THE BIGGEST LEVER

archimedes-300x224At our BioChemistry course, one of the highlights was the delineation of bodily functions. One more of the macro end, certain functions were enumerated. Included in that list were functions such as breathing, hydrating, sleeping, and eating.

These were ordered in terms of how long you could go without them. Breathing was numbered first, of course. But this wasn’t the only way they were classified.

Another way to look at functions is through the lens of leverage. Which functions have more leverage over the others? Which functions change others the most?

In his book, OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the unusual degree of health of the members of a community. Researchers tried to ascertain what was behind their robust health. They started with the usual suspects.

It wasn’t what they ate or didn’t eat. It wasn’t what they drank or didn’t drink. It wasn’t their work or the work they didn’t do.

It all came down to one term in the first sentence. Community. The social function was the lever behind the extraordinary health of this community…and we explain why this is the case.

There aren’t that many ways to breathe, or to meet your necessity for atmosphere, especially oxygen. There are a few more ways to drink, or to deliver water into your system. While there are phases for sleep, and all are necessary, there aren’t many variations to meet that necessity.

And when it comes to eating, in the microscopic way, you need the macronutrients of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You also require a host of micronutrients which are usually present in nutrient rich foods. And while there are many ways to move, each musculoskeletal movement is easily enumerated and measured.

But when we look at the magnitude of social relationships, and the fact that a functional social group can number up to 150 people, and all the numerous 1 on 1 relationships as well as smaller group relationships that can form, it’s no wonder that socialization is such a protective factor…compared to the rest of our functions. In number, social functions dwarf all other functions.

It’s for that reason that our social competence and practice should be just as important if not more important than diet, exercise, and sleep. Being social is not only what keeps us alive, being social is what makes a life. A life shared with others is a life lived best.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

what does it all mean - spiritual and philosophical question in vintage wooden letterpress prinitng blocks isolated on white

I have heard brains referred to as meaning making machines. They are…at least part of them. While there are redundancies across the hemispheres, there are also specializations.

One of the things the right side specializes in is forming a narrative, or making meaning out of an experience. This is what makes life worth living to many of us, the meaning of it all. Some will say that life has no meaning other than what we give it. I disagree.

In EVOLUTION, A NEW TESTAMENT, I argue that what makes life worth living are the forces that shaped us. And if you look at things that make your life worth living, it’s likely to be one, if not all of those forces. We often review these when we go through big life events.

When you’re in the midst of a big life change, it can be hard to make sense of it, much less take meaning from it. And often that change comes along with a commensurate degree of the negative. And it’s easy to become focused on what’s negative.

As an autistic, I’m particularly good at seeing what’s bad and getting looped into it. That loop leads to a spiral. That spiral is often downwards in direction.

To switch directions requires us to switch perspectives. When change comes along, it’s impossible for it to be all bad. While we lose the ability to do what we did before, it leads us to a new question.

“What can I do?” That’s the question that I advocate we ask the most often. But when we have life upending events, it calls for a refinement if that question.

“What can I do now?” Or even better, “What can I do now…that I couldn’t do before?” The answer to this questions offers us a way out.

It offers us a way out of thinking about what we can’t do. And it offers us a way out of feeling the pain of that functional loss. It not only offers us a way out, it offers us a way forward.

Life events change us, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse…but no change leaves us entirely less than before. Life changes aren’t just external changes, they’re internal, as well. That’s why it is imperative to ask, “What can I do now that I couldn’t before?”

That may require to look back at things you couldn’t do before…but wanted to. Or the answer may be things you wanted for your future. Or the answer may be something you haven’t considered yet.

What you can no longer do is no longer your direction, your way out. But what you can do that you couldn’t do before is your new direction. Do the new and you displace the pain of past loss and future lost…with the joy of the future gained.

YOU ARE NOT YOUR ENEMY

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I’m a student of all things psychology oriented. The mind, the brain, and the nervous system, are all favorite topics of mine. I see each misrepresented in laypeople all the time.

The mind isn’t what we think it is. It isn’t running the show. You, the conscious you especially, aren’t really running much of the show.

You, the conscious you, play a part in your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. But your role is more minor than you would want it to be. And for this topic, that’s a good thing.

Your mind is not the enemy. Your brain isn’t the enemy. You are not your enemy.

Knowing and doing are two different things. This is intuitive to us. We can know what the right thing is to do and yet not do it. That’s for a good reason.

The lower, older parts of our brain that are more responsible for our feelings and our habits and have more control over our behavior than the newer parts of our brain. The new parts of our brain are more responsible for our consciousness…including thinking. Thinking (or knowing) and doing are very different in the brain, too.

And when we don’t do what what we wish we would, we can make it worse by thinking worse of ourselves. We can be ashamed ourselves…and shame makes us hide as opposed to making us try to do better. Feeling too bad about doing “bad” makes bad even worse.

When you view yourself, or some part of yourself, as an enemy, you engage in self harming behaviors. I don’t mean anything as obvious as “cutting” or issues of that ilk. Your own thoughts hurt you…literally.

The so-called negative emotions increase catabolic processes in your body. Catabolism is a necessary part of metabolism. When it runs amok, your body starts (over)eating itself.

You may hate the way think or the way you feel or the way you act…but the act of hate makes changing the way you think, feel, or act even harder. The act of hate makes the actor worse.

Hate makes the actor dumb, forgetful even. Forgetful of where the hate started. Forgetful that hate came before the actor.

It’s my belief that we over-identify with our conscious mind. And this leads to the misconception that we are our own worst enemy. “I’m thinking all of these bad thoughts right now, so I’m self sabotaging.”

