Some thoughts on surviving

February 16th, 2016

Sometimes, you hear things that just don’t make sense. Sometimes, you are hearing yourself say them. You can know completely rationally that they make no sense. Objectively, they aren’t true. But yet, your brain believes them. Sometimes, it believes them to an unbearable extent. 

Sometimes, you hear things that make sense. Sometimes you are hearing yourself say them. You can know completely rationally that they make sense. Objectively, they aren’t true. But yet, your brain believes them. Sometimes, it believes them to a unbearable extent.

The ability to believe, to trust our thoughts and to act on them over our own rational desires or knowledge is something that I suspect is unique to humanity. If an animal is afraid, it will act on instinct – fight or flight. It seems that only humans will deliberately put themselves in danger, or take actions that while obviously dangerous are calculated risks that properly executed will provide a ‘thrill’ without having the negative effect of a fatal outcome. We can push ourselves further than we know, go far beyond our rational belief in our own capabilities, and still survive. 

For most, the risks levels are based on experience, training and a knowledge of the bounadaries of one’s own abilities. This ability to believe leads humans to do amazing things. They can climb mountains, jump from serviceable aircraft (with and without parachutes attached), free-dive to extraordinary depths, drive powered vehicles past the speed of sound, and walk on the face of another world. In all these cases, humans have gone further, and done more to conquer our environment than any other species. 

All of this arises from our mind, and its ability to imagine, to believe, to dream, to expand beyond what we are and what we know.  In all of these cases, the intention is to achieve, but to achieve while surviving. To conquer is to return triumphant. 

When the mind goes wrong, it is a terrible betrayal. The ability to believe is twisted in on itself, contorting and corrupting ‘normal’ thought patterns. 

Then, survival is not a battle against a mountain or a hostile environment, but the deep seated beliefs of ones own mind. The worst thing is that there is no real way to know the difference. The drive that tells you you can make that next hold on the rock face, and keeps you clinging to it until you reach the top, is the same drive that can tell you that your entire existence is a travesty and it would be better for you to end it. 

The most terrifying experiences in life are not the fear of falling off a mountain, or the parachute not opening, those things are relatively low probability, and would be over pretty fast. They’re the constant battles with a brain that hates you and wants you to die, and the primal part of the brain that says, don’t do it you stupid fucker, and knowing that you aren’t sure how to convince yourself that you won’t end it just to get some quiet. 

It’s an abyss of fear, self loathing and desperate, desperate despair. When I hear of someone who has lost that battle and taken that step, I know the black wall of despair that they faced, and I understand. I know all the reasons why not to, and I know the argument that suicide is not the solution, but the end of the possibility of things being better, but I understand.
It’s not about feeling bad, or a bit low – of course everyone goes through rough times – please understand, this isn’t what you’ve felt on an off day. 

The words that help one stay alive have to be the ones coming from my own mind, but that mind might well be telling one the opposite. At least part of it. To mis-quote Roger Waters “It’s a battle of words, and most of them are lies”*. If it was possible to reason your way out, it wouldn’t be such a difficult problem. The problem is that reason itself is the prompter, the tempter, the pusher. It’s the appeal of a moment without pain offered by a mind in sheer torment. I couldn’t really put it any better than Stephen Fry did:

“There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.” 

So what can you do? 

The good news is that in most cases, depression in its many forms is treatable, and crisis is beatable. Modern medications are pretty effective, and while they might be for the long term and require some experimentation to get right, getting treatment is important. If you go get a flu shot, or get a regular cholesterol check, then consider it the same way – it’s a preventative. It’s not really a cure, but there are treatments for the worst and most dangerous symptoms.

Talking does help, but not in the way you’d think, there’s nothing that you can really say, but be ready to listen and to encourage the person to reach out to help. There are many resources out there, and ways to get help. That’s what is really needed. 

If a person is in immediate danger, has an injury or has overdosed, call emergency services immediately.  Otherwise, try to encourage them to talk, to you at least, and preferably to a trained counselor or helpline, and encourage them to visit a medical practitioner. 

  • Do take the person seriously, don’t be dismissive or say things like “try not to worry so much”.
  • Do try to listen, and ask open questions, but don’t try to contradict their point of view, this isn’t the time to judge.
  • Do try not to be the full time counsellor if you aren’t trained. Most people with depression (in whatever form) need long term support and professional care.
  • Do be aware that the crisis is not about you, or how you felt at a certain time, try to listen more than talk. 
  • Do understand that what the person faces is as real as your most dearly held belief, try not to judge or deny statements you don’t agree with.
  • Do let them know that you care.

There are some useful pointers and links at the UK’s National Health Service Website 

The Samaritans are a phone based crisis counseling service with a good reputation for people in crisis.

