Thursday, April 13, 2017

The hero I never believed in

I once heard in a communication class that the test of a truly educated mind was to be able to hold two opposing ideas at once without losing the ability to function. Much later, in trying to look up the origin of the quote, I read that it was actually a common misquotation of something different that someone said. But I now forget who that someone was, as well as what that someone really said. Part of that might be because I prefer to believe the misquotation.

I think I once heard in a literature class that internal conflict is what makes characters interesting. I like that one too.

In intro to psychology I can remember learning about "cognitive dissonance," which—if I remember rightly—is really the same as the above two ideas. Only where the rhetors and writers see it as a mark of education and character, respectively; psychologists see it as a form of neurosis. I don't like the psychological perspective as much.

That's because I sometimes think I'm the most internally conflicted and cognitively dissonant person to have existed outside the pages of a Dostoevsky novel. Except when I disagree with that appraisal of the situation.

In all seriousness, though. There have been few times in the past decade that I haven't awakened every other morning and been absolutely horrified at where I was and what I was doing. And yet, the other set of consecutive odd mornings, I wake up and pursue those things with a grim sense of inevitability only attributable to my staunchly Calvinist upbringing.

I've had thoroughly thought-through objections to very much of what I believe since I was 12 or 13—many of which I've never been able to fully reconcile. But while most people I know had no trouble either changing their beliefs—or at least not acting on them—I've never been able to do anything but follow them to their rational ends (often thoroughly objecting the whole way, naturally).

This has sometimes been to the horror of authority figures in my life who—I later realized—only invited foreign missionaries to my youth groups because they thought it would help give me a reasonably global perspective of Christianity; only made me read stacks of books about the evils of casual sex because they wanted me to make reasonably conservative relationship choices and only made me listen to countless hours of conservative talk radio because they thought it would make me reasonably involved in politics. Well, as it turns out, the joke was on them. Despite having strong objections to very much of it, I proceeded to pursue all of it to its linear conclusion with an abandon that surprised all parties involved.   

You see, I have this amazing tendency of becoming the hero I never really believed in—and in some cases even disdained. And usually my opinion of him doesn't change much for the better when I become him.

So, you see, I'm conflicted.

I hope that makes me interesting. I would like if it makes me educated. But it probably just makes me crazy.

Friday, February 24, 2017

In absence

There are a good number of people that I would consider to be friends today, who, if you asked me where I'd met them, I'd say "college," when—in reality—we were only vaguely aware of each others' existence during college. College was certainly where we were connected, but the real friendship developed later through letters, blogs, or as is more often the case these days, Facebook. Essentially, our friendship developed in absence, and when I think back on the period in which we were physically present with each other, it's almost bizarre to recall that we really barely knew each other then.

There is another group, though, that I don't think of as often. It's the group made up of a few friends that I felt like I was quite close with while we were physically present together, but that I then completely lost track of after we parted ways.

This very month in 2009, I dropped out of college, left my home and country for the first time and did a semester of Bible school in Italy. It was also my first time living with a group of people all around my own age, and, honestly, the first time in my life I felt like I really had friends. I'm still friends with, or at least acquainted with many of the 20 or so other students and staff that were there, and there's also one or two that would probably fall into the above category of people that I'm closer with now than I actually was then.

There was another student, though, that I spent more time with than anyone else. We went running together, swam in frigid bodies of water in multiple countries together, and went on numerous absurd and poorly planned weekend trips in which "if we can't find a cheap enough hotel there, we'll just walk around all night" was a perfectly acceptable outcome. We talked about each others' faith, politics and hopes for the future, and to the extent that an extreme introvert like myself who didn't really "do" friends could, I felt like we were friends.

Then the semester ended, and I've neither seen or heard from him since.

While that sounds kind of sad, I really don't think there is anything wrong with it. Some people are just present with the people they are present with and don't have much to say in absence. In fact, I sometimes think of them as relationships of presence, compared with most of the relationships in my life, which are really relationships of absence.

