Validation Cookies

Also known as “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” is a long, absurdly detailed portrait of one of the many morbidly bloated vacation staples in these here United States of America: the five-star luxury cruise. A month ago someone’s tweet led me to this blog post, which led me to this episode of The Simpsons, which references Wallace’s aforementioned 1996 Harper’s essay, which I then placed in my reading queue, saving a PDF of it to my desktop before promising myself I’d eventually get to it. It only took me a few weeks to muster the intestinal fortitude to plow through its roughly 20,000 words, but this past weekend I finally finished. It’s a good read, if not sad, but when it was all over I was left with an unsatisfied itch that really had nothing to do with what I felt about the conclusion of the piece. I just felt like there had to be something more.

So I returned to and re-read the blog post, again chewing on the author’s conclusion that “the main point” of Wallace’s piece “is that cruise vacations are mercilessly inhuman” (I still took away a feeling that Wallace neglected to share at least a few moments of enjoyment that might have softened his point), and read all the post’s comments which are mostly comprised of peanut gallery nitpicking about whether or not the show felt like a Simpsons episode (though due to the suggested deteriorating quality of the program, readers of this particular site often refer to it as Zombie Simpsons). Still hungry (for brains?), a quick Googling for Wallace’s article kept me on the prowl.

The Awl has a piece about how (acclaimed author and a longtime close friend of Wallace) Jonathan Franzen had openly raised issue with how fictitious Wallace’s journalism — particularly “Shipping Out” — might have been. Again, I took to the comments which offer a variety of straying ideas often veering from the pair’s relationship and the accusation itself to discussion surrounding mental illness and suicide (some were surprisingly topical however, including one person who quoted author David Shields in adding, “Anything processed by memory is fiction”). A 1996 Charlie Rose interview segment with Wallace, Franzen, and Mark Leyner referenced by the article’s author added a secondary dimension to the debate (discussion repeatedly returned to that of television’s role in society, with Wallace drawing similarities, in my mind, to the modern-day Internet by commenting on how we recognize that while we’re intently satiated by it, we believe there to be something more), but overall the whole package left me feeling that it’s sort of tasteless to revert back to such conversation without Wallace actually being around to either confirm or deny such a statement. Franzen and Wallace went back many years, had a sordid history (as DFW apparently did with many of those close to him), and it just seems like a cheap shot more than anything; many of the comments on the post explain it better than I can.

The rest of the crop of results I harvested ended up yielding remarkably balanced perspectives: I read both a bubbling and complimentary recap (“What makes ‘Shipping Out’ such a fantastic specimen of literary journalism is how insistently un-literary it is”… Although that led to me daydreaming up a scene of an art gallery where a rather tidy pair is standing together, each looking intently at a well-constructed canvas hung on an otherwise empty wall. “What’s so great about that?” asks the first. “That, right there?” the second replies. “My dear, that’s great simply because it’s not trying to be great.”) as well as a sharp and insightful rebuttal to Wallace’s entire approach (“In most [of] these cases it feels like you’re reading the effusions of very smart, extremely insecure children. DFW’s inability to interact with people who don’t have a subscription to the Utne Reader explains why he spends so much time in his cabin playing with the various mechanical utilities.”). Again, more comments, more ideas set to simmer on the backburner.

The entire time I was still not fully understanding though, still taking into account my own belief that I’m probably not smart enough to realize why we’re here, over 16 years later, watching one of the greatest television shows of all time (zombified version or no) pay homage to an article that succeeded because it was able to structure the largely mundane details of life aboard a cruise line in such a way as to please stuffy college professors everywhere: Wallace told us that he was going to reveal how such experiences are sad, explained precisely why such experiences are sad, and wrapped it up by essentially confirming, “Now, wasn’t that sad?” The dueling perspectives and after-the-fact revelation (as well as the lengthy online discussion that surrounded each) helped me gain a deeper understanding for what was both positive and negative about what I’d just read, but even after spending the better part of the day in contemplation there was still something missing from the equation. Then it hit me.

I needed a cookie.

About five years ago I attended a martini party (who says short socks and martinis don’t mix?) and during conversation with one of the well-read, well-dressed, well-respected hosts, he casually boasted of how much he reads every day online (explaining how his reading habits were changing with times) after I gestured to the couple’s rather impressive collection of books. I remember trying to explain that I, too, spent a lot of time online (true) reading (not as true). And in a move of confession that could deal a swift blow to any credibility I might have built to this point, after years of reading others’ praises, and even adding a few of my own opinions, it’s with great weakness that I announce that “Shipping Out” was actually the first long-form piece I’ve ever actually read of David Foster Wallace’s (aside from the Kenyon College commencement address). I’ve watched plenty of online interviews with the guy, but I’m hardly a student of Infinite Jest. The point is, when I was having a hard time deciding whether to continue with the essay I convinced myself that in finishing there would be a reward of some sort. If I do finish and DFW came through with an earth-shattering revelation, I’d be rewarded with the sort of reflection that follows an earth-shattering revelation. If he didn’t, I could still at least brag about how I had actually read the whole thing. I might not be the aging playwright with the pencil-thin mustache and impossibly gorgeous girlfriend, but at least I could try to squeak out some sort of validation in the process.

