive thru are out. Anything with a bunch of ingredients you can’t understand is out.

Look for actual food. The more whole or original its state, the better it probably is. Whole grain (with the beneficial germ and bran). Whole apples, avocados, bok choy, ginger, and the rest. The spectrum of edible things is still vast and compelling even after you take out what went through an R&D lab. Eat lots of different food.

Not too much: This is primarily about the manner in which you eat. The French (excusez-nous for generalizing) have notoriously rich, fatty meals. And yet, their overall health is quite exceptional. Why? Many think it’s because they slow down and have multiple small courses over a long period of time. Lots of socializing. Lots of effort preparing the different dishes and plates. Lots of pauses to let the digestive system do its thing.

Eating is supposed to be a gratifying social experience–from the growing or purchasing of the ingredients to the shared experience at the table with family and friends. Many people eat too fast. Eat alone too often. Eat too much at once. Eat too many of their meals on-the-go, at odd times, or in front of a screen.

Food should be savored in smaller portions, at regular sit-downs, with people that you want to share time with. The fact that work or a general culture of busy challenge this possibility suggests there is an issue with work and culture–not with eating. We need less food that’s ready to eat on the move and more respect for the meal table. Eating food is more than a nutrient delivery system–it’s for pleasure, identity, ritual, wholeness. The manner and context in which you eat are significant and meaningful.

This also means we should ensure that we’re not obsessing over what’s on the plate in front of us. “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Forgive yourself for breaking the rules once in awhile. If you’re stuck getting a burger from a chain for lunch, or decided to snack on some Oreos (like I did the other day), don’t be too hard on yourself.

Mostly plants: Perhaps the most controversial, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s mostly plants, not only. There’s still room for meat every so often (if that’s something you want to chow down). It’s just that plants have been shown over and over again to improve overall health and life-expectancy. There are vibrant Seventh-Day Adventist communities–eating mostly plants or strictly vegetarian their whole lives–with an average age in the 90s. They’re clearly doing something right.

Plants are remarkably diverse, and can provide us with an equally diverse array of things that our bodies are looking for. We don’t fully know what makes plants so great, but it’s likely that fiber, omega-3s, and phytochemicals (being careful not to render anything angelic or immortalizing) are just some of the things that are super beneficial for us. Stick to the broad rainbow of vegetables as much as possible, and let meat, fish, and other foods be subtle complements.

Eating like an adult–a healthy adult–does not have to be hard. It’s even better when you yourself cook everything you eat. That, of course, takes time and know-how–something I’d love to talk about in a future How to Adult post. But for now, whenever you’re about to eat, remind yourself to: eat food; not too much; mostly plants.