Oh, good! We’re at the “meaning” part of the book

So, I’ve been chugging along with the rest of my life, leaving the posting to this blog on autopilot, while I launch some other ventures. I’m starting to teach college students (and others who may be job seeking) how to connect effectively with recruiters, so they can get the work they want… and avoid the work situations they don’t want to get into.

More on that later. Now, dear reader, we’ve arrived at a section of the book that’s near and dear to my heart. Let’s talk about meaning!

As I said in my last post (and my book):

I think of “meaning” as a sort of master pattern that we piece together from the past to help guide us into the future. It’s a conceptual road map of our world view that puts the full range of our experiences and observations in the context of a larger pattern, explaining the past, putting our current situation in context, and pointing us in directions that are consistent with the ways we think the world works. Meaning helps us make sense out of our world, both literally and figuratively. It orients us in life. It shows us the way. It adds logical predictability to our thinking and creates palpable sensations when we engage with our world. In order to have means, we need an end, and meaning shows us the ends toward which we are (or should be) moving.

So, yeah, yeah, whatever. That’s nice, Kay, but what difference does that make?

Actually, it makes a lot of difference. Think about it. we’re living in strange times. Absurd times. And all the roads seem to lead either to nowhere, straight off a cliff, into anticipated danger, or in some indeterminate direction that could take us either to paradise or the brink of destruction.

A lot of of literally have no map of the road ahead. Who the heck has a map? Tell me, because I want to talk to them.

Meaning is our map. I can’t stress this enough.  Each and every one of us has our own way of finding meaning in life (don’t get me started about how life is supposedly meaningless). And when we lose touch with the internal map we use to guide ourselves through life, well, our lives can seem meaningless. They’re not. But we think they are. And that’s a problem.

A couple of posts ago, I defined “meaning” as

the significance we give to the ebb and flow of our lives in this confusing, overwhelming world. Meaning is hugely important to us, and according to Merriam-Webster, “mean” is one of the top 1% of words looked up at their website. We usually think of it in terms of significance or importance, direction or purpose. What something means is central [to us]. It leads our understanding down a certain path and lets us “design for . . . a specified purpose or future”.

You see, in certain contexts, the word “mean” indicates someone heading in a certain direction. A few examples jump out at me.

  • A means to an end… where something provides a kind of bridge from where we want to go, to reaching our ultimate destination.
  • Living within your means… is about living in harmony with the resources that make it possible for us to achieve our goals.
  • A person of means… indicates someone with the resources to get from where they are to where they plan to go.

So, “means” has a tangible, practical significance to us. It’s what gets us from one point to another in our lives, in a material way. And we use the word and understand its … meaning… as if there were never any question. Because we get it, in those contexts.

However, when we look at philosophical, psychological, or spiritual Meaning, we pretend that it’s something ephemeral… otherworldly. But it’s pretty much the same as material means, conceptually speaking. Just like “means” can be about having the resource to make it possible to get from Point A to Point B (or C, M, X, and Z), “meaning” is literally about our mind having the capacity to see a future course for us, based on existing resources – i.e., the patterns we’ve seen in the past. 

Those patterns are more than just fanciful ideas we cling to for whatever reason. There’s a physical component to them, as well, that makes them every bit as tangible as a fistful of money, or a wallet full of credit cards. Whether we’re aware or not, our prior experiences are biochemically, emotionally, mentally embedded in our human systems. And based on those different signals we picked up along the way, we construct a veritable bridge to our future. Out of the minuscule biochemical building blocks that load up our systems, we pave the path that we detect ahead.

Having a sense of meaning adds purpose and direction to our lives. After all, you can’t have a purpose, if you can’t see an ultimate destination. And there’s no point in going in any direction at all, if you can’t detect which one will work. We make these judgement calls all the time – snap judgments that “just work” for us in the moment, which we assume are right on. Because they feel right. They fit. They confirm our biases or they widen the world ahead of us.

But meaning doesn’t just happen by itself. It’s something we construct. Out of our past experiences. Out of what we think are empirical data points. We observe. We process. We detect. We assign significance. And then we decide what it all means… where it’s taking us.

