Shiloh Cemetery (Hiawatha, IA)

Photos taken February 28, 2012 at Shiloh Cemetery in Hiawatha, Iowa.

Resolve to Pause

On the debut episode of The Marc & Tom Show with comedian Marc Maron & WFMU’s Tom Scharpling, Scharpling closed with a comment regarding how it can feel like it takes him forever to correct his path sometimes,
"It’s like when they turn those oil rigs — like the giant tankers — around. It’s like it takes them ten miles to turn ten feet. That’s what it feels like for me. It’s like, man, I cannot turn the ship around. I can’t do a one-eighty on these things. It takes like… and at this point I’m slightly pointing more in the right direction; I guess I’ll take this, that might have to be enough for what I can do here." 
The times where I’ve recognized my own lack of personal resolve have historically been my weakest, and my inability to remain consistent in maintaining a healthy weight might well be my greatest source of struggle; not my drinking, nor my ups and downs with depression, nor my otherwise erratic behavior. It just so happened that while I was listening to Scharpling explain his position that I happened to be in a funk as I was closing out a week that had seen its fair share of personal letdowns in that regard. I kept telling myself that my ship was changing its course, so to speak, but the reality of the moment left me feeling like my one-eighty was not to be…

After a few brief hours of sleep that night I shot up at 1:00 am as a dream left me with some sort of revelation. What was the dream about? What was its point? What lesson was I to gain from it? Between the time that I stood up from my bed to the time that I hit the bathroom I lost the plot: grenades were involved, there was a small fight of some sort, and if I remember correctly the brother of one of my good friends was in there somewhere, but I couldn’t ultimately piece together the bigger picture. I didn’t, however, lose the purpose: I genuinely felt like I could now walk away from binging.

Earlier in that day, before I had heard Scharpling’s explanation, I was actually contemplating writing down some reactionary thoughts to the idea of Commitment vs. Experimentation, or essentially setting a hard-commitment to less and less while not foregoing experimentation. In essence I was trying to figure out whether I was trying to set too many goals for myself and whether or not that was — to borrow the phrase again — preventing me from turning my ship around. Was I simply experimenting where I needed to commit? (In this case, the focus being a weight loss goal I’d set for myself.) But as the day wore on and new ideas penetrated my train of thought another theory began to take hold: not Commitment vs. Experimentation but Reward vs. Regret.

For the past week or so I’ve tried to be more present concerning the decisions I’m making. If I had a bad day or experience, I tried to focus on monitoring my instincts, my cravings, and especially how I attempt to reward myself to get over whatever hurdle I might be stuck on. A few days into that process though, as I continued to work on the idea, the term for what I was searching for was handed to me: “Pause.” As Leo Babauta writes,
"When we fail, it’s because we act on urges without thinking, without realizing it. We have the urge to eat junk, and we do it. We have the urge to check email instead of writing a chapter of our book, and so we open our inbox. We have an urge to smoke, to drink, to do drugs, to chew our nails, to play a Facebook game, to procrastinate, to skip a workout, to eat more fries, to criticize, to act in jealousy or anger, to be rude … and we act on that urge. What if instead we learned to pause after each urge? What if we stopped, looked at that urge, paid close attention to what it feels like inside our bodies, but didn’t act?"
Have you ever been so emotionally attached to someone that your tunnel vision prevented you from seeing a bigger picture around you while you were with that person? Prior to reading Babauta’s words the thought came to me that my brain frequently thinks within this realm of unhealthy irregularity, as if I were in love much of the time. I simply don’t think straight. I’d have a great week and be so caught up in the moment that when I’d be buying groceries, for example, I’d completely overlook that I was de-railing myself by binging on unhealthy food for dinner. While I might have been committed to a goal, I had no Pause, and all I could see was the reward: I might not have been in love, but a very similar sense of momentary blindness was still affecting me.

