Letting Things Slide

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recently I told a friend they were letting things slide.

“What a horrible phrase,” they replied, “it sounds like I’m in a death spiral.”

“I didn’t mean you were going down the drain,” I said. “But you do keep pushing deadlines back.”

Psychology Today defines “letting things slide” as procrastination. Dictionary definitions include, “to ignore something, to not pay attention, put aside, write off, negligently allow something to deteriorate, allow something to go without punishment, to not do anything about something or someone when you should try to change or correct that thing or person.” Evidently, it’s a widely used phrase. By the last definition, if I hadn’t said anything to my friend I would have been letting things slide by not telling them they were sliding.

now-later

Often, offering helpful criticism means getting a foot stuck in our mouth. I then pointed out that one of the side-effects of getting older is letting things slide. My friend hates any suggestion that they’re getting older. They got even more annoyed with me. My wife tells me I’m too happy to accept aging. She says if I’m not going to fight getting old, I should at least not admit it.

I started thinking about causes of sliding not related to aging. I remembered that I started letting things slide more after I retired. I assume it was because I was getting older, but what if retirement causes sliding? What if not having a 9 to 5 structure promotes procrastination and delay?

When all your time is free its very easy to reschedule obligations. It’s also easy to choose pleasant activities over annoying tasks. I’ve known this for a couple years since I’ve been retired longer than my friend, so I was trying to pass on that bit of wisdom. Maybe people have to discover it for themselves.

I even wrote an essay, “Overcoming Inertia in Retirement.” I guess my friend didn’t read it. I often study older people when I get a chance to see if I can spot trends I might be following as I get older. And I do think letting things slide is an aging issue. Older folks generally do much less than younger people. We assume that’s because of health and energy, but what if it’s mental too? Life is about making an effort to get what we want.

What if the wisdom of aging is learning that some things aren’t worth the effort? Or is that a cop out? Maybe we just get tired of making an effort. I know I dream of arranging my future life so it requires much less effort. To put a positive spin on things, maybe we just streamline living as we get older.

Unfortunately, I think it’s more insidious than that. As we age our brains shrink, and we lose neurons and neural connectivity. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise can counter that trend. We actually grow new neurons and make more connections with exercise. I do very little aerobic exercise according to my FitBit. And I do feel I’m in a cognitive decline. That’s why I do things like write essays and solve crossword puzzles to keep what little brain matter I have oiled and active.

If we chart our activity levels across our 40s, 50s and 60s, we can probably plot a line that will show our activity levels for our 70s, 80s and 90s. Research shows we can tilt the slope of that line up if we exercise physically and mentally.

If other words, slowing the slide now means we’ll let things slide less in the future.

JWH

Are You An Auto-Brainwasher?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 22, 2017

There is an extreme condition known as the Anton-Babinski syndrome where blind people believe they can see. It’s a visual variation of Anosognosia, where a person with a disability is unaware of their disability. Anosognosia covers a range of delusions dealing with the body, senses, memory, and language. There is a cognitive related syndrome called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where low-ability individuals suffer from superiority illusions. (I can’t help think of Donald Trump when reading that article.) Quoting Wikipedia, here are the essential qualities of the D-K effect:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to accurately gauge skill in others
  • recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill only after they are exposed to training for that skill

I believe we all fool ourselves. But how far do we go? Are some people auto-brainwashers? Anyone who has read books by Oliver Sacks knows how powerful a brain is at fooling its own mind. I highly recommend you read the articles linked to above, and then ask yourself: Am I fooling myself?

brainwashing

This has very powerful implications. What if you think another person is in love with you and they are not? What if you think you are great at your job and you are not? What if you believe you’re writing the world’s greatest novel and you’re not? What if you think you are brilliant, sexy, funny, and compassionate and you are not? Many people are crushed by self-doubts, but maybe just as many people are brainwashed by over-confidence and delusions.

Take climate change deniers. They believe they know the truth, even though they oppose armies of scientists with PhDs, using trillions of dollars worth of supercomputers, space satellites, rockets, airplanes, drones, ships, submarines, monitoring stations, balloons, and other scientific resources. Are they any less deluded than blind people claiming they can see?

Any individual who thinks they can solve any of the world’s major problems is absolutely deluded. Our reality is intensely complicated. To assume we understand anything clearly is delusional. A reasonable amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much can be crippling, yet we need enough for humility.

