The Stories We Tell Ourselves

the stories we tell ourselves

At work, as part of our professional development, I (along with several colleagues) have been reading and talking about Make It Stick, a book written by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, on the psychology of learning.

The other day, I was given the task of leading the discussion on chapter four, intriguingly titled “Avoid Illusions of Knowing.”  That reading, and the accompanying conversation, inspired me to write this blog.

Early in the chapter, the authors argue that all humans have a “hunger for narrative” and that this arises “out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events.”  In other words, because life often seems so random and incomprehensible, we create stories that help us make sense of what seemingly appears to be nonsensical.  For example, if we fail at some important task and find this failure surprising and upsetting, we tell ourselves that someone or something else was the cause of our poor performance.  This story serves an important psychological function:  It helps shift the blame to something external to us—something beyond our control—and therefore acts as a kind of psychological salve.

The authors go on to say that we also create stories that help us construct an identity and worldview.  In my case, when I think of who I am, I have a story I tell myself that goes something like this.  I come from a working-class background.  My early life was chaotic because I grew up in an unstable family.  As a result, I was often alone and lonely.  This caused me to become an introvert, thoughtful, and creative.  I also didn’t have brothers and sisters during my earliest formative years so I had to learn to entertain myself and become self-sufficient.  Today, because of the way I grew up, I am tough and attracted to solitary, creative pursuits.  In politics, I also champion the underprivileged because I empathize with this class of people.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel explain that we create such narratives because they help us “fit the events of our lives into a cohesive story that accounts for our circumstances, the things that befall us, and the choices we make.”  In other words, we construct an identity through the telling and retelling of what amounts to personalized myths of who we are and how we came to be.

Here’s the problem.  These stories become self-fulfilling prophecies.  In my case, because I have always seen myself as a creative loner, I have come to act like a creative loner.  Though the identities we’ve constructed for ourselves provide us with a stable sense of self, they can also limit us.  In my case, when I’m being entirely honest with myself, I have to say that though there is some truth to this “self” I have constructed, it ignores other aspects of my personality and personal history.  I had, for instance, a large extended family, including lots of cousins that I loved spending time with.  I am also happily married and generally enjoy myself when I’m among a large group of like-minded individuals.  In other words, I have a history of being with others and acting quite sociable.

Here’s my point, we all have this idea in our heads about who we are, but we need to remember that the self we’ve constructed is, indeed, just a story we’ve created.  This story, though it certainly does contain some important truths about how we see ourselves, it is also likely an exaggeration or an oversimplification.

What do you think about this idea of the “constructed self?”  How accurately does the self you think you are match the self you think others see when they look at you?  Have you created a self that limits you in some important way?

All very important considerations and questions.

Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

thinking ninja

I see some people posting blogs (and comments about them) on thinking and the role it plays in human life.  As someone who has expertise in thinking—especially in what some call “critical thinking”—I’ve been feeling more and more like chiming in.  (By the way, I actually prefer the term “creative thinking” to critical thinking because all healthy thinking is, de facto, critical.)  Therefore, when I hear the term “critical thinking,” I hear redundancy.  Because all good and healthy thinking is naturally “critical,” critical thinking is really just another way to say “thinking thinking.”  Do you get my drift?

Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m trying to say is this:  Criticality is built into the very fabric of good and healthy thinking.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “healthy” a lot so far.  I think it’s really important to point out, before I get any deeper into my discussion, that I have to distinguish between thinking that is healthy and thinking that is unhealthy.

I have heard it said that all overthinking is somehow bad.  I would like to add a little nuance to such a claim because I don’t think that overthinking is necessarily problematic.  It depends on what is meant by “overthinking” and on whether or not the sort of thinking that’s being exercised is healthy or not.

