Pain and fear of pain are driving people’s actions.

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It is surprising how much human behavior is driven by pain and fear of pain. Even typical mundane everyday activities are driven by pain, and grand national movements are driven by pain and fear of pain. That seems an overstatement until the obvious facts are looked at and the underlying motives are related to their observed effects. I noticed the driving effect of fear when doing my series on the 1,000 World Heritage Sites. Many of those sites are natural sites, like the Grand Canyon, and they don’t count, but those things constructed by human effort are fear-driven, like the Great Wall of China, as protection from the Mongols. Even a monument such as the Pyramids of Egypt, have a component of fear of death built into them, as they were designed to resurrect the Pharaoh and his family.

Wars are driven by fear of alien populations taking our land, property and lives, and this fear presently consumes a huge portion of the US taxpayers’ dollars. The police structure also consumes a lot of money that we willingly pay, to protect us personally from who, our not so neighborly neighbors. The very fences around our property, and the walls of our homes, and the locks on the door, and the guns under some people’s pillows are all there because of fear. All of that seems obvious enough, but let’s look at some of the benign things we surround ourselves with, that we spend huge sums of money on. What has fear to do with our car, or our clothes, or our job?

Why do Americans insist on having huge gas-guzzling SUVs, instead of fuel-efficient small cars? It isn’t to get from point A to point B, as that can be easily done at half the cost in a small car, and at one tenth the cost if one tries; no, the reason is one of fear of being thought inferior by other people. People are willing to go to considerable expense to appear as important and prosperous as possible, and are willing to go into debt to support that fantasy. Of course buying this superficial status often requires going into debt, and that in turn requires holding down a job, with as fancy a title as possible, to pay for the debt, and that in turn means the debtor lives in fear of losing the job, and then losing everything. Personal fear thus permeates even the most normal simple actions of most people. They have so integrated this background of fear they don’t even recognize it as fear, but only as free-floating anxiety.

There is a simple way to end those economic-induced fears, and that is to spend less money than you have and build up a ready reserve of cash. When you have a reserve, and you know you can depend on your reserve to get you through any expected crisis, that type of fear will evaporate. It is possible to maintain some reserves in everything you do. Not only money but also time, energy, space and even health can have a buffering reserve built into them, and when you have those reserves the fear that may be associated with their loss is only a distant possibility.

There are some things that are inevitable, like death, but the fact that it is inevitable can become a comfort because it is a known thing and can thus be thought about and accepted. Once it is accepted that you and your consciousness will not be here at some distant time and place, say a million years from now, and you are comfortable with that, then it is just a question of moving that distant time a little closer, and a little closer until it is the next moment. There isn’t much difference once you are comfortable with the inevitability of this aspect of reality. Once the loss of life itself is accepted then the many pains of living can be more easily accepted as the stimulus of the moment, and the worrisome agony of long-term endurance can be ignored.

Most pain and most fear of pain can be avoided by creating surplus in place of scarcity.

Whom should we follow, and whom should we avoid following?

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“I don’t follow anyone!” some people will shout, and yet the fact that they speak English is proof that they learned that language by following other people’s speech patterns. It is inevitable that we follow other people’s lead in almost everything we do. Even a total recluse has learned his human ways and thus is following in the culture into which he was born. But the more fundamental question is whom should we choose to follow, and whom should we avoid following? What are the characteristics of leaders who will lead us to a better relationship with our world and especially with those people whom we encounter? And, conversely, what are the characteristics of those people who will lead us to a poorer way of relating to others and the world?

I have approached this conflict, this problem, from the perspective of Adverse Childhood Experiences of people versus Positive Childhood Experiences. It may seem strange at first encounter, but it’s the people with personal experience with problems who have the most emotional fire for coping with the problems. It is then obvious that they will be the people who will have devoted the most energy to coping with that particular type of problem. People who have encountered alcoholism will be the ones most concerned and therefore the most informed on the subject, so it is they and recovering alcoholics who will make the most vehement pronouncements about those problems. People who have had positive childhood experiences will never have encountered those particular problems, and thus will not be concerned with them, and will be very mild and objective when discussing them, and generally will have very little to say about them.

Returning to whom should we follow in general on a given subject? Should we follow the one with experience and fire, or should we follow someone limited to objective outside observation? With the alcohol problem this can be approached by comparing the 12 Step Program to The Grant Study. The 12 Step Program is an example of personal experience and vehemence for coping with a problem. It works as an after-the-damage-has-been-done method for returning most of the way to normal functioning. The Grant Study has little vehemence and suggests coping with alcoholism by foreseeing the problem decades before it arises. It too has methods for preventing alcohol abuse and alcoholism before they ever become a problem. It requires no vehemence and no commitment, and only an intellectual understanding of what the goals of drinking should be and what to avoid. It takes decades to destroy one’s life with alcohol, so it is easy to avoid, if one knows what thoughts and actions to avoid. Follow the 12 step leaders when trying to get out of a deep hole, but follow the Grant Study when intending to never fall into one.

