Friday, June 30, 2017

Social Reflex vs. Understanding vs. (this spot intentionally left blank)

Some years ago I was listening to my cultural anthropology professor talk about how there are core elements that must be addressed by people living together in a society. Her contention was 'culture' is how a particular society addresses those issues. This is a simple but profound concept. The manifestations are different and details change over time, but the core elements are fixed to human social behavior. They have to be addressed. 
 I was trying to frame this  in a way that I could grasp and being both a sci-fi geek and a rebellious in nature, something clicked. “So it’s like Sturgeon’s Law,” I said. 
“I don’t know what that is,” the professor replied. 
“90% of everything is crud.” 
“I don’t understand” 
“There is 10% of issue that must be addressed and the remaining 90% is how a specific society does it” 
She thought about it for a second, before admitting that would work. 
Welcome to throwing the baby out with the bathwater of blind rebellion. The mistaking your 90% for the 10% of traditionalists. And the ‘before you tear down a fence know why it was put up in the first place’ of pragmatists. While we’re at it, welcome to a major problem about the new generation gap...oh and poverty... and being raised dysfunctional ... and...and... 
Yeah, it’s kind of an issue. 
Except it’s like the story of the father who took his 4 year old down to the ocean to see a beached whale. Standing in front of it, the child asked, “Where’s the whale, Daddy?” It was so big, the child literally couldn’t see it. So let me reduce things down a bit. 
Think of an annual event where family and friends come together, everyone exchanges gifts, eats, observes rituals and customs. Name that holiday. Obviously, if you’re American I’m talking about Christmas. Unless you’re Jewish, in which case I’m talking about Hanukkah. Unless you’re Vietnamese, then I’m talking about Tet. Unless you’re Muslim in which case I’m talking about Eid. Unless you’re Chinese then ... 
See it’s not the ‘holiday.’ It’s the behavior. It’s the group coming together, sharing, bonding, remembering, celebrating and committing to each other on a scheduled basis. A sense of goodwill and celebration that extends beyond just the family and goes out into the community. Oh and creating community and fellowship, yeah, that’s kind of important too. This commitment and goodwill is kind of important for us to function and co-exist. Important to the point of every culture has their own version. In fact, you could say it’s a 10% issue ...because it is. 
 Bet you never heard of your holidays described like this before. No need to. Because face it, these traditions/customs are just something you were raise with. To the point of you don’t even think about it. It’s just something you do -- and everyone else does -- in your society. In fact, you could call it ‘social reflexes.’ 
Or putting it another way, you don’t have to understand -- hell even know about -- the need for scheduled reaffirming of commitments. What’s more important is you participate. That’s a 10% issue embedded in the 90% of things that you ‘just do.’ You were raised to do things without question. Things that serve vital purposes. (Even if you think it’s just running around like a chicken with your head cut off in preparation for the damned holiday.)
My point is these customs serve purposes both beyond the surface ‘details’ and any simplistic ‘____ism’ or personal feelings. You may not know it, but by participating in the particular custom you’re doing something much bigger and more important. You are in fact, addressing a 10% issue.
Which brings us to the (this spot intentionally left blank) in the title. 
What if you were raised in a dysfunctional/scattered family where you weren’t allowed to bond? For example, if your mom couldn’t keep a relationship going and you changed ‘families’ every few years? Or you’ve decided you’re so smart and superior that you don’t buy into the crass commercialism of the holidays so you refuse to participate? Or that since you don’t believe in the --often -- religious overtones of an event you act as a little raincloud of resentment? Or because of personal trauma and/or resentment you get depressed and angry about being forced to deal with ‘those people’ and go in expecting trouble? In any of these -- and more -- cases the individual’s personal agenda gets in the way of achieving the goals of the underlying 10%. 
Okay fine and dandy, you don’t want to play. Modern society has enough safety nets that this can work for an individual. Well, let me rephrase that. You’re not going to die if you don’t have a group to bond with. You’ll be as neurotic as a three-legged troll, but unless you choose to suck a bullet you won’t die because of it. Oh, did I not mention that being social primates if we don’t ‘have a group,’ we go nuts? This is kind of a booger because a big problem we face today is how many people have lost the skills necessary to maintain long term relationships. 
