Smart Rules: Fear

Don’t trust anyone who is attempting to increase your fear.  

Fear is well-known among those who want something as an effective way to get it.  Salespeople are taught (or learn on their own) that the fastest way to close a deal is to convince the buyer that, unless a decision is made right now, the buyer is going to miss out.  (Salespeople tend to dislike it when you call them on this: try it with a salesperson at a gym sometime.  I brought this up to a salesman at Gold’s Gym and he got super huffy with me.)

The reality is that they want your money more than you want whatever item they have in front of you.  The salesperson will want your business just as badly tomorrow as they want it today.  You are in the position of power unless you allow them to make you afraid, in which case the power dynamic shifts over to their advantage.  There is always another car, another house, another way from point a to point b.  

Don’t give away your power.  Fear shuts down your capacity for thinking critically and without prejudice, and that makes you vulnerable to bad decisions.

There are no exceptions to this rule.  

Shut out anything that seeks to increase your fear: news programs that are breathless with manufactured danger, advertisements that raise your anxiety about whether you are rich/smart/sexy/pretty/skinny/young enough, politicians pointing their fingers at an “other” who is out to get you.  

If you hear a claim that scares you, first ask what the claimant has to gain from your fear.  Then do your own research.  Read both sides of the argument.  Look for hidden motives.  Follow the money.  Figure out who gains from your fear.  Find the evidence.  Perform the whackadoodle test: ask what the chances are that the person selling the fear is wrong.  A whackadoodle will tell you that there is no chance that they could be wrong about whatever they claim.  A reasonable, considered person will allow that there is something that they don’t know that would change their conclusion.  Go with the reasonable person’s assessment of the evidence over the whackadoodle.  

Now you can decide if fear is a reasonable response and what constructive thing that you can do with that fear.  The constructive thing probably doesn’t require that you spend boatloads of money.  It may not be as satisfying because real solutions are usually boring and incremental and require sustained attention and hard work.  

Bonus thought: get rid of your TV.  Its primary function is to mainline anxiety into your brain.  Think of how many advertisements want to make you afraid…  if you don’t have a viagra-enhanced package, she’ll leave you.  If you don’t take this anti-psychotic drug on top of your regular anti-depressant, you’re going to be miserable forever.  If you don’t call your Congressman to make sure we don’t bail out Puerto Rico, you’re going to get a huge bill in the mail for your medical costs… it’s a domino effect (that doesn’t follow logically from one thing to the next).  There isn’t that much news on a given day to justify 24 hours of CNN, and there is even less news that you can actually do something about, so worry about the stuff you can do something about, and CNN won’t be able to tell you about those things within your sphere of control.  

Smart Rules: Fear

Turn Around (Brighteyes)

Because I can’t help myself when it comes to referencing unrelated pop lyrics.  

There must be people who read more self-help books than me.  Consumers of TED talks that get to the bottom of way more presentations by earnest smart people offering the answer to everything.  But I’ve read my fair share…

It is entirely possible that I was ruined by writing poetry.  While I’d hate to be held to the poetic standard without exception, I certainly feel free to apply it liberally everywhere else: the best use of words is to say exactly what you mean with as much economy as you are capable of.  A book on Essentialism that stretches to 200+ pages is a contradiction that risks the entire premise of the book.  

Most books have this problem.  We authors tend to fall in love with the sound of our own voice in the same way that children in the midst of a tantrum keep crying: they get used to the rhythm of it and the body just perpetuates the posture.  I’m sure I am as guilty as anyone.  On the other hand, I get fussed at for writing too sparsely, so maybe it is only the blog where I wax eloquently to excess.  

Anyway, pushing aside my digressions, what I’m trying to say is this: much of the self-help advice I’ve come across comes down to a simple chunk of advice.  Turn around and face whatever it is you are trying to get away from.  

There are many ways to get to this:  

  • Mindfulness, which advises to approach with curiosity whatever you’re trying to squash in yourself.
  • The metaphor of a car in an unwanted spin – turn into the spin to regain control.  
  • Ariel and Shya Kane – what you resist, persists.  
  • Dawna Markova (I will be singing the praises of Dawna forever, but even she could have condensed), who advises readers to sit with their demons and seek understanding.  
  • Deri Llewellyn-Davis says fuck the fear and sends you off to do the thing that scares you the most.  

I’d never tell anyone to forgo reading.  Buy a book.  Buy loads of books.  Buy my book, while you’re at it.  All I’m saying is that you’re going to come back to the same simple concept time and time again.  To find that freedom most of us are seeking, turn around and face what constrains you with curiosity and compassion.  Stop running, and your fears will stop chasing you.  Give up, but in the nicest possible way.  Surrender.  

There.  Hundreds of dollars in self help books in two paragraphs, one bulleted list, and some tangential rambling about poetry.  

