A double bind

There’s hardly any time to write these days. There is not even much time to think. Someone talks to us for 3-6 hours a day depending on the day. Then there are social activities. The suspicion is that they are deliberately keeping us busy and that that is the main purpose behind what we’re doing, although why they think we need to be busy, I can’t work out. Do North Americans need to be busy all the time?

Perhaps. But it’s driving me crazy.

I am bored out of my mind and it worries me also. How will I be prepared if there is no time to think?

It’s driving me crazy that there is no time to write.

In between, I have had two thoughts. One of them is a discomfort at being different. Now, I don’t know that I mean much by different. I assume we are all different and that I am as different from the others as they from one another. This is not the dominant view. The dominant view is that it takes a certain kind of person to want to live in a place like Country X and we are all that kind of person. But I look around and still see diversity.

So that is one thought. The other thought that comes out of this is that I am not afraid of difference for the reasons I have been told I would be afraid of it. I am not worried about rejection or social disapproval. The group is my link to my home culture and it will be an important source of support, so I will need them. But most people don’t like you or dislike you based on who you are. Their opinion of you comes from how you treat them. Mostly.

The worry is about rejection by God or something else nebulous and abstract. I must “fit in” the way I was raised to. And yet I can’t fit in with these people. They are “outsiders.” From them, I have to be separate. It’s a double bind. I must fit in. I can’t fit in.

And what I feel most commonly is an uncomfortable sense of contempt for the group, although I like the others in the group, or at least I like most of them. I think they’re good people. But I was raised to view all other groups of people aside from the Two by Twos with contempt.

You stop believing in all these things, and yet the familiar responses don’t disappear. We believe that thoughts and feelings are linked and yet they aren’t with feelings and thoughts triggering one another. We are more like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating before our meals. The thought and the feeling and the action are all part of a response. You can take out one piece of the response–the thought–but the feeling remains.

There are some theories of psychology that see us as immensely complex and our problems as very “deep.” As time goes on, I see myself as less and less complex. I am merely an extremely intelligent primate. What I can do better than a chimpanzee is think about the future. I can also remember the past better. And I can better control my impulsiveness. But in other regards I am much the same.

Change is difficult not because we are so complex, but because we are so simple. Very often, we are not behaving or thinking purposefully–and by purposefully, I mean in a way that is directed towards a goal. So we are not attempting to defend ourselves against pain or because we want to maintain a positive self-view. In many cases, we are behaving more like biological machines.

So there isn’t any deep meaning behind my sense of contempt. It’s conditioned and no more meaningful than saliva.

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Disturbing the unity: leaving the Borg

sevenLast night at dinner, at the long table they’ve set especially for us–the “Canadian teachers” although most of us are not Canadian–I felt different in a pricking, intermittent kind of way.

I pieced something together just then, eating my noodles and vegetable kofta. I know I am different. I am, perhaps, even more different than average. We’re all different. That’s nothing new, but what I understand is that they see themselves as different too.

The uncomfortable feeling I had was that of being an individual.

In the 2×2 church, and probably other controlling religious groups as well as many dysfunctional families, you are not an individual. Behaviour that speaks to your individuality “disturbs the unity of the church.” Your job is to “fit in.”

What I hadn’t put together is that those around me also see themselves as individuals. In the West, we are proud of our uniqueness. We want to be special. Whenever you are anxious about something, someone will tell you, “Just be yourself.” But I didn’t grow up in the same culture as those around me did. I grew up in the Borg. I was assimilated. Resistance was useless.

Go to church: advice for exes

All Saint's Church, MumbaiI went to church last Sunday morning. I was in Bombay, visiting a friend there who happens to be a Christian and a regular church-goer. So I went along, more or less for the ride.

It rearranged my head for me. Not in a neat, organized way—that so rarely happens, although it would have been nice if it had. Instead, it shook things up and left them strewn all over the place. I’m still sorting through the mess.

You should go to church too. Regularly. Not necessarily the same one. And not because you are looking for a church where you will feel comfortable and able to worship. In fact, if you do feel comfortable, you might want to take off running the other way, because what you may have found is yet another “truth cult.” Don’t join it.

