Thursday, April 25, 2019

Me, My Self-Consciousness, and I

The other night while my husband and I were out for a walk, holding hands, I experienced a few seconds of not being self-conscious. It wasn't until I was briefly free of this self-consciousness that I realized how constant and pervasive it is. We live in Orem, Utah, where more than 93% of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that same-sex marriage is a "serious transgression" and that pretty much everything else about our relationship is just plain sinful, and I have a hard time not focusing on this while out with my husband. As each car passes, I wonder whether the people in the car are bothered by our hand-holding, and when we pass other pedestrians I watch their faces for signs of annoyance, anger, disgust, or judgment. We've made a conscious choice not to let our public behavior be determined by rules that would not also apply to straight couples, and I feel pretty strongly that's the right decision for us, but at the same time I do not like making people uncomfortable, because I typically feel their discomfort as strongly as if it were my own.

Self-consciousness is a funny thing. On the one hand, it forces me out of my own head, making me experience life through the imagined perspectives of those around me. It's like my mental camera is floating somewhere out there, looking back at me, not on the inside looking out. Rather than just being me, I'm performing for an audience, with each choice a decision to cater to their preferences or not. Instead of holding my husband's hand when I want to, I'm either not holding his hand because I'm worried about offending someone, or I'm holding his hand in spite of my concerns about that imagined offense.

On the other hand, self-consciousness keeps me locked within my own head because I'm not really responding to the people around me, but rather responding to the versions of those people that exist in my imagination. People around here are polite to an extreme, so any judgments they make of us are silent. Hypothetically, it's possible that not a single person is judging us at all, if I'm to base my interpretation on actual words exchanged. I suspect the reality is somewhere between this hypothetical scenario (no one is judging me) and my imagination (everyone is judging me), but at the end of the day I'm better off reacting to the reality I can observe than reacting to a reality that exists only in my head.

This is Judgy Joe. He lives in my head and judges me. Stop judging me, Judgy Joe!

It's healthy, of course, to be aware of one's place in the world and one's impact on others. But the healthy version is self-awareness, not self-consciousness. Self-awareness puts the camera back in my own head, focused outward on the observable reality around me. Self-awareness recognizes signs of discomfort in those around me and feels compassion, but does not take personal responsibility for discomfort in others caused by their own belief systems and unrealistic expectations. Self-awareness recognizes that to most people, I'm just a stranger passing by, spending no more time in their consciousness than I do in their field of vision. If that's not the case, then it's because of unhealthy thought patterns on their end, and there's nothing I can do about that. I can only fix my own brain.

It would be nice if, having made this realization, I could now declare my self-consciousness defeated, never to plague me again. For better or worse, that's not how brains work. But recognizing an unhealthy thought pattern is a good start. Next time my husband and I are out in public and I notice myself fixating on the imagined discomfort of those around us, I'll remind myself that those thoughts do me no good and try to focus on something else--for instance, how much I enjoy holding my husband's hand. The next time after that, I'll remind myself again. And the next time, and the next time. Eventually, my brain will get the message.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meditating the Anxiety Away

I don't remember for sure why I started meditating in July or August of last year. I know at one point I read somewhere about people who claim to achieve psychedelic states through meditation, without drugs, and that intrigued me. I also know that I spent much of last year trying to conquer my lifelong struggle with poor sleep, and some of my first forays into meditation were guided meditations meant to help you fall asleep and sleep deeply (I've had moderate success with these). I also know that not long after I started meditating somewhat regularly, my friend MJ started offering free meditation classes that covered fascinating neuroscience topics (one of my obsessions this past year) and introduced me to several different meditation techniques.

One of the things I realized early on, now that I was paying more attention to what my brain was doing, was that I was in a near-constant state of anxiety. My brain was perpetually yapping at me about all the things I could possibly worry about--that thing I'd said wrong yesterday, that thing I might do wrong tomorrow, that horrible thing that almost happened to me this morning but didn't (but what if?!), that hypothetical argument I might have with someone next year, that time I embarrassed myself in second grade. I found myself latching onto these real and imagined fears, then circling around them over and over long past the point that horse was beaten and dead and then beaten some more. This happened to coincide with some health issues that made me realize just how much my constant state of stress was affecting my body. The more I saw how this neverending internal monologue was interfering with my ability to enjoy life, the more I just wanted my brain to shut up.