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.  –Jean de La Fontaine

Turn Around (Brighteyes)

The End of the World

My dad used to say that every generation thinks it is living at the end of the world.  The Romans complained that civilization was going to be destroyed by gossip.*  Growing up, we were afraid that the apocalypse was going to be ushered in by a new world order run by the UN.  There is nuclear holocaust, World War III, North Korea, climate change, flood, asteroid, plague, water shortage, or some combination of the above.  Never mind the breakdown of civil discourse, celebrity worship, willful ignorance, the breakdown of social fabric, the robot takeover, government overreach, unwashed hordes of immigrants come to undermine all the good work of the enlightenment…  Pick your poison.  

I live there too.  After the latest round of catastrophic news, whatever the catastrophe of the day is, I find myself thinking about having children.  About thrusting an unsuspecting soul into this madness, and I wonder why you’d do that.  Why would you bring something into the world in order to suffer the end of potable water, a world without polar bears or mercy or antibiotics that work…  

But the last bit of sunshine we saw here in DC included an evening walk in a quaint part of the city.  Ice cream and sunshine and good company and pizza for dinner.  After the ice cream.  There are stories and connections and affection and jokes and joy.  

Everything costs something.  Nothing comes for free.  So maybe it isn’t selfish to bring an innocent soul into this mess after all.  There is still beauty in the mess.  Curiosity.  Discovery.  Humor.  Meaning.  Connection.  Purpose.  If I’d never been conceived, I can’t imagine that absence of self even being an absence.  It wouldn’t have mattered, there wouldn’t have been any disappointment in an unplanned pregnancy that never occurred in the first place.  There would have been no perspective to feel the loss of rainbows and cuddle-monster nephews.  I’m not sad that I live in an age of anxiety.  Maybe humanity has always lived in an age of anxiety.  Maybe that’s just the price.  For access to simple pleasures and a little joy here and there, maybe it’s not that bad of a deal.  

*I read it somewhere, but google can’t find it.  I didn’t make it up, but perhaps someone did.

The End of the World


The pearl-clutchers have been using this word somewhat frequently in recent months.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention in the past six months or so…  but the hysteria over the “performance of femininity” has been particularly noticeable.  At least to me.

The makeup tax.  Transgendered women.  Passing.  How terrible it is that other people judge women on how feminine they are.

It is terrible.  We should all mind or own business and not worry about stuff that doesn’t have shit to do with how we pay our bills or sleep at night.

But like having 100 outrages should mean you have no outrage at all: the fact that every human being is judged on their performance of humanity… it isn’t any more or less terrible than people getting judged on their performance of cultural norms.  It is stupid to compare miseries, but it is also stupid to suggest women are the only ones with this performance tax, whether it is psychic or fiscal.  Being a minority is a delicate dance requiring near constant awareness of where one is in relationship to the dominant culture.  If you’re too much of one thing, you’re dismissed.  If you’re too much of the other, you’ve sold out.

We are all on stage in the world performing normal.  Performing gender.  Performing culture.  Performing sexuality.  And we are all judged on it.  So is it worse to be a woman performing femininity than a man performing masculinity?  Or a black man trying to navigate a culture that has historically both exaggerated the ferocity of his manhood and punished him for the exaggeration?  I don’t think women have it worse.  Comparing miseries is pointless, but so are the histrionics about the fact that we live in a society and societies have always operated along tribal lines.  Anyone who deviates too far from the mean gets expelled.  That’s how we’ve operated for millennia.

I’m not claiming this is good, only that it is.

You are a performer.  No matter what your gender, orientation, skin color, cultural history, you are a performer.  You have a closet full of costumes that say to the world “this is who I am,” just as an actor is given a costume to signal to the world who their character is.  We are social creatures.  We are a storytelling species.  The first story we tell to those we meet is in how we present ourselves to the world.  We are doing what we’ve done for millennia.  Should mascara hold a woman back professionally?  No.  But it is foolish to think that performance expectations are going to go away.  They aren’t.  They are just going to evolve.  As they have been doing for millennia.

Just… if the issue doesn’t get between you and paying your bills when it comes to judging other people, can we just all agree to leave well enough alone?



All About the Benjamins

The book is thicker than a Bible that has the original Greek, the translation, and commentary all packed into one.  It’s called the Great Deformation and I’m not going to read it.  It was in the library at work and it seemed like the kind of reading you might want to do if you are writing about the end of the world.  Except that it isn’t.  Surely no point takes 712 ages to make.

Besides.  I’m about full up of outrage.

From what I did read, the book is complaining about the divorce from the gold standard, corporate bailouts via TARP, printing money, the Fed…Basically, what we have isn’t pure capitalism (duh) and this is outrageous.  Nothing is real and it is the end of the world.

Which has the ring of truth to it, but fails to take the argument to its full and logical conclusion: money is a social construct.  Value is a social construct.  If we had all agreed that a tree was an acceptable denomination and a real standard of what a man was worth, Donald Trump would be telling us he owned more trees than any other mofo on the planet.

We’re in a play that isn’t a play, fighting on stage with no audience, using weapons that draw blood from people who don’t get back up when assaulted, fighting over bright pink monopoly cash.  It only means what we say it means.  We’ve all agreed that these things are real: stocks, bonds, mutual funds, Benjamins…  but they are only real because we say they are real.