Drink for pleasure, not for pain. Alcohol is not a medicine for curing problems, depression or pain. Nor is alcohol a regular sleeping aid. Yes it can be used for those things, but its routine use will start a positive feedback cycle, and a dependency and then a permanent problem. Once you are aware of those risks it becomes easier to avoid alcohol dependency and personal destruction.

You can cope with your problems better when you are sober.

Drink for pleasure not for pain.

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I’ve been searching for ways to cope with the problem of people destroying their lives with alcohol. The link between the methods of alcohol usage and eventual personal and social ruin was proven in the longitudinal study called normal boys study. It was begun at Harvard in 1939. It is currently known as the Grant Study, because a person named Grant funded major portions of the study. They proved conclusively that, “Alcohol abuse strongly correlates with neurosis and depression, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it.” The question becomes, why did some people become alcoholics but others, who were also drinking all their lives, did not? I read the prime researcher George Vaillant’s books carefully for the answer to that question. He mentions the reason, but he doesn’t bring the answer to the attention of the public with enough force to have reached the media or the public. The media is paid to sell products, not good sense.

I am seeking to prevent a downward crash into alcoholism everywhere, but will work locally here in Bend, Oregon, because we are at serious risk of this disease exploding. At present there is an astonishing interest and support of our local beer industry. Everywhere you go in this little city they are promoting our local breweries and beer consumption. I am worried that it will eventually destroy our beautiful community. Vaillant’s study demonstrated that it takes about three decades, but the downward feedback cycle is inexorable. The reasons for the decline are obvious once they are stated clearly. Here is the reason alcohol is dangerous.

People who drink to suppress the pain of their daily problems become less able to cope with those problems, and the problems get worse. That is a feedback cycle and the problems just get worse and worse, and the drinkers slowly become more unhappy, more desperate and less able to cope. They slowly develop worse problems, and must drink even more to suppress their pain. Over time they get sicker and lose their jobs, their wives and children and then their life, and all because of their effort to suppress their pain with alcohol.

The easily observed reason is that drinking to ease pain only works while the alcohol is in your brain, and when your brain is sober again the pain returns, but the problems that brought on the pain haven’t been solved. A drunk can get an evening of mindless oblivion, but his real life has been degraded a little with every drink and later with every bender. Drinking to ease pain only works for a couple of years, but the habitual drinking creates cumulative problems, and they grow worse, and that increases the pain, and that increases the drinking to ease the pain. I repeat myself, but it seems necessary to make the point. “Drinking to ease short-term pain creates long-term pain.” Or to say it another way, “Drinking to ease today’s pain creates permanent pain.”

Claiming that you are drinking for pleasure is dangerous if one is an alcoholic. A single drink leads to another and all too soon to relapse and disaster. This is a case where “Just Don’t Do It” is the only way to proceed.

Drinking for pleasure isn’t dangerous if you limit yourself to one or two drinks at an event. Drinking for pleasure is self-limiting, because the moment it isn’t pleasurable you stop drinking. Having a drink at the beginning of an event helps make a social event more convivial, but more drinking just dulls the mind and serves only to make one’s own and others’ foolish behavior seem like fun. It isn’t. “Drunken stupid behavior is just stupid.” End of story.

Drink for the enjoyment of the beverage itself, and slow down as the pleasure tapers off, because after several swallows it begins to lose its unique, satisfying qualities. Drinking with the goal of pleasure makes it easy to stop drinking when the pleasure is going away. “If wondering if you need another drink, you don’t.” It’s easy to say, “No thank you, I’ve had enough.” If people insist you take another, “Just say NO!” I have been trying to create memorable slogans for drinking responsibly. Perhaps the best one is:

Drink for pleasure, not for pain.

The Tao Teh Ching – #5 – Revealed by Lao Tzu – Rendered by Charles Scamahorn

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5

Nature contains a void:
It responds to everything in the universe as excess, and
Everything is drawn into its void.

You contain a personal void:
You too may respond to everything in the universe as excess, and
Everything can be drawn into your void.

The Universe and all within it is like a bellows:
Emptiable, yet it gives a supply that never fails;
The more you use it, the more it gives you.
However, overworking brings you to exhaustion and imbalance; and
It is healthier for you to stay near your responsive middle
and remain balanced.

