Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pleasure: The Primary Motivator (part 2)

I've heard for years and years that most men tend to seek out women partners rather like their mothers in unhealthy ways. It can happen for lots of reasons, and I'd like to share one aspect of how I saw this dynamic within me and how embracing pleasure helped me grow emotionally so that I no longer seek out partners in the same way I used to.

Growing up, I never decorated my living space. My mom, perhaps with help from my dad constructing the furniture, would always decorate the space for me. For example, when I first arrived at college my freshman year, my dad took me and my mom insisted he help make the bed and take pictures for her so she'd know I started off with a nicely-prepared room.

I never felt comfortable decorating my own space. I remember when I studied abroad in Germany the summer before my senior year of college in 2007, I did nothing to decorate my room for weeks, then I bought 2 paintings but didn't even have the energy to put them up - they just took up floor space awkwardly learning up against the wall until I left at the end of the summer. This has often meant that I don't feel very comfortable where I live, that I've found the space unattractive or cold visually or tactilely. I have never summoned the energy to actually imagine an alternative and implement it.

Another example: after buying a house in 2009, I put up a few pictures and promptly lost all energy for improving the space. A few very energetic and generous friends dragged me to a store to pick out paint colors, buy paints, and then we spent 5 full days together painting my living room and kitchen and mounting a projector on the ceiling in the basement. No way in hell that would have happened if they didn't have that initiative. [And I remain as grateful today as I did then ;) ]

I recognized this dynamic, and I also realized that some of my past girlfriends had had the energy to decorate my space, and so I got stuck in an anxious dynamic: I wanted to find a girlfriend in part to decorate my living space with her (I had the energy to decorate with someone, just not alone somehow), but I also suspected my living space was also off-putting to potential partners, perhaps making it harder to find a partner. Catch-22!

So you can see the 'man needs a partner like his mother' dynamic: I wanted someone to fill that decorating/home-making role my mother played for me growing up.

Pleasure to the Rescue
A few months ago, I began embracing pleasure as a way to motivate everything I did. As part of this, rather than numb or ignore anxiety about my living space as I'd always done, I embraced that anxiety and reflected on it. Why do I feel anxious? How could I imagine my living space redecorated so I don't have any anxiety? And could I imagine an attitude towards redecorating such that I enjoy it rather than feel repulsed?

\Well, I did all those things and successfully redecorated my space. I have pictures but they're not available as I write this post... I'll update it someday when I can add the pictures. But I cleared out lots of carpet space for moving and stretching, I covered all flat surfaces besides the bed with colorful yarn to make it visually and tactilely attractive, and made the best of not having a dresser nor much storage space. I organized things so I woke up facing the mountains where the dawn sun rose. I carefully cleaned the floor and washed my bedsheets more than once a [long time period].

I designed the space to need minimal maintenance. I've learned to like cleaning, but only when there's no unnecessary cleaning. I never like putting away my clothes when I take them off, and I always like dropping my pack as soon as I get inside without worrying where it belongs (you may suspect, correctly, these preferences go back a long ways ;) ). So I designed the room layout so I could continue these habits without adding clutter: I made space for my pack at the entry point, and I made space near my bed where I would feel comfortable just dropping clothes without further consideration (not a hamper though; when I live in the woods I where clothes a bunch before washing).

Rather than impose an arbitrary definition of cleanliness or order, I figured out what I needed, what would bring happiness, and made it happen. I didn't keep it perfectly tidy after that either, but kept it within bounds such that I never felt anxiety or discomfort about my living space.

Increased Emotional Maturity for Me and My Future Partner
One cool aspect of this particular transformation is that I no longer long for a woman partner to help make my space beautiful - I have the strength to do it. I no longer look for that mother-role in a potential partner, someone to take care of the needs I have which I don't take care of on my own.

Now, many women expect to play that mother-role to a male partner, and see it as natural and a way to be valuable to someone they care about. In that way, it can become an unhealthy codependency where the man needs the woman to fulfill needs he ought to be able to meet himself, and the woman needs the man to have those unmet needs so she can feel valued and loved. I don't claim every household with a female home-maker is like this, just that this emotional dynamic seems pretty common.

Now that I no longer depend on a woman partner for this way of caring for me, I expect I will seem more attractive to women - we can each relate to each other as independent peers rather than co-dependents with various anxieties or traumas motivating our behavior in unseen ways. Perhaps I'll attract women who want a man who doesn't need a woman to play that mother-role in unhealthy ways.

And sure enough, shortly after I cleaned my space this past winter, I got a surprise first visit from a lover  and showed her my living space with no chance to even prepare it - and she really liked it.

When seeking to grow emotionally, I don't often get concrete markers of progress. However, this was definitely such a marker, and it felt really good!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pleasure: The Primary Motivator (Part 1)

I've spent a lot of effort considering how to build and maintain motivation for all the different things I want to do. After all, I have no external authority like a company boss to set objectives or schedules, nor is there even something as concrete as a profit motive. My vision is long-term, amorphous, self-defined and often conflicting in various ways or with difficult opportunity costs to weigh. And so it'd be easy to lose motivation or direction, or become depressed at the seeming lack of progress, or have some other emotional issue derail me.

In response, I'm developing a 2-track approach to maintaining motivation:

1) Only do things I find deeply pleasurable and fulfilling. Pretty much no exceptions.
2) Through various strategies, consciously self-recondition so that I find pleasure in every activity, human interaction, etc that helps me build the life I wish to lead. Explore ways of achieving a goal or doing an activity pleasurably, or explore more pleasurable alternatives to that goal/activity.

I've pulled ideas from tons of sources and traditions, including observations I made of indigenous from the Amazon. All this leads me to believe that pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance, (as opposed to obligation-fulfilling and stress/guilt/shame/anxiety-avoidance) is how native, unexploited humans and communities motivate themselves. This works because the native culture conditions each member to align their sense of pleasure with behavior that is in both the individual and collective long-term, wise interest. Thus the two-step process: learn to feel meself and seek pleasure, and self-recondition so that healthy and pro-social behavior feels pleasurable and anti-social or unhealthy behavior, unpleasurable.

This has been an effective strategy so far. Pretty much every day seems rich and happy. If something isn't fun, I'm learning to pause, reflect, and ask a few questions:
1) Do I really want to accomplish what I'm trying to accomplish? If the desire has changed, then I halt the activity. For example, maybe yesterday I decided that today I would read about a particular kind of mushroom, and today I don't care for some reason. I just stop reading; I have no feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, etc.

2) If I still want to accomplish the goal, I enjoy finding a more pleasurable way to go about it, or remember why I felt excited to reach the goal or do the activity in the first place.

3) More profoundly, I've learned to find pleasure in activities that used to seem peripheral to life and that would bore me. I enjoy cleaning the kitchen or hand-washing clothes or cleaning the bedroom; I enjoy decorating my living space and writing thank-you notes; I feel comfortable sitting still for extended periods without music, computers, or other distractions.

There's a lot to it, but basically the idea is to recondition meself so that everything I seek to do brings a deep pleasure, not through some arbitrary process of self-tricking, but through a) A deep commitment to loving meself, b) conscious recognition of the wide range of benefits of every activity and relationship and how they form an interrelated web which supports the new life I seek to build, and c) using meditation and other activities to directly understand sources of anxiety or ways of self-sabotage that may otherwise derail me. Nothing is single-purpose or done only to please someone else I feel obligated to please or just to make money (although I am making enough to sustain a very frugal budget – and enjoying that process too).

For example, to show the interrelatedness of everything:

The meditative practice builds self- and other-awareness and empathy, supports vastly more emotionally intimate and pleasurable sex, and improves observation skills, presence, composure, self-love, and comfort around other people.

To pick just one of those, the 'comfort around other people' benefit leads to new relationships, opportunities to practice meeting strangers, chances to practice listening and empathizing, and possibly to work-trade, volunteer, or apprenticeship opportunities with myriad possible benefits.

I'm learning to forage and identify wild plants. Benefits: makes the forest and wilderness a home rather than a scary, foreign place full of 'resources', helps me learn to eat locally and seasonally, saves money on food bills, makes me more resilient in the case of food shortages and increasing food costs, allows me to contribute to a community if/when, in the future, difficult times demand more self-reliance, gives me a powerful skill to offer others to help free them from the industrial system, gives me a new possible income stream as I can accept money to teach others what I learn… the list goes on, at scales large and small. I could make similar lists for my knitting/crocheting/weaving/spinning skills, or pottery work, or cooking, or music-making.

I welcome every consequence and side-effect, intended or otherwise, though I acknowledge the environmental costs I incur as part of this transition strategy (i.e. I do drive to go meet local experts for plant walks, tree planting events, etc, when outside of biking range. Though I did a 60 mile bike ride recently to buy an ex-knitter's yarn, so the range is pretty far!).

And each and every activity supports in multiple ways the effort to achieve three overarching goals:
1) Learn the individual skills (both 'hard' and 'soft') that enable me to live in mutual relationship with the land, enriching the world around me and living consciously and joyfully as part of it, rather than separated.
2) Learn to relate to others so that I can be part of a joyful, powerful community that collectively lives in mutual relationship with the land and each other (this part is ridiculously challenging, but I feel psyched to figure it out).
3) Enrich the ecosystems around me to enable the life I'm building with (1) and (2). This involves everything from reforesting and river cleaning to political activism and who knows what else.

It's intense; every time I consider, “Why am I doing [this activity]?” I can mentally race through 5-6 really compelling reasons for how the activity helps me reach one or more of these goals. Working with the chickens, knitting in the coffee shop or offering to teach knitting to new friends, practicing empathizing with strangers, decorating my room beautifully, learning to forage wild plants and fungus and learning how to support their habitat needs, everything. Everything! And I feel so happy with my vision for the future, the life I wish to lead, the people I have and will surround meself with, that somehow, when I see clearly that a particular activity or attitude or relationship helps me 'get there', it becomes easy to feel pleasure in doing/having that activity/attitude/relationship. And of course, there is no 'there', no final achievement point like a job title or salary level or retirement date; just an ongoing journey which will end when I die, every step of which I'm determined to celebrate and enjoy in the moment.