Luckily for me, getting your brain to shut up is one of the goals of meditation, which by this point I was already doing on a daily basis. More specifically, meditation has been shown, in numerous studies, to be an effective treatment for anxiety. It was nice to recognize that I had a problem and discover almost simultaneously that I was already implementing a potential solution to the problem.

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I should point out that I've never been diagnosed with anxiety by a mental health professional; this is purely a self-diagnosis. I also know that my anxiety is not as bad as some friends for whom anxiety is crippling--I've never found myself unable to get out of bed, to do the things I needed to do, or otherwise live my life because of anxiety. So I don't pretend to compare my problems to those who have it much worse, or to claim that meditation is the solution for everyone. Nor would I discourage anyone suffering with anxiety from seeking help from a mental health professional. I've seen therapists for various reasons in the past, but never discussed anxiety because until a few months ago I didn't realize that what my brain was doing was unhealthy--it was all I knew. And like I said, it's never prevented me from doing the things.

But I will say that, for me, meditation has been life-transforming. For the first few months I tried out several different types of guided meditation; my favorites were body scans and self-inquiry. I spent a month or two focusing on the teachings and techniques of Gary Weber, a guy who achieved a permanently egoless state after thousands of meditation hours and who teaches that lasting happiness comes with the complete dissolution of thought. After obsessing over that effort to rid myself of thoughts for a while, though, I realized that obsession with overcoming anxiety is kind of counter-productive, so I eased up. More recently, I reacquainted myself with Byron Katie, who emphasizes in her teachings that you can't make yourself stop thinking a thought, no matter how unhappy the thought makes you; instead, you simply question the thought, recognize how it's affecting you, and let your brain do the rest on its own time. For the past month or so I've left the guided meditations behind and have settled into a daily routine of silent meditation accompanied by an audio track of waves crashing on the beach. (The irony here is that when I was a child my mom had to bribe me to get me to the beach, but now apparently it's my happy place.)

It took a few months to really see the benefits of meditation, but I can definitely say I'm seeing them now. I've started waking up an hour early to meditate, and I look forward to it so much that getting out of bed is easy; my morning meditation hour, sitting quietly on the couch with blankets to keep me warm and cozy, is one of my favorite parts of the day. I spend more of my day noticing my surroundings and noticing what my brain is doing. When I find myself having non-productive, anxious thoughts, it's becoming easier and easier for me to gently return my focus to my breathing and forget about the pointless, stressful thought. More than anything, I find myself spending much more of my time in the present--with my mind quiet, the world around me becomes crystal clear, like I'm experiencing reality in 4K Ultra HD compared to the foggy low-res experienced through the filter of anxiety, and this sensation makes the most mundane, everyday moments feel glorious.

The funny thing is I have a pretty great life, and it's been that way for years. I think my brain learned throughout childhood and early adulthood that life is something to worry about rather than enjoy, and now it's just a matter of retraining it. The fact that daily meditation has had such a profound impact in such a short time makes me look forward to what it can do over the course of the coming years. But then I gently remind myself, it's not about what the future will bring; it's about where I'm at now. As for the supposed psychedelic effects? I'm not hallucinating melting rainbows or anything, but I'm experiencing life more fully, and I'll take that over hallucinations any day. (That said, I won't complain if the hallucinations show up later. Because melting rainbows would be amaze-balls.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

Goals, Shmoals

I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, e.g. "I resolve to stop doing X" or "I resolve to do better at Y," because I find resolutions to be too vague, too unrealistic, and too easy to give up on, but I have always been goal-driven, so just about every year since I was a child I've set specific goals for the year. When I was religious, these goals would often be spiritual in nature, e.g. "I will spend 15 minutes a day reading the scriptures this year." For many years I set fitness goals, e.g. "I will go to the gym at least 5 days a week this year," but a couple of years ago I realized that I'd developed enough of a gym habit that this was no longer necessary--I was going to work out regardless of any goals. For the past few years my goals have focused on writing, as I've renewed my dedication to become a published novelist.

