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miscellaneous

This is not the new normal…yet

Since there seems to be plenty of expert opinion out there on what happened, what is happening and what will happen with COVID-19, I am going to attempt to limit myself to my own experience. What I am thinking about, going through and doing as I live through this once in a lifetime experience.

I am having trouble keeping track of what’s changing. I think it was only last Monday that Kentucky and Ohio closed all of their restaurants. While that may be chronologically true, my sense of the amount of time that passed since then makes it seem a month ago or so. My experience of time passing is directly tied to how much of what goes on I have experienced before. None of this has happened to me before, so it seems to pass much more slowly, with more packed in to each day.

I am noticing that the thin veneer has started to wear off at work. Some of the things that were important a few weeks ago don’t seem so now. I notice this in my own ability to pay attention and in the focus, energy and effort that others are bringing to the endless zoom meetings that we are having. I have decided to view this as a good thing – this can be a chance to “burn off” some of the project chaff and focus on what really matters.

I am thankful for the technology that I have access too. I can’t imagine going through this 20 or even 10 years ago. It’s true that I wouldn’t be so agitated/distracted/consumed by media, but I also wouldn’t be able to maintain some sense of normal through virtual happy hours, meeting up with the folks from my gym for a workout from home, and something to watch that the whole family can get into.

I am also thankful for the wake up this has provided me and those around me. While it’s uncomfortable to think about, which is why we don’t, the fact is that living is inherently a risky adventure. Every time I used to leave the house in my car, dine out, or get on a plane, it might be the last time I do that. Those are all risks I’ve accepted and so don’t think about too much, which helps my psyche, but doesn’t really force me to live in the moment with any urgency. This is all a great reminder that now is really all I have so I best make the best of it.

I am thinking about William Bridges transitions model. I have read a lot about “the new normal”, but I think that is misleading. What I am experiencing now is not sustainable, so by definition it can’t last = be the new normal. What I think we are in now is the luminal stage between an old normal and a new normal. I have experienced the grief and pain of letting go. Not going out to eat on Friday’s with the family. Cancelled plays, symphonies and summer music festivals. Putting another trip to Europe on indefinite hold. Now I am in between. A place where I know that the old is gone, but that the new hasn’t quite taken shape. Bridges points out that there is great power and opportunity in this in between space. It’s a time for questioning old assumptions and trying on new ways of being. It’s a time for patience and not rushing to the new normal. If I take my time and sit comfortably with “not knowing” I can use this time to explore many options for what a new normal could look like before settling into one that I prefer. I am slowly settling in to not having to know.

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miscellaneous

Happy 21st and 19th

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miscellaneous

COVID-19: what I’ve learned and what I’m doing / not doing

What a difference a week can make.  In the last week, COVID-19 has gone from somewhere in my top 10 list to a solid number 1, both in terms of wat I spend time thinking about and in terms of what I spend time doing (and not doing).  Here’s a rundown of what it’s taught me, about myself and people in general as well as what I am doing…and not doing (or at least attempting not to do).

What I’ve learned about myself specificall

  1. As much progress as I feel I’ve made through mindfulness practice (journaling, meditation, etc) I still get caught up in my thoughts far to easily when under stress.  I did “catch myself” clicking into that next news article, staying up later than I should have reading / watching, and waking up earlier than I needed to with my mind immediately “spinning”.  Everything is a teacher and the next few weeks is a great time for me to test and improve my practice, holding myself with compassion when I fail (which will undoubtedly happen).
  2. I noticed some feeling and reactions I’m not so proud of.  For example, I was elated when the market dropped 10% on Thursday.  I felt excited and self satisfied for being on the side lines.  Another example: my kids college’s both went to at least tempory remote instruction within a few hours of each other this past week.  While I am glad to have them home, I was also immediateley worried about them bringing the virus along with them.  Perhaps I have more shadenfreude and disgust reflex than I would like to admit.
  3. My first reaction is still to do something.  At first it was read all I could.  Then it was stock up on a few things (thankfully for me this was Monday).  Then it was tell everyone I cared about how bad it might be and that they should limit travel and prepare.  Then it was to help keep things moving at work and with my church.  I still haven’t been able to make myself sit with this and just let it be.
  4. I’m actually a little more “socialist” than I thought I might be.  COVID-19 hasn’t caused me to sudenly support massive government interventions since I still believe that the only real power that we give to a government stems from a monoploy on violence.  However, I do actually care about the health and wellbeing of others, even those I don’t know far more than I might let on sometimes.  I’m doing / not doing most of the things listed below not because I think I am in any real danger, but because I think it’s the best thing I can do to slow the spread.  As I read somewhere in the last few days (it all runs together so sorry for lack or attribution): going out in crowds because you’re not worried you will get sick is like driving on the sidewalks since you know you won’t get hurt.  Sometimes its not about you.
  5. I still don’t like “not knowing”.  I really liked the question “what would it feel like to not have to know” since I first read it in Reboot a few months ago.  However I recognize I am still not good at being comfortable in a place of not nowing.  I want testing availalable for everyone now so I can know the real numbers.  I want a complete decontamination procedure so I can know I am safe in my own home.  I want leadership that seems in touch with reality and has a clear idea what we should do so that I can know what the next few months will be like.  These things are just not for me to know right now.

