Fundamentally Wrong: I Can’t Just Do It If I Choose

One of the deepest and oldest philosophical and psychological debates revolves around the concept of choice and free will. The question of whether we truly have control over our lives is something that comes up across all fields of human reasoning, from whether the universe is pre-determined to play out the way it does, to whether or not there is a god who gives us the perception or reality of choice.

These concepts are so basic that most people find themselves on one side or the other of the debate without really even knowing it, or understanding it. People are brought up with certain beliefs, and many of those beliefs – especially if they reinforce or are reinforced by the events in our lives – become indistinguishable from fact in our minds. The notion of god, or the concepts of organized religion, for example, survive by the very fact that they fit so well into the world-view of most of the world.

My wife, for example, was raised from an early age with the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to. She’s shared stories with my of her father teaching her and reinforcing these concepts, such as using ”elbow-grease” to clean the tub (which turned out, of course, to just be a great deal of physical effort, and not an actual cleaning product, much to her dismay). She learned from this, and it reinforced for her that with enough effort, you can succeed at almost anything. Indeed, her life and career has been largely successful, guided by this and other lessons learned from her youth.

I, on the other hand, was largely raised to believe that I was a success naturally, whether or not I put effort into something or not. I was praised as highly intelligent, as though somehow intelligence was in itself a success, and effort was rarely, if ever, rewarded. For that matter, many of the things I attempted as a child needed little effort, and through intellectualism I was often able to accomplish many great deeds. When I encountered something that I actually struggled with, I would more often than not simply give up, and was allowed to – moving on to something easier to achieve.

Just as much as my wife’s childhood led to her adult outlook on life, I’m sure my own influenced my current state of being, even to the extent of my mental disorders and never-ending depression. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier to break out of, any more than you could convince a life-long Christian that there is no god. But it also leads to conflicts – often between my wife and myself – around the ability to do things, given one’s state of mind.

For example, we had a minor argument the other night around doing the dishes. We had already eaten dinner, and all that was left was to clean up the kitchen. Something that, physically, I am perfectly capably of doing. However, I have been struggling over the past month with a very, very severe depression, and the honest truth is that there are many times when I simply cannot do something.

I said as much to my wife on the night in question, and her response, born partly out of frustration that the house is perpetually a mess and partly, I’m sure, out of frustration that I was behaving in what she saw as a lazy and unproductive manner, was: ”You can if you choose to.”

This is where the conflict sets in, both from our views on the world, our lived experiences, and probably our upbringing. To me, in a state of chronic depression, there is no choice in the matter. I might as well have no arms or legs; the task of washing up after dinner is absolutely impossible. To her, it’s all a question of mental will: if you want to do something enough, you’ll do it.

I mistakenly made a poor, in-the-moment analogy of a physical, chronic illness: I said that by that measure, you could cure yourself of cancer if you chose to. Poor taste, poor analogy, it didn’t go over well, and we kind of got into a minor shouting match.

In hindsight, there are better analogies I can think of; the reason I chose the one I did is simply because people so very often assume that mental illnesses are somehow less than physical ones, or that they shouldn’t stop you from performing in the way that a physical disease might. Instead, I think a better comparison would be trying to lift a boulder: you can ’want’ to all you like, you can ’choose’ to lift it, but if the boulder weighs three tons, you’re not going to be budging it.

It’s so terribly difficult to describe what it’s like to be depressed to the point of incapacitation to someone who’s never experienced it. It feels impossible to convey the weight of emptiness that takes hold of every waking thought, and the way in which it makes even the simplest of tasks insurmountable. When I say I ’can’t’ do the dishes, I don’t mean I’m choosing not to; I mean I literally can’t do it.

Lately, there’ve been a lot of things I can’t do. I realize this must be making me extremely difficult to live with, and the mess I leave behind me, unable to clean up, only makes it worse. For what it’s worth, I do try to minimize my impact, only using dishes when absolutely necessary, and mostly just lying in bed to avoid disrupting the rest of the house. But I can’t live without creating some kind of path, whether it be hair in the shower or dishes in the sink, and I feel awful and guilty for it, but it doesn’t change my ability – or inability – to do anything about it. (By the same token, I am often unable to go to work.)

I appreciate the efforts that the world is taking to liken mental illness to physical illness, inasmuch as trying to get people to take mental disorders seriously. They are just as incapacitating as physical illnesses, and oftentimes just as, if not more, difficult to overcome. But perhaps a better likening might actually be to compare a mental illness to a physical incapability. If you are missing an arm, or weigh 100 pounds, there are certain things you may simply not be able to do – at least not without help. Humans are, of course, adept at overcoming adversity, but there are some things that are impossible to overcome on one’s own, and a mental illness is one of those things.

So when I say I can’t do something, please don’t assume I’m taking an easy path, or being lazy, or simply ’choosing’ not to put in effort. I choose the word ’can’t’ very deliberately; it means what it means.

