An hour, play, and an update

I have an hour. Nothing is planned or needs to be accomplished.

I could…

eat something.

hang the snowflakes I made for Christmas decorations and didn’t get around to doing anything with.

think some things through.

sleep.

An hour is so little time when you are hungry, tired, wanting to hang your belated Christmas decorations and have a lot on your mind to sort out.

Winnicott studied the development of children in WEIRD societies and then presumed these stages to be universal, rather than the effect on children of specific cultural practices. He thought he was a psychoanalyst, but he would have made a better anthropologist.
Winnicott studied the development of children in WEIRD societies and then presumed these stages to be universal, rather than the effect on children of specific cultural practices. He thought he was a psychoanalyst, but he would have made a better anthropologist.

It reminds me of Winnicott, who was convinced that people developed mental illnesses because they did not play enough. (That’s an oversimplification, but bear with me.)

How can you think about playing when there is so much to do? When you are hungry, tired, and just getting through the day takes everything you have?

I realized that after four days of playing. I don’t play—I haven’t played—because I had so many other pressing priorities. I was so deadly serious. I had to be.

And it gives my life a certain perspective. I am not a boring person, nor am I deadly serious by temperament. My life has been deadly serious.

“Work first. Play later,” I tell my students—who always want to play before working. I worked first. First, the work was staying alive. After that, the work was planning a way out for myself, so that the future would not simply be a continuation of the unbearable present. Finally, the work was addressing the remnants of the trauma so that managing my life could become a bit easier.

The work was done—enough work, anyway. I could play. It wasn’t difficult, although my cult upbringing didn’t help. (Something about always being alert, being ready, never frittering away your time, but keeping your mind on higher things. There’s no room for play in that. I had to deal with the anxiety of that, of wasting time. It wasn’t so bad. It was there, but not unbearable.)

I thought I couldn’t play because of some kind of personal deficit, or because I was too afraid to relax enough to play. And that was part of it. But mainly there was just too much to do. How could I think about playing when I had memory gaps? When I had phobias I couldn’t understand? When I seemed to be several different people?

“Work first.” There was too much work–decades of it. The “later” took a very long time to come. But I think it did come. There is still work. But not so much that I can’t also play.

And play is important. Play is when you can try new things, experiment, open the door to the unexpected and see what walks in. It allows you to discover new information—either about yourself or about the world—and it brings you joy. It is also the only way you can ever create anything worth reading or looking at or listening to. If you can’t play, you can’t create.

I have missed out on that for forty years. No longer.

So maybe you want to know how I played. There’s nothing spectacular to tell you. I did not go bungee jumping. I did not paint any masterpieces. (That would have been work in any case.)

I did not do anything on my “bucket list.” That would have turned my play into work: play is not intended to be on a to-do list.

Photo credit: Nevit
Photo credit: Nevit

I walked the dog. I walked Uncle #2. I made snowflakes out of painted newspapers. I spent the day in pyjamas when I wasn’t sick. I played computer games. I played card games with Nandhini. I disrupted my routine. I left off ironing my clothes. I drank kokum soda (which I liked) and ate mysore masala dosa (which I didn’t like).

Nothing much.

Play is a state of mind. It is not a specific activity or even a specific set of activities, and it is distinct from mere recreation. What characterizes play is not the task itself but an approach to the task: an attitude of openness, of “let’s see what will happen.”

If I take the dog for walks, will I be able to leash-train him? (Yes, I did.) Will I like it? (Yes, I do. So does the dog.)

If I teach Nandhini to play Uno, will she like it? (Yes, she did.) Will it be fun? (It was.)

If I order something new at Vaishali, will I like it better? (Yes and no. But I did learn something.)

You need recreation as well. But recreation need not be play. Recreation can be familiar, predictable, routine. It need not involve the unexpected, an experiment, or anything new. You can keep watching the same TV show, making the same splurges, having a coffee at the same place.

The two are different. I didn’t know that either. I learned that only from playing.

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Christmas vacation

christmas treeI am taking a vacation.

No, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve already gone somewhere.

I am not taking a break from anything either. There isn’t anything I can take a break from. The usual things still need to be done. I will still need to spend an hour a day combing the lice out of my hair. I will need to locate the post office and mail some documents off the old-fashioned way and probably a few other things. But in between the things I must do, I am going to have fun.

