Saturday, June 7, 2014

We All Need Help

I've been doing a lot of reading, lately.

My New Year's Resolution, if you can call it that, was to read a book a week all year, in an attempt to get through my growing collection.

So far, in 22 1/2 weeks, I've read one single book in its entirety. To my credit, I've started about 7 others, and I've learned quite a bit from them. I just never seem to finish.

I suppose that's like my blog posts. I have two good ones in the pipeline right now, but it's hard to find the time to focus and finish them up. Hopefully they'll be coming along this month.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot lately, just not books.

I have about 97 internet tabs open on my phone's browser right now, and at least 10 more on the computer as I type this. Periodically, I bookmark all the open tabs I haven't gotten around to reading and put them in a folder called "Stuff I Was Going To Read," just to clear the clutter, and then they are supplanted by a fresh set of tabs and I never go back and read any of them. I imagine that, some day far in the future, I will pull up the news items from the Crimean Invasion, the civil war in Syria, and the 2014 Winter Olympics, and promptly close them all because the world will already be different then.

When I say that my phone has 97 tabs open, that's not an exaggeration. That's an exact count.

Why does this happen to me? Well, one reason is that I'm curious and there's opportunity to indulge curiosity everywhere on the internet. Most of my stuff comes from my Facebook news feed, where an enormous variety of articles are shared by my 1200-odd contacts, plus regular updates from and other sites I subscribe to.

I'm pretty good at spotting the sensationalist headlines that they use to draw clicks to viral sharing sites, so it's not because of clickbait. I'm actually interested to understand a lot about how the world works, in whatever sphere.

But there's a second reason, or perhaps a primary reason that drives my curiosity: I need help. Like just the normal kind that everybody needs. Most of us don't ask for help as much as we should, I think.

I need help with stuff. With life and all that kinda junk, you know? Just normal things.

You can find recipes and step-by-step instructions for all sorts of things online. You can find tips about life and relationships and how to navigate your early 20s and job searches. There are also funny pictures of cats and jokes and movie reviews and creative projects undertaken by normal, everyday talented people, but those don't occupy the majority of my time on the internet. The majority of my time is spent reading about new discoveries in psychology, or current political issues, or practical advice for this or that, or religion, or lately, feminism and male privilege and patriarchy (more on this later or never). Then there's also the hodgepodge presented on, which is edutainment about science, pop culture, history, and ignorance, which were all my favorite subjects in high school.

Not all of the things I read on the internet are helpful for my daily life. Very few of them are, actually, but I rationalize to myself that it's important because knowledge is the highest form of understanding (I always forget about experience).

"Knowing stuff could come in handy someday if I end up in any sort of situation." I tell myself. The irony of this thought is that I'll probably never end up in any sort of situation at all if I continue operating under the impression that I could someday finish reading the whole of the useful information on the internet.

There are also books all over the floor of my room right now, because I don't have the shelf space to store them here. When I was in the dorms, my books occupied all the shelf space in my room, and my roommates borrowed a couple of them for classes sometimes. In theory, I'm going to read them all someday; that's why I acquired them. There's some self-help and human behavior stuff, and there's philosophy and history and fiction and rhetoric. All of these things are things I must understand in order to properly engage with the world.

In a recent conversation with my dad, he said that some people have more of a desire to understand the world and how to live in it, while others are simply content to live without thinking about it so hard. Clearly, I belong to the former group, but I've been wondering lately if that is my natural inclination or if it's actually rooted in insecurity.

As you may be able to tell from my last post, I struggle with insecurity in my relationships at times. I also believe that having good relationships provides security - whether that is false security or not, I'm not sure yet, but I've definitely found myself seeking it out. In the brief reading I've done on Attachment Theory, it's become pretty clear to me that I have an Anxious-Insecure attachment style - meaning that I worry that I'm not good enough for other people to desire to stay in relationship with me long-term. So my anxiety in relation to my relationships stems from a desire to protect myself - to be secure by being supported by others. (On the other hand, some people may avoid significant relationships in order to protect themselves from the potential pain that could result from them.)

In a similar way, I think, I try to learn things in order to protect myself from (potentially) making mistakes, from failing (in hypothetical situations), which is one of my (and many American men's) greatest fears. This is reinforced by the idea that, if you fail, people dislike you, dismiss you, and leave you.

That's how relationships and internet usage go together, I guess. I'm a flesh-and-blood human like everyone else, but I've never really had a safe place to go to be weak and vulnerable and protected when I make mistakes - but I do have a place where I can learn what all the mistakes are over time, in order to avoid them and become acceptable to society.

Honestly, I would like to be able to learn from my mistakes in the context of secure relationships with other people, but it doesn't seem like that's happening that well. This is probably a reflection of the breakdown of society and all that.