What I’ve learned about people (including me)

  1. We are really bad at math, science, logic and pretty much everything else that the Enlightment gave us. I’ve seen so many posts about how few people this has killed compared to the flu which proves we are bad at understanding exponentials. I’ve seen an equal number of posts claiming that drinking hot water (or worse bleach) are a cure which proves we are bad at science. Reason and logic are not everything, but they are a tool that can help understand and even solve some things. Viral pandemics happen to be one of those things.
  2. We have made a mess of our sense making apparatus. It’s a strange twist of fate that a technology that was supposed to bring us together has seperated us so deeply. We seem to have lost any way to come to a common idea of what is real. We used to have institutions, norms and trust in expertise that could help tease out, hopefully in public, what was real, at least a local / operational sense. All that seems to have evaoprated and as a result we can’t seem to make any effective collective decisions. Democracy is a reasonable (least bad?) way to make decisions, but it requires something that is outside of it to come to consensus reality. One reason that China seems to be “beating us” in their response to this threat is that our political mechanisms are no longer based on any common sense making aparatus.
  3. We will do anything to feel in control. Why else would TP be sold out everywhere?
  4. We are less “socialist” than I thought. Despite the seeming popularity of socialist ideas and leaders, when push comes to shove it seems we are all much more about the one than the many. I expected this from the Me generation (Boomers), but must say I am suprised seeing this in Millenials. I know its a lot to process, but I would have thought they would be rather ready stop going out for a few weeks to save us all. Us in Gen Z are just going to sit in the back with our anxiety and let those two generations kill each other I guess.
  5. We really are bad at recognizing new situations. I can’t help but connect this to System 1 / System 2 errors from Thining Fast and Slow. The basic idea is that System 1 operates most of the time. It is the “real time” system and given out limited capacity to take in everything, it operates on assumptions, stereotypes and hueristics. It’s fine when things are “normal”, but it can lead us astray when they are not. Another part of the work talks about these heuristics, or biases and how they can lead us astray. One bias that seems obvious in the last week is normalcy bias, which keeps us from noticing when things are not normal…and causes us to over react when we notice that they aren’t. Another is recall bias, which substitutes the likihood of something happening by the eas at which we can recall something happening. It’s been interesting to see this one in action on those that are on opposing sides of the reaction spectrum. Those that are in the “it’s just the flu” camp can’t ever recall a global pandemic killing 2% of the population, so they default to the closest thing they can recall. Those that are buying all the TP are deep into some sub-reddits that allow them to easily recall the death rates from the 1918 spanish flu for 10 major metropolitan areas as well as which one had the worst time of it in the second and third wave…so they buy all the TP. Even when we do recognize something new, we seem to react in the old way. Preparing for this like we would a bad snow storm.

What I’m doing

  1. Staying put mostly.  This is the big one.  Since Sunday I have left the house twice.  It’s the intersection of wanting to have control and trying to do what I can for others.  I had a slight concern that I might have had it – I attended a conference a few weeks before it was a thing that several other people that were in attendance have since tested positive.  That’s nearly 3 weeks in the past now, so it seems I would be showing some symptoms by now.  So staying put now is mostly about doing what I can to slow the spread and being a good example to others.
  2. Reading.  I’ve got a huse stack of books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.  Excuse delivered (although I would have much prefered to have won the lottery or even to have been fired as the excuse).
  3. Cooking.  Since we’re not going out much, we’re cooking a lot more.  This is a good thing, mainly since we already know how to cook (I can imagine it would be less so if that weren’t the case).  Of course cooking means that we get to eat, but its also something for us to do together and gives us something to do that we know is taking care of us and others.  Another way I am taking care of myself (since I am eating what we are cooking) is exercising ;-).
  4. Helping.  I’m mostly trying to help my church stay conected through the next few weeks, but also helping local businesses by buying gift cards through their websites as a way to get them cash as their business drops.  I’d donate if they’d let me.  Our church is closed to gatherings for the next few weeks, so I am helping out there by getting them setup to live stream a service and putting together tech guides and support for lay leadership to continue to do their work while we are practicing social distancing.
  5. Working.  While my backlog of to do items is getting a little thin, I am “going” to work each day (translation: chaning from PJs into clothes and going to my home office in the basement).  I do understand that it’s a tremendous privelage to be able to continue working AND to stay at home that not everyone has.  I am grateful for it but don’t feel guilty.

