2020 Memorandum

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As 2020 winds down, I think regardless of where we find ourselves at the end of this unprecedented year we can all agree this is nothing like we anticipated it would be.

For me, this year has been equal parts good and bad. I’ve struggled with relapse of depression, anxiety, and lack of focus. I’ve been insecure, uneasy, antsy, fearful, and helpless. I’ve struggled to maintain structure and commitment to self-care and taken way too many liberties with food, substance use, and lack of exercise. I’ve gone from fear of missing out, to fear of going out, and back again a few times. I’ve struggled to maintain contact with the people I love and the activities I know ground me and contribute to my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

I’ve lost sight of the big picture and reduced too many things to emotional extremes. I’ve drowned in political, health, and existential crises and struggled to find myself again. I’ve spent far more energy on the things I can’t control, and not nearly enough on the things I can. And, despite knowing better, I did a lot of this without asking for help.

Going in to 2021, I want to restart and get back on the bandwagon. And what better place to start than some gratitude. Here’s some of the things I am most grateful for in 2020:

  • Early in the year, I celebrated by 37th birthday with the purchase of a new home, in a new town, while in a relatively new romantic relationship.
  • In May I made the difficult choice to leave a company where I had been employed for 5 years to take a chance on a new role despite the discomfort of completing this entire transition remotely.
  • This summer, despite my fears, I disclosed one of the most shameful events in my life to a dear friend and my boyfriend. I hadn’t spoken of this event outside of therapy, truthfully believing it would make me unlovable. I’m humbled to report that my fears were unfounded, at least where it matters most to me.
  • Through over-the-fence distanced interactions I’ve started to know my new neighbours. After years of avoiding small town life, I’m reminded of the great aspects of community. Again and again I’m amazed of the large impact of small kindness – to someone thoughtfully bringing a parcel in from the rain and rushing out to deliver it by hand when you return home, to helping you haul fallen leaves from the large maple in your front yard, to delivering a couple extra date squares because they felt the urge to share.
  • I’ve also been inspired by my small community’s efforts to encourage local shopping, dining, and artisan support in the absence of the town’s usual glut of tourists through campaigns, events, and good old fashioned coming togetherness (Is this a word? Is now!).
  • I’ve been privileged to be trusted with a few friends’ low moments and vulnerabilities and am slowly learning how to help people in a way that’s healthy for us both.
  • In the summer, my boyfriend took me on my first backwoods camping trip in almost a decade. Despite the irony of escaping the isolation of our home with backwoods isolation, we survived, we thrived, we ate great food, and we had a pretty great adventure.
  • Over the last 8 months of pandemic, my boyfriend and I have been putting our touch on the home we purchased – painting, renovating, landscaping, and building something really special and uniquely us. I’m grateful to be enjoying these moments with someone that inspires and supports me in so many amazing ways.
  • Although my relationship with my family is far from perfect, I feel that this year has challenged me to improve my communication and I am enjoying interacting with them more than this time last year. I’m encouraged that healing is possible.
  • Recently, I was approached with another great employment opportunity which represents exponential career growth. Despite the mixed emotions of changing jobs again in the new year, I’ve accepted and am looking forward to another new start in 2021 with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I’m grateful for being blessed for the first time in my career with so many good options.

I feel like a lot of my life has been framed in extreme thoughts. Things were largely good or bad (more often bad, if I’m honest) and not allowed to be grey.

Climbing back up on the recovery horse I remind myself that life is unpredictable and strange. Despite our best effort and planning things don’t always turn out as we planned. Life isn’t perfect, but being adaptable and open to change makes it a lot more live-able.

The Worst Part

young troubled woman using laptop at home
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I’ve read a few articles on the ongoing psychological impact of social isolation resulting from COVID. While the long term and actual effects of the unprecedented civil order to maintain distance from strangers and loved ones outside the household are still under investigation, I personally don’t know a single person who isn’t impacted and off balance.

Recently, like some kind of competition that no one wins, my connections have started speculating more and more on the “worst part” of COVID-life.  These reasons stem from the mundane and shallow to the seriously sad.  What I will say, before sharing my own “worst thing”, is that whatever challenges you are facing are valid and real. I understand the daily struggle that comes from being committed to doing the right thing, even if it is painful. And – regardless of your level of comfort with the idea of catching and surviving this disease, most of us understand the big picture of why we are taking this measure… we don’t want to hurt others.

My partner and I live in a century home in a small town in Southern Ontario which we moved into weeks before the world shut down.  Like most old houses, there have been challenges with foundation deterioration and one of our first actions on moving in was locating a contractor who could help reinforce the 100-year old joists in the basement. Unfortunately, due to this settling, the ceiling in a few of the older untouched rooms have sagged and adjusted with the home. Busy with other more critical tasks, we’ve been putting off addressing this damage.

Yesterday, we were sitting inside.  It was raining, a National holiday, and we’d exhausted all the low-hanging Netflix fruit (#fuckcarolebaskin).  Our couch time has increased steadily over the last few months as we’ve tackled all the house projects we can complete without assistance, are unable to easily acquire materials, and struggle with the tumultuous Canadian spring weather.

Mid-afternoon, after a few quiet hours of mucking around on the Internet, he turned to me and asked if I would like to demolish the ceiling in one of these rooms. I agreed and he quickly started collecting crow bars, masks, garbage bags, and other materials to complete the task.

For the first time in days we laughed easily, conversation flowed, and we enjoyed each other with a lot less effort than we have since the stress of pandemic entered our lives. It occurred to me that the worst part of this situation for our relationship is not the lack of services, restaurants, the financial strain, or the anti-aphrodisiac effect of wearing the same track pants for weeks on end.  It is the lack of spontaneity. Without personal choice and options, it is like the volume is turned way down and a grey fog has settled. Every day is almost exactly the same and while that same is much better than it has been in the past, without the ups, downs, and outside influence, it lacks perspective. I have trouble appreciating how amazing my life is compared to how it was when this blog started.

With that in mind, I remind myself to be grateful, humble, and compassionate. I remind myself to widen my tunnel vision, challenge my narrow perception, and acknowledge how far I’ve come.

I also want to ask you for inspiration; what is the worst part for you and how are you coping?

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 2

Welcome back!  This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.

Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.

He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.

“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”

Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.

I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).

It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.

While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here).  Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.

Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:

“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.

Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.

Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.

It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.

The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.

Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!