Now, I know there are some folks who say “life is inherently meaningless”. But I think it’s much more hopeful — and, in fact, more accurate — to say that “life is infinitely meaningful”. Because it is. It is full of patterns, full of choices, full of signals. And they can be combined and recombined in any particular way we like. Of course, they don’t arrange themselves. We have to do that part. But life isn’t stingy at all, when it comes to patterns or indicators or pointers to some distant destination. It’s overflowing with meaning.

We just have to pick the meanings that work for us.

Ginger is *so* over it

Picture of dog looking very concernedI’m feeling a little bit like poor Ginger, here…

In all honesty, this whole COVID-19 experience has been pretty emotionally exhausting, what with all the worry about what if I catch it and die?! (which is a totally valid concern, and one I share with a lot of folks)… and then all the people running around like Woo Hoo! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die (and take everyone around us down with us, I might add).

It’s not every day that people get to stare their mortality in the face, quite like we’ve been forced to do.

And it’s not every day that we have to take responsibility for our impacts on others, quite like we’re currently unable to avoid.

So, yeah, this is a very unique situation we’re in. And like Ginger (above), I’ve realized that I’m just NOT cut out to be an emotional support person to the entire world.

Okay, okay, my immediate family excluded, of course. I’m not going to stop supporting my partner or my other loved ones. But lemme tell you… everybody – and I mean everybody – I’m coming across, these days, seems to need some sort of emotional support in the midst of this storm. I mean, that’s how we’re built, right?

It seems to me, the more separated we are by our social distancing and the moratorium on close personal contact, the more needy everybody’s getting. Have you noticed that? Maybe you’re one of the people who’s increasingly annoyed by this. Maybe you’re one of the people whose neediness is spiking through the roof, the longer you’re not allowed to be around a lot of other people. I don’t blame you, if you are.  It’s how we’re built.

Because here’s the thing — and this is core to the whole concept of my book, Beloved Distance —  the human being is built to connect. Or maybe I should say, the human doing is built to connect. After all, connection is what we do… while separate is what we are. And the more we are kept from connecting, the more our drive to connect is strengthened and enhanced. See, we have about 90,000 miles of neurons in our bodies, sending the signals that make life possible in a nearly infinite variety of ways. From sensory experiences to movement to complex thought to basic reflexes, information travels our “wiring” with mind-boggling speed.

But while all those miles of wires interlace our system, the one thing that actually makes them work – that makes them transmit the information we need to live, breathe, and go about our lives – is the distance embedded within. For our neurons are not directly connected. It sounds strange, but they just aren’t. They are divided by “synapses” – tiny gaps across which neurotransmitters pass, to send the neural messages that keep us  alive. In fact, if we didn’t have those gaps, we probably wouldn’t survive, because the electrical signals actually degrade when they’re passed along a physical pathway, and the neurotransmitters “jump start” the strengths (and natures) of the signals when they get to those synaptic gaps.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

What a lot of people don’t realize (actually, just about everybody doesn’t realize), is that the whole reason we are able to think and move and live and breathe and exist and do much more than exist, is because of the distance that is embedded in our systems.

Rather than distance being something that blocks us, it’s actually something that animates us, that enlivens us, that makes us who and what we really, truly are.

So, there you go. Our connections matter to us. Our direct connections mean so much to us. But when you get down to it, it’s the distance that actually strengthens our connections. Just like not being able to directly contact our extended family members, makes us all the more eager to reach out in new and different ways, the gaps in our neurology sparks our biochemistry to get our bodies’ messages where they need to go.

When you don’t have that distance, and you can’t catch a break… well, you can end up like Ginger, up there.

So totally over it.

The magic of a mask

Baby Yoda wearing a mask
Baby Yoda wearing a mask

People not keeping their distance? They aren’t doing it as much as they should, from what I’ve seen. I dunno if it’s just all new to people, or if they just really don’t get the importance of social distancing, but for whatever reason, some people just suck at keeping 6 feet between themselves and others. And they’re not covering their coughs. They’re not being smart, or safe.

That’s much more stressful for me, than the existence of the virus, itself. ‘Cause on its own, the virus is just a virus. It needs people to spread. And they’re happy to oblige.

I’m over it. So, rather than relying others to use the sense that God gave ’em (tho’ it’s debatable in some cases if that even happened), I’m doing my “Magic Mask” trick. All I have to do, is pull on a procedural mask and venture out.

And people keep their distance. Woo hoo.

