Monday, August 6, 2012

American Myths are Killing Us: How the Way We Live is Self-defeating and What We Can Do About It

If we supported people from the beginning of life, then we would not have the social problems we have now.

Let me explain what I mean... Let's start by describing what life is like now and why.

Most of us survive mostly off our own immediate family. If one is born into a low socio-economic status family, a family in poverty, all indicators show they do not have high quality existence. They struggle with health, emotional and social well being, may experience abuse and neglect, etc. Being in poverty is very stressful for all family members and it has a huge impact on people. Not just in the immediate, but generally for the rest of a person's life. This could mean developing mental illness, substance abuse issues and other addictions, and other negative effects from trauma. In addition, the likelihood one ever gets out of poverty, if they started in poverty, is very low.

According to one cultural belief in America, if a person just works hard enough they can pull themselves out of poverty-- "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." However, this is a myth. If a person doesn't have boots how can they pull them up? The fact is most people born into poverty will never leave it, and this is not because they do not work hard. In fact, most poor folks work harder than most wealthy people, working several grueling manual labor jobs. But the jobs they can get are super low wage jobs and they cannot afford to hire nanny's to take care of their children or maids to clean their house.

Women in poverty, in particular, work several jobs, take care of their children, cook, clean, and run errands, not to mention are expected to take care of their partners. That is part of why poor people are so stressed out-- they have very little time to relax, decompress, and participate in self-care. Not to mention when a parent is away from their child so much of the time, this causes stress on the child.

Children need close bonds with their parents so they can attune to them, develop healthy attachments, and mirror the parent's modeling. The rise in childhood mental illness has been positively correlated to poverty, stress, and lack of parent contact. In addition, families under stress and suffering from inequality and being at the bottom of the hierarchy, strive for power and control. One of the negative consequences of this is violence and abuse. 

Furthermore, substance abuse and other addictions often come into the picture as people try to find a way to cope with the psycho-social stressors in their lives. Addictions often lead to children being neglected and unsupervised, where their chances of abuse increase. People vastly underestimate the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing child. For instance, did you know that a young child who simply witnesses their parents in a domestic violence situation, can get brain damage? A child doesn't even have to be touched for trauma to effect them. Imagine what happens to children who do face actual violence themselves, or who are emotionally abused, neglected, or sexually abused? We know that abuse is wide-spread, and that one in three girls and one in six boys has been sexually abused. That is astronomical and means abuse is wide spread and commonplace. The consequences of wide-spread abuse is life-long. Often this leads to a generational cycle of abuse continuing on in a never-ending repeating loop, which makes us stuck in a destructive pattern that keeps hurting people and society.

Another cultural belief in America is that if a person struggles to, "make it all on their own," that they somehow deserve more. This again, is a myth. The idea of an individual who works hard being deserving of more is wrong. Everyone deserves a good life regardless of hard work. Besides this, most people are brainwashed into believing that rich people are wealthy due to their own hard work. It's actually the opposite.

Wealthy folks are born into wealth most of the time. And when someone starts out with a lot of money they are able to use it to buy their way to the top. This works by living in relative ease, comfort, and luxury, going to the best schools, having connections and networks to get the best jobs, being able to purchase whatever they want or need with existing money their parents or family members give them, having money to invest so that they make money with money, and having lots of tax shelters, loopholes, and subsides etc. which increases their wealth even more. The rich live a truly privileged and charmed life, as capitalist society is set up to benefit them over all others. Furthermore, the way in which the wealthy accumulated their wealth is all rooted in a system of economic inequality and exploitation of others.

In fact, most people became rich because they and/or their ancestors exploited others, either through slavery, indentured servitude, through wage slavery, etc. On top of that all that, the tax cuts they receive, their ability to invest, have jobs that take advantage of others, and special treatment and favors they receive, has actually made it so there is a redistribution of the rest of our combined wealth upwards. The top 1% own 40% of the wealth in the entire country. And the top 1% own almost 40 times as much as the bottom 50%. They didn't earn it, they stole it. And this is immoral, unethical, inhumane, and wrong. No one needs or deserves that much money and the way they got it isn't right and was not earned fair and square.

