I read somewhere recently, I forget where, that the purpose of people getting together for a conversation over a beer or coffee or lunch or dinner is that it the food and drink spare us from the burden of needing to have something to say throughout the whole conversation.
This was a revelation to me. All this time, I assumed that the primary purpose of lunch was lunch. All this time, I figured that I was just lousy at conversation because being an introvert made conversation awkward and laborious for me. For everyone else, conversation seems comparatively effortless. But it seems from this data that conversation must be harder for everyone else than I had assumed.
My oldest daughter is a freshman in college. She recently texted me and said she wanted to talk. I asked, what about? She got annoyed at me for asking.
I was clueless as to why. I guess the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all of us, there’s always some area of life where we’re so incompetent we don’t even know we’re incompetent. This area, apparently, was one of mine.
She asked if we could just talk about something stupid. So I called her, and we talked about Donald Trump and the presidential race and stuff like that for a good long while. I didn’t ask about what was really bothering her.
Eventually, the conversation turned, and we finally got to talking about the thing she wanted to talk about. But that probably at least half an hour into the conversation. We segued slowly and organically from the stupid stuff into the real issue.
And this, too, was a bit of a revelation to me, that someone would not want to get straight to the point, that someone would need a nice long conversational warmup before they’d feel comfortable enough to be ready to talk about something more uncomfortable. I’m very much a get-to-the-point kind of person. I tend to say what I mean, or nothing at all.
Language is imprecise. Our feelings don’t always have direct translations into speech. It’s hard to explain what we feel, to say exactly what we mean. We have wants and desires and emotions, and we often try to rationalize those feelings. Those rationalizations are often logically incoherent. But it’s hard to see the incoherence of our own rationalizations because our points of view are so limited. And often (if we’re not falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect) we intuit that our rationalizations may be incoherent. So we’re cautious in what we say. We know that there can be social penalties for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way to the wrong person.
All this adds up to making the act of talking about something sensitive daunting. There is a vulnerability in speaking. That’s why our culture has all these rituals and conventions around conversation, like idle chit-chat and coffee and such: to build enough trust in the environment where we can feel comfortable enough to overcome the vulnerability inherent in speech.
I never fully understood this before. I feel like everyone else understands it, though, because they act as if they do. But if they do, it must be an intuitive understanding, a grokking, not an explicit fact that people state out loud. Otherwise, I probably would have heard someone say it explicitly sometime before in the almost 50 years I’ve been in this earth.
Having now finally come to this understanding, it occurs to me that perhaps this is the great flaw with Twitter, why everyone I know on Twitter seems to eventually run into a wall with it. The 140-character format pushes you to get straight to the point. There is no room for the idle chit-chat and sips of coffee and other conversational rituals that let us dance around the sensitive issues. Without these rituals that are built into real-life human-to-human conversation, the problems with speech that those cultural rituals are designed to prevent come flooding in.
There is so much hair pulling and teeth grinding about what people should and should not say online, and how they should or should not say it. And maybe all that hair pulling and teeth grinding arise because our online conversational cultures, and the technological platforms they reside on, have not had the time to evolve into something that works, the way that our real-life conversational culture has.
There are many, many more people who are clueless about how to behave in online conversations than there are people who are clueless about how to behave in offline ones. How I came to be the flipside of that, I don’t know.
And it also occurs to me that there is a value in stating explicitly the things that are mostly just intuited about human nature and human culture. I want to explore these sorts of things. There is a risk, though, a vulnerability, in stating these things. The people who intuitively grasp these things will feel as though I am insulting their intelligence by stating something so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it isn’t meant as an insult to their intelligence, it’s meant as an insult to mine. I need to say these things because I’m the one who doesn’t understand these things. I need them explained to myself.
Which is all a roundabout way of stating something that maybe could fit into a tweet: I plan to start saying things that aren’t obvious to me but may be obvious to others. Sorry if you fall into the latter category and I waste your time. Such is the risk of saying anything, ever. And sorry for the roundaboutness in getting to this point. I seemed to need it, for some strange reason.
The Marshmallow Test is one of the classic experiments in psychology. In 1972, Walter Mischel gave 600 preschoolers a choice of one marshmallow now, or if they could wait, two marshmallows 15 minutes later. When he followed those kids into adulthood, he found that the kids who could wait had much more success in life.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added a little twist to the famous experiment. They preceded the marshmallow test with a promise about some crayons that was either broken, or kept.
It turns out that almost none of the kids who were given the unreliable offer ended up waiting for the extra marshmallow. Why should they? They already waited for a promised reward that didn’t come. The rational thing to do in an untrustworthy environment is to take any reward that is presented. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
As I wrote in Box 32 of my Forty-two Boxes essay, children are born trusting. They are totally helpless, they have no other choice but to trust. But then through life experiences, they gather data that can change that default setting of trust.
