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: November 28

Are you still full from Thanksgiving? I’ve eaten Brussels sprouts every day since Thursday and I’m feeling like a champion. That balances out all of the pieces of pie, right?

I hope you had an enjoyable holiday. Here are some things you might have missed over the long weekend.

Some of the best and worst accents attempted in film.

The US Army has sent an eviction notice to the DAPL protesters.

In the US, 40% of food is wasted. Why do we throw away so much?

Here’s the best burger from each state. Is your favorite on the list?

Did you watch the Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix? What did you think?

What do you do when you can’t get along with your boss?

“If you want someone to listen to you, don’t offend them.”

People are making themselves miserable trying to feel happy. A reminder that happiness is more than a feeling.

Thanks, as always, for following along with Upgraded Humans. Have a wonderful week!

Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

This Week in Upgrades: June 13

Good day to you. How’s your Monday so far? I think many people here in the US are still processing what happened in Orlando yesterday, and the broader incomprehensibleness of gun violence in America. I had some thoughts on that in this morning’s Who Needs a Gun? So much to reflect about and change.

Other noteworthy things filled up the Internet this week before Orlando happened. Some of the best of humanity, some of the worst. Let’s all aspire to a more enlightened consciousness.

In some places, McDonald’s is the most important social space. McDonald’s, you say? Humans will always blow up clean categories and preconceptions.

Why do so many people love stormy weather?

Batman: The Animated Series was such a great piece of art.

What kind of choice is Trump’s racism or Clinton’s racism?

Arctic sea ice hit a shocking new low. Whoa.

Most Americans can no longer see the Milky Way because of light pollution. This makes me really sad.

Protecting Navajo identity from brand appropriation. When have Native Americans not been screwed over?

Norway will go carbon-neutral by 2030. Killing it with sustainability.

Have a wonderful week!

 

 

Who Needs a Gun?

It’s happened again. The horrific violence in Orlando is at least the 133rd mass shooting of 2016, and the 998th since Sandy Hook in 2012–a moment in history when any reasonable person would have thought: surely the slaughter of twenty kids and their six teachers will change gun policy in America. Nope. In fact, the tragedy at Pulse in Orlando is now the deadliest mass shooting in US history. They seem to be only getting worse.

There’s reason to worry that the frequency of mass shootings and the absence of any gun policy change are making us desensitized to gun violence. These kinds of tragedies in the age of social media have a very short half-life of attention. In a few weeks, will you still be mourning the victims in Orlando and clamoring for changes to gun laws in America? Will I?

Maybe instead of losing the forest for the trees with the particulars of each shooting as they happen–the number of casualties, the religion and mental state of the shooter–we need to ask more poignant, all-encompassing, difficult questions. A question like:

What citizen needs a gun in 2016?

If we’re objective and honest, nobody needs one. There are many people who want one–recreational hunters, for example. But no regular citizen of the United States needs–fundamentally, unequivocally–to possess a firearm. If you disagree, ask yourself why?

What exactly do you expect to happen that necessitates owning your own firearm? Hunting for meals? Someone trying to murder you in your home? Self-defense against a suddenly tyrannical US government?

How likely are those scenarios to happen?

The reality is that today, no one needs to hunt for their meals. We are thoroughly civilized and consumerized by the likes of superstores, farmers’ markets, convenience stores, and restaurants. They all are regularly supplied by reliable food production systems that ensure that even the family mart in Quaint Town, USA, has some organic meat and produce available. Even those who hunt primarily “for the meat” only make up 35% of hunters–not even close to a majority. And it’s not clear that nowadays it costs less to hunt for meat–should someone declare that regular groceries are unaffordable. To be sure, a game meat like venison is absolutely delicious–I grew up in Wisconsin with the occasional family-hunted jerky, steaks, and sausage. But it’s not essential to survival. Just enjoyable when you can get it. And you could get it with weaponry other than a firearm. That’s not a need.

