Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

(About 7 minutes to read) 

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.

A Life that Passed Like a Wind

Thirty four years ago last November, my former roommate, Dan Cohen died at the age of 25. He was an extraordinary individual, and if you have a moment, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.

Dan had the misfortune of being born a Thalidomide baby. He was significantly less than five feet tall, slightly hard of hearing, nearly blind but for his exceptionally thick glasses, and he had purple tinted teeth — which were always on display since his lips did not easily close over them. But the worst of it was that he had an exceptionally weak heart.

At the time I knew him, Dan could walk only a few hundred yards without stopping to rest because his heart would within that short distance pound like he’d run a marathon.

At an early age — maybe nine or ten — Dan’s doctors told his parents that, because of the weakness of his heart, he would most likely not live beyond 25 years old, which proved to be an accurate prediction. His parents made the decision to tell Dan what the doctors had told them, so Dan knew early on that he wasn’t going to live a long life.

I met Dan in college. He and I lived on the same dorm floor for awhile. We became roommates because no one else on the floor wanted him as a roommate. Frankly, Dan was one of the messiest people I’ve ever known. But when he asked to become my roommate, I figured I could handle it on the one condition that he didn’t let any of his mess stray to my side of the room.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Dan’s one ambition in life was to learn everything he could possibly learn as fast as he could learn it. Because of his circumstances, the university allowed him to study anything he wanted to study without pressuring him to graduate. His official major was biology, but he took courses in every major field of science along with many courses in the humanities. He was an engaging thinker, and introduced me to many ideas that were new to me.

The only thing Dan seemed to like more than learning something new was a good joke. Most of our conversations were laced with his wit, and even to this day, I can hear in my mind his laughter.

He also had an well-informed empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, that I myself at the time did not fully share with him. For instance, he was deeply concerned with injustices suffered by the Palestinians.

We only roomed together for one year before I left the dorms. Then one freezing winter night, Dan got a phone call from the hospital. My brother was seriously ill and had been taken to the emergency room. Could Dan give them my new number?

As it happened, Dan only had my address, but not my phone number. Without apparent thought for himself, he set out past midnight, in the middle of a blizzard, to walk to my new home because he didn’t have cab fare and couldn’t find anyone who would lend him the money. It took him, he said, almost two hours to reach me. He had to stop every block or so and rest his heart in the freezing wind.

What impresses me most about the man was not the selfless, heroic effort he made to inform me of my brother’s hospitalization, but rather his extraordinary love for life, his courage, and his sensitivity to others.

Dan knew he didn’t have much time in this world, but I never once heard him complain about it. You can say life was unfair to him, but that’s not a judgement he himself ever gave an indication of harboring.

Instead, I only recall his passionate enthusiasm when he would toss out to me some new idea he’d had, or some bit of knowledge he’d discovered that day. I think he made the most of the tragic hand he was dealt in life, and over the years, he has become something a personal inspiration to me.

Thank you for listening. I believe Dan deserves to be remembered.

Life’s “What Was That All About?” Moments

I’m about three-quarters and a dime convinced that a certain blogger I’ve been reading on and off for years writes so well that she could, if she wanted to, transform the journey of a common black ant tediously meandering across a boring concrete sidewalk into a New York Times best seller.

Her eye for detail, sharp wit, and fresh, nearly poetic prose enrich commonplace life events with emotion and (often enough) laughter.  She not only makes me feel, though: She makes me think, too.  And thinking about something she wrote earlier tonight is what I’ve been doing for the past hour or so.

Should you like to read her post, it’s here.  The soul of it is a “What was that all about?” moment that she had on her way to the gym.  She wrote it up in a way that left me feeling like it had happened to me.  So I commented on her post.

We had a brief exchange during which she proposed that her whole life was one WTF? moment after another.  That got me thinking, “Yeah, there’s probably at least some truth to that for nearly everyone of us”.