In addition, most people lack a basic understanding of exactly how much we rely on each other. NO ONE is making it on their own. Unless one lives on a desert island by themselves, the average person relies on possibility thousands of people for their everyday existence. Think about it... who made your food, clothes, or house? Who makes and delivers good and services? Who provides you education and healthcare? Who took care of you as child and who takes care of you as an adult? Don't fool yourself by saying you take care of yourself. We all rely on others to make life work for us and to survive.

Could you imagine if you had to do everything to survive yourself? Could you imagine what life would be like if you were all alone? Frankly, it would suck. It would be incredibly difficult and on top of it, incredibly isolating, lonely, and alienating.

Studies by neuro-biologist Robert Sapolsky out of Stanford University, who studies stress, prove that human beings are social animals. We thrive on social interaction and connection. Also Salpolsky has proven that in a society with hierarchy and domination, stress greatly increases. Chemicals are released into the body when we are stressed, such as Cortisol, are bad for us if they stay in our bodies long-term. Chronic stress is directly linked to chronic diseases, mental illness, and early death. Chronic stress also does bad things to the nervous system. Stress kills neurons in the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which impacts memory. It also has depletes pathways of dopamine, which causes depression, among other mood changes. There are even more effects on our health and well being, and it spreads to those around us, and thus the impact stress are huge.

What Saolsky also concludes is if we lived in a non-hierarchical society, where there was peace among people who cooperated instead of competed, who supported each other instead of trying to dominate one another, and where everyone helped each other out to survive, we would all live longer happier lives. This is not up for debate, it's a fact.

In fact, Sapolsky saw this happen first hand when studying baboons in Africa. When a group of dominant baboon's died by eating contaminated food, the entire community became more tranquil and lived longer less stressful lives. For more about Robert Sapolsky's research and findings please read here:

So we know that psychological distress can not only cause us major illness, misery, and suffering, but kill us. According to this article that is a fact: The bottom of this above article suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could help reduce stress and it's negative impacts because it allows us to shift our internal interpretations of stressful events in our lives so they appear less upsetting. CBT is supposed to help us develop a more realistic view instead of allowing negative thoughts to distort our self concept and allow us more acceptance and control over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Practicing mindfulness can also be very helpful to combating the effects of stress on the body and mind. I believe CBT and mindfulness practice are extremely helpful given the stressful environment we are living in now. However, it should not be a substitute for changing the way things are at a fundamental level.

We cannot just accept that life is stressful, so oh well, get over it. It doesn't work that way. There is no real way to "get over" stress. There is a way to reduce it and cope be resilient in the face of it by utilizing positive coping skills and stress management and reduction techniques. In addition, some can utilize, implement, and practice these therapeutic methods better than others-- depending on temperament, personality, ones circumstances, and the impact on trauma on each individual. But to teach every human being how to practice these techniques would take a lot of time, effort, and funding. Unfortunately, our society is not currently supporting that sort of effort enough. Free therapy, for instance, is hard to come by. Therapy is generally very expensive and thus inaccessible to the average person. Although, CBT and mindfulness based practice can be taught and disseminated without a therapist. We should invest in this.
However, we shouldn't settle for attempts to reduce stress and end out efforts there. Treating the symptoms of dysfunction, instead of going to the root cause, is no real solution. We should work to eliminate stress altogether. This is where the idea of prevention comes in. We need to start thinking about the kind of society that would completely prevent a person from experiencing so much stress. That is the system that would bring us the best lives possible.

The society we have now is NOT set up to function in a way that brings the most prosperity for all. Our quality of life is vastly diminished by the profit-based capitalist system that governs most all aspects of our lives. It sets up a hostile environment which stresses us all out, takes time away from ourselves, our families, and communities, exploits us economically by stealing the wages we earn, over-works us, does not give us a basic standard of living and social support, and offers us no other alternatives. The system is designed on purpose this way to lock us into a perpetual system of oppression so that the rich and powerful can reap the benefits.

But what if I told you the rich and powerful also lose out? The way the system works actually creates more problems for rich people than they even realize. In fact, this system is more expensive for all of society because it leads to more social problems, which are costly to manage, and bring direct consequences outside of monetary, such as an increase in violence-- even murders. But a lot of the time the rich care about money... So we should consider just the economic impact of poverty, inequality, and hierarchy on the economic benefit of the rich.