What I’m not doing

  1. Hoarding.  I am enough and I have enough.  My last trip out on Monday was for enough to let us stay put for a couple weeks (and included no TP…we already had enough of that…and there wasn’t any).
  2. Panicing.  I am finding a way to be vigilent without being anxious.  I am finding a way to pay attention to what’s going on without obsessing.  I am finding a way to notice what is new without assuming that everything “normal” is out the window.
  3. Wallowing.  I don’t think this is the end of the world.  I do think this is a time we will talk about as “before” and “after”, but we’ve had those before (9/11, financial crisis) and made adjustments and moved on.
  4. Watching sports.  Since there isn’t any.  While I support the decision 100%, a small tragedy in all of this is that we won’t get to spend our time watching March Madness.  I do think there is a huge opportunity for EA Games to do a massive e-sports basketball event, having the teams play each other online. I’d watch.
  5. Going out.  This may seem obvious since I am mostly staying put, but it is one that I have to keep in mind since I do really enjoy going out (to dinner, to a show, to a bar, etc) and honestly its the one that makes me feel most like I am over reacting. I am refraining from judging others that are going out in the hopes that they will respect my choice as well.

This is where I am today.  I used to write here in search of some ineffible truth.  Now I recognize that all I can do is capture the state of my mind as it is.  My hope is that I will read this in a few months and laugh at most of it as serious over reaction.  Time will tell.

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miscellaneous

Quality over Quantity

This article in the most recent Atlantic was perhaps the most disturbing article I have read in a long time. Mind you I am writing that when there is no shortage of extremely disturbing articles to read between acute topics like Corona and systemic topics like income inequality. McKay Coppins starts the article by describing a personal experiment, creating a fake Facebook account, following Donald Trump and then anything else that was recommended. A few weeks later they noted:

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.

This should be alarming to everyone that understands it. Here we have a person who was fully aware of what they were doing, most likely had oppositional (or at least neutral) political leanings and while not being convinced to “go to the other side” had their basic ideas about truth and reality fundamentally challenged. They lost touch with their sense making apparatus. This is what the strange combination of post-modern politics and social media technocracy is doing to us all.

Former Ethics chief at Google, Tristan Harris (who’s position remains unfilled AFAIK) is fond of saying that every time you go online you should know that you have an AI pointed at your brainstem. While there is much ink spilled over what the coming AI boom will mean to our humanity, we don’t need to imagine it. It’s happening in our politics right now.

This doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with direct foreign interference in our elections, but it seems to have at least a “genetic” relationship. Again from The Atlantic article:

 The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.

This mirrors what Gary Kasparov has said in numerous outlets, the most recent I heard being the Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein. The point of these activities is to achieve exactly what Coppins experienced: an inability to make sense or to figure out what is real. Rather than shutting down new media, political operatives have figured out how to create noise and confusion that they can take advantage of.

My initial reaction to all of this was to call for some sort of regulation and not the “sunlight” policies that Zuck is trying to pass off as transparency in a bid to avoid regulation:

To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.

The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.

I think we need something with teeth, first amendment implications be damned. I recognize the hypocrisy is the previous statement given my firm and consistent support for the second amendment and the individual right to keep and bear arms. Why should I get to have as many guns as I want, but Facebook can’t run as many micro targeted ads the fundamentally change the nature of our democracy? I’ll be honest: this is one I am still working out, but it seems to me that if there is a difference it’s wrapped up in the coincident ideas that corporations aren’t people and force asymmetry.