Psychologists, among others, will tell you that we humans tend to naturally turn strings of events into stories, or “narratives”, as they call them.   Where most other animals might see just a string of events, we see a narrative.  For our species, such a string of events is often enough perceived as (1) causally linked, (2) progressive or unfolding, (3) thematic, and (4) tending towards a climatic moment followed by (5) a resolution.   That list might have left out some things, too.

Seeing stories in events is not really something we learn, it’s something we’re born with.  An instinctive way of perceiving or ordering reality.  To feel the force of that instinct simply recall how you felt the last time someone told you an interesting or engaging story that…left you hanging.

FIRST PERSON: “It was the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied with two outs when Fisher stepped up to bat.  The first pitch was super-fast, too fast for him to swing in time. Strike! But on the second pitch he connected.”

(long pause)

SECOND PERSON: “That’s it?  But what happened next?”

On a subtle note, when you read the name “Fisher” did you for perhaps a brief instant wonder, “Why Fisher?  Who is he?”, or something along those lines?  If so, that’s your mind trying to change a simple fact (i.e. the name “Fisher”) into more story, more narrative.

I’m not going to spend time here speculating on why we see stories in causally related events, because I’d like to focus on something else instead:  I think it’s highly arguable that life mostly is not what we so often think it is.

Mostly, life does not fit quite so neatly into the frame of a story.  But do we easily remember how often that’s the case?  I don’t think so.  When life fails to fit into a story, I think we tend to dismiss it, downplay it, forget it, unless there is some distinctive reason not to forget it (e.g. an event was funny, poignant, moving, disturbing, scary, etc.).  What’s mostly left are memories of when life did make passable sense as a story, and thus we have an impression that life is more often a story than it actually is.

Put differently, I think it might be arguable that life is more often composed of “What was that all about?” moments than it is composed of more tidy and satisfying conclusions.

For instance, shyness was quite a problem for me from an early age through to my late 30s.  But the shyness ran beneath the surface, beneath the mask I wore of a fairly outgoing person.  I myself was keenly aware of it, though.

Then, sometime in my late 30s or early 40s it all but entirely disappeared.  I’m 60 now, and I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times since age 45 that I’ve felt shy.  Why it went away, I have no idea.  I can speculate endlessly on that question, but I cannot find a convincing answer to it.

My shyness thus makes a mostly unsatisfying story.  Sure, there’s a sort of resolution (i.e. it did go away), but I am left hanging on the why.  Consequently, when I look back on it now, I have feelings of “What was that all about?”  And those feelings are magnified for me by the fact that I spent so much time and effort in my younger years trying one thing after another to eradicate my shyness.  Not one of those things worked for me.  Then. for no apparent reason, it was gone.

When you read about my shyness, do you feel an urge to explain why it went away?  If you’re like me, you do.  My mind wants to just jump in there with the most plausible explanation it can conjure, regardless of the fact there’s no practical way I know of actually testing any explanation to determine if it is really true.

“What was that all about? moments might just be far more common than we think.  It’s even arguable that they are more characteristic of life than moments when things do make a heap of sense.  But whatever the case, it’s a fact our minds see strings of causally connected events as stories.  In light of that, a “What was that all about?” moment can be thought of as the “conclusion” to an aborted story.

Please feel free to share your favorite “What was that all about?” moment! And, by the way, some of my earlier views on the topic of our narrative minds can be found here.

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.

Wikipedia

I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

(Source)

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

How to Make Positive Thinking Work for You

When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy.  That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me.  I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.

I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics,  improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again.  I’d let my mind wander imagining her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied.  That was the positive thinking part of it.

Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen.  How could I overcome those problems and challenges?  Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics).  Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.

That was and is my version of positive thinking.  It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me.   It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.

Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things.  Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:

While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.

In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.

In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.  I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes.  At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place.  The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri.  I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics.  In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time.  It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.

Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful.  I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique.  But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals.  This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales.  I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees.  One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach.  An excellent coach, as it turned out.

Within about year, I’d turned myself around.  But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined.  The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation.  “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you?  I needs me fishing time!”

I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart.  Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all.  The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things.  You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times.  It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.”  I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.

