Do We Need More Therapy Or Fiction?

One of my college besties is a psychotherapist in the city of Angels. I sent him this George Saunders essay, “Could I understand the people who rushed into the Capital?” and then asked him whether we need more therapy or fiction. Of course, the answer is both.

TL/DR. . . yes, Saunders could. And so can anyone who dares follow his lead.

We’re All Fools

If I was stuck on a deserted island, and could only have one person’s writing to keep me company, Richard Russo would get serious consideration.

Russo introduces his beautiful essay, “My Father, The Fool” by writing, “I’d run out of sympathy for COVID skeptics. Then I remembered my father’s stiff neck.”

Highly recommended.

Taking A Pass On Human Empathy

Susan Glasser in The New Yorker, “Fifty Thousand Americans Dead from the Coronavirus, and a President Who Refuses to Mourn Them”.

Impossible to argue with this description:

“To the extent that he discusses those who have died, he tends to do so largely in self-justifying, explicitly political terms, framing the pandemic as an externally imposed catastrophe that would have been much, much worse without him.”

Or this opinion:

“The numbers of dead citizens he throws about, meanwhile, seem to be abstractions to a President who believes that even the subject of mass death is all about him.”

Glasser with much needed historical context:

“Honoring the dead has long been one of the tests of American Presidential leadership. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was, after all, not just another political speech but a remembrance of those who were killed in the bloodiest single battle of the Civil War, in which some fifty thousand Americans became casualties and about eight thousand died. Twenty-five years ago this week, Bill Clinton’s lip-bitingly empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing, in which a white supremacist blew up a federal building and killed a hundred and sixty-eight people, was seen as a key moment of his tenure. He was dubbed the ‘mourner-in-chief,’ at a time when he was languishing politically. That speech is often said to have saved his Presidency. More recently, Barack Obama wept from the White House lectern in speaking about the deaths of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, and gave arguably the speech of his lifetime in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, singing ‘Amazing Grace as he mourned at a funeral service for nine African-Americans killed by a white supremacist at a church massacre. Even those Presidents who aren’t particularly good at speechifying—think of the two George Bushes—have considered public commiseration amid national tragedy part of the job description. Have we ever had a President just take a pass on human empathy, even of the manufactured, politically clichéd kind?”

Showing empathy is not something he could be coached to do, even if he was coachable. I wonder, do his supporters, some which are empathetic people, look for it in him or not?

The Bilingual Brain

A new book by Albert Costa. A paragraph to ponder from Adrian Woolfson’s review:

“Intriguingly, bilingualism appears to slow the rate of progression of Alzheimer’s and can delay the age of dementia onset by up to four years. Nevertheless the benefits of being bilingual may be offset in some individuals by a relative impairment in select areas of linguistic competence. Bilinguals appear to have less efficient access to their lexicon than monolinguals, resulting in more “tip-of-the-tongue” episodes. Bilinguals may also, on average, have smaller vocabularies in both languages. Most provocative, however, is the question of whether bilingualism may modify features of our mental fabric, including those that define our psychology and individuality. Might bilingualism influence our personality, or even our moral systems? Evidence presented by Costa suggests that bilinguals are less egocentric than monolinguals, show more empathy and develop a ‘theory of mind’—as witnessed by their ability to put themselves in the shoes of others—at an earlier age.”

My monolingualism is legion. Nearly two decades ago, our family lived in Chengdu, China for a semester. One day, my mean 5 and 8 year old daughters staged an intervention, forcing me to tell them “how many words I knew in Chinese”. Despite being a grown ass man and it being my third China experience, their vocabulary dwarfed mine. My mostly autobiographical companion book is tentatively titled “The Monolingual Pea Brain”.

Listen, Learn, and Empathize

Two of Tyler Cowen’s six insights from the Kavanaugh saga.

1) Alcohol is an underrated factor.

I am struck by how many of the accusations — from various women, not just Ford — suggest a role for alcohol in tales of abuse. Whether or not you believe any particular story, few can argue that alcohol is never connected to this kind of behavior. In the 1980s the U.S. had a major crisis with teen binge drinking and alcoholism, and many of those problems persist today, albeit at lower levels.