And that brings up the problem of how many people were never taught HOW. 
See in rejecting customs we’ve often thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Often in railing and condemning the 90% ‘details’ we’ve failed to recognize the embedded 10%. Which hey, as an individual, that’s okay. You can hurt yourself all you want. The problem is when it becomes generational. 
In our rampaging quest for independence and emphasis-on-self we’ve kind of created a massive untended consequence. Many in the next generation weren’t given the understanding about the need for the 10%. I’m not talking about rejecting the 90% I’m talking a blank spot in their understanding of what it takes to be a functional human being.
I’m not talking malice. I’m not talking selfishness. I’m talking parts missing. 
Now lest people get to hung up on the whole holiday trauma drama idea, let me give you a different example. What does it take to keep a job? 
Seriously. Stop and think about it for a second. Bare bones, what standards do you have to meet in order to stay employed? I’ll give you four: 
1 - Show up 
2- Show up on time 
3 - Do your work 
4- If appropriate, have an acceptable appearance
There are more, but those are pretty basic right? (Como se de se, “10%”?) To keep a job you need to meet these standards. To do that, you need to ‘assign value’ to them. This influences your decision making. (For example you party all night long on your ‘Friday’ instead of when you have to be at work the next day. That way you don’t call in with the round bottle flu.) People who are interested in keeping their jobs, accept and meet these standards. They do it as well... a given. You don’t even have to think about it, you just do it. 
 However, did you know one of the challenges of getting people off generational welfare and out of urban poverty is they have to be trained to assign value to these ideas? To understand why, know this: The skills necessary to keep you alive in poverty are not the skills that will get you out of poverty. (These folks are real good at surviving in that environment.) Followed by: In the urban poverty lifestyle those four standards are not relevant. They don’t understand why it’s important. I cannot stress enough, these are missing parts. It’s not just being told these standards (knowing them). Without the assigning of value to them, those four standards are just noise. 
And the fastest way to ignore them? “That doesn’t make sense.” True. But a big part of it not making sense is you have important parts missing from your world view. You need to have A and B in order for C to make sense. This is a gap that goes beyond just youth and inexperience and into not being given the resources and framework to develop understanding.
This is where we really have to stop and consider the problem of ‘in rejecting the 90% losing the 10%.’ Core elements -- that used to be passed on as social reflex (you did it because ‘that’s just what you do’) -- are no longer being communicated. A big part of why is the people who are not passing them on -- if not outright rejecting and condemning it all -- don’t understand the difference between the 90% and the 10%. 
Remember, the 90% isn’t fixed, it can be changed, adjusted and developed. And quite frankly it happens all the time. But throwing out that 10%, yeeeeeeeah, that’s a problem. It’s also made worse by the fact that there are people who are actively working to trash the current 90% and replace it with their version of how things ‘should be.’ (Take a good hard look at what happened after the French Revolution and the attempts to redesign society... up to and including the Terror.) A big part of that involves tearing down the current 90%, but do they understand that 10% still has to be addressed? Here’s a hint, utopia without the 10% isn’t utopia, it’s hell. 
But attempts to create a perfect society isn’t the main problem. The bigger problem is: What we rejected yesterday is going to bite us on the ass tomorrow, and it’s creeping up on us today.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Chang Your Fuckin' Zip Code

There's a abyss people can fall in. It’s a dark and evil place filled with monsters. It's got all kinds of nasty, dysfunctional stuff in there, like addiction, betrayal, death wishes, trauma, depression, hatred, violence, abuse, suicide, death, yada, yada, yada. I liken this mental abyss to the Grand Canyon. It's frickin' huge and it’s hell on earth. 
Of those who fall into the Abyss, most never come out. Fast or slow, they die there. Now while this is the biggest and most traumatic thing that has ever happened to the individual, straight up, it’s just another day in the Abyss. Namely because it’s filled with like minded people -- and other things. In fact, there’s worse the further in you get. (Remember my first question about ‘bad’ is “Did the person live?” If yes, I say,“Good, we can do something.” If no, the second question is, “How many parts was the body found in?” Where’d you think I got such a warm and fluffy standard?)
