Content warning: this essay includes discussion of suicide
“We’re not people. We’re the stories other people tell about us.”
Captain James Holden of the spaceship Rocinante spoke that gem of an insight during book six of the Expanse series, "Babylon’s Ashes." He was talking about people failing to see the humanity of folks who grew up in a different part of the solar system than they did. I think it's rather fitting for this moment right now in human history. Maybe it even applies to every moment in human history that ever was or ever will be.
It also applies to events. An event is not merely a factual string of data points of what happened. It’s the stories people tell about the event. Just like all the protests in Portland after George Floyd was murdered. If we had better messaging, maybe the movement could have kept its momentum. As it was, in the national media regular citizens asking for change were branded violent anarchists laying siege to our city.
When I set out this week to write about the stories other people tell about us, I had no idea how close this topic would come to my heart. In the middle of writing, I got a phone call no one ever wants to receive. My friend called to tell me our friend killed himself the night before. He had clearly been planning his exit for quite a while because when he sent his goodbye message there was no way to intervene. He left all his affairs in order and removed all the food from the fridge.
The manner of his ending is shocking and intense, but it isn't the story I want to tell about him. He was kind and adventurous. He was playful and had the most infectious smile. He was one of the people who donned a T-Rex suit to set a record for most people simultaneously dressed as dinosaurs. He was thoughtful and interested in the human experience. We had deep conversations about life and work and how our internal world shaped and was shaped by our experience in the external world. He was also very fashionable. He wore cool clothes and had cool hair. I loved everything about him.
He was also a gay Black man. And he was estranged from his biological family. I can't help but wonder if we had a different kind of society if he would have wanted to stick around longer. The chemicals floating around our brains have a real impact on our quality of life. And so does all the bullshit we swim through on the daily just trying to exist in the world. Suicide rates among Black gay men are higher than other demographics.
I am also bothered by the way we talk about suicide in our society. There is a lot of shame wrapped around mental heath and it's challenges, but that is something I've known (and experienced) for a long time. This week I realized something else: all the resources I came across on the internet are about saving the suicidal person from themself. Interrupting the ability for someone to end their own life long enough to get them help managing their stress or anxiety or depression or whatever so they can function in normal society.
And all of that is great. Suicide hotlines are important and save many lives. It's critical to take notice of the warning signs in people you interact with and to help them access the resources they need. We should all take threats of suicide very seriously. But that's all about one kind of suicide. All those resources seem directed at a person who otherwise wants to go on participating in this world, but needs some kind of support to make it workable.
What about the person who weighs all the considerations calmly and rationally and decides they don't want to be on this planet anymore? I have performed that analysis myself at a couple points in my life and the conclusion I came to was that I'd rather stay alive. But that doesn't make the opposite choice any less valid? And in that case, who am I to intervene? Who am I to decide for another person that suffering through life is better than making an exit in the manner of their choosing? There is plenty of discussion about death with dignity for folks suffering from terminal disease, maybe it's time to talk about it in other contexts as well.
A lot of a person's story is the context. We all have plenty, but it's easy to forget that everybody else does too. As a species, we craft the stories we tell about other people before we bother to look for their humanity. Perhaps this is a side-effect of our great capacity for fiction. I'm not convinced it's human nature; I think it's more likely just the thing we're all more practiced at. Which gives me hope, because that means we can practice something different just as soon as we're ready to try.
We can influence the stories that are told about us, of course, but the depth of our influence is directly tied to the magnitude of our public platform. Nowadays, that's largely indicated by the number of our followers on social media. I am not a social media influencer, but maybe someday I will be. I hope if I become well-known the story people tell about me is that I am trying to humanize the world. And I hope it works. I hope the world becomes more human, and as a result more humane.
Information and Inspiration
This week I visited a couple places I have never been before and have no heritage connection to. In everything from my language to my yearning for meals comprised mostly of kale, it was clear I don’t belong. I dress, act, speak, and listen differently than the locals. But that was all well and fine because I went to these places on purpose to visit friends and soak-in a location and culture I’ve never experienced. I volunteered to be an outsider.
I think travel is something everyone should experience at some point. I wish it were both compulsory and community-funded so everyone had the opportunity to go somewhere completely foreign from their regular life. And I wish we could collectively facilitate travel for everyone early enough in their development for it to shape the adult they grow into. Some lessons can only be learned through experience and travel is a catalyst for several.