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This year my goals were to write for at least 5 hours per week (i.e. 260 hours for the year), complete a rough draft of a new book, and then complete a final draft of the book (presumably after multiple revisions). End result: I completed about 200 hours of writing, I finished the rough draft in June, and I'm now about two-thirds of the way through my first revision. Do you want to know how bad I feel about not fully achieving my goals? I feel zero percent bad. I spent 200 hours doing something that gives me a sense of purpose, I wrote my first new book in years, and although the revision process is going slowly, it's going.

I made a conscious decision this summer to not worry about the 5-hours-per-week goal. I took a break from writing for a month because my obsessive drive to achieve goals was turning something I love into a chore. There would be evenings when I had a couple hours of free time but I was tired from a long day and all I wanted to do was lie down and read comics or watch TV, but I felt this moral obligation to write because I had to achieve the goal. When I didn't summon the willpower to force myself to write, I felt guilty for being lazy. Writing was no longer something I looked forward to, but rather a responsibility that I resented. That's when I realized, guess what? No one in the world but me is depending on me to meet this arbitrarily-determined writing quota. So I told taskmaster me to chill out and shut up. When I returned to writing after my month-long break, it was because I wanted to, not because I believed I had to. Over the second half of the year, there were some weeks when I spent much more than five hours writing, and other weeks when I didn't write at all. Choosing to be okay with that was the best thing I could have done for my mental health.

For the past four months I've been meditating every day--not because I set a goal, but because I decided it was something I wanted to do. Most of the time I search for a guided meditation on YouTube. This past Sunday night, the second-to-last night of 2018, I happened upon a meditation about finding one's ideal self. The meditation asks you to imagine your ideal self--the person you want to become--and then imagine a conversation with that hypothetical being. Except when I was told to imagine that perfect me, I couldn't think of a single way that he would be different from the me I am now. After a lifetime of setting goals in order to make myself into a better person, it shocked me to realize I didn't currently have a better me to aim for. It's not that I don't make mistakes--I do all the time, just like everyone else. It's not that there aren't things I want to learn or ways I can be a better husband, father, neighbor, or citizen--there are, and I'm confident I'll continue learning and growing in those ways. But I don't need to strive to become something other than what I already am. In the words of Kesha, "I know that I'm perfect, even though I'm fucked up." I have no doubt that I'll be a completely different person by the end of 2019--experience has taught me this--but that person will be no more or less perfect than I am now, and more importantly, I don't need to stress about becoming that person through resolutions or goals or strict self-discipline. Life is the best teacher there is, and life will happen regardless of what I try to make happen. 

With that in mind, I'm not setting any goals for 2019. I'll keep writing because I love writing. I'll keep going to the gym because it makes me feel good and because I want to be healthy when I'm a hundred years old. I'll keep meditating because it makes my brain happy. I'll keep reading because I love to learn. And I'll probably discover other ways that I can make my life better and start doing those things because that's just what I do. I'm not saying no one should set goals or even that I will never set another goal. I am saying that over the past thirty-nine years I've managed to turn goals into one more thing to obsess about, one more way to focus on what I should be instead of being happy with who I am. This year I choose to be happy with who I am.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Words, Words, Words

Yesterday I did a strange thing: I had a day without words. My husband is out of town for the weekend and my kids are with their mother, so I had a rare day entirely alone. Lately I've been somewhat obsessed with the human brain and how it works, and I've been meditating every day in an attempt to condition my brain to work in healthier ways. I was recently shocked to learn that only 25% of people think exclusively in words, because I cannot imagine thinking in any other way. From the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep, my brain generates a nonstop stream of words, narrating my every thought, feeling, and observation. As I've started paying more attention to what all this internal logorrhea is about, I've realized that a lot of it is anxiety, worrying about the past and the future, and pretty much all of it distracts from my ability to fully experience the present. So yesterday morning, given a day where words would not be necessary to communicate with other human beings, I decided to limit my word exposure as much as possible, listening to instrumental music, looking at art instead of reading, and doing my best to get my brain to shut the hell up.

