Fish in Space

A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Stress

The following is a fairly meta post about stress and dealing with stressful times. I'm neither a neurologist nor a psychiatrist so I do not have an expert opinion on the topic, I have only my personal experience and the tactics I've learned to deal with it. People who are close to me often describe me as extremely calm and patient, which always surprises me. I never really think of myself that way but in the end appearances matter.

The reason I bring this up, of course, is because I'm feeling a lot of stress at the moment. A lot of it is personal and per my usual policy I won't go into details here. My usual response to events that provoke me is to stop, take a step back and breathe, let myself feel the emotion and once the moment has passed try to look at the problem as objectively as I can. It's important that I feel emotions but it's even more important that I act more than react.

In this article in the Washington Post (I strongly recommend you view the page in Privacy or Incognito mode of your browser unless you have an active account with the Post, also strongly recommended) they discuss a political issue revolving around stress and panic. The point that stands out for me is is this:

A new book by neuropsychologist William Stixrud and my friend Ned Johnson provides an explanation. The book, “The Self-Driven Child,” explains how calm parents give their kids more sense of control and help them perform better.


The science is simple. If you are calm, your executive functions handled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex — organizing, problem-solving, self-control, decision-making — perform well. If you are overly stressed, those functions decline as your brain floods with cortisol. Stress is contagious, and if you are in the presence of somebody who is out of control — a parent, an employer or, say, a president — your own executive functions decline.


“It’s a terrible thing for a chief executive of anything to be fear-mongering or emotionally reactive,” Johnson explained, “because all the bright capable people around you become less bright and less capable if they’re overly stressed.”
By creating an atmosphere of calm around me I encourage other people to be likewise calm and focused. My best man brought up this quality about me during the reception for my wedding, and my wife has commented on it as well. So tonight when I shared with my wife an angry letter I was writing she expressed a bit of surprise that I was really angry. It's true, I was and I still am. I'm struggling not to let my anger dictate my actions but I can't avoid allowing it to color them. The reason I wrote and sent the letter is because there's a problem that's been going on for a while with someone else and I needed to respond. I needed to take action, not simply react, and decide what I'm going to do going forward. I took some time to mull it over and I kept coming back to the same conclusion. So I made the decision and acted on it. I'm not happy about it. I'm angry that I've been forced into this corner. But after a great deal of thought I can't come up with a better solution. All the good choices have been taken away from me.

That's life, sometimes. We recognize we are powerless to correct or resolve a problem and all we can do is worry. We rant and rave and do everything we can think of to release that stress but so long as the circumstance remains unchanged it's a coping mechanism at best. Until change happens the stress never truly goes away. In this case there is something I can do to create change, but it carries consequences that I can do nothing about. It carries consequences for people on the periphery of the problem that they can do nothing about. It affects people I care about and I can't help them, I can only choose between evils. I hope that I've chosen the lesser of them but opinions will vary. In time I hope that my choice will be vindicated, but that's something only time will reveal.

History is repeating itself with my problem. I can't help but feel I'm repeating mistakes that others have made before me. There are people in my life whom I have mostly walked away from because they create too much toxicity and nobody needs more of that. I know some of them regret what they've done to me in the past because they've expressed it to me, but frankly I don't care. I don't trust them enough to believe that they truly feel regret, that they don't still believe everything they said and did was absolutely justified. I don't trust them enough to give them the chance to do it again. I'm worried (and will always worry) that I'm committing that mistake now, that the action I feel is justified at this moment will forever poison my relationship with people I care about deeply. Of course I run that risk no matter what I do; I know what some people want me to do but thanks to the corner I've been placed in I don't see how I can. So this is me trying to process the stress and powerlessness I feel over the options available to me. I've chosen to take a stand with as much openness and honesty as possible. I have offered to explain everything to the people affected by it but I can't make them listen and if I tell them anyway I can't make them believe me. I have to give them the choice and to honor whatever decision they make.

I'm not the only one with problems. I'm not the only one who is stressed. As the article I linked points out, everyone's stress has gone up significantly over the last eighteen months even for people who think our nation is on the right track. It's impossible not to feel stressed when there's so much insecurity and unpredictability in our daily lives. No one can see the future, but some have a clearer understanding of outcomes than others. I try to follow those who have a better track record but no one is infallible. So stress is something we just have to learn to live with. You can bury your head, block out the news and pretend nothing is happening outside of your bubble, but eventually life is going to intrude anyway. The path I choose is to acknowledge the stress and its sources and having done so continue moving forward. I can't change the past or present, I can only decide what I'm going to do about the future. Some of those decisions are going to be mistakes. I can't change that, either. But I can try to learn from my mistakes and try to make tomorrow better than today. If we all do that then we can ultimately forge a better world for everyone.