Nor does anyone need to own a gun in expectation of a home intruder. Statistically, it’s actually less safe if you do have a gun in the home. It’s much more likely a family member or close friend will be shot with it–domestic violence, suicide, or child-related accident–than a criminal intruder. Even if you are in the uncommon situation of an intruder in your home when you’re there, there’s a reasonable chance that: (1) the gun gets taken over from you; or (2) that you reactively shoot as soon as you see someone and discover it’s a person you know (that you may have been able to talk down), someone unarmed (and therefore not immediately life-threatening), or even someone innocently entering the house when you weren’t expecting it.

As for the so-called citizen militia scenario, let’s all simply recognize there is no modern Lexington and Concord to come. The United States today has a flawed, yet relatively stable democracy. Citizen paranoia is much more probable than violent state tyranny.

So, again, where is the need for a gun for the average citizen in 2016? There isn’t, it’s a want.

And if it is just a want, we better ask another question:

What does a gun do?

For too long, too many have gone along with the guns don’t kill people, people kill people cliche. But ask yourself: what is the purpose of a gun? What is its function? To have portable, quick-to-initiate, precise, lethal force, in a way that extends and amplifies the human physiological capacity for violence–like a punch or throwing a rock. In short, guns inherently wound and kill. You don’t use them as a replacement flower vase or to tie your shoes, because that’s not what they do. 

It’s a relatively narrow and modern application to use them in an intentionally non-injurious way like target shooting. And, even so, there are surely less risky and intense hobbies than loading up a firearm and trying to rupture specific places on a stationary target or objects flying through the air–even though that may be a fun skills challenge or stress-relieving.

But what about freedom?

Indeed, the United States is a country wrapped in the necessity of that immensely powerful idea. “Life, liberty (i.e. freedom), and the pursuit of happiness,” are the DNA of this country. But freedom doesn’t mean everyone gets to do whatever they want. Each person in the United States surely should have freedom from violence–as much as people desire to have the freedom to buy many things they want. Needs are more vital than wants. And freedom from violence is unquestionably a need, whereas the freedom to own a firearm–a piece of technology that’s primary purpose is to wound and kill–is a want.

We should therefore question how that want can impinge and is impinging on freedom from violence. The terror in Orlando has given us a fresh reminder of that. The shooter was an American citizen–legally in the country–using a Sig Sauer MCX–a semi-automatic firearm legally purchased. The victims were innocently trying to enjoy their lives and pursue happiness.

Whatever the original intent of the Second Amendment, it doesn’t seem to fit the current era of guns and gun violence. And, in fact, Thomas Jefferson was mindful of such unforeseen times:

Jefferson
via @JohnFugelsang

Existing gun policy is clearly “unadapted to the good of the nation”–to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 21st century America. It’s time to think outside the box–outside of dogma, partisanship, and prejudice–about real freedom, what guns are for, and who actually needs one. Too many innocent people have died or will be killed as we’ve maintained the status quo of lax laws to accommodate want.

 

The Common Good: A New American Dream

It seems pretty clear at this point that the original American Dream isn’t something that’s ever going to be a reality for most people. The typical trades training or college education, good-paying middle-class job, family, kids, home, car, retirement, etc. path is a naive relic of capitalist optimism from decades past.

Today, for those who make it through college, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt without a payoff end date in sight. Finding a job becomes as much about a modern form of indentured servitude as it is entering a satisfying career. And because employment prospects are precarious, even people with high-level degrees can have difficulty becoming or staying employed with enough income to pay the bills. Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to.

For those who are able to get some employment and income stability, only 13 percent of people worldwide say they find their job engaging. “For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfillment, or redemption…” 87% of workers around the world see the tasks they must complete as insufferable, pointless drudgery.

Is this the kind of world we want? Surely we can build something better than this.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of Inventing the Future, think so. Though they cite plenty of sad statistics about the current state of affairs like the 13% one above, they still have grounded hope for an imagined future that would actually benefit everyone.