On the contrary, go to a church that scares you. Go to church in the same way and for the same reason that people with spider phobias first look at pictures of spiders, then sit in the same room with spiders who are crawling around safely within glassed terraria, and then eventually take spiders into their hands and let them crawl over their bodies.

Because they want to lose their fear.

tarantulaIf you leave the Two by Twos, you will also leave with a church phobia—especially if you were born and raised in it. You will have a lot of inaccurate and somewhat frightening ideas about people who attend other churches. These are ideas you may know are inaccurate, but seeing it for yourself is far more powerful than simply knowing.

I haven’t been to a church service of any kind for many years. Possibly decades. I went once to an Anglican service on Easter Sunday to hear a friend sing in the choir. I’ve sat through the better part of a Catholic mass. (I was late.) And I’ve wandered through services and baptisms at Nuestra Senora Reina de los Angeles, but that’s different. That cathedral is also a major tourist site and designed architecturally to accommodate voyeuristic wandering. I’ve also visited churches between services and sat in shrines trying to meditate.

None of those came close to the experience I had on Sunday morning. Sunday morning, during my friend’s church service, I was fully aware of my fear. That’s what you want to be.

To whatever extent that you can, you want to participate in the worship service in the same way that everyone else is. Think of this as a cultural experience. You grew up in religious Siberia. You are visiting civilization for the first time and trying to learn more about it. And the only way to really learn about anything is to do it. So do it. Just don’t do so much you have a heart attack.

You want to feel the degree of fear that is tolerable for you, that you can manage without shutting down or dissociating or otherwise mentally running away. If you start running away in your mind, then it’s time to leave physically. You’ve had enough.

There’s always next week.

You want to sit there while they pass the collection plate and be aware of your heart racing at the very fact that you are sitting in a church where they do this. You want to look around and notice that you are worshipping God in a church made of hands. You want to see communion being taken without anyone passing a plate of white bread with the crusts cut off (or whatever they used in your Sunday morning meeting that seemed to be the only way things could be done). You want to leave that church and know that there is no excess bread and grape juice (or wine, depending on where you lived) being swept off quickly into the kitchen as if bread disposal is a mysterious and mystical act that only the elder can see.

You want to look around while the service is unfolding and realize these people have come to worship God out of a faith as deep as any you have ever seen. Despite everything the workers told you about “outsiders” only attending church for the sake of appearances or because they think all you need to do is go through the motions, these people believe. Some of them more. Some of them less.

Of course, some of them really are going through the motions—just as you were told they would be. However, some of the “saints” in gospel meeting were going through the motions too. I went through the motions sometimes. You might have yourself. Faith is not evenly distributed in a congregation. It is not always so easy to maintain, and the same people will have more at some times than others. That’s something you need to see.

Watch the pastor or the priest until you understand that this is not a “false prophet” intentionally leading his flock astray, but someone doing the best he or she can to help others get closer to God.

Go to church and feel scared that you’re even daring to sit there. Feel even more scared to observe that the workers were mistaken—or perhaps deliberately even lied to you. Keep going until you’re not scared anymore.

Only when the fear is gone will you be free to decide for yourself what you think of Christianity, what you think of going to church, and whether and what kind of church you want to attend.

And the point of leaving is freedom, isn’t it?

Standards of evidence

Like this. Now try not to think about it.
Like this. Now try not to think about it.

I decided last week that I know nothing about delusional thinking or psychosis and so I ought to read up about that. I mean, I know a fair amount I would say about my own issues, about trauma and dissociation and what you might call attachment issues. I even know some useful information about what have been classed as personality disorders—namely, borderline and narcissism, although I believe less and less that they represent distinct illnesses rather than a collection of symptoms that may or may not occur together. But that’s another topic.

So, I did. And it turns out that what causes delusional thinking—which is surprisingly common–may have to do with how people consider evidence. Those who develop delusions tend to consider only very sparse evidence before reaching a conclusion. In addition, they may reason emotionally, as others of us also sometimes do.

For example, a person walks outside, has an uneasy feeling, sees the neighbors talking, and decides the neighbors must be plotting to blow up his house. He doesn’t consider additional evidence, such as the fact that the neighbors don’t generally seem inclined towards violence and have no compelling motive to harm him.