I’ve often found myself considering the motivation behind a lot of what I do (online at least, although what I do in Real Life hardly makes sense most times either). Take Twitter, for instance, and in particular re-tweeting: sure, it’s passing along someone else’s point, and maybe communicating something hilarious or insightful that you couldn’t voice prior, but it’s also sort of begging others to recognize that you saw something of value, identified it as such, and shared it with the expectation that it would reflect on you accordingly: A RT Gandhi quote is hardly ever just a RT Gandhi quote. Same goes for “Liking” articles online and adding disposable status updates. I mean, how telling of my coolness would it be to toss up a quick note reading, “Wow, just read an interesting essay on how depressing cruise lines are: DFW = truth”? It’d be a tad silly, sure, but it gets the point across: I accomplished something and might have even learned something today. Which I did, I guess. The problem is that despite any reflection on my own, without that validation from others the whole practice felt a bit empty. Empty and kind of sad.

It might not be as bad as I’m making it to seem though. I mean, I’ve actually read quite a few books lately (there I go again…) but haven’t jumped online to say how bored I was by Michael J. Fox or how The Great Gatsby hardly rocked my world. But this was different. Reading DFW felt like it came with a sort of factory wrapped brag cookie to be indulged in after the meal, filling my stomach with the much craved acknowledgment of others, satisfying the validation junkie I’ve become. But it’s not worth it (says the guy dedicating an entire blog post to the idea). Something’s wrong here (says the guy who will plug this blog post on Twitter and Facebook as soon as it’s published).

I have a hard time with social media: I think it can be helpful and I think it can be terrible. But this cycle of putting yourself out there only for the cheap stimulation of someone else saying, “Hey, you exist!” is a tough one. I’d like to think that there’s a place for a lot of the throw-away conversation that exists online, and sometimes there’s even some real good that can slip through the cracks and impact someone’s life. But after all of this — the reading, the searching, the viewing, the contemplating — I’m left wondering what happened to the 1997 me (aside from too many burgers and not enough exercise) who spent countless hours listening to music by himself in his room, without a single thought of calling someone on the phone to tell them how great live Black Sabbath was when listened to in the dark? It just was, and that was good enough. I always thought I had low self-esteem growing up, but looking back I don’t think it was ever low enough to the point where I craved such continual feedback from others, begging onlookers to recognize that such commonplace nonsense as getting a sunburn or reading an essay has simply taken place (Hey, I exist!). I love connecting with people online, but is sitting around with a chat window open all day with the hope that someone (anyone) reaches out to comment on how cool an essay you is read really the point of reading an essay? What’s worse is that I know — even as I look ahead to attempting to snuff out this habit — that the need for validation is one I’m not bound to escape any time soon.

Some People Really Are Crazy

"Our life is what our thoughts make it." —James Allen

It’s been a little under four years since I attempted to end my life. (Which, believe me, is no more bizarre to read than it is to write.) About two weeks passed between when I begrudgingly agreed to go to a hospital (hour after hour of my father convincing me that he could go to jail for my death finally became enough for my rather unstable mind to concede) and the time that I became “safe” enough to graduate to the facility’s mental ward, where again, I reluctantly submitted in protest. You’d think that any time spent in any mental ward would be the darkest time in someone’s life, but the reality is that the most difficult stage of the process was actually the time leading up to the decision to put me there. Desperate for anything, I clinged on to the hope that I could still somehow die even though the medical and psychiatric staff were having none of it — which isn’t to mention daily visits from a heartbroken, yet no less faithful family… That was dark. But the mental ward itself, once I resigned to the fact that I had to be there, wasn’t all that bad. As far mental wards go.

Part of what slowly helped it gain its charm were my neighbors; there were plenty of interesting characters who I crossed paths with but only one that continues to stick out in my mind. His name was Adam — or at least his government-issued alias was “Adam” — and he was the son of a very important member of the government, sent into such environments to harvest information and act as a spy to make sure that the system was following regulations. Adam was there before I arrived, and despite the relative frequency of patients coming and going, Adam was probably there long after I left. Or at least until his assignment called for him to pull out. Our favorite TV show? Ironically, A&E’s Intervention. (Can you believe that people get high off of air-dust cans? Some people really are crazy!) Favorite snack? Single-serving ice cream cups accompanied with kindergarten-friendly disposable wooden “spoons.” More than anything however, the introduction to such a range in characters embodied a theme which would remain constant throughout the entire summer: that being separate realities.