A few weeks back when my dad came to visit with me he explained his own situation in trying to identify why I might have been experiencing such issues with my own weight. As he aged and began to gain a lot of weight himself he became diabetic and he thought that I might have that same issue developing in my body. I might, don’t get me wrong, but as I told him I’ll repeat here: I can almost guarantee that diabetes isn’t at the core of my weight gain… I am. I’m no physician, but regularly drinking a fifth of cheap booze and eating an entire frozen pizza (in a single serving no less) likely has quite a bit to do with gaining about 20 pounds over the course of a few months… Just a hunch.
"When you get caught up in minutia, the really important stuff gets left undone. Often simply because in buying the low-carb salad dressing, you give yourself a mental checkmark in the “healthy eating” column and proceed to violate the truly important issues."
Ultimately I enjoy the frankness of this “mental checkmark” statement because it helps cap off the idea of Pause nicely, bringing home the idea of why it’s important. So often have I become caught up on a single reason or two as to why my ship might not be turning around fast enough that I forget to ensure my own commitment to staying the course. So often have I set a goal, only to reward the most insignificant of achievements in an unhealthy manner, setting myself back two steps before I’d even gained an inch. But this past week I’ve been successful in taking a step back from myself — pausing, if you will — and analyzing my actions before the fact rather than after. When a reward wouldn’t outweigh the regret I might experience after partaking, I’d stay away. If a reward wouldn’t really knock me off of my larger aim, then I’d go for it. The resolve to Pause has been a beautiful thing for me this week and certainly something that I feel resolved to pursuing as I continue forward toward my goal. Now, if only I can figure out what that damned dream was about, I might really have something here…

On Happiness

"Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects." Will Rogers
Last summer I found myself once again lost in the long-since familiar state of depression. I was confused about my own direction and what the future might hold, but more than anything I felt like I was missing out on some larger sense of happiness. No matter where I’d go it seemed as though people were simply happier than me: If they didn’t appear to have a greater sense of direction or purpose, at least their day-to-day lives seemed to give them a greater sense of satisfaction. Even more, friends around me were pairing up with loving and supportive partners, pursuing fulfilling careers, and dedicating their free time to gratifying hobbies.

To better understand what I might be missing out on I did what any technophile would do took to the Internet, but immediate Google results led me no deeper than transparent articles extolling such platitudes as savoring the moment and finding happiness in ourselves. As I began to dig a little deeper in my research however, I soon discovered that I was not alone in my search, but more, that happiness itself hasn’t exactly been a constant over time. In fact, it’s long since been a hot point that has been argued spiritedly throughout the ages. Still no hard answers, I thought, but at least it appeared as though I wasn’t alone in my confusion.

Continuing down the rabbit hole it quickly became apparent just how confusing this illusive “happiness” actually is. How could it be that “happy” people actually die earlier than “unhappy” people; that citizens in “happier” nations are likelier to commit suicide than those in less happy nations; that anger helps us survive, and maybe even that an overabundance of pleasurable things in our lives could distort and warp our reality, counterintuitively distancing us from the main goal we’re all striving for? If, for instance, happiness is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, as 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested, why is it that we are so driven for our own happiness, yet are so quick to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of the less fortunate in the communities around us, both local and globally? Happiness, it would appear, is as much a mystery now as it’s ever been.

As my exploration continued it was the New York Times‘ Jim Holt who seemed to offer the most easily digestible historical recap of how the perception of happiness has changed over time, “The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness = Luck (Homeric), Happiness = Virtue (classical), Happiness = Heaven (medieval), Happiness = Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness = A Warm Puppy (contemporary).” Each and every culture, school of philosophy, and religion has had a unique historical take on what happiness is and how it might be achieved, and tracing it through the annals of history is a massive undertaking in and of itself. But by merely grazing the surface of that exploration process what was initially most surprising wasn’t the idea that happiness has changed through time, but that entitlement to happiness is actually a relatively new invent.