For instance, take the child welfare system. When a child lives in poverty their chances for abuse and neglect go up due to the stress of their parent and lack of support and resources. When the child is removed from their family they end up in the foster care system. This is extremely expensive. Not to mention all the counseling services etc. that child will need. Then when the child grows up their chances of being involved in crime, being in poverty themselves, never graduating high school, becoming homeless, joining a gang, becoming pregnant at a young age, and getting on public assistance, are huge. The chances they end up abusing substances, getting into abusive relationships, and abusing and neglecting their own children, is high. This has a huge impact on our entire society. And from a purely economic standpoint, it costs a crap ton of tax payer dollars. Although the rich escape a lot of taxes, they still pay more than anyone else.

One thing to keep in mind though is all those systems-- social services, prisons, hospitals etc. make a lot of money off of dysfunctional family systems. But I would argue that the negative outcomes outweigh any economic benefit, even if we only look at money, and not the moral, ethical, human rights, or quality of life issues. In other words, all people, including the rich and powerful, are in all actuality incentivized to prevent these things from happening to begin with solely based on a simple cost/benefit analysis.

Unfortunately, those with money and power are stuck in their regressive backwards way of thinking, which realizes Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the concept that those best fit socially, survive. And those best fit in a capitalist society, are those who have money and/or have the privilege to become upwardly mobile and gain access to resources. It's a perverse concept..because it's predicated on inequality and hierarchy. It is also centralized around the idea that some people deserve to be well off and some don't, based on how hard they worked as an individual to get where they are.

If someone is poor, they are perceived to be lazy and therefore deserving of their lot in life. Many people don't feel compassion for the poor or homeless because they assume they could get it together if they were willing to work hard. But since they aren't willing, they are getting what they deserve. In addition, the people who think this way think that the poor need to learn the hard way, that if they want housing, food, etc. they better get a damn job and pay their own way. This is seen as the only right way to live. They believe the myth that people should be "self-sufficient" and "independent." Even when it is totally delusional to believe this.

If only we didn't need each other anymore what the rich believe could be true... Yet in a practical manner we still do need each other, and in a fundamental way us humans need each other to function socially-emotionally. The truth is not only do we need each other for our own well being and health, relying on each other is just more reasonable, sane, humanistic, and is in congruence with basic common sense and decency.

When we work together, we are all better off as a result. Our collective quality of life is vastly increased because we function collectively and are mutually dependent on each other. There would be less crime, less violence, less healthcare costs, less abuse, less substance use, less poverty, less infant morality, more educated more well off people, etc. if we had a system like this instead of the one we have.

It would help protect us all and save us money-- because when preventative measures aren't taken people in desperate situations take desperate measures to try and survive and the results and consequences are very expensive (such as prisons, healthcare costs, and taking care of children in poverty or the child welfare system). There are several developed countries who currently have a more human needs-based and preventive social safety net than the United States.

Countries such as Norway, the Netherlands, and even France or Germany have better ways of life. These include things such as universal healthcare, free childcare, paid vacations, good benefits, and tax payer funded college for anyone who wants to go, etc. This is the type of system we need and it would be good if we went even further-- and eliminated all profit-based mechanisms and reduced the amount of work one had to do. We could guarantee an income and basic needs to all and we could definitely afford it. Not only is the entire economic system made up, but if we simply re-prioritized our budget and how we collect taxes and how we spend the tax dollars, we'd have plenty of money to pay for the type of society we need.

Some first steps could include reducing the military budget, ending the drug war, ending all foreign wars, getting rid of all advantages for the wealthy, and increasingly the taxes on the rich by a lot. We need to eliminate economic, social, and political inequality. That is essential for a democracy to thrive. These are short term reforms that would totally shift the funding we have and be able to provide for our people a lot easier. Bigger changes could be done over time, such as making all work places co-operatives, vastly reducing working hours, allowing for a decentralized radical democracy for governance purposes, making all services publicly owned and operated, and giving the means of production to all people to workers own and operate collectively.