The roster of people I met during my three weeks in the mental ward was remarkably varied. There were people like Adam (though to say that there’s anyone quite like Adam is a lie, actually). There was my first roommate: a rather massive young man who went on a destructive booze bender before being placed in the facility for a couple days at the request of his parents after he threatened to kill himself. There was my second roommate, a small Hispanic guy, about my same age, who latched on to the fundamentals of The Secret in looking for the strength to return to his girlfriend and child. There was a late thirty-something who spent one weekend trading stories over ice cream, who decided to spend his time in the ward rather than in police custody after his wife called the cops on him (he had a black eye and told me that it was either this or lock-up after he’d tried to walk away from the violence; I still believe him). There was also an 18-year old who’d gotten caught up in meth pretty bad; though despite his age, this wasn’t his first rodeo. Each of us living behind our own set of eyes, each experiencing life from an entirely different plane of existence, each of our realities skewed by the resistance of our own operating systems.

As time passed it became evident that the hospital wasn’t to be the last stop on my rather unique summer adventure though. The hammer fell, court order motioned, and through assessment it was determined that I was to spend time in an in-patient program to help deal with my previously mentioned dual-diagnosis. The main problem with this wasn’t that I didn’t feel I had to fight the transition to the next leg of the journey, but that I wasn’t too keen on the options. In this case however — unlike the hospital and subsequent psychological lock-down — I felt like I did have a say in where I would land. When I first landed in detox (and subsequently county lock-up) for drunken driving some weeks prior I began to read Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book. I continued in the mental ward and eventually read the entire thing; nearly six hundred pages of rhetoric aimed at setting people like me on the right path. I wasn’t sold. What the book did do was further wedge a separation between myself and the idea that there was any actual value in the “recovery” process (how anyone can shed a dependency or grow emotionally by handing the reigns over to a higher power, I still don’t fully understand). So, given the option of spending more time in the ward while waiting for a spot to open up in an alternative treatment program or opting out of the cuckoo’s nest (no one called it that) early, I stayed. Despite being generally turned off by anything remotely holistic-leaning I opted for a remote Minnesotan setting which places focus on “healing the mind, body and spirit” using the principles of (hippie-talk notwithstanding) “Health Realization” in seeking reprieve from both mental illness and chemical dependency.

"Life is as it appears because of how we think it to be." —Joseph Bailey

At its most basic the program I was involved in worked within the realm of “Psychology of the Mind,” which is really just another term for Health Realization in corralling a number of health and wellness philosophies; Joseph Bailey has arisen within that particular realm as one of the more prominent voices regarding the treatment of dependency, and his book The Serenity Principle was a staple of the program. The fundamental elements of this program involve the nurturing of a process that strives to leave its participants more in tune with a reality that we can all change how we react to our circumstances by becoming aware that WE are creating our own experiences (not the other way around). The process revolves around mind, consciousness, and thought using three interconnected principles: 1) our thoughts form our mental experiences, guiding how we view the world; 2) personal consciousness is what makes our thoughts appear real; 3) the mind is the source of both consciousness (the ability to become aware of your life) and thought (the power to think, and thus the ability to create reality). Rounding out the philosophy is a blanket acceptance that we are all born with innate health and well-being (which is sort of like The Wizard of Oz: everything we’re searching for we already have) that can be regained through the practice of embracing these aforementioned principles: We’re not sick and in need of a cure, bur rather we’re already healthy and just have to learn to rediscover what we’ve lost. Again, it was either this or A.A.; don’t be so quick to judge.

One of the main concepts within the program was that of separate realities: the mind is the creator of reality, and as we all have unique minds we’re all living in unique realities. Perhaps more important is that this idea reflects a call to remember that we’re not only the ones actually thinking our own thoughts (our thoughts don’t have a mind of their own), but that we’re the ones who determine which of the twelve to fifty thousand thoughts (that we have every single day) which we actually pay attention to. The foundation for personal progression within this system came from the understanding that to regain this inner health we have to be mindful that a filter actually exists, and furthermore that we are responsible for what we pay attention to in order to construct our own realities (which goes back to the whole personal operating system-thing). Our mind is selective in allowing in external forces which correspond to our preexisting beliefs. Once we acknowledge that these separate realities exist however, we can begin to look outside of the immediate and selective external stimuli that has proven to reinforce our thought patterns and begin to evolve mentally, looking beyond our conditioned beliefs for continued validation. Once we do this it becomes easier to accept the world around us without immediately shutting down.

While the program’s focus revolved around the work done by of a bunch of relatively stuffy white people these ideas are hardly exclusive to rustic wellness programs: be it Buddha (“Our life is the creation of the mind”) or even Dr. Seuss (“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”), the understanding that we’re in control of determining what influences our perspective is nothing new. As simple as the concepts might be though, there’s a tendency to shrug them off or let them be forgotten, in part, because they’re so effortlessly lost in the simplicity of such easily digestible truisms as those two examples. To say that thoughts are like waves, and while we can’t stop them from crashing in on us, we ultimately have the power to decide which ones to surf is completely true and might be cause for refocusing the structure of one’s entire life, but such airy platitudes are just as easily overlooked when printed in bold Papyrus over a stock photo of bleach-blonde body-boarder escaping a gnarly pipeline, framed, and hanging up on a wall. Yet when presented in the proper context (and perhaps by a respected source), these simple ideas can transform into something truly life-altering.

