On living with ambiguity

Those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recall that its end letter comes down to either a P or a J, denoting perception vs judgment modalities.  P types can tolerate, if not thrive on, open-ended movies.  Conversely, J’s like their movies to end with all the pieces in place.  As essentially an everyday existentialist, I’ve always found bonafide certainty elusive.  Thus, I generally come out in the wash as a P, with speculation often more fun for its U-Turn potential than the dead end of the J alternative.

But hold your horses. This doesn’t mean I’m closed to fixed verities and the closure they provide.  Who wants to cast his fate with an ambiguous lover, or speculate about whether he’ll have his job next month or, omigod, is it cancer?  Like the next guy, I want the bad guys rounded-up and justice meted out.  What a wonderful world it’d be if we could truly accept things as they appear, knowing nobody practices deceit, a world with no need for lawyers to protect us from the fraudulent.  No need for the clergy either to put right God’s way of doing things.  And so with psychiatrists, since there’d be nothing to be anxious about in a world absent of unknowns.  But as Voltaire’s Candide discovered the hard way, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

I wouldn’t even be writing this entry if it hadn’t been for coming, serendipity fashion, upon Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with its blunt rendering of our stumbling angst in a cosmos devoid of moon and stars to light our journey through the metaphysical night, reminding me again of ambiguity’s pervasiveness and our struggles to find our way:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Here Dickinson fashions the poem’s edifice by way of analogy from everyday life of our initial difficulty seeing things when suddenly plunged into darkness until our vision adjusts and we find our way, or think we do (“And life seems almost straight”).  The equivocation comes in the persona’s almost, which we mustn’t miss in Dickinson’s typical closet subtlety, perhaps mirroring the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert she read avidly.

When the narrator tells “Of something in the sight/Adjusts itself to Midnight,” we come to the bottom line of how we manage our journey through the psyche’s dark night (“Those Evenings of the Brain”), perhaps through religious faith, a mainstream fixture for many in the Calvinist Amherst of her time.

My point, and I think Dickinson’s as well, is that in a cosmos absent of Divine revelation and explicit meaning, our need for closure–to abolish life’s curves and set its steps straight, exerts itself in human constructs, epistemologically, whether done through provisos of faith or artist metaphor.

It isn’t just nature that abhors a vacuum.  We despise it too.  In the end, Jung is wrong, for we are all J’s at heart!  Life is very often a search for meaning and, if tenuous in its ambiguity, compels us to define it, however vulnerable its artifice.


Dodging puddles: Things we avoid

As a college freshman, there was one essay we had to read in composition class that made an indelible impression on me that lingers still: George Orwell’s “Hanging,” with its vivid irony in observing the curious behavior of an about to be executed criminal in Burma, where Orwell had served in the British imperial police for six years years.  The narrator takes no part, except to observe:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

While the essay surely delivers a right upper cut to capital punishment, its underbelly embraces that instinctual element in all of us for well-being, or the comfort zone, or as the behaviorists tell us, the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

This got me thinking just now of the myriad ways we try avoiding life’s stressors, or dodging puddles, and so this brief list to which I’m sure you can add your own items:

Accepting personal responsibility:  Beginning with Adam blaming Eve, it’s been a human tendency to fault others for our often self-inflicted wounds or make excuses for bad behavior.  Rationalization, like a subterranean stream, lies embedded in the psyche, seemingly dormant, only to spring to the surface in moments of duress.

In baseball, the sport I passionately love, I see it all the time, the batter striking out, jawing with the ump about a wrong call; the pitcher disgruntled with a strike zone, scowling menacingly at the call-maker.

In the legal realm, even in the most heinous crimes, defendants rarely plead guilty, buttressed by lawyers resorting to context.

Unfortunately, evasion rewards wrong conduct and encourages its repetition, often alienating our fellows, and even those we love; in worse case scenarios, severing relationships.  Its remedy lies in keeping our temper hosted, maybe counting to ten.  What really helps is learning from our shame  and wanting to do better to be our best selves.

Confronting fear:   No one lives without anxiety.  It’s simply a matter to what degree.   We can either face up to our fears or let them take charge, minimizing our happiness.   Unfortunately, many of us resort to escapism, often through excessive indulgence in diversions such as TV, movies, net surfing and video games.  When we take hold of our worries we often discover their baseless origins, making it easier to give them the toss.

This isn’t easy, of course, and often takes practice or determined resolve to see it through.  Small steps count, particularly in desensitizing  ourselves to chronically embedded fears such as public speaking or phobias that make us dread high places, narrow spaces, and social gatherings.

Running away doesn’t solve anything and, worse, may feed our anxiety and exacerbate our escapism.  The bottom line is, Who is in charge:  you or your fears?

Avoiding exercise:   Along with making changes in your diet, namely, cutting back on fats, sugar and salt, exercising vigorously minimally five days a week fosters good health, significantly reducing your risks for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and even cancer.  But it’s easier said than done.  Who likes coming home from work having to exercise?  For many of us it’s simply a good idea we’d like to go away, since it gnaws at our conscience knowing its importance, yet our seeming inability to get it done.