The very feeling that I thought I was missing out on — deserved, even — and saw around me in seemingly every facet, might not actually be a guarantee in life. “The pursuit of happiness” is built into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence as a cornerstone of America, suggesting that we all have a right to capture this highly sought after intangible state. But as the country (and all countries, for that matter) continues to age, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this pursuit has mutated into a system that leaves us perpetually grasping at an invisible carrot rather than an taking on a quest for something truly greater. What, exactly, is is that we’re all looking for and how do we find it?
"Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It’s a cigarette or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. That’s it, okay!" Denis Leary
Leaning closer toward the modern end of Holt’s historical spectrum might be someone such as English philosopher John Locke who suggested happiness to be pleasure and its many forms. But what is it then that delivers pleasure: wealth, education, physical beauty, religion, spirituality, family, friends, fame, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs? To some degree I agree with comedian Denis Leary’s line about happiness, as we each have our own unique interests which grant us that momentary satisfaction, yet prevailing thought seems to counter that constant search for the next small dose of relief.

Happiness as a finish line is a fleeting view as continuous attempts at making a mad dash for the end seem to only result in some sort of failure to hit that mark. (And forget the anxiety, disappointment, and depression that accompany the failure!) Without getting all the journey IS the destination on you, it’s only when we begin to change the entire scope of what happiness might be that we’re able to see that there is no one single finish line we’re building toward; part of doing so comes within the issue of definition though: What exactly does happiness feel like on an individual level?

The theory that we each have our own personal starting points from which we base our happiness levels on is vital to understanding our own personal pursuits toward the goal. New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior approached this concept in her 2006 article "Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness" where she explained, “Human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic ‘set points,’ to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight.” When these “set points” are added to the mix, the equation of how to achieve happiness becomes that much more complicated, but interestingly enough, possibly a little less confusing.

The comparison between a mental “set point” and a physical one makes much more sense within the context of the work of David Lykken. In 1996 the former University of Minnesota researcher suggested that about half of an individual’s satisfaction is derived from genetic programming after analyzing information on some 4000 sets of twins born between 1936 and 1955. Lykken then concluded that “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.” He later redacted the statement however, adding that “It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely — up or down.” Despite the impact of his first conclusion, Lykken’s change of stance would seem a wise one when contrasting it to the happiness formula which is credited to psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ken Sheldon, David Schkade, and Martin Seligman.

The simple equation of H = S + C + V proposes that happiness is equal to our biological set point plus our individual circumstances plus our voluntary activities. But what sort of “voluntary activities” might lead to happiness given that most attempts at pleasure seem to bring about a momentary change, at best? Perhaps actions that avoid shallow stabs at immediate gratification in lieu of those which aim for something more. Maybe even something “virtuous.”
"People ask why I study happiness, and I say ‘Why study anything else?’ It’s the Holy Grail. We’re studying the thing that all human action is directed toward." Dan Gilbert
While the meaning behind one of the Declaration of Independence’s most quoted lines remains largely up for debate — it’s hard to conclude with any concrete certainty whether “the pursuit of happiness” was to suggest that happiness be a birthright, simply the right to exercise a state of being, or something altogether separate from that — in tracking down its origin, author Carol Hamilton recently concluded that the term’s genesis might have less to do with Thomas Jefferson creatively piggybacking the famous prose of Locke, and more to do with the theories constructed by some of his philosophical heroes.

When John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.”

Eudaimonia, the Greek term for happiness, makes sense here and is grossly appropriate in terms of its place within the foundation of modern happiness. But when connected to areté, the Greek term associated with “virtue” (though most often translated as “excellence”), the combination do well to spell out the basis for the “classical” view of happiness which Holt made reference to with his “bumper stickers.” Interestingly, this construct holds up remarkably well when considered within the context of the “happiness formula” and which might be the most beneficial “voluntary activities” to incorporate into our own lives.

