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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Importance of Not Being Miserable (About the Fate of the Planet or Anything Else)

Antidote? Vaccine?
If you’re reading this article it’s likely there’s much going on in the world to make you feel anxious, depressed, angry, frustrated, even downright miserable. Climate change is serious; the Paris accord is only a small step in the right direction even if the US government didn’t want to pull out of it. Depending on how much of a doomer you are, you may perceive that one to seven billion people are on deck to die an early, unpleasant death over the next hundred years due to human fecklessness now. Wealth inequality has skyrocketed in the United States; our federal government grows ever more corrupted by big money; and people of all stripes are conditioned into a simultaneous state of passivity and anxiety through television, social media, drugs, poor diet, poor health, and a culture that defines human worth through status and consumption. Nearly half of all animal species are at risk of extinction by mid-century; the entire biosphere of Earth, the lovely planet that is our home, is being threatened by unnecessary laziness, selfishness, stupidity, and greed. On top of all this, you may feel the current US political system is in such a shambles that it no longer has the ability to address problems, only a perverse faculty to create more.

If you stew on all this, the outlook is bleak indeed. (Please consider the possibility that the current political circus is designed to make us feel anxious and impotent.) I’m not going to tell you none of the above is untrue, that the dire predictions now floating in the blogosphere won’t come to pass. I can only say we can’t know at this point how it will all play out, that life is full of surprises, that history is rife with unexpected twists and turns. But I will tell you that even if depression, anger and anxiety are understandable responses to the predicaments at hand, you should give such emotional states a wide berth. **You are too important to squander your energy being miserable.** Indeed, even if you don’t have hope, you owe it to yourself to lead a contented, useful life. Let me explain.

Worth a read
Stress kills. Depression kills. Despair kills. Sometimes quickly through suicide or a drug overdose, but more often slowly, as the hormones these emotional states trigger hammer at your kidneys, your liver, your heart, your immune system, and your digestive system as well as make you more sensitive to pain and prone to insomnia. It may feel as if despair drains your energy, leaving you sapped, but that’s because you’re directing your life force down a black sinkhole that is an appalling repository for your vitality. That sinkhole will never return lost hours and days back to you. It will never do anyone (or any biosphere) one lick of good.

On an airplane, you’re told in case of emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Why? Because if you pass out, not only will you be of no use to anyone, others will have to freak out assisting you. This is not to say ignoring reality is a good idea. It’s not to say that your emotions and your reason are not picking up good data on the current state of affairs, and that these affairs aren’t worthy of your attention. A certain level of worry and alarm are useful if your house is burning down.But no one can live long under the stress of constantly escaping a fire. Problems unlikely to be resolved in a short period of time must be approached with a degree of equanimity that will allow you to still thrive and enjoy your life.

Early zippiness
Yes, enjoy. No matter what the circumstances, you deserve to enjoy your life. Okay, if you’re a murderer, sadist, or swindler, maybe you deserve to enjoy life a whole lot less, but my guess is those aren’t your sins. In any event, we are all on a hero’s/heroine’s journey; we all get to be the central character as we write the book of our lives. Between our birth and our death are a chain of moments. These moments are all we get. We owe it to no one, not even the unborn future generations who are counting on us, to squander them in misery, rage, depression, and frustration.

Misery, rage, depression and frustration not only make us sick, they often spiral into self-hatred. They might prompt us to turn to alcohol or drugs (or porn or mindless TV or shopping or gambling) to blot the pain they cause. And (except, perhaps, in tiny, tiny amounts) they don’t help us constructively address the predicaments we face.

In love
This doesn’t mean we should all stop caring about others and the fate of our planet. It doesn’t mean we should stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. It means each of us has to get to a mental/emotional place where we can focus our attention without relying on a constant lash of anxiety for motivation. It means nurturing and strengthening our spirits so we can encompass the sad and the difficult and yet still see the joy and the beauty. The Chinese, from the ancients to modern-day, speak of cultivating their chi, their life force. To do the work ahead, each of us will need patience, clarity and strength. Each of us will need to tap into the deep well of our life force that we have zero access to if thunderstorms of misery always rage around us.

There are a multitude of ways to nurture spirit. The most important is the one Americans neglect the most: body movement. Simple walking is an extremely effective method of countering depression, anxiety and stress, as good or better than any drug, even better if it’s done out in nature. If you find yourself angry, anxious, or hopeless you simply must carve out thirty minutes a day to walk somewhere you enjoy. Do it before or after work, during lunch, maybe even as part of your commute. (Bicycle commuters report high levels of happiness and well-being, if that’s an option for you. You might think not, but it probably is.) If you enjoy more vigorous exercise, do that. Our bodies, especially our lymphatic systems, require movement in order to function properly. You simply cannot be healthy and be sedentary. Exercise also releases endorphins and other brain chemicals that give a fundamental, natural (!) sense of well-being. Maybe a few saints here and there are able to rise above physical discomfort to achieve spiritual heights but most of us must attend to our bodies in order to attend to our spirit. Walk or bike or get some other form of exercise every day. Do it. It works.

