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.

Sharing: The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

I came across this totally by accident, last night, but it’s very much in keeping with my current work. I’ve always loved the Paris Review. It was one of my most prized companions, back in the early 1980s. I’m still a fan – here’s one more reason why:

The Hundred Trillion Stories in Your Head

By

Arts & Culture

For the father of modern neuroscience, cellular anatomy was like the most exciting fiction.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “the father of modern neuroscience.” All images courtesy Cajal Legacy, Instituto Cajal (CSIC), Madrid.

Fiction is, by definition, a world away from fact—but Santiago Ramón y Cajal, often heralded as “the father of modern neuroscience,” used it to find objective truth. Cajal spent his days at the microscope, gazing down at faint, entangled fibers that appeared to his fellow anatomists as inscrutable labyrinths. Contrary to prevailing theory, the Spaniard discerned that the nervous system, including the brain, comprises distinctly individual cells (neurons), which, he theorized, must communicate across the infinitesimal spaces between them (synapses). It was Cajal who first applied the term plasticity to the brain; he went so far as to recommend “cerebral gymnastics” for mental enhancement, presaging twenty-first century insights and trends about brain exercise. “If he is so determined,” Cajal said, “every man can be the sculptor of his own brain.” If all Russian literature comes from Gogol’s “Overcoat,” and all modern American literature comes from “a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” then international brain research, including grand projects like the BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project, emerges from the unlikely work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Read the full piece here – it’s worth it!

Where do we start?

namibia dirt road leading to desert
Like so many other people, this morning, I woke up to news that someone had won a hotly contested political contest, while someone else had lost. Actually — full disclosure — I couldn’t get to sleep last night, until I checked the news and found out what the election results were.

Some people are ecstatic about the results, while others are convinced it’s a sign of the Beginning Of The End. Some are chortling about their victory and pointing out how the losers are scrambling to regroup. Others are voicing various degrees of despair on Facebook.

So it goes. It’s never actually been any different than that for me, in the course of my 50-some years on this earth. I’ve been hearing dire warnings about our inevitable plunge into chaos, thanks to certain sorts of political outcomes. The warnings come from both sides, and they’re so similar, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

It’s not the ideology and the platforms that seem different to me, rather the dire tone each side adopts to compel their constituency (both current and hoped-for additions), to join their side. Join the fight. Join the battle. Everything is on the line.

Again.

To say I’m battle-weary would be an understatement. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’re in a dire situation. I believe we are. I mean, look around — war and disease and pestilence are so common, they’re “old news”. The United States seems in a state of perpetual cultural warfare, with all sides utterly unmoved by the criticisms and complaints of everyone else. People seem to have dug in, and exit polls show how sharp the voting divides are, across race and gender. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of our socio-cultural deep freeze that seems to have completely immobilized us — like a tourist from Peoria frozen with fear as a charging hippopotamus bears down on them. (And yes, hippos are the most human-dangerous land animal in Africa.)

Good grief.

While it is encouraging to see some election results which lean in my preferred direction, the whole process sort of depresses me. Even if “my side” does win, as a whole community we still lose something. Every time we splinter into factions and go at each other over ideology or agenda, we pay a price. Some days, it feels like the only one fretting over the cost, is me.

But I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of people out there who are distressed by the ever-deepening chasms between various segments of our society. Rich vs. poor. Haves vs. have-nots. Whites vs. … er… everybody else. Cities vs. rural areas. Men vs. women. Powerful vs. vulnerable. At every single turn, it seems like we’re splintered along identity lines. And where identity isn’t clearly marked, people seek to create new categories that set them apart.

All this separation. Sigh.

And yet… Is the real problem separation? I’m not so sure. Indeed, I think the real issue is that we don’t really know how to work effectively with separation. We tend to see it as a barrier, and little else. Of course, separation divides us. That’s the point. That’s why we turn to it — specifically because it divides us, it separates us out. And there are a bunch of advantages to that, which I discuss in Beloved Distance. A sense of belonging. A sense of safety. Knowing whom to trust. Knowing whom to avoid. Separation is one of our most valuable tools, and yet it seems to be wreaking havoc with our world.

Seems.

And yet, I have to ask — Isn’t there more to the story than just division? Isn’t there more to our experience than schism? Might our separation actually offer us something we need, both in terms of division and connection? Are we missing something?

I think, yes.

I think we’re missing a lot.

And because of that, we’re losing out on clues about how we can move forward.

By having this one-sided view of things, and not understanding — really understanding — what’s at work in our world, as well as deep within us, we’re passing up an amazing opportunity to step forward and head down a path that may not be all that clear and well-marked, but is still a path forward.

We don’t even have to know exactly what’s to come, or exactly how we’re going to get there. We just need to know that the path exists, and that we have the in-born capacity to really make the most of that path.

You can see current events as a scourge or a gift. I choose to see it as both. And I’m determined to find out how we can make the most of the whole range of these experiences we’re having. I have some ideas about how we can do that.

Watch this space. More to come.