I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me.  It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context.  The second thing, though, is pertinent.

Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”.  I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me.  Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.

By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal.  You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything.  Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”.  If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.

Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity.  I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities.  In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.

Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession.  That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day.   I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers.  I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment.  An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green.  Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn.  Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!

So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession,  you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it.   But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.

Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it.   I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try.  Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!

Testosterone, Sex, and Intimacy in the Age of Porn

Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?  — Kacey

A lack of sexual satisfaction is more common in women than in men.  By all accounts, there are many reasons why that’s so:

  • Busy schedules can turn sex into just another task or chore.
  • Discontent with their bodies can leave women not feeling sexy.
  • Women’s reluctance or even their unwillingness to ask for what they want in bed can mean their partners don’t meet their needs.
  • Sex lives can be too predictable and thus boring.
  • Health issues can cause a whole variety of problems.
  • Stress can impact both the quality and ability to orgasm.
  • A woman’s socio-economic status can influence her sexual satisfaction (the higher the status, the better).
  • A history of sexual abuse can negatively impact sexual satisfaction.
  • Sexual guilt can also negatively impact satisfaction.
  • And additional reasons not listed here.

In doing the research for the above list, I noticed that none of the sources I used mention what to most of us might be obvious: A woman’s partner could be “unhelpful” in bed.  “You’re on your own, babe.  I’ve got mine, you get yours!”  It seems just a wee bit possible that might leave the lady a mite less than blissfully satisfied.

I have no idea what percentage of men are incompetent lovers (nor, for that matter, what percentage of women are the same),  It could be high or low.  Like most folks, however, I’ve heard the horror stories.  To give but one example, a wife emailed me a while back asking how she could communicate to her husband the fact that 15 minutes of intercourse without much at all in the way of foreplay just wasn’t doing it for her. In their 11 years of marriage, she hadn’t once moved him to depart from his routine.  Worse, he’d taken to leaving her soon after his completion, often with the departing words, “I’m going to get out of your way now so you can have some privacy while finishing yourself off.”  Paradoxically, she told me her husband was otherwise a decent man to her.

The strange thing to me about the stories I hear is that their horrors often enough seem so unnecessary.  Granting there are exceptions — difficult partners, poor health, work stress, much too much blog reading, taking Sunstone’s sex advice, and all that, but it usually isn’t hard to pleasure a woman; we are not talking rocket science or Olympic gymnastics here.  So we might ask why is it some decent men who ought not to be incompetent at sex, actually are incompetent?

Naturally, we can’t get into all the possible reasons in a mere blog post, so we’ll need to be picky.  I’m guessing you will find one of the more interesting reasons to be the role that testosterone can sometimes play in a man’s sexual incompetence.  Besides, it’s always fun to blame testosterone for everything!

Theresa L. Crenshaw is a medical doctor and sex therapist who in her book, The Alchemy of Love and Lust, discusses the sexually of men and women during the different decades of our lives.  She notes that men and women in their 40s tend to experience much greater sexual and emotional compatibility in large part due the man’s naturally decreasing levels of testosterone.

Of course, testosterone is most famous as the hormone that produces horniness in both men and women.  Everyone agrees that men have much higher levels of testosterone than women, although I am not aware of any genuine consensus among scientists yet as to how much higher.  I’ve heard several estimates, however, and the one thing they all agree on is that male levels are much higher.  As in multiples higher.

Several decades ago, as well as I can recall now, a group of researchers wondered what would happen to women who were injected with peak male levels of the Big-T.   And so they did it.  The women, of course, were volunteers but were not told that they were being injected with testosterone.  Instead, they were told, “vitamins”.  Once injected, they were asked to spend the next half hour writing down their thoughts and feelings about sex — whatever came into their heads.

The women all but put the male authors of porn to shame.  They produced raw, graphic, sexually explicit streams of consciousness that were notable for being dominated by vivid images of naked men and their body parts.  Moreover, their writings seemed to reduce the men they wrote about to sex objects, or at least near to.  Furthermore, they wrote “eloquently” of their sudden, new-found feelings of intense horniness.   In short, the women’s thoughts and feelings were like those of young men whose testosterone levels are peaking, perhaps exceptionally high.