So anyway, I think maybe it would be a good thing to just be more vocal and aware of the support that we need from one another at times. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Love and Entitlement

On my 13th birthday, I bought myself a bass guitar. It was a pretty big investment for a kid that age to make, but I was committed to it. At a time in my life when I was just starting to realize that I could actively consume music, I went a little nuts, thinking I could master the art form. My future carreer plans were set: I was going to be a rock star.

As it turns out, the bass guitar has a lot of disadvantages: I had to bring an amp with me if I wanted to go pratice at a friend's house, the bass lines for most pop and rock music of that era are incredibly boring to play, and its size makes it somewhat awkward to transport and play standing up - plus, the "bass player starter pack" that I was able to afford on my saved up allowance didn't include the nicest-sounding, highest-end instrument ever produced. The thing that bugged me the most, though, was that it was just too easy.

My friend Andy started teaching himself guitar. When I'd go over to his house to jam, I brought an old acoustic guitar that belonged to my sister so as not to have to haul my amp. I just used the guitar to pick out some bass lines at first, but Andy taught me to play chords and we looked up tabs on the internet. The guitar had a much bigger initial learning curve, but once I got it, I started feeling pretty good about myself. This instrument had versatility and required skill, not just the ability to play quarter notes on the root of the chord. Gradually, I made the switch, and soon I was asking my bass teacher to teach me stuff about the guitar instead. I'd started out as a bassist, but guitar was my real instrument. This one didn't require membership in a band to be cool; solo guitarists are impressive enough on their own.

Impressing others is important during that phase of life. As a kid who'd spent my elementary school years overseas, speaking another language and living in a different culture, I had a very acute awareness that my best chance for surviving the jump to High School was to adopt all the cool behaviors that I could. I played sports and the guys liked me. I played guitar and the girls did.

I won't say this last part is the whole reason I chose music, but it's not like I was blindsided by it. As much as I was interested in music as a carreer, "I'm buying an instrument so the girls will like me" was one of the primary motivators to my purchase - I couldn't be left in the dust by the guitar-playing guys who were my romantic competition.

Obviously, this demonstrates a pretty immature mindset - what can I say? I was 13 - but it also demonstrates something else: I thought I could earn love. I thought I could gain love from another person by being interesting enough, by meeting enough of their ideal standards, to deserve it.

A few years later, from the comfort of a committed relationship, I mused a little bit about what we call "an entitlement mindset," and how it applies to our interactions with one another.

From my vantage point, at age 17, I thought that anger was generally overused as a control mechanism in relationships. This control-anger arises from a sense that we are owed something - whatever in our minds constitutes "proper" or "appropriate" behavior - from those with whom we interact. Parents become angry when their children defy what they've been told to do, and romantic partners become angry (and hurt) when they feel that the other has broken trust, unwritten rules, or a spoken agreement. Understanding now (but perhaps not then) that I, too, do this, framing it this way delegitimizes the whole process as proper behavior, so much so that I remember telling my girlfriend at one point that she didn't "have the right" to be upset at me over a particular issue (which, obviously, I considered to be an unimportant and unreasonable expectation she placed on me and/or our relationship).

Let's back up for a second, because I came to a prior conclusion that led to adopting that philosophical tenet:

Nobody Owes You Anything

That statement is kinda harsh. It's sobering. And yet, it's become at least a sub-cultural narrative repeated in the growing number of internet articles and blog posts about Millennials, a pointed rebuttal aimed squarely at the collective implicit entitlement of my generation.

Since I usually did my best thinking when not doing homework, I kept right on thinking until I realized this: if no one owes me anything, I can't be mad about not receiving it from them. I don't deserve it by my mere existence, and the only things I could possibly be entitled to are things that I've earned, that I've paid a fair price for, and that someone else has agreed to give me. All other things are gifts of generosity.

"Relational commitments can fairly be understood as emotional (spiritual?) contracts between two parties who determine by agreement that they have mutual obligations to behave lovingly towards one another," I concluded.

Ok, that's not the sum of things, but it's at least a good, analytical working definition from which I can muse onward.

"So, then," the thought continued, "outside of mutually understood unwritten rules and spoken agreements, the two parties in a romance are bound by no obligations of conduct. There are, of course, rules of good practice, but both individuals must be voluntary adherents to these rules if they are to work. Of primary importance in the commitment is what exactly the commitment is."

(And of course, the gifts of relational generosity are just the little perks and bonuses - technically, they couldn't be covered under a contract of mandatory reciprocity, because that simultaneously ruins the fun and makes them involuntary and, therefore, not generous, but they nevertheless should be included somewhere in each relationship.)