Inventing the Future advocates for what some call a post-work society. Instead of continuing to struggle for robust full employment–ensuring the original American Dream for everyone (which hasn’t happened and is extremely unlikely to ever happen)–we should aspire to full unemployment. Work would become something that you do only if you desire to. Maybe your personal passion is to spend time writing or counseling or farming. You can do that. Or, you just don’t work at all and spend all of your time with family, friends, traveling, and whatever else you want to do with the 80 or so years you’re given. Instead of being indentured to a soul-crushing 9-5 job that you may not even have next year, your life (and everyone else’s) is freed up to live it in a more meaningful and fulfilling way.

How is such a post-work future possible?

First, we need to transition to a universal basic income for all people. Each and every citizen receives a stipend of what they need to cover the basics to live: food, shelter, transportation, etc. Is this a costly project? No question. But as Srnicek and Williams note, “…most research, in fact, suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programs, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.” There are already a number of communities and countries considering a shift to universal basic income. And it’s not an entirely new or outlandish idea. Previous American administrations and Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, attempted to pass versions of it. It could have already become a reality several decades ago.

Having the foundation of a universal basic income will allow people of every socio-economic background to decide whether they want to do additional work or not. Maybe you want to dabble with being a professional musician. Maybe you want to hold public office. Or maybe you want to just have a day full of family, exercise, food, learning, entertainment, and other things that make you feel whole. The point is that the basics are taken care of. Work becomes a choice rather than a necessity.

But if many people don’t work because the inherent necessity is gone, who’s going to do all of the stuff that needs to get done to keep the world afloat?

Part two of a post-work future is full automation. Anyone who doesn’t see that the majority of existing jobs are already in danger of replacement by automated technology is in denial. Whether it’s 10 years or 50, anywhere from about 50-80% of jobs will see the human being replaced with some form of automation. Even for careers that seem irreplaceable like lawyers and chefs, there is already technology being developed that will be able to perform the same or better as the person currently doing it.

Instead of allowing this change to emerge without much reflection and planning, we should hasten it with strategy and financial support. After all, if only 13% of employed people like their job anyway, we should see automation as an ultimately good thing–developing technology that can slide in to perform the tasks we’d rather not do.

A universal basic income and full automation would fundamentally change the nature of what work is. And that’s good thing too. Instead of having to rationalize dehumanizing drudgery, paycheck-to-paycheck living, college debt, and the rest, we would have a society where work is truly only the vocational pursuits that add to our individual and shared humanity.

A post-work society like this is much more reflective of a world aspiring to what’s good for people. And, hopefully, we’re all coming to realize that what’s good for people is actually the common good. That’s an American Dream worth pursuing.

 

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.

 

Tugging at the Tangle

Your life involves other people. It’s an unavoidable reality. Yes, we all need moments to ourselves, and there are times and places we can get it. But you cannot move through the world without encountering, affecting, and engaging others. Our actions and their outcomes don’t happen inside a personal bubble, separate from everyone else. We’re tangled together. “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” as John Muir poetically stated.

Perhaps this seems like an obvious observation. Unless a person lives alone in a cabin in the woods, of course life entails experiences with other people. Fair enough. But how often do we get so caught up in our own stuff that we don’t even think about the other people around us?

It’s easy to get self-absorbed. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the parts that only concern you. I need to get to that place. I need to finish this thing. I need that to feel better. I need this, and I need it to happen now.

But you don’t exist in isolation. You’re tied up with the rest of the world. Whether we’re paying attention to it or not, our actions have consequences for other people. To navigate that, we have to learn how to ask good questions.

It starts with one big one. Before everything you’re about to say or do, pause and ask yourself:

How will what I’m about to do affect other people?

It’s broad, for sure. But that’s the point. Asking it shakes you out of selfishness, narrow vision, or distraction, and begins to open your mind to what the people around you are doing and how you might be altering their experience.

When you ask the one question, others emerge that are variations on the theme.

Will what I’m about to do make someone feel ashamed of who they are?

Will it limit someone else’s chances for success?

Will it make someone feel like an outsider?

Will it make someone embarrassed to be associated with me?

Will it obstruct someone’s ability to complete things they need to get done?

Will it threaten someone’s health or safety?

Will it invite envy?

Will it cast someone in a bad light?

Will it violate someone’s trust?

Will it cause someone to worry?