For seven days, I am going to play. That is what I mean by vacation.

As a teacher, I’ve had a lot of vacations. If you aren’t one, you might envy me if you didn’t realize what I did with them. First, I sleep. For about three days. The sheer need for sleep is utterly overwhelming.

Then I grade. For some more days. Sometimes the vacation is over before this stage is finished. Other times, there is the opportunity to move on to cleaning house. Because usually that’s gone to hell over the past term and I can barely stand to be there. And then I cook. You know, like healthy meals that are good for you. As opposed to whatever I can throw together in ten minutes and then wolf down as quickly as possibly before hitting the sack.

Then the alarm goes off and it’s time to go back to work.

Also, in between getting on top of daily life again, I am mostly involved in trying to get my head on straight enough that the next term will be a little more manageable than the last one. For the past few years, the head-straightening aspect has consumed most of every school holiday. The cleaning and the grading waited.

vacationThis holiday—my very extended summer vacation that will go on until I leave for Country X in January—has been the same way: mostly taken up with head straightening. A village in the middle of nowhere is no place for a crooked head. I wanted to be prepared. Really prepared. And I already had thermal underwear. And a really warm hat. I just needed the straightened head to go with it.

I’ve decided my head is on straight enough now. I can take a week off. At least I think so.

The idea of an extended period of time devoted to play is so new to me I don’t even know what to do with it or where to start. No pressure though. Play is not about pressure. So I’m just sitting here letting the idea sink in. It can take as long as it needs to.

Then maybe I’ll try some things. See what they feel like. Perhaps some of them will end up feeling like play.

Leeches and a flat earth

And evidently people are still doing this...
And evidently people are still doing this…

I woke up exhausted this morning. I was alert for a few hours after that and then returned to exhausted. I may or may not be ill in some kind of physical way, but nonetheless have spent the majority of the day in bed—not sleeping, but just wanting to rest my aching, heavy legs.

This has been a week of realizations, and that’s the natural outcome of all of that new stuff in my brain: fatigue.

My realizations were all centered on this fundamental notion: people are wrong a lot. I would guess, when it comes to complex matters, they are wrong about 50 to 60 percent of the time. Even experts are wrong in their field of expertise although perhaps somewhat less than the rest of us. If this weren’t the case, we would still be reading texts from the age of Gutenberg. There would have been no need to write anything new.

We have new knowledge because the old knowledge was wrong. It was incomplete, distorted, misunderstood, or sometimes utterly off-base. The world is not flat, we do not suffer from imbalances in humours, and leeches don’t cure any illnesses. Also, paraffin oil does not suffocate lice, but that’s a topic for another post.

Furthermore, it is not that we used to be wrong and have improved so that we are now right about everything. Being wrong is not a bad habit you mature out of with time and patience. We are less wrong, but still wrong. Wrong is the human condition.

Growing up in a madhouse, there are a lot of things about ordinary human life I did not know. That was one of them.

See, I got confused because so many people seem so convinced they are right about so many things. They know the right diet to eat, the right attitude to take to be happy and successful in life, and what causes other people to behave like jackasses.

I cannot even tell you how much I weighed the last time I went to the doctor. It was 55 kilos, but the scale may not be accurate. I think it isn’t. I think it’s off by about 2 kilos. But I’m not sure about that. That’s a guess. And I can’t remember if there seemed to be a directional trend to this, or it just kind of wobbles, as scales sometimes do.

I have some ideas sometimes. I speculate. There’s not much I’m really sure of.

You could say I have low self-esteem. But that misses the point. In my mind, my conjectures about the world—whether about my real weight or about more profound matters—aren’t about me. They are just ideas. Tomorrow, I will have new ones.

Ideas are like clothes. When they wear out or get holes, you get new ones—hopefully, ones you like. Still, they will all need replacing in the end. Their longevity has nothing to do with your worth and I like myself just the same whether or not my ideas turn out to be correct.

But it did create some confusion for me. I thought other people seem so confident in what they think because they had better evidence than I do. I assumed they were me, and I thought they must have the degree of evidence I would require before arriving at that kind of certainty.

And they don’t.

This is really about me and about my traumatic past. I’m sharing it because of that. Maybe this will mean something to you as well.