Im Alive is an online chat service with trained crisis counsellors for people who are more used to Internet communications or prefer not to use phone.

*The actual lyrics in the Song Us and Them are “Haven’t you heard, it’s a battle of words, the poster bearer cried”, but they are often misquoted in the form above.

Pour mes amis à Paris

November 14th, 2015

Mes pensées accompagnent les victimes et leurs families, qui ont été les cibles de cet atroce crime contre l’humanité.
J’adresse aussi des vœux de prompt rétablissement aux blessé

Aujourd’hui, je “Pleurez avec ceux qui pleurent” (Romaines 12:15)

Portez votre bien, mes amis.

“Ne te laisse pas vaincre par le mal, mais surmonte le mal par le bien.”

 

America, land that I love

November 25th, 2014

A few people have asked me recently why I love America and why I want to live there – given that I have (several) other choices. It’s a good question, and recent events such as those unfolding in Ferguson give it more weight.

Fundamentally, I believe that despite the problems, the basis on which the country is formed – a secular constitution with a legally binding commitment to equality and freedom – is a good one. That it doesn’t work in practice, or that there are many clear problems caused by the failure to actually apply that equality to all, simply makes me wish to be a part of changing that.

There are those who say they want to “take back America”, and sadly they tend to twist the meaning to be “take it back to the 1950’s where everyone knew their place and good men where white and women cooked and cleaned” (I’m paraphrasing).

But the real America has never been lost – they would not be taking anything back, they would be stealing it. Stealing it from those who fought so hard for civil rights. Stealing it from the LGBT communities who have fought for the justice the constitution promises them. Stealing it from those, like me, who have come for the economic or employment opportunities, made their homes, raised their families and paid their taxes here.

The real America is sometimes obscured by the fog of political partisanship and the failure of the media to do its job of objectively reporting news. It is obscured by greed, and big money, and by those who would wish to control the bodies of liberated women. It is stained by poverty, a failing educational system and a systemic disdain for science and reason. It has been clouded by the injustices that indeed are often too real and continue to affect the daily lives of black, latino and LGBT youth. It is scarred by racism, religious zealotry and xenophobia. It is obscured right now by tear gas and burning buildings in Ferguson.

And yet, the real America persists, and it drives forward. It is revealed in the solidarity shown to those in Ferguson in cities across the country. It is revealed in the Pride marches that every year grow and gain wider acceptance. It is revealed in the votes against punitive sentencing for minor drug offenses. It is revealed most of all in the lives of ordinary Americans who care for our homeless and our downtrodden, despite the barriers that society presents.

A year ago, I could never have believed that more than 30 states would have marriage equality, with more likely to follow soon. I would not have dreamed that California would start the slow process towards ending the hopeless and utterly destructive “war on drugs”. The American dream is tarnished but it still exists, and I am still dreaming it, despite the efforts of some to turn it into the American nightmare. It’s a country I love deeply, with an ideal of a classless meritocratic society based on secular ideals of equality, liberty and justice for ALL.

The words of the Reverend Martin Luther King are still absolutely relevant today, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”” Dr King died in the pursuit of that dream, but he was not, and is not alone, and there are some dreams worth dying for.

America can’t be taken back, only held back.

Extremism in Religion – How many hoops are there?

September 17th, 2014

This post was written in response to this post by my dear friend Rob DuBois, but extremism in religion and the ‘moderate’ response is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Rob correctly points out that often the religion is a secondary point, or at least not always the main driving force.

However, I think Rob misses the central point in his argument, that actually, NOBODY and NO single group represents an entire religion.

It is just as true to say that moderate muslims do not represent Islam as it is to say that jihadists do not. It’s also true to say that Southern Baptists are as generally unrepresentative of Christianity as are Episcopalians, Lutherans or indeed, The WBC. It’s true to say that Tibetan buddhists are no more buddhist than Japanese Zen buddhists.

The trap one falls into if debating whether a group or individual practice is ‘true’ to the religion is the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Once you start to say that someone does not represent the ‘true’ religion, then you simply retreat further into factionalism, and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ believer. If you always find a way to excuse the uncomfortable parts of the religion that you personally (or your group) do not like on the basis that those who do believe those parts are ‘not true believers’, eventually, you must admit that neither you, nor they are the true believer. By claiming that only moderate versions of a religion are correct, one attempts to dismiss the very real problems that exist within religious belief systems, and inadvertently justify extremism in the process.

You (personally or collectively) can’t pretend that the bits of your religion practiced by others who hold up the same book and teacher as guide, are not the ‘real’ religion. If your book says it (no matter whether you want to argue it’s metaphor where it suits you), someone somewhere is going to believe it, and justify the belief on that same sheaf of papers as you justify yours. Therefore, the truth in the argument holds both ways – the extremist will argue that you, as a moderate don’t hold the true belief, and vice-versa. You’re both wrong.