The trouble with being human is we make up stories to explain a limited set of facts. This is called the narrative fallacy. I can’t find a single article that explains it, but the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is where I first heard the concept. If a noise wakes you in the middle of a night you can’t stop yourself from imagining scenarios for what caused that noise. From burglars, falling tree limbs, to raccoons, you have to think of something to explain the noise, even if the explanation is wrong. And generally, it is.

This is how we brainwash ourselves. Narrative fallacies lead to the Dunning-Kruger effect if you don’t do a lot of fact-checking. The reason why fake news is so successful is it often fits into people’s narrative fallacy storylines.

Science is our cognitive tool where we statistically study reality to look for consistency. We can only trust evidence when it’s overwhelming. We can only trust evidence when a majority of other people collaborate that evidence with further scientific research. But we are easily fooled by masses who have fooled themselves with auto-brainwashing. Their claims appear to be consistent evidence – but consistent opinions do not equal consistent evidence.

One of the purposes of Zen Buddhism is to deprogram our auto-brainwashing. If you can get your inner observer to back away from its attachments to thoughts it is possible to see how we auto-brainwash ourselves.

My old friend Connell and I have been talking about auto-brainwashing lately. Terms like Dunning-Kruger aren’t very effective, or memorable, so I’ve started using the phrase auto-brainwashing. Once we accept that a concept exists and have a good label for it, it’s possible to see it in action. With the idea of auto-brainwashing in mind, study yourself and your friends.

What do we see that’s not there. What’s there that we don’t see?

JWH

Confessing My Anxieties

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 14, 2017

There’s nothing that sets off my anxiety more than having an event in the future to worry about. Next week I’m scheduled for jury duty and I’m worried I’ll be sequestered. I have no idea how many people are like me. We never know how other people think, do we? So I thought I’d just tell you about my quirky anxieties and figured you might tell me about yours.

the future 

The tendency is to believe everyone thinks in the same way, but I don’t know if that’s true. First, we can divide the world up into the anxious and the anxiety free. Of the people I know who confess their anxieties, it appears our symptoms come in all varieties, with many variations of physical and mental properties.

I have no idea how common my type of anxieties are among other people. If I studied psychology I could analyze the data and statistics, but I think I’ll take different path. I’m just going to confess my anxieties and ask my friends to confess theirs. Confession is great for the soul, or so they say.

I’m not sure how honest I should be. I don’t want to come across as psychically naked. But on the other hand, this experiment is based on revealing what’s behind my barriers. The act of writing down my problems is therapeutic. That implies a certain degree of honesty is required for effective results.

My main source of anxiety comes from thinking about the future. That can be planning my grocery shopping trip or worrying about climate change in the year 2100. I’ve always thought this was a particularly good trait for someone who wants to writes science fiction – an ambition I’ve had since age 12. Unfortunately, even though I imagine hundreds of scenarios every day, I’ve yet to learn how to dramatize them into fiction.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered this trait is a handicap. It has a number of downsides. It’s especially paralyzing for social activities. Future worry has led me to create a very comfortable now. I am my own siren. On the other hand, any disruption to my routine causes anxiety. Most of the time, it is very minor anxiety. I am happiest when I have nothing scheduled. I have friends that schedule their lives weeks in advance – what a nightmare.

My second anxiety, and I believe it’s caused by the first anxiety, is I hate to leave home. When I was young I always wondered why older folks were so homebound. Now I know. Home is security. Controlling my future is easiest done from home. Leaving the house increases the variables involved in imagining the future. When I was young I could go out and play all day, ranging over neighborhoods, countryside, and woods. It never even occurred to me to plan my future. After I retired I had nearly complete control over my time. It was only when I have to be somewhere else do I lose that control.

My agoraphobia is not extreme, but it is growing. I have not always been this way. Even after I grew up and out on my own, I could leave home with abandon, worry free. Before I got married, the longest I had lived in any one house was eighteen months. I’ve lived in my present house about ten years, and I think that long comfortable stay has affected me.

However, I believe my agoraphobia started when I developed a heart arrhythmia in my forties. My fear of having an episode in public made me want to always stay home. Even after I had surgery to fix my heart a bit of that anxiety remained. I began going out again, but never like before. Because this event was concurrent with getting older and living longer in the same house, I’m not sure which was the primary cause.

Then in my early sixties I had to have a stent put in my heart because of clogged arteries. Around the same time I developed spinal stenosis which has caused a number of physical limitations. I have a Catch-22 situation. If I exercise more to help my heart, my legs go numb, and I have back problems. If I exercise less the numbness decreases and the pain goes away, and my heart feels worse. I have to walk a razor’s edge to stay feeling reasonably well. I’ve also worked out a rather severe diet that helps both conditions. Eating out makes it very difficult to follow that diet. All of this conditions me like Palov’s dog to stay close to home.

