Getting Closer

No one else can truly know what it’s like to be you. To think the things you think. To feel the emotions you feel (the way that you feel them). The things that get under your skin. The worries that play on repeat. Your hopes, dreams, and convictions about how the world works.

Our distant human predecessors had emotions and thoughts before they had language to describe them. The structure of our brains reflects that developmental history. There’s a whole complex of feelings and thoughts we have inside ourselves before we can put words to it. It can be extremely difficult to formulate them into something sayable or writeable.

But it can also be extremely fulfilling. Words give tangibility and translatability to our internal lives. In conversation or typed on a page, there’s a shared point of reference.

Other media do this, too—songs, sculptures, architecture, and more. They each in their own way provide something that other people can reflect on and respond to. This is how we build connections and relationships with other people. And how we make sense of the world together. One person says things, write things, plays things, and makes things. Others listen, feel, examine, or respond.

We’re all on this peculiar blue rock in the universe—trying to process what’s going on and what our part is in all of it. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s exciting and terrifying and full of potential.

I love what prolific film composer Hans Zimmer said in a recent interview about “getting closer.”

I’m writing one long score. It’s called my life. How many deaths have I written? How many kisses have I written? Each one, I try to do it differently. I try to get closer to the reality. I try to get better at it. “Better” is the wrong word. I’m trying to find out what’s hidden from me and what’s hidden from the audience. I’m trying to peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Whether it’s words, or music, or something else, we’re all trying to get a little closer to reality through the course of our lives. What we know about ourselves, and what we know about the world.

I look back on some of the things I’ve written or said, and they make me cringe. I butchered sentences. I lacked perspective. Because people change. The way we articulate ourselves changes. Our sense of what’s right and good and beautiful changes. That’s part of being human, too.

Those changes and the drive to get closer are crucial to living well together. We’re dependent on others to fully see and understand. We need other people to show us our blind spots, where we haven’t taken things far enough, and where we’re way off track.

The path of getting closer is an imperfect, in-progress one, because we’re imperfect, in-progress creatures. Our vantage points are limited—conditioned by what makes each of us us. No one person is going to get things exactly right. Our efforts to communicate what we know about ourselves and the world don’t always come out the way we wanted. That’s what makes getting closer that much more rewarding. Over time, you can get closer. You end up in a different place than where you started. And there is always room to go deeper and wider.

It’s much more interesting to live life trying to discover what’s hidden from you. To get to the essence of what all this is. Throughout each day, in everything you say and make, and with every opportunity you have to hear perspectives outside your own purview. Each of us has things to share that will bring us closer to the world as it is—and closer to one another.

Familiar and New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Improvising Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunkirk

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

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

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

(Spoilers Ahead)

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

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

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

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

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

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

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

This Week in Upgrades: January 9

Well, hello! A very pleasant Monday to you. Here comes week two of 2017. Are you ready? We’re in that kind of weird post-holiday period where we got all hyped up and now it’s over. What happens next? A lot of cold and quiet for most people, I suppose. Let’s fill it up with good things. No reason for the midwinter to be bleak.

Here’s some of the most interesting stuff I saw this week:

Music has forever changed because of the microphone.

Has a favorite restaurant of yours closed recently? It’s nearly impossible to keep one going nowadays.

Maybe just don’t give kids tablets?

Neature.

With fewer than 30,000 left worldwide and a rapidly warming climate, “the future for polar bears is pretty bleak.”

We still haven’t figured out work-life balance.

The National Institutes of Health now recommends introducing peanut products to babies in their first year to decrease the chance of allergy. Fascinatingly counterintuitive.

If we gave everyone checks to cover their basic needs, would it lead to laziness?

Have a wonderful week!

This Week in Upgrades: December 26

Hello, hello. Did you have a good holiday weekend? How is the Monday after so far? I wish the United States had a Boxing Day equivalent. I’d imagine a lot of Americans would like to have December 25th and 26th off. Maybe someday?

Here are some of the interesting things that popped up on the Internet this week:

Is winter getting the best of you? Scandinavians are good at winter. Maybe try what they do?

Researchers may have figured out what makes a Stradivarius instrument sound so good.

It’s been out for a little while, but I just saw this bad lip reading song for Empire Strikes Back and couldn’t stop laughing.

Are you working for the weekend? Economics has shaped the way that we think about time.

Parents, kids, everyone else–we’re all still trying to figure out how much screen time is healthy.

Is Children of Men the piece of pop culture that helps us understand our moment in history?

I think I’ve recommended Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, before. His newest, Hypernormalisationis also definitely worth watching.

Relatedly, the winners and losers of globalization help explain recent politics. There’s a reason I keep coming back to the common good.

Did some scientists just discover a fully effective ebola vaccine?

We’re aware that trees are important for the air we breathe, but the life of trees is a lot more complex than many of us know.

Stunning photos of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Our planet is still full of surprises.

Ever heard of anapestic tetrameter? I hadn’t. It’s one of the reasons Dr. Seuss books resonate with children so much.

Have a wonderful, safe New Year celebration!

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: November 21

It’s here, guys. Thanksgiving week. If you weren’t listening to Christmas music already the last couple weeks like me, we’re legitimately into the holiday season now. I wrote some thoughts about the holidays yesterday if you didn’t get a chance to check it out. Do you have traditions you’re looking forward to? Favorite movies and music? Places you’ll go? Are there people and things you miss that are no longer around?

Here’s the best that I could find on the Internet this week. Check them out in-between the dishes you’re cooking.

Nature at its most intense. A reminder that safety is not guaranteed.

We all really need to move beyond identity politics.

Some Native American tribes are reviving indigenous crops, and it’s much more than a food fad.

Speaking of food, vegetables may be your secret weapon against illness this winter.

Is now finally the right time for electric cars?

Breakthrough success is not about waiting until you’re old enough. Get going!

CRISPR has been used on humans for the first time. The start of a new era of medicine.

If you’re still trying to make sense of the election, this is worth checking out.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that excessive screen time can rewire youngsters’ brains. “I would minimize it.”

Weekly global warming alarm bells: the North Pole is 36 degrees above normal and Arctic sea ice is at a record low.

National Bird looks like a must-see documentary.

“Post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. I’ve got some thoughts on what’s true and how we know in a post coming soon.

Have a wonderful week and Thanksgiving! (if you celebrate it).

 

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: August 29

Hey, hey! We’re at the start of another week. I’m still on a nature high after visiting the Grand Canyon this weekend. (In fact, I completely forgot to post this yesterday!)

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Difficult to put the experience into words. It also happened to be the National Park Service centennial when we went, so it was quite the occasion. Pretty crazy that it has been around for 100 years. As beloved as the parks are, though, they are also threatened. It’s up to all of us to protect them for the next hundred years.

What else interesting happened over the last seven days?

The Hawaii Mars simulation ended Monday. Curious to see what they found out from this.

“Their hair fell out.” What kind of regulation should the FDA have over cosmetics? It’s not doing much right now.

The global coffee shortage has already begun. A future without good coffee would be a sad one. Just another reason to do whatever we can to minimize climate change.

Speaking of which, a group of scientists has moved to formally declare the current epoch the anthropocene. We’re officially changing the evolution of the planet in detrimental ways.

“A few milliseconds makes all the difference.” Charisma is largely a matter of thinking quickly. Do you run through options in your mind before you decide what to say and do next?

Please don’t drive slowly in the left lane. Saw way too much of this on our weekend road trip.

We tend to think that the present is much different than the past, but we’ve been asking the same fundamental questions for awhile now.

Have you heard the Millennial whoop? It seems to be in every other pop song.

Have an awesome week!