Ultimately, it’s only you who believes the way you do (if you do), and you are no more representative than anyone else. In other words, there are as many religions and forms of a given religion as there are believers. Each person practices slightly differently (and has their own definition of ‘sin’), and everyone has a different interpretation of some part of his religion. This is convenient for religions which allow for ‘personal revelation’ as part of the experience (evangelical Christianity, some forms of buddhism, paganism etc), less so for the more rigid forms (Catholicism, Islam, Orthodox Judaism), but in all cases, the variation exists. This is why there is no monolithic, undivided type of any religion.*

Every major (and minor) religion has sects, factions and denominations. This happens because people disagree (politely or otherwise) about the nature of both God and the practice of his worship. One thinks God prefers slaves to honor their masters, the other thinks that whole slavery bit is not ‘true’ Christianity. Every faction is different – they argue over prophets, over forms of worship, over dress, over sexuality and sexual practice, over the role of women, over property and ownership, over governance, over childbearing and rearing, over marriage rites, over finances, over politics, over whether horses can fly, over which way the place of worship faces, over food consumption rules, over the nature of the afterlife, and over whether God made the whole world in 7 days or rather puked it out of a cosmic snake.

Almost anything you can imagine that people would fight about has been fought about, endlessly and pointlessly in the name of the religion formed on the back of the fight, often with much bloodshed in the process. And it doesn’t matter if you claim that it’s not ‘true to the religion’, if religion is used to justify the action, then the religion is a motivating factor, and absolutely it is part of the problem. Dismissing someone’s belief as wrong does not solve the problem of having that belief in the first place.

Religious belief thereby falls along a spectrum of personal comfort.
If you’re comfortable with being a murdering asshole, or picketing the funerals of suicided veterans with anti-gay slogans, then you’ll find that your religion justifies it just fine.
If you’re more into bake sales, macrame circles and feeding the homeless, then ‘God Bless Ya’ you’re a true believer too. There are African American preachers who preach against homosexuality because “the Bible tells me so” but I’m pretty sure they gloss over the parts where the same Bible also justifies slavery.

Religion has very little to do with God, and the only difference between the ‘major’ religions and sects or cults is the number of people who loosely subscribe (with individual differences in practice) to them, or have been forced to live under their rule. Religions are first and foremost political systems, but they have been personalized by every believer.
Therefore, religions have everything to do with justifying and controlling the lifestyles of a given ‘in group’ – no matter whether who considers those groups moderate or extreme. To the group, they are the true representation of their chosen belief. If it’s the same book, it’s the same religion, but infinitely varied among the population of believers, and it’s all about power over the ‘tribe’.

Consider this situation. What would you call someone who takes a child a few days old, and with a sharp knife (and no anesthetic) cuts away a piece of the child’s genitals? Then, while the child is bleeding the person places the child’s penis in his mouth, sucks it and spits away the blood (occasionally infecting the child with a fatal dose of herpes). In any rational sphere of thought, we would call that person a child abuser – possibly a pedophile and lock him away for life. In orthodox Judaism, they call that a Mohel, and their religion justifies it and the rite continues without any prosecution of its practitioners. You can’t argue that ‘well, that’s not true Judaism’, because the reality is – it is. The more complex a religion is, the more hoops believers will jump through to score ‘God points’. Religions are usually as complex as hell, because complexity obscures reality, therefore your belief is just a matter of how many hoops you believe there are.

As an afterthought, and before the onslaught of accusations of me being an angry, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic atheist start flying, let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t care so much what you believe, I care about what you do, and I don’t believe your religion forces you to do anything that you wouldn’t do otherwise as a decent human being, nor do I dismiss all believers as ‘as bad as each other’ because of the actions of a few. The problem is always that you probably don’t agree with me entirely on what being ‘a decent human being’ means, and I doubt I can agree with your definition of God either.

That said, there are those who argue that a world without any religion would be a perfect one, where entirely rational people go about their business without dissent, argument or violence. Poppycock. After all, it’s not where we agree that matters, its where we disagree that counts (and costs).

Having spent a lot of time interacting with both people of faith and unbelievers of all stripes, I have come to realize that conflict and tribalism is simply a part of the human experience. There are ‘moderate’ atheists and there are extremists – although hopefully nobody is having their heads hacked off over it. There are ‘in groups’ and ‘out-groups’ (Atheism+ anyone?). There are liberals, leftists, centrists, libertarians, conservatives, librarians, scientists, artists, pissants, assholes, trolls, idiots, and a whole spectrum variety of wonderful, thoughtful and friendly people.
JUST AS THERE ARE IN ANY SPHERE OF LIFE, INCLUDING BELIEVERS. (And, just because of that it doesn’t mean that atheists are wrong, nor that believers are right.)