Many of my retired friends are trying to do more outside the house, especially travel. Travel scares the crap out of me. First, I’d have to leave home. Second, I’d have to give up most control. Third, I’d have to eat at restaurants. Fourth, I wouldn’t have my custom exercise equipment. Fifth, I might have to sleep in a bed, which freezes up my back. (I’ve been sleeping in a recliner for years.)

Are my anxieties just in my head? Or has my body dictated them? If I worked hard I might discover how to eat healthy on the go, how to exercise anywhere with no equipment or portable elastic bands, how to sleep comfortably by improvising back friendly nests with available furniture at hand. Theoretically, all that’s possible, but it’s hard to imagine. To get a good night sleep I need a certain kind of recliner adapted with four kinds of pillows.

Now I know why old crotchety folks I met in my youth were so set in their ways. Aging means adapting to your bodily demands. If I eat just right, exercise just right, and sleep just right, I can avoid pain. Have my anxieties evolved through pain avoidance? Or am I just being a pussy? Should I just get over them?

My wife thinks I give in too easily. She might be right. She loves to be on the go, to travel, to be active. She has aches and pains – but just ignores them. I know a number of people our age who eat whatever they want, never exercise, and lead happy active lives. Then I know other people who are adapting their life to deal with ailments, conditions, pains, disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

Is anxiety mental or physical? Like I said, there many kinds of anxieties. I think some are mostly mental. I think mine are related to the physical, but I could be fooling myself. If I changed a mental condition with drugs or conditioning, is it really mental?

Most people associate anxiety with depression. As long as I can pursue my hobbies at home I’m extremely happy. I don’t feel crippled by anxiety. I guess I would if I wanted to travel. Maybe I’m happy because I accept my limitations. If I wanted more, I might be unhappy. Even this might be age related. If I was young and felt this way, I’d feel resentful, even imprisoned.

Does getting old allow us to accept what we can’t change? Or does getting old mean we stop trying to change.

Is everything I’ve written here a rationalization that allows me to avoid living life to the fullest? I have a feeling going to jury next week will teach me a lot. I’m not to try to get out of the duty, but it provokes all the fears I mention above. I’m having far more anxiety than before my heart procedures. I’ll write an update to this piece and confess what I learned after I’ve faced those fears.

JWH

Serving Only One Master

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I’d like to repurpose a famous saying by Jesus, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” and apply it to modern self-help advice about goal seeking. If we replace God with goal and money with everything in our life that keeps us from our goal, I think it works quite well.

Every day my newsfeed Flipboard includes a handful of articles about successful people and their habits, especially lists of things to do if we want to achieve our goals in life. Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of such how-to guides. I’d say the most common bit of advice is to narrow your goals down to as few as possible. And if you’re really ambitious, make it one. Jesus didn’t know about psychology because it hadn’t been invented yet, but he must have been a keen observer of people.

focus

For my whole life, I’ve been plagued by wanting to do too many things. Too many choices paralyze us with indecision. Humans are terrible at multitasking, and we’re not much better as task switching. Success requires focus. To focus requires getting into a flow state, and that’s not possible with distractions.

Recently I wrote, “Time Management for Work, Hobbies, Skills, Chores, Pastimes, and Interests” that calculated the time requirements for different levels of applied focus. Since I’ve retired I’ve been trying to organize my time to pursue as many of my favorite hobbies as possible. I wrote “Sisyphean Hobbies For My Retirement Years” about how I hoped to juggle them.

It’s been a complete failure. The more I divide my time, the less I get done. A byproduct of aging is a slow decline in the total time I can focus. Maybe I could have kept more balls in the air when I was younger, but I can’t now. I thought having all my time free would give me more time to focus. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

When I quit work in 2013 my plan was to write a science fiction novel. I quickly learned I couldn’t focus on such a big project. I switched to essay writing. Novels normally run 50,000-100,000 words. My essays run 500-1500 words. Even that shorter length requires a great deal of focus. And it’s not just a matter of cranking out the words. The challenge is to write better essays over time.

I think what happened in recent months is I got distracted by other hobbies – coloring, drawing, photography, computers, math, crossword puzzles, socializing, television, and I started writing less. If my retirement was only about having fun that wouldn’t matter. Nor am I trying to become a successful writer. What I’m really talking about is maintaining a skill while aging.

