Category Archives: Ramblings

Reflecting and Rebalancing

It’s been an… “interesting” couple of months. Life has a tendency to happen whether you want it to or not. Over the last few days I’ve been backing up some old media (ancient home videos and the like) and also re-reading some of my past blog posts. This has obviously put me in a reflective, somewhat nostalgic frame of mind.

Over the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been trying to recover my balance in a certain sense. After everything that happened, I feel like I lack self-trust, purpose, and psychological safety. It’s an odd state to be in, because it’s easy to forget until something triggers it, as simple as spending an evening in an unfamiliar hotel room with nothing to do.

I’m aware of the tendency to “rosy retrospection”, aka focusing on the positive aspects of the past. Even so, it seems like I was in a better place last summer than I am now. This is uncomfortable because I can’t necessarily pin down why. I have changed (as people tend to do), but for the first time in my life I’m not convinced that I like how I have changed.

I don’t know if it is possible to change back, or if that’s really the right metaphor anymore. This feels like something where you can only control how you move forward, not how you move back. While historically I’ve always known where I wanted to go, and my only problem was how to get there… now I lack sufficient confidence in myself to pick a direction.

Time to find my balance, and recover a little bit of who I was last year. Reading some of those old blog posts has helped. I need to make some promises to myself, and then keep them.

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On Dirt and Mess: Redux

After writing On Dirt and Mess I had several people point out to me the word I was missing.

Annoyingly, I do not know a word other than “clean” to represent “not messy”.

That word is “tidy”. Also, sometimes “neat”.

Spinning the Flywheel

If reality is a system, and trust is a battery, then life itself is a flywheel. Flywheels are very neat little systems; they’re basically just another kind of battery, but the mechanical underpinnings mean they end up being used in rather different situations than where we’d think of “normal” batteries. In particular, flywheels are often used for “smoothing”: taking a spiky energy source and producing a steadier, more consistent output. This is a great way to think about life.

Most people have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, sometimes even good months and bad months. Depending on how we’re eating, how we’re sleeping, what stressors exist in our work and personal life, and just personal fluke biochemistry, we can end up accomplishing a lot, or a little. Some days I’m raring to go and get a million things done. Some days I just sleep and watch Netflix. It’s important to strike a balance.

While balance is important, and you burn out if you go go go all day every day, it’s also true that there’s a lot of things I’d like to do, and never enough time to do them in. We are biological creatures, and while we can’t usually control in the moment whether we feel productive or lazy, we can control in the long run how often those feelings occur. The basic form of this is the same good advice that everybody gives and just as frequently ignores: eat healthy, sleep well, exercise your body regularly, etc. Just doing these simple things will make you a bit more energetic, tipping you over the line from “lazy” to “productive” every so often.

But this advice on its own doesn’t feel very flywheely, it’s just kind of common sense. The flywheel comes in when we take another step back and start deliberately investing in our own future energy levels. Let’s imagine a day where you’re really on fire: lots of energy, ready to take on the world. You could spend the entire day just killing that project you’ve been working on, and let’s be honest that would be a pretty good use of your time. But you could also take an hour or two at some point to spin the flywheel. Prepare and freeze some healthy meals, plan your schedule for the next week, or even do something as simple as picking your outfit for tomorrow.

These things may feel like an odd use of “productive” time, when you could be getting even more done on that awesome project. But what they give you is even more productive time in the future. Tomorrow, when you wake up and are only feeling mediocre, your life is already in order. You have something to wear that you’re happy with, something to eat that is tasty and healthy, and you already know where you need to be and when. On another mediocre day, just getting through all of those things would be enough to exhaust whatever energy you had. Instead, you can use that energy toward the important project and keep the ball rolling.

I’ve listed some easy, obvious examples of personal flywheels, but there are opportunities for them everywhere. Investing in your flywheel can even take the form of a more literal investment: proper budgeting can be incredibly useful and simplify a lot of future money-related decisions.

Just be careful to keep an eye on how fast your flywheel is going. On good days with your flywheel spinning, it’s very easy to over-commit your future time in an unsustainable way. If you’ve committed to so many projects that you’re constantly drawing down your flywheel faster than you replenish it then you’re at risk of burning out: that’s the day you’ve run out of prepared meals but just don’t have time to stock up again so you get McDonald’s instead. Suddenly you’ve got a million things to do, nothing left in your flywheel, and no time to spin it up again. Just one lazy day in that scenario, and your whole life flies apart.