The trick is setting up a time and place; for me, it’s first thing shortly after breakfast that’s now a fixed habit.  For some, going right to a gym before coming home works best. The good thing is that it takes only about six weeks to establish the habit and it’s self-reinforcing in its dividends, reducing weight and stress while increasing energy and improving our mood.

Giving-up cravings:  Bad habits inevitably lead to bad consequences. The problem is that they can be pleasurable, not only to the senses, but psychologically as modes of escape.  Consequently, indulgences in eating, smoking and alcohol dominate a good many and, unresolved, become addictions affecting personal health, wallets, daily focus, and even those we love.

Alas, even the best counsel often falls short of remedy, for their resolution depends on motivation, which sometimes comes only as things worsen and we don’t like our excesses and what they do.  And even this is sometimes not enough.

But there are exercises psychologists often miss that can strengthen our resolve.  Try focusing, for example, on your goal.  Visualize it.  Post pictures on your mirror or wall that capture it.  See yourself as thin, muscular, photogenic. Or family amazed and delighted that you no longer smoke or drink.

Meditation with its centering on a mantra to reinforce focus provides yet another formidable exercise in strengthening will power and fostering self-realization.  Replace bad choices with positive alternatives: carrot sticks coated in hummus instead of potato chips;  fruit replacing candy and baked goods.  You can do this!

Unpleasant tasks:  There are things we don’t like to do and wish they would go away like paying bills, writing a paper, household tasks, running errands, etc.  Accordingly, we procrastinate, with the inevitable result the list grows longer and guilt accumulates.  I like to schedule things, a thing here or a thing there, making keeping-up more manageable.  It also helps to think of what happens if I don’t follow through.

And then there are the good vibes that always come when I follow through.  Having said this, there are some things that may need elimination, if possible, from your list if the payoff doesn’t justify the effort. The more what we do fulfills ourselves, the less difficult it becomes to do them and the more joy leftover to spend on others.

Truth facing:  There are things we don’t want to hear, since they make us  uncomfortable.  I’m as guilty as the next fellow.  Yesterday, my doctor asked me if I’d been checking my blood pressure and I had to confess I’ve been afraid to.  It’s silly behavior on my part, for it changes nothing and can make things worse.  Similarly, it’s sometimes not fun turning on the news, but again, we live in a real world where, yes, bad things happen, injustice occurs, people suffer.

I believe global warming exists and we’re the primary factor, but I know good people who don’t share this view.  They have every right, of course, though sometimes we filter what makes us feel insecure.  It helps to have someone you can talk to who really listens and can provide context, or a larger view of things.

Don’t flagellate yourself because you have anxieties.  We all have them sometime or other.  Just don’t hide behind them.  As for personal beliefs distilled into unthinking habit, better a mindset that follows truth than hugs deception.

Change:  Time often brings new outcomes and altered perspective.  It keeps company with sadness, for in forfeiting our past we often leave behind something of ourselves.  Memory may help us revisit, but the reality is we can’t go home again.  Transitory creatures in an ephemeral world, we wish for permanence of life’s good things: experiences that gave joy and provided purpose and vitality; family and friendships that made for laughter and sharing and assured our acceptance; eagerness with each dawn to make good on the new day’s promise.

Though, understandably, we like to structure our security, we often find our best made dikes prove puny against time’s flow.  But change also has its recompense:  a fresh start and a maturity that refines our goals, separating the wheat from the chaff; a way of atoning for past shortcomings; a means to resolving festering resentments with new found forgiveness nourished by time’s insights.

Change teaches us to cherish now what we must ultimately let go.  Although change demands adaptation, it also makes room for new possibilities trekking unexplored roads and discovering fresh vistas that soften our losses.  The poet Tennyson had it right, “Ring out the old.  Ring in the new.”

Be well.  Do well!


Mindfulness and the recovery of compassion, empathy and joy

Nearly always I come upon new reads, not through lists but, unexpectedly, in the marketplace of life.  I like it this way–the surprise of it, the joy of discovery, the smack of fate rather than coincidence, like the chance finding of a new friend or bumping into wise counsel, unanticipated, in a corner; its aftermath of empowering, the mystery and the beauty of it.

It happened for me this way yesterday when I came upon Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness:  An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  Intuiting a must read, I immediately downloaded the kindle version, which also features several sound tracks for the exercises.

I’ve been suffering lately from a good deal of anxiety, largely because of health issues.  I’m not used to things being this way and my need to control makes matters worse.  The trick in life is learning how to cope with issues you can’t always resolve.  While I know the script in my head, it’s quite another thing to carry out.

I like this new way of finding yourself and the freedom it brings, not in resolving, but in coping.  Mindfulness actually isn’t new, but a bedrock of Buddhism.  What changes the scorecard for me, however, is the empirical yield of sophisticated brain-scanning methodologies affirming its effectiveness.  What’s more, it can alter brain patterns long term for the better.  Studies show it substantially reduces depression and its frequent return,  improves blood pressure, lessens chronic pain, and boosts the immune system.  In daily life, it promotes empathy, compassion and joy.