As a child, I could not afford to be wrong. Being wrong might kill me. Not just because someone might punish me in a murderous way for making a mistake, but because one of the possible outcomes of most situations was death.

If I misjudged a mood, I might end up dead.

If I miscalculated my response, I might end up dead.

If I mispredicted someone’s next move, I might end up dead.

If I did not correctly handle physical danger, I would most certainly end up dead.

I am alive mainly because a lot of the time I was right. Sometimes I was lucky, but most of the time I was right.

So, I keep coming back to this need to be right—not a need to believe I am right, but a need to really be right, a need to be so careful in the decision I make that I never make mistakes. It worries me that my need to be right is my box. Nandhini has her rules and I have my uncertainty. I worries me that it limits my willingness to take risks and I wonder if I would be more creative and less anxious if I could live with more wrong-ness in my life.

It has certainly led me to misjudge a lot of the rest of the world.

To continue with my meditation on wrongness, but on a somewhat different tack, I was also pondering the choices I’ve made in the past as I lay exhausted in bed today. They haven’t always been great ones. In fact, at some points, it really has seemed that I made a right cracking mess of things.

That’s when I realized we all make mistakes. Big ones. Just like I have. Everyone makes good and bad choices in their lives. Just as I have. My mess is not any bigger or smaller than anyone else’s. In fact, it’s a perfectly average-sized mess of a life. How you want to see that is a matter of perspective.

You could say my traumatic childhood damaged me and consequently I made a series of poor choices based on the poor modeling I received at home, the maladaptive coping strategies I learned, and my low self-esteem. Until I’ve addressed the past and changed these patterns, I’ll most likely continue to repeat them. And that might be true.

You could also say, despite the odds, I turned out to be an empathetic, pro-social individual who has a number of supportive friendships, a caring romantic partner, and a promising career. And that might be true.

But I think those viewpoints are both wrong or at the very least incomplete. I made mistakes as other people do. The mistakes I made were uniquely my own and resulted from a combination of my personality, skills, and the forces in the past that shaped me. Just as other people make mistakes that are uniquely their own.

I am not going to stop making mistakes. As I remarked in an earlier post, most of them probably won’t kill me.

The take-away message

Yes, your past casts a shadow. What kind?
Yes, your past casts a shadow. What kind?

Where have I been these days? Aside from combing lice out of my hair and a bit of vomiting on the side, I’ve been right here—just thinking is all. You could say I’ve been busy.

I was reading this again.

It made me realize something. Something I needed to think about for five or six days before I could really tell you about it properly.

I’ve gotten the wrong idea about myself, my life, and my opportunities. Much of the rest of society has as well, perhaps. I’m not sure. But I didn’t make it up all on my own. I got it from somewhere.

There’s the tendency to see people who have been victimized as permanently deficient. Your past, although you are also instructed to put this past behind you, is expected to cast a long and negative shadow over your future. You will never be what you might have been. The best that can be hoped for is the same or a similar level of functioning as you would have had if it had never happened to you. But you will still have all of those “lost years” to contend with.

To some extent, that’s true. We will never be who we might have been if life had gone differently for us. Every fork in the road sends us off in a different direction.

But sometimes life makes you who you are, and sometimes you do.

What I mean to say is that, beyond healing and beyond being able to cope with life again, you can choose to use your experiences in ways that benefit yourself and others.

This is not the same as saying your suffering, of whatever kind, was put there for a reason. Probably, there wasn’t a reason. Or the reason you suffered was some version of someone else was an asshole. I am not making a statement about fate. I am saying something about choices. Specifically, about your choices.

In the thick of things, the choices don’t seem apparent. You’re just trying to get through the day. You’re trying to hold down a job while keeping the voices in your head quiet and the terrifying images that flash through your mind on “dim.” You’re trying to take care of your family. Or, you’re just trying to get out of the house once a week at least, despite your paralyzing agoraphobia. You’re trying not to kill yourself.

But you are making choices. You are probably making choices while also just trying to get through the day.

For me, the choice has been to be kinder to others, to try to help, and to try to understand what life is like for other people who aren’t me. I’m not concerned with being wildly successful in my career, or with getting the salary I “deserve,” or with achievement generally. As a child, I was told I had “so much potential.” I don’t really care about my potential.