We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell

On Dirt and Mess

No grand clever theory today, just a brief soliloquy on a couple of concepts which it sometimes annoys me when people confuse.

I’m writing this fully aware of the fact that language is fluid, and the majority of disagreement I’m likely to receive is on the specific meanings of specific words I’ve chosen. It’s not about the language, it’s about the concepts. Well, it’s sort of about the language. Language guides how we think; if we had a more precise language we wouldn’t muddy our concepts so much. But I digress.

Clean/Dirty – This is a distinction of, literally, the absence/presence of dirt. “Dirt” in this context can also stand in for other unhygienic particulates: dust, rust, hair, mould, that weird gunk which tends to accumulate on shower floors, etc.

Clean/Messy – This is a distinction of order. A room is messy when it has clothes strewn on the floor; it is clean when the clothes are neatly folder and/or hung. Annoyingly, I do not know a word other than “clean” to represent “not messy”. Do note that a room can be simultaneously messy and clean (not-dirty). Likewise it can be simultaneously dirty and clean (not-messy). This is why we should all learn Esperanto.

Organized/Disorganized – This is not a distinction of order; it is a distinction of knowledge. If a room has clothes strewn about, but they are strewn according to a specific layout and you know the precise location of every article, it is messy but organized. Likewise, a stack of neatly folded clothes can be entirely unordered (and thus disorganized) but still quite clean (not-messy) and also maybe clean (not-dirty).

Communication is hard. Don’t make it harder.  Use the concept you mean to use.

Right Love

When I think of love, I think of a deep, romantic, starry-eyed limerence combined with a strong underlying bond of commitment. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given that I grew up on a steady diet of Christian family values and golden-age Hollywood movie-musicals. While I’ve consciously rejected some parts of that childhood, it has nonetheless had a lasting and obvious effect on my subconscious and what I want out of life.

Of course, this is hardly the only kind of love that exists in the world. I have written before about this and generally keep coming back to Patrick Rothfuss’s two blog posts on the topic. Go read them if you haven’t already, they are important context to what follows.

At a very simple, practical level, the many different kinds of love that we talk about are merely a linguistic problem. The fact that they all share one word is annoying, and makes communication more difficult sometimes, but doesn’t fundamentally alter reality. The asterisk on this is of course that the way we define emotional words at all is weird and complicated. Still, this does not seem an insurmountable problem.

Since this problem seems initially surmountable, let’s try to surmount it. Specifically, let’s try to pin down what the right kind of love is upon which to build a marriage or other relationship. It may be tempting to object that there is no “right” kind of love, all love is unique, every relationship is different, etc. but love is such a broad term that this is clearly false. I love chocolate, but it would be a categorical mistake to marry someone about whom I feel the way I feel about chocolate. Or consider the Greek word philia which is sometimes translated as “brotherly love” or similar, but is again not something a romantic relationship should be built on.

We’ve just seen a couple of easy examples of what “marriage love” (for lack of a better term) shouldn’t be, but pinning down what it actually should be is rather more complicated:

  • The traditionalist, “family values” line is that it should be storge, which is another Greek word usually translated as love but with more of a lean towards family and commitment. Among other things, storge is what parents normally feel for their children.
  • The Hollywood line is that it should be limerence, which is not Greek at all but was coined by a psychologist in the 1970s and is roughly equivalent to so-called “romantic love” or emotional infatuation.
  • The modern, sexually liberated generation of today might imply that pragmatically the most important form of love is eros (Greek again, with “erotic” an obvious descendant in modern English), with the others relevant but generally secondary. Certainly, there have been studies supporting this point.
  • Rothfuss, in his second post above, argues for a conception of love he calls eleutheria and which he defines approximately as “love without expectation”.
  • The final meaning of love I’ve heard talked about in this context is something I don’t have a good word handy for, and I’m not even sure I can describe it properly. It is an intentional, intellectual form of love, almost more a compatibility of spirit and mindset than an emotion? Maybe this is what philia means? Or philia combined with storge? I’m not sure. For the purposes of this post I’ll just keep calling it philia, and apologies to any Greek speakers who disagree.

So which one is it? In an ideal relationship, obviously, we would want all of these to be present. If you feel storge, limerence, eros, eleutheria, and philia for one person all at once, then that’s pretty definitely somebody you should be talking to. But what if you only feel some of those? Limerence and/or eros are clearly enough for a lot of people to act on, but don’t tend to produce a lasting relationship by themselves. Storge and philia, as far as I can tell, are potentially necessary for a healthy long-term relationship, but are also emotions that we feel for others (siblings, children, etc) and are therefore clearly not sufficient. Eleutheria sounds pretty but I still find it a little hard to grasp; I don’t have a good referent for when I’m feeling it.

