Category Archives: On My Mind

In transition

It’s interesting to watch the mind shift and change, ebb and flow. It’s interesting to experience from the inside, noting the sensations and thoughts at hand, while also experiencing from the outside. That is, watching the self have the experience.

This is what I was doing yesterday when trying to come to terms with what I will call “the dark streak”.

Ever since I can remember, I have always had a streak of dark thoughts. These are the not-so-pleasant ideas that I know are there and every now and then under times of self-doubt, uncertainty, or stress, make their presence known. The dark streak, which I have previously also called the “demons“, is common enough that I am not especially bothered by it anymore. Rather, I am curious.

After yesterday’s encounter with the dark streak that annoyed me because I really hadn’t planned on it being there, I sat down to deliberately make observations. This is what I noticed:

  • The dark streak is likely to rear its head when I experience a sense of isolation. It goes away with a tangible reminder that I am actually not as alone as I might have thought.
  • The dark streak is imaginative rather than destructive. It likes to ponder a range of possibilities and actually gives me a lot to think about when I follow it.
  • The physical sensations that I experience at these times are more closely linked to the part of my brain that is observing the experience. The dark streak might be running hot but my body and mind remain calm and cool if I am watching the dark streak rather than running with it.
  • While the dark streak can paint a vivid image that stays with me, there is a difference between experiencing the image from inside and watching myself experience the image from outside. The latter perspective is that of the observer that I mentioned above.

I don’t ask why this happens – I’ve had help figuring that out. Instead, I can simply ask whether this is normal. But with that question on the tip of my tongue, I can also think of the idiosyncrasies that people have pointed out over time and all I can do in response is shrug. Put all the weird things together and that’s what makes us individuals, right?

There’s a dark streak in me and that’s okay. It’s hardly surprising that we’d become acquainted again.

Society has been experiencing a dramatic transition in the last weeks and months, and this will continue for the weeks and months to come. There will be economic and political effects felt for years, and perhaps a reckoning of social structures that have gone unquestioned for far too long. With transitions come the opportunity to change, reinvent, renew, and restore. Transitions allow us to look around, to ask questions, and to take the time (after all, we are not so busy any more) to do the hard work of figuring out who we are and who we want to be.

I will not romanticise here and claim that I am grateful for this time. (Rest assured, I was crushed when Singapore announced on Friday that we’d be joining the ranks of the rest of the world with school closings and movement restrictions.) But, as I have said for a long time, we need to take much more time to think and much more time to understand ourselves and one another. We have this time. Use it wisely.

How Not to Donate Blood

I went to the bloodbank yesterday for the first time since I’ve been living in Singapore. I’d made an appointment, done due diligence on the past year of my travel history, and timed the donation so that it wouldn’t completely throw my fitness training plan. It’s been years since I donated blood (I used to donate a few times a year in the US) so I was nervous, but I really wanted to do something good. I was looking forward to it.

And then, as has happened once before, my donation was denied because my iron was lower than the Red Cross requires. I’m a vegetarian and this really should not have been a surprise.

The surprise was how I felt when I left with a packet of iron tablets from the nurse. I was really, really upset. I was disappointed not being able to donate and a little embarrassed at the whole rigmarole of paperwork and a fingerstick for naught. I had really wanted to do a good thing and I was disappointed that I couldn’t. But I was also keenly aware that it’s not actually about me, which caused further upset feelings for being upset because it’s not about me! And here I was, making it about me. I didn’t like that, either.

As my students and I study in psychology, there is theory to suggest that people do good in order to make themselves feel good and not actually because it’s the right thing to do. Altruism might not be so altruistic. While I am aware of this and aware of how our minds are wired to help us maintain self-esteem, I did not appreciate the recognition that I am no better than anyone else.

The thought that occurred to me as I left was telling, as well: Now I have to go plant trees or something.

My students and I talk about why doing something, regardless of the brain mechanisms encouraging us to do it, is better than doing nothing. I firmly believe this is true. But it took me several hours last evening to accept that I was feeling upset and to accept that my brain was doing what our brains are designed to do. I’d like to be better than that.

Overall, I found the whole experience of my reaction pretty interesting. It led me to a predictable conclusion, but one that is worth sharing: If the point is to do something good, do something good. If the point is to feel good, recognise it. And then do something good anyway.

You Can’t Erase the Internet

Something we talk about at school is being aware of our digital footprint. Young people today have an enormous digital footprint, which means the choices they make now may have consequences far beyond what they can reasonably be expected to imagine. (We know that much about frontal lobe development, after all.) We talk about this with students in the context of university and job applications. If the people reading your applications do their homework, we say, you need to be prepared for what they’ll find.

Fairly recently, I started looking around to see if I could remove items with my name attached from the Internet. (The book A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki has been floating around my mind.) Altering posts on my blog, for example, is easy because all I have to do is edit, unpublish, or delete to my heart’s content. There’s nothing I can do about content that others have previously copied, saved, or disseminated, but removing information from my blog is very easy. However, editing is much more challenging in parts of the Internet where I am not the sole owner of a document, or when other parties share document permissions.

This is interesting to consider when written evidence exists to suggest that my ideas have changed. As authors, journalists, and publishers have known for as long as publishing has been around, it’s nigh impossible to take back something in print. What is written is written and people have seen it. Changes may occur but the record itself remains. People who speak in public know this, too. In fact, we all know this. Inconsistency and evolution are easily visible to anyone who bothers to look.

In a situation when change is discovered and pointed out, there are largely two choices. We can condemn one another on the basis of what was once said and shut out difficult conversations and opportunities to learn, or we can consider that evolution of ideas is part of being human. Rather than hoping our old words will vanish into the ether of cyberspace or memory, we can make the choice to stand up and say, “I’ve changed. Here’s how.”

This is a big deal. Psychology tells us that it will likely be uncomfortable to recognise and admit to inconsistency. To protect our self-esteem and make it easier to cope with the every day, the human brain rationalises cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately this ultimately prevents us from actually looking at the very things that need examining. We don’t always like the past because it might not reflect who we are now, or perhaps it highlights aspects of ourselves that we wish weren’t there. When the brain senses this conflict in us, it helps us rationalise our behaviour so that we can save face and feel good. This is a protective measure, but not a particularly helpful one for those who want to live honestly, openly, and with integrity.

Just like we cannot erase the Internet, we also cannot erase the past. We cannot pretend to be faultless because we aren’t. We have all made mistakes or behaved in ways that we may not be proud of, or that may not reflect how we would behave today. If we really have grown and if we really want to be better people, we cannot deny what has been. If we really have changed, the past will not define us. Who we have become should be obvious from our current actions. If you see such a change in me, your role is to judge the present on the basis of itself rather than holding the past over my head like a sword. No one can heal if old wounds continue to reopen.

At the same time, however, actions speak louder than words. I may claim to have changed but it is my actions that matter.

It can be confronting to ask challenging questions and then act in accordance with what we have found. But actions ripple outward and if we can learn from the past, if we can see inconsistency and evolution in ourselves, we can lay the foundation for a life lived honestly and with integrity.

This is the kind of life that makes a difference.