Which Way Are Things Flowing?

“Energy always flows either toward hope, community, love, generosity, mutual recognition, and spiritual aliveness or it flows toward despair, cynicism, fear that there is not enough, paranoia about the intentions of others, and a desire to control.” —Michael Lerner

Which way is your energy flowing? What’s the energy like where you live and work today?

It’s pretty clear to me watching people at work, folks on the street, and the endless posts on social media that the energy is all over the place. A little bit of everything. Hope and community. Despair and paranoia. Some are paralyzed in between–the energy has left the building.

The finality of a presidential election is heavy. Even more so when the result is unexpected.

The reality, though, is that our energies are a little all over the place all of the time. Not just on Election Day or the day after. Not just when something monumental happens: a national tragedy or a historic sports championship.

We each have a choice. Everyday. Every interaction. What kind of energy will we create? What sort of energy will we be caught up in? What sort of energy will we project on the people around us?

We are never collectively all flowing in the same direction. Our shared life is not heaven on earth. Which means that we always have work to do when it comes to figuring out how to live better together.

For anything that’s flowing toward despair, cynicism, fear, paranoia, and obsessive control, how can we come together to guide it toward hope, community, love, generosity, dignity, and aliveness? If you want the world to be filled with that kind of energy, what are you doing to create more of it? It’s got to go beyond how you vote every two or four years. Thoughtfully engaging the person next to you–perhaps someone who is totally different from you–may be your next and best opportunity to make more things flow in the right direction.

I wrote a short time ago about the mess that we’re in. Faced with two historically unpopular and flawed candidates–in a time of great need for change–all sorts of frustrations, hopes, doubts, fears, and other forces rose to the surface. We were going to have work to do no matter who won. We already had work to do that wasn’t going to be miraculously fixed by casting a vote for just the right president or the lesser of two evils. It’s truly up to us—everyday, every moment.

So check your energy. Others can feel it. The world—at least your corner of it—will be shaped by it. How are things flowing? How do you want them to? Today’s a perfect day to start making the momentum of the world flow toward a more human way of living together.

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.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

This Week in Upgrades: June 27

Hello there! How’s your Monday? Have all your 4th of July plans figured out (if you’re celebrating)? Nothing like a new week and a new month to hit the refresh button. I know I’m ready to be better at some things than I was in recent days.

You catch some of the happenings on the Internet this week? Crazy, inspiring, tragic. A typical week of the spectrum of humanity and the world we live in. Check some of these out:

Millennials are side hustling because there’s no other choice. Thanks, Neoliberalism.

Here’s another reminder about the importance of self-compassion. A future Upgraded Humans post on it may be in order.

Buenos Aires is closing their zoo because animal captivity is degrading. Well done.

Ludovico Einaudi plays a dirge for the Arctic while floating through. Haunting.

There’s a new climate change podcast called Warm Regards. Listen here.

Matthew McConaughey teased the possibility of another Rust Cohle True Detective season. Please!

Here’s a great profile on Faviken–one of the world’s most remote and creative restaurants.

Why is everyone drinking La Croix?

What were humans like before we started recording our history? Great video.

Wear glasses? Half of the planet will be nearsighted by 2050. Put a new pair of contacts in today, myself.

Rest in peace to a delightful human.

Here’s a moment of Muir to remind you to get outside.

Have a brilliant week!

 

 

How to Adult: Stuff

Do you have a favorite thing to wear? When you dig through your dresser or look at the rack in the closet, are there clothes that you love more than the rest?

For the longest time, I would have one shirt or sweater that I thought was about the awesomest top I could find, and I felt pretty awesome in it whenever I’d wear it. Everything else in my wardrobe was made up of things from when I was younger that still fit, randomly bought pieces from sale sections, and clothes I got as gifts. Most days I left home wearing one of those things, and not feeling particularly awesome because of it.

There’s an energy to what you wear. Some make you feel awesome. Some make you feel whatever. Some make you feel why do I have this and when would I actually want to put it on?

It’s the same kind of energy that exists with all of the stuff that fills up our homes. The things in your closet, in the bathroom cabinet, in the kitchen, on the floor in the living room, and everywhere else, have a kind of force. They make you feel a certain way when you’re around them and when you use them.

Thinking about stuff in that way might seem kinda out there, were it not for the success of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Most of us at some point have parted with a thing or two by giving it to Goodwill or just throwing it in the garbage. The “KonMari Method” takes things to a whole other level.

The basic principle is one of those great rules for life that sounds remarkably simple but changes things dramatically when you follow it. For every piece of stuff in your home–every shirt, every book, every kitchen gadget, every childhood crayon drawing–you must hold it in your hands and ask, “does this bring me joy?” Just an instinctual yes or no–no rationalizing. It’s easy to wander down the rabbit hole of no, but it… that causes you to hold onto something that doesn’t actually make you feel all that awesome. But it came from grandma. But I paid $50 for it. But I’ve had it since I was in college. It’s really hard with some stuff! But you’re trying to focus on the feeling each thing gives you–keeping only what gives you delight when you touch it.