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Me, at about 4:00 yesterday afternoon. 
I'm not going to lie: I did not succeed in eliminating verbal thoughts for the day. I probably didn't succeed for any single five-minute period. I spent a good amount of the day thinking about thinking without words, which inevitably resulted in putting those thoughts into words. I realized pretty early on that I could easily turn this into yet another source of anxiety, if I got down on myself every time my thoughts drifted into words. To prevent this, I made a conscious decision to be easy on myself, to forgive myself no matter how many times words crept back into my thoughts, to smile each time and laugh at how little control I have over my own brain.

One of the main things I learned through this experience is how much I live my life through the filter of other people's perceptions, or at least my perception of their hypothetical perceptions. The thoughts I found spontaneously generating words most frequently were about how I would tell my husband about this experience, or the blog post I'd write about it (yes, this one). At one point, realizing how difficult it was to have an experience without mentally narrating the way I would relate it to someone else, I thought, "If I never tell anyone about this experience, will it still count? Will it still be a valid experience?" The answer, of course, is yes, but my brain doesn't seem to think so.

Another lesson learned is that words both help me to understand my experiences and limit my understanding of those experiences. I spend a good portion of my life trying to describe my feelings and my thoughts in words that could accurately convey their meaning to someone else, whether or not I intend to attempt such communication. As a result, I believe I've developed a moderately high level of self-awareness, for example recognizing when my grumpy reaction to a frustration at work has more to do with a poor night's sleep or skipping my morning workout than with anything happening presently. The downside, however, is that I've limited myself to thoughts and feelings that I can express in words. When I've felt emotions that I didn't know how to describe, I've ignored them because my logocentric brain believes that if I can't articulate the feeling then it simply must not be valid. This, in large part, is why it took me years to accept that I could not be fulfilled in a romantic relationship with a woman, as I could not satisfactorily explain to myself (or others) what it was that I needed specifically from someone with a Y chromosome.

There were times yesterday that I just about abandoned the experiment. At one point I felt exhausted from the sustained mental effort of redirecting my brain away from its comfortable patterns. A dose of caffeine gave me the renewed energy I needed to push through to the end of the day. Finding word-free entertainment was challenging; I had instrumental music and art, but I couldn't read (even comic books have words) or watch much TV. So I did yoga. I went for several long walks. I asked a friend for a silent movie recommendation and gave The General (1926) a shot, but sadly found it didn't hold my attention. I ended up picking out a bunch of music videos that are more about the music, the dancing, and the pretty visuals than the lyrics (a challenge, because lyrics are about 80% of what I like in most songs). And, of course, I watched the eyegasmic LED light show my husband built this summer.

All in all, I'm glad I did this weird thing. I spent more of yesterday with my mind in the present moment than I typically do in a month. I recognized ways my brain uses words to obsess over things in unhealthy ways. Without so much thinking to distract me, I noticed little signs of physical discomfort that I would typically ignore, and made adjustments to relieve the discomfort instead of waiting until it grew into an ache I could no longer ignore. I woke up this morning feeling more rested than I usually do. Although I'm allowing myself to think with words today, I'm finding it much easier to stop that stream of words at will, whether it's to focus on what I'm doing or to pay closer attention to the audiobook I'm listening to. I won't be permanently giving up words anytime soon, but I hope cutting back a little will help me better enjoy all the other ways to experience life.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Eight Books I've Read in the Past Five Months

One of the things that motivates me to go to the gym regularly is listening to audiobooks. I pop in my earphones, listen to the next chapter I've been anxiously awaiting, and pretend there aren't a hundred other people there fighting off age, fat, and disease. For most of my life I've read and listened to fiction more than not, but recently I've been into non-fiction--mostly light topics like neuroscience, the history of human civilization, and the nature of reality. Here are the books I've read since June:

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker is one of the most eye-opening books I've read in... ever. Pinker uses data to illustrate the many ways human civilization has improved over the course of history, demonstrating that, despite the tendency of conservatives and liberals alike to catastrophize the evils of our day, now really is a better time to be alive than any point in history--by pretty much any measurement. We are safer, we are healthier, we live longer, we are richer, we have less war and violence (yes, really) than our ancestors. If you're not convinced, read the book. 5/5 enlightenments.