Some people fall into the Abyss and at some level they manage to grab on to something and hang on. They don't get worse, but they don't get better. They’ll stay there for the rest of their lives. Other people try to climb out, slip (or give up) and fall to their deaths. People who’ve never been there don’t understand why this happens. Start with the only guarantee in the Abyss is it sucks. I mean that in both meanings -- but mostly about pulling you down. Oh and while climbing out technically sucks only slightly less, it’s WAY more painful, scary and work. Painful because many of the things that soothes the pain of the Abyss are denied to you at this time. Scary because you have to question your ‘truths’; truths that sent you into the Abyss in the first place. Work because ...well you’re changing your entire life. So depending on the individual, just hanging on can be one hell of an accomplishment.
Still others do manage to climb out. Once you've climbed out, you're pretty well exhausted, torn up and twitchy. I liken this to, at first, just laying on the edge of the canyon panting and hurting. You're alive, but you’re a mess and can't do much. 
It takes time to 'recover.' That’s what really want to talk about. Not just the time, but breaking the Abyss’ domination of your life -- especially after you’ve gotten out. This is important because once you’ve been there, the Abyss never goes away. But there’s a difference between it not going away and controlling the rest of your life.
So there you are exhausted and bloody at the edge. In time you can move enough to set up a camp and take care of business while you heal up some more. Those wounds you took in the Abyss seriously limit you. And while we’re at it, there’s the exhaustion issue. You’ve just shot your wad getting out of that big ass canyon. You’re not going to be able to pop up and do a double time a fifty mile march. This ‘camping’ is very much a part of the recovery process.
Here's what’s interesting about that camp. Even though you're not in the Abyss anymore, it still 'rules your life.' I mean it's RIGHT THERE! A yawning darkness that’s there all the time and still having major influence on everything you do. Its presence limits your options and weighs heavily on your soul and consciousness -- including the high likelihood of falling back in. As long as you’re camped on the edge, it’s still staring you in the face. Oh yeah, take a wrong step and you’re back in it. (Or decide that it’s ‘easier’ back in the Abyss and you deliberately jump back in.) 
So there you are, you’re alive, but just barely. And even though you’re out of it the Abyss is still messing with you. Here is the core message of this piece: You aren't supposed to permanently set up house on the edge of the abyss. Yeah you need to camp for a while, but over-all, the goal is to get the hell away from the edge. Keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it.
That temporary camp on the edge is where you try and make sense of the suffering. Understanding is another process that takes time and work -- and here is what a lot of people don’t get: It’s going to change. Yeah, yeah, your life will change. But I’m talking about your ‘understanding’ of the suffering. There’s an old recovery saying, “When you’re in a toilet all you can see is a bigger toilet.” Well, when you’re camped at the edge trying to make sense of the suffering, the only tools you have to make sense of what happened are the same thoughts that put you in the Abyss in the first place. Your ‘understanding’ of the toilet comes from the toilet. So don’t get married to it. It’s at this time that you have to be careful not to turn into -- or be turned into -- a permavictim. 
See there are alot of people out there who want to help you ‘make sense of the suffering’ and get over the trauma of having been in the Abyss. Often in the form of ‘help’ that really, really makes sense. At least sense to the way of thinking that put you into the Abyss. That’s to say it really sounds good and it’s a much better story about ‘you’ than the one that put you into the Abyss. A lot of people really grab onto these ‘new and improved’ tales about who they are. Once again, put a push pin into this, we’ll come back to it. Back to the Abyss and the camp. In time you’re going to heal up enough that you can start doing stuff. By that I mean doing more than just surviving and -- literally -- healing. You don’t run a sprint after surgery, much less a marathon. Healing of your psyche after getting out of the Abyss is the same thing. It’s not just the original pain that sent you into the Abyss, you picked up a lot more wounds while in the Abyss and on the way out. 
 As you heal and get more ‘energy,’ you come to decision point. What are you going to do now? This is both a bigger question and a weird-assed one than you’d think. See before you fell in, your thinking was dominated by whatever sent you to the Abyss. While you were in it just getting by ate up all your attention. That’s why “What now” is a weird-assed question. You’ve never had to ask it before. There’s another important point that is both contentious and a little ... well squishy: Resources. Contentious because some will argue you never had resources, others take the approach that “yes, you had them -- or at least the potential -- in the past (but, like parts tearing off a satellite that’s lost its orbit, they were stripped away as you were going down in flames.)” Then come assholes like me who point out, “Why does it have to be either/or? Why not both?” That squabble aside, the bottomline is at the ‘camp,’ you don’t have too many resources. To recover and get on with life, you’re going to have to do something about that.