Next, cut out the sugar. Seriously. Sugar is addictive, wigs you out, and makes equanimity elusive. And it’s everywhere, in all sorts of food products you might not realize. (Read ingredient labels!) The average American eats 130 pounds of added sugars a year. This is nuts. Sugar makes your organs fat, it primes your body for diabetes, it makes heart attacks and strokes more likely, it creates tense blood vessels that lead to high blood pressure, it overloads and damages your liver, it increases your hunger level that leads to overeating, it ages your skin, it feeds cancer cells, it increases your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, it can make you anxious and irritable, and it gives you a 40% higher risk of developing depression. However, sugar can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the blood, which may be why some people drown their sorrows in quarts of ice cream. (This is why you need to come up with healthy ways to manage stress.) Don’t replace sugar with artificial sweeteners; they’re also terrible for your body. Recalibrate your palate and body instead. After a few days without added sugars, natural sugars will suddenly register on your tongue again. This article outlines a pretty good plan over a course of two months that will clean up your diet. Or you could go cold turkey with no sugar for three days, reset your taste buds, then add some foods back in. If you want to feel really good and lose weight, cut wheat out of your diet, too, especially in highly-processed crapola foods, but start with sugar first, especially sugar/corn syrup in beverages. (Please consider the possibility, whether intentionally designed this way or not, that a food supply that leaves you sickly and obese is a food supply that renders you passive, dependent and impotent.)

Many ways to be merry . . .
Next, be careful with alcohol and drugs. I’m not saying zero, but no using either for pain relief or self-medication. Without moderation, both can affect your health; both can get in the way of finding the deep equanimity that is in you. In particular, heavy alcohol use makes you fat, messes up your liver, messes with your sleep, and if you're depressed, leads to more depression. For those of you who are young, remember, what you do to your body before you’re thirty you’ll feel after you’re thirty.

Curb your news addiction. News reporting wants to attract your attention via tragedies, problems and threats of problems. Much of it is repetitive, voyeuristic and manipulative, not to mention mostly noise, not signal, designed to distract you and make you feel anxious. The time you spend pouring over the details of mass shootings, Senate subcommittee hearings, and special prosecutors is time not spent on your health, your family, your friends, your work, your real life. It's time not spent on the real things you can actually do to solve the problems we face. I'm not suggesting burying your head in the sand, but view news as a toxic substance you must ingest in small doses--say no more than half an hour a day. Note the info but don't stew or obsess about things you can't or won't change. (It's useless and makes you useless.) Conserve your attention and energy for what you actually can and want to impact. I personally read my news rather than see or hear it. It's faster, less repetitive, and it's easier that way for me to check multiple sources to note multiple viewpoints.

Get enough sleep, however much your body needs in order to feel alert and healthy. Sleep is more important than Facebook, it’s more important than TV. Turn media minutes into sleep minutes until you’re routinely getting enough rest.

Consider trying meditation, tai chi, yoga, dance, and/or immersion in the natural world. All these are helpful for some people. A simple walk among trees (“tree bathing”) is a proven stress reliever for many. Acupuncture can also address anxiety and depression. I strongly encourage you to check and see if any of these tried and true techniques (that are inexpensive, with no nasty side effects) work for you.

Of course you may have your own path to equanimity. What lifts your spirit? Brainstorm a list. Singing in a choir? Creating art? Gardening? Fishing? Brunch with friends? Woodworking? Listening to opera? Going to church? Staring at the ocean? Gazing at the stars? Reading a story to your grandchild? This list is not a frivolous exercise. What nourishes you, what replenishes you? What you come up with is part of the essential task you are put on this world to do. I know it’s especially hard for parents of young children to find time, but not nurturing your spirit is like not putting on your oxygen mask. You will dry out into a husk of a human being who is no good to anyone. Pay attention to your spirit. Feed it. That’s an order.

So why am I writing this? What is it to me if you spend your day raging at corporations or shaking your head glumly at inane tweets?

No man is an island
The answer is we are all connected. On a planetary biosphere level, obviously. (Pollution and carbon travel.) On an economic level. (Goods and services travel.) On a political level. (Refugees and terrorism travel.) Even, Jung would say, on a subconscious level. However tempting it is to think otherwise, how we treat the planet, other people and other nations boomerangs back on us in a very basic way. Others’ suffering not only diminishes us, it destabilizes the country and the world. Though America loves to see itself as a collection of rugged individualists, It’s a Wonderful Life, with its interconnected small town of Bedford Falls that George Bailey’s modest life is able to impact for the better, is a much more accurate model.