The most present for me in this moment is about othering and being othered. It’s one thing to volunteer to be the outsider as I just did. To go to a place you don’t belong and… not belong. It’s quite another thing for someone else to decide you don’t belong in a place, especially if that place is actually yours. In the US many people experience that kind of othering in their everyday lives. If that doesn’t happen to you, one easy way to grow your capacity for empathy with your fellow citizens is through travel to unfamiliar places.
On the flip-side, if you are one of the many humans shunned at home for existing, sometimes you can travel to a place where your people are. It can be as close as the next neighborhood or as far as the opposite side of the globe. Its existence can be geographically fixed like a city or mountain, or it can appear during a specific season like festivals or conventions. Sometimes you know where it is before you set out and sometimes you find it accidentally along your way.
It also feels important to acknowledge how challenging and traumatic it has been and still is for marginalized folks to travel. Not that long ago Black travelers compiled The Green Book, a compendium of safe places for humans of color to eat, sleep, refuel, and go to the bathroom while traveling. Today, an online global version was created to "to inspire and empower black travelers so they can confidently explore the world." A continuing need of Black folks continuing to be met by Black folks.
Of course no matter where you’re going, what you’re doing, or how much you experience, you’re not guaranteed to grow more fully into your own humanity or expand you ability to recognize the humanity of others. In modern times, and with enough resources, you can travel to most places surrounded by a bubble of your comfort zone. In that case you only experience what you want to experience and not necessarily what a place has to offer.
You can also miss the learning and growing travel can foster if you avoid examining your experience. Reflection is what puts all the emotional, intellectual, and sensory data points gathered during your journey into some kind of broader context. The process of thinking, feeling, and assessing your travel experience allows your brain to categorize, identify patterns, and grow knowledge into wisdom.
One thing I appreciate about living in a place with different rhythms is the light it shines on all the details of my regular daily experience. I drive a lot more back home, but I walked most places while away. Our home is not large by US standards, but we have a lot more space per resident than most middle class homes seem to have in Europe. One area of particular note is the different cuisine. I am allergic to a lot of seemingly random things, some of which I have eaten in these new places without the usual unpleasant consequence.
In Europe I can have dairy without incident or suffering. Apparently that’s because European dairy cows are a different breed than American dairy cows and their milk doesn’t contain a certain protein. That pesky protein is the part of cow dairy that doesn’t jive with my body. I had a similar experience with pork. A few years ago I had to stop eating pork because the delicious meal experience on the front-end wasn’t worth the fallout on the back-end. Not so in Europe.
That got me wondering whether American pigs are also a different breed. A cursory search of the internet reveals they are not. The problem is actually that pigs in the US are drugged-up with growth substances banned in 160 other countries. Not only do they cause a lot of suffering for the pigs, they are cancerous to humans who consume those pigs. So apparently it’s not the pig meat, but the extra chemicals my body cannot tolerate.
Which is profoundly upsetting. I put a lot of effort into my personal health and well-being, especially where food is concerned. Much of my detailed attention to what I eat is driven by necessity. Being allergic to things like dairy and soy (which are in basically everything) has trained me to read every label everywhere. I often refuse most or all edible offerings at parties, restaurants, and events. I’m just lucky I live in the food bubble of Portland Oregon where people are generally used to accommodating dietary restrictions.
There are some things I can never have no matter what country I’m in because the plant itself is the problem (according to my body). But if a significant portion of the foods on my Do Not Consume list are only on there because as a nation we’ve decided to poison ourselves in some specific ways, I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. No matter how much care I take with my consumption choices, I’m still eating food that’s slowly poisoning my body. I am a dietary outsider in my own land.
Information and Inspiration
I have been traveling quite a lot this summer. Since May I’ve been to visit family, attend a work conference, rest-in to a Taiji workshop, celebrate a wedding, play in a sports tournament, and participate in a LifeFinding workshop. That’s quite a lot of travel in any summer, but it’s an especially significant volume of travel after two and a half years of a Covid lockdown existence. Since the world has more or less decided to pretend Covid is over, all that travel has also meant additional logistics. I have frequently been the only person with a mask in a sea of maskless people.
