Superstition and Uncertainty

superstitionOne way of reducing anxiety about uncertainty is to make a lot of rules, even if the rules don’t actually work. In that way, you can at least create an illusion of predictability.

“If I do this, bad things will happen. If I do this, good things will happen.” How comforting! How nice! Life continues to unfold in whatever way it unfolds, based partly on chance and probability, but you can pretend that it isn’t.

Life is inherently uncertain, but it is more uncertain under particular conditions: poverty (either temporary or ongoing), severe mood disorders and a range of mental illnesses (including addictions), and in developing countries.

So it never really surprises me that India, for one, has often byzantine systems of bureaucracy. Nor does it surprise me that dysfunctional families tend to be extremely rule-based. What I hadn’t considered in this category of “how to cope with chaos” is superstition.

And India has a million of those too. Sneezing, for example, is bad luck. You shouldn’t rock an empty cradle or the child will get an upset stomach. A hooting owl means that someone has died.

I don’t really know what most of them are. I probably transgress against them about a hundred times a day. But I do know they’re there.

Kind of like this.
Kind of like this.

The light switches crackle in my room every time I turn something on. This scares me. What I have in my head every time I hear that sound are visions of the whole house burning down, with my inevitably sleeping self inside. This could happen. It probably won’t, but it’s much more likely than if I were in the US sleeping in a house with up-to-code wiring.

The crackle is a clear and obvious reminder to me of the faulty wiring that probably exists in every house in India. And that’s only one possible danger.

So, how do you manage the anxiety of living with these kinds of dangers? You can make up rules—either rules that make at least some sense or arbitrary rules. “I won’t leave any of the switches on or plug anything in while I’m sleeping.” Or, “I won’t turn anything on if the dog barks three times.” Both of the might make you feel better so long as you believe them. But then, of course, you also have to live by those rules. And they might be more inconvenient than helpful. (If I don’t use electricity when I’m sleeping, then I can’t plug in the mosquito-repellant machine. And I might get dengue or malaria instead.)

You can attempt to exert more control. So, I can pester the owners of the house to investigate the faulty wiring. And sometime this helps. At least you’re doing something even if it doesn’t actually yield any results. (Which getting the wiring looked at won’t.) But it’s also frustrating–there’s a trade-off.

Denial is an option. (I just won’t think about the faulty switches.)

I can minimize the danger in my own mind. (Yes, it’s faulty, but it’s been like this for a long time. The house hasn’t burned down yet. It probably won’t.)

I can breathe.

I think I’ll just breathe.

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Some Dribs and Drabs

Every day is more exhausting than the last this week, and each day I get slightly less done that I had expected. Which is nothing short of alarming.

However, I continue to feel compelled to post.

So here is a list of some recent realizations, happenings, and events.

cat1) I still do not have a job in Country X. I also do not not have a job. There were, evidently, some delays. I am reminded of Shrodinger’s cat. During the period when we do not know whether the cat is alive or dead, is it still alive? I’m choosing at the moment to think the cat is still alive. I don’t know whether I have a job yet. Therefore, during this period in which I do not know, I have one. That’s logical enough, right?

2) I have come to the conclusion that I do not need to understand absolutely everything. There are some things I simply do not need to get. I’m sure I could if I really, really tried, but I don’t need to. And my time might be better spent doing something else. My father, for example. Possibly my retirement plan as well.

3) If it’s really important, do it first, before you get all tired and forgetful and just want to get the hell out of there. I have returned to the house where I’m sleeping and am realizing I have no clean clothes to wear tomorrow other than a fresh pair of panties. Because I didn’t pack the clothes first.

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.

How to Skin a Cat

I remember reading the expression, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” I remember it because I liked it so much. Not that I’m in favor of skinning cats. I’m really not in favor of skinning anything if you can help it. In fact, the whole idea of skinning anything is pretty disgusting. I suggest you try not to think about it at all.

Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Which of course means you now have an image of skinning a cat you will never be able to out of your head. Ever. Sorry about that.

Try not thinking about a white bear instead.