That doesn't mean I always feel pleasure each time I do a given activity, like for example following my exercise program. When the activity brings pleasure I do it, and when not I don't, with no sense of guilt/shame/anxiety. If I go on long enough without doing an activity – say, continuing in my exercise program – I reflect deeply and ask 1) Do I still wish to do this? 2) If so, why don't I feel pleasure at the prospect of doing it? And sometimes I seem to be low on energy or in an unhappy mood, and I learn not to self-hate or draw unhappy conclusions, but just respond to the needs I feel in the moment.

And often I slip into a mental space where I cease to feel aware that I'm doing things out of habit and not enjoying them; sometimes this can last for hours or days - so it's not like every second of every day is pleasurable, but I move in that direction.

In this way, I become really honest with meself about me needs and feelings, never numbing them or ignoring them in order to do something I feel I 'should' do, and never succumbing to cognitive dissonance. With this honest self-understanding, I can creatively find ways of reaching goals through joyful play. And I have felt really surprised at how high I've kept the sense of motivation with this approach. Not every moment of the last few months has been blissful, for sure, but it's been a happy process of moving in that direction.

When every single activity is play and every relationship playful, I feel so energized and full of love; it's hard to describe.

And certainly I still feel stress or sadness from time to time about money or state violence or environmental damage, among other things. I'm learning to deal with all this awareness in a healthy way. This could be its own book. I've met so many people who fail to handle this awareness healthfully. Some cease being aware (stop learning or stop thinking about issues deeply), some stop self-loving (feeling guilt or anxiety from a feeling of helplessness or doing less than they feel they could to help), some delude themselves about their ability to cause change or the need for change, some numb their feelings so that things like cops beating up peaceful school children or profit-driven wars do not offend them or prompt a meaningful response… the list of dysfunctional responses to awareness of ongoing social and environmental challenges seems long. I'm not saying I've figured out the perfect attitude, just that I feel like I'm learning to handle the awareness in a healthy way.

This post feels a bit rambling, but it's difficult to express all this: I'm integrating so many new emotional, social, and spiritual concepts into how I relate to meself, others, the natural world, time, change, money, risk and uncertainty, debt, power, cooperation and competition, language, love, and more. It'd take a thousand pages to describe it all and how it interrelates.

I'm even creating my own dictionary with new vocabulary and new grammatical constructs to allow me to better express certain thoughts and feelings, which I expect will enable more precise expression, stronger, more intimate relationships, better recognition of individual and collective needs, and more. This will be a collaborative effort with a few other friends once I get the website I'm building for it up and running (which itself has multiple benefits, including keeping me computer skills sharp). I've sprinkled some of the new language concepts into this letter, such as using 'meself' instead of 'myself' as a mode of expression. I prefer 'meself' because I contain no separate entity which possesses the self - it's just me! I say 'me hand' or 'me feelings' in the same way, using 'me' to describe whose thing without separating the body, feeling, need, etc from the sense of self. This represents a profound shift in a lot of ways, but that's for another letter. Some other changes are less noticeable, as for example I just avoid using certain common English words or expressions like 'good' or 'bad' (though sometimes they still slip through!).

I avoided using other new vocab or constructs in this letter which I thought would seem too confusing without explanation. I'm in the early phase of experimenting with actually using these language changes as opposed to just brainstorming them. It's another fun aspect of life right now.

In part 2 of this post, I'll share how this attitude towards pleasure has really helped me mature emotionally and relate to women partners in a healthier way.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Update after Earth Skills April

Leaving my grandmother and family in California in February was hard - I had no particular obligation to return to, nor a particular deadline! My lovely family asked me to stay another day, and then another, and a few more. I protested thusly: I don't know all the people I'm going back east to see, but I know I'll love them when I meet them! I don't know what I'll be doing, but I expect to grow more than I can imagine. I don't know where I'll live, but it'll be a beautiful space in or near the wilderness where I want to learn to live. Eventually, I left and returned to western North Carolina to start figuring out more concretely what the heck I'm doing this year.

And my predictions have pretty much come true! I have a gajillion partially-drafted posts, but after a super-rich April mostly away from electricity, much less the internet, I don't have any ready to share.

Here's a quick update though:

Piedmont Earth Skills
I attended in 2 earth-skills gatherings, one called Piedmont Earth Skills in central North Carolina and one called Rivercane Rendezvous in northwest Georgia.

Both were great experiences in very different ways. At Piedmont I continued a practice I've been developing for a few months which deserves its own blog post: as it got colder, I took off layers of clothes rather than put them on. Then, to warm me, I moved and played. This involved lots of running and sprinting around the land that hosted the gathering and lots of pullups and cartwheels and such.  At the morning or evening campfires, when others swayed gently as the wind came through, I dropped and did push-ups.

And this felt great! I love it for a few reasons:
  • 'Exercise' isn't a separate event or activity, but something integrated throughout the day
  • I stay stretched and limber throughout the day
  • I play rather than exercise - it's fun and I learn about me as I do it; it's not a chore
  • Sometimes I inspire others to play with me in the same way
  • Intensive physical activity helps me breath deeply more easily both during the motion and throughout the day. 
This last point is perhaps my favorite. When I feel lethargic, I have the sensation that I must work hard to force the air into me; when I feel energized and very active, I have the sensation that life energy forces itself into me - the air demands to be breathed with no extra effort on my conscious behalf. This relation to air and breathing alone seems very energizing to me, beyond all the other benefits. My vision gets much sharper, I think and feel more clearly, I become more present and playful and calm.

I also tanned my first deer hide, organized a highly-modified (and way more fun than usual) game of capture-the-flag, and help a friend in a health emergency.

Herbal Medicines in an Emergency
I don't have time to share much about the health emergency, but one interesting point she had a pretty sudden trouble breathing and it got really bad. I ended up calling 911 while others sat with her. The first aid person on hand gave my friend a few drops of an herbal tincture, and it made a big difference for her, opening her throat and helping her breath more easily. It was the first time I'd ever seen an herbal remedy help in an emergency. I spent the evening with my friend and 3 others at the hospital, making a few new friends in the process.

Rivercane Rendezvous
I did a full work-trade at this gathering just as I did at Piedmont, so I arrived early and stayed late setting up and tearing down various structures and generally helping out. Thus I paid very little to attend, but even better I got a lot of really quality time with other people deeply involved in the earth-skills community here and made some new friends to boot. Doing shared work to create the space for a gathering was way more valuable than just showing up and paying money.

Experiments in Intimacy
After arriving at Earthaven, I first learned of polyamory. In theory, it just means being open to having more than one sexual or intimate relationship at a time or being open to your partner having more than one such relationship. To me, it means that in my relationships to my partners (and friends in general), I welcome and help them to find happiness and fulfillment wherever and with whomever they feel most able to do that, not putting restrictions or boundaries on them just because we're intimate with each other - and expecting the partner to have the same attitude towards me. Thus, while being careful about STDs and pregnancy, I'm exploring all manner of relationships in the gray areas between acquaintance, friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, and spouse. I've never just had a lover before, and certainly not more than one at a time, but that is happily changing.

I tell ya, I'm getting some good experience at navigating the poly-waters! I've talked to lots of women and men about it, and instincts around jealousy and partner-control seem very common and deeply ingrained. A few women have described how they're open to polyamory in theory, but in practice demand exclusivity because they have such a strong fear of abandonment. Men have voiced similar concerns to me too.

I pay special attention to communication and awareness, both of my own feelings and needs and my partner's (especially the feelings/needs they don't express verbally). With that awareness and communication, and a deep desire to care for each other and have fun together, I feel excited to see how these various relationships work out. I still feel open to making various sorts of commitments as they make sense, but not just because I feel like being in partnership to someone.

For most of my teens and 20s, I entered into one short sexual relationship every 1.5-2 years. I felt strongly I'd rather be single than in an unhappy relationship, and that meant being alone a lot, at least in terms of sexual and emotional intimacy with a close female partner. That was really hard for me. I really value the attitude I described above of unrestrictive loving support, and I want to maintain that in my life regardless of other experiments in loving relationships I try. It feels so freeing knowing that I'm not 'cheating on' or betraying the trust of someone I care about just because I also feel attracted to someone else too.

Besides the polyamory angle, I've really clicked with a lot of people in these alternative communities I've found. I already feel very at home and good friends with a lot of different people I didn't know 3 months ago.

Explorations in Nudity and Gender Norms
Two years ago I'd never been nude outside, at least that I recall. 2 months ago I met my first new friends while nude, and at one earth skills gathering I decided to help set up tents before the event while nude. I already knew several fellow workers and knew that this group, in general, had a positive attitude towards the body and free self-expression. I didn't ask anyone for permission, just slipped out of my shorts while getting a drink and returned to the tarps setup team to continue setting up!

This had lots of consequences, all of them positive.

First of all, I felt way more comfortable, since it was pretty hot out. The wind felt great, especially in the genitals which really don't get much wind. And I didn't feel any anxiety or body shame, and didn't receive any shaming from anyone else.

I only went nude during setup, but over the course of the gathering, four women approached me unprompted and told me they felt really happy that I'd gone without clothing with the attitude I had - that is, the attitude that it was no big deal, and nothing to be ashamed or anxious of. One woman had decided to work topless during the setup period after seeing me nude. Other women kept their clothes on, but felt happy that I'd defined the space as one safe for that sort of self-expression, as body-image safe.

I struggle to put what I did into words, since I didn't do anything except not wear clothes - I didn't make any statement, or act differently, or anything. I just worked, ate, and sat by the campfire naked. Then when the full event started, I kept my shorts on.

No men joined me in being nude or commented on it to me in private, though everyone seemed comfortable with me without clothes on.