Overthinking can be unhealthy if it is obsessive.  Obsession is a kind of thinking that is unhealthy.  Obsessive thinking is also ineffectual in the sense it is not used to come to any sort of conclusion or solve a problem or provide greater understanding or clarity.  The purpose of obsessive thinking—to the extent it can be called purposeful—is to perpetuate the obsession.  In a sense, obsessive thinking is a kind of thinking loop.  The same idea or thought pattern just keeps replaying in the head, thus crowding out everything else.  Healthy thinking—when it is done well or artfully—liberates the thinker because it (hopefully) leads to a breakthrough or even an epiphany.  Unhealthy thinking, when it takes the common form of obsessive thinking, enslaves the thinker.  He or she is unable to move beyond the obsession and is trapped.

Not all overthinking is unhealthy, though.  When I was in graduate school working on my MA and PhD in the liberal arts and humanities, I was trained to be a kind of critical thinking Ninja.  My analytic abilities were honed to a very fine point.  This point allowed me pierce through the surface of things and understand them deeply and profoundly.  In a sense, I was turned into someone who overthinks or hyper-thinks—I’m pretty sure I just invented a new word.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never accept things at face value.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never stop asking questions.  They remain skeptical.  They tear apart and analyze and then reconstruct.  They try to build associations where none existed before.

Some might read this and call it overthinking.  I would call it hyper-thinking—the kind of thinking I can never turn off.  Nor should I ever want to it.  Why would I ever want to embrace artless or sloppy thinking?  I can’t come up with a single situation where doing so would be in my best interest or the right thing to do.

One who has the ability to think well should think well.

I’ve certainly given us some things to discuss.  The floor is yours…

November 27, 2018

jacky and johnnie

This past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I drove—south to north—up Interstate 35.  We started in San Antonio and ended up in the beautiful village of Georgetown, Texas, my hometown and the place my father and stepmother live their idyllic lives as retirees.

Of course, there was food—they don’t refer to Thanksgiving as “turkey day” for nothing—so we ate it.  And we drank.  And we sat around long after the vittles had been consumed and were snaking through our digestive systems.  And while we sat and let the nutrients do what nutrients do, we talked and laughed and reminisced and smiled at one another across the dining room table.

Off and on, between gorging ourselves in ways that distended our already distended bellies, we watched football and took discreet naps while sitting heavily on a couple of large L-shaped sofas.

We woke up Saturday morning and Janie, my stepmother, suggested that we drive up to Burnet, a town located in what Texans call “the Hill Country,” to visit Jacky, my dad’s youngest brother, and Johnnie, his wife and survivor of cancer, a disease that had caused her to lose her hair but none of her spunk.  Everyone thought it was a great idea.

Everyone in the family knows and openly talks about how Jacky has become something of an eccentric.  He doesn’t like to leave his house very often except to hunt and fish.  He gets up at 4 a.m. every morning and is obsessively clean to the nth degree and beyond.  In fact, he has a large workshop behind his house and those who’ve seen it jokingly say that a person could eat a meal off its concrete floor.

The result of all this was that I expected our visit to be somewhat awkward.  This expectation was exacerbated by the fact that this would only be the second time I’d seen my aunt and uncle in the last twenty years.  So I sort of knew what to expect but sort of didn’t too.

After an hour of driving, we found ourselves in a wooded area not far from Lake Buchanan.  We parked in the driveway, were met by Jacky and Johnnie in the front yard, and then were escorted through the house and out the back door where we all took seats on a lovely screened back porch.  I spotted a rustic rocking chair and made a beeline toward it.  We all took our seats and then began to ooh and ah about our surroundings.

The backyard was huge with several large cottonwoods and oaks, all of them shedding leaves in the autumnal breeze.  Johnnie said something about how this was their favorite place to sit and be still and quiet.  She also mentioned how this was medicine for her psyche.  She said they ate out here and even slept out here when the conditions were right.  I understood how all this could be true as I felt myself decompressing and unwinding.

There was a large and melodious wind chime hanging next to me and I mentioned how pretty it sounded.  Johnnie then told the story of how they’d come to own it.  According to her, on the day they were coming home from her mother’s funeral, Jackie, knowing that his wife was feeling profoundly sad, stopped at a roadside market and bought it while she sat in the car.  Upon returning to the vehicle, he handed it to his wife and said, “This is a little something from me.  I hope you’ll think of your mother when you hear it.”