Comparatively few people know about the effects testosterone has on men other than to produce horniness.  For instance, many people have — or have noticed — the tendency of men to roll away in bed from their partners shortly after having had sex.  Far fewer people are aware that the cause of the behavior is ascribed to testosterone by at least some scientists.

But testosterone can play a much greater roll in how men treat women than just by rolling away in bed.  One of the foremost researchers into the effects of testosterone on men’s thoughts and feelings was James McBride Dabbs.

Dabbs found that high testosterone men can be driven to compete with and dominate others.  At its worse, this can involve brute force, violence, and fighting behavior of all kinds.  But even when that was not the case, Dabbs noted that high-T males can be “rough and callous”, their more tender feelings apparently “blunted” by the hormone.  Summarizing a few of Dabbs’ findings, Leon Seltzer has written:

…they [the high-T males] tend not to be particularly concerned about–or, for that matter, interested in–the feelings of others. And unmoderated feelings such as lust, resentment, or rage can easily preempt the softer feelings of love, compassion, or forgiveness.

Seltzer goes on to specifically address the problems high-T males (and their partners!) can face in dealing with intimate relationships:

I’d like to expand a bit on some of the points I made earlier about how high-testosterone males have difficulty treating the opposite sex with the consideration and respect they deserve. Insufficiently sensitive to a girl’s or woman’s feelings, they also struggle with simply appreciating these feelings. And so, among other things, they typically don’t function particularly well in marriages. In fact, the statistics available on this topic indicate that they’re more likely to divorce and–indeed–less likely to marry in the first place.

Additionally, having such a strong need for dominance virtually guarantees that their marriages will be problematic. Overall, they’re less satisfied in their marriage (as compared to lower-T males). And their difficulty accepting their mates as true (and non-competitive) equals assures a degree of conflict hardly compatible with the best unions. Here Dabbs cites the work of marital theorist John Gottman–perhaps the world’s pre-eminent authority on what makes intimate relationships work–by noting his findings that egalitarian marriages are the most successful. High-T males, with their propensity to dominate (and even pick fights–whether they be for fun or blood), hardly fit the picture of Gottman’s ideal husband, ready and willing to share power and control.

Although we have been talking here of an extreme — i.e. high-T males — it should be noted that even low-T males might echo, albeit more faintly, the behaviors of their high-T brothers. That’s to say, some effects of testosterone can be at least somewhat problematic for all men and, by extension, their partners.

When Kacey first suggested to me a week or so ago that I write a blog post on “Why do heterosexual men seem disinterested in helping a lady along?“, I thought of a number of possible reasons for it.  Culture, for instance, surely would be a huge part of any comprehensive answer to her question.  (I wrote a wee bit about the role of culture in an earlier post, “The Three Key Sex Acts that Cause Female Orgasms, According to Science”. )  But I think no comprehensive answer to Karina’s question is possible without mentioning the Big-T.

So, what can be done to ameliorate the negative effects of testosterone?  Well, we could encourage all women and girls to turn cynical and bitter about male sexuality, constantly snipe, whine, and moan about it, and ultimately refuse to have sex with males.  Ordinarily, that’s how I’d solve the problem, but I sense this time that might be a bad idea, if only for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.

I think the sane choice is education.  I have heard that currently, the public school sex education courses are generally in a deplorable state in America.  So I think they should be put back on their feet, and then expanded to cover not only the mechanics of sex and contraception, but also the psychology of our sexuality, very much including the effects of testosterone, and what to do about those effects.

I think I should mention here that I know of an educator, Dr. Karen Rayne, who conducts classes and seminars in sexuality, and who addresses some of these issues both in her classes and seminars, and in the books she has authored.  Dr. Rayne is top notch in her field.  You might want to contact her if you or your group happen to be in need of a seminar, etc.  Or if you want expert advice on how and what to say to your son or daughter about sex, romance, relationships and so forth.  Dealing with children and adolescent sexuality is her specialty.  (Full Disclosure:  I’m a huge fan of hers, she’s helped me out at times with my blog by arranging to have posts reprinted in online magazines, and I’ve had a crush on her for years.)

