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Thoughts on Conflict

We live in contentious times, and discourse will only become more impassioned in the coming years. Political tremors are upending the status quo around the world, precipitating intense debate about the principles our politicians espouse.

This conflict is probably good for us, though that may not seem to be the case, right now. Airing these issues, big and small, will hopefully help us find more stable, less volatile footing. Which will be necessary if we’re to successfully face the environmental, technological, and other potential threats that have been growing in urgency.

Wherever you happen to fall on the political spectrum, this type of conflict can be draining: psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Listed below are a few things I’m trying to keep in mind, myself, to ensure I have the energy to step up and do something when warranted, but also to ensure I’m informed enough to recognize when that moment has come.

1. Remember that there are people on the other side of your issue who are just as passionate about their position as you are about yours. This ideally informs how we deal with each other: not as horrible people taking clearly good or evil stances on things, but as human beings who have come to different conclusions about something, using different resources, tapping into different personal experiences, and listening to different interpretations of things that have happened.

2. Remember that there are such things as absolute facts, and an uninformed opinion is not equal to an informed one. This isn’t to say we aren’t all entitled to believe whatever crazy thing we like, but it does mean that if 99.99% of a community of experts says something is true, and .01% says it’s not, chances are the first group is right. There’s always a chance that some big conspiracy is taking place, but that’s almost never the case, and it’s prudent to check ourselves when we find ourselves waving flags for irrational positions.

3. Remember that there are as many ways to fight for a cause or against an issue as there are people in the world. Not everyone needs to, or can march, not everyone needs to, or can, give money. Some people will quietly work from behind the scenes, posting and retweeting nothing that gives away their ideology. Others will do little except that, spreading information they think is vital to those who may not otherwise see it. If we all do the same things, we won’t benefit from our various strengths and weaknesses. If we belittle others for not standing up for things in the same way we do, we demonstrate our own lack of perspective and capacity for strategic thinking. It’s important to understand the difference between a concrete act and a symbolic one, but it’s also important to recognize that both are necessary if you hope to make things happen and maintain momentum.

4. Remember that fighting for a cause is a marathon, not a sprint. There may be moments that require increased volume and effort, but it’s not ideal to participate in an unsustainable way. If you’re feeling drained, step away from the action till you’re back up to full capacity. If you’re feeling sick and tired, get more sleep, eat some healthy food, work out a bit, do some things you enjoy. Self-care isn’t for the weak, it’s for the smart. Don’t use this concept to excuse yourself from participating in something that’s important to you, but keep yourself healthy and ready for whatever comes next.

5. Remember that you’ve been wrong before, and you could be wrong now. I try to remind myself of this particularly when I’m feeling most certain of my ideas and ideology. Continue to check your facts, continue to engage with opposing views, continue to allow that you might learn something opposed to the dominant narrative to which you’ve been subscribing. Changing your mind when you learn something new, and allowing that information to influence your actions is not a weakness, it’s a strength. It shows that you’re more concerned about doing right than being right.

6. Remember that what’s dominating your attention is almost certainly not a new thing that’s never happened before. It’s happened in history, it’s maybe happening now, halfway across the world, and occupying the attention of some other group of people. We can learn from the experiences of others, contemporary and historical. We can use these other instances to predict what may happen next, and to come up with potential solutions. This is also a good reminder that people elsewhere have issues we should care about, even if they’re not taking place in our own backyard. Global awareness isn’t a waste of time. In many ways, we’re all in this together.

7. Remember that conflict makes for good television. Which is to say, some of the drama, some of the cliffhangers, will be more about keeping us tuning in and clicking than about actual, real world events we need to worry over. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of drama happening, but rather a reminder that our communication channels are incentivized by their monetization methods to keep us engaged. Watch out for anyone who uses your emotional puppet strings against you, and reward those who give you the information you require to make cold, rational decisions for yourself.

8. Remember to imagine what happens next. Imagine what the world can look like if we’re able to do things better. If we’re able to overcome this current round of obstacles. Focus on this as much or more than the doom and gloom, because simply not failing, not losing everything, isn’t exactly a win. If you want to build a better world, you have to focus on winning in the right way. I think most people would agree that even if one side isn’t completely wiped from the planet, there’s still no real winner in a nuclear war. The same is true in other conflicts, as well. Focus on winning the right way, and do some real thinking about what that means, and what it looks like in practice.

This is going to be a bumpy ride. Take care of yourself, and each other, along the way.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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Ellipses

I’ve always believed in celebrating the accidental mispronunciation of a word rather than mocking or deriding it.

Such accidents are usually an indication of the mispronouncer having learned a new word in a book, and after determining its meaning, having decided to make it a proper part of their vocabulary. In some instances, it may even be an indication that they’re speaking an entirely new language, and all the subtleties of that language (of which there are many in English) have yet to become second-nature for them.