In my last blog entry, I quoted Mister Rogers saying, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.” This modified marshmallow test demonstrates is why trust is so important. Trust allows people to spend energy and resources now for a greater payoff later.
You are told if you do your homework now, in 10 years you’ll get to go to college, and in 15 years, you’ll have a great career. You are told if you work hard at your entry-level job now, and you will eventually get promoted into management later. But if you don’t trust what you are told, if you don’t trust these equations, if the data keeps telling you there’s a glass ceiling you’re unlikely to surpass, you’ll probably go do something else where the data tells you the odds of success are better.
This is why poverty, racism, sexism, and totalitarianism are so destructive. Not only because those things present roadblocks in and of themselves, but because they corrode the trust that a sacrifice now will be worth a payoff later. Both society as a whole and the individuals in it fail to achieve their potential, because people in an untrustworthy environment take fewer long-term risks, and receive correspondingly fewer long-term payoffs. The result is stagnation.
In my last post, 42 Boxes, I spent 17,000 words trying to get around to the point that the first principle of human morality is that humans are vulnerable, and that the antidote to that vulnerability is trust.
In 1969, Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers) addressed Congress. Early on in his address, he came right out and said this:
One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.
It didn’t take him 17,000 words to say the same thing I did, because Mister Rogers was a saint and a genius, and I, in comparison, am a dim-witted blowhard. He later adds:
If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.
The recipe for a healthy family, or a healthy society, is simple. Admit your feelings about your vulnerabilities, trust that you can talk about them, and you will be able to control these vulnerabilities in a constructive, not destructive, fashion. It’s not that complicated.
When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.
Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.
This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?
We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.
Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.
We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.
I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.
It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.
Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.
Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.
I got mad because they laughed.
Is a story a kind of technology?
The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.
We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.
The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.
Hmm. Fear? Maybe. Something is holding me back, inhibiting my creativity right now. When I’m in my zone, the right words, the right crazy metaphor, the right structure — it all pours out of me as easily a river flows from a mountain to the sea. But right now, it doesn’t flow. I know it’s inside me, but it won’t come out. It’s a grind.
What is blocking that flow? Is it fear? For me, I’m not sure. If it’s fear, fear of what? Failure? Criticism? Being horrible? Being unextraordinary?
The beast, at Tanagra.
* * *
Have you ever seen the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok“? In this episode, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien named Dathon. Dathon speaks a language that consists almost entirely of metaphor. Dathon says things like, “Temba, his arms wide” “Chenza at court, the court of silence” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. The words sound like English to Picard, but the statements are utterly meaningless to him because he doesn’t have any understanding at all of what those words symbolize. Here’s a key scene:
I have begun to feel that so many modern human conflicts, ranging from science to religion to sports, are like this. At their core, they are talking about the exact same thing, because there is only one human nature. But they have such completely different ways of expressing these things that the other side just discounts it as unintelligible jibberish.
Kadir, beneath Mo Moteh.
* * *
I was baptized and confirmed in the Swedish Lutheran Church when I was 14. In my confirmation proceedings, I acted as best I could to convey that I really understood what Christianity was about. But to be honest, there was one very key aspect of it that I didn’t get, that I’ve felt had a kind of “underpants gnome” quality to it.
Underpants gnomes are cartoon characters from an episode of South Park. These gnomes go around stealing underpants, because they have some sort of assumption that doing so leads to profits. But there’s a missing step in their business plan:
1. Steal underpants
Here’s the thing about Christianity that I kinda felt worked like the underpants gnome business model:
1. Jesus dies on the cross.
3. Believers get eternal life.
For years, I just happily accepted this conclusion, like the underpants gnomes happily accepted their business model. I enjoyed the idea of eternal life, just like the gnomes enjoyed the idea of profits. So why question a good thing?
Of course, as I grew older I did come to question it. Why should Jesus need to die on the cross for believers to get eternal life? God is all-powerful. Why couldn’t He just give believers eternal life without Jesus having to die on the cross? It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand the metaphor. To me, it was jibberish.
Chenza at court, the court of silence.
* * *
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
It’s interesting to juxtapose that David Foster Wallace speech with Clayton Christensen’s concept of the Job To Be Done. The Job-To-Be-Done model says that we don’t necessarily rationally think through what is the best product, and buy that. What happens is, we go along in our lives, and at certain times we come across a job that we need to get done. We tend to hire the product or service which (a) does the job, and (b) most easily comes to mind or is most readily at hand.