Wouldn't that be a welcome change?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

America the Tainted

The Chicago Tribune published an opinion piece called "Your response to Trump’s racist ‘shithole’ comment will be remembered." For those who weren't paying attention or enough time has passed for that day's scandal to have faded from memory, the comment in question was a complaint about protections for immigrants from "shithole" countries, namely Haiti, El Salvador and African nations. It was not an unusual comment from Donald Trump, serial racist that he is. The man has no respect for anyone who isn't white, rich and filled with flattery for Donald Trump. But the fact that what was surely an off-hand remark isn't unusual has no bearing on how reprehensible it is. He not only denigrated the kind of people who come from those countries but the countries themselves. That's why there's been so much public outcry and demands for apologies from dozens of nations around the world.

My response to Donald Trump?

You are not my President.

Donald Trump may be my elected leader through dint of a legalistic interpretation of our election laws but during an election year with historically low voter turnout, nearly three million more voters voted for Hillary Clinton over him, and I'm one of them. But still, the law of the land says that based on the votes he got in the states he won he's the President. Fine. He's still not my President. He may get to set policy, and has done a historically bad job of that, but his comments do not represent me. When he engages in a flame war with North Korea on Twitter he doesn't represent my interests. When he defends neo-Nazis who march for white Christian supremacy, he doesn't speak for me. When he degrades women and insults minorities I disavow him. When he brags about installing conservative judges who have no qualifications and tax bills that enrich him and the nation's wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class he's not a leader.

Donald Trump does not represent me.

This is a dark time for our nation, one that hopefully does not presage a repetition of previous dark times we've endured. However we come through it I have hope that we will survive intact and that we'll learn not to blindly trust con men who make big promises about what they think we want to hear with no plan to fulfill them. However we come through it history will record this as a blot that we inflicted on ourselves by being too eager to listen to men pandering to our darkest desires so they can manipulate us for their own ends. I'm ashamed to be a part of it for all that I did my part to avoid it. My voice was not enough.

Do I sound angry? I hope so, because I am. This is not my America. This is not my nation. These are not my people. These are a fringe element who managed to lie their way into power and are doing as much damage as they can before they're forced out. This is not the world I want to live in and certainly not the world I want my children to inherit. This cannot be allowed to continue, and I hope enough people recognize this to help me stop it. I hope you'll join me.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The God Quality

I have previously addressed the Problem of Evil in a another post but I'm not sure I really addressed the Christian apologetic of divine command theory. In its most simplified form, Yahweh can never be evil or immoral because he's the god. This god quality automatically makes everything he says or does automatically moral because of who he is. Because we do not have this god quality we have no right to pass moral judgment on anything he says or does. No matter how evil or immoral any action (or inaction!) he takes it is automatically made moral by dint of his authority as the god. If we do the same evil, immoral thing citing Yahweh's action as precedent we are still evil and immoral because we do not possess the god quality. The Profit of the Church of the Fridge wrote an incredible essay comparing the morals of Superman against the morals of Yahweh and I highly recommend it.

The Christian answer to the Problem of Evil is that there's no problem at all. Just ignore it until the problem goes away. I think that sounds perfectly reasonable when you don't think about it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Why do I care if religion mixes with politics?

I truly believe that religion is a personal matter, a decision we all make about what reality is and how it works. As an atheist I don't believe religion has anything valid to say on the matter based on my observations of reality versus claims religions make. But I can't force anyone to agree with me and refuse to support public policy that would criminalize religious belief or worship.

When someone tells me that they approach politics with a religious mindset I can't help but roll my eyes. This is an example of what we're talking about when we refer to beliefs informing actions: how do you expect to formulate good public policy if your foundation of truth is a fantasy? I can't stop people from voting that way but I can uphold secularism in which people are entitled to believe whatever they choose but can't use our laws to coerce compliance with religious belief.

I draw the line when people try to inject religion directly into politics. It is a direct violation of our highest laws and a bad idea in general. Politics and government are subjects that require deep analysis and careful consideration of the consequences of policy whereas religion requires you to take your brain off the hook and do as you're told. Consider for the moment the way religious belief mimics drug use. Would you trust a politician who constantly nods off on morphine or freaks out on LSD? Would you trust a drug dealer to faithfully represent the interests of his addicted customers? If not, then why would you trust a religious fanatic with the intimate workings of our government?

When Roy Moore gave a religious sermon explaining why he refused to concede his electoral loss he used religion as a weapon against his opponent and our nation. His religious language was designed to bypass his viewers' cognition and appeal directly to their id and get them to respond on instinct rather than rationality. I can't respond to that in any way except as a threat.