Take for instance the case of David Foster Wallace’s revered (at least by me) “This is Water” speech he delivered during Kenyon College’s 2005 commencement address, where he parted conceptual seas with a winding parable about the ease with which we’re able to be tripped up by daily life in neglecting such simple principles. Making his case that it is essentially selfishness that is innate, and not well-being (which I tend to agree with), the acclaimed author complemented many of Health Realization’s principles throughout his argument for increased awareness. Invoking separate realities as a plea for more empathetic and intelligent living, his speech reached a boiling point after introducing the idea that a Liberal Arts Education isn’t meant to simply teach someone how to think, but rather help students “[Learn] how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” He continued, “It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves [of it] over and over.” Though the repetitious recycling of the same ideas reinforced by different sources is one hell of a way to get a point across, the connection to be drawn by all of this isn’t just between that of a still-mourned writer’s call to arms and a wellness movement, but that between each of their roles to an understanding of every day happiness.

My road took me through some rather unfortunate avenues before I was introduced (or, unwillingly introduced) to these ideas, but in hindsight I don’t think that I’d have it any other way. I graduated from a small private Western Iowa liberal arts institution in 2006, but had I been shot out into the real worlda year earlier, using Kenyon College as my launch pad I still don’t think that the value of Wallace’s words would have translated. I had to find my own way, as we each do, but one of the main checkpoints along the path of discovery (at least in terms of happiness) comes at an intersection of the ideas presented through (again, even typing the phrase makes me think of petuli oil and hacky sacks) “Psychology of the Mind,” insights from historical thinkers, and most recently the research done by Positive Psychologists. Many conclusions in each realm suggest an increasingly similar consensus that not only are we each the creators of our own reality, but that our individual capacity for happiness lies within our ability to discriminate between reflection and experience (we are the ones who think our thoughts), and that our happiness relates to what we spend time focusing on and who we spend that time with. Whichever theoretical path leads you to a conclusion, if one is even to be made, isn’t that happiness is an innate state that needs to be rediscovered, or that it’s something that we need to defy the odds to achieve, but instead that it’s something so very viable yet simultaneously unattainable. As Wallace said, “The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

Not All Losses Are Equal

This Memorial Day weekend Vice President Biden took the lectern in front of over two thousand attendees (Gold Star families of deceased veterans who died in service) speaking as part of the T.A.P.S. survivor seminar, initially determined to discuss a very empathetic matter: his son Beau’s Iraq deployment. “We felt guilty because he came home whole.” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow introduced the clip, “I do not think I have ever seen a speech like this from a President or a Vice president. I have never seen something this raw and emotional said by a President or a Vice President before… ever, I don’t think.” Not that my eyes and ears have ever been particularly aimed at politics, but I agree. What the man said was heavy about his son, but his words became even more serious when the topic veered to a topic even more emotional.
"The call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and [they] wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. [They went] Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them, in one instant killed, two of them and… well… And I have to tell ya I used to resent, I knew people meant well, they’d come up to me and say ‘Joe, I know how you feel.’ (crowd erupts in laughter and applause) I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn’t have any damn idea. Right? (more laughter) That black hole in your chest like you’re being sucked back into it. Looking at your kids, and most of you have kids here. Um… And knowing it was the first time in my career — my life — I realized someone could go out — and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here; no, but it’s more important, you’re more important — for the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts: because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. That it was never going to get… never going to be… again. That’s how a lot of you feel. There will come a day — I promise you, and you parents as well — when the thought of your son or daughter, your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later, but the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m tellin’ ya, it will come."
I wouldn’t say that I acted as emotionally to this as I did, say, the recently viral Lip-Dub Proposal video, but I’d like to think that what I lack in tears I make up for with understanding. Biden’s words touched me because they’re not solely aimed at the families of loss, but the lost themselves (ourselves?).

From time to time I feel guilty, too, but not because I’ve come home from some misguided war effort in one piece, but because I so consistently revert back to feelings that I know represent betrayal to many friends and family members. I don’t think that I’ve ever really reached any mountain top, as Biden called it, but I often feel like I’ll never again experience the resounding sensation of wholeness that the Vice President alluded to in his speech. It’s not an every day thing, and I’m not moments away from drawing a razor blade to my skin and making a mess of myself, but the thought persists: I often feel like I want to die. When times are dark, the mind strays accordingly, but even when the sun is shining emotionally, I still find a way to make the connection: How romantic would it be to go out while in a good mood than a bad one? I’ve quite literally thought that before. Hopefully that doesn’t make me any more deranged or nuts than anyone else though.