Both are examples of someone filling in gaps in their understanding and setting out beyond the familiar, beyond the comfortable, to experiment, iterate, and make mistakes. They’re planting flags, pitching tents, and weathering the sometimes unforgiving elements in hopes of someday making it familiar and friendly and less threatening to newcomers.

It’s no small task, forcing oneself into the unknown. And much of the world will forever remain beyond what we can point at and accurately name.

It strikes me that, although there’s not much that can be done about the difficulties surrounding such expeditions—difficulties which are, arguably, part of why we venture out beyond our familiar intellectual terrain to begin with—there is quite a lot of room for improvement in how we expand our collective understanding of the spaces we already occupy. Of ensuring that we have steady footing that makes us feel confident enough to explore further, because we’ve come to know our existing stomping grounds so thoroughly.

One barrier that I’ve noticed in all types of missive, particularly those created by people who know their stuff, is the use of what I’m going to refer to here as intellectual ellipses.

An ellipsis is the ‘…’ punctuation that we use as filler for words that, we assume, can be safely left out. The context of the sentence, we decide, remains intact even without that chunk of text that we replace with a trio of dots. These omissions, though often benign, can become malignant if we’re trying to communicate ideas outside of our existing circles.

Which is to say: if we assume knowledge in others that we ourselves consider to be obvious, we’ll regularly leave some people who might wish to listen to us, to consider our ideas, out in the cold. This effect is often unintentional, and even somewhat easily remedied by the intended recipient: the language we’re using, the history we’re referencing, and a more complete context could be Googled, and perhaps even understood, with a few minutes effort. But the friction of that absence can be all that it takes to make our ideas seem inaccessible to those who might wish to understand our perspective, or become more educated on a topic in which we have some expertise to share.

These ellipses, as I’m using the word, might take the shape of actual, literal gaps in conversations, left blank because we all surely know what’s meant so there’s no need to clarify. It might take the shape of lingo that’s understood within the field, but completely opaque to those on the outside. And perhaps most common in political discussions, we’ll often work presumptions into our thinking, expressing ideas and facts in the context of information that is perhaps completely unknown or known in a different way by an outsider.

If you’re telling a friend who watches a different news network why a particular international trade deal is a dreadful idea, but your explanation is predicated on the knowledge of what trade deals are, how they intersect with international politics and governmental spheres of influence, and why, therefore, a hit to exports may be a worthwhile short-term loss, then you’re unlikely to convince anyone of anything, much less understand why they don’t agree with you. The assumptions being made are too many, and potentially too biased, foundationally.

Ideally we all have perfect information and a common set of facts to work from, but that’s not the case in the real world. We have to assume that in every communication situation, the people on the other end of what we’re saying are coming from a different place than we are, and seeing the same things from a slightly, or radically different angle.

I’ve written before about how I think we’re going to need more bridges—publications, people, philosophical connective tissue—in the coming years, because our ability to isolate ourselves intellectually has become so great, and our capacity to speak past one another, working from completely different sets of data, and with completely different understandings of how the world works, has become such a monumental hurdle to leap every time we engage with someone who might teach us something, or whom we might teach.

The solutions we currently have to this are few and less impactful than we require, because many of the media entities and conversational modes we’ve adopted do seem to be predicated on speaking to someone who knows what we know, or who has access to the same on-the-fly facts that we do, and what’s more, who trust those facts.

We cannot assume this. And we cannot assume that even the most beautifully produced, wonderfully well-worded missives will be seen, consumed, understood, and taken seriously, because the conviction that we are worth paying attention to, spending time with, and trusted has to be earned. We have to communicate thoroughly in order to communicate at all.

We need ellipses. They’re necessary, and often wildly beneficial. The shorthand and symbols used in mathematics are required because expressing the same ideas without those symbols, using other language, would be even more cumbersome then attempting to thoroughly and completely explain the Portuguese word saudade—which means something like an immense, nostalgic or even remorseful longing for someone or something that is long gone, and perhaps will not, or cannot, ever return, and which as a result makes one feel both happy and sad, tearful that they are not with you or you are not there, and softly smiling because they exist, and you have experienced them—in another language, every time you wish to express that feeling.

The ability to shorthand allows us to go deeper into subjects that matter and increase our perception of the world. Communicating more clearly and accessibly allows us to share the fundamentals with others, so that they, then, might also explore those deeper levels with you.

I think we’ll see a lot of solutions to this issue in the coming years. Many of them will no doubt be based on new combinations of technologies and trends that already exist, while others will emerge from entirely new inventions and inclinations.

Are you reaching anyone beyond those who already agree with you? Who already think like you? If not, is that what you hope to accomplish? Is there a way to project your voice farther, to more people, to a wider variety of people? Is it possible to expound on what you’re doing, what you’re making, in some new way that hasn’t seemed worth the effort in the past, because surely everyone already knows where you’re coming from, what facts you’re working from, who you are and what you represent?