I figured this out about 8 years ago, when I worked for a company headquartered in Paris. Every new year, I’d have to make a number of trips over to France to meet my new boss(es). The company liked to re-org on an annual basis, which meant that in January I’d have someone new to meet – and they wanted to meet in person. Of course they did. 😐

Sometimes I’d make trips in January, February, and March. I think one year, I had two trips in March. It was a lot less fun than it sounds like, just for the record. I generally had to leave 3 weeks between each trip, so they were all crammed in there in the winter. And if you live in a climate where those months are full of bad weather, snow, sleet, ice, etc., you probably know what a pain it was to travel during that time.

Not only was the weather awful here, but it was terrible in France, too. So, I had the added stress of needing to keep my house shoveled and de-snowed and de-iced as much as possible… and I had all the French winter weather and germs to deal with.

Big deal, right? Um… yeah, it was a big deal, because you generally don’t develop resistance to germs in other countries, and when you’re traveling long hours on jet lag and less sleep… with longer work days because you have to answer all your danged European and USA emails… and you’re constantly interacting with people who love to make contact, whether it’s kissing on each cheek at the beginning and end of each day, or it’s shaking hands… that’s a whole extra world of hurt you can buy.

And pretty much every trip, I would get sick when I returned. Which is a problem, when the other person in the household get sick as a result, and that person literally can’t afford to be sick. At all. Because then they can’t work. And if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. So, you see the problem.

I had to self-quarantine at least once. Checked myself into a hotel for a few days after returning, so I could get home without bringing stuff straight off the plane.

Now, back in 2012, people just didn’t get why it was a problem to travel like that. What was the big deal? How sick could I get? They hadn’t had the opportunity to deal with this coronavirus business, and they seemed to kind of take for granted that getting sick was no big deal. It was just part of life. (I wonder how they’re feeling now.)

But like I said, for me it was a big deal.

So, I started wearing a mask. I picked up a box of 50 from CVS and took them with me. I wore one on the plane, flying over… and it was magical. Not only did people not crowd me, but the flight attendants were also super deferential. They kept their distance. They didn’t give me crap about whatever they’re trained to give you crap about. I got no attitude. Just a lot of space. And it was glorious.

I did it on the way home, too. Same thing happened. Everybody kept their distance. And I had a very relaxing trip back.

The best thing about it was… I didn’t get sick. I don’t know if I just had more immunity built up, or if I’d done a better job about washing my hands at every opportunity, or if I’d gotten better sleep and eaten better food… or if it was the mask. But bottom line, for once, I did not get sick.

Nowadays, the whole mask thing is a different story. At least, that’s how I understand it. Now, the point of wearing a mask is to protect others from your cough. I don’t have a cough (touch wood), and I have no symptoms of COVID-19. But a mask is still coming in handy. Because I never know what’s out there. And even if I don’t have “corona”, I could still pick something else up… and bring it home to where it can do some serious damage. And – most importantly – because it’s one sure way to keep people at a distance. Seriously, they back away from me and give me plenty of room. Which is truly delightful.

I get some wary looks, of course. And the cashiers at the store were mighty nervous around me. But making other people uncomfortable is a small price to pay for getting some space… some distance… some beloved distance.

Well *that* didn’t take long…

Practice thy social distancing: If thou canst smite them, thou art too close.
Picture of two medieval warrior fighting with swords, protecting themselves with shields.

Almost five months ago, I posted here about how separations really drive our economy. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s fine I can post about this, but are people ever going to really get it about how important distance is to our daily lives, not to mention our survival?”

Now, separation is a part of our daily lives. Like it or not, we’re all involved in a master class of how to live life without the usual contacts we have with family, friends, co-workers, and all the people who used to annoy us, whom we suddenly miss (or not).

And any case I wanted to make about how we actually need distance in our lives, has been made for me. An invisible (yet deadly) little organism is making its way through our world, thanks to close contact. And one of the few ways we actually know we can address this is to keep our distance.

These days, we’re all (hopefully) social distancing. Or at the very least, we’re being urged to practice social distancing, in hopes of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. Memes abound (see above), some of them more entertaining than others. Some are hilarious. Others… well, they’re memes, after all. And as all of this unfolds, with few of us feeling truly safe, needless to say, we’re all looking for the meaning in this.