Still, I love idea of there being more than one way of doing things. It is the reason I enjoy math, and the redeeming factor in history. Mathematics shows us that we can all arrive at the same answer but get there in different ways. History teaches us that there is no such thing as “the way it’s always been done.”

I’ve been rereading some work on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, one of which is Uncertainty Avoidance. We all find uncertainty anxiety-provoking, but typically people from some cultures have learned to tolerate higher levels of uncertainty than others. We also use a variety of different strategies to cope with uncertainty, from managing our internal emotional states to creating rules and procedures for minimizing the unexpected.

The United States, UK, India, Ireland and, Australia–the countries from which most of my readers hale–are all low in uncertainty avoidance. But I suspect my own background as the child of a cult means I grew up in a micro-culture radically different from the mainstream.

This is a description from Geert Hofstede’s website of Uncertainty Avoidance:

Countries exhibiting high uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. In these cultures there is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work) time is money, people have an inner urge to be busy and work hard, precision and punctuality are the norm, innovation may be resisted, security is an important element in individual motivation.

It sounds an awful lot like growing up in the 2x2s. Why else did we need to know what kinds of books and magazines were okay to read?

Having a lot of rules is a way of avoiding uncertainty and ambiguity. You feel you know what to expect in most situations, even if things actually go differently as planned most of the time. That isn’t important. What is important is the way that thinking you know reduces anxiety.

In fact, creating and maintaining structure, routine, and order are strategies for making the world seem safer again following a traumatic experience.

Here are some more.

1) Information-seeking: reading up on the subject, asking a lot of questions, observing similar situations ahead of time, seeking advice from perceived experts.

2) Being proactive: Attempting to solve problems before they get occur or escalate can make the future seem more within your control.

3) Planning: Trying to arrange the future according to what you would prefer can make you feel you control it. Sometimes it even works.

4) Express emotions: Social support offsets anxieties.

5) Take direct steps to reduce anxiety: meditate, practice yoga, engage in calming hobbies.

6) Exposure: We are often untroubled by what seems “normal.” When uncertainty is an expected part of life, it troubles us less and we feel less anxious.

7) All of the above. Some of us need every technique we can think up to get a handle on the anxiety uncertainty is causing us. Eiither our lives are so uncertain or we are so anxious that it feels like all we can do to keep from screaming and rolling around on the floor. The more upsetting the trauma work I anticipate needing to do, the more strategies I try to use. Because trauma work is uncertain. I don’t know what feelings will come up, what I will remember, or who I will see myself as being after I’ve worked through some of it. I don’t know how long the difficult feelings will last or how intense they will be. And, above all, trauma work forces me to focus on the most uncertain moments I have ever had in my life: moments I didn’t know whether I would even live or die.

Gender, Jokes that Aren’t Funny, and the Unknown (Again)

The little red purse. With matching shoes today.
The little red purse. With matching shoes today.

So, it is post time. I have nothing much coherent to say. So hold tight. Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle. And do not attempt to tamper with the safety bar.

Today is a weird day.

Maybe it’s the shock of waking up to a clean bed, with no feline bodily fluids in it. For the first time in more than a week.

But I think some days are just that way. Some times I live the dialectic more than others. This is one of them.

I looked in the bathroom mirror on my way out the door and thought, “I’m a boy.”

Some of the parts are boys. Or maybe it’s just one of them. I’m not entirely clear on this. I had in a way hoped this would be one of those problems that would just dissipate along with the other indications of dissociation. That I wouldn’t need to actually do any work with it.

It hasn’t gone away. Like most things, I will need to deal with it, but I don’t really know how. So I haven’t.

And today I feel both male and female.

It is, to say the least, odd.

Which is probably why I was walking around yesterday dressed more or less than a 14-year-old skate punk and toting a cute little red purse. I have paired it with matching shoes today.

Odd. It feels odd, it looks odd. It’s probably a duck. (And here I am making jokes that aren’t funny again.)

Life is better with coffee.
Life is better with coffee.

Also, walking to the grocery store this morning (mainly to rectify the coffee problem I’ve having–namely, that I don’t have any), I suddenly began to think “I’m not going to get the Dream Job in the Far Away Country.”