Discarding eleutheria because I don’t properly understand it, and taking storge and philia as necessary but not sufficient, then either limerence or eros (or both) must be a necessary component. Of the two, limerence seems more plausible; eros is obviously very common, but it seems possible to be “in love” to the point of marriage without having an erotic component. Initial conclusion: storge, philia, and limerence.

This is all very theoretically well and good, but has a more practical problem: limerence seems rare. At the least, it certainly seems far rarer than the number of actual existing relationships (57.7% of the adult population as of the last census). Does this mean that limerence isn’t actually necessary? Or is it more that people are so afraid of being alone they will enter into a relationship without all the necessary conditions? I don’t know.

On the Appropriate Labelling of Emotions

Emotions suffer from what I like to think of as “the colour problem”. It probably has a proper name in philosophy circles (related to, but distinct from Wittgenstein’s “private language”) but I think of it as the colour problem because the easiest example is to do with colours. A fancier name would probably be the experience-description problem or something.

Anyway, the easy example goes roughly as follows: presumably we both agree on what is meant by the colour blue. I can point to a blue sky and you will agree that the sky is, in fact, blue. You can point to a green plant and I will agree that it is not blue. We use this word the same way, to refer to the same property of the same things in the real world. But that says nothing about how we actually experience the property of blueness. Perhaps for me, the visible colour spectrum is reversed; I see violet as red and red as violet. I see blue as orange, and orange as blue. To the outside observer (and in fact to me myself) there is no way to tell. How I perceive a particular wavelength of light doesn’t change the categorization of real objects, or the words that we use.

When I see a blue sky, I might experience what you consider the sensation of orangeness But to me, that’s what blue is. All the things that generate that sensation have always just been called blue, and all the things that generate a sensation of blueness have just been called orange. I know no differently, and short of some miraculous yet-to-be-invented mind-reading technology, there is no way for anybody to detect this issue, because practically it’s not an issue. The only thing it could possibly have implications for is aesthetics, and that’s incredibly subjective anyway.

But enough with colours. They’re the easy example. The thing I want to actually talk about today is emotions, because they suffer the same problem but with much more serious implications. Like colours, emotions are internal experiences which we can describe only indirectly. We learn to associate smiling and other physical cues with happiness, and so as children the feelings that produce those physical reactions in us we start to call happiness. But of course, we can also lie about our emotions: we call it acting.

Consider as a thought experiment, two children raised separately by two very bizarre parents. Parent A raises child A almost perfectly normally, except for one thing: parent A lies about the name of emotions. When they are feeling happy, or talking about being happy, they use the word “sad”. When they are feeling angry, or talking about being angry, they use the word “calm”. Etc. Etc.

Parent A is a little weird, but parent B is even weirder. Parent B doesn’t lie with words: they lie with body language and facial expression. When parent B is feeling happy, they use the word “happy”, but they *act* like they’re sad. When they’re feeling angry, they use the word “angry”, but they *act* like they’re calm. Etc. Etc.

In theory, the end result is exactly the same. For both children, their internal mapping of words to external cues is reversed from what we consider normal. They could probably even talk to each other about their emotions, and understand each other perfectly, though everybody else would end up quite confused. All of this simply to show that we have no certainty that, when we use a given word to describe an emotion we’re feeling, it lines up with how other people use that word at all. All we have to go on are easily faked or confused external cues.

For colours this wasn’t a problem; aesthetics are subjective anyway. But for emotions, it’s rather more serious, because we frequently attach ethical weight to our emotional states and the communication thereof. These range from the mundane (feigning enjoyment of an awkward social situation) to the serious (telling someone you love them when, in fact, you don’t feel any such thing).

Now, hopefully nobody does the latter on purpose; that would be an incredibly nasty thing to do. But we just got finished talking about the fact that we can’t really be sure about our emotional labels anyway. Maybe through some confusion of cues and feelings, the emotion you describe as love is just different than that of your partner. You say you love each other, but you mean different things by that statement. This is not only practically dangerous, but ethically complicated as well. In a certain sense, your relationship is built on a lie; not an intentional one, but a lie nonetheless.

I completely lack a conclusion, but I’ve run out of things to say. Hope everyone’s had a merry christmas.