I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with Facebook, going back to when I created my account in Oct of 2007 (which was the same day I established a presence on Twitter). There are lots of real friends that I am only connected to there. Much of the dates, places and pictures of the last 10+ years of my life with my family “lives” there. But I think I need a bit of space. I’m not deleting my account or anything, but I’m not going to “hang-out” there until at least the election is over. Three reasons:

  • I haven’t voted in the last few elections as a form of protest against the whole enterprise, but I am re-evaluating the maturity of that position and want to avoid as much manipulation as possible. Or at least subject myself only to manipulation that I can at least have a reasonable chance of seeing coming and understanding.
  • I find that liking things my friends post gives me a sense that I am doing the work of building relationship, without actually doing it. As a recovering introvert, I don’t need anything that keeps me away from this important work. Similarly, I find that sharing things (especially since they make it so easy) keeps me from doing any real thinking on my own. “I’ve said my piece by sharing that meme” leads to the lethargy of pretend thought and actionless action.
  • I find that scrolling through my feed, I put my friends (and those that are left are mostly people I have a relationship with outside of Facebook) too easily into neatly defined categoeries, thinking that the meme or post they shared completely expresses their view with no reason to explore further, closing off an opportunity to have an interesting discussion, learn something and/or deepen relationship that could happen in the real world. No, none of these thing are possible in Facebook comments ;-).

I’ll continue to write and share things here. I know it means that far fewer people will see me in their feeds. I’m going for quality rather than quantity.

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miscellaneous

Praying I am bad at math

Update: @LizSpecht does some similar math projecting the implications on the healthcare system.

I like to think I am pretty good at math. Day to day stuff like calculating tips in my head, but also more obscure things like calculating surface areas of 3D objects, doing basic calculus and developing basic math models to fit data. I’m still in awe when someone on the academic team I coach evaluates a quadratic integral with a log thrown in in less than 5 seconds, so I am by no means extraordinary, but pretty good. And yet, I am absolutely terrible at statistics. I have gone as far to say that since I am pretty good at math and bad at statistics, that statistics must not actually be math, which is no doubt some taxonomical form of the fundamental attribution error.

I suppose I can take some solace in the fact I am in good company – or at least there are a lot of other people equally bad at statistics. I would argue one the main points of Thinking Fast and Slow (still one of the best books I have read in the past 5-10 years) is that many of the problems we face, both personally and communally, come from the shortcuts we create because we are bad at thinking statistically.

Remembering that I am bad at statistics, it seems to me that we are all suffering from a bit of being bad at statistics in some of the discussions that are going around about COVID-19 / Corona Virus. I’ve seen a few posts from credible sources that are trying to downplay the potential impact of a COVID-19 pandemic by stating how many people have died from the seasonal flu vs how few (comparatively) have died from COVID-19. I’ve even seen a few (from perhaps less credible sources) that are making comparisons to the number of people that have died from cancer, diabetes and even car crashes.

In one way, these sorts of arguments are doing some good in that they are fighting against one of the heuristics that Thinking Fast and Slow mentions: since we are such bad statistical thinkers, we substitute the ease that we can recall something from memory as a proxy for how likely it is. With all of the news coverage we are likely all overestimating the chances of dying from a raging case of Corona.

What these arguments miss is the population size. While its true that the total number of people that have died from seasonal flu is much greater than the number that have died from Corona, it’s equally true that the number of people that are infected with seasonal flu is also much higher…for now. What matters here is the rate, which a real statistician would argue is barely statistics, but we still seem to be getting wrong.

There are two rates that matter: The infection / transmission rate and the mortality rate. The latter seems to be hovering between 1% and as high as 3.4% depending on which model you use, which is between 10 and 20 times more deadly that seasonal flu. The former is what seems to be the big question. Infection rate depends on things like virulence, how quickly and how often symptoms show and actually mortality (if it kills you more often / quickly, it is less likely you will transmit it to others). If we have an infection rate that is 10 to 20 times less than seasonal flu, then statistically we will get the same number of deaths as seasonal flu. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case so far with some officials stating that between 40 to as much as 70% of the worlds population ultimately destined for infection. If the low end of both numbers are right that’s 30.8M people dead by the time this is all over. Let’s really hope I am as bad at statistics as I think.

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podcasts

The Evolution of Parenting

It’s Monday and all things are possible. On my morning commute, I was listening to the most recent episode of the Reboot.io podcast in which Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler recounts her early family history and how it made her become interested in conflict, leading her to write her most recent book.

As I listened to her story, I started to wonder how we are ever able to break out of the cycle of parenting in the same way as we were raised? Simple rebellion may have something to do with it. “I’ll never do this to my children” where “this” is whatever trauma most deeply marked the parent that repeats this phrase.