I’ve always had great respect for the potential of meditation to promote both physical and emotional wellness.  My mind, however, works like a metropolitan airport, the runways always full.  Mindfulness meditation may thus work better for me, as instead of eliminating your thoughts, you passively observe them in conjunction with focusing on breathing.  You learn that you are not your thoughts and that thoughts can come and go like black clouds in the sky.  This gives you power to catch wrong thinking or patterns before they impact, and it lends space to help you heal.

Mindfulness is all about bringing us to our senses, and by this, I mean the sensory repertoire of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound.  We take ourselves too seriously and in doing so lose direct contact with the cornucopia of life’s potential blessedness all around us when we subjugate the sensory to the taunt reins of the cerebral.

As Williams and Penman point out, we spend our lives “on automatic pilot,” creatures of habit, oblivious to the priorities that really matter.  Mindfulness takes us out of ourselves, giving us power to discern and thus choose.

I began the eight week course yesterday with the “raisin” exercise, a simple endeavor lasting several minutes that helps rekindle the sensory, noting things like weight, texture, taste, smell and tongue movement.  Once again, I rediscovered Flaubert’s maxim that  “anything looked at long enough becomes interesting.”

I hope this exercise is a harbinger of future benefits as it delivered me from my self-concern, channeling my focus on the here and now.  I thought of other raisins to be savored:  a hooting owl in dawn’s pink-fingered rays, a mountain brook bubbling its way, a child’s innocent giggle, the sweet smell of morning cinnamon toast, the spring rose’s first blush.

I thought of Helen Keller’s eloquent wisdom:

“I who am blind can give one hint to those who see: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind.  Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. make the most of every sense.”

Selah!  I am at peace.


Finding joy

gigglingWhile joy is fundamental to our living life well, many of us can’t fully enter into it, given the stress of daily living.  It’s just plain hard to have joy when you’re out of work, ill, or facing problems in a relationship.  Each of us has his own stresses.  Often, however, perspective is everything, especially when you consider what others around you suffer.  I was reminded the other day of this while watching a 60 Minutes segment featuring a paraplegic woman completely dependent on loved ones for her care.  She was grateful to be part of an experiment in being fitted with a mechanical arm embedded in her skull.  Clearly, she was a woman who had joy despite her circumstances.

It’s important for all of us to look up, not down; to be grateful for what we have and each new day; in short, to think good thoughts, or as Buddha put it long ago, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.  When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

Below I’ve listed several ways of finding joy, and I know you can add your own:

Friends:  You don’t need a lot of them and consider yourself blessed if you have that one good person in your life who listens, counsels wisely, and finds time for you.  Friendship is a two-way street, but when it’s on, wow, what a difference to find you’re not alone.

Family:  Throughout the years I’ve been close to my siblings, keeping in-touch despite the miles through letters, phone calls and occasional visits.  Families can be sources of stress, too, but when they function well, they’re our refuge in a turbulent world.  My greatest joy is my wife and daughter, my allies day in, day out.

Simplicity:  Joy is independent of money.  What matters is abundant living, or investing in those aspects that enhance being rather than possession. It’s giving priority to your needs, not your wants.  A 1500 square foot house may be less than what others opt for, but if it suffices, then go for it.  Addiction often keeps company with materialism, fed by a need to be validated, and so what we have is never quite enough.

Volunteering:  Helping others puts you on the fast track to finding joy.  And there is so much need.  The ethicist philosopher Peter Singer contends that if all of us gave just 5 % of our income to helping the poor or wiping out disease and the like we’d create a much better world.  If we matched our donations with just 3 or 4 hours of our weekly time, we’d move the goal posts still nearer and more quickly.

Awareness:  The French writer, Gustave Flaubert, made a comment I’ve never forgotten:  “Anything observed closely enough becomes interesting.”  Now you can have fun with this idea. Take out a sheet of paper, for example, and brainstorm all the delights you can come up with in association with little children. In addition to their innocent honesty, inquisitiveness, and trust, I think with fondness of their giggling, say when watching a puppet show.   Cultivate awareness.  Keep a journal.  Record your joy at seeing a pink tapestry sunset, first daffodils in bloom, the symphony of an early summer morning chorus of cardinals.  Look closely and in every nook.  Joy can be found in surprising ways, if were ready for it.

Focusing on the present:  Some folks find it difficult to free themselves from their past.  This, of course, helps psychologists feed their families.  We need to bury our dead–our resentments and regrets, follies and failures.  Some reach for the future to relieve themselves from the weight of the present. The truth is that the present writes our future.  We should live each day as though it were our last, thinking positively and doing well.  A day well spent is a day that gives joy.  Each day is an act of grace, an opportunity to begin again.

Reality thinking:  You’re unlikely to see this item among sources for joy, but I include it here as fundamental to all human happiness as joy can prove to be a double-edged sword.  Life is replete with loss, whether of our children moving far away, the loss of our mate, or of friends across the years. The price of joy is that it derives from what we ultimately forfeit, for sorrow slumbers in the same bed.  Knowing this should heighten our joy in what tomorrow may take away.


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