We need a system that benefits all people. Having such a system would create a much better society. We need to not only admit that we need each other, but that if we all worked together to fully commit to making life better for all, we would have that better world we all dream about. People assume it has to be the way it is now. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Most people assume this system is the best system in the world, and even if there was something wrong with it, there isn't anything they can do about it. But there is something fundamentally, structurally, and systematically wrong with the profit-based system. We need a human-needs based system where all get to share in the decision making, work together, and reap benefits more equally. We need that system because it works best for us and will give us what we need, want, and deserve as human beings. It would unleash and expand not only our potential and ability to self-actualize and self-activate, but our ultimate happiness as individuals and as a community. In addition, it would allow us to support our society and essentially, the entire world, to grow in every aspect of life, improving all of our lives exponentially. Furthermore, we do have the ability to make it happen.

So how do we do it? We can prevent most all maladies and social ills... by giving people what they need from the beginning and sustaining that support. If we set people up for success, they will be more prepared to become successful. If we gave, say, a young family monetary support, counseling, parenting classes, case management, free childcare and healthcare, etc. they would be much more likely to succeed. If we made sure that child's parents had a free, tax-paid college education, and a good paying job with benefits, low-cost housing, etc. then the chances that family succeeds would increase, big time. If we could do that, why would we choose not to?

And the best part is, we can! We can do this. We created everything that exists now and we can re-create what we need in the image that works best for us and humanity. We can replace this ineffective, disproportionate, and undemocratic system with one that works for us all. If we got together, we could make it happen. I believe it is already happening organically, yet slowly. I encourage everyone to start getting on board...because as a collective society we are crying out for something better... We know that we are headed for disaster on multiple fronts if we don't change our ways. We should take action before we are forced to make painful sacrifices to make the better world we need possible. Let's start now.

Life should not be such a struggle. We can make it easier and more meaningful at the same time. We can live a purposeful fantastical life filled with joy, health, well being, social connections, family, friends, creative  and collaborative work, and a fun beautiful existence where struggle is far and in between and everyone is guaranteed the basic needs of life. It can happen, we can make it happen, and we should make it happen, because it's the right thing to do, and wouldn't it be great?

Human beings are amazing, industrious, and imaginative creatures that are capable of anything. If we put all our efforts together for the good of humanity, instead of to make profit for the few, we could finally build the society and life we all deserve as human beings and get our needs met more efficiently and simply. If only we are willing to cast aside the disastrous and self-defeating myths that hold us back and come together to make it happen. Someday I know we will. I just hope for our sake, it's sooner rather than later. :)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Getting Out of the Well of Loneliness

Lately I have been thinking a lot about loneliness. I suppose because about a year ago I lost a few friends and clarity came into my life. I became more clear about who I wanted in my life, and who I didn't. I am 31 years old now and I am ready for mature friendships. No longer am I willing to accept immature friendships that do not meet my needs. I need friends who will be honest, genuine, authentic, real, loyal, committed, flexible, understanding, empathetic, compassionate, are open-minded, have good self-esteem, have good emotional boundaries, and have the ability to be fun, serious, and supportive when it is needed. These qualities are so important yet so rare at the same time, especially in one person. It makes it more challenging to find and make new connections.

In addition, I have noticed how hard it is to make friends now that I am no longer in school. It's as if everyone has already made all the friends they need, want, or desire and they have no more room in their life for anyone else. I crave friends because I am human but beyond that because I am an extrovert and strive on social connections. Sadly it seems incredibly hard to find the kind of friends I am looking for.

So lately I have spent a lot more time with my partner, her family, and my own family. I also have been trying to get back in touch with old friends and rekindle those friendships. But everyone seems busy. People tell me, "let's hang out," but actually getting together proves difficult.