From the moment we are born, we start to pull against the constraints that are around us. We say “no” followed by tantrums very early in life – and these are not arguments about whether God wants you to wear green on a Tuesday, but whether you can have candy sprinkles on your breakfast or not. Mom says no, your heart says yes. Then when you grow up and mom can’t stop you, you bloody well have candy sprinkles on your breakfast.

C’est la vie. You can either like it, or you can go form your own damn group with whatever beliefs you like, but you can’t claim a monopoly on the truth, because someone, somewhere will point out that you’re not the true believer.

(* Except perhaps the religion I just formed right now with myself, but I already disagree with parts of it so I’m going to form a breakaway group tomorrow…that founder guy is just an idiot.)

Applause for PaleoBarefoots Paws

April 12th, 2014

Last year I wrote a review of, and made some videos about the PaleoBarefoot chain mesh shoes from GoSt Barefoots. At the time I noted that they’re great for running off road, particularly on ice, sand and other natural surfaces. I really couldn’t imagine a more suitable shoe for those surfaces, but they were limited by the fact that they really couldn’t be used well on hard surfaces such as tile, wood, or shiny slippery surfaces. This meant that if you wanted to use them for watersport, they were great unless you were on a boat or dive platform etc. Well, they found a solution, and it’s really quite amazing.

When you see dogs and cats run around, even jumping up onto slippery surfaces, they maintain grip really well, due to the structure of their paws. This idea has now been taken and applied to the PaleoBarefoots. By applying small areas of a smooth, flexible, but very durable resin to the sole of the Paleos, you achieve the same sort of feel and properties as the original Paleos but with the added benefit of amazing grip on slippery surfaces.

PaleoBarefoots with Paws

PaleoBarefoot Anterra with Paws

One of the other benefits is that because the  PaleoBarefoot Paws only cover small areas the full flexibility of the originals is maintained, but the shoe overall is lent some structure by their distribution and shaping.

Since I already know that the Paleos are great for all sorts of running and general ‘off-road’ use, I decided to try them out with a sport where I’d previously found them not to be ideally suited, because of the slippery surfaces involved – Kayaking.

I’m privileged to occasionally volunteer with a wonderful San Diego Organization called “Outdoor Outreach“, who help at-risk and underprivileged youth by taking them out to teach them things like surfing, kayaking and rock climbing. Since getting hold of the Paws coincided with going out Kayaking on an Outdoor Outreach expedition, I decided that this would be the perfect test opportunity.

As with the regular Paleos (and if you have those you can send them in for adding the Paws should you want to) they performed perfectly and very protectively on the beach area as we were unloading the kayaks, and in helping launch the kayaks off the beach. This is an activity where conventional footwear becomes completely sodden and clogged with sand – as everyone else who was wearing regular shoes quickly found out! As soon as I hopped into the kayak (which has a slippery surface on the inside) my feet started to dry out nicely and all the sand just washed through – this is one of my favorite things about the Paleos! The grip was great, and I had no problems with the surface or using my feet to provide stability and grip while paddling.

Kayaking with PaleoBarefotos

Kayaking with dry feet and good grip is much more fun!

We had a great paddle around the beautiful San Diego harbor, where you can see California harbor seals, sea-lions and all sorts of interesting ships and submarines – even occasionally dolphins although we didn’t see any this day. The youth we were with had a lot of fun learning to navigate kayaks and enjoying the view. My feet in the Paleos were very comfortable throughout. No chafing or coldness because they just dry out fast if they get wet, and your feet stay at the ideal temperature.

One other nice thing about the Paleos is the amount of attention and comment they get! This was particularly so when we returned. Imaging getting out of a kayak from the sea (hint, you have to navigate through waves and you will get wet!) then jumping out of it onto wet sand, and pulling it up the beach. In conventional shoes, you will end up with shoes completely clogged with wet sand – and everyone did! They could see that the Paleos just stayed clean, anything that gets on them just flows through and they start to dry out immediately, which keeps your skin comfortable. They’re also made of metal, which everyone thought was cool! I got a lot of questions about the comfort, but they could feel that they are very smooth and could see I had no problem wearing them for several hours, in and out of the water, and once they compared them with their own wet, sandy sneakers, they could see the benefits!

PaleoBarefoots Paws Grip

PaleoBarefoots Paws provide excellent grip

I’ve also tried these out around the house, for instance on tiles and polished wood floor, and the grip is really good, but these shoes are meant for being outdoors and exploring nature, and they’ve really made so many situations possible where barefoot would be dangerous or almost impossible. The fit and comfort is great, and in my opinion, because of the added structure the Paws provide, they seem to stay in place even better than before.