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a fascinating look at how the abundance of data made available by the internet reveals more about human nature than we could ever hope to understand before. How racist are we, really? What are our secret hopes, fears, and desires? We tell Google things we wouldn't even tell our therapist, and looking at that data in aggregate tells us much about the human race. 4.5/5 lies.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker is a precursor to Enlightenment Now, covering similar themes but focusing specifically on the history of violence. I love his data-driven approach to understanding history and the rational optimism that comes from seeing the general trajectory of our species toward decreasing violence as we increase our circle of empathy. That said, he gets into a lot of detail and there were parts where I was like, "Okay, I get the point already, can we move on to the next one?" Still, I give it 4/5 angels.

The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons is all about the ways our brains trick us into thinking we know things we don't. The authors elaborate on their findings from the attention study that came out of this well-known video (watch it and follow the instructions if you haven't seen it before), then they go on to describe other types of illusions our brains create without us realizing it. I found the section on how memory works (and how it doesn't work) especially fascinating. 4.5/5 gorillas.

Reality Unveiled: The Hidden Keys of Existence That Will Transform Your Life (and the World) by Ziad Masri is... an interesting book. I got it because the title intrigued me (I'm a sucker for grand theories of everything even though I've yet to find one I fully believe), the description promised an evidence-based approach, and it only cost a couple of bucks. The book starts out reasonably enough, looking at recent findings in physics that suggest reality as we know it is actually some kind of hologram (I've read this in enough trusted sources to know it's a legitimate theory), but then he dives into some really crazy stuff about aliens and reincarnation and a complex quasi-theological hierarchy of planes of existence. I appreciate that he starts the book by suggesting that even if you don't buy everything he says, to at least consider the parts that make sense to you. I also like that he introduces each new claim with some evidence to support it, but the problem is that he is not an expert in any of the fields he's talking about, so this is a matter of a layperson reading a few random studies with odd findings, then jumping to some pretty wild conclusions as if they were irrefutable facts. 2/5 realities.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt should be required reading for anyone who engages in any topics more serious than cat memes or dinner photos on social media. Haidt combines history, anthropology, and psychology to delve into the origins of moral intuition--our seemingly innate sense of right and wrong that seems so blindingly obvious to us but so obviously wrong to those with a different moral intuition. He refutes claims that human beings are naturally selfish or selfless, proposing instead that, for better or worse, we are groupish. Reading this book made me step back and reconsider some of my own assumptions about religion and politics, as well as those of people around me. 4.5/5 righteous minds.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann is about the different ways our brains process information, whether we're trying to decide which stock is a safer bet or assessing how happy we are with our lives. He proposes a model of two systems, one that does all the quick thinking we need to keep us alive--identifying threats, drawing conclusions from readily available information, evaluating people and experiences--and another system that kicks in when we need to do slower, more complicated thinking--solving complex problems, identifying the need to gather more data, questioning the assumptions made by the first system. The book gave me a lot to think about and I learned a lot about how my own brain works, but I didn't find Kahnemann's writing style as engaging as some of the other authors mentioned above. 3.5/5 thinks.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff is an old favorite of mine. I read it in high school and fell in love with Hoff's lighthearted use of Winnie the Pooh characters to explore the basic tenets of Taoism. His description of the Taoist way, cheerfully accepting reality as it is, has strongly influenced my own moral philosophy and approach to life. After seeing Christopher Robin this summer, I decided to read Tao of Pooh again (I actually read the print version of this one). I enjoyed the same things about the book that I'd enjoyed the first time, and it was a great reminder to practice what Hoff calls "the Pooh Way," but I also noticed something I hadn't remembered and didn't like so much: I don't know whether it's just this author's take on Taoism or if this is an intrinsic part of Taoism, but the book has a recurring tone of disdain toward modernity and rationalism. I personally find a lot of value in both, but nevertheless Hoff's version of Taoism speaks to me in many other ways. 4/5 poohs.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flowers for Benjamin