Now, I think internet porn factors into all of this as well.  Another renowned expert in human sexuality, Dr. Robert Weiss, was once asked, “What is the most common issue you see with today’s generation when it comes to relationships and sex?”  In response, Weiss pointed squarely to internet porn:

The most common negative issue I see with young people is a lack of understanding about how to build intimacy, trust and healthy sex.

This means that adolescents and young adults, because of their extensive exposure to internet porn, and sex without relationships (see Tinder) seems to be leading to untested expectations about what a partner should and should not deliver sexually and when. To put it simply, pre-digital age, if you wanted to get laid, and you weren’t going to pay for it, you had to be romantic, you had to have the charm and social skills to make someone feel safe and comfortable enough to want to be sexual.

Today, that skill set is no longer required [to get laid], but it is required to build romance, sexual intimacy and love. So I see heterosexual young men struggling with the idea that sex in real life should be like porn, and all the expectations that come with that.

I see heterosexual young women…with their new freedoms and openness to sex without relationships…. But also feelings of obligation and inferiority around sex with men who use porn as their standard.

I think the key to understanding the impact internet porn is having on the sex lives of men is to grasp that it is providing the model for what sex should be — especially for young men, who do not yet have more or less firm notions about what sex should be.

Another thing porn seems to be implicated in is the creation of a certain newfangled sexual dysfunction characterized by experiencing real people as less interesting than porn.  Weiss again:

When people become adapted to hyper stimulation (internet porn, webcam sex) that level of intensity becomes their expectation and norm. Therefore meeting with a real, live person just isn’t that interesting. This seems to be a different population than the sex addicts that I have treated for the last 30 years as it is a problem that seems to develop in adolescents and young adults rather than related to very early trauma.

There are quite a few other problems associated with internet porn, including more kinds of sexual dysfunctions, such as erectile dysfunction, anorgamsia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation and lower brain activation to sexual images.  Add to that the fact that some porn — not all, but some (e.g. rape porn) — seems to be associated with increased sexual aggression in men who heavily view it.

I have not fully answered here Karina’s question, but have instead stuck to the impact of just two factors, testosterone and porn.  I would submit that their impact on the sexual attitudes and behaviors of men is enormous.  For one thing, they are found everywhere.  Testosterone because it’s in all our bodies, and porn because it is available via the internet, so their influence is ubiquitous.  An interesting question to me is whether education will ever be enough to ameliorate the negative effects of those things.   I’m not so sure it will be enough.  But what do you think is the best way to deal with  these realities?  Your views are welcomed!

“A Poem to My Younger Self” by Rebekah Blake

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

I am pleased to post for you a poem by Rebekah Blake, who is a blogger at Who I Was.  Rebekah says she usually blogs about “unrequited love and heartbreak” but decided today to compose a poem on a different subject for International Women’s Day.  As it happened, the subject she chose is one near and dear to my own heart:  Being true to oneself.  I hope you enjoy her work as much I do!

A Poem to My Younger Self

When I was growing up
I thought I had to choose
Between picking fights or ladylike
Pretty pinks or shades of blue
So I wasn’t like the others
Feeling proud in my unique
Playing into the façade
That girls are something weak
But I want to tell my younger self
Some things that I have learned
There’s no wrong way of being you
And womanhood has no points to earn
Whether you’re sweatpants and Starbucks
Or dressed ready for a fight
Seek first to understand
Before you argue to be right
You still have a ways to go
And more mistakes that you will make
But if you admit when you are wrong
You’ll find the spark in you awake
To be true to who you are
And kind to the truth of others
You’ll find that women are strong
No matter their shape, size or color
One day you’ll stand in unity
With sisters by your side
Knowing this is what we need
To be a woman in this life.