Partly because I'm an emotionless jerk who speaks of love like it's an impersonal movement of free market forces, but mostly for other reasons, that girl dumped me with absolutely no regard for my guitar playing skills.

Devastated as I was, I needed a rebound relationship. The next week, I (clumsily, and without clarifying that I intended it to be a date) asked a cute soprano from the school choir if she wanted to go bowling with me that weekend ("we'll both bring a couple friends so it won't be intimidating and we can get to know each other," I thought). Nothing came of that besides a phone call in which I made my intentions slightly clearer and a follow up text from her making vague reference to already being in a casual, unofficial relationship with someone, sort of, and not wanting to "mess it up."

Life went on as normal: I would periodically choose a woman and attempt to show her how irresistibly cool I was in hopes of winning her affections. Earning love. Proving my worth. Trying to show that I deserve her time, attention, emotional energy, and admiration.

Life went on as normal: I would soothe my insecurities by making people laugh, speaking winningly, attending social events and flashing my knowledge of various trivia. My roommates thought I was the bomb. The ladies wanted to get to know me better.

Life went on as normal: I would compensate, and people would eat it up. People enjoyed my company - the palatable, pop-culture-savvy, secretly-bilingual, never-satisfied-with-the-status-quo Stephen was a free-spirited riot, a musical comedian, and a fount of unexpected wisdom. 

But like is different than love. Like is easy to come by, because it's completely non-committal, and it can be earned by doing the right things, looking the right way, having the right kinds of crazy impulses, and being captivatingly relatable. It's strictly related to your public persona - and who's that guy?

Love is giving yourself to another such that they can bear their souls and fear no harm. Love pointedly addresses the ugly, unglamorous parts of a person and chooses, unwaveringly, to honor them.
"Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Corinthians 13:5,7
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13
Love is tender, unhindered self-sacrifice. Who can ask that of another?

To bring this all around and explain my last post:
I periodically encounter crises of identity, big life transitions, or overwhelming frustrations, and I foolishly turn to people that I hope can understand, care, and help. Some truly don't understand. Some have more pressing matters before them. Some simply don't know how to help. Alone and helpless, I feel worthless.

The solution is simple, though. It's right there:
Love lavishes immeasurable value on its object.

But when my pleas are met with such anemic replies, my heart is gripped with fear:

Love Is Costly, and No One Owes Me Anything

Love is costly, and no one ever will owe it to me. I can't do anything to earn it, buy it, barter for it - I can't even ask for it like it's some small favor. It's one of those "gifts of generosity" - it's all of them. People have to just choose whether or not they're going to love me, and I can't control it.

And that scares the hell out of me, because I don't think they will.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Happy Birthday

It's already past midnight, but I think that, having been born a little later in the morning, I have a few more hours before being exactly 25 years old.

Lest you think this is a Quarter-Life Crisis post, rest assured that this is, in fact, how I've felt for at least 10 years. Needless to say, I'm not going to be able to get it all out now, nor to have it particularly well ordered, but here's a shot at doing something since I'm probably not going to sleep.

My life is going nowhere. I mean, I know that's not exactly, technically true, but that's the only way I can describe it.

I've never really been successful at anything. I graduated high school in the bottom 5th of my class, and I had to attend summer school for a month following the commencement ceremony to make up an English credit in order to actually earn my diploma (to be fair, this was due to a bureaucratic error).

Now, I realize that this first point can easily be dismissed, because schooling isn't the measure of a person's value - except that, implicitly in the perspective given me by every single person I know, it is. The most important thing I can achieve is to earn at least a 4-year degree, because that alone stands in the way of me ever becoming a useful citizen or contributor to society. Furthermore, I'm "too smart" not to keep banging my head against the wall of higher education; the little progress I've made in the past 7 years really is probably the best use of that time. I'm sure anyone would trade 7 years of their youth for the same privilege.

That's fine. Some people don't go to school. Do what makes you happy.

What makes me happy is playing frisbee, sir. What makes me happy is having meaningful interaction with friends. What makes me happy is feeling understood and validated. What makes me happy is changing the world a little bit for the better for someone.

That crap's not practical, though, is it? I can't make a living at being a good friend, a trustworthy confidant, or a normal person. That's just expected. I'm not allowed to want those things, because just wanting that makes me a slacker with no ambition and no vision.

What makes me happy? Well an alright substitute for happy is daydreaming about being happy someday. The problem is that it's harder and harder to delude myself as time passes - soon enough, "Successful Someday" will have today's date on it, and then it will self-destruct as it comes face-to-face with reality. I get through the reality by hoping for Someday, but all that is is empty hope. The someday that's approaching is just another old day that I wish wasn't what it is.