I also ended up in one conversation with 4 women about how to start conversations about changing the culture to welcome women to go topless or nude when they wish. Maybe I'll write more about this another time.

Anyhoo, at my friends' places and where I live, we're way more comfortable going nude and unlearning any feelings of negative body image or shame we've learned, so I'm spending more and more of my time nude in the garden, woods, kitchen, library, or stream. And it feels great!

Living at Wild Roots
Now I live at a place called Wild Roots, a space north east of Asheville, NC purchased a few years ago by someone who chooses not to live there - instead, they want to make it available to anyone who wishes to come and learn to live with other humans and the land. There's no electricity or plumbing; we fill jugs of water from a stream and drink without any further processing, which feels awesome. It borders a national forest, so I'll spend much of the year taking extended trips into the woods and learning about the plants, animals, fungi and other life and how to live with them comfortably, among other big plans for this year. 

This essay is long enough; I'm going back in the woods. Chao!

Thursday, March 17, 2016


After a river clean-up event, I was talking to a guy, probably in his 50s or 60s, about this and that.

He ends up sharing his theory of value and really doesn't like where I take the conversation...

Him: Value comes from labor. All things of value come from human labor.

Me: Really? All valuable things?

Him: Yeah, you've got to work hard, not take the easy way out.

Me: What do you mean?

Him: I'm a farmer, I till the soil for example. I raised kids, and that was really hard.

Me: How was that hard?

Him: Well, you know, there were a lot of things I didn't want to do. But, you know, value came from... changing the diaper, I didn't want to do that, but it was valuable. Today, we moved a lot of trash in our cleanup effort. That was hard, lots of lifting trash up hills. I could have sat in my chair at home, much easier.

Me: Interesting. I find sitting still hard. It was easy for me to do our clean-up today, much easier than sitting still would have been.

Him: Well yeah, sitting still is moving towards death. It's the easy way, but hard work brings value.

Me: Work brings value?

Him: Yes, all value comes from labor.

Me: I don't get it. Doesn't sunshine have value? Or fresh river water? Or clean air? Human labor didn't create those.

Him: Well, here... think of it this way. Joy is the presence of value, and think of misery as the absence of value. Just imagine that paradigm.

Me: Ok.

Him: So think of what brings joy in life. Joy comes from real accomplishments, from doing things. I just cleaned up that river, or I just bought this land.

Me: Can joy or value come from not-accomplishments? Or from not working? What about just sitting and watching a sunset? No labor there.

Him: No, all joyful things comes from labor, from inconvenience...

Me: What? Joy comes from inconvenience?

Him: Yes, yeah, joy comes from inconvenience...

Me: Do you find joy in making love to a woman?


Me: Or a man! Or anybody. There you have joy, and no inconvenience or labor.

... at that point, the work leader interrupted us volunteers to make a final announcement to end the day.

Afterwards this guy and I chatted a little more, and I shared my views that if everyone worked less we could be much happier. He called that 'lazy' and said that sort of laziness caused the 2008 Wall St crash and corrupt behavior generally. No short cuts, he said.

But I think I made my point ;)

[I recommend the whole essay I linked above, "In Praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell. One glorious snippet:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Paving Paradise

California is suffering a nasty drought and with water becoming more and more expensive, the leaders of many companies and households are choosing to pave over their lawns with gravel or concrete. I feel incredibly sad to see it.

Then I learned that my own family is considering paving over the lawn of our home in Morro Bay to 'save water' and create a patio for a deck+chairs.

I wrote this note below in support of a different plan.

On the possibility of turning lawn into concrete at the Morro Bay house:

I've heard a few reasons for paving over the front lawn with concrete:
  1. Save money on watering costs.
  2. Reduce water use generally (i.e. 'save the environment')
  3. The concrete would make a patio we could place chairs and a table on
Let's consider an alternate proposal and see how it meets our needs:

Rather than pave the lawn, let's plant large areas of it with native, low-water-consuming plants such as cactuses as well as with healthy groundcover and flowering plants. We would reserve an area with grass or low groundcover, such as clover, where we could put a table and chairs as we feel the desire.

The short-term benefits of this alternative plan:
  • the greater diversity of plants supports a richer soil and more soil life, making the whole mini-ecosystem less dependent on human care (and human expense)
  • the greater diversity of plants provides habitat for more soil critters and other insects, which then feed the birds that Grandma loves so much
  • the flowers would feed the butterflies and pollinators, like bees, which we, especially farmers, depend on so much. Pollinators like bees are under severe threat from environmental toxins currently.
  • the greater root density and root depth of the various plants would trap more water each time it rains, reducing the need for watering.
  • cactuses and possibly other plants, if we choose the plants wisely, can provide tasty, healthy human food, reducing our need to consume food from far away and our current need to pay large corporations for the privilege of eating
  • the scent of the flowers would invite us outside
  • the soft touch of rich soil and healthy plants (especially the groundcover) invites us to play on it in a way concrete does not. This is especially true of children and adults who've remembered how to play as children do.
  • We could do the gardening ourselves. Whether we go into the woods to find the plants or go to a nursery, the total cost would be quite low - less than $200 easily compared to $thousands for concrete. 

Now let's consider the long-term effects of each plan.

Paving over living soil with concrete creates a permanent desert. Any future rainfall not only fails to support life in that space, it rushes off the flat paved surface and creates erosion further downhill, damaging other planted spaces as well. Concrete guarantees there will be no rich soil, no habitat for insects, soil critters, and plants. Thus paving guarantees there will be no habitat for pollinators, butterflies, birds.

Concrete is death. Rich soil is the foundation for life. Why would we pay thousands of dollars to bring death when we already have life for free, and when we could bring much richer life easily and for minimal cost? We might think we're "saving" water by not watering, but I disagree. Water does not fall in deserts, including concrete deserts. Nor will rivers run in concrete deserts, with no plant roots to trap rainfall and slowly release the water over time in streams. Plants invite rainfall which supports plant life in a virtuous cycle. Likewise, deserts invite no rainfall and support minimal life, in a sad cycle of their own. Which do we want?

A tradition among the native Iroquois was to think 7 generations into the future when making any decision. Will our great-great-great great-great grandchildren be grateful we paved? Will they be grateful for a world with even more concrete, or will they be grateful that we preserved living space for them to garden, explore, and play in? More than any material gift, the richness and cleanliness of the environment we pass on to descendents will define our legacy. How happy would you have been growing up on concrete instead of the soil of the farms, gardens, woods, lawns, and grassy fields?

Joni Mitchell in the 1970s sang about how we "Pave over paradise to put up a parking lot." Let's not make that mistake. We can do better!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why did you sell your home?

A few days ago, a friend told me she is considering buying a home and wanted to know why I sold mine and whether I'd buy a home again. I wrote this in response.

I bought a home in December 2009 after several years of intensive searching and saving. I had a 15-year loan, steady work which paid enough that I could save and invest each month while paying down the mortgage, and I invited in renters who paid some of the cost and were good company. I loved hosting friends and being able to walk to and from work.

The night before I bought the home, I read an essay explaining how owning a home is a poor financial decision for most people. It made sense, but I was committed emotionally and financially to buying the home. The next day, I bought the home, put the saddening ideas out of my mind, and enjoyed the benefits of home ownership.

In 2011 or so I read a short 5-part series I just looked up for you here: The Growth Ponzi Scheme.

It was my first introduction to, well, the sad situation surrounding housing, debt, infrastructure, ugly inhuman communities, fraud, and more. Municipal budgets interact with taxpayers, states, and fed gov't in such a way that requires growth in order to balance the budget; current infrastructure rarely pays for itself, especially in suburbs. Thus, new (and subsidized) infrastructure that invites new taxpayers is required to pay for maintenance on current infrastructure. The series goes into compelling, visual detail; I highly recommend it. Short version: no house has any value if the roads, electricity, plumbing, or other infrastructure fail; further, the same local governments that cannot maintain that infrastructure long-term (or even short-term) are also reducing fire, police, school, etc budgets as the growth-based economy runs up against various limits to exponential growth people had assumed would never end. All these issues reduce the value of the house in financial and non-financial terms and destroyed my hope of using the house as an investment vehicle, or at least life-long savings preserver. No one's buying a home in Flint, Michigan with their lead-water problem right now, and lots and lots of communities look like Flint but don't get in the news!

Ultimately, along with other research, I got to understand the crash of 2008 in some detail and it impacted my expectations for housing values as well as society in general. Here's a short version of my understanding: Ideally and slightly simplified, house values rise and fall with people's ability and desire to pay for available houses. However, starting in the 70s-ish, income for the bottom 90-95% flat-lined as the rich effectively retained all income gains, but house prices kept going up, starting to skyrocket in the late 90s and then reeeeeally going up in the early 2000s. This was totally unsustainable; people simply didn't have the money to pay for the houses, but it was extremely profitable for the banks to give mortgages and support house flipping, as they made a fee on every sale. The financial sector collectively engaged in 3 major frauds in order to keep the profitable housing boom going a few more years.  (summarized here:

  • appraisal fraud: the banks encouraged massive appraisal fraud, blacklisting appraisers who did not give appraisals they liked - high ones! 
  • underwriting fraud: "ninja" loans were common: no income, no job, no assets, etc. Only a bank that was willing to tolerate massive defaults would give out such loans, and they did this in droves.
  • fraudulent resale of these bundled mortgages to pensions and other investors by lying about the quality of borrowers whose mortgages were bundled. You may have heard of 'mortgage backed securities' or 'MBS' or 'collateralized debt obligations' or 'CDS'. The reason the market for gajillions of dollars of these securities evaporated was that all of a sudden everyone realized the crash was going to be worse than expected and given all the lies, no one knew how to value the securities, and no one wanted to touch them with a ten-foot pole. Hence the major banks' investment portfolios going from many billions to, um, much less over a few weeks :(

To these three frauds described in the link above, I would also add rating agency fraud, where the banks would pay the agencies to rate their securities, steering rating work to agencies that would give high ratings. You could also add political fraud, where the FBI publicly warned in about 2004 that they were understaffed compared to the amount of finance fraud going on after Bush had reassigned massive numbers of FBI staff from white collar-work to 'anti-terrorism'. [Which brings up an interesting question: if the 9/11 terrorists' goal was to damage the US, and their attack encouraged or gave political cover for the US leadership to turn a blind eye to massive fraud and waste causing trillions of dollars in losses as well as loss of faith in the US gov't, then did the terrorists succeed? And who let them succeed?]