These are questions worth asking, I think, whether or not you plan on expanding beyond your existing circle. We’re more connected now than ever before, for better and for worse. I think the potential for self-awareness and personal growth alone makes considering (and if warranted, adjusting) one’s ellipses a worthwhile exercise.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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The Subjectivity of Time

Time has passed differently for me since I arrived in Kansas.

That’s not a statement about Kansas, but rather about how the way we live warps how we perceive the passing of time. For seven years, I’ve organized my memories according to locations, and in some cases, my projects. This event happened while I was writing that book, I met this person when I was living in that city.

This is something we all do: we bracket our experiences based on the structures underlying our lives in those moments. Sometimes it’s school, sometimes it’s a particular relationship. We attach our experiences to more foundational experiences because it helps us open up the right mental folder and rifle through its contents when we hope to revisit it. “When did I meet this person?” I might ask myself. “Oh yes, I was living in Prague.” I now have context for the relationship, and as such am more capable of aligning the face of the person in front of me with the buildings I saw daily, the food I enjoyed, the other people I knew, and so on.

What’s been interesting about living in Kansas is that, because I decided to hunker down here for longer than I usually stay in a given location, I’ve also been more capable of establishing rituals and routines. I’ve developed habits. I’ve allowed myself to install more of a framework than I usually have in my day-to-day, which in turn has allowed me to see things in a new way. It’s warped my perception of time.

I woke up this morning and couldn’t believe it was Friday. Where did the week go? What did I do with all that time?

I spent the same number of hours as I would usually spend, moving from Monday to Friday. But my experience of those hours was different.

When in-transit, when everything around you is new, your brain is turned on and clocked-up at all times. It’s exhausting, but it causes you to soak up everything around you: your brain doesn’t know what’s an opportunity and what’s a threat, because the environment is new. As such, you take in a lot more data about every moment of every day; which is amazing, if you can become accustomed to the discomfort and overwhelm.

When stationary, however, there are generally far fewer variables to keep track of all day long. I’m enjoying the novelty of having morning and nightly routines, and can see the benefits of having them. But I also notice that a lot more of my time seems to disappear. I can look back and see what I accomplished in that time, and recall individual moments of mental check-in, but the spaces in between those snapshots are usually not sticky enough to have made an impression. I lived through that time, but have no defined, lasting record of it.

This could be seen as a feature, not a bug. Especially when you’re working on a tedious or difficult project or ambition, having time fly by without any memory of the drudgery and discomfort might be construed as your brain doing you a solid. Why would you want to remember all those dull moments of sitting, thinking, accomplishing little, or accomplishing a lot of boring things that will eventually, hopefully add up to something less boring?

For me, though, it’s shocking. Seven years of experience on the road has trained me to expect to remember everything, and to feel that each day is an endless opportunity to explore, internally and externally. Those moments in between, the connective tissue between visible mind-muscles, are valuable to me. Waking up and realizing that a whole week has gone by with relatively few memorable moments to show for it is incredibly disconcerting.

Time is relative. Brilliant scientists are still debating whether it’s even a thing. But we do know that our measurement of it is subjective. The metrics we use are consistent, but they are not, themselves, relevant beyond the fact that we’ve agreed that these are the units we’ll use. There’s nothing meaningful about a second, or a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, except that they refer to the rough movement of our planet in relation to our star. These are useful units of time only because we all agreed to abide by them a long time ago.

But off-planet, these units would be meaningless. If we colonize Mars, we’ll need to artificially provide night and day, forever, or evolve and adjust to a new measurement of time more connected to the local conditions. In science fiction they often bypass this issue by inventing things like the Basic Solar Year, which humans in space still adhere to, even when living around far-off stars or on ships far from any planets. This is useful in explaining how much time has elapsed to Earth-bound people reading about it, but wouldn’t make much sense for those spacefaring humans whose new realities, whose new priorities, were no longer served by that particular method of measurement.

There are good, practical reasons to maintain a grasp on how everyone else is measuring time. But especially in terms of our own memories and how we recall them, it seems prudent to stay flexible, and to allow ourselves to experiment and play.

It’s worth noting that novelty and learning seems to break us free from mind-blanking time-loops. Take a new route to work, and you’ll be more likely to remember your commute. Try preparing a new recipe for dinner, and you’ll be more likely to remember your evening. Have a challenging discussion about uncomfortable topics with a friend or willing stranger, and you’ll be more likely to remember that conversation, and the time you spend ruminating about it days later.

Think about what units you currently use to mark time, and how relevant those units are to what you value, and what you hope to measure.

Ideally, we tether our memories to things that are integral to our happiness, rather than things that simply happen regularly, predictably, and without adding much flavor to our day. It’s not easy to realign this foundation once it’s been poured, but if you’re able to do so, you stand a decent chance of reclaiming and annotating moments of your life that might otherwise be lost to the passing of time.