There is evidence that social isolation is psychologically and physically stressing to the human being. As human beings we are social animals by design, so we need each other. Without each other we face alienation, separation, and stress. When I think about this I always think about the movie, Castaway with Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks plays a FedEx worker who gets "castaway" to a deserted tropical island when a plane he is on crashes. He spends the next four years on the island, all alone. Not far into his stay he creates a faux friend, a soccer ball he names "Wilson" after the brand of the ball. He paints a face on the ball and often has conversations with it as if it is a real person. Of course the ball doesn't talk back, but it provides social comfort to the Tom Hanks character when he needs to feel like someone is listening. When he decides to try and escape from the island he ends up accidentally losing his friend, who drifts away in the ocean current. He tries to get him back but realizes it is useless, and he would die if he kept after him. He cries and screams in emotional pain of losing his one and only friend. This just shows the psychological and emotional bond that was created between him and the ball... even an imaginary friend became almost like his lifeline..and made him sane in an insane situation. This is a powerful example to me of our need for social companionship.

So since I lack a lot of friends right now, it has become even more important for me to spend time with my partner. I have always been the "clingy type." I am emotionally needy and like closeness by my nature. I have noticed that when I am left alone for more than five hours I tend to get really lonely and start to really miss social interaction of some kind. I also love affection and if I go without affection for too long I also notice the negative impact.

Sometimes my partner complains about my emotional neediness, but there isn't much I can do about it, this is just the way I am. My mother says since I was a young child I would follow her around the house asking for a hug. When I had more friends I think it helped fill my need. But now that I am down friends I want to spend even more time with her and if she goes out with her friends, I always ask that she limit the time to no more than five hours. I feel five hours is a decent amount of time but sometimes she complains that I am being her "mother" and being too "controlling."

I tell her that just like any relationship, we need to just compromise. I told her maybe she can spend less time with her friends more times a week, that way it is spread out. But she has a hard time getting out to see friends so when she does she wants to spend all day with them. It complicates things for me. I do give her space. When we're home together she is often playing computer games or reading. I have discovered I like my own space too.. to watch TV, go on the Internet, read, write, reflect, or think. I think accepting some degree of loneliness and embracing it for my own good, is something I have come to appreciate. But I also enjoy the company of others, particularly my partner.

The most enjoyable times we spend are going out to dinner and chatting together. But we can't afford to do that every night. We have to come up with more things we like to do together. This is challenging. We like different forms of entertainment and that is a barrier. She has been having some health issues lately too which keep her from wanting to be active. What does one do when the relationship they turn to for social connection, is the exact thing that stresses them out? This is sometimes true for both my partner and I at the same time.

I have no one to really talk to about things outside of my partner, besides, maybe a couple of friends on the Internet, a few older friends when we get together, and my mother. I try to have a three rule. When I'm upset or need to process something, I try to talk to three people to vent. It is SO helpful. But I don't always find three people when I need to.

I saw this article from the New York Times about people over thirty having a hard time making friends: The article's central thesis seems to be saying once you're over thirty you have a partner and children, and then your life is over. Haha... I mean you no longer have time for friends. Between your partner, your kids, and your job, your life is jam-packed. Well, I have a partner, a part time job, and no children, unless you count my four furry-children, the kitties. So I DO have free time..the issue is finding others with free time who want to spend it with me.

As time and experience has shown me, not everyone wants to be my friend. And not everyone would make a good friend for me. I am a very straight-forward person. I am very caring, but also I believe in honesty and insight, in order to help another's self growth. I want that in return too. I need confident people in my life who have good self-esteem and do not take things too personally. Otherwise, I run into people who take what I say and think I am insulting and domineering. Truth-telling sometimes brings discomfort, but it is still needed and very important. I don't intend to slap people in the face with truth, but sometimes the truth does sting no matter how much one tries to soften the blow. I have found our American culture tends to ingrain fakeness, superficiality, and niceness above all else. I think that's a major problem.

I was raised by my strong Italian mother and our culture is very tell-it-like-it-is, and loud and proud too! So I suppose super sensitive types wouldn't get along with me. That's another part of our American culture-- super sensitive people. Sadly, many suffer from a lack of self-esteem and if someone says something about them they automatically go into defense mechanism mode, instead of hearing out opinions of others without accepting the opinions as fact.

