Tag Archives: questions

Chocolate or Vanilla?

When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.

Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.

Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.

Choice is about power.

One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.

Is that true? I asked myself.

Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?

Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.

Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?

The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.

I don’t accept that.

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Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.

As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.

It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.

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That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.

I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.

Chocolate or vanilla?

As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both, whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.

Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory, however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.

We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.

We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one important question to ask:

If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?

Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.

The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the mirror.

Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.

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This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.

I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open window.

Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.

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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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