Last month I developed a strange rash, first on my foot and then all over my body, that made me excruciatingly itchy. I tried every kind of anti-itch ointment, lotion, and moisturizer I could find, but nothing stopped the itch. I resisted scratching as much as I could, but gave in a few times and of course made it worse. The timing of the rash's first appearance, within a week of having a water softener installed in our home, along with the fact that showering consistently made me itchier, led me to believe that I was one of the rare few I read about online who have an allergic reaction to water softening chemicals. We switched out the sodium in the water softener for potassium, but a week later the itch was no better (which was a bit of a relief, honestly, because the potassium costs ten times as much as the sodium so I really didn't want to buy it regularly). I stopped showering at home, using gym showers instead, and washed my clothes and sheets at a friend's house to eliminate all traces of my house's water from my body. Nothing solved the problem.

A wiser person would have seen a doctor sooner. It took me almost a month, but finally I went to my dermatologist. He took one look at the original rash on my foot, which at this point was an oozing, puss-filled mess, and said, "Oh, looks like you have an allergy to Neosporin." He told me to use Polysporin ointment instead (which made the oozing stop almost immediately), shrugged off the water softener theory as highly unlikely (another relief), and--most importantly--he gave me drugs to stop the itch. He prescribed a stronger anti-itch ointment as well as Prednisone, a powerful oral steroid that he said would end the itch much faster, but would also come with a number of weird side effects, including nausea, high blood pressure, headaches, mood swings, insomnia, and bad dreams. Hesitant to take on those side effects, I opted to start with the ointment, but keep the Prednisone prescription as a backup. The next day when the itch was more miserable than ever, I filled the Prednisone prescription. (And it only cost $0.87--a rare win for insurance!)

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The itch ended almost immediately. The doctor gave specific instructions to take the Prednisone over a two-week period, though, starting at four doses a day and then tapering down to one, and I sure didn't want the itch to come back, so I dutifully followed the doctor's orders. And you know what? Prednisone is a miracle drug.

The first thing I noticed is how happy it made me feel. I spent last week on cloud nine. As I understand it, the drug typically gives you an emotional boost at first, and then as it wears off you get the down that makes for a full mood swing. When I was on four doses a day and even three doses a day, there wasn't enough time for that down to hit--I just felt fantastic all day long.

Next, I started breathing through my nose. You have to understand, I have had clogged sinuses for as long as I remember. Off and on since I was a teenager, I've had various prescriptions for nasal inhalers, typically steroids, that helped somewhat, but I've never succeeded in breathing through my nose comfortably and naturally for any significant period of time. For the past week and a half I've felt my sinuses relax and expand, letting through more oxygen than my nostrils have ever felt. Every breath is a glorious rush, a cool sting of clarity as oxygen saturates my brain. Did you know that breathing through your nose stimulates your brain in ways that breathing through your mouth does not? It feels like someone supercharged my mind. (And it's not like I was an idiot before.)

The final life-changing effect of the Prednisone only kicked in fully this past weekend, as I was walking around the house and realized that I was standing on my foot differently. I've been told in the past that I have high arches, particularly on my left foot. This essentially means that I stand with the inside of my foot raised too high, which means my foot and ankle are angled outward instead of straight up and down. I had never connected this fact with another problem my left foot had, which was that it was perpetually clenched into a slight claw such that I could not straighten out my toes without using my hand or the floor to push them flat. This has always bothered me, but I couldn't do anything about it except force-stretch it now and then, with no real impact. But thanks to the Prednisone, even the most tense parts of my body have relaxed, including my left foot. Suddenly I'm able to stand with it flat, which makes a world of difference in the rest of my body--gone are the corresponding tension that until recently shot up my ankle, my calf, through my knee, outside my thigh and through my hip, then all the way up my spine and neck every time I took a step. Even my jaw has started unclenching as I've stretched out this foot over the past couple of days. So much chronic pain that was such an everyday part of my life that it was just noise for the past twenty years, and now suddenly there's silence.