Will it undercut someone’s joy?

And a million others. Maybe a few have already come to mind.

Most actions will involve several questions at once.

Yelling at someone you love is quite likely to cause a number of things to occur. Making them feel bad about who they are. Rattling their psyche and possibly making them feel like their safety is threatened. Violating their trust. Undercutting the joy they had been feeling.

A politician who acts in a racist or xenophobic or elitist manner is liable to damage the lives of thousands or even millions of people. Limiting their chances for success. Making them feel like they’re worthless or an outsider. Impinging on their safety. And more. People of power or prestige have a disproportionate impact–one person’s actions can shape the experience of numerous others.

But we don’t have to be popular or powerful for our actions to have significant consequences for others. When you gun through the yellow light, you may think you’re harmlessly getting somewhere a little quicker because you didn’t have to wait for the next light change, but it acutely threatens pedestrians and other vehicles. When you show up late or are off your game at work, it may feel like your workday is the only one that’s different, but it heavily burdens and frustrates your co-workers’.

With practice, the questions come faster and more focused. Throughout the day, we start to make better decisions. Interestingly, there’s often a heightened amount of health and happiness than had we approached things selfishly. You flourish more because you’ve done what you could to make sure others are flourishing around you. Human well-being does not have to be the zero-sum game it’s made out to be.

We are all tangled up together. What is your tugging doing to others?

 

The Gaps

Everything is Vapor
sergio34/Bigstock.com

You know the moments. You’re on the elevator with a complete stranger. You’re just outside of the fitting rooms while your significant other is trying some things on. You’re stuck at a stoplight or a bus stop. You’re waiting to be seated at a restaurant. You’re waiting to receive your food at a restaurant. You’re waiting for the bill at a restaurant. You’re on the couch at home by yourself with nothing to do. There’s a space—a gap. It must be filled.

What is that space? We don’t really want to know. Everything was going smoothly—time well spent. I was engaged in something good, something meaningful. Now I’m bored/confused/anxious. Quick, fill the space with something!

With what? Maybe Candy Crush. The instant gratification feels nice for a bit. Maybe send a text for no other reason than to send a text message. It’s been a little while since I talked to that person anyway. Maybe I just received a text message? Better check. Maybe that feeling I thought I felt was actually my phone trying to get my attention. Yes, someone needs me! I have purpose again.

Or put headphones in and stream a song or two. Or tweet about something random. Or open up some tabs and start perusing what people are buzzing about in cyberworld. Is there some celebrity feud going on?

Have you ever caught yourself trying to fill the gap?

We don’t do well with the stillness. We’re uneasy about being amongst strangers when we have gobs of friends online. Uneasy during moments of utter quiet or uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.

We think we’re in sync when we’re doing what everyone else seems to do: constantly moving from one thing to the next, sometimes doing multiple things at once, turning downtime into some sort of activity that makes us feel good. The gap, the bit of unscheduled time, is an abomination—it has to be filled with something. The gap feels like the nothingness of the empty universe—like our mortality bumping into us. You only live once. Better fill it up with stuff. If I can go from thing to thing and plow through the gaps then maybe I can avoid my mortality altogether. Objects in motion stay in motion, right?

In the gaps, we often feel that we’re missing out. Here I am basically getting old on the couch doing nothing, and I just saw on Instagram that everyone else is living the life of their dreams. But perhaps there’s something even deeper that we’re missing out on. After all, if you’re at an amazing concert and you’re still checking your phone in-between songs during the show—still feeling like when you check that everyone else is living the life of their dreams and you’re not—you have a problem.

What if the gap is not nihilistic space infiltrating our lives, but precisely the unstructured, unallocated time we need to rediscover some of what’s great about ourselves and our world. Maybe uncertainty about what happens next is not wasted time, but a chance for serendipity.

Serendipity. Today, it sounds like something really old-fashioned: the sort of thing that typifies romantic comedies on videotape. Someone just got a new job in a place they think they’re going to hate; someone’s flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in town for another night; somebody has to go to Smalltown, Nowhere for the weekend, with seemingly nothing to do. But—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly where they magically run into the person who ends up being their soulmate.