I’m lucky to have friends, but the few that still listen to me are probably growing tired of hearing me think out loud about how I’m struggling to find out What Comes Next. One recent idea I’ve been bouncing around is that of landing in a new city, back in a state where I have (to this point, at least) a rather terrible track record, hoping that the kindness of a few old friends and a relative strangers helps me land on my feet. Overall, I really don’t know what I’d be looking for if I made the leap other than a safe place to spend some time, but more than anything I think what spurred the idea was simply Possibility: The possibility of new beginnings, new adventures, new love… even if none of them are actually there to be discovered. I think I’m searching for what we all are, in some respects, but I feel guilty that I know I’ll probably turn my back on whatever I find, good or bad, no matter where I land, by continuing to experience these feelings. They’re hardly like clockwork, but I can count on them with the same infallibility as death and taxes.

I was recently told that I am “a risky man to love right now.” The friend who offered me that espresso shot of reflection was dead on. Her cautionary words weren’t meant to say anything about me as a person, or at least anything I didn’t already know, but something about what’s fair to expect out of other people. As long as I feel this way, any attachment I find to anything or anyone is going to act as a replacement for what I’ve lost: that black hole in my chest Biden alluded to. Hopefully I’ll have fun along the way because I’m sure I’ll later feel guilty as my fun is balanced by thoughts that reduce my mind to a bleak wasteland of stark emotion. But rather than determining that all is either perfect or lost, I find myself momentarily taking shelter in the today’s words. Hopefully, like Biden said, in the future today’s tears will become tomorrow’s smile. So easily lost is the reality that the experience of surviving is what makes the next moment of adversity less unbearable to combat. Joe, I know how you feel.

Preaching to the Choir

"As each of us goes through life, we store all our experiences in what becomes a personalized thought system, the software of our bio-computer, the brain… our personal unique operating system… the filter through which we interpret life." —Joseph Bailey

While many of the building blocks of happiness — or at least those considered relevant by modern Positive Psychologists — make a tremendous amount of sense, there stands an active contradiction within the model: To be happy, as some conclusions suggest, means to remain complacent. As Joseph Bailey, himself a longtime psychologist, explained in his book The Serenity Principle: as we live our lives we each experience separate realities based on our unique circumstances, all of which combine in the formation of something of a personal operating system that is constantly helping to define the way we experience life. As we continue to develop this personal system we strengthen our own positions and reinforce our beliefs by selectively interpreting the world around us. To look outside of our personal ideals means to risk current satisfaction.

Unsurprisingly, those with similar thought systems tend to stick together, often times (historically) to a degree which results in confrontation with those who run on a non-compatible societal software: sort of like real life Mac and PC guys. There might be no better (or obvious) an example of this than religions when examining the idea within the context of happiness, especially when considering that simply dedicating yourself to something of personal “meaning” often grants individuals an increased sense of satisfaction in their lives. Martin Seligman’s research reveals that religion is one of the key contributorsto an individual’s general happiness (although, has there ever been a more divisive, destructive tool in the history of humanity as that of organized religion?), which makes sense as surrounding yourself with others of similar beliefs is instinctive, and ultimately beneficial to an individual’s psyche as it supports their filter through which they interpret life. It’s easier to preach to the choir than it is to those whose opinions differ from your own.

"A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied." —Alain

Likewise, those seeking recovery typically look to others of the same mindset in searching for a way out of whatever it is that haunts them. And when an idea works, it becomes easy to neglect looking outside of that particular circle of thought for input that might contradict the present approach; a commonality obviously held by religions as well. Research by Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth indicates that the act of staying busy encourages happiness (“a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”), but in combining a busy mind with a circle of complacent thinking I fear that something is lost in the trade-off: a realm of personal empowerment that Bailey speaks to with the concept of “sincere delusion.”

The idea is that a deluded person fails to realize that they are in charge of their lives, and in the chaos of daily living they neglect to use gained wisdom and common sense, allowing their surroundings to dictate how they react to the world around them. What happens then is the individual begins to further latch onto what’s comfortable in their world in an attempt to survive the day. As Bailey argues, this leads to a narrow and predetermined perspective of reality. He offers the base example of “Mondays”: we often allow pre-programming to trigger an internal response, leaving us with a variety of conclusions like Mondays suck (my words, not his) even before the day even really begins. What happens then is that you know Mondays will suck, or that treatment won’t work, or that someone else’s opinions are wrong, or that the opposing political party is comprised entirely of ignorant assholes, or that whatever else you believe is gospel because your operating system has been selectively validated time and time again by the elements you’ve surrounded yourself with. Essentially, Mondays suck because you allow them to suck.

Right and wrong are obsolete labels when referring to happiness and there is no single set of directions which will provide an accurate guide, mapping the course and setting us each on our way to “something more.” Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi uses the term “flow” when characterizing a state which captures our complete engagement: some are able to find flow deep in the midst of an engaging sermon while others find it by competing in their favorite sport, cooking, playing a board game with family members, or drinking (I’d argue that a simpler path toward finding lucid “focus” might not exist). Because of flow though, or rather because of philosophical flow, it’s easy to become trapped by perspective: when a certain way of looking at the world has consumed the mind for a lengthy period of time it becomes terribly difficult to imagine any other way to hold value. It’s cynicism, plain and simple.