I have never felt so relaxed in my life, physically or mentally.

Except now I'm on my final days of Prednisone. Today was my last day with two doses. In four more days, I'll be done completely. Even just reducing the dose, I've started to feel some of that congestion creeping back into my sinuses. And especially now that I have enough time between doses to experience the full range of emotional side effects, the thought of going back to chronic pain when the medication is gone is depressing. I feel like Charlie, the man whose IQ is doubled in a scientific experiment but then slowly, horrifically returns to his stupider self in the short story "Flowers for Algernon." I like the person I am now, with clear, brain-stimulating nose breaths and unclenched toes that allow me to stand up straight without back pain. I don't want to regress to that mouth-breathing, claw-footed man who's always hurting.

The blessing, of course, is that I know what the problems are and that they are solvable. My plan is to go to my regular doctor, explain the symptoms and tell him that Prednisone worked effectively, then work with him to find a permanent solution. I don't think Prednisone itself is a permanent solution because of the side effects--even with how wonderful I've been feeling, I could do without the way it's been messing with my stomach and my sleep cycle. But I'm hopeful we'll find something. If not, I suppose I'll always have this blog post to remember the two weeks I was a well-oxygenated, pain-free version of me. And if I'm grumpy next time you see me, you'll know this Ben didn't make it. Grumpy Ben will accept flowers on my behalf.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dear White Men,

Hi. I'm Ben. Like you, I am a white man. Not only that, but I'm also married to a white man, so I guess you could say I'm pretty much an expert on the topic of white men. As such, it has come to my attention that lately a lot of white men are feeling a little downtrodden, maybe a little ganged up on by everyone else. It's disorienting to spend the first half of the movie believing you're the hero, and then suddenly feel like they've flipped the script and now you're the villain. You may be wondering what you did to deserve all the flack white men are getting lately. I'm here to tell you that I know how you feel.

I grew up in Hawaii where, at least at the schools I went to, being white made me a minority. I was also one of the few Mormons at my school, poor, nerdy, unathletic, being raised by a single mother, and secretly gay, so nothing about my experience with the world led me to believe I was in a position to oppress anyone else. I was the bottom of the food chain, and the school bullies made sure I knew it. Yet in ninth grade history, when we learned about the ways white men overthrew the peaceful queen of Hawaii and stole the land away from the native population, it felt like all eyes in the room were on me. In tenth grade, when we learned about the ways white men enslaved, lynched, and raped black people, I felt like everyone thought I was somehow to blame. By the time we got to world history in eleventh grade, two things were clear to me: White men were responsible for most if not all of history's greatest atrocities; and I would forever carry the weight of this guilt on my own shoulders. I wanted to scream, "But it wasn't me! I didn't do those things!" #NotAllWhiteMen!

My friends patiently listened while I complained about feeling singled out for crimes my ancestors committed and reassured me that I was, in fact, a good person and nothing like those other white men. I'm sure it helped that my friends knew I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I was exempt from the general disdain for mainland haoles shared by many locals. It also helped that I hadn't committed any genocides. (Yet.) I felt heard and understood, so I could go back to hearing and understanding others, even when what they had to say assigned blame for everything that's wrong with the world to my people.

Part of my disconnect was that I never truly thought of white men as "my people." At home I regularly listened to my mom complain about cold, prim and proper, heartless mainlanders, in contrast to the warm, casual, loving people of the islands. At school and church I was surrounded by the mix of Asians and Pacific Islanders that make up much of Hawaii's population. White people were truly haole to me--the Hawaiian word used for Caucasians literally means "foreign." As for men, they were equally foreign to me. There were no men in my home, so the only men I saw were two-dimensional characters on TV and in comic books, the occasional male teacher, and the seemingly perfect authority figures at church. I didn't relate to any of them because of the above-mentioned secret gayness, which in my mind made me fundamentally different from the universally straight men I saw in the world around me. My people were brown people and women, so when they complained of being victimized by white men, I was right there with them.