To borrow Christensen’s milkshake example, we may want to hire a milkshake to keep us busy on a long, boring morning commute. But we probably won’t hire that milkshake if it only comes packaged together with a hamburger. We’ll hire a banana or a bagel instead. We don’t want a hamburger in the morning.
By Wallace’s account, we humans have a psychological need to worship something. But when exisiting religions take sides in politics, or reject science, conflict with other values like equality for gays or women, they make it more complicated for us to pull them in to solve our Job-To-Be-Done. We want to hire something to worship, but we don’t necessarily want it packaged together with a rejection of science or equality.
And so what do we do? We may not outright reject religion, but we don’t explicitly buy it, either. We put the decision off. And then we find ourselves as Wallace describes, drifting unconsciously towards other things that can fill that Worship-Job-To-Be-Done. Money. Sex. Intellect. Art. Power. Reason. Fame.
Zinda, his face black, his eyes red.
* * *
Many religious institutions tend to think of science as their biggest competition. But if you ask me, sports is by far a bigger competitor. It’s global. It’s ubiquitous. There’s no religion that has 3.2 billion adherents. There’s no science book that has 3.2 billion readers. But the 2010 World Cup had 3.2 billion people watching it.
3.2 billion people hired the World Cup to do a job for them. But what job, exactly, is it filling?
Uzani, his army with fists open.
* * *
The other day I was watching a 2010 Ted Talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown spent the first six years of her career studying a single human emotion: shame.
The data she collected led her to expand into exploring other aspects of human nature: courage, worthiness, and vulnerability. And she concluded that the fulcrum around which all of the other aspects pivoted was vulnerability. I recommend watching this talk, it’s both interesting and entertaining:
Rai and Jiri, at Lungha..
* * *
If you don’t have the time to watch the whole of Brown’s talk, here’s a money quote:
One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability… We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”
You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.
And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.
* * *
This resonated with me regarding my writer’s block. One cannot create something for public consumption without passing through vulnerability. Writing is a risky act. When we write, we risk being wrong, we risk being ridiculed, we risk being rejected, we risk being dismissed, we risk being ignored, we risk being horrible, we risk being mediocre, we risk being unspectacular.
It’s natural to feel the desire to numb ourselves to those consequences. There are many ways to do so. We can use external sources to numb our feelings, with drugs or comfort foods. But can also do it with internal, psychological sources. Denial. Delusion. Cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias. Self-censorship.
The latter, I think, is the source of my inhibitions. I am subconsciously self-censoring myself, to avoid that vulnerability, to prevent myself from saying something wrong. But in numbing myself from those negative consequences, I am also numbing my creativity.
I need to let go of that fear of failure. I need to embrace my vulnerability, to risk being wrong to let the creativity flow out of me again. I need to do what Brown says healthy people do: practice gratitude, seek out joy, accept my limitations.
Kailash, when it rises.
* * *
It also seems plausible to me that this vulnerability is why we hire sports into our lives. When you commit to a team, when you say “I am a diehard Oakland A’s fan”, you are exposing yourself to vulnerability. You are vulnerable to the pain of Kirk Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley, of Jeremy Giambi failing to slide, of Eric Byrnes forgetting to step on home plate, or of Coco Crisp dropping a fly ball in center field. But unless you expose yourself to that vulnerability, you also won’t experience the joy of Scott Hatteberg’s home run, of Ramon Hernandez’ walkoff bunt, of Marco Scutaro’s foul pole doink against Mariano Rivera, or of that crazy comeback in Game 4 of the 2012 ALDS. Vulnerability is the intersection where all the pain and the joy meet. If we humans crave that intersection, sports is a product that provides it.
Uzani, his army with fists closed.
* * *
Brown believes that our modern culture has an unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability. We perceive it as synonymous with weakness. We treat it like a disease to be avoided instead of as the source of everything beneficial in our lives. This has consequences for us not just individually, but as a society as a whole:
The other thing we do is make everything that is uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up. … That’s what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.
This unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability also applies to sports. When Derek Jeter broke his ankle the other day, Nick Swisher was blamed for it, even though he wasn’t involved at all in the play where Jeter got injured. He misplayed a ball on the previous play, extending the inning where Jeter got hurt. When your attitude towards vulnerability in sports is unhealthy, you treat victory as required, and failure as unacceptable. Talk radio and internet discussions are full of this sort of attitude: our team must win, or else scapegoats must be found and heads must roll.
Kiteo, his eyes closed.
* * *
If I have drifted away from religion in my life, it is because of this: the versions of Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years, with all its certainties of how everything worked, became at odds with how I came to understand the world. I wasn’t certain God exists, at least not as a man with a white beard in the sky looking down on us. I wasn’t certain evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality was evil, or that if you’re a socialist, you’ll go to Hell. How could I be certain of any of those things if I didn’t even understand how the crucifixion worked?