Mindfulness is sorely lacking in Western culture. Mindfulness is something I try to practice. It is challenging but it becomes easier the more one practices it. Mindfulness requires examining feelings and thoughts as an objective observer and being able to non-judgmentally access the best way to proceed, instead of jumping from feelings, thoughts, and then actions in rapid succession. Mindfulness can help us slow the process down and not allow feelings and thoughts to control us in a negative way with doubts and insecurities motivating us, evaluating our every move. Mindfulness gives us more freedom, openness, and brings more calmness and assurance. It let's us know that we are capable of solving our own problems and thus there is no need to panic or get too upset. Mindfulness allows me to set emotional boundaries and agree to disagree with someone without any hard feelings.
Mindfulness is also good for gaining perspective, choosing a different way of looking at or reacting to a situation, detaching, in noticing everything around us and appreciating it, being purposeful, to ground one, to help one make better decisions, and to attune to the now and the present moment. It would be nice to find more folks who practice mindfulness too.

I've been told before that I am "more evolved" than most people. Although that is a nice compliment, I suppose, as it shows my hard work to become more self-aware and grow, it also says two things.
One thing it could say is that most people just aren't as capable as I am of reaching such a level of consciousness. My partner has reminded me many a time that she believes my standards and expectations of others are too high. I believe that people are just capable of a lot more than they often even believe they are capable of. It's part of my overall attitude and personality to believe in others and encourage and inspire them to reach for their fullest potential and to expect nothing less from themselves. Although I try to adjust my expectations to be a tad more realistic, I can't bring myself to stop believing in others. I just have to learn how to deal with my own disappointment when others don't live up to their own capabilities-- and detach as much as possible. I know it's up to them, and that I have no control over that, and they will also deal with the consequences of their own actions. I always try to remind myself that some people have to learn the hard way and also that some people have different values than I do. So I try to not be attached as much to outcomes, but it can be difficult if I am emotionally involved.

I really think that everyone has the potential to become as "evolved" as I am. I am not special... The only thing I can think is my personality and lack of trauma history helps me to have more of a sunny disposition. I understand that if someone starts off depressed it's harder for them to be positive. But even the most depressed person has a chance to recover. People just need the opportunity to learn and grow. I try to encourage that in others as I love to share knowledge and support people in their journey to more self awareness, better choices, and greater overall well being. I think everyone deserves that!

Furthermore, being "more evolved" than most people may mean less people who "get" me. That increases my feelings of loneliness.... both figuratively and literally, as I feel like less people can relate to me and I feel like I cannot find people to relate to.
That feeling really sucks. However, I try to remind myself that it may be hard to find people I truly connect with but the effort to find them is worth it. Fostering those connections, feeding them, and putting in the work to help them grow is what makes a garden of connections bloom. I have 600 facebook friends but I am not sure how many real life friends I have. Maybe a handful, if that.

One of the friends I lost about a year ago was my "best" friend. This was someone I turned to for advice, as a sounding board, for support, for a good time, to give support to, to enjoy activities together, etc. Now I don't have someone who I feel that close to and could hang out and talk with weekly, besides my partner. It's been hard to cope with that. I have taken the opportunity to work more on myself and to also try to reconnect with people in my life.

I have grown closer to family, to my partner, and to a few friends. I feel like it's still a journey of putting myself out there and trying to forge the close connections I need in my life. Finding balance between work, home, family, and friends is my goal. Everyday I feel a little closer to accomplishing that goal. It is slow but progress is being made.

Furthermore, I take pride in learning how to embrace whatever challenges the universe throws my way. I find the more I resist the idea of being lonely, the more lonely I feel. Embracing loneliness has allowed me to create space to invite new prospects, activities, adventures, and people into my life. Instead of spending time with a friend, I might go out to dinner with my mother, or write a blog, for instance. This way it is not so much an absence or void of something but a direct intention of filling my life with abundance. I try to consciously bring in other ways of connecting with myself and others. And so far I feel I am on my way to creating the life I need, want, and desire.

In addition, we plan to move into a new and larger space, as we have outgrown our one bedroom apartment and it's time to move on. Within our search for a new home, we are going to ensure we can get a dog. I feel a dog will help me to feel less lonely and will help me feel companionship I crave. I am looking forward soon to having more quality folks in my life who meet my needs and whose needs I meet. And a little doggy to cuddle and care for. I can feel my well being increasing already. :)