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I also watched a lot of Scooby-Doo.
Several years later, after I published an essay about being a gay Mormon married to a woman, I was attacked online by a feminist blogger who accused me of being a misogynist supporter of patriarchy. This was hard for me. Women were my people. How could anyone think I hate women? How could anyone think I support the oppression of women? At the time I was on my way out of Mormonism, and even as a Mormon I like to think I was pretty open-minded, progressive, and conscious of women's issues. It was something of an identity crisis to be told by someone who is an authority on the matter--a bonafide feminist--that I was in fact the opposite of who I thought I was. I lashed out a bit, learned some important lessons about how to handle online debates, and then eventually moved on, reassured by my feminist friends that I was not, in fact, a misogynist.

The difference between my feminist critic's view and my feminist friends' view rested in how much they knew about me. The critic knew only that I was a Mormon man in a straight marriage, so whenever my written words could be read in either a positive or negative light, she interpreted them according to her assumptions about Mormon men in straight marriages--which, based on her experience with that group of people, was not positive. My friends, on the other hand, knew all those demographic facts about me, but they also knew me as a human being who is generally a decent, non-misogynistic person, so they read any ambiguities of my writing in that positive light.

In both experiences, I felt judged based on my race or gender by people who didn't know any more about me, while those who knew me well enough recognized that the race- and gender-based judgments didn't apply to me. In essence, I had already proven myself to them, and I still needed to prove myself to my critics. This is essentially the place many white men find themselves in today: At least in certain circles, we are assumed racist and sexist until we demonstrate otherwise to the satisfaction of whoever is judging us. I'm not going to lie, it sucks to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. But guess what? Throughout the history of western civilization, this has been the case for women and people of color. I wanted to put "until recently" in that last sentence, but I can't. We've made progress, yes, but racism and sexism continue to pervade our society. So, my white male friends, if you feel like you're being judged for your race or gender, then welcome to the human experience.

But wouldn't an ideal society not judge anyone by their race or gender, including white men? Yes, definitely, but that's not our current reality; everyone has unconscious biases based on their experience. If someone makes assumptions about you because you are a white men, it's likely that they've had a lot of experiences with racist and/or sexist white men. Calling them hypocrites because they are judging you based on your gender or race does little to change anyone's mind, and it equates the relatively minor harm of being treated as a racist or sexist with the much greater harms of being denied employment, being paid less, being profiled by police, being sexually assaulted or raped, or being murdered because of one's gender or race. Let's be clear: Any unconscious biases you and I suffer from are not equivalent to institutionalized racism or sexism. Just as women and people of color have fought for centuries to prove white men's assumptions about them are not true, the only way we white men will change biases about us is by not being racist or sexist.

"But I'm not racist or sexist!" Two problems with that argument: First, very few racists or sexists describe themselves as such, so clearly self-definition is not sufficient here; the only way to know if we are racist or sexist is to listen to what women and people of color say about us. Second, it's not an either-or thing here. The options aren't either slave owner or not racist. As I mentioned above, we all have subconscious biases, and many of those biases are sexist or racist. I can march for women's rights, support the #MeToo movement, and treat my female coworkers with respect, and still say something that offends women simply because I didn't fully think through how my words might be interpreted. As an ally I can do my best to understand the experiences of women and people of color and respect their perspectives, but as a white man I cannot completely understand those experiences or perspectives. Not being racist or sexist doesn't just mean avoiding the big, obvious harms; it means listening when women and people of color tell us about the more subtle ways we are making life difficult for them. It means when someone tells me I screwed up, I get over my hurt ego, apologize, and do better.

Being judged unfairly sucks. Having to prove yourself sucks. Instead of feeling bad for ourselves, let's work to create a world where no one has reason to assume white men are racist or sexist--one not-racist, not-sexist white man at a time.