How to tell which will become which, though? That's the real mystery to me. Who am I vaguely acquainted with now that I'm destined to keep in touch with and grow closer to in the future? And, perhaps more hauntingly, who—if anyone—do I feel close to now, but will be gone forever when we part ways?

Maybe it's that element of mystery in relationships that makes them real and alive. But it may unfortunately also be the reason I tend to avoid them so often.

But I digress.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Song

I heard this song for the first time last December, in Amman, Jordan, of all places.

Christmas isn't widely celebrated in Jordan—for obvious reasons—but I was at a small gathering of expat Christians from different NGOs. It was really cold that December, and I think everybody was feeling kind of down somehow. I mean, nobody was there for particularly happy reasons, and I don't think the year to that point had inspired a lot of hope for the situation in general (of course, looking back on this year since then, it would have been misplaced if it had). So, despite the cozy room and somewhat festive atmosphere, I think everyone was struggling a bit with what it actually meant to celebrate a holiday about hope and peace on earth when—like today—those things seemed even farther out of reach than usual.    

I don't remember the name of the guy who led the meeting, but after we'd eaten cookies and talked for awhile, he had us all sit down and listen to this song. It's since become one of my favorites. As the title suggests, it's a Christmas song, but it focuses on some of the parts of the Christmas story—and the whole Gospel for that matter—that I think we tend to gloss over rather than try to deal with intellectually, let alone emotionally. It's not a Christian song. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was written by an Agnostic. Yet somehow when I heard it in that room, I felt like it brought more reconciliation between the reality of the Christmas story and the reality that was all around me than anything else I've heard.

When we turn on the news and hear about children dying pointlessly in Aleppo, we can do a lot of mental and emotional gymnastics to try and reconcile that with the "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men" part of the Christmas story. But maybe if we try to reconcile it with the children dying pointlessly in Bethlehem part of the story, we'd find it doesn't need reconciliation. Of course, we don't like to focus on that part, because it brings up a lot of questions we struggle to answer. But when the rubber meets the road, isn't a story full of the same irreconcilable questions we're confronted with in the reality we live in more valuable than a tidy, triumphant story that we can't reconcile with the reality that we live in?

Last year I felt like it was, and this year I'm inclined to think so too.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A coat of many countries

It's got cold enough recently that I now have all of my winter coats out from storage in the big closet in my bedroom and cached for use in the little closet in the hallway. That is, when they aren't strewn all over the backseat of my car as they tend to be more often. Recently I realized that I acquired each of them in very different parts of the world, and they each have a unique story. I thought about joining Pinterest just to write something about this, but the thought of that fills me with apprehension and angst, so a blog post will have to do.

1. The Italian

 I bought this coat almost eight years ago in Italy. That was back when a Euro was worth like 1.3 dollars and everything seemed super expensive to my teenage self who had become self-conscious about how understated-ly sexy all the Italian teenagers looked, but who possessed limited financial resources. Then came Zara, and a sale on winter items, and the problem was solved. Best decision ever. At least until....

2. The Lebanese

Okay, so it's from H&M, which makes it technically Swedish (no doubt via the Philippines), but I bought it in Lebanon. Cause you know what? It gets really, really cold in Lebanon. More so when you're living on a mountain and the pilot light in the diesel hot-water heater that's sulking in the serial-killer-lair/bomb-shelter three stories beneath your giant concrete refrigerator building keeps going out for no explicable reason and you're much too scared to go down there and mess around with it. You need a really warm coat, and I found this one at the mall. Best decision ever, until....