6

I love you just the way you are.

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I participate in several groups of people who are involved in intentional self-development. Some only attend these events as participants, but several are authors and professionally oriented personal development people. There is almost no crossover of people with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, which has as stated goals spiritual growth and social responsibility. That seems strange because the group I attended today meets in the same building, built in 1912, The Old Stone Church. So I ended up sitting in the same room twice today, but with different groups dedicated to much the same thing, and conducting much the same service. Announcements, comments of life experiences of the previous week, some spiritually uplifting songs, a prepared sermon by one of the group, a basket collection of spare cash, a concluding song, a communal holding, and some conversation after the event.

These are fine people dedicated to making the world a better place for themselves and for others, too. They intend to accomplish that higher-than-common goal by bringing our attention to positive ways of approaching life experiences. Today’s lecture was in part about Psychology Today’s Emotional Intelligence Test. I was struck by how similar it was to The Adverse Childhood Experiences test that I blogged about last month, but neither of those tests told, at least directly, how a person should proceed from where they were to where they wanted to be. Nor did either offer suggestions on how to raise children, except perhaps not to abuse them as oneself had been abused as a child. I was aware of that lack because of the Positive Childhood Experience chart I developed along with my previous criticism of the Adverse Childhood Experiences test. There is a lot more that one can do other than just not abuse children if one only thinks about it.

What shocked me when listening to the list of negative things being listed as childhood experiences of the audience, was how many appeared to be nodding in assent when the various types of abuse were mentioned. We were asked to list our experience, mentally, on a scale of one to ten just how bad our experience had been. Most people seemed, by the expressions and gestures, to be indicating poor experiences. What shocked me most was that I had experienced virtually zero of the negative things they were describing. I had to think hard to come up with a single example of personal abuse of even the most mild kind. Whereas the others instantly came up with fairly extreme examples. I considered my childhood as normal, and yet compared to so many people I had a mild and wonderful childhood experience. I have often thought how wonderful it would have been to have grown up in Berkeley, because of all the intellectual experiences to be readily had there, but the really valuable aspects of childhood have little to do with that and so much more to do with healthy growth-producing experience, that encourages self-observation and personal responsibility for one’s actions.

These people had to struggle with accepting themselves just as they are, because they had been raised on others projecting images onto them that they weren’t being successful in living up to, and therefore they felt they were lacking in some essential quality. They were unworthy human beings. I was never aware that such a high percentage of people felt personally unworthy, and that so much of their behavior was driven by the attempt to appear to the public as being better than they personally felt themselves to be. Thus they were interested in sermons saying things like:

I love you just the way you are! And they were encouraged to look in the mirror several times per day during different situations and moods and say to their reflection, and to their self,

I love you just the way you are!

I was bait and switched !!!

I had breakfast with some of my friends this morning, and for me it was an unpleasant event from beginning to end. My friends are fine, and I will seek their company, no matter where we have our Saturday morning breakfasts. It’s kind of a romantic thing. However, the very popular and prestigious restaurant we were visiting this morning annoyed me on several dimensions.

I met one of my companions for our breakfast at the waiting area inside the garden. We were there a few minutes early, and the only ones waiting at that moment, because the stated policy was opening at 8:30. The management was courteous enough to provide coffee at the standing spot, but the heavy coffee mugs were quite cold, so the hot coffee was cold before it got to my lips. I had informed the seating host we were expecting a party of six, which he duly entered in his chart. We ended standing there for about twenty minutes while the garden tables filled up with other people; apparently they thought we wanted to stand there waiting for the other people to arrive. If one of them didn’t make it I suppose we would still be standing there. Finally I asked to be seated, and after another five minutes we were seated, or should I say benched on a camping table adequate for six. We were in direct sun, so the people facing the sun were blinded by the still low morning sunlight. We requested an umbrella, which came five minutes later. These could have been pre-positioned, because the sun is in the same place every morning, but they were still in their previous afternoon locations.

By the time it came time to place our breakfast order two more of our group had arrived who hadn’t signed up the night before, so we had to squeeze them in at the ends of the already barely adequately sized bench-table for six. The bench/table would properly seat four. With eight people it became a bit crowded for the seating, but we are all friends, so it was, more or less, okay. Everything on the table settings was very squeezed by the time our food was delivered.

I have enjoyed talking to these people at other times, but by the time we were all there all the other seats in the garden were filled with talking people, and it became so noisy I could only talk to those very close to me. Then a small band, with loudspeakers of course, was about to entertain us. It was too much noise for me and I left before they began their blast!

