In this, more or less unplanned audio blog, I muse on questions of why anyone should pay taxes if those who benefit most from societal structures don’t, and on the nature of rules, the lack of natural justice, and the fact that the world only makes sense when you force it to do so.
In this audio blog, I discuss the advice (featured in the excellent book How Not To Be Wrong), that you should try to prove your theorems right during the day and try to prove them wrong by night. I liken this to the very nature of scientific epistemology and the notions of free expressions championed by John Stuart Mill. I decry the tendency of true believers to try to shut down dissent as failing themselves and their own arguments…among other problems.
In this audio blog, I explore the notion that seeing our concerns as they are relative to the size and age of the cosmos can help us to put our smaller worries into perspective, to improve our prioritization, to make our political discourse less nasty, and maybe even to improve our chances of someday becoming significant on that cosmic scale.
In this, my first impromptu audio posting, I muse on random thoughts including (but not limited to) rationality, politics, the pros and cons of audio versus written posting, the irritations of social media, and probably other topics I’ve forgotten.
I’m going to try to keep it short, today, because I want to get back to writing and editing my fiction, especially Solitaire. Apologies if this disappoints anyone.
It’s frustrating how little time I can find in any given day to get done what I want to get done. I doubt that I’m the only one with this lament. And yet, when the weekend comes, I find it hard to force myself to get up and write—or even to get up and edit—first thing in the morning, as is my goal. This was why I decided to write my Iterations of Zero posts on Tuesdays: I found that my intention to write them on Sundays rarely panned out, even when I had something important in mind that I wanted to get out there.
Instead of lancing those intellectual boils I often ended up just letting them fester, and sometimes I lost the urge to address them at all. What happened to the underlying infection in such cases? Perhaps it went the way of all overextended metaphors and faded appropriately into nothingness. Or perhaps it will recrudesce in other places and other times. Maybe that’s a good test of how important such subjects really are to me.
When I used to go out shopping with my kids, and they saw some random item they wanted, I told them say that we would wait a week. If they still wanted the thing—without having to be reminded of it by going past it again—then I would get it for them. If not, then we would consider their desire a momentary impulse, and not worth the money.
This worked out pretty well. They didn’t feel absolutely stonewalled; I wasn’t saying that they couldn’t have this thing that they thought they wanted. There was no angst such as might be present if I’d just said, “You aren’t getting that. Full stop.” But, as will surely come as no surprise, most of the time they forgot about their impulse completely. On those rare occasions when they didn’t forget, I was true to my word (if memory serves).
Maybe that’s a good rule to follow with respect to writing. If I feel a burning urge to comment on some issue—some momentary, outrageous flash in the social media pan, for instance—I should step back and consider well, for a while, what I might want to say. If the topic fades out of my mind after a relatively short time, then it’s probably not that important.
It might even be nice if everyone on social media—and perhaps in all other media—followed this precept.
It boils down to the principle of not feeding the trolls. If some meme or statement on social media arouses your ire and makes you want to comment—especially if your comment doesn’t really add anything new to the conversation—maybe you should count to ten…ten hours, if possible, but at least make it ten minutes. If what you want to say is really important, then you’ll surely still feel the impulse to say it after a mere ten minutes has passed.
This is not to say that, if someone asks some factual question, like “what the heck is a black hole, anyway?” and you think you know the answer well enough to satisfy them, that you should wait to reply. But if you see some post riddled with emotionally provocative imagery and/or information (especially without any references to confirm the truthfulness of statements made), it might be wise to hold off responding, especially if your response would be something like, “This is why I hate those kind of people,” or “This is why our society is doomed to destruction,” or similar ventings that add nothing to the discourse, but which do encourage people to post more such memes, and make your life a little angrier.
Trolls only have power over you if you give it to them. Real issues, real concerns, real dangers, will not go away if you briefly ignore them. This is one of the great tests of whether something is “real” of not. If you can kick a rock even when you aren’t looking at it, then that rock is really there.