So, on the afternoon of our visit, we sat and listened to the chime while Johnnie told this story.  One or two times, during her telling, she paused and wiped, using the back of her hand, a tear a two that had rolled down her cheeks.

It was a sad story but a beautiful day, made even more so by wonderful fellowship among kin and kindred spirits.

 

 

 

 

 

November 21, 2018

buddha

We have this guy named Albert who cleans our writing center late every afternoon.  Not long after he started coming around with his brooms and things, I found out, sort of through the grapevine, that his janitorial colleagues call him “Blanco” because that’s Spanish for “white.”  As it turns out, because of his age, Albert has a full head of silver locks which he loads up with something sort of oily and then combs back away from his face.

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before, but it never hurts to remind people that I live in San Antonio, Texas, a place some sometimes call “The Alamo City.”  In this part of Texas, Spanish (or Spanglish) is the language of choice.  So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that Español permeates every aspect of life here, including the way people conceive of things, such as the color of Albert’s hair.

I like Albert a lot.  We always sing the Working Man’s Blues when he comes around.  Obviously, he’s slightly lower than I am on the hierarchy totem pole, so his blues are especially heartfelt.  And I always lend a very caring ear.  I try to put myself in his place, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to try to live on what they pay him.  I sort of get it because I once worked many menial jobs, but that was way back when I was a hungry student.  Today, by Albert’s standards, I’m what you might call a Fat Cat.

It’s hard to think of myself as a Fat Cat when I have such shallow pockets.  But I guess I sort of am one when I compare myself to some of those around me.  In the overall scheme of things, though, I’m about the skinniest feline you can imagine.  As a matter of fact, without even sucking my stomach in, I’m able to slip throw the narrowest of crevasses.

Often, when Albert’s around and we’re not talking the way two working men talk, I like to just sit and sort of allow myself to Zen out.  By that I mean I like to watch him, out of the corner of my eye, move around the center.  I know this might sound weird, but ever since I was a child, I’ve had this odd ability.  If I watch someone—it doesn’t have to be directly watching but sort of obliquely watching—moving about or engaging in some kind of repetitive action, it sort of calms me down and I become nearly Buddha-like.  I am able to slow my heart, silence the chatter of my mind, end the death of my cells, and fall down into a deep hole of profound self-awareness that I find to be blissful.

So I sometimes find myself able to achieve this odd tranquility when Albert is around.  I wouldn’t even try to explain this phenomenon to him for fear that he’d report me to whomever he’d need to report me to so that the men in white coats would show up, straitjacket in hand.

 

 

 

November 20, 2018

middle east

We have this new guy teaching part-time at Palo Alto College.  Mohamed Qashou, my Palestinian-American buddy and a guy who teaches math and engineering courses, introduced him to me one morning several weeks ago.  To respect his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Jay.”  Jay of the beard, mild manners, and soft voice.  Jay of the quiet and introspective personality.

Like me, Jay has more advanced degrees than he knows what to do with and spent a lot of years teaching a variety of writing and similar classes in places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  The first time we spoke together, we discovered that it is highly likely we were both teaching in Turkey and Egypt, in the same universities and at about the same times, though we didn’t know each other while we were living in those places.  Our conversation seemed to prove, as is sometimes said, that the world is an exceedingly small place.

Jay likes to wear Nehru jackets with short sleeves to work.  I am not surprised by this since he is married to a Pakistani woman and spent quite a lot of time in that part of Southeast Asia.  Like me, he lived for a great many years in what is called “the Islamic World,” as if a place could be defined solely by the religion practiced there.  He became a Muslim, but I’m not for sure how long ago that happened.  According to Mohamed, upon his conversion, Jay took Abdullah as the name he uses when he is with other practitioners of the faith.  When we talk, though, I always refer to him as Jay.