Anyway, resources are also squishy That’s partly because it’s a basket concept. Partly it’s that ‘resources’ are both physical and non-physical. When I say a basket concept, that means there’s lots of topics that go into that basket and not all of them make sense to someone camping on the edge. That’s because not all of them have a physical existence. Sure ‘money’ is physical resource, so too is owning a car. Those are physical resources you can have - or not. With physical resources there’s always a matter of how much and how reliable? (Is your car reliable and can you afford to fix it if it breaks down?) But coping skills, boundary enforcement, self-discipline, people skills and time? Those are not physical; but they are very much resources you need. And to get them, you have to develop them. Something you won’t often hear is gaining resources is a part of the recovery process.
 That’s because resources are a big part of getting away from the edge. But, here’s the catch, as you’re healing some of the most important don’t look all that important. The ones you can see can look insurmountable odds. For example the old quandary: To get a job you need experience, but how do you get experience if you can’t get a job? (The answer to that problem is in some of those non-physical resources.) Putting in terms of this analogy: Resources will be the ‘supplies’ you’ll need to break camp and move on. Move on and away from the Abyss.
Changing tracks for a moment, a guy by the name of Fredrick Nietzsche said “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that saying. But I’m going to add a caveat, once you’ve been into the Abyss it’s carved into your psyche like the Grand Canyon is carved into the state of Arizona. When I said, it will never go away, I wasn’t joking. It is now part of you. Here’s the thing though, it doesn’t have to be all of you. 
You don’t have to forever stay at the edge of the Abyss. In fact, that kind of defeats the idea of recovery. The idea isn’t just to change your zip code from the Abyss. It’s also to change your zip code from the edge too. The edge of the Abyss is a temporary camp. That’s something a whole lot of ‘survivors’ don’t want to hear, some don’t want others to know it and some folks -- including those supposedly helping survivors -- don’t want survivors knowing either. We’ll come back to this in a bit because it’s important.
To get a different understanding on recovery, we’re going to have to change the analogy slightly. Yes the Abyss is the Grand Canyon in your psyche. It’s huge, in your face and a burden. It’s a horrible pain and is almost overwhelming to your limited consciousness. So become bigger. 
As I like to say, “Become Arizona.” See, as big as the Grand Canyon is, it’s just a tiny section of a much bigger State. Really, it’s off in a deserted corner. The counter to the magnitude of the Abyss and its domination over your life is to become ‘big enough’ to be more than just a survivor of the Abyss. Sure it’s there, but so what? That and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. Using geography, the Grand Canyon is there, but you don’t have to live there. You can spend your time in Flagstaff or Phoenix. Yeah, it’s still part of you, but you spend your life and efforts being more than just a victim. By becoming bigger, you’re not running from it, it’s just a small part of a much larger and -- actually -- healed you.
To do that though, you’re going to need to develop resources. Resources not only to help you get away from the Abyss, but get to those other places. These are the non-physical (soft if you will) resources I was talking about earlier. Soft resources like better coping skills, emotional intelligence, people skills, trust, trustworthiness, reliability and how to grow and maintain stable relationships. Like I said, when you’re at the edge of the Abyss, these don’t sound important for recovery, but they really, really are. (And BTW, odds are it was the lack of these that put you into the Abyss in the first place.) This is how you become bigger than the Abyss. When you do that, both the pain and the pull of the Abyss fades. And that’s what breaks its domination over your life.
The trick of that is you develop these extra resources as you’re growing. It takes time, but you have a ways to go. So yeah, you have the time. You do this so when you ‘get there,’ you have what it takes to stay there. Having ‘soft’ resources means you won’t get pulled back to the edge of the Abyss. It’s not just coming to terms with your past, it’s having the resources to keep surviving the Abyss from ruining your life. It’s about moving on by discovering life is about more than just you (and how only thinking about yourself put you into the Abyss in the first place.) 