You can check out more about the GoSt PaleoBarefoots on their website.

Kayaks in San Diego Harbor

Kayaks in San Diego Harbor

 

A review of the great debate: Nye vs Ham

February 5th, 2014

Last night (4th Feb 2014) a controversial debate between Ken Ham (CEO of Answers in Genesis) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy) took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky (amazing that there is such a place…).

The subject of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Before the debate even started, it had kicked up quite a storm of controversy, particularly among the atheist and scientific communities. Dan Arel, writing for the Richard Dawkins Foundation wrote a very thoughtful piece titled “Why Bill Nye shouldn’t debate Ken Ham”. He pointed out that:

Creationism is a worthless and uneducated position to hold in our modern society and Nye is about to treat it as an equal, debatable “controversy”

Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago wrote, via his blog “Why Evolution is true” that

Nye’s appearance will be giving money to organizations who try to subvert the mission Nye has had all his life: science education, particularly of kids. And you know what? I don’t even care if Nye mops the floor with Ham. Though that would be great (especially because the DVD promises to be “uncensored”), it doesn’t justify Nye making money to further Ham’s program of lying about science

Many people were expressing similar concerns, and largely I agreed with them. There seems to me no legitimate reason to have a debate about whether creation is a viable model of origins or not – it simply isn’t. There’s no real controversy, evolution is provable, proven and irrefutable. Creationism is based on a loosely assembled collection of badly translated myths written down by people ignorant of science centuries ago that has had no utility in explaining the reality of the world we live in, nor in making predictions about it. Evolution and Creationism simply are not comparable, and by offering to participate in a ‘debate’ it inevitably legitimizes those who would like to have Creationism on an equal footing with Evolution.

Bill Nye went ahead anyway, and explained his reasons for going ahead were because he is worried about science education and that a generation of children will grow up in the US as scientifically illiterate, leading to all sorts of problems, particularly economic ones. He also felt that people in Kentucky (where the debate would take place) might be influenced by the facts presented, and realise the problems of being presented with a scientifically illogical set of beliefs.

Given that the debate went ahead, what was the result?

Fortunately, Bill Nye made a very good showing at the debate, and although there were some minor problems with what he said, I felt that he acquitted himself well. Ham, of course, simply played out his box of tricks, and ultimately just said that he believed the bible, and that nothing would change his mind.

Bill Nye, being a reasonable person, stated on a couple of occasions “I don’t know” as his answer, and when asked what might change his mind, stated “Evidence”.

This is the crux of the matter. It is why there can be no debate with Creationists. When Bill said “I don’t know” Ken swooped, and his answer was “I do know, because the Bible said…”.  This is just a dirty trick, because clearly Ken does not know, he just believes. But it was a trick he used several times, and it was a winner for his crowd. Oh, how they loved it. The stupid science guy just doesn’t know, but look, the answers are right there in the Bible!

There is no debate, because the result of debate is to decide based on the information presented, which position is reasonable. Bill Nye, from all rational, reasonable points of view “won” the debate, but his opponent(s) are not rational nor reasonable.

Ham and his supporters already knew the outcome of the debate, and it was that Ken Ham and his young earth creationism are “right”. Those supporters of Ham are right now rejoicing and basking in the fact that their new hero has been given the exposure his views “deserve”. It does’t matter that Bill had actual evidence. It doesn’t matter that all the real science was on Bill’s side. It doesn’t even matter that Ken Ham has not a single shred of credibility in the real world (in what Nye consistently referred to as “the outside”), it only matters that Ham’s platform has now been elevated to one of equal footing with Nye’s. The “controversy”, in the minds of his supporters, has been exposed. In their minds, Ken Ham won, because Ken Ham’s supporters are unable to distinguish evidence from belief.

In Nye’s defense, I think it is unlikely that many who did not already believe will have been swayed by Ken’s silly arguments, and it is also perhaps good that many in the audience were exposed to some actual science. This for me, is the only redeeming factor in this debate, that the audience, which inevitably would have been packed out with Ham’s supporters have likely NEVER been exposed to the real science that Nye presented. Perhaps one or two of them will think about what was said. Perhaps also, among those watching, there would also be many theists who were cringing at the ludicrous things Ham was saying, and they may be provoked into sharing with their friends that they don’t subscribe to his nonsense.

Most of the reporting after the fact is using headlines like “Bill Nye Defends Evolution in debate…” This is exactly what many feared. Let me state again: Evolution DOES NOT NEED DEFENDING. This stupid sort of reporting is incredibly disheartening – it is actually Ken Ham who is on the defensive. To say that there is any defense necessary for evolution would be to deny all evidence. It would be like defending the Seattle Seahawks against those who say that the Denver Broncos really won the Super Bowl.