Much as Aristotle did before him, Epicurus, who worked within the realm of Hedonism — the philosophical view not the titillating Jamaican resort destination — put forth ideas surrounding what might deliver actual happiness while also making clear distinctions between perceived and actual sources of happiness. Epicurus might now be considered somewhat of a modern-day minimalist as he believed that the most good actually came from the most modest of pleasures, compounded over the course of time. Praising the value of knowledge, friendship, and living a temperate life of areté, Epictetus preached that an individual could experience the most satisfying of lives by going without such unnecessary luxuries as fame, excessive wealth, or over-indulgence. Aristotle, however, defined happiness in different terms.

In his composition titled Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that “the happy man lives well and does well,” further adding to that statement by arguing that happiness was to be achieved by living a life of virtue and continuously searching for the “golden mean” by striving to find balance between two excesses. He also explained, “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” Living one’s life in a virtuous manner, even introducing an ethical or moral slant in calculating happiness, would appear to lead to what Aristotle would regard “the good life.” Incidentally, just as Jefferson might have written into the pursuit of happiness a meaning that we should each have the right to practice happiness, Aristotle’s work suggests that he believed that happiness isn’t in itself pleasure, but the result of practicing a virtuous life.

“I think that there is a connection between not getting my work done and feeling guilty or ashamed of myself. Which ultimately manifests itself into even more unproductive behavior.” This journal entry that I wrote in 2009 seems rather obvious in retrospect, but in my life these words have often been true: the times where I’ve felt the weakest have been when I realized that I had failed myself. This might be why the Aristotelian viewpoint makes so much sense to me as his philosophy breaks down the goal so clearly, leaving happiness appearing far less impossible to achieve than a quick Internet search or trip to the library initially led me to believe. But it’s when the work of far more recent thinkers is figured into the bigger picture that the nature of happiness in today’s world really begins to take hold. Research this past decade has come to offer numerous examples of how to incorporate the historical views of happiness and translate their finer points into today’s landscape. For example, Seligman, the previously mentioned positive psychologist, suggests “authentic happiness” in today’s world to be the combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, which all align nicely with the higher living taught by the aforementioned Greek thinkers.

Additional reflections will follow in the coming weeks, each inspecting the work of such positive psychologists as Seligman, Gilbert, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, each exploring not only how shifting focus toward eudaimonia or areté appear to offer a far more rewarding life, but also how re-approaching ideas surrounding our individual perceptions, expectations, and capability to adapt might drastically change our ability to live lives of maximum happiness.

The Comeback

"Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress." —Alfred A. Montapert

Progress is what life’s all about, right? Progressive love, progressive thought, progressive living… All thing considered, I’m probably doing (just) okay in terms of following such pursuits. For the moment, at least. Right now I feel good. I feel like the Me that I believe I should be feeling like. But that could change a month, week, day, or even an hour from now, and I’ve come to learn that about myself. And that kind of sucks. But on the other hand, learning and embracing the fact that I’m not well in that way has also helped me become the person I am today. And it’s this process that has led me here, searching for what I feel might be a more progressive life.

Last August I started a project that I’ve since labelled The Book. At the time I’d developed an idea regarding how I might publish it, and who might read it, but I hadn’t really figured out what it was supposed to be about. To be honest, I still don’t know. I hoped to reflect a bit on some of my experiences thus far in life, but I dreaded the idea of taking myself, or what I was writing, entirely too seriously regardless of how serious the actual subject matter might be. Drunk, Fat, and Sad (Life Lessons from an Unemployed Addict) is about as close to a funny title that I could think of (I guess it’s more wry than humorous) while still translating my aim with The Book; that being a look at despair, depression, and dependency in my own life and the world around us. Witty or not however, my situation has changed greatly since I first started.

Between last summer and now I’ve gone from being marginally self-employed to largely unemployed to partially employed before landing in my current state of employment which, I suppose, can be described as tentative (though a strong prospect of full-time employment lurks on the horizon!). There’s been a lot of good that’s happened to me during this period of time, but a lot of bad things have happened along the way too. I can’t bemoan anything too much though as nearly all of the negatives can be traced back to a single source: myself. And it’s because of this reason that I’m continuing on with The Book this week. There’s a key change though as, at least for now, The Book is going to have to be a blog.