We need one master to serve to measure our ability for commitment and focus. We need one goal that defines us. Reality does not assign meaning. Existentialism requires us to define our own meaning. I believe happiness comes from having something we want to do. Whether that’s a goal, discipline, job, art, hobby, religion, philosophy, etc. is up to us. But it becomes our yardstick by which we measure ourselves. It’s the anchor of reality which everything else is related.

We can pursue as many activities as we can cram into our schedule but we need one to be the yardstick.

JWH

Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In retirement you can do whatever want – if you’ve have the drive. Otherwise you do what you feel. That distinction might be meaningless to many. (I imagine old hippies replying, “If you’re following your feelings, you’re doing what you want.”) The difference defines ambition.

All too often I feel like kicking back in my recliner to daydream about writing while listening to favorite songs on Spotify, rather than actually writing at the keyboard. Just now I was lazing in my La-Z-Boy when this essay occurred to me. I told myself this morning my number one priority was to finish the essay I’ve been working on weeks for Book Riot, and then finish an idea I have for Worlds Without End. (I do have growing guilt over not working on them, but writing this is what I’m feeling.) The trouble is both Book Riot and Worlds Without End each have an essay in the can waiting to be opened, so the pressure to write another isn’t that driving. (BTW, I’m not blaming my laziness of them.)

countdown to ecstasy

In the middle-third of my life, I hated being trapped in the nine-to-five world of work. Before that, in the first third, I hated being imprisoned in the K-12 school system. But I’ve got to admit without that outside pressure I never would have learned much, or put in my 35-years of work. (At least I’m honest about my laziness.)

If this sounds like I’m wishing for someone to crack the whip over me, I’m not. Na, I’m just whining about my own lack of drive. I didn’t have it then, and I don’t have it now. I’ve always admired people who live like guided missiles, always on target. And that’s the confusing thing about retirement. It feels like I’ve reached the target. The social security years can feel like being in the queue for nonexistence. How we fight that is important. It defines the game in the last third of life.

Don’t assume I’m depressed. I’m never bored. I go to bed every night near midnight, regretting the day is over, and wishing I had more time. Every day I do get a few things done I want, but mostly I overindulge my whims. And that’s quite satisfying too, in a heroin kind of analogy. My problem is I have too many things I both want to do, and feel like doing. My lament is I spend too much time with Ben & Jerry’s, and not enough with broccoli. (Not literally, just another analogy.)

Being the puritanical atheist I am, I’m hung-up on doing productive work in my existential random existence.

Most people think retirement is all about not working – not me. I might have a minor guilt trip about being unproductive, but I’m not about to get a job, paid or unpaid. I won free-time millions in the retirement lottery, and just need to figure out how to wisely spend them. This means creating my own definition work. Right now, I gauge productivity in essays. Any day I finish an essay, feels like a productive day. Even if I write a navel-gazing one like this.

If I actually write a hard-to-conceive, hard-to-implement essay, that takes great effort and research, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. That’s when I believe I’ve won out over inertia. It’s how I redefine rolling my rock.

JWH

Why Can’t I Lose Weight?

By James Wallace Harris, April 13, 2016

I know how to lose weight. I lost 29 pounds last year by following a plant based diet. I could eat all I wanted from an approved list of foods, didn’t go hungry, and my doctor was ecstatic. My blood work numbers hadn’t looked so good in decades. Then I started cheating on my diet. I didn’t gain weight, but I stopped losing weight. My blood work numbers ratted on me, and my doctor started nagging again. I cut back on my cheating. Three months later my numbers convinced her to do a happy dance. (For some reason I really love making her happy.) She even told me I could go six month without another blood test. In the moment of feeling successful, I foolishly promised I’d lose another 25 pounds.

Ha-ha, like some crazed sweet-seeking mammal I’ve since gained 8 pounds. I just can’t resist food. Why can’t I control my eating? Why can’t I lose weight? Why can’t I keep weight off once I work so hard to lose it?

Of course millions of people are asking these same questions. Why can’t we lose weight? Why can’t I be like Mr. Spock and do the logical thing? Evidently, I’m suffering from multiple personalities. One being inside me, the one writing this essay, wants to eat healthy, lose weight and be a different person. There’s another person in me that’s illogical and hungry. That person insists I go out for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but eat pizza on the way. And I’ve got to tell you, when Mr. Junk Food gets his way, we both feel pretty damn satisfied.