Some folks look to their faith. Some look to science. Some look to their leaders. Some look to data, patterns, trends. Others watch t.v. or go online (and stay there). But wherever we look, the impulse is the same — to find the meaning in all of this… To understand. To not feel like our lives are being completely wasted over nothing, and that we and the ones we care about, truly do count for something in this impersonal world that frankly doesn’t seem to give a damn about whether we live or die, these days.

To be honest, I’m not sure whose “camp” I’m in. Maybe all of them – an eclectic mix of faith and science and data and pattern-finding and television murder mysteries and social media. I can see the value in all of them. Tho’, to be honest, I don’t look much to leaders these days, other than to figure out if their policies are likely to get me killed or not. Everybody’s free to look wherever they like for direction and comfort. I’ll never begrudge anyone their own inclination. But I’ve been thinking about distance and separation for years, now — which goes back to long before the several years I spent researching and writing Beloved Distance.

And in the midst of this all, I find some unlikely comfort that the patterns I recognized about humanity’s dance with distance are playing out just as I’d expect. It’s not that the circumstances are great – they’re not. But at least I recognize the general awfulness that’s making the rounds, these days.

Right now, I’ll take whatever comfort I can find.

The separations that drive our economy

dual growth trend
Dissent and separation have been good for the economy

According to Bloomberg and other news outlets, the U.S. is in an economic expansion, and despite warnings of recession, some are saying it’s going to continue. No matter the mumurations of the “sayers of doom and nay”, there’s a chance we’ll continue in the current trend… and things may stay as they are, politically speaking.

I won’t get into taking sides, right here. What fascinates me about it is that, no matter who gets into office, all the divisions between Right and Left, Rich and Poor, One Side and The Other… well, it’s all been very good for business. And I believe it’s driven a ton of economic expansion over the past several years — maybe longer.

Yes, definitely longer. Ever since we got invested in proving how different we are from others, whether politically or economically or culturally or gender-wise (the heightened gender stuff has been ever more intensely marketed to us, ever since mass media showed up – more on that later).

Anyway, I’m going to take a contrarian attitude to whether this is a good or bad thing. It depends who you talk to, of course, but I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, all across the board.

Certainly, it’s common, these days, to stress over the separations we encounter on a daily basis. Political, cultural, economic… Strife in the land. Families torn apart. Communities at each others’ throats. Members of one party pitted against each other on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever medium you care to consider.

I’ve heard great wailing and gnashing of teeth, over the past years, as people have voiced concerns over the USA being a divided nation. And a city divided against itself can’t stand… or something like that.

And yet, all the divisions spawn a whole lot of activity. Defining identities. Giving people a sense of belonging. Boosting manufacture and sales of partisan swag. Boosting sales of partisan viewpoints. Driving the ascendancy of social outlets like  Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter). And that’s been a huge boon for a lot of groups — pretty much everybody, if you think about it.

Looking back over the past 50 years (which seems to be the timeframe before which, according to some, everything in this country was so much better than it is now), there’s been a steady erosion of identity, a steady erosion of communities. We’re more mobile, now, which means we don’t put down roots in just one place. We spend an awful lot of time online, which has no location and displaces us from our present situation. Roles have changed. Economics have changed. Jobs have changed. Everything’s changed — especially the things that used to give us a sense of purpose and belonging.

How to restore that sense we’ve since lost? It’s not hard. Identify an Enemy (ideas or people or policies or whatever) and gather your like-minded tribe members in defiance of it. That’s how we’ve been doing it since time immemorial.

In giving individuals a new sense of belonging, the economy has taken off. I would even hazard to say that it’s taken off in certain sectors precisely because of the huge surge in adversarial tribalism.

Whole television networks continue to cash in, ushering in a new golden age of bias-laden monetization. It’s as true of the Left, as it is of the Right. And there are plenty of other Progressive or Ultra-Conservative media outlets that have benefited as well. Media in general has made out like bandits, as they’ve targeted specific segments of the population with their particular “narrative”. From one channel to the next, you’d never guess we were living in the same country. It’s like the media channels have spun up parallel universes, where they’ve cornered the market on that particular version of How Things Are, and everybody can go off and do their thing, as long as they don’t encroach on their narrative.

And we’ve eaten it up.

