Thursday, September 7, 2017

Choosing Happiness

When I blogged a month ago about learning that I can make choices to make my life happier, I didn't realize that in the following weeks, I'd be putting my money where my mouth was.

Nine years ago I completed a master's of library and information science, which was my second master's degree. My first was in English, but when I realized I wasn't making any money with my hard-earned creative writing skills I went back to school for a more practical degree. I'd been working in libraries for five years by the time I finished the MLIS program, and my plan was to settle into a long-term library career. As I was searching for a library job, though, I happened upon a part-time work-from-home opportunity as a web search evaluator. The work looked interesting and the part-time work-from-home flexibility was ideal at a time that I'd be moving to two different states within a few months and then taking care of kids while their mom started a PhD program. As it turned out, I loved the work--I got to look at random web pages all day, see what people were searching for online, and work at whatever time of day I found convenient. Best of all for an introvert like me, I didn't have to go anywhere, which meant I didn't have to talk to anyone.

A year later, my then-wife decided the PhD program wasn't for her, so I let my project manager know I'd be leaving as soon as I found full-time work--presumably at a library. The PM didn't want to lose me, so she recommended me for a full-time lead position. I was happy to continue working for the company, as I enjoyed the work and they were treating me well. A few months later I was promoted to associate project manager. A year after that, project manager. A couple years later, senior project manager. Then, three years ago I was promoted to director. Throughout it all I continued to enjoy the work we did--it's fun to be at the cutting edge of machine learning technology--and it's been a really great company to work for.

But.

But last year I stopped and said, "Wait, how did I end up in management?" As much as I like the people I work with and the stuff we're doing, human interaction stresses me out, and managing relationships had become like 90% of my job. This realization was a large part of my impetus to re-focus on writing this year. I was going to return to my original dream of being an author, and once I had just enough of a writing income to supplement my husband's full-time salary, I could move out of the management career I'd fallen into. It was a long-term exit strategy, likely years out, but I was okay with that. After all, I wasn't miserable; I just didn't particularly enjoy much of what I was doing.

My role model when I was the boss.
And then I wrote that blog post about making happy choices last month, reassessed my life choices, and realized how much managing people was stressing me out, and decided I needed a more immediate exit strategy. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that was. Would I go back to libraries? It would have to be just the right job--nearby, and light on talking to people. Who knew how soon that ideal library job would open up?

Within days of deciding I needed something different, I was interviewing candidates for an instructional designer position, and suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. As an instructional designer, I wouldn't have to manage people. My English degrees, my teaching experience, and my nine years of subject matter expertise all made me a pretty good candidate to design e-learning modules for our employees and contractors. It would be like teaching, which I enjoy, but without having to talk to students, which was my least favorite part of teaching. And best of all, it would be an opportunity for me to be creative, which is my lifeblood. So I talked to my boss, who agreed I'd make an excellent instructional designer and was happy to get me into a role where I'd be happier (this really is a great company), and badabing badaboom, now I'm an instructional designer. It's a bit of a pay cut but it's worth it to be doing something I wholeheartedly enjoy.

I'm incredibly fortunate to be in a place where I could afford to take that pay cut, and working for a company willing to move me into a position better suited to me. I don't pretend that happiness is a simple matter of making good choices, because some people don't have any good choices available to them. But within whatever limitations life gives you, whatever range of choices you have available, why not make the one that makes you happiest? At the end of the day, that's what life is all about.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Loved Loud

I have always been an outsider in one way or another, but never more so than in 1997 when I moved to Provo and started attending Brigham Young University as a closeted gay Mormon. It was incredibly isolating to feel that I was different from everybody around me and I couldn't talk to anyone about my private struggles. I remember sitting on the steps outside a building on campus one Sunday afternoon, pleading with God to send someone to talk to me, to hold me, to take away this miserable loneliness, and getting nothing. Nine years later, in 2006, I attended a rally in Provo hosted by Soulforce, a group traveling around the country protesting anti-gay policies on college campuses. The rally was attended by a little over 100 people. By this point in my life I was publicly out as gay even though I was married to a woman, I had many gay friends and straight allies, and I was on my way out of the church. The rally produced a jumble of conflicted thoughts and feelings in me, but one of the strongest feelings was the warmth that surrounded me as this large group of people sang the Mormon hymn "I Am A Child of God" together, all in unity with conflicted gay Mormons like me. Despite being in the process of losing faith in the religion itself, it was soul-nourishing to feel, even for a moment, like I was a wholly-accepted member of the religious culture I grew up in.