In the end, this will probably do no lasting damage, but at some point, we need to stop pretending that evolution or science needs defense, and the first step is to simply ignore the ignorant. Do you think Bill Nye would have agreed to debate with people who think the pyramids were built by aliens, or that crystals can heal cancer? Of course not, as they are ignored for the cranks they are. Ken Ham and his ilk are no different, they are either truly delusional or they are deliberate liars who are fleecing the gullible. Given that the DVDs of this debate are already being sold (I wonder if they will really be uncensored) on the Answers in Genesis site, I think we can all figure out the answer.

If you haven’t seen the debate, you can watch it here on YouTube: Bill Nye debates Ken Ham – and you can draw your own conclusions.

A Year of Living Generously

January 10th, 2014

I’ve long despised the idea of making New Year’s resolutions, because they are usually overly ambitious and rarely last the month. But, I made one this year (which broke a previous one – “Never to make another New Year’s resolution”). I made this exception because I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of others in the past year. My last blog post about Mental Health provoked a huge amount of feedback and all of it was kind, generous, understanding and helpful. So, I decided to spend a year living generously. With my time, with my money, with my ideas, with my skills and so on. To share. To help. To make people happier. It’s not that I’m not a generous person anyway, I certainly can be, but I mean, this year, to do it actively and consciously.

At the end of last year, I read an article, while flying, about an idea called “Because I said I would.” The idea really struck home, and I made hundreds of the cards and gave them away to colleagues and friends. I like the concreteness of stating the idea, not just somehow having it as a part of a personal philosophy, but as an active statement of how I choose to live. So, combining these two ideas here is my new year’s resolution:

I promise to live generously in 2014

#YearOfLivingGenerously

As a strong believer in the idea of ‘giving back’, I want to promote the idea of a “Year of Living Generously” more widely – I’ve created the hashtag on Twitter https://twitter.com/#YearOfLivingGenerously and I’d love to have others join in. All I ask is that you just use that hastag after doing something generous: it can be anything. You don’t (and this is important) have to say what you’ve done – though you can, just put the tag out there. It’s not a #humblebrag, it’s not about who can be the most generous, it’s not a competition. It’s just to remind ourselves to be generous in our daily lives.

Here are a few things that I’ve done in the past 9 days – I’m not saying it to garner praise, just to demonstrate what I’m meaning

  • Gave a shoeshine guy an extra tip because someone had been rude to him and he laughed it off and started singing
  • Left the change from $20 as a tip on a $3 coffee without the server seeing me do it
  • Sent a book to someone who expressed interest in it
  • Bought drinks for all the staff at my favorite sushi bar
  • Gave a $100 tip (wrapped inside the $10 fare) to a taxi driver who was upset because his meter had broken and he’d missed an hour of revenue getting it fixed – he was generous enough to talk to me about his life and why he drives a cab
  • Lifted bags into the overhead bins for other people on a flight
  • Fed parking meters with quarters when I’ve seen them expired with a car parked there
  • Left a $20 dollar tip at Starbucks because some moronic website has been set up to protest their stance on marriage equality

You can think of others, and really, they don’t have to be money, and they don’t have to be extravagant.

Giving your time, your skills, your ideas, your support, your kindness – all of these are perhaps even better than just giving money. It’s more about an attitude, to be grateful for the opportunity to be generous, not to do things grudgingly or with bitter resentment.

Do what you can to make a difference to the happiness of others, and do it generously.

 

Mental Health: A plea for understanding

December 9th, 2013

Someone, let’s call her Sally, once said to me: “Andrew, it’s your mind that’s the problem; you think too much”.

I’ve never forgotten that. Not just because it seemed like a really stupid thing to say (who wants to live in ignorance?), but because there was an element of truth in it.

Sally was wrong in her meaning and the context, but the truth is, my mind – more specifically, my brain – is a problem.

It’s not that I think too much – sometimes I try not to think at all. Actually, thinking is very much affected by the functioning of my brain. On a good day, my thoughts will be clear, rational, and likely to do me very little harm. On a bad day, my thoughts will be clear, rational and likely to do me a lot of harm. You see, mental illness is not about how much or how little we think. It is about the conclusions that our brain suggests as a result of the thought processes within it.

Sally’s comment was made publicly in the context of a religious meeting. We’d been discussing our Christian lives, and I happened to say that I often struggled with doubt and feelings of self-loathing. I wasn’t able to consistently believe in a God who cared about me, or the rest of the world, yet wouldn’t help me to deal with the mental health issues I struggled with. I shared it with the aim to try to help others who I was sure might have experienced the same. I went on to say that I choose to believe, as I hope that God will one day help my unbelief.