3. The Egyptian

Fast forward three months from the scary basement in Lebanon, and my three roommates and I were beginning a five week misadventure across Arab north Africa starting with a two week stop in Cairo, Egypt. I didn't bring my Lebanese coat, because I figured it would be warm in Egypt because, you know, it's Africa and shit. As it turns out, Cairo in February is pretty darn cold. And when the city gets descended upon by an apocalyptic dust-storm of Biblical proportions and the sky turns black and sand reigns down from the heavens like ash in a nuclear winter, it gets even colder. I shivered my way passed a warm looking little men's clothing store with a studly—if decidedly faceless—manikin who wore this jacket several times before I went inside and bought it. Best decision ever.

Those are the stories of my winter coats. Or at least of how they came to me. There are many more about things that happened while I was wearing them, but as the Apostle John said, "were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

New developments

It's been colder the past couple days in Geneva. That's where I live now. And the weather is only the most recent of things that's changed in the last few weeks.

Shortly after the last thing I wrote on here, I was offered a job. And while it was a job I'd been waiting for for months in a sort of limbo since even before I got back to the US, the moment I signed on the dotted line, all the things that had piled up on top of each other waiting to happen happened all at once. I moved to a completely new city. I got a new email address and a new real-world address. A new insurance company. A new phone number—three new phone numbers, really. A new view, and a whole new group of associations.

So the fact that there are geese flying south over the lake and I'm finally thankful I brought my sweater back from Beirut with me is only the most recent iteration in the sequence of change that's been happening.

I think this weekend was the first time that the novelty of all the new positive realities of having a pretty nice apartment all to myself in a beautiful old town and a job that at least sounds quite impressive wore off enough to realize the less positive ones: that I am completely alone and have to work almost all the time.

Neither of those are terrible things. I'd take them over a myriad of other things that have happened to me before.

Still, it's all enough to cause me to reflect. And also to wonder what the next year will bring. The few weeks before I finally got the "yes" for this, I was pretty dead-set on moving to Central America or somewhere equally warm and inexpensive, jotting down my occupation on the immigration card as "Retired YouTube Celebrity," and calling it quits on this place for good.

Now, things seem to be going down an entirely different path. Only I'm not sure yet what that will be. I'm in a line of work now that's uniquely volatile, but paradoxically might promise the most stability I've ever had. Then there's the question of whether I really want that stability—which, given, may itself be only an illusion.

Much has been written about the conflict between freedom and security, but lately, I've been coming to realize there can also be a conflict between freedom and independence. That's a subject for another post, though.

At any rate, I just hope I don't end up wishing I'd headed for Latin America with those geese.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Interest, aptitude & demand in what we do with our lives

I came across an article recently that suggested the primary factor in whether or not person lives a happy life is finding an occupation that involves work he or she enjoys doing. It counseled that people should thus put the pursuit of occupations that would allow them to do things they enjoy over occupations that have a bigger financial reward.

Without getting too deep into arguing about the assumption that the goal of life is to be happy or that that happiness is something that should derive from ourselves—I think very good debates could be had over those things—I have to say that reading it brought up some serious questions I've had over the past decade. More than that, it brought up some doubts that I've had about my ability to ever really be happy or successful.

I agree with the idea that enjoying what you do is important. Let's call that "interest." I also have to agree that the value of what you do to your society, as measured in how much that society is willing to pay for it, is also important. I think most people just think of that as "money," or "financial reward," but I prefer to think of it as demand because that's really ultimately what money represents. One other factor that I don't hear people talk about as much though is having aptitude for what you want to do. You may really, really like professional football, and there may be a strong market demand for professional football players, but if your healthy body weight is 135 pounds, then you're not going to live a happy or successful life by pursuing football as a professional occupation.

So in my mind, there are these three things: interest, aptitude and demand. And in my own assessment, I feel that most of the really successful people that I know are people for whom all three of those things lined up.