I learned about all this largely from Bill Black and the Naked Capitalism blog, though I read a bunch of others' work too, such as Matt Taibbi's. Black was an excellent regulator/lawyer who fought savings and loan fraud in the 80s and wrote a book called "The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One". The executives of these banks would have preferred legal profits, but the public couldn't afford that, so the bank executives made decisions that guaranteed short-term profit and guaranteed long-term loss, maximizing personal profit at the expense of certain corporate insolvency someday. They made the calculated political decision that they would not suffer for this decision. When Obama and his team came into office, bailing out the banks and prosecuting none of the executives who did this, he showed they financial executives had gambled well, becoming massively wealthy as they wasted huge national wealth and committed truly epic crimes.

Rather than fix the economy by prosecuting the elite criminals, removing moral hazard, reducing inequality, reducing the finance sector's control of politics, etc, the administration bailed out the rich but not the poor. To 'save homeowners' (in reality, the banks), the gov't/Fed did everything possible to raise house prices, including taking interest rates to 0% for years which has really screwed up pension funds, savers, and others, encouraging wildly irresponsible investing in a desperate search for 7-8% returns that investment managers expect and used to get relatively easily. There are a lot of other counter-productive aspects of the government response, but to list a few: risk is now more concentrated in fewer highly leveraged financial institutions, these criminal executives KNOW they are above prosecution and thus free to engage in all manner of fraudulent and risky behavior, inequality has skyrocketed, the job situation is worse (ignore the official unemployment number; look instead at employment a percentage of working-age people, which still ignore underemployment), income is STILL flat, and... house prices have recovered to the old bubble peak in many markets. The problem of overindebtedness was solved with - you guessed it! - more debt, not increased capacity to pay debt (i.e. many people having higher paying jobs).

Now in 2016, with interest rates already at or near 0% and no political will for bailouts, we see a multitude of issues as folks prepare for the next crash, two of which being:
  • the possibility for negative interest rates, where you pay the bank to hold your money. These exist in Europe already; in one country (Denmark?) people actually have negative rate mortgages. Lots of rich people are publishing editorials saying we need to ban cash, meaning you can't get your money out of the financial system, meaning you can't escape negative interest rates where you pay the bank to hold your money, meaning you have a constant drain on all savings. Bloomberg just had such an editorial a few days ago.
  • bail-ins, where insolvent banks get bailed-in by the depositors losing their deposits (as opposed to 'bailed out' by governments). The US FDIC and others have already prepared for this. If you read about Cyprus in 2013, you know this has already been done in a European country. This would lead to a widespread unhappiness, I expect.
It seems clear that there were meaningful ultimate and proximate causes to the '08 crisis, and not only were those not addressed, they were vastly worsened by the government/corporate response. If you're wondering how this happened, I suggest you review ex-Attorney General Eric Holder's current employment. After 6 years leading the department of (in)justice under Obama, he's making millions of dollars each year at a law firm serving the banks whom he ought to have been prosecuting while in office, but didn't. Others from the (in)justice department and other government institutions, such as the SEC, followed the same path. Plenty of books and blog posts, very well researched, document all this fraud and corruption in gory detail if you have the time and energy.

I'm avoiding discussing the environmental and resource constraints to our society and financial situation, focusing on the narrower social/political/financial perspective of the housing bust. I'm also ignoring all manner of other frauds and immoral behavior I learned about which changed my feelings about the culture I was born into. I'll just say that all this research lead to my belief that the problems are systemic and not likely to change anytime soon, and that I didn't want to be part of and dependent on such a culture. Selling the home was the first, most obvious step for achieving this!

Back to Strong Towns: Other articles from the Strong Towns site are great; in 2011 I started  obsessively reading everything they wrote along with the work of other researchers, verifying things as I could. The Strong Towns group describes insane tax breaks major corporations get in terms of tax-per-square foot, infrastructure subsidies (like large highways going to a Walmart, or counties paying road maintenance for frackers whose trucks are terrible for roads), regulatory bias (such as requiring parking or construction elements that only large corporations can afford), etc. If you wondered why shitty chains dominate retail and restaurants in the US, now you know. Furthermore, the way suburbia and most towns are designed makes actual human community - you know, face-to-face time to have fun, get to know each other, and make important decisions together - well, suburbia and almost all town/city design makes that very hard and very rare. No wonder when you walk along a street, you can see all the TVs flickering through the curtains - often on the same channel!

In the end, I started learning a lot of other stuff that made me seek out real, profoundly meaningful human community with deep love, intimate connection to our sustenance and wilderness, and other qualities I value. But it started with reading that series I linked above.

Phew! So that's why I sold the house. Basically I feel free of decades of poor financial, ecological, and social decisions made by others. Understanding these left me feeling trapped when I owned the home. Now I feel free of a criminal financial system that maintains housing prices
fraudulently, and I feel free of lots of other things too. It feels good!

To answer your last question more specifically: I will own a home again. I do not expect to 'own' the land, but I will have a beautiful dwelling made by hand by my friends and me with healthy local materials and integrated beautifully into the landscape. I will not care about the financial value of the building, only its utility, aesthetics, and impact on the land around me.

One more P.S. There's so much propaganda around 'The American Dream' and 'Owning Your Own Home'. Combine this with home owners' emotional and financial investment in their home and in the financial and infrastructure systems undergirding its value, and, based on my experience, you're unlikely to find many good conversation partners on the issues I discussed above. I had nobody at all I could talk to in order to come to a decision. Then, I had nobody that emotionally supported me in the decision to sell and the process of prepping, showing, and selling the house, including my two renters and close family. In the end, I just had to do what I felt was right. And that was good practice for future decisions ;)

Monday, February 15, 2016

I wouldn't have believed it

If anyone had told me they could write a 2-3 page essay with succinct explanations of both mass schooling and the 'war on drugs', I wouldn't have believed them.

I found this pretty compelling: What Sort of Person Does Evil or Stands By While Evil Is Done?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Adventures in Peer-to-Peer Lending

The peer-to-peer lending industry is having some major problems. Since I used to actively invest in peer-to-peer (P2P) loans, I'd like to share some of my experience and why I got really far away as fast as possible a few years ago.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is where a company sets up a website and invites people on who either a) need to borrow money or b) have money to lend. The borrowers go through a vetting process of some sort, including a credit check, perhaps income verification, and perhaps other checks depending on the company. They state why they want the loan and how much and the term. Then the company lists their loan request on its website and invites lenders to browse all the available loan requests and pledge money to whichever ones they want to fund.

The lender - me - can offer as little as $25 or as much as the whole requested amount. Thus, if a borrower requests a loan of $25,000, it can be fulfilled by 1,000 lenders contributing $25 apiece, or a smaller number of lenders pledging a larger amount on average. The company that coordinates this takes a cut, the lenders get to diversify their investments across tons of borrowers, and ideally since the company's take is so much smaller than the bank that would normally provide the loan, everyone comes out ahead.

I found this pretty attractive and pitched in a few thousand dollars back in 2010 or 2011 with a company called LendingClub.

The most compelling aspect of this system for me was that as a lender, I got to converse directly with the borrowers. I skipped all the wedding loans, vacation loans, and others where the loan wouldn't generate any income, and focused on the loans for refinancing credit cards or other bank debt. Replacing a 20% loan with an 8% loan is free money, assuming the borrower has a plan in place (and the emotional strength) to stop being debt-dependent by reducing expenses, getting a new job, or something else.

I would browse the list of refi loan applications and ask each borrower a standard set of questions that I hoped would help me do the following:
  1. ensure the borrower plans to use the loan for the stated purpose, not as a scam
  2. ensure the borrower will actually change whatever aspects of their lives got them into this debt so that
  3. the loan results in net debt reduction, not net increase
If all those held, I felt comfortable investing. And so I got pretty particular with my questions. I don't have the list I used to use, but it was something like this:
  1. Please list all the credit cards, their interest rates and balances, as well as all other loans, their rates, terms, and balances.
  2. Please share your monthly budget, including all income and expenses. Describe how you're changing your budget in order to reduce debt dependence.
  3. Do you have a spouse? If so, how do you coordinate your budgeting with them?
  4. Please describe what lessons you've learned from getting into this debt and how you'll avoid relapsing into debt in the future
Believe it or not, I actually ended up having conversations with borrower applicants where they'd present all this information! They'd share conversations they'd had with their spouses on the forum, or budget problems they faced, or whatever. Quite often, they'd also show they had no budget and no concept of how to budget. A few times I tried to help teach the borrower what a proper budget looks like but I quickly learned it wasn't worth my time and just decided not to invest in those loans. I know a person could lie to me about all this and there'd be no way for me to find out, but I figured a real conversation with lots of faked budget and loan information would be more work than a scammer would bother with, so if I got a good feeling from the conversation on the forum, I usually pitched in $25 or occasionally $50.

On top of this, I got to see all the questions posed by other lenders and the borrowers responses, so between my conversation and the others, I often felt like I could make a decent enough decision - especially given that I was only talking about $25 or $50.

I can't really know how badly I got scammed, but I can say that after 5 years my yearly return is 9.3%, so I didn't do too badly. I got to diversify over a few hundred loans by contributing $25-$75 per loan, and it was fun sometimes chatting with borrowers and getting to know people's situations.