Jay dropped by my office early this morning because he was bothered.  Over the weekend, there had been a major conference on the topic of the MENA region in San Antonio.  Why, he wondered, hadn’t the gathering been better advertised?  He just heard about it by happenstance after it had already finished up.  He would have certainly attended, he said with a frustrated look on his face.  I voiced similar thoughts after he’d spoken.

We started talking about things we frequently see on TV, like how these so-called Middle East experts go on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS, and spout all manner of expert opinions based on what?  Some of them have never lived in that part of the world.  They’ve studied the region and its people in the cool way an entomologist dissects butterflies.  They even occasionally jet overseas, to a place like Istanbul or Cairo, for a few days.  While on such a trip, they hole up in some expensive hotel room, have a handful of conversations with local academics and politicians and the like, and then return to the United States to lecture the whole of America on Muslims, Islam, Arabs, North Africans, the Gulf Region, religion, culture, and fanaticism, among many other subjects.  We both found this both preposterous and aggravating.

I can’t speak with any sort of precision about Jay’s actual experience overseas, but I lived for four years in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.  While there, I worked for that country’s military on one of their bases.  I taught their male citizens.  I lived amongst the many immigrants who call Abu Dhabi home.  I had a barber from India, a best friend from Sri Lanka, and regularly bought bread from Afghan bakers who prepared that food staple in a traditional tandoor.  I would chat with them while they baked.  Once my order was done, they’d wrap the hot naan e Afghani in regular newspaper and I’d carry it home.  I was in that country during September the 11th and watched the place as it prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I distinctly recall there was a nervousness throughout the region at that time as the giant American military machine began to awaken and move about like a colossus.

After that, I moved to Ankara, Turkey, and taught writing, research methods, critical thinking, and philosophy at Bilkent University, a great place of learning, for nearly half a decade.  While there, I had several Turkish girlfriends and traveled into every nook and cranny of that vast and beautiful country.  I went south, north, east, and west by train, dolmus, plane, bus, motorcycle, and a variety of private vehicles.  I went into dusty, remote and ancient villages where the locals decorated their faces with primitive blue tattoos.  I traveled to Istanbul and Izmir, large and cosmopolitan places that seemed very European.  I went into places where few tourists had ever ventured.  I saw things and did things I never dreamed I’d see and do.

In 2008 I moved to Cairo, Egypt, after being hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.  From day one, Cairo blew my mind.  A crazy, more chaotic urban experience cannot be imagined.  By that time, I was already a world traveler and had had seen many cultures and a lot of different ways of living, but nothing had prepared me for living in the belly of the beast that is Egypt’s capital.  In 2011, the Revolution kicked off in January, following closely on the heels of what had taken place in Tunisia.  I decided to stay in the city even after almost every foreigner had bugged out and the place went full Mad Max.  I survived but got something akin to PTSD.  Then, Morsi was elected, fair and square in a genuine election, only to be the victim of a military coup approximately a year after he’d taken office.  Then came the Rabaa and Al Nahda massacres and the national insanity that followed.  Political prisoners were jailed, protests were snuffed out, the average citizen became paranoid in the old way.  Egypt slipped back into an authoritarian black hole and the citizens quit dreaming and speaking and acting out in ways they’d grown accustomed to during the brief period that followed the fall of Mubarak…

November 8, 2018

old-man-watch-time-160975

I always arrive at work at 7:50 a.m.  That’s ten minutes before I have to officially unlock the writing center door, turn on the lights, and open up for business.

This morning, at approximately 7:55, I made a quick trip to the men’s restroom.  Actually, I’m pretty lucky in that it’s located just a few feet away from our center.  (There’s a lot to be said for convenience.)  Anyway, when I stepped into the place, there was a man just finishing up his business at one of the urinals.  As soon as he zipped up and turned toward me, I noticed that he had a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.  Seeing this prompted me to ask, “Multitasking are you?”  He found my question humorous.  I know this because he began to smile when I put it to him.  He then walked to the sink, spit a wad of froth from his mouth, and thoroughly washed his hands, face, and brush.