When I laid down a series of goals last month my aim was to grow a bit throughout the year and take aim at a better Me, but as has been the case many times in the past, whenever I’d tell myself to act accordingly I’d typically fall flat on my face. Over the years I’ve become heavily dependent on binge eating and drinking as some sort of coping mechanism, but along the way those vices began to warp and re-shape my reward system. Having a bad day? A reward should be in order to help survive. A good day? A reward because I’ve earned it. And more times than not that reward has been destructive rather than productive: an entire pizza for dinner rather than a night treating friends to a good meal or a blackout drunk in front of the TV rather than a relaxing night with music and a book. Since the summer of 2008 I haven’t had a nine-to-five so it didn’t really matter too much if I slept in until noon or stayed up all night drinking and eating because, hell, the consequences were usually little more than a hangover an upset stomach. An upset stomach and a sense of regret, actually. Well, this past month I fell once again, and I fell hard. So hard, in fact, that my dad took it upon himself to come and stay with me for nearly a week while I dried out. During our time together we worked on developing a plan to honestly evaluate where I’m at and build toward some kind of feasible goal. It just so happens that this plan includes continuing with my writing.

Much like a rocking horse that realizes it isn’t really going anywhere, I feel like I’ve been trying for a long time to make progress but any advancement I’ve made to this point seems marginal. The situation being what it is, now I feel like I’m ready to actually get on with my life and progress to that next step however, and a large part of that is taking the first step and beginning to let this project unfold. Until now I’ve failed at honestly allowing myself to move forward as a person, and that failure to learn who I really am has only brought about a false sense of who I’m not.

In that respect, my aim with pursuing The Book is twofold. On one hand I want to keep exploring my mind and the world around me as I continue to battle the aforementioned three D’s and make an attempt at some sort of progress in my own life. On the other, I’m doing this because I can’t remember the last time I really Tried at anything: I have a hard time remembering actually trying to ever build a legitimate romantic relationship; prior to my new position I hardly ever tried when it came to work; I haven’t really tried to watch what I eat or lose weight for any considerable length of time; and it feels like it’s been ages since I’ve tried to stay sober. During my most fragile moments it’s often felt like the only thing I have left in the world is my own voice, but over time it’s started to feel like My Voice carries with it so very little personal value because of all this. Now I’m trying to change this.

"Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself." —A. H. Weiler

Proving one’s identity is a strange task, but a more complex task, I feel, is proving identity to oneself. Right now I’m trying to prove to myself that I am who my inner voice tells me I am. Do I really want to live a virtuous life or am I content with just getting by? Part of solving this puzzle is going to be found in exploring each of the parts that I’m going to cover in The Book. While I’ll detail despair, depression, and dependency, the underlying theme of everything I look to cover is actually happiness. This process is more about a search for happiness — and ultimately recovery — than anything, and it’s one that I will be confronting on a personal level: Not only will this journey explore a personal journey, but it will hopefully challenge various traditional recovery methods and academic findings.

One of the key reasons that I want to delve into academia and the world of recovery is because it’s often the case that those who are covering these important issues are those approaching them as outsiders. Perhaps not as complete outsiders, as most are well studied, but outsiders in that they’re approaching the subjects as professional thinkers and not participants themselves. When assessing findings in the world of recovery, so much analysis is crafted by those who either haven’t had a history with the issues themselves or consider themselves “healed.” I was apprehensive of going forward with this project for fear that it’d be misconstrued as something of a self-help guide — a label itself which is cringe-worthy — but rather than coming at the topics from an angle of a healer, I’m still looking at every one of these subjects as someone who seeks healing. After all, a self-help guide from someone still struggling with so much internal conflict would probably mean about as much as a book written by Paris Hilton espousing the merits of hard work. It’s not that I’ve been there, but that I’m still there today. This isn’t 404 Ways Reasons to Smile or a step-by-step guide to recovery, but an exploration of my own trials related to a wide range of studies and resources that have helped me learn more about the process.