I never invested much with LendingClub, but I found it fun and interesting, and I felt like I could protect meself from being fleeced. I expected to invest more and more as I got more comfortable with the system and saw that it worked as advertised, hopefully making it a significant investment someday.

But sadly, this was not to be.

From my perspective, the downhill trend started when Lending Club forbade the conversations I had. I could no longer ask free-form questions.  If I wanted, I could select pre-set questions to submit to the borrower, who could respond or not. I couldn't follow up to the borrower's response either, so we couldn't have a conversation. If s/he responded, that was it - I couldn't challenge the response or bring follow up questions! No conversation, nada.

After Lending Club's changes, I noticed other new problems. I began to notice that people were requesting loans of $25k or $35k without answering ANY questions from lenders. The loan application would be practically empty, with just a credit score, loan amount, and a few other data points, but unverified income, unverified job, and not so much as a paragraph about the loan purpose, the borrower's life situation, or anything else. Within a few days, enough lenders had pledged enough money to meet the whole $25k or $35k loan request!

A few times I tried to submit the pre-set questions, but the loan would get fulfilled before the borrower answered my questions. Talk about frustrating - how on earth am I supposed to protect meself from getting fleeced? It's like the other lenders' standards just fell through the floor, and I could either loan money with no insight at all about the borrower, or I could not loan money at all.

On a different note, I was learning more and more about the financial fraud which had occurred in the years leading up to the '08 crash and how it was (mis)handled afterwards by the government. I saw that the rich were able to protect themselves at the expense of the poor, how we're seeing a massive increase in inequality as the rich take all income gains, how infrastructure and other public goods are losing value all the time - the list goes on (and perhaps I'll describe this learning process in a post soon), but the pattern is that the poor and middle-tier folk ain't doing so well, and that was just the group I was lending money to! Lending Club bragged about how great the ROI was for lending on their platform, but they pretty much started after the '08 crash, so I couldn't trust that the returns I'd expected (7-10%) would hold up across the next major downturn.

So back in 2012 or 2013, I stopped transferring money into Lending Club and started transferring money out, hoping that the outstanding loans would wrap up before the next crash. I just took out another $150 or so, and with ~$350 left in outstanding loans, I'll soon be all done.

Of course, I'm now less interested in accumulating dollars and more interested in other pursuits, but it's interesting to reflect on my own personal experience in a credit cycle and watch the lending standards plummet just like I read happened in the housing market in the lead up to the '08 crash. When I tell people that bankers sometimes knowingly make bad loans, they give me a look like I'm crazy. If only it weren't so!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Many Warm Welcomes Into the Family of Knitters

Want to know something crazy?

While I was in Peru, a woman I hardly knew danced in front of my table at a restaurant because she was so overcome with joy. Another bought me gifts so that she could help me, and we became so close that we both teared up a few days later when she suddenly had to leave the hostel where I stayed and she worked. After returning to the US, yet another dear lady, having just met me for a few minutes a year earlier, gifted me many more wonderful things, again in order that she could help me - all for free. What prompted all this generosity and warm feeling from middle-aged and elderly women?

I expressed an interest in knitting.

And I might not have understood what was really going on if I hadn't read a book earlier this year called "The Continuum Concept", by Jean Liedloff.

The Continuum Concept

The Continuum Concept is the idea that every aspect of every living being exists in expectation of some experience that living being will have in its life. To quote from the book:

Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

What's more, this same idea extends to our emotions and social relations to each other. A child expects to receive a mother's milk as she expects to give it. Children expect to have older peers to observe and learn from, as older children expect to lead by example and mentor younger ones. Each person expects to laugh with others, to listen and be listened to. A child cries when she/he feels deeply upset, and adults find this sound very grating and saddening, and desire to care for the child in response.

The Continuum Concept goes on to discuss these needs/expectations in humans' very early life and how in civilized societies, those needs are often systematically unmet, and what effect this has on those children as they grow up.

However, for this essay, the set of mutual expectations/needs I confronted in South America was the expectation of elders to share their wisdom and knowledge with youth and the expectation of the youth to receive this wisdom and knowledge from elders. This is where the knitting came in.

Finding the first latent elder-teacher

I began an extended fast in mid-July in a space I found in the jungle, and after about a week, I decided to move into a friendly hostel in a small town nearby.

There I met Nancy, a sister of the owner, who often worked the front desk. She was bored as could be much of the time, her only job to wait for the odd tenant to happen inside. Mostly she just watched TV.

And I thought to myself, so long as I feel too weak to do much more than sit in a chair, how about learning something new? So I asked Nancy if she knew anyone who knitted and would like to knit with me and perhaps teach a little.

Wow, did she brighten up. Nancy knew how to knit but hadn't done it in years. She was so excited to teach me that she insisted on going into town that evening and buying me a pair of needles and my first yarn. Sure thing, when she arrived the next morning, she gave these to me, refused to accept payment, and then we started our first knitting lesson. We had a few more sessions, either in the courtyard or near the front desk where she worked.

I smile to remember - Nancy wanted to show me how to 'cast-on', putting the first row of stitches onto the needle to begin a new project. One way to do this involves wrapping the thread around the fingers in a certain pattern, then threading the needle through that web of thread in a certain way - the picture below gives an idea of it.

Casting-on new stitches as Nancy showed me
The first time she showed me, she hadn't done it herself in years. Either she wrapped the yarn around her hand incorrectly, or she put the needle through it incorrectly. Then hesitated for a moment, inspected it - just for the briefest moment! - and then quickly undid the work, redid it correctly, and went on creating the first row of stitches at warp speed. However many years her knitting skills had laid dormant, she still had the muscle memory, and it all came flooding right back.

It felt so good to learn from a person rather than a book as I'd tried 2 years earlier, working with my hands with someone else doing the same, to make something beautiful and useful.

Sadly, a family emergency drew her suddenly away from Satipo, and in her last half-hour in Satipo she gave me a crash-lesson on changing colors and offered a few more pointers. We hugged goodbye, both of us tearing up a little bit, and she told me she expected to see a beautiful scarf upon returning.

I never saw her again, but I did her one better than a scarf: I made a multi-color scarf, folded and knitted the sides together into a shoulder-bag, and lastly added on a 3-colored shoulder strap. Sadly I have no picture of this, but the hostel owner mailed it to her with a goodbye/thank-you note I wrote before leaving Peru.

Knitting in the Town Square in Satipo, Peru

Knitting that bag/scarf took a lot of hours, and I spent a lot of them in the town square.

These two images are of the Satipo, Peru town square. Each "U" shape in the top image is a bench as shown below. I didn't take either picture.

Now, in many areas in Peru, knitting in public is associated with impoverished, short, malnourished, dark-skinned women sitting on the pavement with their small children selling low-margin items. Knitting is not associated with well-fed, tall, white, male foreigners. So I turned a lot of heads and had lots of fun conversations. One thing I learned was that almost no one below the age of 30-40, male or female, had learned to knit in that region. A few women in their 30s or 40s claimed they'd learned as young kids but had long forgotten and had no interest in it. They were content to work for money to buy fashionable, branded clothes.

The only knitters were women in their 50s, 60s, and older. Literally every single woman I found in this age group had learned to knit or crochet as a child from the older women in her life.

And as I met more and more older women, I started to see how invested they were in their ability to create clothing and how sad they felt that there was no one to teach.

In continuum terms, the mothers/grandmothers had an expectation to teach, to give. But no child showed a complementary expectation or desire to learn, and so the continuum was broken. When I met older women who became super excited to help me learn to knit, I was fulfilling a need their own kids and neighboring children hadn't filled for them.

I cannot do one of my favorite stories about this justice in text form, so here's this video of myself telling the story:

Yet another warm welcome into the Family

Then disaster struck: upon returning to my family in California, my knitting needles from Nancy in Peru broke on the plane flight!

My grandmother mentioned this sad fact at a church social function to a friend of hers named Debbie, and Debbie went into overdrive! She invited herself over to my grandmother's home the very next day and gave me a box of yarn, a gorgeous collection of knitting needles and case, and a great book on how to knit. THEN she offered to teach me to knit socks. A few days later, she brought her own knitting with her, and after getting me started on the sock, she began her own work, and we just sat and chatted and knitted, the conversation veering from light-hearted to intimate to profound and back as easily as a meandering stream flows downhill.

Debbie confirmed the continuum-break in her own life: Debbie's in her 50s or 60s I'd guess, and her only local knitting partner is a 93 year old woman, the other knitters in her life living far away. Debbie loves to teach knitting and said she has no one in her life ready to receive from her. When she heard of my interest, she jumped at the chance to help along a new knitter. And I received an education in knitting for free that many people pay $100-$200+ for (where it's available at all), not including the value of her lovely gifts. And of course, I now have a new friend.

In my thank-you note to Debbie, I told her how much her warm welcome into the family of knitters had meant to me, and how I intended to repay her: by passing on the skills, generosity, and warm welcome to other young knitters in the future, and by telling the story of the warmth Debbie had shown me. Long live the continuum!

There is of course an interesting parallel: this is how children 'repay' their parents. Each generation repays the previous by passing on to the next. That this can happen within nuclear families, extended families, and outside the blood-family is awesome, and gives a whole new meaning to the idea of family lineage. I've had a few knitting mothers in my knitting family now! And perhaps someday I'll be a knitting daddy, passing along the tradition as I live it in my life. And perhaps I'll be able to pass on other traditions as well.

Healthy human cultures: fulfilling everyone's mutual expectations

A core part of the continuum is the idea of mutual or complementary expectations, for example the ear and voice 'expect' each other, having co-evolved to operate together. In human cultures, emotional needs co-evolve: the babies need for nurture + the mother's need to nurture; individuals' need to express themselves + individuals' need to feel emotionally close with others and cooperate. Likewise, I have a need to learn a wide range of skills, and now, in knitting and clothing-work, I've found people with the complementary expectation of teaching and mentoring, and so we've instantly bonded.

