“Recognizing the Problem”: Part 1

“The mind…can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ― John Milton

It’s hard for people to empathize with you when have to deal with cancer. It’s not really about sympathy and I’m not saying people don’t try. It’s just one of those tough subjects. There’s always that specter of death that hangs over the conversation. This possible prognosis, likely or not; supersedes any discussion of “how you’re doing”.

It’s hard to explain that things just change, especially during and after chemotherapy. And it’s more than just physically. The nausea gets all the attention, But that’s never been an issue with me. It’s a lot more than that. My senses have changed. I don’t smell, or hear, or taste or see like I used. Whether or not they’ll come back  remains to be seen. After my first “rodeo” my senses recovered some, but not entirely. And after battling post-chemo effects like a trashed immune system and lingering “chemo brain” I’m sure this new me is pretty much that – the new me.

Mainly what people can’t understand is the mental changes that occur. I guessing it’s not unlike what PTSD sufferers deal with. Around every corner, there’s a trigger that can send you into reactionary tailspin. In a wonderful book by Debbie Hampton, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin; she recounts her recover from a suicide attempt where she injected over 90 pills. She literally fried her brain. It was so damaged she had to relearn how to live and with that her impulse control was severely impacted. Because of her frequent outbursts, her friends and family such had hard time dealing with it, many just stayed away – including her mother. She had to rebuild her life mentally and physically, cell block by cell block (prison analogy intended); encumbered by this new uninhibited broken brain as its foundation.

By no means am I dealing with anything like what Debbie did, or probably still is. But I do get the brain change thing as my patience and tolerance level has been affected … big time. My world has triggers everywhere now. Most of time we go through life and just let irritating things pass us by without much notice – at least not letting it affect us. Such is not the case with me since chemo has fried my brain. I like to describe it like an archipelago. During normal tide, only a few of the islands are visible. But now I’m in a constant state of low tide. Everything is visible and everything affects me.

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Grey sky cartoon

The Circus of Triggers

All this being said … it bring us to the insane asylum on the east coast, otherwise know as Washington D.C. What’s happening in our political wasteland is having a big effect on me right now – highlighted by the never-ending futile efforts to get rid of the clown boy in the White House. I try to get my head around all of it and inject some reason into their decision making process – but I can’t. The group think, on both sides of the isle, that has reared its grotesque head is a modern-day tulip mania morphed with Sherman’s March to the Sea (how’s that for a mixed metaphor). The echo chamber mindset that has taken over politics is completely void of any … well, anything. The days of Bob Dole and even Ronald Reagan are long dead. The zombies that have taken their place bare little resemblance. Unfortunately I can’t just turn off the television (I take care of my parents and television news is a mainstay in their lives), quit looking at my Twitter stream or let my newspapers pile up on the front porch and wait for it to all go away.

The man on the white horse, the man in the white hat … well, neither one of them are coming.

Regardless of my personal situation or anyone else … we can’t dismiss reality. The picture couldn’t get any clearer. Looking to these clowns in political zoot suits (and bad ones at that) for answers is pure insanity. Even someone with chemo brain can tell you that. Trump supporters still support him and always will. With each passing day, and each narcissistic outburst – it’s become apparent there’s nothing that will break his spell over them, the Senate included.

But not to be left out of the delusion soiree, Democrats still think that if they put one of theirs in the White House, the federal government will magically become a bastion of wonderment and implementation prowess. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office – our country’s, and just as importantly, our individual problems will not be fixed.

A couple weeks ago, I had very disheartening conversation with my daughter. Now Alex is a bright young woman in the midst of a very successful career with tours of duty at Apple and Amazon. She is grounded and informed, but her logical mind is having a very hard time understanding how this country, one that she has always had pride in even in times of craziness – at present cannot do the right (logical) thing. But with the lack of rationality of conducting an impeachment process that has no chance of the achieving desired conclusion (Trump’s removal), those assumptions have been shattered. This furthering hardening of our polarized political environment is demonstratively entrenching both sides in what is fast becoming intractable feud; one I’m afraid will spill over into the streets of our communities.

It’s safe to say “we the people” are on our own. We can only hope we have enough resolve individually and collectively to fend off the daily assaults waged on us by those we’ve entrusted to look after our interests. May today be the day we take our institutional naivete′ and bury it with the illusions of Santa Claus and the blanket we slept with when we were two years old.

Since Trump has taken the reigns as leader of the free world (there’s so much wrong stringing those words together), the mental health industry has probably seen a rise is suicide calls and psychiatric activity. Bluntly speaking, people are depressed. Normally optimistic people are realizing their world view might have been based on flawed assumptions – a big one being the infallibility of the United States constitution.

Personally I’m not ready to throw in the towel on humanity. I’m still an ardent believer in David Hume’s philosophical premise that people are intrinsically good – not that of Thomas Hobbes and the need for a Leviathan overlord. I believe we just need to reset our social and civic perspective. No white anything, hat nor horse, is going to pay our house payment or make us healthy. That is up to us. The sooner we admit to this, like the alcoholic waiting for 7:00 am at Joe’s Bar or the ten a hydrocodone a day housewife – the sooner we can get onto fixing what needs to be fixed.

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Self-Efficacy and the Road to Recovery

In the past I’ve been accused of assuming people have too much control over their own destinies. Upbringing, environment, genetics or even belief in a higher being; I’m often told are the determining factors – no matter what their own efforts are. If you’re not white, probably male and connected – the deck is stacked against you. Getting dealt a “bad hand” is grounds for government intervention and assistance. Most recently, the in vogue means of this assistance is minimum basic income – getting paid for basically existing. I’m all for the betterment of all people. Anyone who knows me or has read any of my 250+ posts on this blog will attest to that. In fact, that’s probably the one common tenet that runs through the entire site. That being said, I can’t believe a reward with no incentive to accomplish anything is the best way to achieve it and produce lasting habits that will ensure future success (or at least give it a fighting chance).

