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?

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.

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: September 5

“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” Those words from an 1894 House of Representatives committee report pointed to the welcome arrival of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Whereas previously, work in America was often characterized by 12-hour or longer days, 7-day workweeks, child laborers, unregulated safety conditions, and appallingly low wages, the late 1800s saw mass unionization and strikes to improve working conditions for everyone.

There’s still a long way to go to achieving the common good–perhaps a total rethink and remaking of the American Dream, achieved through more unionizing, striking, or other collective effort. But I hope that, at least today, many of you are able to rest from your hard work and enjoy the day as you please.

Tons of interesting things in the world and on the web to delve into on this holiday…

Maybe enjoy the day with some oysters? They’re surprisingly great for the planet and for you.

Be careful out there: bad driving is the primary cause of traffic jams. Just another reminder that we all suck at driving.

Looking for something to kick back on the couch and watch? Chef’s Table: France is très bon.

As someone who doesn’t even use Snapchat, this interview with a 14-year-old on how high schoolers use photo- and video-based social media was super interesting. I feel so old.

This is not how the voter-candidate relationship is supposed to look. Money in politics is an ethics issue for both major parties and their candidates.

Life on Earth may have emerged much, much earlier than we thought. Absolutely fascinating.

Hooray for print books (#bibliophile)! Also, could we maybe get to 100% of Americans having read at least one book in the last year? Learning and new experiences make the world go ’round, and you’re talking about a page or less per day to read one book in a year.

Some overzealousness with Zika wiped out millions of bees. Bees can’t catch a break, and we need them to.

A National Institutes of Health review confirms that non-drug treatments like yoga and acupuncture are effective against common pain. +1 for yoga.

Fracking just caused the largest manmade earthquake in US history. I’d say we need to be asking some more questions about an energy extraction process that does this.

Speaking of energy extraction, the fast-tracked Dakota Access Pipeline construction is causing all sorts of destruction and desecration of Standing Rock Sioux land. Protesters were met with pepper spray and dogs. Complete WTF situation.

Here’s a brief history of stop-motion animation. Such a cool art form. Want to see Kubo and the Two Strings.

Hope you have the best week possible. Thanks for reading!

How to Adult: Find Your Lifeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.