The job I personally needed my Christianity to do was to be comfortable with uncertainty. To embrace my doubts instead of rejecting them. To be able to say, “I don’t know or I don’t understand–and that’s OK.” But that version of Christianity was not a product visible to any shelf I could see or reach. And so off I drifted, unconsciously and unintentionally, into the open fists of sports.
Shaka, when the walls fell.
* * *
After watching Brown’s Ted Talk, I went back and read the accounts of the Crucifixion. I found it interesting that Jesus only says two things while on the cross: the first line of Psalm 22, and part of the last.
The Old Testament’s Psalm 22 is subtitled “A Cry of Anguish and Song of Praise”. It could just as easily be subtitled “A Cry of Vulnerability, and a Song of Gratitude.” It is a poem that begins as an expression of our vulnerability. Sometimes we suffer, and in those moments, it feels as if God is not there.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not;
and in the night season, and am not silent.
But this poem does not reject that suffering, nor does it reject God for allowing it. Instead, it praises God, and thanks him.
A seed shall serve him;
it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness
unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
This is why Jesus needs to die on the cross to deliver eternal life. This is the missing stage 2. Because the path to everything that is divine (a/k/a eternal a/k/a good) in life passes through vulnerability. If Jesus is to be the example for the whole world to follow, to show us mere mortals the way to experience divinity, He must lead us to and through vulnerability. He must experience the ultimate vulnerability — death itself. So Jesus suffers. He suffers not just physically by being nailed to that cross, but also suffers spiritually.
Jesus saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” confuses a lot of people. If Jesus is the son of God, why would God forsake him? But of course, God isn’t forsaking Jesus. But if Jesus is to be truly, genuinely vulnerable in this moment, He must feel vulnerable to being rejected by the one thing He loves the most, God the Father. That one moment, of God Himself feeling vulnerable, is the greatest gift God ever gave mankind. It creates the perfect example for mankind to follow, that single seed that shall serve him.
And that is how, if we believe in the story of Jesus–or, in the language of science, if we embrace our vulnerability instead of numbing it away–we can have access to all the blessings and joys that life offers.
Sokath, his eyes uncovered!
* * *
Does this mean I am now rejecting sports in favor of Christianity? Not at all. I don’t need to reject anything. There is only one human nature. We can express that single human nature through the language of Christianity, the language of science, the language of science fiction, the language of art, or the language of sports. We can make the mistake of numbing our vulnerability through each kind of language and suffer the consequences (hello, sports talk radio!). But we can also be uplifted in each of these languages by the beauty of human nature when it is done right.
Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha.
* * *
“All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2
On October 3, 2012, after beginning the season being expected to finish in last place, after trailing in the standings by five games just nine days earlier, an improbable Oakland A’s team completed an amazing comeback to win the American League West. The team and their fans went wild, celebrating the culmination of a miracle season.
A’s reliever Pat Neshek wasn’t there. He had flown to Florida two days earlier to witness the birth of his first child. He went to his hotel room to watch the last game. In the fifth inning of the game, he got a phone call. His wife told him, “The baby stopped breathing.”
If Pat Neshek had an unhealthy attitude towards life, he’d be angry. Angry at his team for distracting him away from being with his child. Angry at God for taking his baby away from him just as the promise of a new life together began to feel real. He’d be looking for someone to blame, wanting to sue the hospital for its negligence.
Instead, Neshek returned to the team two days later. And this is what he said:
It was probably the best day I ever had, the one day. I’d go through it all again just for that one day. It was pretty awesome.
Neshek went out the next day and threw a perfect inning in the first game of the playoffs.
Darmok and Jalad, on the ocean.
* * *
The A’s lost those playoffs, in a fifth and deciding game to the Detroit Tigers. But the fans were so overjoyed by this unlikely story, by this unlikely team, that even though they lost and their season was now over, they gave their team a five-minute standing ovation after the final out was recorded. Watch this, all of it:
This is Psalm 22, translated into sports. This Brené Brown’s scientific research, translated into sports. It starts out with an expression of vulnerability, of suffering. When the Tigers start rushing out onto the field to celebrate, the A’s fans boo. But very quickly, that cry of anguish transforms into a song of praise from 36,000 people for what their team had accomplished. There is no demand for certain victory, no bitterness at an entitlement taken from them, no blame for whoever caused the loss, no numbing or turning away from the vulnerability sports fans expose themselves to by choosing to root for a team. It’s just five minutes of pure gratefulness and joy.
Mirab, with sails unfurled, sing thee to thy rest. It is done. The rest is the river Temarc, in winter.
This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about