I had been, since my late teens, taking medication to control severe clinical depression, and any time this was brought up in a church context, someone would inevitably offer to pray about it, or would offer some religiously based advice, but always with the implication that the fault was with me. At times, there would be a suggestion that ‘sin’ in my life was the root cause of the depression, and that if only I would ‘get right with God’, then it would all clear up. Please, bear in mind that I was devout since a young age, I was in a leadership position within my church, I spent more time reading and studying the bible than almost anyone I knew, and I spent a lot of my time being involved with the church and serving however I could.

I was not a ‘nominal’ Christian, I was a fully fledged, born again, bible believing, servant of the Lord. More than that, I desperately wanted to believe, not only to believe, but truly experience God for myself. That I could not only made my life more hellish, and I truly believed the problems were with me, and with me alone. That I could not reconcile my belief with my inner thoughts, desires and experience was beyond awful, and yet all these other Christians seemed to be living wonderful lives of peace, joy and harmony.

Eventually I left the church, not wishing to be a hypocrite. I had to first admit that I simply did not believe, and then act on that disbelief. I couldn’t stay in a leadership position and claim those beliefs. That meant I lost, quite literally, all of my friends. I eventually let my family know too. That, to this day, still causes me stress and grief. Some of my relatives live in a very cloistered bubble of evangelical Christianity, and I (and my siblings) are no longer a part of that world. However, this post is not really about that, maybe another time.

This post is about the stigma of mental illness.

And, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness.

I am no longer in the church, and for that I’m grateful. I have since been able to accept many things about myself and have in turn become a more accepting person.

But, I am in a similar environment, ironically.

I am now in a business community, where I am a fairly well respected and known expert and CEO. You might be frowning a bit, what has business to do with the church? (Unless you live in the USA, then you’ll fully understand). In business, particularly in the USA, weakness, vulnerability, and emotion are not seen as strengths. If you meet another business leader at an event, you’re unlikely to hear much negative about him/her or the business. The mantras of business are strength, improvement, growth. Winners only need apply.

But, ask yourself, how likely is it that these very successful people are all having as great a time as they claim?

Dig deeper, you’ll find high rates of stress related illness, alcoholism, obesity and other addictive behaviors. High. Fucking. Rates. Yet, just like those outwardly happy Christians, they’ll all claim to be 100% awesome. The distance between me and the overweight alcoholic in a badly fitting suit is approximately 6 months.

Not being able to show weakness or vulnerability to your colleagues, your employees or your peers in other businesses means that there’s once again an artificial situation in which one must exist. You’ve always got to be a winner. Always be the best. Always be out in front. There are no support structures for CEO’s as such. We’ve got to be the strong decisive ones. All. Fucking. Day. Long.

Except, except for my brain. It just isn’t. Won’t be. Can’t be. IS ONLY BECAUSE I MAKE IT SO. I choose. But, oh, do I struggle to choose. Every. Single. Day. I struggle to choose.

There’s nowhere to turn. You’re the leader, you’re responsible for millions of dollars, and hundreds of employees. Thousands of customers depend on you. Yet, some days, you can’t move, you can’t even manage to eat, it’s just not worth it. You just want to pull the cushions from your sofa and build a pillow fort, and live there forever, with your cat and a tub of ice-cream. And those are the good days.

The bad days…you don’t want to know about the bad days.

And, yet, I choose, because the other choice is, well, nothing. There’s no other choice. You live or you don’t. And, you try to recognize when your brain is screwing you over.

The problem is that it’s your brain. That cold, rational brain that works really well. It’s a convincing little bugger. When it speaks, you listen. That’s what it does, it thinks for you. But, some days, what it thinks is, “You’re worthless. You’re shit. You’re the little piece of detritus that was farted out of the asshole of the universe, and you suck, worse than the suckiest person on earth”. And you believe it. That’s what mental illness does for you.

I do not want your pity, or your condescension, nor do I want your helpful advice on how to be more cheerful. I know my life is great. I really do!

I have so much to be thankful for, I have a great job, a wonderful family, I live in a country that is by and large easy to live in, and I have friends who care deeply for me. Compared to 98% of the world, I’m rich. I travel widely, I eat in fantastic restaurants, I drive nice cars and buy nice clothes. But, today, that means nothing. Nothing will convince me that my great life is worth shit.

On a good day, I will be proud of everything. My ideas will be great, and everyone will love them. The next day, the same idea sucks, even if you tell me it’s great.

It will suck so much I won’t even write it down. I can’t tell you how many times I have destroyed work or abandoned personal projects, because they … just … suck.

Depression is not about being a bit sad sometimes, so that a quick pep-talk and a cup of cocoa can ‘snap you out of it’. It really isn’t.