For the time being at least, I’m going to try to follow my own advice. I’ve got three memo sections in my cell phone full of potential topics for discussion, and I’ve already written about some of them. Many are real, legitimate concerns to which I will almost certainly return. But I don’t need to go read through those notes periodically to try to inflame myself anew on their subject matter. As the Tao te Ching says of the Master, “Things arise, and she lets them come; things disappear, and she lets them go.” I’m a long way from being a Master, and I doubt that I have world and time enough to achieve that state, but it’s a target worth keeping in sight.
In the meantime, I’ll try not to feed my internal trolls, and I’ll try not to buy too many impulse items, literally or metaphorically (this is hard for me with books, but I’m getting a little better). I’ll trust that those matters that are truly important will stick with me and will inevitably come out either in my nonfiction or someplace hidden in my fiction.
A subject doesn’t have to be steeped in outrage to be interesting, after all. I’ll try to save my own outrage for situations in which I can’t seem to escape it. Maybe that’ll make me a happier, more light-hearted person. At least it will make me less subject to the whims of trolls, both external and internal. And that has to be a good thing.
I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be. The other is a wild child. He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff. Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything. Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways. The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.
The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this. He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him. The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.
I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others. Continue reading “I don’t like the prodigal son”
When exploring certain website discussions relating to depression and suicidal ideation (let’s say I did this for academic reasons), I came across a statement—not isolated in its character—that basically told readers that their life was a gift, and they shouldn’t throw it away. The stupidity and arrogance of such nonsensical points is typical of such sites, such discussions, such forums and quorums, and it’s so terribly irritating because it makes me think that the people out there who are nominally trying to help people with depression—a worthy enough cause, and a positive enough intention—know next to nothing, perhaps worse than nothing, about the subject and at least about some of the people they’re presumably trying to help.
A depressed person who is seriously thinking about suicide doesn’t experience life as a gift, and it’s terribly pointless to assert to them that it is. Even from an objective point of view, it’s ridiculous to say that life is a gift, just as it’s nonsense to say that life is a curse (though the arguments for the latter often seem more convincing). Life just is; it’s something that happens, and the quality of each individual life varies, even from moment to moment within a given life. The overall measure of a life—the integral of its happiness, the area under the well-being curve—also must vary across some Gaussian distribution, which means that there will be people who fall both well above and well below the mean, through no fault or credit of their own. To tell a person two standard deviations or more below the happiness mean—perhaps just through an accident of neurology—that his or her life is a gift is frankly insulting. It seems calculated to make such a person feel even more guilty than they often do already; it points to the objective facts of their subjective experience and tells them they’re not correct to feel the way they do. Such a person must either believe the statement and hate themselves more for being unable to appreciate a “gift” they have been given, or to spurn the point of view of the one making the statement as at best ignorant, at worst frankly malicious.
A similar problem occurs when help websites and crisis sources say things like, “Talk to your friends and families.” If a person felt able to talk to friends or families about the problems they are having, they probably wouldn’t have quite the problems they have. A person who has such resources—and, crucially, who feels justified in using them, in subjecting those who potentially love them to the burden of their irrational, depressed, depressing, event horizon thoughts, which may lead to further, perhaps complete, alienation—seems less than likely to reach a crisis where they’re looking for information or thoughts about suicide prevention…or about suicide methods. Bringing up such things often serves simply to highlight to the seeker that they’re in an abysmal situation, one they probably feel that they deserve. The message seems to be that most people who come to this resource—whatever it might be—have friends and family they can readily seek out for help, who know what to do, who don’t have problems of their own to deal with, and have the time, expertise, and patience to help a person who is already the scum of the earth. Someone in crisis is going to feel that they must really be much worse (as a value judgment) than most of the others who seek this source of help, and that he or she is probably is not the target audience for this—or possibly for any—help source.