The result is a tendency to remain comfortably within our ways regardless of whether or not they bring us any sense of happiness (or results!). In the world of recovery, this is why a model that was developed shortly after the discovery of penicillin is still used as the primary course of action (despite its 5% success rate, no less), and this is why wretched traditions carry on through generations: because we are so quick to act when justifying our actions or positions, yet slow to reset our operating system when personal evolution is calling. In my life I’m still attempting to let go of personal stubbornness, and this has meant letting go of a lot of nonsense that I’ve harbored for the bulk of my years and opening the door to new ideas. That said, it would be completely inaccurate to imply that I was a willing participant when this process began. Rather, my journey to “expanding my horizons” began under some rather unusual circumstances: an extended stint in a suburban mental ward.

Time for Livin'

Practically everyone with 140 characters to spare has already said their piece on the death of the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch. Though only 48 hours have passed since the news broke, it already seems like an eternity since many far more eloquent and thoughtful than I made their longer-form goodbyes public, signing off to one of the greats with reflections on the group and the man that I could only dream of duplicating:

The always reliable Jeff Weiss, "For our generation, the Beastie Boys were forever 22, the turnstile-hopping, egg-wielding, seltzer-spraying punks... Little did they know that they were also religious searchers, music video visionaries, and street art scholars. Decades before Kanye, they were pioneers of sophisticated ignorance."

Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker postscript, "And this is the Yauch people remember: a man who could say he was sorry and not feel lessened by it; a man living within the principles of Buddhism and committed to broadening awareness of the political situation in Tibet; and a genuinely quiet person who had become more likely to make a joke at his own expense than anyone else's."

And Pitchfork's Mark Richardson, calling Yauch, "a relatable blueprint for growing up, in both his art and his life."

Those are just a few of my favorites.

It seems pointless to go deep in revisiting much of the band's history or Yauch's personal triumphs as, again, others have already taken care of that, and done a damn fine job of it, too. They had the first chart-topping hip hop album ever, they were a key proponent in the popularization of the genre as a "reputable" art-form, their Grand Royal imprint was a cornerstone of the '90s, their music videos were revolutionary, and their music remains tirelessly relevant. They're one of my favorite musical acts of all time, but I never saw them live. Now I never will.

A brief period of time has passed since another group of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, R.E.M., said their collective goodbye to fans, breaking up after about 31 years of active duty together. The Beastie Boys outlasted them, and by my account they left an imprint on pop music that overshadows the group of Athens-rockers in the process. Now that the Beastie Boys belong to history though, I'm struggling to muster any emotion that puts the emphasis back on me — what about my memories and my loss, as a fan?! — and I'm left with a feeling that I'm not sure I would have predicted after learning that the group had (unceremoniously, of course) broken up. The truth is though, as hours continue to pad the distance between the news and the present moment, "shattered," "shocked," and "heartbroken" are three reactions that I can't claim to be honest, and I've hardly felt "sad" in response to the news. Nope, I'm not crushed because of a key cultural proponent's passing. I'm glad.

From The New York Times' timeline of events leading up to Yauch's death,
Mr. Yauch’s mother said he died at 9 a.m. on Friday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan with his parents, his in-laws, his wife, Dechen Wangdu, and his 13-year-old daughter, Tenzin Losel Yauch, at his bedside. He had been admitted to the hospital on April 14 after a three-year battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was conscious until the end... Mrs. Yauch said had been undergoing chemotherapy this spring, but his health deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks. 'It all just seemed to happen overnight,' she said.
Of course it's terrible that Yauch's leaving behind a loving family and a globe full of friends, and was cut down well before His Time was supposed to come. But what if he had survived? What if he wasn't so lucky with the cancer this time, and treatment was unable to combat its assault, allowing it to metastasize further, and potentially prompting some grotesque removal of flesh and bone. Or worse: the loss of his spirit. What if he "survived" and was left a shell of a person that the world has come to love, the cancer slowly separating the body from the man, crippling his family with the burden of seeing their loved one slowly disappear over a seemingly endless period of soul-crushing despair? Fantasy is a wonderful thing, and it's pleasant to think of what could be and what might have been, but reality is often far more gruesome than anything we can conceive of.

Is it better to burn out than to fade away? How about a third option? How about doing it better than most have ever done before, and will likely do again? How about boasting a resume of such near-unparalleled longevity and depth that not a single soul can claim that your accomplishments would be anything less than impossible to match? How about embracing the role as humanitarian and philosophical bee-e-a-ess-tee-i-e in changing the face of global culture? How about a life that was neither too short nor too long, but one just long enough to help alter the world and leave behind a soundtrack to help us each embrace whatever the future may hold. Is Adam Yauch's passing unfortunate? Unarguably so. But am I glad, no — thankful, that he lived as long as he did in the first place? With all my heart.