Depression is an ongoing battle to work out which of the things your brain is desperately trying to convince you of are not going to kill you. I can know rationally that everything is good, I can sit and list those things on a piece of paper. I can sit with a friend and explain how great everything is. My brain will not be convinced. In my mind, there is a raging beast that is able to chew rational thought into small pieces and spit them contemptuously onto the floor, as if to say “There you are, fool, see what your rational thinking is worth”, and I will believe it. I will coldly, and rationally, know, with a force and desperation that is overwhelming, that I am utterly worthless.

I’ll believe it, and sit there and cry into my coffee and be convinced that the great leader I’m supposed to be, who can speak to an audience of hundreds, or stand up and play guitar in front of a crowd is the most hated fucker on the planet, who should just fucking die. And, I’ll hate everything. Nothing will be good enough. Nothing will be right. No-one will be doing a good job. You could offer me the nobel prize for awesomeness and I would think you were an idiot. I’ll just give up. I’ll decide nothing is worth doing. I’ll call people and tell them I quit. I’ll delete files of work. I’ll send weird messages to social networks. I’ll drink myself stupid. All the while, I’ll know I have a great life.

I’m typing this in a hotel room in Singapore. I’ve spent the day hating this place. Resenting the fact that I’m 2 long haul flights away from home, in a country that’s too hot and doesn’t have adequate taxi service.

I’ve spent the day in business meetings meeting people who I’ve needed to convince of my usefulness, and the worth of my company and colleagues. And I did it. I did it fucking well. And then, I came back to my hotel and cried.

I’m typing this fast, because a friend on Twitter (and you should be following @francosoup, because she’s awesome), managed to say the right thing. Because, she just wrote “I hope you’re Ok mate”. And, I wasn’t. I was broken.

I’m not going to edit it. I’m going to post it, because, in the morning, I’d probably just delete it. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll be proud of it. Who the fuck knows?

I just want you to understand that just as you would go to the doctor if you have bronchitis, or a broken arm, and you would not in the least bit feel embarrassed to do so, that if I have to do the same because my brain is broken, then that should be ok.

If I have to admit that I’m not the strong, together person you thought I was, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of doing my job. In fact, I’m good at my job because, you know what? I think too much. I think until it’s all thought out. Then I plan for failure, and think some more. And I make sure things can happen, because if you don’t plan for those days when you simply can’t move, you’ll screw everything up.

So yeah, Sally, my mind is my problem, but it’s also my strength. Because, if I can convince myself that today is worth it, then I can do anything today. Anything.

If you know someone with mental health issues, please understand how strong they are to just be out of bed, and just try to be understanding. Just. Be. There.

Ask, “Are you ok mate?”. And don’t judge the answer.

R.I.P. Lou Reed

October 27th, 2013

As a teenager I spent a lot of time exploring new music, and one of the happiest discoveries was some old Velvet Underground records in the collection of my friend’s father. I made copies to tape (I know! Terrible pirate that I was) and I listened to them over and over. I still have an enduring love of those records and of the other later works of John Cale. Though I’ve not followed Lou Reed’s career as closely in recent years, I still have fond memories of hearing him on those VU records. Listening to him sing Venus in Furs still sends shivers down my spine. You really could hear the ‘different colors made of tears’.

Here’s Lou and his band performing an amazing version of that song a few years ago.

12 tones to say awesome

July 8th, 2013

For years I’ve been fascinated by the 12 tone and atonal music of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky (among others) yet often struggled to explain to others what I see in it! The structures are so different and, to most ears, difficult. I admit that they’re difficult to me, but that was part of what fascinated me at first. Where music formerly had been so rigid, here was music that to some extent defied that term. Later in life, that love of the difficult led to a deep appreciation for the more avant garde Jazz compositions of Charles Mingus and Charlie Bird. I also found a lot to enjoy in some of the more extreme forms of progressive rock and metal (The Mars Volta, Opeth, Yes, Gentle Giant and so on).

It’s always a pleasure to find others who share my interest, but I rarely expect others to like the sort of music that I listen too – indeed, I often have to be in a particular mood to listen to it myself! Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, it’s so hard to define why I like it, that I’d largely given up trying to explain it to people – often it’s just frustrating to be told it sounds awful! (And, yes, sometimes it does, but that’s kind of the point – why should sound be a nice cliche?) Today, a friend shared a video with me which is just awesome in its explanation of how twelve-tone music is important and how it can be understood more clearly in the context of music we are already familiar with. It’s long, but if you can stick with it, it’s worth it. She links in scientific concepts, math and randomness with funny reflections on meaning and copyright, and the effect is just wonderful! It’s also beautifully animated and pretty funny – who can fail to love a laser-bat?

The pattern singing at the end is just magical – well, at least to me, but then, I already like this stuff…so your mileage may vary!