One day I’ll gain the strength to lift the boulder; for now, I am weak.

The Toxicity of Revenge Culture

Every time something tragic happens – particularly when it’s heightened by racial tension, like the murder of George Floyd – it seems the worst of humanity comes out of the woodwork. Alongside news of protests, police brutality and burning buildings are countless streams of people – usually white – caught on camera being aggressively racist, inciting or causing violence, and all-round being essentially despicable pieces of human garbage.

It isn’t clear whether this seems to happen more during times of public outrage because racists are fighting what they see as a threat to their way of life, or if it’s just that the rest of us pay more attention at these times, but from calling cops on non-threatening black men to assualting young girls trying to stand up for Black Lives Matter, there has been no end to the instances of hate directed at the people who are trying desperately to fight for their freedom and equality.

The good news, of course, is that in today’s society of smart phones and everywhere-cameras, it’s become increasingly difficult to act like a bigot in public without being caught. And in the instances where these outrageous performances are recorded and uploaded to the internet, they often go viral – a swift dose of karma to the perpetrators.

And karma feels good. It’s undeniably satisfying to see a racist cut down to size; it feels good to watch as someone unbearably proud of their whiteness is ripped apart on social media.

The problem is that this isn’t an answer to racism. It isn’t an answer to intolerance, or bigotry, because the people who were initially the agressors become victims of hate themselves, and even if it feels like they deserve it, many of these people’s lives are destroyed by their acts of intolerance. What happens then is that these people, who clearly believe in their own superiority, don’t learn not to be a bigot; they learn to hide it. They don’t learn to change; they learn instead that they were right all along, and that the people they hated deserve that hate.

Nearly every one of these stories I’ve seen of people abusing others from a delusional position of authority has ended with them losing their jobs, their homes, and at times even their families. Corporate sponsors cut ties, employers fire them, and they’re left with no means to live – and worse, the stain of being branded forever a racist indelible on their reputation.

Now, I’m not advocating that these people ‘deserve’ better; I don’t believe in judging others without knowing them, and an individual act of racism does not a racist make – just like being wrong once doesn’t make you wrong all the time. But what happens is that the internet allows people, from the relative safety of their online anonymity, to pass judgement nonetheless on people they’ve never met and know nothing about.

But what I do believe is that the answer to racism doesn’t lie in avenging the victims, or in destroying the establishment. By taking everything away from someone who made a racist remark or acted out against another person because of their inherently misplaced beliefs, we’re only reinforcing the notion that the ‘others’ are indeed bad people, and that they’ll be punished for speaking out. It fosters a false victim mentality, and breeds a culture that actually causes racism to fester and grow. Rather than looking to themselves to ask why this happened, these people will simply blame the oppressed for oppressing them.

No – the answer to racism lies in education. I believe strongly in the inherent goodness of humanity – the idea that people are good at heart (at least to some degree), and their upbringing and education is what shapes their personalities. As you navigate life, growing older day by day, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing paths that fit in line with your taught beliefs naturally, which only reinforces those notions and ideas that, for many of us, remain subconscious all our lives. It’s easy to teach a four-year-old to play nice with others; it’s much harder to change the outlook of a forty-year-old.

And some people, of course, are taught so poorly in their childhood, and live a life that so strongly reinforces their negative beliefs, that they quickly become irredeemable. This happens in all walks of life, of course, but since we live in a society that has always favored white men over all others, it allows for those immutable personalities to rise to power more easily than those with more open minds, which allows them to make the rules and define the society we live in to their own liking … leaving room to grow for the systemic racism and misogyny that has rotted the heart of this country for centuries.

But these people – these truly ‘bad apples’ – are generally few and far between. Most people, I think, have the capacity to relearn their world-view in the face of new information, so long as it’s presented in a way that doesn’t uproot everything they’ve ever known. People fear change, and will cling desperately to unfamiliarity. By wreaking revenge on people who are outwardly racist, we’re only causing further damage to the idea of peaceful equality. You can’t build yourself up by tearing others down.

So what I suggest is this: next time you see a story on Facebook or Twitter about a racist being put in their place, ask yourself – am I really so different? Have I never laughed at a racist joke, or worried more about passing through a black neighborhood than a white one? Anyone can say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and whilst many of the acts making the rounds truly are deplorable, who are we to decide their fate? Getting someone fired for poor behavior when they aren’t even working is akin to vigilante justice, which is a dangerous thing to throw around.

I’ve heard it said that racism isn’t black people’s problem – it’s white people’s. In that context, I think it’s as important to listen to the racists as it is to listen to the oppressed. If we actually give everyone a forum to speak intelligently – rather than forcing people into acts of aggression because they feel their voices are unheard – I think there would be a much better opportunity to help those people with racial biases to actually understand themselves better, gain insight, and perhaps – just perhaps – grow and change.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that we shouldn’t celebrate vengence on those who would oppress others. That doesn’t make anyone a better person. Instead, we should focus on celebrating those people who are willing and able to change. Celebrate those who can learn to love, not those who have only learned to hate.