It seems to me that a difficulty in considering probabilities must have something to do with this as well, because many of us get crazy ideas about things from time to time, but then we think about the odds and reconsider. But that’s just my own idea.

Uncle #2 is inclined towards delusion. He’s an anxious person generally, and seems constitutionally set up to worry. Last week, I was 20 minutes later than usual coming home in the evening, and he concluded I had decided to give up my room and take up residence elsewhere. Never mind that my rent for the next month has already been paid.

I'm fond of the bougainvillea also. But I worry a lot less.
I’m fond of the bougainvillea also. But I worry a lot less.

Uncle #2 has a few obsessions: the bougainvillea is one of them. He’s perpetually worried someone will chop it down, because this has happened before. He doesn’t seem to consider the number of times he has thought it was going to be chopped down and wasn’t.  This doesn’t enter in.

He’s also concerned that the other owners in the lane are conspiring to persuade his paying guests to pick up and leave. The watchman, of course, has been paid to assist in this process.

Granted, Uncle #2 not the easiest person to have as a neighbor, because he feels constantly threatened and is therefore inclined to be a bit obstructive and, well, crotchety is the word that comes to mind. But my experience has been that most people are really just too lazy and preoccupied with their own lives to form elaborate plots. In most cases, their difficult neighbors continue to remain in their houses and continue to be difficult in spite of any neighborhood sentiment against them. Also, Uncle #2 has lived here for nearly 20 years. But these are facts he seems not to have considered.

This has also gotten me thinking about the rest of us, and other differences in how much and what kind of evidence  we consider when coming to conclusions. I know for myself that, in most things, I want to see quantitative studies that use acceptable samples (large enough and random enough to mean something), control for important variables, and yield statistically significant results. Better yet, I’d like to see meta-analysis so that I’m seeing the results of many studies at once. Qualitative studies have their uses, but not as decisive evidence. I think this way in terms of my work (education) as well as in other areas where I need to make important decisions, such as physical and mental health.

If you work in the humanities, you probably have a completely different way you approach evidence, which I probably don’t understand. But I’m sure that that way is also valid. Whatever it is.

Of course, we all weigh new information against the framework of what we already know and believe—some of which is true and some of which probably isn’t. But that’s a different matter for a different post.

However, some people use an entirely different standard for assessing evidence, a standard that has to do with the person providing the evidence and not with the evidence itself: name recognition, prestige, the air of confidence and certainty in which the evidence is submitted, and personal qualities that are valued or associated with authority and believability. Some of this has some value: my physician has a medical degree from an accredited university. That seems important. But most of it probably doesn’t.

Sometimes, you know someone’s name because they’ve advertised well and not because they actually have anything to offer. Or, maybe you keep hearing their name because they’ve captured the imagination of a lot of people who know even less than you do about the subject.

This worked out well.
This worked out well.

As for confidence, that’s usually a better indicator of bias than of correctness. Absolute confidence means the person is unwilling to consider other explanations or interpretations aside from their own, so they have blind spots. The more confident someone is, the less seriously you should probably take them.

In the same way, I think we often consider religious and political figures in light of their personal qualities rather than think critically about their message. If they can persuade us, we believe what they are saying must be right. But the tactics that lead to persuasion are more often emotional than factual. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who I think was right, seems to have mainly compelled the nation to listen because of his oratory gift and not because of the strength of his ideas. Listening to him, I still get chills. And it’s good we listened to him, but not everyone who can do that has something to say that’s worth paying attention to.

workersStill, I think we learn what evidence to use in making decisions–as well as in making sense of our lives–from our families as well as the larger culture. I was raised to defer to the “workers” (the 2×2 ministers) in nearly everything I did. Their source of authority? A place in the hierarchical structure of the church and compliance with the accepted practices and beliefs of those higher in the structure. Where did those come from? Charisma, really, and the political acumen to know who to align yourself with and for how long. Personal qualities and nothing else.