The other thing all this travel has brought to my life is an increased volume of time going through the motions of airport security. In the Before Time (pre-covid) I signed up for TSA PreCheck, so my trips through the US screening process are a lot less effort than many other folks. All it took was $85 and a cursory check of my background. All that Security Theater got me thinking about the many things we all do as part of ordinary life that are actually just make-believe.
Airport security is essentially all of us collectively pretending we can prevent people from plotting terrible things if we stop allowing jelly, juice, and too much shampoo through the checkpoint. Which, of course, we cannot. Ban guns and knives on airplanes and someone wears a homemade shoe-bomb. X-ray everyone's shoes and someone brings an explosive hidden in a computer. Make everyone take their computers out of their bags for separate screening and someone will create another way to disguise their tools of hurt and destruction.
According to many learned experts, the point of TSA isn’t to actually prevent terrorism; it’s to provide the pacifying illusion of safety. That's all well and fine as a theory, but it's critical to consider who is actually feeling safer as a result of all those theatrical practices and procedures. Well-known singer Solange Knowles' hair was searched by TSA because she was a black woman with an afro. By her reaction, it didn't seem like she felt any safer after being manhandled in a markedly different way than her fellow passengers without afros.
This strikes me as the same consideration about police and law enforcement. In the weeks and months following George Floyd's murder, the call to "defund the police" was just about everywhere. I had a conversation at the time with a co-worker about the purpose and nature of police. This colleague was very concerned for the safety of their family without police. So I asked about their experience with crime and their experience with police. They had none. They had only an idea that they could be a victim of crime at any moment, and a belief that the only thing standing in between their current peaceful existence and that frightening potential victimhood was the police.
For that colleague and their family, the mere idea of police provided the illusion of safety. They went about their lives with less concern for their personal safety because somewhere there existed: a cop. The reality of modern policing's impact on many communities is much less comforting. Across the US and around the world the application of policing does more harm than good, especially to poor communities and communities of color.
Law enforcement is a poignant example of the darker side of pretending. As humans we also do innumerable things to make-believe in ways that don't cause hurt or trauma to our fellow citizens. Pretending can also be quite useful and really fun. Camping is like pretending to live in the woods. Vacation is like pretending to be retired. Sport fighting is pretend combat. All these things can help us grow cross-over skills that apply to other areas of our lives, so it can be an interesting way to practice something.
The blessing and the curse of pretending is that we can change our behavior through nothing more than our imagination. If we make-believe something, then we start acting like it's true. That can have a positive outcome if we're pretending a positive thing, or a negative outcome if we're pretending a negative thing. The key to harnessing this power is to make sure we're choosing which things we pretend, when we pretend them, and why. If we're pretending on purpose, we can imagine a better world and make-believe it into our new reality.
Information and Inspiration
A colleague died a couple days ago. I wasn’t particularly close to this person, but I liked her. We had friendly conversations at networking events and I enjoyed our interactions during continuing ed classes. After seeing her regularly for years, I came to expect her smiling face and helpful demeanor whenever I attended events organized by the accounting professionals group we both belonged to. Almost like her presence was part of a package deal along with the venue, the speaker, and the content. She even joined an in-person event on FaceTime a few months back because she couldn’t be there in-person.
Even though I had come to rely on her attendance, I didn’t really know that much about her. I knew she was married. I knew she was vivacious and had a larger than life air about her. I knew she had a thriving professional practice. I knew she was knowledgeable and helpful to colleagues. But all I really knew about her was surface stuff. Until she died, I didn’t know all the other amazing things she did with her life.
It got me thinking about what people know about me, and she was on my mind as I sat down to write a little self-introduction for a workshop I'm attending this week. Every time I have to write a bio, I always feel like it should be written (at least in part) by someone else. I mostly know what I want to bring to the world, and I recognize some of what I do actually bring to the world, but I don’t see everything. Like anyone else, I miss things. Especially when I’m too close to see something clearly.
For many years I attended the pre-dawn advanced class at my dojo. One of the most impactful experiences I had during those classes was an exercise we did at the end of an otherwise ordinary class. We partnered-up and took turns telling each other something we appreciated about them as a martial artist and something we appreciated about them as a teacher. At least half the things people said to me that day were a total surprise. So I guess there are the things I think are noteworthy about myself and there are things other people take note of.