But I think another part of it might be the cultural recombination that is a natural outcome of marriage. The genetic exchange that happens as part of reproduction is fundamental to evolution and diversity. But just as Harari points out in Sapiens, the unique capability that has catapulted humans to be in charge of everything (sometime’s to everything’s detriment) is our ability to tell each other stories. Those stories form into cultures and today we see cultural evolution as a far more powerful and faster acting element in our lives than genetic evolution.

I think parenting styles in long term relationships is a great example of this and explains another important mechanism in allowing the next generation of parents to change things up. I wonder if this might be another challenge of single parenthood (not that there aren’t enough already): the single parent is left mainly with what they “learned” from their parents about how to be a parent and what they see in the culture at large. They don’t get to recombine their style with their partners in the petri dish of the home and come up with something new and hopefully better.

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podcasts

Speaking of unspoken games

The thing I love about HPB and Podcasts is the randomness of them. Sometimes they give you just what you need to read or hear respectively and this morning was one of those times.

While I am just 15-20 minutes into it, the most recent episode of The Portal features Agnes Callard, who dropped the idea that when we meet new people we are engaged in two unspoken games simultaneously: we are trying to build a relationship with them AND we are trying to jockey to status. These games push us in different directions; make us behave in ways that are curious even to ourselves.

I did a quick search and couldn’t find the article mentioned in the opening of the podcast, but did find this one, which has some really interesting things to day about why we play some of these unspoken games, and why the are unspoken in the first place.

Spoiler alert: it seems to come down to our need to have status be both freely available as a basic humans right AND be attainable through action / reward. Those two viewpoints are to date irreconcilable so we end up acting out in ways that are incoherent.

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miscellaneous

Boy problems

I’ve been deep into a few books, so have let my stack of periodicals get a bit out of control. I decided to tackle it a bit this week and was reminded why I subscribe to The Atlantic: articles like this.

In The Miseducation of the American Boy, Peggy Orenstein chronicles her interviews with college bound / college enrolled boys about their relationships with other boys and how that informs their relationships with girls. The challenges she finds are existed on the edge of my awareness, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t want to stare at directly. Part of that reason is that I’ve raised my boy (and girl). They are both over 18 and doing well at adulting. I think we were able to give them a wider view and better models of masculinity/femininity as well as a basic foundation of respect with open hearted questioning on top. But I also know what this article represents is more representative of the water they swim in and that leaves me with a number of thoughts:

  • Not to sound old, but geez was it easier when I grew up. I have what I feel is a healthy dose of compassion and an inquiring heart/mind for the conversations around gender, identity and relationships that today’s youth get to have (I’m failing at not sounding old), but still it seems inordinately complicated.
  • I’m thankful for navigating this with our two children, now adults, in what seems to have been a healthy, effective way. Especially since I had no idea what I was actually doing at the time. At the same time I feel somehow responsible for providing something to those that are still trying to make their way through this, but am not sure how or whether to act on that feeling. Teaching the faith and sexuality class one way I am doing this, but that will only be a few weeks. Then what?
  • I do wonder if some of this is a (mostly) unintentional byproduct of the important work to build up female identity and power. In a well intentioned and much overdue attempt to right past wrongs, most recently in the form of the #metoo movement, have we built up and women, expanding the Overton window of what is allowable for girls, at the cost of tearing down and giving increasingly limited options to boys? This is not to say that I feel or have experienced anything remotely resembling a backlash for being a white, cisgendered male in my life. But the stories in the article seem to me to be related to not replacing all the things we rightly removed from masculinity (misogyny, patriarchy, etc) with something to aspire to. A model to emulate.
  • Now here’s the part that I will likely get into trouble for: I think that these boy problems will (or maybe even are) cause problems for girls, at least for hetero / cisgendered ones. This is totally colored (i.e. biased) by my own experience, but I have been made immeasurably better through the relationship I have with my wife. And I think she would say the same about her relationship with me. That improvement is not because we are the same, but in fact because we are different, we know each other and we see each other’s blind spots. It seems to me that the boys described in this article will struggle to be a good mirror to the girls they manage to build a relationship with. Those girls will miss the opportunity to see themselves through the mirror of their partner and vice versa.

In all of this, only one thing is clear: There are no clear diagnosis or easy prescriptions. I only hope we have reached some sort of local minima and can improve from here. I hate to think about what worse relationships between boys and girls could look like.

