When in anger, quit

The culture wars will likely doom us all, but they can also be good fun.  There is one important rule to partaking in the culture wars though: if you find yourself being angry, get the hell out!

If someone is angry, they are irrational.  This is the basis behind the “Cooler heads prevail” motto.  When you’re angry, you can’t reason about things as well.  And if you can’t reason about things well, you shouldn’t be asking others to live according to your reasoning.

Take a break.  Get your life together.  Do something challenging.  Have some fun.  And after some time has passed, if you’re feeling up to it, get yourself back in.

Do I expect all the folks burning and seething with righteous anger to follow this?  No, of course not.  They’ll respond that they “know” what’s right, that their passion is a substitute for rationality.

But if you know better, you can follow this personally.  Once you’re calm, you’ll remember how irrational you were being when you were seething with rage.  Then you’ll learn to dismiss the clatter of braying asses because you know they’re in that very state you left behind.  This doesn’t mean disengaging with everyone who holds an opposing view, it means engaging only with the calm minds of those who hold an opposing view.  (If you can’t find any, it may say something about the view, but it may also just say something about you.)

I’ve thought a lot about when to apply the principle of charity and when not to.  I thought it was the greatest rule ever when I first heard it, and I assumed everyone who wasn’t following it simply hadn’t heard of it.  Being a little wiser now, I understand that not only was that not true, applying the principle in the wrong places can be an unproductive waste of time.  The question arises: how do you decide whether someone is worth engaging with?

The simple answer is to only engage with those who seem reasonable to you.  The problem is that this heuristic doesn’t universalize.  If you ask a libertarian who seems reasonable to them, you’ll get a very different answer from what a socialist would give.

A universalizable heuristic would be “Only engage with people who are calm and open to dialogue”.  Now you have an objective measure.  Now you have a valid reason to shut out certain people from discourse, not because they don’t have any good ideas, but because they’re not providing a valid way for you to interface with those ideas.

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Immeasurable Life Goals

One night a few weeks ago, I came home from work and had a few things I wanted to do.  I’d promised my parents I would call them, I had to make dinner, I wanted to email my building management about a potential mold situation, there were clothes in the dryer that needed to be taken out, I needed to put in a food order for the upcoming week, the garbage needed to be taken out, the mail needed to be sorted out, there was a dispute in my life I wanted to call and check with the local police about, and I was low on certain groceries.

Nothing in this list had to get done that night.  My parents would understand if I told them I couldn’t talk, so I could totally have ordered in, and just sat in front of my couch and watched TV.  I could have spent the night pretending none of those chores existed.

Of course, I have a long history of procrastination and I knew where that road lead.  So instead, I would try and get a lot of these done that night, and when I felt low on energy or the night was coming to a close, I would decide the rest was better off done later.  I knew what the rational response to this situation was and wanted to execute on it.

The way my body responded, you would think I had decided to fight a bear.  A type of panic set in, my stress levels rose, and I became anxious about finishing this list I totally knew I didn’t actually have to finish.

None of this was helpful.  But it did make me consider something.

In life, we have external measures of success: how much money do we make, how many friends do we have, how attractive are our partners?  The fact that these are externally measurable makes everyone strive at least a little for these – and for some, that’s all they strive for.  Most reasonable people realize that internal measures of success are often more important: how much do we like our jobs, how strong are our friendships and relationships, how satisfied are we with life?

But there’s even subtler internal measures that are easy to overlook.  What I realized about that night was that I was striving towards the external measure of getting my chores done and keeping my life in order.  This is undoubtedly a good goal.  But what I wasn’t taking into account was the internal measure of doing it without going into fight-or-flight mode.  And this was an important and worthy goal in and of itself.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a new year’s resolution that was about an internally measurable aspect like “Get as much done as I did last year but with less stress”.  Or “Find more ways to increase the enjoyment of time I spend by myself”.  I’d guess that is partly because it’s hard to measure these achievements, and partly because these aren’t achievements we can ever show off or be proud of.  But they’re arguably some of the most important goals we will ever achieve.

Self-Checks

A lot of software, like the operating system on your computer, has a concept of self-checks.  You can ask it to run a predefined set of verifications and report on them.  And if there’s any flaws, it can often even fix itself.  In other words, the software is perfectly capable of fixing itself – it just never bothered to do these basic evaluations among everything else it had to do.

Humans can do this too.  I often find that if my mind goes to a dark place, there are, fundamentally, just a few possibilities in terms of what happened.  Oftentimes it’s because I’m not able to live up to being the person I want to be and need to adjust my expectations of myself accordingly.  Sometimes it’s because I’m very close to being the person I want to be and need a new goal.  Sometimes I’m just having an upset stomach and this sours my mood – lacking sleep and/or being unable to think clearly can cause a similar effect.

I also often find that writing and breaking down and analyzing my thoughts is massively helpful in making me feel better.  And that sometimes I just need a change of pace and do something different.

But I don’t always think to do these things.  So I came up with what’s essentially a self-check algorithm for myself:

  • Is your real self too far from your ideal self?
  • Is your real self too close to your ideal self?
  • Do you not have a plan for how you will improve?
  • Have you been living in a way that you are confident you can do what it takes to improve?
  • Have you written about whatever it is that’s upsetting you?
  • Have you spent too much time alone?
  • Have you been cooped up indoors for too long?
  • Are you having stomach issues?
  • Are you sleep deprived / is there a mind fog?
  • Are you measuring yourself by one of society’s metrics instead of your own?
  • Have you tried thinking positively and arguing against whatever negative position you are holding in your mind currently?
  • Are you throwing yourself a self-pity party?

The idea is that any time I’m upset, I can just refer to this and do a self-analysis to figure out what’s going on with me and then deal with it.  I expect this list will develop and grow over time, as I figure out / remember other reasons for why I could be in a bad mood.  But so far, this seems to a quick way to get myself in a good place again.