This doesn’t mean I don’t also want to enjoy my life or have any fun. I do. Now that I can more or less get through the day without too much trouble, I think fairly often about the various books I might write just because they seem like fun. Given more time, I might even do that.

But I also want to help. Life is hard. I don’t think we can do it alone. I really don’t.

I have lice: meditations

Yes, I think daily about shaving my head. No, I haven't done it yet. I'll keep you posted.
Yes, I think daily about shaving my head. No, I haven’t done it yet. I’ll keep you posted.

I have lice. I’m sharing this with you partly because I regard my faithful readers as also being among my closest, most supportive friends. And lice are indeed a headache.

If you’ll pardon the pun. (Sort of.)

Sympathy is in order here.

There is also something of a point to my sharing this really rather unnecessary detail. Not too long go, I had what I regarded as a paranoid fear about this. As it turns out, I wasn’t mistaken. I wasn’t over-reacting. I wasn’t being paranoid. I indeed had lice.

I hate when I’m right and think I’m wrong. It reeks of missed opportunities and might-have-beens. It’s worse than when I think I’m right and turn out to be wrong. I expect that. Being wrong is inevitable.

My failure to realize I was right had something to do with conflicting bodies of evidence in my own mind.

On the one hand, I knew the extremely low probability of my coming into contact with lice, given that I don’t have small children or even any contact with small children and I don’t spend time rubbing my head indiscriminately against other people just to see what will happen. And it’s difficult to get lice from inanimate objects.

On the other hand, there was my suspiciously itchy head and a vague visual flash of a lice shampoo seen most recently in the drug store where I had waited a long time in an upholstered chair for a prescription, my head tilted back with fatigue. That image, coupled with the thought, “This is where people come to buy lice treatment.”

Did I see someone holding lice shampoo in their hand at the checkout line ahead of me? Is that why the image flashed into my mind? Hard to know where these small details come from, or what they mean sometimes.

I erred on the side of probability. Fair enough. Except that the consequences for not paying attention to that little inner nudge that maybe I had beaten the odds were unpleasantly high. My head has been itching for two months now. I am now in a place with fewer effective treatments for it, and getting rid of them once and for all will take effort and a great deal of patience.

The lice infestation station. Complete with clean laundry.
The lice infestation station. Complete with clean laundry.

Also, it’s damn cold. Combing out lice is a lot easier with wet hair, which tends to make things seem colder. Especially when you’re sitting wet in the “shower” lathering up your hair in between pours of hot water over your body from a bucket. (Yes, there is an actual shower head. No, I don’t use it.)

My life now revolves around combing lice out of my hair before they can breed and multiply. This, I see as a state well worth having avoided.

On the other hand, what would the consequences have been of taking my paranoia more seriously if I hadn’t had lice? An unnecessary trip back to the drug store and a comb through the hair with a lice comb. Yes, I was really busy and didn’t have time for another drug store trip. Yes, I still could have done it. I wish I had.

But what if I had taken this approach? When in doubt, gather more information. (Get the lice comb. See if you actually have lice. Then proceed.)

I have another thought about this, as well. My mistakes have not, so far, been very life-threatening. I have had some near-misses, but to a one, they have not resulted in death. This may be obvious, but given how many times I might have died and didn’t, I think I’m doing pretty well for myself.

And that’s really what counts. I am not always right. In fact, I’m wrong a good lot of the time. But when it comes to life-and-death decisions, I’ve come out on top of things. More than once. So maybe it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.

There’s always something more to learn, isn’t there?

Two worries, a research question, and a task

I worry about being able to cope in Country X.planning

This may be silly of me. But I’ve got time on my hands these days. I can afford some silliness.

Also, I’m “worrying” in the way that I “worry” rather than in the way most people seem to worry. Which means I’m preparing myself with solutions for problems so that those problems never arise, or if they do, they will be small.

And that actually reminds me of the reason I am worrying in the first place.

Worry #1: Ineffective coping skills

In WEIRD societies, we mostly reduce our sense of uncertainty through careful planning. This allows us to believe we know what the future will be like, because the futures we imagine are those of our own making.

In developing countries, this is often a fairly stupid approach. In Village Z (did I decide we should call it that?), cows periodically step on the pipes that carry water down from the spring in the mountains, or the pipes become clogged with silt due to heavy rains. Then there is no running water for anyone for 1-3 days.