 

Have Yourself A Very Synaptic Holiday Season

network of nerves

When we think of our nervous system, a lot of us tend to think of it as a continuous, connected network that seamlessly transmits information immediately from the experienced sense to the brain and back again. When you step barefooted on a pointy building block at 11:00 p.m. when you’re turning out the lights to go to bed, or you brush your hand against soft fabric while you’re shopping for a coat, the experience is so immediate, it’s easy to think that the neurons transmitting the info from your skin to your spinal column and/or brain and back to your muscles are directly connected to one another.

One would think it’s true. Even Camillo Golgi, the scientist who won the 1906 Nobel Prize for coming up with the staining technique to let us actually see neurons, believed the nervous system was just like the vascular system — a continuous, undifferentiated network that had no gaps. In fact, he devoted his whole Nobel Prize lecture to explaining about how the “Neuron Doctrine” — that all our nerve cells are separate and distinct entities — couldn’t be right. His co-winner of the Nobel Prize, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was a proponent of the Neuron Doctrine, didn’t use his time shooting down his rival, but simply talked about “The structure and connexions of neurons“.

History showed who was right — Cajal and others who agreed with him, with their counter-intuitive conviction that our nervous system had to be comprised of separate cells.

Indeed, our nervous system is comprised of billions of individual nerve cells (neurons), which aren’t actually in direct contact with each other. Oh, sure, in some cases, the connection is direct — individual neurons can be connected in electrical synapses, where tiny proteins join them at “gap junctions”. But for chemical synapses (the vast majority of the connections between neurons), there’s a tiny gap that is never actually connected.

Think about that for a moment. (It’s fun! I’ve thought about it for a number of years, now, and it never ceases to amaze me.) The vast majority of our nerves aren’t actually in direct contact with each other… Hmmmm… But they still manage to do their jobs getting sensory data — and more — back and forth in a dizzying, complex system of sending, receiving, decoding, and acting on signals. There’s all this electricity… all this chemistry… time, space, quality, experience… kicking of thousands, even millions of interactions, each living moment of our lives.

That’s amazing.

So, what does this have to do with the Holiday Season?

A lot, actually.

See, synapses are the connections — the bridges — which join all our disconnected neurons. And although they may be minuscule, they are incredibly powerful in their ability to connect. They’re built to connect, in fact. Their purpose is to bring together separate entities — axons and dendrites, for example — and get them “talking” to each other.

The fact that I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — is evidence of how well they’re working. Even if you’re not totally on board with what I’m saying, the fact that you differ tells us that your synapses are doing their job extremely well.

So, yeah. The Holidays. They’re a time when usually separate people come together in season-specific ways — families, friends, co-workers gather for meals and gift exchanges. We reduce the separation between ourselves with parties and get-togethers and reunions, and we connect in ways that are a bit different from our usual means.

We build special kinds of “bridges” in the Holiday Season — ways we can be more in sync with each other, exchanging presents to show we care enough to think about what would make someone else’s life a bit better. We donate presents, money, food, clothing, to put joy and comfort just a bit more within reach for complete strangers.

In many ways, the Holidays make us about as synaptic as we can be. And those who withhold, who don’t lend their support, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Ebenezer Scrooge is a quintessential example of the anti-synaptic human. At the time when the most connections are being created, he refused to participate… until he was brought back in line with a series of disturbing and alarming experiences.

Ultimately, he got back in line with the rest of humanity and did his part — even moreso. And there was great rejoicing.

The same thing happens in real life — on a micro and macro scale. We see the same dynamics that animate our cells, bringing this time of year to life. There’s correspondence. There’s similarity. Perhaps we feel that so deeply about hour holidays specifically because of the similarities to our most intimate inner processes.

In the spirit of the electrical-chemical-electrical sensory transmission process, I wish you the most synaptic of Holiday Seasons.

Everybody wants to connect

woman at festival with crowd behind her

And rightly so. Being with others makes us feel safe, secure. Community anchors us in the midst of a confusing and overwhelming world. Having others around us, orients us to what matters to them, and what matters to us. And if we’re paying attention, we can usually learn something new from people we talk to.

Even strangers.

Especially strangers.

I have to say, some of the best discussions I’ve had with people have been with people I’ve never met before. I find it easier to talk to them, than a lot of other people, at times. There’s no emotional baggage, there’s no interpersonal history to contend with, there’s just two people filling the space between them (for however long) with ideas and information (for whatever purpose).

Last week, in fact, I had a great conversation with the car dealership shuttle driver who was giving me a ride home while my van was being worked on. We’d never met before, and we’ll probably never cross each other’s paths again, but we had a great discussion about the area we lived in, its history, and routes we drive (or avoid) for our commutes.

You wouldn’t think it was such a life-changing experience, but it was genuinely a great time — lots of interesting info and tips exchanged, ideas swapped, jokes told… Come to think of it, that was the kind of conversation that makes a real difference. It was the kind of exchange that enriches your life and also gives you valuable context for the world you live in. Learning more about the area you  moved to… getting inside information on what roads are terrible at what time of day… finding out about what’s going on in the area…

Yep, those actually are life-changing experiences.

And we need them. We crave them. So much, that we’ll go out of our way to find them, and we’ll seek them out some more.

When the shuttle driver dropped me off, he asked if I needed a ride back to the dealership to pick up my car at the end of the day. I told him no, I had already lined up a ride.

I was good.