Learning to recognize mine and others' needs and how they can be met in healthy, mutually-enriching ways will be crucial to shaping the sort of community I wish to be part of in the future. I feel excited to have a framework for thinking of this - the concept of the Human Continuum.

Extra Knitting Stories

I have a few other funny or meaningful knitting related stories from Peru, though not really tied into the Continuum theme:

1) One sunny morning I was out in the courtyard of the hostel, knitting shirtless and enjoying the fresh air and view of the surrounding mountains.

A cute girl leaves her room, and a few minutes later goes back in and comes out with a camera to take a picture of the mountains behind me. I smile at her, and she at me, and I motion for her to come over and say hi.

That's when I learn that I was the scenery - she took the picture of me! Without proof, she said, none of her friends would believe a white man would ever knit, apparently. We chatted for an hour until her bus was about to depart... bummer she left so so soon.

2) After Nancy left, I asked the hostel owner, David, if he knew anyone who liked to knit who might like to work with me. He walked me across town after dark one evening after making an appointment with an elder friend in her 70s or 80s. When we arrived, my knitting and crocheting bag in hand, a woman in her 40s or 50s opened the door and said, very curtly, the elderly woman would not be able to work with me.

She was clearly quite upset, and David asked a question or two and got her to spill the beans: her son had just been scammed out of probably 1-2 months' family income, and she was really worried about their financial situation. After she had told a little about the situation and we listened, David had a brilliant idea: he said, (in Spanish): "Will's come so far, and he wishes to learn from our culture, and he brought his things with him tonight. Will, take out your work and show her." And I took out my knitting project. "See, he's learning."

And the woman said something like, "You knit? Knitting's no good. Crocheting is much better." And instantly I had my crocheting needle and thread out to show her. Then, as we talked, David took the crochet needle from me and handed it to her, along with the thread.

Still in the doorway barring us from entry, she started crocheting. Within minutes, she'd calmed down dramatically even as she vented more, and then she invited us inside. The elder woman wasn't home or available, but this lady invited us to the back area, continuing to crochet rapidly while paying her project little direct attention. After an hour of hearing her express her concerns and catch up with David, calming down the whole time, David asked if she would teach me something, which she finally did. I can't say I learned a ton from her, but the evening was a great testament to the power of hand-craftwork to sooth (as well as a big dose of empathy and listening).

3) I found a place in Satipo that sold decent masato, a fermented, alcoholic yuca drink, and the owner and I agreed that if I came by and got a drink of masato every day, she'd teach me crocheting while I drank. This didn't last long, sadly, as I ended up leaving soon. Still, I discovered that crocheting with a very slight buzz, the most I ever got with her light masato, was quite agreeable.

While I was in that store, it was common for boys aged probably 8-20 to hang out and kill time. They showed tons of interest, coming over and asking questions. The younger ones would practically stick their noses in my lap watching me crochet away.

4) While I was in the market knitting and enjoying a fruit drink, a woman came up and said she was happpy to see me knitting, and did I know of the group of women who knit together in the market every day? I said something like, "No, but thank you extremely very much, and where do they meet and when?" With Nancy gone, I had neither mentor nor book to learn from.

I followed her directions very deep in the market and sure enough, found a woman knitting. Others joined later. I said I liked to knit and could I join her. She paused a moment as if this was a brand new possiblity that needed processing, and then offered me a seat. We knitted together a few times while I was turning my scarf-shaped cloth into a handbag, and the woman who owned the stall where the knitters gathered occasionally looked over and said, "Why are you doing it that way?" Then I'd ask how she'd do this part of the handbag, and she'd show me a more effective technique.

I felt super sad to leave Satipo just a few days after finding this club!

5) I meet so many people knitting in public, I decided to take the knitting out in the evenings when I went drinking.

Haha, not that kind of drinking. At nightfall, lots of (mostly) women set up little roadside stalls where they sell hot drinks made from local fruits or veggies. I loved loved loved the quinoa drink.

I found one woman selling drinks, probably in her 60s, who was very welcoming and actually filled the glass to the rim each time. I'd take my knitting out around 7:00 or 8:00 PM, and often stay until she closed at 11:00 PM.

Individuals, couples, friends, and families would come and go, sometimes staying for an hour or more chatting with me.

There was a common opening theme, here and in the Satipo square: "You're knitting.. you know you're a guy, right?" Even if they didn't say it explicitly, I could tell I was ignoring a bunch of social norms! But I never sensed scorn or condescension, though a few folks asked me if anyone had called me gay. Luckily I avoided such people, and had lots of fun conversations with folks. And when there wasn't conversation, I got to knit!

The woman at the stall, whose name I never got, often comped me drinks and little sandwiches, sometimes comping me for the whole night's drinks. It was a beautiful gesture, especially for someone living on sales of low-margin drinks and food. It was also probably good business sense, as my strangeness and willingness to converse invited people and kept them at her stall for quite some time! I was happy my Spanish was up to it; I was also aggressively practicing my Spanish in preparation for entering indigenous communities a little while later.

My last night in Satipo, I gathered flowers from various roadside plants and brought them to the woman running the stall. She was a very quiet lady, but seemed happy to receive them. A lot of people, especially men, would bark curt orders for drinks from their vehicles while driving past with nary so much as a please or thank you. Interestingly, many young children treated her the same way, especially ones not accompanied by parents. I imagine a warm gesture from someone was a nice change. As I offered her the flowers, the guy sitting on the stool next to me exclaimed, in Spanish, "See, Americans aren't all bad! That's what I keep saying!"

Thanks, dude.

The morning after I wrote this essay on the train, I was knitting away at my seat, and I met tree-hugger (forest, river, and wildlife-saver) extraordinaire Rudi Bega. He admired my knitting and offered to teach me to crochet. Super generous, after teaching me the basics, he offered me a beautiful golden-colored crochet hook and rich red thick yarn he'd taught me with. Within 24 hours I had a mostly-done slipper to show him! At first I tried to turn down his gift of yarn and hook, but he insisted he wanted me to have it, and so I promised to make beautiful things and to pass on his generosity to others.

As I write this PS a week later, some fellow neighbors on this organic farm in Appalachia have said they want to learn to knit and crochet from me, and I'm excited to share with them soon. The continuum continues!

P.P.S. In the first draft of this essay, I typed the entire chapter of the book Continuum Concept which discusses the Continuum and how it evolved. I described it briefly above, but if you'd like a more complete description from the author, I offer you the chapter below:

For some two million years, despite being the same species of animal as ourselves, man was a success. He had evolved from apehood to manhood as a hunter-gatherer with an efficient lifestyle which had it continued, might have seen him through many a million-year anniversary. As it is, most ecologists agree, his chances of surviving even another century are diminished with each day's activities.

But during the brief few thousand years since he strayed from the way of life to which evolution adapted him, he has not only wreaked havoc upon the natural order of the entire planet, he has also managed to bring into disrepute the highly evolved good sense that guided his behavior throughout all those eons. Much of it has been undermined only recently as the last coverts of our instinctive competence are rooted out and subjected to the uncomprehending gaze of science. Ever more frequently our innate sense of what is best for us is short-circuited by suspicion while the intellect, which has never known much about our real needs, decides what to do.

It is not, for example, the province of the reasoning faculty to decide how a baby ought to be treated. We have had exquisitely precise instincts, expert in every detail of child care, since long before we became anything resembling Home sapiens. But we have conspired to baffle this long-standing knowledge so utterly that we now employ researchers full time to puzzle out how we should behave towards children, one another, and ourselves. It is no secret that the experts have not "discovered" how to live satisfactorily, but the more they fail, the more they attempt to bring the problems under the sole influence of reason and disallow what reason cannot understand or control.

We are now fairly brought to heal by our intellect; our inherent sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.

But I believe it is possible to start as we are, lost and handi-capped, and still find a way back. At least we might learn the direction in which our best interests lie and not go on making efforts that have an equal chance of leading us further off the track. The conscious part of the mind, like a good 'technical advisor' in someone else's war, when it sees the error of its ways, ought to work to put itself out of business, not move deeper into alien territory.  There are, of course, plenty of jobs for our ability to reason without its usurping the work which has for many million years been managed by the infinitely more refined and knowledgeable areas of the mind called instinct. If they too were conscious, they would deluge our heads out of commission in an instant, if for no other reason than that the conscious mind, by its nature, can only consider one thing at a time, while the unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly.

"Correct" in this context is a tricky word. It implies that we all agree on what we want the results of our actions to be, when in fact our intellectual ideas of what we want vary from person to person. What is meant here by "correct" is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

How do the forces that put him together know in advance what a human will need? The secret is experience. The chain of experience that prepares a a human being for his time on earth begins with the adventures of the first single-celled unit of living matter. What it experienced in the way of temperature, the composition of its surroundings, available nourishment to fuel its activities, weather changes, and bumpings into other objects or members of its own species was passed on to its descendants. Upon these data, transmitted by means still largely mysterious to science, the very, very slow changes came about which, after an unimaginable passage of time, produced a variety of forms that could survive and reproduce themselves by coping with the environment in different ways.

As always happens when a system diversifies and becomes more complex, more precisely adapted to a wider variety of circumstances, the effect was greater stability. Life itself was less in danger of extinction by natural catastrophe. Then even if one whole form of life was wiped out, there was lenty of others which would carry on and also carry on complicating, diversifying, adapting, stabilizing. (It is a reasonably safe guess that quite a few "first" forms were extinguished before one survived, perhaps millions of years after the last one, and diversified in time to avoid being snuffed out by some intolerable elemental event.)

At the same time, the stabilizing principle was at work in each form and each part of each form, taking its data from its inheritance of experience, from its contacts of every kind, and equipping its descendants in ever more complex ways to deal more efficiently with those experiences. Therefore, the design of each individual was a reflection of the experiences it expected to encounter. The experience it could tolerate was defined by the circumstances to which its antecedents had adapted.