Don't Steal Hockey Cards

"Almost every person feels happier when they’re with other people." —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

When I was younger – much younger – my dad would often take speaking engagements, filling in at various churches throughout the city we lived in. It was never a regular thing, and up until rather recently, he never held a long-term ministerial position; he graduated from seminary school and became an ordained minister early on in his life, but his passion for community development quickly took precedence. To this day he loves to preach, and despite my religious reservations he’s quite good at it, but more than anything else I’ve taken away from those all-but-forgotten Sundays is how formative they might have been in terms of my interacting and relating to other people.

At an early age I began to develop what I’d consider a social survival technique which has remained a crutch for many years. Having been a judgmental and cruel little monster myself I’m going to go out on a limb and say that many, if not most, kids can be judgmental and cruel little monsters. They might seem like outstanding young mini-citizens on the surface (especially if they’re your kids), but when an outsider arrives on the scene, threatening the core of their pack, the transformation is almost instant. I’m not sure at what age kids make the transformation from an accepting, welcoming, and generally open-minded species, but once it happens it’s a frightening thing. Especially when you’re the outsider. No matter where we attended church, or how frequently we attended, I was constantly reminded of this through the ever-tedious tradition of Sunday School. The core of the groups were either made up of kids like me, who seemed to approach it as a chore, or the rare few who appeared genuinely interested in learning about The Bible. Either way, the sessions always seemed to drag on, with each faction eventually counting down the minutes until we could have our compensatory juice and cookies before being set free to let the sugar rush run its course. No matter which side I tried playing to though, I rarely felt like I connected with kids my own age at the churches we visited, and after a while it seemed useless to keep trying. You can play the Nice Young Man card countless times with elderly congregation members, but dimples don’t do shit when interacting with kids your own age. I showed up, played the New Kid role, and disappeared.

There are so many pieces to each of the puzzles of our lives that it’s tough to really identify which of the crudely stamped shapes has affected us the most. It’s not the single piece but the connection between them that begins to add up, and as the picture starts to take shape of who we are, each of the smaller pieces slowly gain significance. For example, from when my parents were married to when I was born, they moved six times across two countries. This bouncing-around act, though largely done out of necessity, has only evolved further in my life as I’ve moved nearly 30 times (with and without my parents). That’s a piece. The Sunday School-thing might be another. When I was in the fourth grade I lost my best friend in a car accident; certainly that has to be a prominent piece. Shifting interests from athletics and popularity to underachievement in school, yet another. And maybe even a lack of hard-wired identity due to an unsure nationalistic allegiance leaving me feeling a foreigner in both my native and adopted countries, another. So many pieces have been added over the years but when combined together the larger picture identifying how I tend to relate to other people depicts something of a social-chameleon, capable of blending in with many while sincerely relating to few. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt for much of my life.

I can’t even begin to count how many times my parents have told me, “You need to be around people more,” or “Get out and socialize,” or even “Did you leave the house today?” My mental health, and physical for that matter, has often revolved around simply being in the presence of other people, and when I close myself off (intentionally or not) I’ve suffered for it. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t just a personal matter, but something built into our larger genetic makeup: Everyone seems to do better when they’re around other people; even inmates in prisons do, and they’re locked up with those considered the worst among us! We’re all human, we all need other humans, point taken. But the connection to and importance of those early childhood interactions really stuck with me. Not just because of the weird emotional callus that I believed to have developed, but because of the larger pattern of social compartmentalization that was nurtured. To this day – and it remains a great source of disconnect between my parents at times, discussing how they should get out and socialize or how they should meet more people is immediate cause for argument – work is for work-people, church is for church-people, and home is for (select) family members. I’m not the only person in my family who’s a bit of a loner is what I’m getting at.

On the surface, my self-imposed alienation from people used to seem a smokescreen for some sort of grudge that I held with myself. It made sense that I couldn’t forgive myself, or be my own friend, which I suppose might have been partially true – I used to burden myself with a lot of silly guilt for a variety of youthful indiscretions. For instance, when I was in elementary school I remember accidentally breaking a lady’s window with an errant golf ball, and similarly a pane of glass on one of our neighbor’s garage doors. I fessed up to neither. I flipped off a friend and lied about it when he told on me, making him look both a fool and a liar. I refused to offer thanks to a family friend who made a habit of giving me money (“Loonies,” the Canadian dollar coin: a rather lucrative prize for those not having yet mastered arithmetic) when we’d visit, and somehow severed an important relationship before I knew it even existed. I stole hockey cards from both faceless department stores and people who were friendly to me, and I greedily snuck what I could from my behind my parents’ backs, too. That sort of thing. But upon closer inspection, forgiving myself hasn’t really been an issue. Not even for really harmful things that I’ve done the past decade or so: I don’t really hold on to that stuff either.