You might think the hearings would lead to a new consideration of alcohol as a major social crisis. If so, I haven’t seen it. Just a few weeks ago the World Health Organization released a report suggesting that 3 million deaths annually could be attributed to alcohol, or 1 of every 20 deaths worldwide. That barely made a splash in the news.

Closely related.

2) There is an asymmetry between male and female perceptions.

Most men are not abusers, yet very large numbers of women have been abused. So if a man is an abuser, there is a good chance he has abused a fair number of women.

That means many well-meaning men experience sexual abuse as a relatively rare phenomenon. They haven’t done it, and most of their male friends haven’t either. At the same time, most women have abuse, rape or #MeToo stories, and they experience these phenomena as relatively common and often life-altering. Probably they also have heard multiple such stories from their female friends. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is crucial to understanding the discourse and the often fundamental differences in opinion.

I would go further. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is why it’s crucial out-of-touch men get with the program and listen, learn, and empathize.

What Endurance Athletics Has Taught Me

Most people want to get in shape in a fraction of the time it took them to get out of shape. A vast majority also want to win the lottery and fall in love over night.

The key to success in endurance athletics is building strength, stamina, and mental toughness over time. The key is taking the long view towards incremental improvement, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year. Am I stronger, fitter, more confident this week, month, year? I’ll never be strong, fit, and confident enough. When most successful, there’s positive momentum, movement along the continuum. Positive momentum requires waking up and getting out the door, even when I don’t feel like it. Especially when I don’t feel like it.

How to create positive personal finance momentum? The key is incremental improvement which results from saving more than I spend month-to-month, year-to-year, and then investing in passive index funds month-to-month, year-to-year. Building the strength, stamina, and mental toughness to hold on for five, ten, fifteen years. Rebalancing on occasion.

How to be a better human being? By being a more active, patient listener this week, this month, this year. By being a little more friendly to others, more empathetic, more curious, more understanding.

It’s much easier to write about the long view and incremental improvement than it is to apply it consistently. In some important ways—including as an endurance athlete, as a blogger, and as a close friend—I’m lacking positive momentum right now. This is the point in the post where I wish I had an inspiring insight to close with.

Postscript: Alexi has momentum in her life.

 

 

The Art of Getting Along

It’s irrational given my fitness mindedness, but I think of parking as a zero-sum game. It’s important to me that I get spot “A1” way more often than you. Towards that end, over the years, I’ve developed amazing brake light antennae and unparalleled, cat-like reflexes. In short, I have mad parking lot game.

Rewind to last week when I pulled into our local grocery store and saw car “A1” begin to back out. As I waited, I noticed a vehicle coming towards me from about 75 yards away. The evil driver timed it perfectly, used A1 as a shield, looked down to avoid eye contact, and swooped into MY spot.

No. You. Did. Not. I honked a couple of times to get her attention before slinking to the back of the lot, my reputation and psyche in tatters. Maybe I should let the air out of one of her tires I thought to myself.

Upon entering the automatic doors, I shot her the evil eye. “Are you mad at me?” No shit Sherlock. “Yes I’m mad at you. I was sitting there waiting for the spot and you didn’t even look at me as you pulled into it. I was waiting for it LONG before you.”  “We we’re both waiting for it,” she replied, which made me chuckle. And then I walked away. Only to have her pursue me into the produce section where she said, “I’m sorry for that. I don’t like when people do that to me, so I’m sorry.”

Well shit, I never could handle curveballs! Totally disarmed, I calmly said, “Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Forget about it.”

A few days later at work, I watched one colleague totally lose it while interacting with another while we worked through a vexing problem. I mean totally lost it. In terms of the substance of the debate, she was mostly in the right, but I realized that didn’t matter one bit, just like when I walked into the grocery store and overreacted to a lost parking spot.

Our anger was so disproportionate to the situations that we became more than half responsible for the conflict. The take-away. Careful consideration of peoples’ feelings is more important than being in the right.

That’s what I learned last week. This week I’m going to try applying it.

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Maybe I’d have better luck running errands on my bike. Photography by JEB.

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?