That thinking would be accurate if all the self sabotaging thoughts originated with you, but that’s not how it works. We aren’t born blank slates. We only need to look at our parents or our children to see the power of genetics, of nature. And in some cases, nurture plays as big a role as nature.

I mention nature and nurture to remind you that almost of all of “you” was inherited and learned. You didn’t spontaneously harm yourself with your own language..you were first harmed with language. You’re not your own worst enemy, and if you think you are, you’ve internalized the enemy…thinking him (or her or them) to be you.

Self harm doesn’t start with the self…but for it to end, the self has to start. The conscious part of you has to wrestle with what you’ve inherited and what you’ve learned. And how you win that match requires a change in focus. It requires you to be aware of two things.

The first is how you feel. When you don’t think, feel, or act as you’d like and would like to change it, how you feel matters. You only need to feel “bad” enough about undesirable thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to want to change. But changing requires better feelings.

Whenever we feel bad, our ability to act is impeded. Think of when you’re physically sick. You can’t function as much, right? And that same goes for when you’re emotionally feeling bad.

Feeling better requires a modicum of self compassion. It requires an understanding that you simply haven’t learned to act, think, or feel as you’d like to. No one taught you yet…and so now it’s up to you to change.

And the change is hastened along if you can learn to be kind, patient, and understanding with yourself and all your shortcomings. This brings us to our second focus: action. No matter how bad you feel, and whatever you can’t do, instead of being your own worst enemy and become your best friend?

Can you help yourself find that one thing that will help you feel better? Can you continue doing so? Can you keep finding those thoughts and actions that you make you feel better until you’re convinced that you’re no longer your own worst enemy?

The Next Generation

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There is a story from the Old Testament of Moses who helps to free his people. He’s with them as they wander through the wilderness. But he won’t get them to where they’re going.

Through his own actions, Moses doesn’t get to the Promised Land. Moses is a great metaphor for us. It’s especially a good metaphor for the older generation.

As we get older, much of what we do we won’t benefit from. It isn’t for us. It’s for what comes and who comes after us.

When we’re younger, in our pre-parental even early parental years, much of our focus is on building our own house, our own nest egg, even our own legacy. But as our kids leave the house, and we’ve recovered form both the relief and the regret of the empty nest, we start to comes to grips with the fact that we have fewer days in front of us than we’ve had behind us. And what comes after us becomes more important…than us.

Perhaps this is why the grandmother effect (sorry, grandfathers) is so important. The grandmother can focus so much more on her grandchildren (and children) more than herself. That additional focus allows the children and grandchildren to do better than they could do without grandma…and they eventually will.

Perhaps another factor at play is neophilia, the love for the new and novel. Since I’ve become a Father, babies interest me like never before. I’m sure the same will happen when I’m a grandfather…and I’d to have a grandfather effect.

A common saying is, “Each generation wants to leave the world a little better than they found (inherited) it.” A common response to that saying is another. “Make each generation better for the world.”

That translates into two simple dictums. Treat your community and environment better than your parents treated it. Raise your children better than you were raised.

But both of these dictums are dependent upon one thing. If this one thing doesn’t improve, parenting doesn’t improve, social and environmental interaction doesn’t improve. Can you guess what it is?

Making positive changes in our environment and in our kids requires one prior step. We have to make positive changes in ourselves. If we had good teachers and good parents, they took us where they arrived faster than their own arrival. But they can’t take us further than they’ve been. That onus is on us.

I try to remind myself of this responsibility with my signature, “fF.” It’s a reminder that what comes after is greater than what came before. This can only be true if I do my part.

I have to treat my environment and my children better than all those who came before treated their environment and children. Even that isn’t enough. One final role myst be played.

As we get our children to where we were, there must be a passing of the baton, a changing of the guard. Those who were lead must now lead. And those who lead must once again follow.

My shrinking and my ultimate absence makes space for those who come after me. I must move from Father to Grandfather, offering only counsel, and looking to those who came after me to lead those who are with them and those who come after them. This is the final lesson I can teach my children so that their descension is easier than my own, making that which came after me…better than that which came before.

EXTREME STRESS

stress-largerI’ve been in extreme stress lately. Not really the acute type. More the cumulative type.

A big part of the stress is that I had lost my coping strategies. When I was feeling distressed before, I would cope. But now, I can no longer use those strategies.

I’m in a new situation. I can’t do my same old things. I have to do something new…or suffer the consequences.

It when we’re at our lowest that two things can happen. We can go all the down to the absolute bottom (death, how dramatic). Or we can change directions.

We can go up. We can bounce back. The further the fall, the harder the crash…or the higher the bounce.

But in order to go back up, we have to go back up a different path. That path may be external, like a new job, or a new relationship. Or, that path may be internal.

We are not called to evolve when things are easy. We’re called to evolve when things are bad, really bad. They’re so bad we can’t solve them as we are…we have to become something different.

This isn’t how evolution works most of the time. The overwhelming majority of the time those who win, or even survive the game are those who are born to do so. It’s Darwinian.

But it’s when things are at their worst when evolution can be Lamarckian. Lamarckian evolution happens under extreme stress. This extreme stress makes us into mutants.

Under this extreme stress, implicated genes start to mutate in as many ways as possible. If one of those ways can solve the stress, the organism rewrites its genetic code in the structure of the solution. I think this is analogous to life lived at our magnification.

Whenever we’re under extreme stress, we’ll try everything we know to do. When that doesn’t work, we’ll try…whatever. We have to solve the problem before the problem becomes a problem we cannot solve.

And if we do solve the problem, we are forever changed by the solution we find. Extreme stress leads us in two directions: extinction or evolution. So if you find yourself at the bottom, know that if you can make it long enough, you can come out the other side evolved, better, and more…than you ever were before.