The Soulforce rally in 2006. I'm right of center in a brown jacket, next to my then-wife, our then-unborn son, and our then-two-year-old daughter sitting on a friend's lap. Photo courtesy of http://www.soulforce.org.  

What I experienced 11 years ago pales in comparison to what I felt at last night's LoveLoud Festival in Orem. I bought tickets for the concert because I generally enjoy concerts and my husband generally doesn't, so the opportunity to see two bands he likes (and I liked well enough) within walking distance of our home was too good to pass up. The fact that the cost of our tickets would benefit good causes like The Trevor Project and Encircle added an extra feel-good aspect. I didn't realize that what I was actually signing up for was a cathartic evening that would go such a long way in healing the broken soul of the seventeen-year-old closeted BYU student inside me. People around me were laughing, cheering, having a great time, and I did plenty of that as well, but I also spent a good portion of the concert sobbing. While the 2006 rally attended by 100 was a powerful experience, last night's concert attended by 17,000 and headlined by major bands Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees, all focused on showing love for at-risk LGBTQ youth, made me feel loved and accepted within my current home community and my childhood religious community in a way I have never felt before.

Some of the moments that made me cry:

  • Hearing Tyler Glenn and Dan Reynolds sing the Mormon children's primary song "I'll Walk With You" and being reminded by my husband that this song was written by Carol Lynn Pearson in honor of her gay husband. 
  • Remembering that my friend Rhonda was part of the choir singing along with Glenn and Reynolds. 
  • Hearing twelve-year-old lesbian Mormon Savannah bear the testimony that her church leaders did not allow her to bear in church. 
  • Listening to Tyler Glenn talk about what an emotional experience this concert was for him. Can you imagine, attending BYU as a closeted gay kid and then coming back years later to perform to such a huge crowd as an out gay musician? 
  • Seeing the video clips about the brave LGBTQ kids at Encircle. I was so inspired by their courage to be vulnerable in front of such a huge audience, and grateful for the people who have made a safe place for them at Encircle. 
  • Watching a beautiful seventeen-year-old bisexual girl from Provo sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for an audience of 17,000. (For context, consider that the population of Orem is less than 100,000.)
  • Realizing, for once, that trying to look young didn't matter. If a single gay kid saw 37-year-old me there dancing with my 38-year-old husband and felt hope for their future, then I am happy to look my age. 
  • Realizing how much more powerful this experience was for my husband, who grew up here in Orem and never dreamed that he would see anything like this in his home town. 
As I've written before, I'm at a really good place in my life right now. I'm happily married and I have a solid network of friends and family both Mormon and non-Mormon who love and support me as I am. I had no idea I needed community validation like I experienced last night, but apparently the seventeen-year-old and the twenty-six-year-old inside me needed it. If you run into me and see my soul glowing, now you'll know why. 

At last night's LoveLoud Festival with my husband. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Evolution is My Religion

In my experience, many religious people don't understand how atheists find any purpose or meaning in life. Without God, they ask, what's the point? Every atheist will have a different answer to this question, and even I could come up with several answers that ring true to me, but lately my answer is this: Evolution is my religion. My purpose is the preservation of the human race. My meaning is derived from knowing I have a place in this grand venture.

Stripped to the barest roots, you could say I served my evolutionary purpose by reproducing--three times, in fact. Beyond that, I have a responsibility to ensure my offspring survive to adulthood and have the means to survive after I'm no longer caring for them. So is that it? The purpose of life is to make babies and raise them? While many--myself included--find fulfillment in parenting, it doesn't make sense to me for that to be the be-all, end-all. Do people who have no children, by choice or by circumstance, serve no purpose? I simply can't believe that.


The key lies in the one thing that separates human beings from every other species that we know of--our intelligence. The most amazing thing evolution has ever achieved is producing a species intelligent enough to overcome the physical limitations of evolution. Sure, fur might keep some animals warm during the winter, but having the brains to start a fire or build a house or develop the technology for central heating is much more adaptable, capable of solving many more problems than just being cold. We've evolved to the point now that we are no longer limited by the survival of the fittest; we have the means to keep all of our species alive, including the weakest. This is actually an evolutionary advantage, because the traits that are valuable to our species' survival today may not be the same traits we need to survive tomorrow. Diversity is strength.