This rather inconsequential encounter in the john got me thinking about how busy our lives are.  It was both a little humorous and a little sad that this fellow couldn’t focus on either peeing or brushing and found himself having to do them simultaneously.  I hope it doesn’t come to the point that we have to carry around little pocket-sized planners to schedule our bowel movements.

Having lived in other countries I can say for a fact—at least it seems certain enough that it feels factual—that life in America is more hectic than in other places.  There’s always someplace to be, some call to make, a bundle of bills to pay, a job that needs doing.  The rich manage all this by hiring secretaries, managers, publicists, maids, nannies, and so on.  The poor manage this by going insane.  Those that don’t go crazy turn to the bottle or some other form of escapism that’s bound to be at least a little self-destructive.

I haven’t entirely figured it out yet, but I feel pretty certain that there’s some sort of relationship between living under a pretty hardcore capitalist economic system and the sort of panicky feeling I often have.  I’m not sure why that’s the case.  (Maybe it’s because we say that time is money in America?)  I wonder if people who live in more socialistic countries aren’t just a little calmer.  My guess is that they are.

I’m going to spend the rest of the afternoon—after I get all this stuff done that needs doing—thinking about this question of capitalism and anxiety.  There certainly has to be a connection.  I’m positively sure there must be.

 

November 1, 2018

stoicism

I love my job.  I use my years as a university instructor of research methodology, literature, academic writing, philosophy, and critical thinking to manage a writing and learning center at a community college in a very cool part of San Antonio, Texas.

Our center is blessed to have four incredibly dedicated and talented tutors, all of whom have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English or a related field.  It’s easy to manage people who are bright and resourceful.  Actually, I’m supposed to show them how to do things and to act as a mentor, but I find myself—on a daily basis really—learning things from them and feeling mentored myself.

One of our tutors is a guy named Michael.  He recently graduated from the University of North Texas with a kind of interdisciplinary degree and calls himself an expert in Tejano music, especially the part it plays in Mexican-American culture.  I really like him for a number reason.  For one, he is very much an intellectual and wants, eventually, to get his PhD and become a professor.  He’s also he’s very passionate about politics, and anyone who’s read any of my blogs understands that this makes us brothers in arms.  (He has said, on more than one occasion, that he has friends who are quite active in a variety of anti-fascist organizations.)  I have not pushed him for details on what his friends actually do and he has not voluntarily offered to say more than what he’s already revealed about them.

I mention Mike because he’s both cool and also recently said something that really got me thinking.  On the day he delivered his words of wisdom, it was a quiet time in our writing center, so we had an opportunity to chat about a variety of subjects.  Somehow, I can’t even remember how now, the subject of my goatee came up.  (I’d let it sprout out again after being clean shaven for months.)  While talking, I confessed to having mixed feelings about it because it’s so grey now.  I told him that it had been jet-black and really groovy back when I was younger.  After hearing this, he crossed his arms—I’ve noticed this to be one of his mannerisms—got that half-smile look on his face, and then said, “So you’ve got grey hair.  Embrace it!

His words were exactly the right ones to speak at exactly that moment.  They made me realize how much of an imposter I sometimes can be.  I mean, come on, I call myself a stoic, have read and studied all the great stoic texts, including Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book I would advise every human being alive today to read and to ready carefully, and yet here I was whining about having facial hair that was a little discolored due to age.  Michael’s words embarrassed me and made me realize that I need to live stoicism not just understand its tenets.  I need to fully accept that I am getting older.  That I am aging.  That this body I have is, slowly and inexorably, fading away.  I may not be dead yet, but I am certainly on my way down the path.

By the way, the stoics believe that one of the few things we can count on is that decay and impermanence are part of the natural order of things.  Thus, fighting against the aging process is like trying really hard to keep the sun from rising in the east each morning.  Michael had helped me see that embracing my greyness was a way of practicing stoicism.

I want to finish by thanking Michael for giving me a metaphorical slap in the face.  I certainly deserved the sting of his words.