Shouldn’t the road to our Perfect World be paved with the something that will produce a longer effect than just a monthly sustenance? Shouldn’t we base our societal actions around the assumption if we better ourselves (hone our strengths and shore up our weaknesses) – good things will come for both us and those around us? It’s the “giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish” thing in the Bible? And I don’t believe this is even a political issue anymore. Regardless of your ideological affiliation, relying on the government (or any other institution for that matter) to actually deliver is naive´at best.

Shouldn’t we strive to create communities and social constructs that move us in a direction that empowers people? Shouldn’t we be teaching people how to fish – working with them to obtain the physical, mental and social tools they’ll need to not just persist, but flourish on a long-term basis? At the core of this empowerment is building a communal sense of civic self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is defined as the extent or strength one believes in their own ability to complete tasks and reach goals. The more a person believes their actions will help their situation, the more likely they are to try. The key is to “get the ball rolling” by nudging activity and engagement – personally, socially and civically. The more a person does, the more they’re likely to do. And the more they do, the more they feel what they’re doing is helping … creating a cascade of positive results and well-being.

In America there is little effort on the part of the traditional healthcare industry put into getting people to engage directly with their health and personal well-being; and the same goes for the government. This subservient relationship is the antithesis of health and well-being.

It’s no big stretch to believe that transferring some of the responsibility for our own health to ourselves will prove beneficial to us. And it’s not just focusing on the physical component that creates impact. Developing one’s mental emotional acuity is not unlike getting into physical shape. Having a stronger mind is the key to having better resolve and making better decisions. And schools should not have exclusive rights to that. Opportunities to learn and strengthen our minds are all around us all the time – and unleashed in the form of curiosity. We need to want to engage with our surroundings (people, places and things) to realize the benefits though.

We can’t leave out the social component of well-being either. Using altruism and benevolence as a cornerstone by doing good things for others takes your mind off of your own ailments and plight in life (real or perceived) and gives you purpose. And even if you can’t actively participate in hands-on volunteer projects, you can at least feel your part of the solution by experiencing the joy of giving vicariously through passive attendance and moral support.

We are losing our capacity to demonstrate our inherent human abilities of self – instead relegating them to overlords and decaying institutions that were constructed for the purpose of control over us.

What we need is not a society where we look to institutions for the answers – whether it be the government, our schools, the media, the healthcare industry or any other. We spend all our time and energy arguing over which institution and which version of it is best for us. And even if we agree, we never even discuss whether our interests are best served by that institution in the first place. We just assume the position of 21st century serfdom (I’ll refrain from a graphic depiction – even though I so want not to). The thought of responsibility is too often misinterpreted and dismissed as heartless libertarianism. While the personal responsibility calling can go a bit far … so can the leviathan of the institutional overlord. 

We need to resist the extremes. Full-on libertarianism isn’t the answer anymore than being beholden to the keeper of the keys of the institutional Ivory Towers. We need to decentralize and deconstruct our disempowering reliance on our current flawed societal structure and be vulnerable enough to look to our neighbors and communities instead. We need to reach out and grab those close to us where we live and help … as well as allow ourselves to be helped. To do that, we need to engage. And the perfect model for this type of engagement may be only as far as our backyards.

Part 2 will take us into the “life of plants” and how patterning our lives around a model of engagement designed after a rhizome root structure found in our backyards might be the solution to the personal, civic and political malaise we’re presently immersed in.

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4 thoughts on ““Recognizing the Problem”: Part 1

  1. Thank you, Clay. Eloquent and moving. Pls cc me on the link to the ‘rhizome’ post. Rhizomes are one of the quantum storytelling models. Much of what you’re writing about can be mapped to the differences between linear and emergent storytelling. Linear stories are ‘Newtonian.’ Scripted, beginning/middle/end, deterministic, cause-and-effect, command-and-control, authored/authorized—they are, simply, not sufficient for framing the challenges we face and the resolutions we will need for coming generations. One way to describe the insufficiency of linear storytelling is that no institution can script enough stories to account for the size, velocity and complexity of the challenges they (and we) must confront in the coming years. The challenges will be like Australian wildfires. Linear stories are water hoses. We cannot make enough hoses and connect them to enough bodies of water to deal with the many dimensions of the problem. We are going to have to first work at peeling back the palimpsest of ossified institutional circuitry that has allowed clowns in control like vultures dancing on our bones. When we do that, we can discover what’s beneath and before the bleached white bones of our Capitols and Domes—Indigenous and emergent (rhizomic!) ways of living and being that can guide us, our children, their children, toward a future that we cannot envision from where and how we are today. Best wishes to you and your family in the New Year.

    1. Thank you Mike. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I look at our solution as being decentralized and gradual. It’s going to take generations to break this addiction that started after the Great Depression. The rhizome post comes out later this week. 🙂

  2. Clay, have you read any of the articles by Alison McDowell, on her Wrench in the Gears blog? https://wrenchinthegears.com/

    She describes another complex and fearsome problem of the “evolving nature of state control as the grip of the Fourth Industrial Revolution tightens”.

    It adds more complexity to the issues you’re describing.

    1. No I haven’t; but I’ll check it out. I believe it goes deep beyond just state control. Our reliance on the “overlord” to think for us – regardless which one it is, is debilitating. We don’t even see “thinking for ourselves” as a preferred option.

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