Could it happen in real life? Of course.1 in 3 people now find their spouse through online dating services, but that means 2 out of 3 still discover each other in-person. Some find it through friends and mutual acquaintances. Others, through participation in some kind of common activity: at work, at a bar, in class, and the like. There’s something poetic and pleasantly old-fashioned about romance found without any assistance from an ideal match algorithm or swiping through profiles in an app. Serendipity can work wonders for relationships.

But I doubt most of us expect to find the love of our life while waiting for our fitness class to start or stuck in line getting our morning coffee. So what else might be serendipitously discovered in the gaps?

Good ideas, for starters. For many, open periods of time are when their brain begins to dance around through countless bits of experience, thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and then make interesting—sometimes unlikely—connections between them. When we’re perpetually filling in the gaps as they come, we’re crowding out the potential for our mind to do some of its most unique work. There’s an opportunity there to slide into your creative process. It could be exactly the moment you find that melody you’ve been hoping to come up with, that thing you’ve wanted to write but didn’t know where to start, or pinpoint a change you need to make in your life that you hadn’t noticed before. Oftentimes, the best stuff shows up when we’re not trying.

What else? In the company of strangers, we might have interesting conversations we would never have otherwise. As an introvert, this is really difficult for me. In an elevator or on public transportation, or anywhere else a person can get stuck with people you don’t know, I feel an urgent need to get my eyes locked onto my phone to appear too busy for small-talk. But in the times that I’ve risked it and resisted the urge, I’ve been fortunate to talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ve seen your social media friends post pictures of their cat and their lunch before; you probably haven’t heard anything like what the person across from you on the train could tell you if you’re up for talking.

OK, and what else? Ultimately, so much of the world is there for discovery. Have you ever people-watched? It’s the best. Seriously. Humans do some of the craziest, weirdest, most self-centered, colorful things. In just about any public place, you have a front row seat. Look around for a couple minutes, and you’re likely to see something absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. Maybe then you Tweet about it–because it has to be shared. Or maybe you just keep it to yourself, because that one’s too priceless. You might need that memory to bring you back to a good place on a bad day, or maybe the good ideas bulb lights up and you realize what you witnessed would make for a perfect part of something you’re going to create.

If you had desperately busied yourself with your phone or something else to fill the gap, you would have missed something great.

If you’re going to have fear of missing out, have fear of missing out on the unexpected. Not the concerts, the vacations, and the get-togethers at the new spots all the hipsters are going to. Those kinds of things will always be around, and if you’re an active enough person you’ll get to do lots of them over time. Be concerned about missing out on the sparks of creativity and unique encounters that are only going to happen once and then disappear forever. Too few of those and you’ll really feel some anxious emptiness in your life. The gaps are there to remind you that some of the best things are not planned or expected, and you’ll miss out on them if you’re always trying to do something else. The gaps hold everything together.

This Week in Upgrades: June 27

Brain Faceted
eranicle/Bigstock.com

John Oliver on the absurdity of Internet trolling. Heartfelt and hilarious as usual. Vox

Just another reason to clean up the skies: air pollution is making your brain age faster. New York Times

A safer highway: Samsung develops a see-through truck by putting screens on the outside. Mashable

Pixar’s Inside Out brilliantly challenges our cultural dogma that we should all be happy all of the time. Indiewire

There are now more Americans who are obese than there are who are simply overweight. We’re better than this. LA Times

“If you make a typo or regret sending a message…” In case you missed it, Google’s Undo Send option for email went live this week. Google

Hawaii became the first state to change the smoking age to 21, and it’s not only because of cigarettes. The Verge

Disney has banned selfie sticks at all of its parks. BuzzFeed News

The Back to the Future 2 hoverboard dream will not die, and Lexus may have developed a functional prototype. Could we actually get one in 2015? Engadget

This Oglala Lakota chef is reviving traditional Native American cuisine, and it sounds delicious (and healthy!) “There should be Native American restaurants all over the nation that really show how diverse the United States is in culture and cuisine.” Grist