Not that I know what to replace it with.  We all know I love my house and I’d have something to say to anyone who tried to take it from me.  But I got that house because my mom traded time at work for symbols of value, which she traded for different symbols of value, which turned into more symbols of value in the stock market.  And then she died and those symbols came to me through no merit of my own.  Without ever touching anything, I signed a couple of papers and those arbitrary symbols turned into a house, which I, in turn, trade my time for new symbols which get turned over to the bank for the privilege of the various and assorted things that go wrong when you own a house from 1955.

I love my house.  I really do.  I’m sorry for talking bad about it.  It ought to be proud that it’s still standing 70 years later.

Anyway, it’s absurd.  As is only getting worked up about one aspect of a ridiculous system without getting worked up about the whole.  As is getting worked up at all.

So what do you do?  One of the maddening things about media is that they pile on all of this anxiety–both sides are guilty of this–without providing anything to do about it, which tends to foment impotent rage.  Impotent rage eventually finds an outlet and that’s never good (see Fox News, white supremacists, comment sections, etc).  There’s no need for it…  Take the liberty of laughing.  The emperor has no clothes, but he’s the emperor…  Dethroning one emperor only brings on another.  The far-sighted ones go for benevolence.  I mean, no one is going to overthrow Queen Elizabeth for being malevolent.  Maybe for being too expensive, but not for being a murderous tyrant.  The Royals might lose their jobs at some point, but not their heads.

There are times when revolt is required.  A successful coup against Hitler would have been nice.  But here in the US?  Meh.  (I’d be less meh were we to have a President Trump… viva la revolucion?)

The system is bogus, but it is only vaguely relevant.  What matters?  Love.  Family, lovers, friends.  Making someone smile.  Touch.  Community.  Kindness.  A bogus system doesn’t keep you from showing up.  From trying.  It doesn’t stop you refusing anything predicated on the suffering of another.  It doesn’t keep you from making your corner of the world better/kinder/more welcoming.  Money is only a stand in for time, and you don’t need a Benjamin to add value to the world with your time.

All About the Benjamins

The Matrix

Katherine Otto is a relatively new addition to the blog.  We have had a comments discussion over on about entrope, and it has turned into something deserving its own post.

Trust in the institutions of American life are in the crapper.  My faith in the “system” is at an all time low.  You can go to Ms. Otto’s blog for her take on, for example, the tangled beast that is housing finance.  She and I seem to share an inability to distill it all out to a single subject per post.  Instead, I tend to bounce between interrelated points of wtf that seem related to me but perhaps not to anyone else.  There is a reason I’ve enjoyed going back and forth with her.

Anyway, let’s start with Congress being a cesspool of special interest money.  Wall street characters belong in Dante’s Inferno.  People claiming Christianity sell snake oil to old ladies in order to buy their second Benz.  The weather is going nuts.

I’m scared/horrified/angry too.  And when I try to think through all of the forces aligned against “normal” people…  people with jobs living paycheck to paycheck, hoping the roof doesn’t go or the lump isn’t cancer because we’re just barely holding it together and hoping for just a little more cushion in the bank account…  Hell, the beginning of a cushion would be nice.  And while we’re not even close to the 1%, we aren’t at the bottom of that continuum either.  It only gets scarier as the resources erode.

So what do you do? And what kind of life is there when you are consumed by the sense of helplessness?  I feel that helpless rage too, but that also feels like one more incursion, one more shackle in a system that is stacked against “us.”  A market that is stacked against “us.”  Laws that are written for anyone but “we the people.”  Aren’t we easier to manage when we are afraid and helpless/hopeless?  Who benefits most from the system?  Who benefits the most from a population that survives on a daily diet of anxiety?  Not you and me, that’s for sure.

News is paid for by advertisements.  Advertisements are purchased by companies seeking to sell you shit.  You buy the shit, advertisers pay the news.  Whatever tenor of news sells the most shit is the tenor of news you are going to see.  And guess what?  Scary news sells the most shit.  No one is going to go buy a new distracting gadget to feel better after a National Geographic special on unlikely animal friends.  You buy that distracting item because everything is horrible and you might as well distract yourself while you still can.  Honestly, I think the most revolutionary thing you can do is to refuse the fear that is being used against us.

Again: what do you do?  I think, I hope, you focus on the stuff that isn’t a commodity and can’t be exploited by those systems we most mistrust.  Joy in simple things.  Connecting to other people.  Volunteer with the elderly, or the homeless, or tutoring underprivileged kids.  Find a pet.  Take up a hobby.  Knit baby hats for the ICU.  Garden.  Watch the sunset.  Look for reasons to be grateful.  Do those things that don’t require someone else’s permission to make your little corner of the world a better place.

And refuse.  Refuse the fear and anxiety.  Refuse the value system that puts money above everything else.  Love with baked goods or time spent instead of plastic crap.  Hang out with your family without agenda.  Play board games.  Dance.  Sing in the shower.  And when you see an opportunity to function outside the system, take it.

I’m not saying let’s be all Pollyanna about this.  I’m saying don’t let them have your joy.

The Matrix