And that seems perfectly fine. Other people see me through the lens of their own life experience, so one person is bound to resonate with a particular aspect of me that wouldn't even register with someone else. It feels important to consider because it's a direct reflection of how I move through the world. Understanding how people perceive me is one way to understand some of the impact I'm having on the world. Since I want to leave a particular mark on the world, that feedback is highly relevant.
I have been training and teaching martial arts for a long time and its roll in my life has changed and evolved over that time. Since I've got a couple decades of experience under my belt, I want to use my martial arts to help people heal themselves so we can all work to heal the world. I want to empower women, girls, femm, non-binary, trans, and other often overlooked or oppressed humans to inhabit their body as totally their own domain.
I want to use my work to stand in the way of injustice. I want to grow equity in the places where capitalism and colonialism currently have deep, well-established roots. I want to inject my very white, very male, and historically conservative industry with a serum of broader empathy and greater consideration for people other than only the scant few wealthy humans who currently benefit from our societal systems.
I want this weekly written wandering through the many paths in the forest of being human to spread healing and liberating ideas as far as my reach extends. I want to offer a humanizing perspective that invites all of you to reflect on your own position in the world and find those places where you can make a difference. In everything I do, I want to live out my values. I want to be an antidote to the toxins of the world. And I want to inspire others to do the same work.
Information and Inspiration
A few months ago I looked down at the kitchen table and saw a face. A friendly face, with mismatched eyes and a lopsided smile. I took a photo and shared it with friends. One friend was especially excited. They had been seeing and photographing faces in random inanimate objects for years. I've had this table for years and never noticed the face until that day. Now that I've seen it, though, I can't unsee it. Now I see it every day and it makes me smile.
Apparently this phenomenon is called pareidolia, which is a particular kind of seeing things that aren’t actually there. It’s a type of apophenia, the broader category of making connections between unrelated things. This happens to be a skill that comes naturally to humans. Sometimes it manifests as jumping to conclusions before all the facts are in. Sometimes as a creative story, weaving together disparate strands of character and setting. Sometimes as seeing shapes in clusters of stars and calling them constellations.
On the whole, it’s playful and amusing. I enjoy imagining the personalities and opinions of the lifeless objects that comprise modern life. I think I always have. As far back as I can remember I have personified kitchen appliances and furniture. Stuffed animals and office supplies. Tools and vehicles. I think it fosters a certain additional level of respect for these things, and inspires me to take care of them.
The fun thing about seeing faces in random places is: the more I look for them, the more I see. Since I saw the first one a couple months ago, I now see them everywhere. It’s kind of like seeing a little humanity all over the place, which feels reassuring. There are many examples of inhumanity around the world these days and in the news lately. It’s nice to see little snippets of not-all-hope-being-lost, especially when I’m least expecting it.
It also reminds me that I have been able to see the humanity of more and more people the more I practice looking for it. Reading books by and about people with much different experiences than I have expands my consideration into a broader application of “humanness”. Things like eating insects and living in caves might be labeled barbaric by parts of western culture, but are ordinary facets of life for someone else just as fully human as I am. Some of those things might even be the future for all of humanity.
Identifying patterns and connections is also a useful skill to cultivate for navigating life in general. As long as I’m pairing it with a healthy habit of honest inquiry - remembering my guesswork is only ever guesswork. Seeing connections between what I know about a person and their actions could lead to more complete understanding of their motivations and intentions. Then I can follow-up with questions to confirm or disconfirm my assumptions.
Finding connections (or potential connections) between seemingly unrelated events could lead to more nuanced forecasting and make for more thorough planning. It might even be what we need to save the world. We’re facing unprecedented everything nowadays, so relying only on the methods and techniques we already know is probably not enough. The recent reaction by many folks in the UK to something as simple as weather reports is a clear example of something we've been doing for a long time plainly failing to work in the way we are used to. We need some genuine out-of-the-box thinking, and pareidolia is one example.
If it ultimately resolves into nothing of practical use, it will at least be an enjoyable exercise of my creativity muscle. And I will have put just a little more playfulness and joy out into the world. That alone seems worth continuing to look for faces in places. And well worth sharing what I discover. You never know, one person’s toast might be inspiration the next person has been waiting their whole life to see.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.