And I think this needs to change. I think we need to change how we consider evidence–responding less to how something is said or who has said it, while considering more what it is that is being said. Otherwise, we could all end up wearing our hair in buns or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

On the blank page

blank pageI sat down to write this evening without any particular idea in mind. I often have a backlog of ideas I’ve been meaning to post about, and so starting out with no direction or focus is unusual for me. Typically, I have in mind four or five possibilities and all I do is choose one and begin.

Which means there is never really a blank page. I have already begun to fill it, even before starting, because I’ve been playing with that idea for a while.

But today I began with a blank page.

And I’m telling you it was like Christmas. I said to myself (inside my head—I haven’t started speaking aloud to the voices just yet), “I can write about absolutely anything.”

I think this whole process of recovery or healing or whatever you want to call it has been like this—it’s been a process of stripping away layer after layer of stricture and confinement. That’s not been the whole of the process, but it’s been one part of it.

Because I grew up in a cage: between the Two by Twos and their rules and the rules I came up with for myself in a rather futile attempt to make life predictable, there wasn’t much freedom.

christmas presentsI pushed the envelope a lot growing up. I wasn’t a rebellious kid. I wore skirts (as prescribed), I kept my hair long (as required), I wore no make-up (as suggested). I didn’t fight with my parents or the ministers over any of those things and I didn’t experiment with anything I wasn’t supposed to.

Instead, I became a vegetarian. I refused to go to church. I came out to my parents as a lesbian. You know, just the big things. So I’ve always seen myself as a free-thinker.

This isn’t just my own imagination. I have been told again and again I think “outside the box.” I keep trying to explain I live outside the box or even simply that my box is different. I am just outside your box. But no one gets that.

Still, the question I’ve found myself facing repeatedly in my own mind is, “Can I think that?”

Can I think, first of all, that thoughts aren’t magic and, in themselves, don’t cause anything to happen? Can I just admit on certain days that I am having thoughts about suicide or thoughts that suggest I don’t like myself very much and just allow that to be?

Can I let go of the need to be positive as well as the need to try not to be too optimistic (since that might jinx what I’m hoping for), because whether my thoughts are negative or positive they remain nothing more than thoughts and life will proceed in the same way regardless of what I think?

Can I relinquish my sense that I am obligated to worry? Can I stop believing I should be afraid to think something through—that if I do, I might begin to ruminate and that will make everything worse?

Can I stop thinking I am so damned important that it even matters what I think? Because I’m not. And the mind is the best playground ever invented. And should be taken just as seriously. Which is to say not very.

Can I cease the search inside myself for that underlying badness, the ulterior motives, the suppressed desires, the passive-aggressiveness? Can I toy instead with the idea that I’m basically good and doing the best I can with life? Can I just try that out?

And the answers to all of these questions has been yes. I can think what I feel like thinking. I can say what I feel like saying. And I can write what I feel like writing. Nothing will happen.

Certainty (Again), Summer, Crawdads

Forest-Creek-Eagleville-PA-USADo you remember those long summer days as a kid when you had nothing more to worry about than whether or not your best friend was up for crawdad fishing?

Me neither.

I remember the crawdads. I don’t remember having nothing to worry about.

What I remember about being a kid, especially in the summer, was having horrendously important decisions to make pretty much all the time that I lacked the knowledge, experience, or maturity to be successful in making or carrying out. I remember everything having the importance of life or death. Because often they did.

And I wonder about that.

The reason some people remember childhood as a care-free time with few real worries or decisions to make is because someone else was doing the worrying for them. Usually their parents. And most of the time, this worked out because, unlike me, their parents had been around the block a few times and had the knowledge, experience, and maturity to make decisions that didn’t result in death or bodily harm a great majority of the time.

And unlike my parents. Who very often did.

Those people who are worrying, who are prepared to make decisions about you successfully most of the time give you something–obviously, I suppose. They give you a sense of security, an idea that life will be well. They give you a sense of certainty even if life is actually fairly uncertain.

And I wonder about that too.

Because I grew up, as I’ve also mentioned before, among the most uncertainty avoidant group of people I have ever encountered, before or since. And I wonder if that feeling of being totally unprepared to face an uncertain world is at the core of their tremendous need for certainty.

I wonder if their pursuit of certainty is about attempting to find those lost summers of childhood when there is nothing more to worry about than whether your best friend is up for crawdad fishing that day. I wonder if it’s about looking for a certainty that can no longer exist.