Mr. Spock advises me to write up a mission statement about what to eat, print it up on a nice card, and meditate on that message before every meal. But then my wife and I get hungry for dinner, don’t feel like cooking, or even going to a good restaurant, and end up pigging out on Taco Bell. I weighed two pounds more the next morning. Where did Mr. Spock go? Mr. Junk Food can shanghai my self-control in an instant. I need to kill Mr. Junk Food. Is that even possible? Self-exorcism? But what would life be like without that cute little devil on my shoulder?

Mr. Spock has already settled on a diet.  He assures me if I just followed it, I’d be healthy, happy and fat no more. He did get us to read a number of books, and took control long enough to prove that his solution works. I keep telling myself to read those books every day until Mr. Junk Food disappears—but it’s not working. I’m beginning to think Mr. Junk Food stunned Mr. Spock and transported him to another planet. He obviously overheard we were planning on dieting again.

Why can’t I be sensible? Why are my urges as polarized as liberals and conservatives? Why do I have friends who eat everything they can stuff down their gullet – and still stay skinny? Why isn’t feeling better incentive enough to eat healthy? My heart and back loved when I lost the 29 pounds. I think one reason I cheat is because I feel better, but I won’t let myself gain too much because I fear the return of pain. I remember what I felt like before I got my stent, and that helps fight off Mr. Junk Food. But only to a degree. Most of the spinal stenosis pain and numbness in my legs have gone away because of losing weight. The plant-based diet is also an anti-inflammation diet. When I follow that diet I don’t need pills, and I don’t feel the inflammation. Mr. Spock informs me of this logic every day. Why can’t I listen all day long?

Yet, eating two bags of M&M’s and drinking a Dr. Pepper would feel like winning a million bucks right now. Hell, I just realized just how bad off I am. I’d rather be a skinny person who could eat all the junk food they wanted than be rich. That’s how bad I want some Mint Oreos at the moment. (Who’s writing this essay now?)

 Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease - Caldwell B Esselstyn MDThe China Study - T Colin Campbell PHD

Eat To Live - Joel Fuhrman MDThe Forks Over Knives Plan

JWH

The Vital Role Emotions Play in Decision Making

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 5, 2015

In the summer of 1966, when Star Trek first appeared on television, I became fascinated by the character of Mr. Spock. Spock was half human and half Vulcan, and was constantly at war with his emotions. Vulcans believe rational beings are not emotional, so poor Mr. Spock had to use massive will-power to suppress his feelings. That appealed to me immensely. Then in the 1970s I took up various New Age pursuits that taught me to calm my mind and tame my emotions. Thus, I’ve always thought emotions were burdensome. That emotions got in the way of clear thinking. Last night I learned I was completely wrong. Brain research shows that we can’t make decisions without emotions.

Decision-making-relies-on-emotion

Now I wonder if I’ve always been a indecisive person, with little drive, because I’ve kept my emotions on a very even keel. I learned as a child to crave stress-free living, and have arranged for a very calm life. I am contemplative and philosophical, rather than active and driven. I always wanted to be a science fiction writer, but assumed I was never unhappy enough to succeed. People I know who are writers are emotional, often disturbed and even tortured by their passions. I always thought I didn’t commit to writing because I lacked the pain to inspire me. Now I wonder if didn’t pursue my goal because my lack of emotions made me indecisive. Or maybe pain inspires not as power to animate, but as a series of decisions that direct.

I am reminded of an old fantasy story, where a magical coin if found by the main character who doesn’t know it’s power. Every time he wants to decide something, he flips the coin. Because the coin is magical, each decision moves him towards a magical reality. Evidently our feelings weigh our decisions and lead us to the reality they want.

I learned about emotions and decision making last night watching episode 4 of The Brain with David Eagleman on PBS. This mind-blowing six-part series is shaking up my beliefs about how the brain works. Eagleman showed us a woman who was in a motorcycle accident and her brain was damaged in an area where her emotions and logic meet. She can no longer make even the simplest of decisions. Checking out articles on Google Scholar I learn this knowledge has been around for a while, often inspired by studies on people who had similar brain damage.

This information also makes me wonder about artificial intelligence. Machines won’t have emotions, so how will they decide? My old friend Bob Beach always argued that self-aware machines would turn themselves off. Without emotions they couldn’t even make that decision. AI machines will be able to process massive amounts of data, but how will they weigh their decisions? Up until now we’ve believed we made decisions based on logic – weighing the pros and cons, but evidently that’s wrong.

Actually, we should have deduced that without brain studies. How often do we decide on the side of illogic?

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