Absolutely, positively. The human system thrives on separation. Our tribes gather new life and purpose, when we know who we aren’t, we intensify the threat from outsiders, and we pit ourselves collectively against that common enemy.

Our own personal understanding of how and where we fit in the world benefit, as well. After all, we now have a tribe that supports and reinforces our perspectives in self-fulfilling promises of, “You’re okay, but they’re not, and that makes you better than them”.

This is not to diminish the importance of that point of view. We absolutely, positively crave a sense of who we are, and that sense is driven to a considerable extent by who we aren’t. It’s just how we’re built, and passing judgment on it doesn’t help us understand how it works. Still, I’d bet $50 you’re arguing with me in your head, right now, because a part of you needs to believe I’m wrong – and you’re right.

Bottom line, we need our separations, and that’s exactly what we’ve got, these days. In abundance. And all the while, the news and media outlets that serve our own individual version of reality and reinforce our rightness… well, they’re going quite well for themselves. Numbers are up. They’ve cracked the code to staying afloat in a world of disruptive technologies and information sources. And as they continue to do well, our own separate versions of reality give us a continued sense of stability and safety. Because they’re telling us we’re right. And others are wrong. And we can rest assured that we’re not the only ones who think what we think.

As problematic as all the schisms and conflict in our current American society may be, they’re part and parcel of who we are and where we are at this point in time. Fighting them and judging them as “bad for humanity” won’t offer us any insight into their true nature. And that certainly won’t let us work constructively with them.

Yeah, it would be nice to be able to just talk to each other as human beings. But there’s a whole lot more to be gained personally and socially (and there’s a lot more money to be made) from keeping us separate and at each others’ throats.

The ties that bind, the separations that connect

separate goldfish in bagsA couple of years ago, I wrote this book, Beloved Distance, about how we’re essentially separate from each other… and we can never be in direct contact with anything.  Our billions of neurons, which transmit the data that connect us with the world around us, are always – by definition – separate. They don’t touch. They’re almost impossibly close to each other, yet they’re not in direct contact with each other.

Synapse IllustrationAnd yet, that very separateness is what connects us. Because the gap between synapses makes room for neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that pass along the information we need to make sense of the world around us. And our neurotransmitters provide a richness, a sort of “analog” data transmission that’s qualitative, as opposed to the “digital” electronic signals that pass along the incredibly complex (and long) network of our nervous system.

Like light, we are both particle and wave. We’re both neuron/synapse and neurotransmitter. That’s what makes us what we are. That’s what makes us how we are. And if our neurons were in direct contact with each other, we’d both short-circuit (because the data transmission would be too much, too soon) and never have the varied experiences that our biochemicals give us.

So, yeah. We’re like light, in that respect.

And now that quantum computing is getting all kinds of press (at least in the circles I run in) and other AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning is picking up speed in active development and deployment, this whole concept segues nicely with the spirit of the day.

I wrote this book about 2 years ago. And I figured it would be a number of years (say, 10+) before other people would notice that it mattered. I’ve been a strong believer that it matters, all along. Ever since I first grasped what that picture of the neuron was telling me, oh, about 12 (?) years ago, I’ve believed it matters. And since I’ve been reading about quantum physics for close to 20 years*, a lot of what I’ve uncovered in the past decade or so really has some nice correlations with the quantum world view. Or maybe my quantum worldview came first and helps me make sense of the biochemistry and neurology…? Who knows?

Anyway, it’s all connected, as some like to say. And yeah, from everything I can tell and have observed in my half a century+ on this planet… It is.

*I’m a huge fan of David Bohm, and on some level, quantum concepts all make total sense to me. Why is it taking so long for everybody to catch on? 😉

So, what does this have to do with anything that matters to anyone else?

Isn’t this just some rambling of an inquisitive mind who loves to explore the reaches of PubMed, ArXive, Frontiers and more? Isn’t this just some philosophical hoo-hah that’s an indulgence at best, an annoying distraction from what really matters, at worst?

Well, I believe that this isn’t just about me, and it’s certainly not something that I came up with. I just noticed it and realized how much it matters. And yeah, I do believe it matters… especially today. We’re relentlessly inundated with a constant stream of disruptive, interruptive, disjointed, unconnected, random data points that scream (and I mean scream) for our attention. And we’ve become increasingly unhinged from the world we inhabit and the lives we want to lead.