One winning combination I know is a person who has an interest in computers and an aptitude for symbolic logic, which both lead naturally into a number of career options in programming and development that are in extremely high demand. The person does a good job at something he loves and is heftily rewarded for it by a society that is demanding his skills.

interest : aptitude : demand

Of course, most people don't get all three, and I have a lot of friends who've had to choose between two. I've had an almost weird amount of friends who were very interested in music, for which there's a low demand, but also had an aptitude for math. They've pretty much all gone into finance, for which there's a high demand. While they may not be super excited about their work routine, they can console themselves that they make a lot of money and are needed by a lot of people.

interest : aptitude : demand

Conversely, I have several friends who were interested in and had an aptitude for music or art, and have gone on to be professional musicians and artists. Most of them aren't that successful, but they generally seem to be pretty happy, because at the end of the day, they are doing a great job at something they love, regardless of whether or not society affirms them financially or not.

interest : aptitude : demand

Then I look at myself—usually a terrible idea, but it has to be done now and then—and realize that not once in my life have even two of those factors ever lined up.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about being a scientist and spent hours ever day in the summer just sitting next to ponds watching different animals going about life. I'd build vivariums (which is what biosphere terrariums were called before they were cool) out of Rubbermaid containers on my deck and be really proud of how many different organisms I could get to all coexist together in six cubic feet of space. My favorite VHS tapes were all NOVA and PBS documentaries about different scientific topics.

But then I took algebra 1 (for what was to be the first of approximately six times between high school and the end of my undergrad), and worse yet, chemistry a year later. I maintained some ideas about majoring in biology until my junior year of high school, when my abysmal SAT math score made me realize my chances of making it in any science or technically focused program were about as high as my chances of getting that football scholarship.

At some point after discovering what I didn't have any aptitude for, I slowly started to find some things that I did. Gen.-ed. English professors kept on telling me I should switch to their department. Communication professors said the same thing—and eventually I did. I spent enough time hanging around comm. computer labs that I eventually started dabbling with video editing software, not because I had any great interest in film, but—perhaps ironically—I felt I should eventually learn some kind of marketable skill. So that was that. Going strictly off what others have told me, I seem to be good at writing. I'm also, in the perhaps slightly begrudging words of one filmmaker that I really respect, at least a "pretty good" editor.

Unfortunately—and I know some people are surprised to hear this—I've always been kind of apathetic toward both those things. I didn't grow up dreaming of being a photographer or film director. In fact, I rarely watch movies. Nor do I have any ambition of becoming a "published author" beyond the emotional outlet that this blog sometimes provides.

That might not be a problem if it were just a question of choosing between interest and demand, like my cohort of musician-turned investment banker friends. But that's not where it ends, because the things that I'm not interested in but have an aptitude for are also almost completely unneeded in our present society.

I wasn't hoping to be a writer, but if I was, then I was born in the wrong century. Writers are getting fired, not hired, and I've made more money in an hour as a salad-assembler at a floundering upscale dining establishment than I've ever been or ever will be paid to write anything. As far as film-making goes, there is demand, but the problem is there are also so many people with such a strong interest—passion, really—for it, who are willing to work for literally nothing in the interest of "building their portfolio" that the industry doesn't have an inch or a second to give anyone like me who's like, "I'm good at this, but I'm not that excited about it."

In the end, it seems that I have have no aptitude for the things I had an interest in, and that the things I do have an aptitude for are relatively worthless. [I'm considering using that as a pull-quote that on my LinkdIn, for all the good it's ever done me]

interest : aptitude : demand

So, it's always been very difficult for me to imagine having a job that would be either personally rewarding or economically needed. And it's not that I'm afraid I'd have to choose between the two: I actually don't see how it could be either. And in light of that, it's sometimes hard for me to imagine what building a "happy" or "successful" life would even look like.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'd actually appreciate your thoughts.

I also apologize for using myself as the example for so much of this, but I do really feel like there are these several pretty distinct combinations that I outlined above that most people I know fall into. So if you feel the same way as me, or if you feel like you fall into a different one, or if you feel like the whole model is fundamentally flawed or overlooks something important, then I'd love to hear what you think.