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podcasts

What I’m listening to now

Here’s my current list of podcast subscriptions, with the ones I listen to most often in bold and newest subscriptions in italics. I’m still using the native Podcast app on my iPhone although I am interested to try out Spotify. Just need a reason to switch.

On average I listen to about 2-3 podcasts a week. Mostly when driving. More when I travel (on planes) or in the spring / summer (when I have to I get to mow the lawn). Fewer when I am working from home or in a mood for music. So obviously with this sort of feed I miss a lot.

Podcasts have been an important part of my journey. I find it to be the absolute best thing to have emerged from the web. They have reintroduced long form conversation and the best ones let you hear both all sides of important ideas and arguments in more than soundbites.

I do find it interesting that I had to compile the list above manually. I looked for a podcast app that would send data to a wordpress plugin, or at least publish a feed and couldn’t find one. It would be even cooler to have real time stats on what I had just listened to, similar to the Spotify social feed. Maybe spotify podcasts does do that. That may be my reason to switch.

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books

When Things Fall Apart

I have been and still am a “fan” of Buddhism. I think I am allowed to be that and still be an Episcopalian. I think it started listening to Tim Ferris’s talk about the benefits of meditation. I’m not ready to fly to Tibet and renounce all of my earthly possessions, but I do think there are some interesting ways of thinking about things that the Buddhist tradition has to offer.

So it was when I started reading Reboot that I was interested in Jerry’s connection to what he learned from his teacher and added a few of the books he mentioned to my to-read list. It was only a few days later that I found myself in the place where the universe gives me a sign of what to read next when I saw one of the books on the shelf: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

I am not struggling right with anything specifically right now, but that’s not what this book is about. While it can help you with a crisis, although probably not if you read it in the middle of one, the essays in this book more wake you up to the idea that things are falling apart all the time. That’s the way of things. Living is dying. It’s only our clinging to the way they are or the way we think they should be that causes problems.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.

There were a few essays that stood out to me. Three for ideas I found helpful and even comforting. And one that I am still struggling with.

The first in the helpful / comforting category is “The Six Kinds of Loneliness”. The message in this essay resonated with me since it gets right to the heart of how I feel before I start to subconsciously (although more a more, day by day I can at least notice it) look for a distraction.

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we invite in….

…When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and rolling loneliness the turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

The 6 kinds of this cool loneliness are:

  • Less desire: the willingness to be be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up
  • Contentment: giving up the feeling that there is being able escape from our loneliness will bring any lasting happiness, joy or sense of well being
  • Avoiding unnecessary activity: notice when we are keeping ourselves busy simply as a way to avoid the pain of being lonely
  • Complete discipline: being ready at any opportunity to come back to the present moment
  • Not wandering the world of desire: noticing when we look for food, friends, entertainment and instead relating directly to things as they are
  • Not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts: not hiding in the joy of our own inner dialog when things get lonely.

The second helpful essay was about Nonaggression and the Four Maras. This one spoke to me since it gave a label to all the ways I have tried to hide various fears and avoid what is in front of me. The four maras are:

  • Devaputura Mara involves seeking pleasure.
  • Skandha Mara has to do with how we constantly try to reinvent ourselves.
  • Klesha Mara is all about how we use our emotions to stay asleep.
  • Yama Mara is fear of death.

I have been visited by all of these Maras at various times and have not responded well. I think that knowing their names will help me see them more easily…and invite them to tea.

The final helpful / comforting essay was the final one in the book called The Path is the Goal. This was a nice wrap up that basically says…where ever you go, there you will be. The path is not preset. There isn’t a manual. The path presents itself in each moment and our only job is to be awake in that moment and do the best we can. Everything is a teacher.

The one chapter I struggled with was on Hopelessness and Death. Big surprise, eh? It actually wasn’t so much the death part as the hopelessness. Chodron seems to be arguing in favor of taking up the position of hopelessness, as it represents a rejection of how things are and/or a clinging to an idea of how they might be. Perhaps its my “American” showing through, but I struggle with the idea of hopelessness being a superior position to having and hope. How would anything ever get better if people had no hope. No clear idea of a better tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I also know that things are better by many measures today than they were 200 years ago largely based on hope and skill. Perhaps I am missing the point. Or I still have some more work to do. Both are probably true.

Overall, I enjoyed When Things Fall Apart very much and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the pathless path, the groundless ground and the ways we think ourselves into knots.