So on a macro scale, we contribute to the survival of the species through advancements in science and technology. On a micro scale, each of us has a purpose, even if we aren't Einsteins or Newtons. The thing about intelligence is that with it comes self-awareness. We are smart enough not only to survive, but to ask whether we want to survive. The only way the human race will continue surviving is if we have motivation to do so. In short, it's our job to make life worth living. I can do this for others by finding ways to make their lives happier, more meaningful. It's equally important that I find ways to make my own life happier and more meaningful.

Evolution's dictates, then, are (1) be happy, and (2) help other people be happy. Maybe you've come to a similar conclusion via religion, but for me it comes down to doing what my genes programmed me to do. That is my purpose. That is my meaning. Evolution is all the religion I need.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dora the Explorer vs. Donald the Trump

The children's picture book Dora Saves the Enchanted Forest, published in 2011, is the book America needs in 2017. In this book, Dora the Explorer and her monkey Boots, known for their skill at climbing tall mountains and counting in Spanish, confront Owl, a cruel despot who is clearly a prophetic metaphor for President Donald Trump.


At the start of the book, the Enchanted Forest is a land of seemingly limitless freedoms--honeybees sing, puppies try to fly, and oak trees play hide-and-seek--obviously a metaphor representing our own land of the free, America. The Enchanted Forest is ruled over by King Unicornio, who we can tell is Latino because of his name, and we can tell he's gay because he's a unicorn. This will be important later. 


King Unicornio is deposed by Owl, who's clearly a jerk. With a complicated plan involving a wall that our Latino hero has to pay for, Owl takes power.


Once in power, Owl immediately starts throwing crazy laws around and banning specific groups from the Enchanted Forest: scarecrows, crows, elves, and fairies are all unwelcome in Owl's Enchanted Forest.


Thankfully Dora, who is also Latina, sneaks in despite Owl's travel bans. She then hires some illegal immigrants--the elves--to fix Owl's wall so King Unicornio can worry about more important concerns.


Now free, King Unicornio reclaims the kingdom and proclaims the Enchanted Forest is for everyone! He also forces Owl to stop being a jerk and do some community service for his crimes.


So what can we learn from this prophetic book? Clearly, if we're going to rid America of our own cruel despot, Donald Trump, we're going to need our own King Unicornio. But who could fill this role? Who will be our gay Latino hero?


Save us, Ricky Martin!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ben's Search for Meaning

Last week I lay in bed in our vacation rental in Hawaii, my head resting on my husband's chest, and my brain broke. "Does not compute," it said. "This much happiness is not possible." Being in the middle of a week-and-a-half-long vacation with our children in a beautiful place where I have many happy childhood memories certainly contributed to my bliss overload, but the truth is I have felt the same thing on several occasions in the past couple of years, often when I wake up next to him in our bed at home or while snuggling on the couch, watching TV. My brain simply doesn't know what to do with the fact that I am married to a man I'm intellectually, emotionally, physically, and sexually attracted to, and that we have a really good life together.

Image result for unexpected error

My mom did not have a happy life. She had a difficult childhood in which she felt she was expected to raise her younger siblings, she left her first husband because he beat her, her second husband left her, she raised seven children largely on her own, she worked hard as a waitress to support us, after finally getting a college degree and a good job she suffered through health problems that forced her into early retirement, and then she passed away after a painful battle with pancreatic cancer. Despite her seemingly constant challenges, though, she often smiled and laughed. Growing up, I learned from her that life sucks but you can choose to be happy anyway. One of her favorite books was Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which is about (among other things) how Frankl found ways to remain positive even while imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp.

The coping skills my mom taught me proved incredibly valuable as I struggled through a pretty difficult childhood myself. We were poor, my dad lived an ocean away and I had no meaningful relationship with him, my mom constantly fought with my older sisters and I was often called on to mediate, I was bullied for being white, and I was gay in a religious environment that taught me being gay wasn't even a valid option. Looking back on it now with a bit of objectivity, I feel like I had a pretty crappy childhood. Yet, as I said above, I have many happy memories of that childhood. Of course part of this is that there were genuinely good times mixed in with the bad times, but it's also thanks to the positive thinking philosophy my mom taught me. If Viktor Frankl could be happy in a concentration camp, after all, surely I could be happy through my relatively minor struggles.