Another Lie: Judgment

egyptian cobraThe third lie that has suddenly reared its ugly head at me and hissed like an Egyptian cobra is the idea that we all care too much about what everyone else thinks.

Now, a lot of people might care a little too much about the judgment about others. But I don’t.

I have been through a lot. A lot of tremendously horrific things have been done to me and the end result of all of that is that, unless you are someone I really care about or respect (or I actually need something from), I don’t give a damn what you think of me. Quite frankly, my dear, I’ve been through worse than your withering looks. Life is too short, I have too much to do, and keeping my own life in order and my head on straight is too hard to worry about someone else’s opinion of me. I just can’t see it being worth the time.

If you don’t really know me too well and you have taken the time to form an opinion in that regard–I mean, something more substantial than a first impression–then my opinion of you begins to sink rather lower based on that fact alone.

You clearly need a bit more to do in life. Birdwatching is a nice hobby. You might want to try that. That’ll keep you busy. Or you could try listening to the police scanners. Maybe volunteer in a soup kitchen, read to children or elderly people, help a nonprofit drill wells in Africa. There is no shortage of useful things to do in this world. You ought to start.

Because if you have the time to pass judgment on me or my life, then clearly you have too much on your hands and too little meaningful activity with which to fill it.

This isn’t just a lot of tough talk. I really feel this. It doesn’t mean I’m not scared of a great number of things, including some really irrational ones. But the judgment of other people is not one of them.

It also doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate some general positive regard from acquaintances and near-strangers and readers. Although if you’re a regular reader, you probably know me rather well.

But it has been drilled into my head: We all care too much about what other people think of us.

In the 1980s and 90s, this was pretty much the standard set for us.
In the 1980s and 90s, this was pretty much the standard set for us.

First, the cult I was raised in drilled it into my head. They liked to remind us, “Not to be concerned with our appearance before men,” or some such nonsense, while obsessing about the hemlines and hairlines of women. We clearly were intended to worry about our appearance and what others thought of it. Just the right others.

But I am not always a very good student. I don’t always learned the lessons I was intended to learn. I didn’t learn that one well at all.

Psychotherapy kept up the same tradition. Sitting in someone’s office, trying to deal with all of the horror that has been my life and the damage it left me to struggle against, I was repeatedly reminded that rejection and judgment and disapproval were paralyzing, inhibiting phobias.

Well, they can be. That’s true. However, I find myself far more concerned with hypothermia, suffocation, and strangulation. Oh, and death. Those aren’t more rational fears, but they are  equally problematic.

So I have lived my whole life seeing myself through the lens of a lie: as someone terribly distressed by the opinions of others, limited by them, inhibited and needing to break free of that enslavement. There might be worse lies to believe than this one, but it has kept me from seeing the truth.

I am a lot more concerned with my own opinion of myself.

Which is not better, in fact, better. It’s worse. I am not always as forgiving of myself as other people are of me. And it is limiting and inhibiting and really is something I need to break free of at times.

Let's not panic. He might still be all right.
Let’s not panic. He might still be all right.

There are just certain flaws I really don’t want to have. There is are certain personality traits that simply, simply won’t do for me. It isn’t that I then conceal those flaws myself. It’s just that I sometimes run too far in the other direction. It sometimes interferes, well, with functioning. With making the best decisions I can. With life really.

I don’t want to be my mother in many regards–as many women can relate to. I don’t want to catastrophize or wind myself up in knots worrying over nothing. I don’t want to be hysterical.

And sometimes that means I minimize problems that actually do require my attention. Sometimes, it means I procrastinate in taking action to solve a problem because I don’t want to be attacking a problem that really isn’t there. Occasionally, it means I don’t adequately communicate serious problems to others because I don’t want to seem hysterical about silly things–not in the eyes of other people, but in my eyes. And it certainly means that when I feel anxious, I often don’t know why. Because I refuse to let myself worry about things. Mentally, I keep changing the subject. So my body knows something isn’t right, but my mind doesn’t. Not really. It certainly doesn’t know what.

That is just not who I want to be. And I’m not. But I’ve overdone it.