This was not a worry. This was certainty. This was creeping dread.

I think maybe I want to know if I’ll survive if I try for something, pin absolutely all my hopes on it, arrange my life around it, and then don’t get it.

Will I?

I have no idea. Probably. I have lived through most things.

But yesterday I felt equally convinced it was a done deal.

The dialectic.

And also emotional reasoning. I felt certainty yesterday regarding something of which the outcome has not been decided and which is now entirely out of my hands. Today, I feel hopeless and equally certain of something for which the outcome has still not been decided and which is still entirely out of my hands..

Neither way of thinking about things is actually accurate. The fact is that I simply don’t know. That I’m waiting. And there’s really nothing to do but wait. And, you know, buy coffee.

It’s hard to give up emotional reasoning, I’m finding. It provides an illusion of certainty, the appearance of control. For God’s sake, it gives you something to do while you wait.

If I feel positive and hopeful, I can busy myself planning and scheming. I can start packing. If I feel despairing and hopeless, I can make back-up plans instead. I can find ways to soothe myself. I can try to calm all of those horrible feelings.

I don’t need to feel uncertain. I don’t need to feel anxious. I can just act.

But I also know that it’s a false sense of certainty. At this point, they are checking references. I have no idea how important this stage is. I know, when I’ve made hires in the past, if the candidate was otherwise outstanding, checking references was largely a formality. I was really trying to verify that the candidate wasn’t a sly con artist who had totally hoodwinked me into buying a can of snake oil and some holy water.

In other cases, such as being torn between two otherwise equally qualified applicants, or if I wasn’t wowed but the candidate in question seemed marginally better than the others, then this stage tilted the verdict decisively.

And I think I have very good references, but I don’t quite know for sure. One of them–let’s call him Alan–talks about me in a way that makes me want to hire myself. But, recently, Alan has replied to any of my emails. And Nancy, well, I never quite know what she thinks about anything, including me. But I’ve gotten jobs before with Nancy as a reference. One, in fact, where the referees sung my praises so emphatically, that the district called me back the same day to hire me. Or maybe it was the next day. But, for a school district, that is lightning speed.

But did they call Nancy? Has she changed her opinion of me over the last year? Because some people are like that. And she might be one of them.

Unknowns. All of it is unknown.

There was a third referee. But she hasn’t responded to my phone calls or my emails recently. I think maybe her mother–who had been ill–took a turn for the way or perhaps even passed away. Or they’ve gone on vacation. Or my colleague has decided she hates me. (But that seems rather less likely). So, I didn’t give her name to the Dream Job people.

But I think to some extent, that’s how life is. Uncertain. Beyond our control. And I want to be able to simply live with that. I want to be able to live with the unknown.

I don’t know about anything else, but I think learning to live with uncertainty is, in fact, the right thing to do. I am certain of that.

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

Totally gratuitous lion picture. Just because I'm in a mood. Photo credit: Kevin Pluck.
Totally gratuitous lion picture. Just because I’m in a mood. Photo credit: Kevin Pluck.

I have read all kinds of things–just because it interests me–but also to figure out how to fix myself.

I think I’ve made good progress.

But I also understand that after years spent (if you counted it all up) reading and writing and pondering and trying to make sense of everything that I really don’t know anything.

I don’t know if anything I did worked, or if it was all the result of some other factor I wasn’t thinking of. I don’t know if I am really more together than I used to be, although I tend to believe I am. I don’t know if anything I did would help anyone else.

I don’t know anything.

I think I felt very uneasy not understanding why anyone wanted to hurt me in the first place, and I felt much better with some good workable theories about why they did. I think I felt better when I could piece together how other people who haven’t hurt me are both similar and different from them. I think that made life feel safer, more predictable, and less terrifyingly unfathomable to me. I think.

Having been parented badly, I also needed some work on regulating my emotions. At least I think so.

I also needed to know that it was okay–and, in fact, preferable–to stop using certain thinking habits, including emotional reasoning, magical thinking, and catastrophizing (not a mainstay, but one I feel anxious about not doing even now).