I’ve so desperately tried to make a connection between being a loner and not being able to make friends, but the truth is that I’m rather good at making friends, actually. I’ve always been able to meet people no matter where I went; maybe not the best friends, or maybe just drinking buddies, but friends all the same. When it comes right down to it, closing myself off and latching onto an inability to experience the honest sense of happiness that comes from genuine friendships isn’t because of some Sunday School drama that I’m making up in my head, stupid mistakes I made as a kid, or even because I’ve moved around quite a bit in my life, it’s because I’ve given myself permission to be a bit of an asshole along the way and write other people off because of my own rigid limitations. Chalk it up to something far more harmful than being insincere with others: being insincere with myself.

Here’s what we know: As Confucius said, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own” (though giving doesn’t “count” when you’re giving something you don’t really value); if you can take focus away from your own happiness and direct it toward that of others you’ll be better off for it; altruism is a cornerstone of satisfaction; one must be able to be as stubborn with accepting a friend as they are with offering their friendship; we’re a tribal people, we need others; practicing forgiveness and managing anger both increase one’s ability to find more meaningful friendships; and the way we treat others might ultimately be a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. Equally dandy: The effect of other people on us is palpable, revealing how simple interaction and community is vital to not only the human experience, but how basic social circles might impact our levels of happiness: “A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by [Edward] Diener and [Martin] Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” Again, point taken. If you’re anything like me you look at all this evidence of what makes for happiness within the realm of friendship and think to yourself, “Yeah, it all adds up.” But the distance between friendship and happiness will be eternal unless you’re willing – and I understand how entirely corny this sounds – to cut the act and be an honest friend to yourself first.

Kate Fox’s previously mentioned binge drinking report explaining how social norms dictate behavior indicates a far deeper issue at hand than simply acting idiotic while drunk because it’s socially permissible. Yes, if getting crazy is the expectation when drinking, craziness is likely to occur. But might it also be true, then, that if the world being out to get you is the expectation, seeing reality as such might occur? Once you give yourself permission to act a certain way – drunk, sober, high on life – this leads to interpreting other actions and circumstances so as to reinforce your beliefs, and before long it becomes so incredibly easy to justify your stance on any given matter that it’s literally impossible to see reality for what it is. Again, let’s go back to Sunday School for a moment, shall we… The perspective of someone looking back through a hazy memory of a then-child’s eyes is going to be entirely flawed, but I can’t help but think that this period of my life still had great influence on me; just not in the way I had initially imagined. Moving in and out of awkward and largely-closed off social structures is hard for anyone, but allowing that to justify not making an effort to find people who I could identify with was on me. I was too young to understand it then, but it’s a fault that I allowed to snowball with each new school, job, or move. I’m a wild card when I drink, it’s who I am! I fine being alone; people don’t get me anyway! Not too far of a stretch, all things considered.

In addition for searching for blame within my past, I’ve wanted so very badly to make a connection between my parents’ own passive-aggressive social butterfly position, but I simply can’t. It’s not there. I haven’t devalued friendship because the inherited blueprint for relationships was so vague, but because I allowed excuses to dictate whether or not I would be a friend to others. I haven’t moved all over the country because I wasn’t accepted for who I was, but (many times) because I rejected the notion that whatever I’d found was good enough. The cyclical nature of friendship, or avoiding friendship, is such that it tends to lend itself as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy however: Others are only likely to make the same effort that you do. Trust and acceptance go both ways, and what is the likelihood that those who’ve planted themselves in their communities, be it a church, a neighborhood, or even a job, are willing to extend a hand when your personal history suggests that you’re not bound to stick around too long? Unlikely, right? And what are the chances that this appearance of rejection begins chip away at a person’s sense of self-worth? Likely, right? I didn’t perceive that others were making the effort to be my friend, regardless of whether or not I made the same effort myself. It has to be my parents’ fault because they don’t have friends, or because of kids when I was growing up, or because… or because…

Or because I wasn’t honest with myself.

No one says you have to have friends, or have to invite people over for celebratory cookouts or movie night. And being a loner really isn’t so bad, all in all. You don’t have to put up with other people’s bullshit, and get to dedicate a lot of time to your own interests, hobbies, and passions. But the flip-side is that because you’re not actively dealing with others, you’re going to constantly be up in your own head. The issue then becomes how not to get outdoors and interact with others, but to step outside of the mental constrains that will forever shackle you to certain ways of perceiving yourself and the world around you. It’s fine to be alone, and at times oh-so-necessary, but not when the byproducts include misplaced blame, artificially fabricated feelings of self-righteousness, or a delusional perspective on why friendship, or basic human interaction, doesn’t matter.

How this plays into the continuance of depression and dependency is simple enough: Being alone is key to feeling lonely, and in my past loneliness has often led to justified binging. With or without the foggy haze of a booze-soaked mind, the more closed off you become, the easier it is to revise history to fit a social construct that you believe to be the victim of. There are very few people who will stick it out with you in life, and above all else I wouldn’t still be alive if it weren’t for my family (a term which I find silly to be defined by bloodline alone) who were there to ensure that I’d regret making the decision of turning my back on them. If friendship is happiness, it would seem that sometimes we are the main roadblock standing between ourselves and a better way of living. The hard part’s not seeing that, but actually getting out of our own way.