I had ordered the breakfast special, because last week the others had gotten that small meal, and it was only six dollars. Great, I thought, I’m not a big eater so a smallish breakfast would be just right. It was a bit disappointing though, just an ordinary looking burrito wrap, but the flavor quality was good. The shock came with the check! The wrap I thought cost six dollars cost fourteen, and that with the coffee, three more dollars, and a fruit side which I never received, unless it was inside the wrap, came to eighteen, with a tip, so the remaining two dollars of my twenty dollar bill was gone. It all seemed more than a bit too much. I could have gotten the same thing at McDonald’s for five bucks or less, but of course everyone considers that restaurant too common. Anyway, I asked the waiter why it cost fourteen dollars instead of six, and was told the price went up at 8:30, I said I was here at that time … but you have to be seated by that time to order … but I was standing there before 8:30 for nearly half an hour waiting to be seated, and there were plenty of empty seats … but, our whole party wasn’t there. Rather than fuss more, I just paid the twenty bucks and said to my friends I wouldn’t be coming back to this place ever again. Popular places are not always all that great; in fact I will avoid popular places that are noisy. My rationale is that with noise conversation  becomes difficult and thus all the people are functionally deaf and dumb, and that is a symptom of incipient stupidity.

This was a classic bait and switch if ever there was one.

We always do what we think is right.

We always do what we think is right at the time we do it; otherwise we would do something else, and we would think that was right. It is impossible to do something that we think is wrong, because even in doing that wrong act we will be doing it for reasons our inner zombie thinks is right. Obviously there are many times that having done something else would have had a better outcome, and the idea “I thought it was a good idea at the time” is accurate.

My hugging buddy M from The Living Fully conversation group has a favorite saying, “I’m not always right, but I’m never wrong,” that communicates a similar idea. It has some value, because it leaves one with more enthusiasm for proceeding with the pursuit of the moment. On the other hand that bon mot precludes the possibility of self-criticism inherent in the after-the-fact, “I thought it was a good idea at the time.”

Is there a memorable future-casting idea that gives one courage to act in the moment? Yikes! There are millions of them; in fact the entirety of humanity is infused with helps for action, “because you deserve it!” Sales of products are driven by the idea of good decision-making, and we are just here to help you satisfy your needs, and to make known to you what your real needs are, and get them fulfilled with our product. Religion is another form of presenting to you good reasons for your behaving rightly in the future, and in this moment, too.

We always do the right thing! The problem then becomes how do we program our own inner zombie to react optimally to the various situations to which we will be exposed.

The teller of the story is its greatest benefactor. NOT!

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We often hear people telling us stories, and the typical intent of the storyteller is to help the other person understand some strange twist and complication of their mutual reality. For years my spouse Debbie has been reading to me at bedtime, and we have gone through many books of short stories from various cultures around the world. This last month it has been Middle Eastern stories of the semi apocryphal Mulla Nasrudin. These stories are typically only a paragraph or so in length, and present the Mulla as a wise fool. A man who answers complex questions with profoundly foolish but strangely workable solutions. The stories commonly have other people involved in the problem and turning to Nasrudin for help, to which he invariably gives a solution that brings hilarity for its obviousness and yet unexpected answer. Because the stories are so short it is traditional to tell seven of them, before moving on.

It is the teller of stories who is most involved with the story. He is the one who remembers it, chooses the words and the flavor of their telling, and he is the one who understands best what is intended by the whole thing. The teller is the greatest benefactor, and yet, the audience benefits too, and generally gets a good laugh and a little wisdom. Their minds are flexed in an unexpected way, and they are made into more fully human beings by the experience. It’s a wonderful experience for everyone.

And yet, there is a dark side too for the teller of stories. Last week Robin Williams killed himself. He was one of the greatest storytellers of all time, a king’s jester of infinite wit. In reading the TIME magazine article Boxing the black dog by Dick Cavett (August 25, 2014, page 58) it became apparent that the great comics are often profoundly depressed people. They cope with their depression with a mask of comic frivolity, by playing an exotically happy person, but it is a lie, a profound lie to themselves. It functions like a drug, or like alcohol to mask inner pain. And like alcohol it interferes with coping with the comic’s real problems and thus the problems form a positive feedback loop, get worse and worse and often end in suicide.

Living life fully and abundantly comes back to coping with the reality of the problems that come to us. We humans have developed the capacity to avoid reality with verbally created hopes. The Classic Greek myth about Pandora tells how she let all the evils escape into the world but kept hope for humanity, and thus hope became humanity’s personally held evil. One favorite pastime of people is trying to claim some particular attribute that makes humans superior, or at least different from other animals: a thumb, a bigger brain per pound of body, etc., but perhaps it’s simply hope.