I hope that none of this reads as me unloading my own issues or confessing for the sake of simply feeling better — the last thing I personally want is to bear someone else’s problems or guilt — or taking a contradictory stance for the sake of argument alone. As preposterous as I might think some steps toward personal recovery, discovery, and progress are, we will each find power and happiness through different methodology. (It happens to be that through my research I’ve taken quite a bit of comfort in the teachings of positive psychology.) Rather, I’m hoping that this becomes as transparent an exploration of self as I can offer in relation to various constructs surrounding how to simply live a happier life. Maybe by the time I’ve finished I’ll have even figured a few things out for myself, as well.

27 Forever

"It is sobering to consider that when Mozart was my age he had already been dead for a year." -Tom Lehrer
Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. These are some of the more obvious names to be included in a rather unfortunate group, the Forever 27 Club: musicians who passed before their 28th birthday. I, myself, turned 28 this past September, a day before Winehouse would have done the same. On one hand this alone is cause to celebrate — my survival, not her death — but on the other is the glaringly obvious issue that simply surviving the year doesn’t necessarily mean that much was achieved. This is especially true when comparing my feats to any number of other people’s rather fantastic accomplishments. And yeah, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in playing this game of inferiority, but when I find myself doing that I take solace in some words I heard long ago from Henry Rollins. To paraphrase: you can only compare yourself to yourself. As long as you're better than you were a year ago, a month ago, a week ago, or even a day ago, you’re on the right track.

The Test of You

You should probably be mindful of whether or not your work stands the test of Time. Oh, and also whether or not your work stands the test of Excellence. But what might actually matter more is whether or not your work actually stands the test of You. That’s the argument that Umair Haque makes in his article “Create a Meaningful Life Through Meaningful Work.”

The idea of spending time on work that actually matters is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years, but more and more it seems like I’m not alone. And interestingly enough, aside from spending more time on the things that actually matter in our lives, a number of the arguments that I’ve read recently have surrounded unplugging from The Social in order to do so.

James Victore’s “Accepting Less to Have More” goes a long way in questioning our dependence on omnipresent screens before challenging the amount of time we each spend online, “The answer is being conscious of the time spent on screens versus the time spent on ourselves.” Brian Lam’s “Happiness Takes (A Little) Magic,” however, expands on the idea quite a bit further.

In his article Lam relates not only his own increase in happiness to his own decrease in connectedness, but also how he’s shifted away from seemingly unimportant efforts to, again, focus on work that actually matters to him. “Informationally, we are becoming lard-asses. In the pageview and ratings driven media economy, too much of the content these days is designed to be just like junk food to quickly boost quantifiable viewership.” In the face of such a landscape Lam argues that there is an answer. “[Replace] junk media with more high end media, try using technology to work and read and watch faster. Then use that time to go explore the world or do whatever makes you happier.”

While it wasn’t the last time I did so, in 2008 I quit Facebook and Twitter cold turkey. I’ve since softened my stance on social media, but late last year I bottomed out in terms of dealing with my own contribution toward junk media, and I gave up on my day job. Not entirely unlike Lam, I grew tired of my own heartless contributions in the name of “content.” But taking that even further now, I’m growing increasingly tired with my own mindless consumption through connectivity and feel it’s time to do something about it.

With the time he’s saved from not actually unplugging, but plugging in more mindfully, Lam concluded that he’s found more time for cooking, exercising, reading, writing, hitting the beach and even mowing the lawn. And as I pursue similar online habits, with my time I hope to read a few books, do some writing of my own, dedicate time to exercise and play with my camera; all of which are goals of mine which I had already dedicated myself to pursuing anyway. And unlike trolling Facebook links, tirelessly crawling through my Twitter feed, or lazily browsing through miles of junk articles, I hope that I too will end up with some new outlets that will stand the test of Me.