This basic interconnection means I benefit if I live among healthy, vibrant, creative, energetic, ethical people, so I deeply want that state of being for you. Beyond that, if you’re a person who gets that the human race needs to live in balance with the biosphere of its host planet, it’s even more essential that you don’t squander your life in gloom and doom. That you have the equanimity and energy to do what you can to alleviate future suffering, to preserve what still can be preserved, to repair what can be repaired, leading an enjoyable, contented life all the while. 

Pick a problem, any problem, to work on. There are plenty to choose from. Don’t fret, don’t endlessly rant about it; instead, give it a portion of your productive energy, your steadfast attention, your commitment. Yes, the future might play out badly just the same, but not trying due to despair or pessimism is the greater error. If the worst ends up happening, that’s even more reason to live the moments you have left as well as you can. Not deliriously happy, perhaps, but at peace. Not in an alcohol or chemical-induced stupor that makes you forget the clouds above, but with a wider vision that helps you see the storms as they travel, the seasons as they pass. Find a way of being that makes you whole, makes you strong. Then use that strength with as much compassion, integrity and fortitude as you know how. That’s my wish for you. That’s my wish for us all.

Note: If you have severe depression, severe anxiety, or frequent suicidal thoughts, humanity and the planet still need you. Try the suggestions above, but also get help from someone with the skills to address your level of problem.

7 comments:

  1. I believe that collapse is a given and that not maintaining awareness of this is unethical. I believe that we as a species are unethical. We must every minute make the best decisions that we can to preserve ourselves body and soul. I, also, have learned that we can not change the mind of one single person about anything. Experience changes people. The crises that develops in the next five to ten tears will effect peoples behavior and psych. Many periodic collapses of human societies throughout history have not seemed to changed humans that much. What happens during the next crises will be a test for humanity. We will see.

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  2. The Peace Pilgrim walked the earth with nothing but a Blue vest with a pencil, a pad of paper and a toothbrush for 29 years from 1953 till 1982. She fasted untill given food and slept where she stopped. She totally trusted God. She grew in wisdom. She learnt a lot of the things that we have been learning about food and nutrition a long time ago. She was uncompromising in following her ideals. I personally follow my ideals also, but I do compromise.

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  3. "What nourishes you, what replenishes you? What you come up with is part of the essential task you are put on this world to do." I need to put in a little work on this. Peace Pilgrim said that "the entirely self centered life is not worth living. If what you are doing does not benefit others beside yourself it is not worth doing." Is the gauge of the value of what we do, that it must benefit others or that we must replenish ourselves. Answer: there must be a balance of doing everything for the benefit of the most people and also replenishing ourselves. In any universe that exists we will always have the choice of living for the benefit of others and ourselves or of taking from others and the planet. What mankind needs to learn now is not to take from the planet. The need is dire.

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  4. I saw this on twitter and was drawn to the title, and will share it on /give it forward, because your writing and this need to help others resonates with me & my goals in life.

    Thank you.

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  5. If I am not mistaken, the Chinese had a sort of modern industrial civilization in the 1960s that had the bicycle as basic transportation. In 1910, in San Francisco, the bicycle, horse, street car and car were probably all in use. The Chinese and the San Franciscan's now rely on the automobile. As we more and more move to a service economy of the poor, the bicycle will be the option that people can afford. Most people won't ride bicycle for idealistic reasons like Karen. They will ride them because they can't afford anything else.

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  6. Thanks for this excellent article.

    I have an addendum. Often I am tempted to rush from depression and despair rather than learning from them. I am not counseling remaining in despair, but to grieve what is happening and what is likely to happen is a healthy response and may be necessary to avoid burnout and to rengage with wisdom, courage, and persistence.

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  7. Fine article Karen L. The modus vivendi you espouse is the way our family lives. Without a doubt the current trajectory of our culture is one circling the drain if the inhabitants continue to be feckless victims of destructive memes. WE have made a conscious effort to renounce the culture by just walking away from it and living with attitudes congruent with your article. TO wit: If you don't like the culture, leave it behind. Don't listen to their news, don't eat their food,grow or hunt your own, don't use their transportation, don't buy their products, consume or build only what you need preferably only items of quality that are repairable, turn off the TV and the radio, opt out of their economic and political system, stay outside as much as possible...... This strategy of course has to be modified......after all I am writing this on a computer keyboard but you get the idea. C wright Mills some years ago discussed the notion of fate and how it was the consequence of a myriad of individual actions and if enough of us follow your dictates, a new and better future is possible.

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