There are many examples of how religion is a threat to modern society and human progress but I think this is fundamental: religion encourages us to bliss out in a dopamine haze and leave the driving to someone else. I can't stop someone from choosing to partake but I can help them recover from addiction.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Flying On Autopilot

What I'm about to discuss here is not ground-breaking. Many people will already be aware of the topic but I feel it worth exploring.

Working in IT I have necessarily learned a little bit about automation. Learning to write computer scripts to automate common tasks has been a significant boon to my life in computer support like when someone is constantly losing their network mappings or there's a folder that constantly fills up with old, unused temp files but never gets cleaned up and ultimately slows down the operating system. Yes, I'm looking at you Microsoft. not exactly hands freeThe point being is that scripts are labor-saving devices, tools we can launch to automate a process that would take more time and energy to do by hand. What's interesting is how we do this in our daily lives in ways that have nothing to do with computers. Did you ever drive somewhere familiar to you but with the mental note that you need to make an extra stop, then miss it? You were driving on autopilot. Did you find yourself talking about something with someone only to discover that neither of you were talking about the same thing?

We all develop strategies for dealing with everyday life, like taking one route over another on our way to work or navigating potentially hazardous social settings. We come by these strategies through observation, imitation and experimentation. I'm a little teapotAt some point in our lives we were taught strategies on various topics and tried them out, learning for ourselves what works or doesn't work. We then took those strategies and created mental scripts for ourselves to use them without wasting much time thinking about it. Once a situation matches a pattern in our scripts we automatically launch into the behavior we think is most appropriate to the situation we think we're in. But we don't always get it right; we sometimes fall back on our behavioral scripts when we ought to be paying closer attention to what's going on. It's something everyone does to some degree.

Why am I talking about this? For a couple of reasons really. One is because most of us aren't aware that we're doing this or really think about what it implies. Another is because we can get lazy and avoid change because that would require more energy than we're willing to commit. We often call this "getting stuck in a rut." Sometimes we get frustrated because we recognize we're in a rut but we're not willing to spend the energy necessary to climb out of it.

One of the most egregious examples of this behavior involves religion. There are a number of reasons why so many religions focus on ritual and repetition and one of them exploits the human tendency toward scripted behavior. They LiveThe more you do it the less you think about it, and we find that comforting. It relaxes us and allows us to fly on autopilot. It becomes habit-forming and we get locked into following the script we're taught to follow. Religion encourages this, particularly on religious matters. Don't think about it, just do as you're expected. Which means when religion gets things wrong its followers don't notice or don't want to think about it. They can get angry when confronted with it.

I've spoken before about the need to shock believers out of their complacency but I never really explored what I mean by it before. This is it. This is the nature of religious complacency: the human tendency to develop scripts for ourselves so we don't have to spend much energy thinking about what we're doing. Faith, in the religious context, means you're not supposed to take yourself off autopilot when it comes to religious matters. Anything that deviates from the script is a bad thing and might be punished severely. This is how loving, compassionate parents can turn into monsters who beat their children or harass them, even kick them out of their homes when it turns out the child doesn't share their beliefs. This is how good people do bad things: because they're following the script that's been ingrained into their behavior since infancy.

Something's gotta stop the flowHow do you break the script? It depends on the person. Some people cling to their scripts, too insecure to ever deviate from them. Some people are just too complacent, uninterested in putting forth the effort necessary to examine or modify their scripts. Some people just aren't aware that they're following a script and, once it's pointed out to them, will make them willing to take a closer look. Some people are frustrated because they recognize they're stuck in a rut and are open to change. You never know until you talk to them and find out.

I've spent the last three decades examining my scripts and adjusting them to the best of my ability. I still make mistakes and I still fly on autopilot far too often than is good for me. But I know I'm prone to it and I'm willing to change. Sometimes I just need help figuring out how.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

What is America?

First, because so many of us seem to have forgotten it, a reminder of what America used to be.

For those who have forgotten or never knew, this is what's inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, the gift we put on display to represent what America is supposed to stand for. We were never a nation of nobility ruling over serfs. We were never a nation of priests passing judgment over the laity. This was never supposed to be a club where you had to pay to get in. It was supposed to be a land of refuge where no one could tell you which god to worship or which master to serve. Whether you were poor or rich, brown or white, godly or heathen this was supposed to be a place where you could come to find your own way and not have to conform to anyone else's demands about who you are.

Now we've entered an era where all of that has changed. Now we're afraid of newcomers, suspicious of strangers if their skin is brown or they pray to strange gods. If they eat the wrong foods or say the wrong prayers then we feel the need to dehumanize them, to describe them as rapists and murderers and thieves. We no longer want the tired and poor, the huddled masses of the world seeking respite on our shores. If you don't already have money to add to our coffers then we consider you a drain on our resources, a parasite seeking a free handout that you haven't earned. Nevermind that our own ancestors were unlikely to be rich when they first arrived. We've forgotten what it means to have empathy and compassion and in their place we're promoting distrust.