If the evolving creatures had been formed in a climate that never exceeded 120 degrees for more than a few hours nor fell below 45, the going form could do the same; but no more than its ancestors could it maintain its well-being if exposed to excessively long bouts at the extremes of its tolerance. the emergency reserves would be drained and if relief was not forthcoming, death would follow, for individual or species. If one wants to know what is correct for any species, one must know the inherent expectations of that species.

How much do we know about the inherent expectations of man? We know quite well what he gets, and we are often told what he wants, or should want, according to the current system of values. But what his evolutionary history has conditioned him to expect as the latest specimen in his ancient line of inheritance is, ironically, one of the darker mysteries. Intellect has taken over deciding what is best and insists on sovereignty for its vogues and guesses. Consequently, what was once man's confident expectation of suitable treatment and surroundings is now so frustrated that a person often thinks himself lucky if he is not actually homeless or in pain. But even as he is saying, "I'm all right," there is in him a sense of loss, a longing for something he cannot name, a feeling of being off-center, of missing something. Asked point blank, he will seldom deny it.

So, to discover the precise character of his evolved expectations, there is no point in looking at the late-model, civilized example.

To look at other species can be helpful but may also be misleading. Where the level of development corresonds, comparisons with other animals may be valid, as in the case of older, deeper, and more fundamental needs that antecede our anthropoid form, like the requirement for air to breathe, which arose hundreds of millions of years ago and is shred by many of our fellow animals. But to tudy human subjects who have not left hte continuum of appropriate behavior and environmnt is obviously more useful. Even if we manage to identify some of our expectations which are less evident than air to breathe, there will always remain a great mass of more subtle expectations to define before we can even call on a computer to help us catch up with some small fraction of our instinctive knowledge of them. It is therefore essential to keep a constant watch for opportunities to reinstate our innate ability to choose what is suitable. The clumsy intellect with which we must now try to recognize it can then occupy itself with tasks it is bettered suited to do.

The expectations with which we confront life are inextricably involved with tendencies (for example, to suckle, to avoid physical harm, to crawl, to creep, to imitate). As what we expect in the way of treatment and circumstance becomes available, sets of tendencies in us interact, again as the experience of our ancestors has prepared them to do. When the expected does not take place, corrective or compensatory tendencies make an effort to restore stability.

The human continuum can also be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed. It includes appropriate behavior in, and treatment by, other people as part of that environment.

The continuum of an individual is whole, yet forms part of the continuum of his family, which in turn is part of his clan's, community's, and species' continua, just as the continuum of the human species forms part of that of all life. Each continuum has its own expectations and tendencies, which spring from long, formative precedent. Even the continuum that includes every living thing expects, from experience of it, a range of suitable factors in the inorganic  surroundings.

In each life-form, the tendency to evolve is not random, but furthers its own interests. It is directed at greater stability - that is, at greater diversity, complexity, and therefore adaptability.

This is not at all what we call 'progress.' In fact, resistance to change, no way in conflict with the tendency to evolve, is an indispensible force in keeping any system stable.

What interrupted our own innate resistence to change a few thousand years ago we can only guess. The important thing is to understand the significance of evolution versus (unevolved) change. They are at diametrical cross purposes, for what evolving creates in the way of diversification, ever more precisely adapted to our requirements, change destroys by introducing behavior or circumstances which do not take into account the entire range of factors concerned in serving our best interests. All change can do is to replace a piece of well-integrated behavior with one that is not. It replaces what is complex and adapted with what is simpler and less adapted. As a consequence, change places a strain on the equilibrium of all the intricately related factors inside and outside the system.

Evolution, then, gives stability; change brings vulnerability.

Social organizations, too, follow these rules. An evolved culture, a way of life for a group of people which fulfills their social expectations, can be any one of an infinite variety of structures. The superficial features of these structures are the most variable, their basic tenets the least, and in certain fundamental respects they are bound to be identical. They would be resistant to change, having evolved over a long period of time like any stable system in nature. It would also follow that the less the intellect interfered with instinct in the formation of behavior patterns, the less rigid the structure would need to be on the surface (about behavioral detail, ritual, requirements for conformity) and the more inflexible at its core (in attitude toward self, attitude toward the rights of others, sensitivity to the signals of instinct that favor survival, health, pleasure, a balance of types of activity, an impulse towards the preservation of the species, economical use of the plants and animals in the environment, and so on). In a word, the more a culture relies on intellect, the more restraints on the individual are necessary to maintain it.

There is no essential difference between purely instinctive behavior, with its expectations and tendencies, and our equally instinctive expectation of a suitable culture, one in which we can develop our tendencies and fulfill our expectations, first, of precise treatment in infancy, and gradually of a (more flexible) kind of treatment and circumstance, and a range of requirements to which adaptation is ready, eager, and able to be made.

The role of culture in human life is as legitimate as that of language. Both begin with the expectation and the tendency to find their content in the environment. The social behavior of a child develops among expected influences and examples set him by his society. Innate drives also impel him to do what he perceives is expected of him by his fellow humans; the fellow humans let him know what they do expect, according to the culture. Learning is a process of fulfilling expectations for certain kinds of information. The kinds increase in a definite order of complexity, as do the patterns of speech.

Suitability to the standards of our expectations, maintained by each individual's continuum sense (encouraged by pleasure, kept on course by natural revulsion that mounts as the limits of aptness are approached), is the foundation of the viable culture's system of rights and wrongs. The particularities of the system can, again, vary infinitely so long as they remain within the essential parameter. There is plenty of room for differences, individual or tribal, without transgressing those limits.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Judging Cultures and Belief Systems To Improve My Own: Part 2

This essay is the second of two parts. Part one described how I realized that how a culture motivates its members to act seems more important to me than whether its spiritual beliefs are strictly accurate:
I've discovered a new question for judging cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs, b) express yourself to others and listen to them so that together you can c) meet your needs effectively?
In this second essay, I'll share some thoughts on how to identify needs, how we can know others' and our own needs, and how I attempt to draw practical lessons from observations of cultures I visit.

What are our needs?

The most powerful effect of propaganda, I believe, is to confuse people about their needs. We're told we need to let the state defend us from 'terrorists', but that terrorist label has been applied to peaceful social activists, people only seeking to escape intense suffering (like the muslims in the news as I write this), 'uppity' women or minorities, etc. We're encouraged to feel our worth is defined by our consumption, and to use consumption to respond to emotional problems.

For example, I know a medical doctor who, in response to a depressed patient, decided the patient's depression didn't rise to the level of prescribing anti-depressant drugs. Instead, this doctor wrote a 'prescription' on the prescription pad which told the patient to go home, log into Amazon, and shop in order to feel better. In other words, go home, alone, stare at a screen, alone, spend money you probably don't have or even go into debt, and purchase something which you obviously don't really need, and which will clutter your home and thus cause more anxiety later. This, instead of recommending that the patient learn to and seek to build deeply intimate relationships with other people who can help deal with the underlying causes of the stress.

More examples of needs we're conditioned to have:

We need a 'steady' career which hopefully is also fulfilling. A “good” job is one that is high-paying, not necessarily socially valuable. A 'successful' relationship is one that lasts, not one that lasts only as long as both partners feel happy in it. We need a big house with an immaculate lawn in an area with nice schools and convenient shopping. A good citizen is an obedient citizen, one who helps make things better by working harder and only ever protests the status quo through approved channels, such as letter writing, donating to approved charities, voting, or grumbling at the TV. A nice car is an expensive car. “Good transportation” in the suburbs in which I spent a lot of my adult life meant a neighborhood had such overbuilt road capacity that you could drive anywhere you wanted with minimal traffic in 20 minutes or less.

(I swear, in Sterling, VA I once looked up a neighborhood I was walking through on a real estate website and in the 'neighborhood amenities' section, all it could list was a 7-11 and gas station. But the school buildings were pretty new!)

So our beliefs about our needs can be quite distorted.

It gets worse than that though: humans can have very unhealthy needs due to all manner of emotional trauma suffered early in life or throughout life. Bullies may feel the need to put others down or abuse them to feel better about themselves, trauma victims may feel the need to numb their feelings in order to avoid the pain associated with deep introspection and remembering. Many feel the need to work hard even in unhappy jobs to prove their worth to themselves and others or to find meaning. Others need electronic distractions to numb a constant anxiety or meet an addictive need for stimulus or feel 'connected' to 'friends' through 'social' media. Many parents need their children to 'succeed' to make up for their own compromises and perceived failures - to help them feel better despite their own insecurities.

Many feel the need to avoid deep intimacy with others, including members of the opposite sex, because of physical and emotional trauma associated with past intimacy. Many feel the need to dominate others, often for fear that if they do not dominate (in business, politics, intimate relationships, whatever) they will be dominated, or left to live without. Many seek to maximize their earning potential because the culture of consumption with which they identify, the parties and self-image and fun and neighbors and friends, all depend on that high income. Without it, their social sphere would disappear. Their sense of self would disappear!

I've known people who feel the need to fight with their spouses, as it's the only way of resolving disputes they know. As both partners' parents had modeled angry yelling during their childhoods, each spouse feels a need to fight and act in anger in response to frustrations; it seems just a normal part of relationships to them.

Ok, our needs and our beliefs about our needs can be really distorted!

Ahh, but it gets even more challenging! Then you get into the uber-thorny issues in understanding needs. Some examples:

Imagine how a white family's need for safety leads them to discriminate against black people in housing and job selection, hoping to avoid living and working in high crime areas. In some districts, I perceive that black people do commit more violent crimes than whites. This seems easily explainable by the systemic, structural violence black people face in America, including in part that discrimination imposed by the white family only seeking their own safety. Is the white family's need for safety and their decision to discriminate based on race 'reasonable', especially when individually that family has little control over the levers of government and corporations which largely determine the structural violence?