We mourn, on the one hand, for oceans that are dying from too much plastic… and yet, we don’t hesitate to go out and buy all kinds of stuff packaged in plastic that never gets recycled. We bemoan our political fates, yet we don’t actually engage with the people or the process. We curse all sorts of forces around us, as though we have no control or influence… at a time when the average person has more control and influence than maybe ever in the past hundreds, even thousands, of years. The cognitive dissonance is deafening. And yet, we persist in making choices that go directly against our own best interests, even survival.

I’m not saying we need to each radically up-end our habits, and do away with every offending act and thought. It’s an idea, but it’s probably not all that sustainable.

What I am suggesting is that we just might be able to get more of a connection with our larger lives, by looking within our systems and better understanding how we — each and every one of us — functions at the cellular level. You can learn a lot from looking at the drawing of a synapse… especially if you really think about what you’re looking at.

The human race has always looked up for meaning. We’ve looked to the stars… to big-picture concepts… mythology… beliefs… religions… philosophies… storytelling in books as well as on the small and big screens… we’ve searched high and low for ways to make sense of our world. And now, since we have the equipment and the capability, we can also look within — literally — to find new clues from our cellular makeup about what it means to be us, what it means to be human… what it means to be here.

That’s ultimately what Beloved Distance is all about — looking at some very, very tiny stuff, to see if there’s any big meaning there.

I’ve found a lot of it.

You might, too.

So easy to get out of sync, it’s absurd

It's pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings
Image reads: It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market  downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.

So, the Facebook drama continues.

Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical  about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.

So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.

I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible!  It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.

Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.

Sure, you do.

You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.

Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.

I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.

Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.

It’s all so precarious.

Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?

But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.

So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.

And how absurd that is.

In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.

And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.

Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.

That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.

And yes, it is absurd.

In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.

It’s absurd, really.

It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.

How bizarre.

And yet, here we are.

Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to become more human

You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.

What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.

So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?

Ahem… here’s the high-level view:

Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.

Very roughly, it’s like this:

progression of pain signals down nerves

Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.

Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.

So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.

And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:

digital analog transformation

Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.

It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.

The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).

But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:

Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.

We’ll see how that works out.

Brought together from a distance

 

setting eclipse moon near a small mountain
The setting eclipse near Mount Wachusett

One of the amazing things about distance is how it can really bring us together.

Watching the full blood blue super moon eclipse yesterday morning, and then watching rise that same moon rise last evening, I was struck by how that shared experience connected like-minded people — all because of distance.

Yesterday morning, my partner and I watched the moon as it sank in the west, as the upper left-hand side was gradually obscured by the earth’s shadow. We hadn’t realized that the moon would be setting at just same time when the eclipse was at it’s peak and the moon turned red. But as we watched it sink towards the horizon, trees hiding its descent, we realized if we didn’t do something, we were going to miss the full drama of the eclipse.

We were both still in our pajamas, and it wasn’t practical for us both to get dressed and rush out the door, so I slipped on my shoes, grab my coat and hat, and drove off in search of a good vantage point. There’s a high hill near our home where you can get great views of sunsets and moonsets. So I headed in that direction. Careful, careful, down the twisty, windy roads… careful, careful, in the morning commute time.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that in mind, either. The road, which is a secondary route that doesn’t see much traffic even during rush hour, had a line of cars all driving fast in the direction I was headed. It definitely wasn’t in the direction of work, and I suspected that the other drivers were just like me — realizing at the last minute that we couldn’t see the eclipse from our cozy home vantage points… determined to get up to the ridge for one last look at this awesome eclipse.

As we motored up the road, we would slow down a little bit at spots where we could see a glimpse of the moon. All we really wanted was to get one last good look — get maybe a picture or two and really enjoy the historic sight. After all, if something happens just once every 152 years, it’s worth enjoying as best you can.

I didn’t get all the way up to the top of the ridge, but I did find an overlook in a private drive with an unobstructed vantage point. And I wasn’t the only one. Somebody else I had pulled into that spot before me. We were both trespassing (just a little bit) and the other driver had her emergency blinkers on, as if to say, “Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be here, but bear with me for just 10 minutes until the moon sets.”