This last election cycle has torn up the country and left us bleeding. It brought forward all of our darkest impulses and we decided that they would somehow keep us safe. All we have to do is hurt others before they can hurt us and we'll be okay. We have to keep out strangers unless we like the color of their money and that will make everything okay.

Why not build a wall?

Why don't we ask the East Germans how well they think walls protect borders. Of course, their wall only covered 66 miles in total. Our wall would need to cover thousands of miles with constant surveillance. And according to the people in a position to know best it won't actually work. "Rather than depending on a wall, Mr. Kelly said the key to stopping drug smugglers was to attack the problem at its source." That means better enforcement, yes, but also charitable aid. Empathy and compassion, the very things we've repudiated, so that's not going to happen.

Don't you care about illegal immigration?

In as much as I care about the law, yes. But illegal immigrants aren't cartoon monsters with claws and fangs. They're not evil masterminds bent on destroying our way of life. They're not here to take away our jobs or replace our good, white stock with their dirty brown mongrels. They're people who are desperate enough to take a chance at living illegally in the US on the promise of better pay and a better standard of living. Most of them didn't even cross illegally, they just overstayed their visit. No wall will prevent that. But their very desperation is what brings them there and they know they're likely to find someone willing to exploit it. So do we punish people for their desperation or do we crack down on the ones who exploit it? For years I've been pointing that out but for some strange reason no one ever wants to punish the exploiters.

We've become the United States of Bigotry. Muslims aren't like us so we're laying the groundwork to ban them. Whites are quickly becoming a minority so we're cracking down on minorities. If you don't look like us, sound like us or smell like us then we don't want you to vote, speak or be seen. If you're willing to put up with a certain amount of abuse and stay quiet then we'll let you do ugly jobs for illegally low wages but we're working to make everyone desperate enough to work for those wages so that incentive won't be around for long. And we justify it because it's not happening to us, we're just trying to protect ourselves. We're trying to restore some lost glory that went away not because of trade, not because of illegal immigrants but because the world has changed and we won't listen to anyone willing to explain why we're not going to get it back the way it was.

We're in a lot of trouble, and it's going to get a lot worse. I can only hope that we remember who we truly were before we lose it all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Revisiting the Existential Threat to Western Society

I've argued this before but the topic is still hot so I'm going to approach it from a different perspective.

Believe it or not, Muslims are not inherently bad or evil. It's one thing to challenge their claims and criticize their actions when they behave badly, but that's not what a lot of the criticism is doing. I don't like vilifying Muslims as a group for a number of reasons. One is because they're not a majority in my society the way Christians are, so it's not as easy to punch up. Were I living in Iran or Saudi Arabia that would be a different story, but that would carry its own set of problems worthy of criticism in their own right. Vilifying Muslims in a Christian-dominated society doesn't promote secularism or anti-theism so much as give shade to Christian agendas. Even if you're not intending to promote Christian supremacy, unintended consequences are still a thing. If we want a post-religious society then I strongly believe that secularism needs to be our goal, not anti-theism. When enforced correctly secularism can't be so easily subverted to promote a sectarian agenda. Anti-theists can get so caught up in focusing on a particular threat that we ignore all others.

Another reason I don't support vilifying Muslims or other minority groups is because in spite of our recent gains atheists are still a minority. If there's anything that Christians and Muslims agree on is that atheists are a threat to religion. If you think that Christian society is a valid defense against Islamic aggression what you're doing is empowering Christians to fight against ideological threats. That necessarily includes us. Speaking as an atheist, if you think that Christians won't use the power we give them to shut us down with the same zealotry they'll use against Muslims you're sorely mistaken. We are the original Other, the true existential threat to all religious agendas. We may not use violence to achieve our ends the way Christians and Muslims do, but we are no less dangerous to their goals.

Christian extremists have been looking for ways to roll back the clock on the Enlightenment, to overturn secularism and restore their religious power in Western society. We should not help them achieve their goals by undermining secularism in our zeal to oppose Muslim terrorism. It will not stop with Muslims.

So think again before you share a post from Breitbart, World Net Daily and other right-wing sources. Look to see what else they have to say about religion in general; are they just anti-Islamic in particular or do they promote secularism in general? If the latter then go ahead and share it and I'll support it when I see it. But if it's just the former then most likely they're promoting a Christian agenda and no matter how much you may hate Islam or Muslims, that's not going to help anyone who isn't a Christian. Like me.