Or how about a person who, through discrimination or simple bad luck in life, can find no legal work, no legal way to earn enough to even feed a bowl of white rice to the family each night, and so needs to seek illegal income to survive, maybe even involving hurting others through encouraging drug addiction, stealing, or causing injury?

In communities without a commons, and with no tradition of people coming together to discuss shared challenges, the needs of the individual and the group often oppose each other. It's common for many community members, in meeting their need for income to meet their needs for food, shelter, water, and self-worth, to work in fracking, or mining, or some other job that leads to the poisoning of that community's soil or water. In the case of fracking, people are causing earthquakes in their own communities!

I traveled near native communities in Peru crushed into utter poverty by illegal loggers, miners, and fishers, the military and paramilitary forces, kidnappers, and others. The natives' food from hunting and fishing had practically disappeared, the children had been shipped off to official indoctrination centers/schools; their freedom of movement disappeared and their way of life was dramatically altered. Food insecurity was a constant concern for these native groups. And thus many communities actually sold out their forests to the loggers, earning enough to eat awhile longer. This need to eat, a challenge but not a problem before oppression ratcheted up, has lead to the need to earn money, and they take every money-earning opportunity available because such opportunities are so scarce: hence the need to cut their own trees for money. Of course this only further impoverishes them once the money runs out.

So understanding peoples' needs is complicated. Furthermore, understanding needs without understanding the individual's and community's social context seems impossible to me.

Distorted and undistorted needs

I've worked hard to observe carefully what (almost) all humans' common needs are. These probably won't seem surprising: clean and secure food and water, shelter, personal safety, dignity, privacy, freedom to move and express one's self creatively and playfully, a community of people of many ages to whom and from whom each person can give and receive mentorship and love, the opportunity to do meaningful work, deep emotional intimacy with at least a few other people. Certainly there are others – which other common human needs can you think of?

I do not argue that the other needs I listed earlier – the needs for a house full of stuff, nice job title, high government spending on security, etc – are not real needs. They motivate people's behavior, so they seem quite real to me!

I'm still considering how to distinguish some needs from others. How do we compare the need for a large-house-with-lawn with the needs for social acceptance, parental approval, a sense of self-worth, safety, and shelter which the large-house-with-lawn, in some sense, fulfills?

I'm still wrestling with how to understand all these needs. Right now, I consider some needs to be 'fundamental' or 'undistorted' and others as 'distorted'. Clearly the distinction is fuzzy and debatable in many cases, but it seems a useful way to think about needs.

A fundamental, undistorted need is for healthy and secure food. A distorted need is for massive amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, or for branded, GMO, less-nutritional foods which most advertising promotes. The addiction/craving many feel for sugar-rich foods is real, in that it drives peoples' behavior, but it seems helpful to consider it a distortion of the underlying need for healthy sustenance.

So given all this, in trying to understand and learn from cultures I visit, I attempt to understand and focus on people's undistorted needs: are they aware of them? Do they act to meet those fundamental needs, or do they focus more on other, distorted needs? Do they cooperate or compete?

I do not judge 'good' or 'bad', and I do not seek to blame

I do not judge one culture 'good' and another 'bad'. Instead, I ask what lessons I can take away, what would I like to emulate or avoid?

I do observe that some cultures raise children with a distorted sense of their own needs, and other cultures encourage an understanding of their undistorted, fundamental needs. It may never be 100% one way or another, but many cultures do sit near one end or the other of the spectrum!

I also do not blame the victims or even the perpetrators, though I do acknowledge each's role in any unhappy situation. It's not the natives' fault they were oppressed so heavily that the only way to eat was to sell their forests. It's not the childhood rape victim's fault if they feel unable to tolerate certain forms of emotional intimacy later in life. I do not even blame the sociopathic corporate leaders whose personal decisions cause so much damage; upon deep inspection, I've found they're also generally victims of their own trauma: childhood trauma, or deep insecurity, or fear or inability to have emotional intimacy, suppressed feelings of guilt plus unhealthy coping responses, etc.

So I don't blame or label individuals as 'good' or 'bad'. In unhealthy situations, I find victims as far as the eye can see. That's not to say that the suffering is equal: I'd certainly rather be the owner of Walmart than a floor associate or working in a supplier's sweat shop in Vietnam, if forced to choose. It seems obvious that the perpetrator and victim do not seem to suffer equally from an act of violence. Still, perpetrating violence has its own costs: many soldiers, to take one example, suffer severe PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – for their role in committing violence, leading to severe trauma, suffering, dysfunction, and even suicide.

The distant corporate and political leaders who orchestrate the violence seem easier targets for blame. And their decisions do lead to great suffering, but there is a power even greater than theirs: the tendency for large groups of human beings, including governments and corporations, to select for sociopathic leaders. Sure, I get angry at the leaders of Coca Cola for corrupting local Mexican or Indian governments so they can take all the fresh water, impoverishing thousands upon thousands of local farmers and causing much suffering. But a CEO who didn't order such behavior would be replaced by one who did, and if this didn't happen, Pepsi would jump in and take that water, or another company would come along. And if a government of the people prevented such corporate behavior, some super power would cause a coup of some sort, as the United States did in Guatamala in 1954 after the Guatamalan government tried to end the brutal labor system and land ownership system which benefited international corporations such as the United Fruit Company, which had close ties with the Director of the US CIA and the Secretary of State.

So long as we cannot prevent sociopathic leaders from rising to the top, I believe we cannot prevent mass exploitation and suffering. So long as politics is more about responding to the needs of a few while managing perception for the rest, we'll see the exploitative behavior we've seen, each person from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy responding to their own perceived influences and needs.

Separately, I recognize that one aspect of successful exploitation is ensuring that there is no obvious way for a native or independent community to protect itself from abuse. Individuals may save themselves by finding a niche in the occupying culture, but the independent culture or community as a whole under attack may not have any real options available. I witnessed this power disparity almost everywhere I went in S. America. Almost always, in superficially free-seeming societies, the oppressor's power is not continuously on display but is nevertheless ever-present. It's something I constantly remember as I observe myself and people around me, and something I keep in mind as I consider how effectively people attempt to meet what I consider their undistorted needs.

Likewise, another aspect of domination is to so impoverish individuals that they have no time or energy to consider anything except where the money for their next meal is coming from. Such a person may not work effectively with others to improve their situation together, as I described in my short story here, but I see no point in blaming or labeling them good or bad.

I'm also not saying we're helpless to stop the exploitation - the Guatamalans escaped international corporate domination for 10+ years between US-approved dictators, and the Chileans elected marxist, pro-worker Salvador Allende before the military coup killed him.  I just note that if we wish to understand our situation and act effectively, we should be aware of each person's needs, motivations, and external influences at each level rather than resort to caricaturing people as villains.

Why blaming often seems unhelpful: it leads to tunnel vision 

In simple situations, blaming seems to work alright: if a guy waves a knife at me and demands my money, I can go ahead and focus on him when I consider the money I'm about to lose, or how I'm going to fight to defend myself, or other possible responses. But in larger-scale social problems, blaming often seems too simplistic to lead to useful conclusions.

I've seen that people who blame one person or group for an unhappy situation often isolate one factor rather than recognizing the constellation of factors which lead to unhappy outcomes. This is why I have found that spending time and emotional energy trying to pin blame on individuals or groups rarely leads to useful insights: it isolates one problem from other problems, over-emphasizing one issue and obscuring others.

Blaming seems to get emotionally heavy; it feels cathartic seeking out a villain or group of villains, but often clouds a deeper, more complete understanding of why unwanted social conditions persist. I've also often noticed that people who insist on blaming individuals will often caricature them. I feel like this is why so many assassinations or revolutions end without the participants achieving their goals: the actions often do not lead to structural change, only a 'change of the guard', and so for most people, little changes as a result.

Instead of blaming, I observe everything I can of cultural elements that lead to positive and negative outcomes. For example, I observe how mindless obedience is taught or discouraged, how learning through personal exploration is encouraged or not, whether individuals are taught to recognize or unconsciously ignore instances of human exploitation and suffering, whether children are taught to wait for heroes or learn from a variety of role models, etc. I consider how healthy and unhealthy cultural elements interact. Then I consider what insights I can draw and apply to my own life and the culture I seek to be part of.

Rather than 'good' or 'bad', I judge whether people's behavior seems healthy, whether people seem deeply happy, satisfied, and fulfilled, whether they exploit others or cooperate. I observe whether people protect the aspects of their environment on which they depend for their health and happiness: clean air and water and soil, rich forests or grasslands, space to move in and explore, etc. Do they maintain dependence on exploitative institutions, or do they work to free themselves from dependence? Do they listen with such an open mind and loving heart that others feel able to express themselves without reservation, or does everyone act guarded even towards their closest family members? To what extent do they recognized their undistorted needs, and to what extent are they able to fulfill them?


In summary: I don't care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or Vishnu or Confucius. Objective accuracy in belief systems seems mostly irrelevant to me now.

Instead I ask, do you recognize your fundamental needs and those of your community? And do you feel motivated to work with others to effectively meet those needs? I do not judge good or bad, or seek to blame, but instead identify cultural patterns that lead to healthy or happy people, and draw concrete lessons I can apply in my own life.

A final note on judging

I seek to work with other like-minded people to build a community, a society, a culture different from the one I grew up in. Many have warned me that it's not 'my place' to judge other cultures or belief systems: who am I to judge? How can I know enough as an outsider to draw any meaningful conclusions?

I'll tell you who and how: I want to figure out what a healthy culture looks like, what a healthy spirituality looks like. How do I do that if I cannot observe others' cultures, and my own, and draw conclusions about them? I carry a deep humility, recognizing the limitations in my capacity to observe, and I desire to update my judgments or hunches as I learn new things. Still, I recognize the need to have the strength to come to meaningful conclusions and behave effectively based on those conclusions!

And so, I observe and ask questions very carefully, and I take what insights I can in order to learn how to live in right relation to other people, to myself, and to the living world around me.