The thing my mom didn't teach me, because I'm not sure she really believed it, is that sometimes life can be really good. Sometimes you can just be happy without trying. The problem with believing that life will always be horrible, that it's all about the trials and tribulations, is that you're less likely to work toward making your life happier than it is. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, by all means, but don't forget the part about the courage to change the things I can. As a child, there wasn't a whole lot about my circumstances I could change, so learning to have a positive attitude regardless of my circumstances was a necessary survival skill. As an adult, I have a lot more control, but it's taken me years to learn to exercise that control rather than just accept whatever circumstances life hands me.

Given my mom's experience with marriage, it's no surprise that I was cynical when it comes to finding happiness in a romantic relationship. You're never going to find someone that you're perfectly compatible with in every way--intellectually, emotionally, physically, sexually--so you might as well just pick someone you get along with well enough and choose to be happy. There's some truth to this, because there really is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but I went to an extreme when I allowed religious influence to make me devalue the physical and sexual aspects completely, marrying someone I connected with emotionally and intellectually, but who wasn't even the gender I'm attracted to. I later came to realize that yes, I am capable of choosing to be happy in fundamentally unhappy circumstances, but that's no reason not to change my circumstances when I can. I still had a lot of my mom's cynicism about relationships, though, so honestly I'm lucky to have married someone who makes me as happy as my husband does. My requirements were basically someone I could get along with and who I was attracted to (I added a second requirement to the one I'd had the first time), so as the years progress and we get to know each other better, I'm delighted by each new way I discover that he is customized to specifications I didn't dare hope for. Life will never be perfect, but it turns out it can be pretty darn wonderful.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Invasion of the Imposters

Yesterday as my husband and I rode around in a tour bus, playing the role of tourists in a place I spent half my life, I realized there is a term for the relationship I’ve always had with Hawaii: imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is typically used in other contexts to describe successful people who secretly fear their success was not rightfully earned, and if they are not careful they will be exposed as a fraud. I didn’t do anything special to earn my status as a resident of Hawaii—I was just born here, and lived here for the first eighteen years of my life, when I had no say about where I live—but then neither did anyone else from Hawaii. Yet whenever I’m here, or whenever I talk about being from here with anyone who knows Hawaii, I’m constantly worried about being exposed as a fraud, that I’m not truly local like everyone else.


When I was twelve, I moved across town and transferred to a new middle school. On one of my first days, a teacher was talking about an upcoming field trip and explaining that we could either bring lunch from home or order a bento box. Because I was haole—white—she assumed I had moved not from another part of the island but from the mainland, so she paused, singled me out, and started to explain, “Ben, a bento box is a plate lunch in a to-go box, with—” Embarrassed to have all the other kids thinking I was from the mainland, I stopped her and reminded her that I had just moved from Hawaii Kai, so of course I knew what a bento box is. She laughed, apologized, and moved on.

The truth is, before that conversation I didn’t know what a bento box was. My ignorance probably came from a combination of two things: although I was born in Hawaii, my family had come from the mainland just a year before I was born, so our home wasn’t as saturated with local idioms, food, and culture as homes of families who’d been in Hawaii going back several generations; and we were poor, so it would have been pretty rare for us to go to a restaurant and buy a bento box rather than just packing peanut butter sandwiches in a paper bag. Whatever the case, I didn’t know it, and I felt like I should, and if people found out I didn’t then they’d know I was a fake local, just like they assumed from the moment they saw my pasty white skin.

Growing up white in Hawaii, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Everyone is hyper-conscious of race, whether it’s simply used as a descriptor (“You know that one Tongan guy, the really big one?”) or in jokes based on racial stereotypes (“You’re so stingy, why you gotta be so Chinese?”). Adults may mean it harmlessly, and they typically do, but children have a tendency to be cruel. In 10th grade P.E. class, one day a boy who was just a couple shades darker than me asked, “Why are you so white?” I joked, “Same reason you are,” and he immediately body-slammed me, knocking me to the ground. Later, he attacked me again in the locker room. In history class we’d learn about the atrocities committed by Europeans and Americans against the Hawaiian people—not to mention atrocities committed against Native Americans and Africans—and I felt all eyes in the room on me, blaming me for things done hundreds of years before I was born. Toward the end of high school, my friends nicknamed me Slappy White and White-White Boy, and I embraced it because I was tired of feeling like there was something wrong with me because of the color of my skin, and joking about it was the best way for me to own it.