In my mind’s eye I could see lots of other people out on the road at just that moment, looking for the perfect space space to watch the moon make its final dramatic descent… all of us looking to the same point in the distance, some 225,000 miles away, a common point of focus for hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people all at the same time time.

This is the thing the distance can give us – a shared vantage point that’s far away, which has such a close and intimate association for so many of us. I don’t know anyone who dislikes the moon, and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t enjoy the silvery wash of full moon light on a cold winter’s night.

And come to think of it, the very reason that the moon can shine her light, is because she really is so far away from the sun. Being that far away, the moon isn’t occluded by the earth or other celestial bodies (except on special occasions like yesterday). Being over 200,000 miles away from the earth, and over 93 million miles away from the sun, the moon is far enough away to not get toasted to a crips by the sun’s heat, but it’s close enough to bathe our planet in light at night. It’s far enough away to be seen by billions of people, and close enough to be observed with the naked eye.

And now that the moon is waning (she’s 98.6% waning gibbous), and we settle into the next month of the new year, I wish us all enough distance to get some healthy perspective on life, and enough nearness to let us see our way through.

Endings and Beginnings – On the last Friday in 2017

sparkler throwing off sparksSomething about this time of year strikes me as incongruous. It’s winter. So what? The days are short, the nights are long, and I feel more like hibernating than celebrating the change from one year to the next.

The whole “New Year” thing has always seemed a little contrived to me. Birthdays or anniversaries or other dates people pick out as important always seemed so arbitrary, like inventions people used to add structure and meaning to their lives.

And in fact, they are. But while my growing-up years were filled with skepticism about how important they are/were, I get it now. They matter to other people specifically because they add structure and meaning to their lives. And that’s not a small thing.

Within the context of writing Beloved Distance, the New Year makes even more sense to me, now. Something about thinking about distance, living distance, making peace with it, even making friends with it, has made me more aware of just how important it is for us to have those markers that tell us where we are in the course of our life’s journey.

Time stretches out in all directions, looping back into a past that we may or may not want to remember. It leaps forward, as we anticipate what will or will not be. It’s deep and wide, shallow and narrow. And the temporal distance between where we were and where we’re going needs to be measured.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure”, they say. And as our annual holidays — Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the New Years — roll on by, we mark yet another turning, another completion of the cycle.

To be honest, I’ve never been much for New Year’s celebrations. My idea of a good time, is going to bed at 10:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and waking up to a quiet New Year’s Day. I like the silence after the flurry of (someone else’s) celebration, when most of the world is sleeping it off. I find it contemplative. I’m also relieved that it’s over. When I’m tired, my hearing becomes acute, so when I stay up till midnight, all the firecrackers, shouting, and general hullabaloo feels like the world is shouting directly into my ears.

But it’s only once a year, so I just put up with it. It’s all over in a matter of minutes, anyway. I can handle just about anything for a few minutes.

Especially when it matters. And welcoming in the New Year does matter. It’s a marker along the way for us — for all of us, regardless of race or creed or class. It’s something we all have in common, after an extended season of disparate faith-based celebrations that sometimes seem at odds. Thanksgiving has evolved from a warm-feeling feast day to a grim reminder that history doesn’t always correlate with our fond (and manufactured) memories. Hanukkah is its own event, eight days of strengthening a sense of belonging to those who celebrate. Winter Solstice slots in there, celebrated by folks who deliberately differ from the mainstream. Then comes Christmas, with the 21st Century inevitability of accusations that non-Christians are trying to dilute the “reason for the season”.

The whole holiday season has turned into one extended practice of subgroups solidifying their ties by both drawing their own ranks closer and accentuating their differences from those outside their particular fold.

But then comes New Year’s. And what a relief it is. It’s a welcome break from the constant schisms, the bickering between “cousins” of faith. The New Year brings us all together. Like the ocean pulling away from the beach, to build into another wave, the tensions of the holidays collect into a soon-to-be-shared communal celebration that signals we can all get back to our lives as part of something bigger than all of us.

So, yes. For all its incongruity, for all its contrived sense, New Year’s is important. It’s a vital marker along the way that places us in the grand continuum, which lets us tie off the last year, put our failures behind us, celebrate our successes, and give us a chance to think about how we can do better.

We might be making it all up — or at least some of it — but it still matters.

Perhaps because we make it up as we go along.