Tag Archives: make yourself small

Restraint

An article in my news feed caught my eye this week: 7 Psychological Superpowers Few People Have That You Can Use to Set Yourself Apart. It sounded interesting—and it was!

The author proposes restraint as a superpower. Oxford Online Dictionary defines restraint as “unemotional, dispassionate or moderate behavior; self-control.” The ability to manage our own behavior is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.

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Understand that this does not mean making ourselves small, or silencing ourselves or others. It’s also important to think of restraint as an internal control. We have no power (usually) to restrain others, but we can develop self-restraint, which may influence others to be more restrained in their behavior.

As I think about restraint, it has two aspects. One is the choices we make as we interact with others. The other is the choices we make about our own attention; for example, we can learn to refrain (or restrain ourselves) from taking everything so seriously. This kind of restraint is invisible to anyone else, but it significantly changes the quality of our experience and life.

I’ve noticed, as I work with this blog, how the vehicle of social media seems to encourage saying more and meaning less. We seem to have a need to share our most mundane activities and decisions as though they’re filled with meaning.

A good example is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) trend, which has long fascinated me. As I navigate through the Internet, reading my news feeds, researching and exploring links that interest me, I often stop reading articles and essays before finishing them. Sometimes that’s because I don’t have the time right then to do it justice. Sometimes I’m finding no value in it.

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It never occurs to me to make a comment indicating why I made the decision to stop reading. If I’m too busy to read a lengthy piece, why on earth would I pause to say TLDR about it, either aloud or in writing? Why is that important? Why does anyone care? Is such a comment a passive-aggressive way to say the writer is too long-winded? Or that the reader has an important and busy life? Or that literacy is elitist? It seems to me an utterly useless comment.

I also think it’s fun when people write comparatively lengthy comments about why they didn’t read. I have the same set of questions there. It’s impossible to take feedback seriously or have a good discussion with someone who hasn’t read the piece, so why bother saying anything at all? We read what we’re interested in, and we don’t read what we’re not interested in … don’t we?

As we become more embedded in social media and texting technology, we act as though If we have the ability to say something, we must. But does having the means to constantly share our thoughts and choices mean we should? Is it useful? Is it truly connecting? Is it meaningful?

I’m amused and appalled by modern dating. Younger friends and colleagues inform me that the norm now is to exchange frequent texts throughout the day in even a first date relationship. Romantic, meaningful texts like:

“How was your commute?”

(Icy. It’s February in Maine and it snowed yesterday, you jackass!)

“How’s work?”

(Distracted and interrupted because you keep texting me about nothing, Dude! You’re not a swimmer, you’ve never been here, and you don’t know anything about my job. What can I text you about work? Nobody’s drowned yet today. The pool is cloudy, and we don’t know why. Send chocolate!)

The parenthetic replies are mine. My friend was much kinder and more tolerant! Apparently, however, if texting like this doesn’t happen, one or another of those involved are hurt, or feel rejected or otherwise insecure.

Gah!

It makes me smile to think of restraint as a superpower, but maybe the writer is on to something. The article did make me think. I’m more comfortable listening than talking, but it’s evident after a few hours at work how lonely so many people are. They talk about their pets, their families, their health concerns, food, their pain, their history, their financial struggles, their work, their gardens, and the ice in their driveways. Sometimes their conversation is long, rambling, and interminable. I’m filled with compassion for them.

Many people of my generation and older are uncomfortable with texting, e-mail and social media. In fact, e-mail is now used much less frequently than messaging or FaceTime. My 30-something kids are scornful of e-mail and those who use it. They much prefer texting, which I do with them for the sake of staying in touch, though it’s deeply unsatisfying for me. I’d rather write long e-mails or talk on the phone (if I must; I hate talking on the phone!).

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Nothing replaces actually being with them.

People crave face-to-face conversation and contact (FaceTime doesn’t count), contact that can’t happen in a text with emojis. They’re so hungry that when they get it, they have no restraint at all. Everything comes out. Being “connected” through technology appears to be a toxic mimic for what we really need.

I wonder if part of what drives younger generations to compulsively send words into cyberspace is that same hunger for authentic connection, though unrecognized. In their loneliness and isolation, they send more and more impulsive, unedited, unrestrained words out into the world, longing for meaning, connection, and validation, but having no idea that their extreme oversharing is making them less connected, not more.

Superficiality is not connection. The ability to be in constant technological contact is not necessarily intimacy, security, love or meaningful in any way. Restraint seems to be a lost art. We’re better at it when interacting in real time and place than we are online, where it appears nothing is too mean or hateful to say, but we all say an awful lot of nothing.

I’m disheartened by how easy we are to manipulate, from click bait to disinformation to trolls. The Internet and tech provide us with endless tasty poisoned bait to nibble on, and we pick it up every time. Stimulate our fear, guilt, outrage, defensiveness or paranoia, and we’re hooked into long, pointless debates and arguments, competitions over who gets to be right, and spending our time engaging with the world in a way that makes us and our relationships neither healthier nor happier, but is probably quite satisfying for all the Cluster B and otherwise destructive, manipulative folks out there with agendas for power and control.

The mice in our house are smarter than that. They’ve figured out how to lick the peanut butter out of the trap without triggering it.

So much for human supremacy!

We all have feelings and impulses, and most of us have said things we regret later. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to be lonely, or to want to be seen or talk things out. I do wonder sometimes if technology is taking us farther and farther from our ability to participate in healthy, authentic relationships, however. Publicly documenting our every move, choice and experience (with pictures!) and participating in the culture’s indiscriminate oversharing makes me wonder where this road will take us. We’re getting very skilled at monologues. Real discussions and conversations in which people both speak and listen? Not so much. We spend more time waiting to speak than listening and attempting to understand.

After reading this article, I’m paying more attention to what I say, and why, and to whom. The point of language (a symbolic system for sharing meaning) is communicating. If we have nothing meaningful to say, why are we speaking (or writing)? (What is meaningful? Who gets to decide? Never mind. That’s for another post!)

Why is just being silent or present as a listener or reader not enough? Must we find something to say about everything to everyone? Do we cease to exist if we’re getting no attention or validation or have no comment? Does everyone need to know about our TLDR choices? Do our private lives need to be public plays with stage directions?

Practicing restraint. My daily crime.

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Terra Incognita

My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.

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This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.

In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!

We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.

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Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn—also called resilience–as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.

One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean that we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean that we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem-solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.

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The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?

It boggles my mind to imagine that some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?

The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t—or won’t—play with me.  It’s hard to feel that my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.

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The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.

Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.

My daily crime.

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Good and Bad

I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.

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The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.

Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.

Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.

Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”

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Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.

It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.

Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.

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Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.

This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?

As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.

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As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.

Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.

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Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.

What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.

In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.

Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?

I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.

To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.

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I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?

I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.

Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

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