I think nearly everything I have been told about myself, what I needed to do, or what was wrong with me that needed to be changed was mistaken. I refuse to fix what I have been told was broken and I have tried to change nearly everything else.

Llamas at Eduardo Avaroa Andean National Fauna Reserve in southwestern Bolivia. God does not care whether I visit there or not. Photo credit: Kuba Los.
Llamas at Eduardo Avaroa Andean National Fauna Reserve in southwestern Bolivia. God does not care whether I visit there or not. Photo credit: Kuba Los.

In other words, I have let go of certainty. I have let go of the quest for perfection and taken up with fallibility.

Instead of holding fast to the certainty of dogma, theoretical frameworks, or authority, I have simply gathered the evidence I could and came to the best decisions I could manage.

Unlike my parents or my sister, who continue to live each day according to “God’s perfect plan,” I have made my own plans.

And at the end of things–and maybe sooner rather than later–there will be consequences for this. I will, perhaps, land in some good situations because of the decisions I made.  I may also land in nasty ones for the same reasons. It’s really too soon to tell.

I should be able to do better than this. And they make tools! Photo credit: Michael Nichols.
I should be able to do better than this. And they make tools! Photo credit: Michael Nichols.

But I do know this: I would have anyway. Life lived with a sense of certainty is only that: it is no more predictable than any other kind of life. We just think it is.

God was never going to reward me for doing his will. He wasn’t going to punish me for failing to do so. He wasn’t going to tell me what it was in the first place. He doesn’t, in fact, care if I live in Bolivia or Tripoli. He doesn’t care if operate on animals or paint pictures or add numbers to earn a living. He is not going to tell me who to love and he isn’t going to tell me whether to take the 9:06 or 9:17 train. He will not tell me what to make for dinner or when to put the cat to sleep forever.

I do believe  he cares if I am kind to others. But that could just be me. I think I’ll try it anyway. It isn’t hard, and it makes my life better.

I’ll tell you something else. He gave me a head on my shoulders with a brain in it.  That was God’s plan for me. To use it. The best I could. And that’s what I’m doing. Living according to God’s plan for me.

That’s what I think. But, like I said, I don’t know anything.

I’m Not an Axe Murderer: Perspective

Richard Ramirez. Photo from Wikipedia.
Richard Ramirez. Photo from Wikipedia.

I’ve mentioned my intention of making some significant changes in my life in my posts before. So, if you haven’t been reading, I’ll catch you up.

Major changes afoot. Lots of uncertainty. Can’t get into specifics, but that’s the main idea.

There are other issues occurring in the present that also make the future uncertain, and not all of them uncertain in good or exciting ways.

Uncertainty = anxiety. We all know that equation. Some of us tolerate uncertainty better than others. I’ve had my share this week, largely showing up as anxiety and an irritating tendency to “forget” to eat. My pants still fit, so that’s the good news. But I’m averaging 6 hours of sleep a night, and I’m a sleeper. I need sleep. Without it, I become distracted, forgetful, on edge, anxious—even more so. I don’t function well on 6 hours of sleep. I don’t even function well on 7 hours of sleep if it’s every day.

But I’m also oddly unconcerned with the future. It will be fine, I think, and if it isn’t fine, it will still be good enough. I just don’t care.

I’m not saying I don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m saying I don’t sweat the medium stuff, not even always the big stuff. Outside of not sleeping right and not eating right, I’m not sweating any thing. Know why?

Because whatever happens next, I’ve lived through worse. I lived through the freezer, through stress positions, through sex trafficking, through years of dissociation and terror. I don’t care.

I care even less about what anyone thinks of me. I’m not an axe murderer. What difference does it make if I’m a screw-up or incompetent or can’t manage relationships? I’m just glad I can brush my teeth all by myself. I’m glad I remember my name every day. I’m glad I don’t get my thrills cutting other people’s pets into small pieces.

You should be too. Especially if you have pets.

And if you aren’t, you need a bit of perspective. You need a nice chat with the Zodiac Killer, with Charles Manson, with Richard Ramirez. If that doesn’t help, nothing will.

And I just don’t care.