In closing I’d like to tell you the reason I came up with this analogy of a temporary camp and moving away from the edge of the Abyss. In case you haven’t figured it out by how I’m talking I have ...a little experience... with the Abyss, crawling out and moving on. It was a lot of work and I had a lot of catching up with people who hadn’t been sidetracked by the Abyss. Okay double duty sucked, but life ain’t fair. But you know what? It was worth it. Those things that made life -- and me --miserable don’t control me anymore. In short, I recovered by becoming more than just what happened to me in my past. All in all, life’s pretty good. 
Having said that, I began to notice a disturbing trend. There are a lot of people who climb out of the Abyss and don’t just camp before moving on. They build a permanent home on the edge. I’m not talking a base camp, I’m talking condos. They make the lip of the Abyss their permanent zip code. This isn’t recovering. This isn’t moving on. They build their identity around the Abyss. At the same time, it’s always about them. Whether it’s what happened or why they can’t control themselves now because of it.. Some not only ennoble it, they brag on it. This to the point of turning it into Victim Olympics of who had a worse time. But a big part of this comes from a disturbing place. Sometimes I see what is being offered as ‘help’ and I have to ask, “How’s that helping the person move onto Phoenix?” 
See, when you’re laying on the edge of the Abyss, you do need help. You’re desperately trying to make sense about what went wrong and how you ended up in the Abyss. And you want to listen to people who can offer you different perspectives to keep you from going back in again. One of the stories that makes sense (for most) people is that of victimization. You are a victim of the Abyss. That becomes your ‘new’ identity. You must embrace the pain and feelings of what happened to you. You are broken and have been wronged. Often to the point of saying you had nothing to do with ending up in the Abyss. 
 Ummm...excuse me?
I’m pretty sure there wasn’t just one thing that ‘put you’ into the Abyss. There were a lot of conscious choices that brought you to the Abyss and even more that put you into it. Now maybe they were bad choices, hell let’s even go so far to say they were fucked up. I’m a big fan of saying, “You didn’t have the coping skills to handle what happened to you and that is what drove you to the Abyss.” But there were lots and lots of conscious choices -- even if they were impulsive. Owning that doesn’t sound too helpful on the edge (in fact, it might even be too much), but it’s critical for moving away from the edge.
What I’m saying is the victim identity is a short term sooth, with long term problems. To fully heal and get on with life, you don’t need to be ‘empowered,’ but you’ll need agency. Don’t take that agency away from people or give it up yourself. Especially don’t let some counselor take your agency away and turn you in into a perma-victim.
 Did you just fight your way out of the Abyss because it sucked so much? So why is this person telling you to embrace the role of a victim and set up house on the edge of the very Abyss you are trying to get the hell away from? This is a really important point. Your goal is to move on with life, not stay stuck as an emotional cripple because of the past. Is it going to be easy? Hell no. Are you going to be able to do things like a ‘normal’ person who didn’t have that past? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. The ability is again something to be found in soft resources. At the same time, often the wounds are so deep that you’re going to have to figure out a different way to get along. That’s okay. It can be done and these alternative can work. Sometimes you just are going to have to suck it up and learn how to deal. (It took me years to be able to relax on the Fourth of July, because there are certain cracking, white flashes in some fireworks that look just like muzzle flashes in the dark. As in what it looks like when someone is shooting at you. Every time I saw them I wanted to dive, roll and come up shooting. I learned to deal because it’s a tradition of the family I married into.) It’s going to take time and practice, but you can do it. It’s part of moving away from the edge of the Abyss. 
But I want you to take a good hard look at people who have turned the edge of the Abyss into their permanent zip code. For many people it’s their carte blanche for their bad behavior. For others, they’re an explosion looking to happen. They’re not looking for a fight, but they are looking to go off on someone...anyone...over the slightest excuse. Other people just ‘can’t help themselves. They feel so ‘strongly’ they just have to act. For others the injustice of what happened to them has becomes their crusade. They mix it with ideology and identity and you get a ‘defender’ of the oppressed who attacks at the drop of a hat. There are a lot of people who have weaponized their victimhood. People who have set up house on the edge of the Abyss come in many forms, but it’s always about what happened to them. They’ve never moved on. The Abyss still rules them. 
 If you really want to heal and move on, you’re going to have to change your zip code. So while that temporary camp is an important step. Don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t move on from there. It can be done. You can do it.