Yeah, ok. I realize that 25 isn't old. I realize that some people change carreers in their 50s, or that some people don't even start doing what they truly want to do until after retirement. I have a lot of time left, I guess, maybe. But when you're just getting by, time isn't the cure to your woes. As you have more and more days to survive, time becomes a woe.

Great. Another day I can eat, work, and sleep. Another day I can wish for someone to understand me, to actually enjoy me, to value me, to help me discover how I can better the world in some way. Another day people can like me and laugh at my jokes but not really care what happens to me.

So that's all that.

What are the problems?

Well, for one, I suppose my definition of success is a little warped. That's part of why school doesn't work for me. I can't fill out worksheets. I have to pour something of myself into my work, and it takes a lot to dig that stuff out to meet some parameters. Either I write something simultaneously groundbreaking and accurate or it's not worth writing. I can dump verbose nonsense on paper on command, but I'm morally incapable of submitting tripe as anything other than tripe.

That's why this blog has nothing on it, either. I want to share my life, to write what I know and what I'm learning, to be authentic and transparent, but does anyone really wanna read that? It's not all like this, but it does include this sometimes. Whatever I start out talking about all gets muddled and directionless, and the internet's already saturated with bloggers in their 20s whining about this and that and talking out their asses. Besides the fact that everything I know has probably already been said better elsewhere, I don't even know that I've learned much of anything worth passing along. Certainly this isn't.

Another problem, I guess, is that I don't really feel feelings with the exception of despair. Despair and pining and wishfulness. And I don't know how to process them besides writing unnecessarily dramatic blog posts that my grandparents are going to read, I guess.
Ok, that was a bit much. I'm leaving that paragraph there, but I do feel a pretty normal variety of emotions, probably. I've just learned pretty well to stuff most of them and not deal with them and never offend anyone by being too authentically myself. Obviously, the highest virtue is to speak and respond from a place of unblemished rationality, even if that leaves no one ever sure how you feel about anything. At least there's the safety of knowing you can't make an incorrect judgment that way.

I'm emotionally dependent on other people. I need to have everything I say and feel validated by someone else in order to have any confidence in it. Alternatively, if I'm still confident in what I said and it's not acknowledged by someone (or several people) important to me, I feel misunderstood and alone in the world.

I have control issues, I think, but only over uncontrollable circumstances and other people's actions, you see. Of course my personal locus of control is external.

Related to the last two, I really have trouble achieving any personal goals that no one else expects of me.

Listen, I don't really know who I'm mad at. I'm kinda mad at myself for acting this way, but at the same time, I can't apologize every time I try to be honest. I shouldn't behave like some undeveloped man-child, but if that's what I am, we might as well put it out there and stop pretending.

Maybe this alienated everyone, or maybe it drew in some people I've never met. I guess, finally, I should say that I am actually asking for help, please. This isn't something I can just fix by trying harder, or by just doing my homework, or whatever. I'm going worse than nowhere on my own.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Management Candidate of the Year

I've never really been good at managing time. There are lots of reasons for that, and I may or may not get into them right now. This is just a blog almost just for the sake of writing a blog.

Tonight, I'm just writing to be a writer, in order to set a precedent. You see, ever since I started this blog, I wanted it to be good and to be useful, and that's why I've written largely nothing. That one post from Mexico was the only one of the year 2013. I have about 7 other posts with saved drafts and partially-processed ideas, but I haven't taken the time to read through them, complete the thoughts, or draw conclusions to render them complete and publishable.

See, I don't want to write about my day. I only really want to write about stuff that is life-changing. If I haven't gained an insight that I can offer up as a change in perspective to those around me, of what value is my redaction of my experience? But how can I write something so groundbreaking without first having compiled all the known human data and subjected it to deep analysis and meditative reflection?

A year or two ago, my mother provided me with a valuable insight about myself (as mothers are wont to do). As I recall it, she told me, "You know, I used to think that you weren't ambitious about things, but now I think I've realized that you are over-ambitious." That is why I don't write: my standards are simply too high.

I read a couple of articles today that made a lot of sense to me. One was called "The Mistake Smart People Make," and the other was called "Forget Setting Goals." In these twin articles, James Clear lays out what he has learned about achievement: very simply, you must do things.

The amount of time I spend thinking about writing and considering what I could write is actually fairly ridiculous, seeing that it never comes to fruition. I invest so much energy in trying to prepare myself for the task of writing that I never perform the task. So, inspired by his words, I am performing the task.

In summary, I can't promise that everything I write in here will be stellar, nor compelling, nor that I will always use "nor" correctly, but I will be making an effort to micro-blog on a regular basis so that, eventually, something good might manifest.

I'm also going to occasionally (often) use "manifest" and the like as intransitive verbs and engage in other verbal ham-handedness, but I hope that good may come of this even if I don't stop to apologize for it at every turn.

Have a good night.