As you go through this intense and sometimes emotional process, with all the different kinds of stuff filling up your home, you’re left with only things that spark joy, as Kondo describes it. What’s left in your closet means you can wear the outfit that makes you feel awesome every day because they’re all like that.

Practically speaking, is this difficult? Absolutely. There’s a minimalism that’s too minimal. You can’t walk out the door naked three days of the week because you only have four clean things in your wardrobe.

And few people can afford to drop tons of money all at once to build up the clothes, cookware, furniture, books, etc. that spark joy.

So maybe instead for right now, before you winnow down to keeping only the things that make you feel that way, focus instead on the things you’re about to buy. Ask whether it truly makes you feel awesome and will continue to make you feel awesome in six months. Instead of buying two or three fast-fashion shirts that will fall apart after the third time you wash them, try to save up a little bit and get one shirt that’s built to last. Even in our mass-produced world, there are plenty of makers making things that you’ll feel full of joy about for a long time.

When you begin to be aware of the energy of the things in your home, stuff is no longer just stuff. It has a force, it has influence, it requires attention and discretion. It can either spark joy or suck you into a black hole of other emotion. You have the power to filter out what’s what, even if it takes a little while to do so.

When you’re surrounded by the things that make you feel awesome, it nudges you to be a more awesome you. Put on your favorite outfit and get to it.

 

What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?

When I was in high school, there was a year that I needed to take a summer gym class to fulfill my physical education requirement. When I missed a couple days because of some other obligations, I had to work with school administration to figure out what could be done to finish out the requirement.

The compromise was to register in a workshop called Bigger, Faster, Stronger: a CrossFit-like boot camp for high school athletes, almost entirely male, preparing for the fall season of their sports. Even though I was a varsity soccer player, I got my butt kicked by the relentless weight training, field exercises, and agility tests. It was probably the most machismo thing I have been part of. Every guy in the room was comparing himself against the apparent strength and ability of the others. I’m sure some of the soreness I felt at home each night came from pushing myself to make sure I wasn’t too far behind other guys in weight and reps, times, and other measurables.

Using comparison to scrutinize our identity has probably been part of being human for as long as we’ve been here. We often look at others and archetypes as a way to figure out our own place in the world. But when it comes to gender, what we’re comparing ourselves against as the standard for “being a man” or “being a woman” are extreme and incomplete ideals.

As a man, I can only fully relate to the experience and norms of masculinity, which is why I was happy to discover that the makers of 2011’s Miss Representation, a documentary exploring hyperfemininity and its consequences, recently released a complementary film regarding hypermasculinity, The Mask You Live In.

Prevalent throughout much of American society (and perhaps elsewhere), what it means to “be a man” amounts to putting on a mask of athletic ability, financial success, and sexual conquest, while hiding and suppressing weakness, emotion, empathy, and intimacy. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…,” opens the film–a quote from George Orwell.

As boys, males are handed this mask early and encouraged to grow into it often. From parents, especially fathers. From coaches. From all kinds of media. From peer groups.

Whichever of these guiding sources it comes from, boys are too often discouraged from crying, talking about their pain and weaknesses, and cultivating open relationships. Such things are perceived to be unmanly, and, therefore, subordinate. It leads to an implicit hierarchy. At the top are men who are fast, strong, steely, powerful, and rich. Everyone and everything else fall below.

This hierarchy perpetuates sexism and homophobia. As a man of the mask, you dehumanize people who are not at the top. A male who doesn’t embody the ideal is shunned as “gay.” Women are categorically inferior and seen to exist primarily for sexual objectification. Any woman who tries to be strong or rich or powerful is breaking rank. She’s a “bitch,” an “annoyance,” or a “lesbian.”

But time after time, when men and boys are given space for self-reflection and to speak freely without potential humiliation, they talk about pain and weaknesses; about a desire for honest closeness with other men and women; and about suppressed empathy. The vulnerability and longing behind the mask are essential to being a man.

They’re essential to being human.

Because, perhaps surprisingly to some, men and women are actually quite similar. As long as people are around, there will probably be endless debates about gender (as social construction) versus sex (as biology) and femininity versus masculinity. We’re good at getting caught up in differences. But women and men are far more the same–far more human–than they are different.

Emotion, empathy, and intimacy are vital whether you’re a woman or a man. These are not “inferior” traits of “inferior” people. They are crucial aspects of humanity that contribute to being a complete person, and, as The Mask You Live In concludes, “everyone deserves to feel whole.”

Men deserve to feel whole–free from the distorted view of masculinity they’re often given. Women deserve to feel whole–free from the sexism of that same skewed version of masculinity.

We are all human. Be human. Reject the mask.