A flip side of my imposter syndrome here is that I feel like a fraud talking about my childhood as if I were a victim of racism, when in fact I’m part of one of the most privileged classes in America, as a cisgender white man. There’s truth to this, because apart from a couple of bullies my life was never in danger, I had no barriers blocking me from education or career (being poor actually helped because it qualified me for Pell grants and scholarships), and changing my minority status was a simple matter of moving to any one of the other forty-nine states, which I did immediately after high school. But my experiences, mild as they may be in comparison to harsher ones, did have a psychological effect on me that extends beyond my feeling like a fake local in Hawaii. At work, I constantly fear my colleagues will figure out I don’t really know what I’m doing, or that I don’t work as hard as everyone else, or that I don’t really deserve my position. When friends make a joke I don’t get or a reference to current events that I’m unaware of, my immediate reaction is to laugh or smile and nod instead of asking them to explain.


At the end of the day, everyone has things they know and things they don’t know, regardless of where they grew up or how smart they are. I don’t need to pretend I know the way to that one beach all the locals know, or that I like poi, or that I talk Pidgin (I don’t). I am who I am, and that includes both my knowledge and my ignorance. If you’ll allow that of me, then I’ll return the favor. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Everyone's a Little Bit Sadist Sometimes: An Argument for Moderation (Most of the Time)

Last night I was chatting with a neighbor about politics, as one does, and we were lamenting the radical polarization of politics, also as one does. "What does it say about us,"  I asked, "that we keep electing these politicians who are so incapable of compromising with the other side?" And it's not just compromise; our politicians are incapable of having rational conversations with their opposites. If you look at political discourse on social media, it's not terribly surprising that these are the people we elect. We as a human race seem to take pleasure in ridiculing those we disagree with. Like, if I can just get one more jab in, you'll finally see how superior my point of view is--and therefore how superior I am. We all know how fruitless this effort is, but we engage anyway.

And yes, I mean we. I know I do it. If you can sincerely say that you don't take pleasure in mocking or arguing with people who are wrong, then my sincere kudos to you. You are more mature than I am. I like to think of myself as a moderate liberal, capable of engaging in productive conversations with people I disagree with, and sometimes I pull that off--the conversation with my right-of-center neighbor last night was quite friendly and I learned about his point of view--but a lot of times I don't. I tend to swing far left and become combative in certain trigger situations. These triggers include my hot-button topics, which for the most part are cases where I perceive people being hurt; especially when those people are part of the LGBTQ community, women, or people of color, all of whom I broadly think of as "my people," even though I can only claim membership in one of those groups (why I don't think of straight white men as my people despite being a white man and having several straight white male friends is a topic for me to explore another day). Other triggers that make me dig into my ideologies and become obstinate are when I'm engaging with an obstinate person from the other end of the spectrum, when I'm engaging with a stranger on social media so I have nothing to lose, when I feel attacked or threatened, when I'm grumpy for unrelated reasons, or when I just have a really good joke that happens to be at the expense of people I disagree with.

My perceived correlation between the political spectrum and niceness. An admittedly oversimplified view.
Generally speaking, I see a correlation between political moderation and niceness, and between political extremism and meanness. This is absolutely true of me: When I'm more moderate, I'm more willing to listen to other people, to speak respectfully and be nice. When my more extreme political views take over, that's when I get belligerent, sadistic, just plain mean. I'm making it sound like I believe the solution to all the world's problems is for everyone to be more moderate, and to a certain extent I believe that, but unfortunately it's not so simple. There are situations where it's not appropriate to be nice. When people are actually being hurt, sometimes the only way to make it stop is to dig your heels in and forcefully say NO. If someone's pointing a gun at my children, I'm not going to worry about hurting his feelings--or his body--as I do whatever it takes to stop him and protect my children. The difficult thing is identifying the threshold for those gray situations between "you're pointing a gun at my children" and "I disagree with your personal beliefs" at which point it becomes appropriate to set aside niceness.

The key, I suppose, is being honest with ourselves about our motivations. If I'm being a jerk just because my ego is threatened, because I'm hangry, or because I'm reverting back to that basic human tendency to take sadistic pleasure in being mean to others, then I'm part of the problem. If I'm being a jerk because it's legitimately the most effective way to stop someone from being hurt, then I will be that jerk. And maybe some problems take both the moderate approach and the more extreme approach. Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X were fighting the same injustices, but the two fought in very different ways. I believe both were necessary. I'm going to work on being Martin whenever I can, and being Malcolm when I need to.