Who have you seen grow or change in the past few months? Who can you celebrate?

Talent ≠ Success

tal-ent (/’talǝnt/)
natural aptitude or skill.

Oxford English Dictionary

When I was very young, I was always told by my parents that I was exceptional, talented, and full of potential. There was no doubt that I would go on to be a great musician, or film composer, or physicist, or … something. I would defy the expectations of everyone around me, and I’m fairly certain people saw me as a somewhat precocious, and probably very pretentious, little kid.

You see, I grew up as as child in rural, backwater Switzerland, where the talent pool was small, and I was a big fish in a tiny little pond. My first exposure to the limits of my talent came when we moved to England, and I was suddenly in classes with people who were genuinely as talented, and in some cases far more talented, than I could ever hope to be. Pianists who could play Bach’s C#-minor fugue, and cellists who could play Elgar; English students who could write better than me, and math students who understood differentials better than me.

This was a blow to my young ego, which had unto that point been stroked egregiously by everyone around me. Yet I weathered it, and came to the realization that, in most endeavors, there would always be someone in the world who could do it better. That’s the nature of life.

As a side note, this became a factor in my worsening teenage depression, as I assumed that I would never amount to anything if I couldn’t be the best at anything.

And yet, I’ve continued on through decades assuming that my lack of success (and let’s be clear, in this context success means money) was due to a lack of talent – that I really am not very good at very much. I have a low-skill job at mediocre pay, I frequently live paycheck-to-paycheck, and the art I create is not spread wide across the literary or musical worlds.

The funny thing is that, to myself, I really enjoy what I create. I listen to my own songs on repeat; I re-read my own books frequently. My background wallpaper is a photo I took – one of my favorites. In my own mind – from a failed childhood or some other delusion – I am still talented.

And perhaps this isn’t necessarily wrong, per se; if talent is a natural aptitude or skill – key word being ‘natural’ – then I am at least somewhat talented. Whilst I’ve enjoyed a musical upbringing and education, I’ve never been taught anything more than high school English, and yet have written four full-length novels. In my own subjective opinion, at least some of my songs are as good as number one chart hits – within genres, at least.

Maybe it’s okay to be talented; maybe it’s okay to think I’m talented. What I might consider a lack of success doesn’t have to mean a lack of talent.

You see, it’s taken me a long time to realize that talent and success don’t go hand-in-hand. I might be talented; I might write good songs and passable novels. But talent doesn’t guarantee success (and frequently, success doesn’t guarantee talent). In fact, I would go as far as to argue they aren’t even two sides of the same coin, but literally separate coins entirely.

I wrote three fantasy novels. They’ve amassed – in the five years since publication – fewer than 30 reviews and ratings. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s read them, and I certainly haven’t recouped my editing costs through sales. The same is true for my young adult novel, although it’s spread has been somewhat wider than my fantasy.

What I’ve learned is that writing a book is hard, tedious, laborious and and thankless work. It’s the fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, sweat, tears, depressions and other terrible emotional free-falls, and to create a worthy book – one that stands toe to toe with ‘real’ (read: established) authors – is an incredibly difficult and daunting task.

But selling a book is even harder.

Selling a book – that is to say, marketing a book – is a whole different world. A completely different set of skills are required, a different world view and knowledge, different insights and connections, and is often subject to the mercy of individuals who may simply not like your work. Getting significant sales from a book you wrote is a different beast altogether, and one that I most certainly don’t have a talent for.

Yet what I’ve discovered is … that’s okay. Just like I learned as a child that I’m not ever going to be the best at anything, and to focus on the things I am somewhat good at, I’ve learned that marketing and selling is something I’m just not very good at. And that’s okay.

Success – and its definition – is highly subjective. To succeed means to achieve a goal, and in the sense that, when I started writing I had a goal to write a novel, I have succeeded. I’ve succeeded, in fact, four times over. And not only did I write four novels, I wrote four damn good novels – maybe no Harper Lee or Tolkien, but perhaps at least as engaging and well-written as Stephen King (or maybe Jay Asher). I like my books.

Whether they ever lead to a career or not isn’t necessarily what I care about; I didn’t set out to write a best-seller. If I had, I would have written a by-the-numbers thriller or romance novel, and sold it to the first publisher wanting to tack it on to the countless thousands of other books out there exactly like it. No; I’m much happier having written a complex, character-driven young adult novel, or dark, unpredictable fantasy stories, knowing that I’m personally pleased with how they turned out.

If, in some years, someone discovers these books and makes me an offer I can’t refuse, well then that’l be the icing on the cake. Until then, I’ll keep writing, because the satisfaction of finishing a story is in itself a success. The fact that there are people in the world who I know have been touched by my work is all the nicer.

Talent doesn’t equal success, but then again, success doesn’t require talent.

Best to put talent to good use.