The greatest opportunity for humans is our ability to cope with the unusual problems to come to each of us, but when we mask our real problems with a fantasy of artificial constructs that create beautiful hopes, we are on the path of self-destruction.

Are we human and do we know what is good for humans?

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In the midst of conversation I heard the assertion, “We don’t have a clue what is best for someone else.” That statement was met with resounding group approval. Perhaps in the context of the moment it was valid, but it set me to thinking, well off on a tangent. Over the last few weeks I had heard similar statements from other people, such as recovering alcoholics pontificating on their newly discovered reality, atheists bloviating on their escape from the superstitions of the supernatural, and a horribly depressed person’s stories at finding meaning in life having found God, and now a person who had just been talking about decades of daily suicidal thoughts, expatiating on the true meaning of life.

I have enough world experience to be able to flash my mirror neurons on all their of problems, and their responses to those problems, but in the moment I was feeling a rejection those emotional verbal blasts, covered over with, “It’s only my opinion, but…” and then, in a state of glowing ecstasy, making categorical pronouncements about ultimate reality. It wasn’t falling on deaf ears, and I wasn’t rejecting these ideas categorically, but I was thinking these life strategies were not bringing these people contentment, but instead an alternate temporary high. They were fleeing one ecstasy for another temporary ecstasy, like going from booze to pot to coke to jail to religion to oblivion. It was all ecstasy, but to my view it wasn’t a worthwhile high because at its base it was hallucinatory unearned pleasure.

Natural pleasure, and what I think of as real pleasure, is had when working on what one considers a worthwhile project that is moving toward a personal and socially worthwhile goal. Unnatural pleasure is taking into one’s being artificial things, chemicals or ideas, that have no life-promoting characteristics. They seem, in the moment, to have these qualities because they make one feel good in the moment.

A test for the value of the high is whether maintaining the activity for many hours every day for years would bring one to a healthy vigorous condition or to destitution. One need only look at people who have done these various things for a few decades to see the results. There are not many decade-long studies of the results of behavior, but the Harvard Grant Study is one and it clearly demonstrates some paths to follow and some to avoid. “Alcohol abuse strongly correlates with neurosis and depression, which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it.” Abuse begins with drinking to ease the pain of the complications of life, because it lessens the person’s ability to cope with their problems, and thus the problems are in a positive feedback situation and continue getting worse.

In response to “Are we human and do we know what is good for humans?”, it would appear that in the short term we seek pleasure in every possible form, and the quickest and easiest are drugs, supernatural ecstasies, and theft of others’ goods. Obviously these actions, when practiced routinely to solve problems, lead to failure. So, the answer to my question is:

We are human and we do know what is good for humans, but we must choose the right forms of pleasure to seek.

 

 

I am not an atheist, but some of my friends claim to be.

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I go to atheist meetings and find happy, healthy, wise and wealthy people there. It is a fine cross section of good law-abiding American people who are actively involved in making our society function. Many of them come from very devoted religious backgrounds, but found they could no longer subscribe to obviously unsubstantiated claims that they were required to swear allegiance to or leave the group. They chose to leave, and after various struggles found themselves in a fellowship with atheists.

I did not follow that path. At age eighteen I flirted with being an agnostic for a few days, and read a couple of things that took that approach, but it was so indecisive and wimpy it felt repulsive. It is only recently that I found that I had been closer to Stoicism in world view and emotional attitude, a scientific realist relative to the physical world, a Humanist in social action, and a human animal when it came to my physical self. Thus my personal struggle has been to live modestly and to help humanity sustain itself and live modestly also.

I have a personal problem because I dislike the conspicuous consumption our society promote. That has created a population of people driven to absurd behavior by advertising and short-term pleasure seeking. My personal goal for the humans I encounter is to be kind to them, and that means to help them along their chosen path. And yet even that simple goal is fraught with difficulties. For example, when a perfectly healthy young adult has some social difficulty and talks of committing suicide, my response is to help them toward what I believe is their real goal, to solve the difficulty and then seek more positive challenges. The suicide is not confronting and solving any problem, it is avoiding all problems, and seeking a quick way out. Our joy in life comes from solving problems.

Atheism for the advanced thinkers isn’t an escape from religion so much as it is an acknowledgement of natural reality and their responsibility to respond to that reality. I am with them on that issue, but I don’t reject the concept of god. I see my responsibility as being to reality and ethically to knowable humanity and not so much to a postulated being totally outside of my experience.

 

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