Of course there are crisis hotlines and related centers available, where one can talk to well-meaning strangers. These tend to be volunteer-staffed, and those volunteers should be cheered and thanked far more than they surely ever are, but unfortunately, one can have bad experiences with such resources (quite apart from the fact that many depressed people find it difficult to open up to anyone, let alone to strangers). Such a bad experience happened to a person I know who called such a center during a terrible personal crisis. Precisely because that person was in such a severe crisis, the Palm Beach Country Sheriff’s Department was summoned by the help line, and that person in crisis was handcuffed and taken away to a shit-hole mental health facility, the handcuffs doing nerve damage to that person’s hand and wrist that lasted for over a year. Someone who’s been through something like that is far less likely to try to use crisis lines again, even when in extremis, especially since nowadays it’s so easy to track a caller’s location. How sure can a caller be that they are anonymous and “a-situ-ous” and won’t suddenly look up to see green-clad thugs from the barrel-bottom-scraping local constabulary come to take them away to a place that makes jail seem (reputedly) preferable by comparison.*
Of course, there are mental health resources available in the form of psychotherapy. These are of varying quality, but most of them can at times be useful, and the practitioners tend to be well-meaning, sincere, and professional. However, if one doesn’t have very good insurance—and I mean truly exceptional—let alone if one doesn’t have insurance at all, one tends to have to pay for such things out of pocket. It’s not cheap. It can also feel rather demeaning, in a subtle, strange way. After all, if paying for sex would be potentially embarrassing, then how much more humiliating is it to need to pay to have someone just listen to one’s troubled thoughts…especially when one finds one’s own thoughts hard enough to bear when they’re not even spoken aloud?
This post is obviously more of a rant than it is a call to action or a suggestion of answers. I don’t know that there are any good answers, and the people I’m criticizing probably deserve better. But that’s kind of the point. The world is neither just nor fair nor kind, and we are given no guarantees that there will be solutions—not just ideal solutions, but any solutions at all—to given problems. Some functions are just non-computable. Reality, via the unassailable mathematics of the second law of thermodynamics, makes only one promise in this life, and that is that it will come to an end. There are times when this promise doesn’t have the character of a threat, but is actually the most reassuring, soothing offer of relief.
Is that thought a symptom of illness? Is it a mark of enlightenment? Or is it just another highly stochastic, directionless outcome of natural forces acting on very large, very diverse populations of nervous systems which exist in environments quite different from those in which their ancestors survived and evolved?
What is one to do when one is more well-aware of the processes that lead to depression than many of those one could seek for help? What is one to do when one has heard and considered the arguments and points of, for instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is well aware of all the mental pitfalls it is designed to circumvent, and finds it less than useful against the nihilism and pro-mortalism of one’s (provisional) philosophical conclusions? What is one to do when one understands—as well as it can be understood so far, anyway—the function of SSRI’s and related substances, and has experienced their effects, and finds that the detriments outweigh the expected benefits, at least in one’s own case? What is one to do when one understands, at an intellectual level, that one’s thought processes are maladaptive, but one still cannot thereby correct them, and one knows—at a professional, expert level—that we simply do not have adequate resources to correct them in any reliable, durable way (other than that final “correction” that is the bare bodkin)? And what if these problems are further complicated by chronic, daily pain, and the parallel loss of essentially everything one had held dear?
I don’t expect to receive any useful, surprising, answers to such questions. One tends to encounter trite nonsense such as the “life is a gift,” and “there are people who care about you,” tropes when one puts such inquiries out into the world. The latter point might even be true, but it’s beside the point. Is an individual ethically obliged to endure long-term and short-term net suffering because a modest group of people, with whom one has occasional, superficial contact on social media, will be transiently saddened if something happens to that individual, before the others all just get on with their lives as before (which is what they should do)?
I’m obviously not the first person to ask such questions. I’m quite certain that I won’t be the last. I expect no benefit to come from having asked them. To be honest, I expect no net benefits from the world at all. This is Iterations of Zero, after all…and the net outcome of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time…which is to know nothing.
*I’ve been in both, and to be honest, jail is worse, if only because, when they think you’re a danger to yourself in jail, they lock you in a very cold, small room by yourself, with only a flimsy paper gown to wear, no mattress, no pillow, and a hard metal bunk frame (with sharp corners, weirdly enough).