Planning?

Oh, that’s a knee-slapper. Tell me another one.

Planning has its place, of course. (Storing drinking water would be a good part of this plan.) But planning will only take you so far.

Research Question #1: How do residents of Country X cope with uncertainty? Since they aren’t all frozen with anxiety, they must have figured something out.

Worry #2: Loss of self-esteem

Also in WEIRD societies, we also usually base a great deal of our regard for ourselves on our ability to manage our lives independently. If we can function reasonably well without an undue amount of help, achieve the goals we set for ourselves, and know how to approach most ordinary life problems successfully, we usually feel pretty good about ourselves.

I will not always be able to function reasonably well independently. More than likely, someone will need to help me get dressed in the mornings. There will be a great number of ordinary life problems I’ve never come across before and won’t know how to approach.

If I continue to base my regard for myself on my competence, I will be in deep psychological trouble. I need another way to think about self-esteem.

Handily enough, I also have a hypothesis about this. I suspect that individuals in collectivist cultures derive their self-esteem more from their ability to contribute to the group—as well as from the group’s ability to function well—rather than from their own personal achievements. Possibly, other people have already solved this problem for me. All I have to do is emulate them.

Task #2: Try this out. See if it works.

Two worries. One research question. One task. I am all set for a WEIRD day.

Behaving badly

Do you “beat yourself up” over minor errors?

Do you call yourself names? Make blanket negative statements about your worth or competence? (“What an idiot! You never do anything right!”)

Do you make threats or imply that catastrophe will befall you? (“ne will ever like you! No wonder you don’t have any friends! You’re life is hopeless.”aunty)

Me, too. As soon as I let myself feel my frustration, that’s what I hear in my head. Like me, you have learned to express your anger abusively. You saw others express anger through verbal abuse, and that’s what you learned to do also. Nevermind that this is self-directed and not other-directed. It’s the same kind of behavior. It needs to stop.

You probably know that, and you’re probably working at it ways that are not helping you as much as you’d like. Standard approaches to this kind of internal dialogue involve cultivating an attitude of forgiveness toward oneself. So, we minimize the magnitude of the mistake. We try to see our own point of view better. (“You did this because you thought this. That’s understandable.”) We acknowledge the error but try not to get all bent out of shape about it.

Working from that end may help you feel less angry, but it doesn’t help you respond to anger more appropriately when you do feel it. It doesn’t address the root cause: you are expressing anger in unacceptable and damaging ways.

Name-calling is not okay

Making threats is not okay.

Catastrophizing is not okay.

Attacking someone’s character, personality, or worth is not okay.

These are all forms of verbal abuse. They are not acceptable.

Life is frustrating. Our own fallibility is frustrating. It is okay to feel frustrated. It is not okay to verbally abuse anyone.

You can say, “I feel frustrated when I….because I think…when I do that. (Or it causes this problem later.)” You can own the frustration when your fallibility causes problems for you in your life—as it inevitably will. You can express that frustration. You can name the cause of that frustration.

But you cannot verbally abuse yourself. It’s just not nice.

At the same time, people who abuse themselves or others often have what has been termed a “harsh punishment schema,” meaning they hold a belief that people ought to be punished severely for even minor mistakes. Abuse can come from a sense a mistake has been made, and now it’s time for punishment to be handed down: it’s a distorted sense of justice.

This leads to problems mainly because the bulk of our larger society does not hold this view, but also because others are often a bit more circumspect about who is allowed to determine what punishment is fair and who can administer it. The individual who happens to note the mistake is not the person in charge of determining appropriate punishment or delivering it.

See? Use kind words.
See? Use kind words.

There are also rules about punishment, even for atrocity, and the person in charge of determining justice is bound by them. In most developed countries, judges cannot decide willy-nilly to hang someone and parents cannot beat their children black and blue. Parents are not allowed to verbally attack their children either, although that one is harder to enforce.

This is where my four rules come from that I listed above. They are standards of behavior you’ll see in action in any kindergarten classroom, but if your growing up years were anything like mine, they were not held to a home. People behaved badly. When you demean yourself, you are behaving badly as well.

It’s time for some re-education.

Anyway, that’s what I’m trying out today.