Perspective (From the Bottom)

Right now, I’m at a point in my life where if I can make this work, I’ll remember it as “the low point from which I rose like a triumphant phoenix through hard work and gumption!” …Or some other dishonest, self-aggrandizing garbage.

Straight up: I had to ask my mom for help with rent money this month. I have five-digit debt. My hours at work were cut down to a couple shifts per week, leaving me worried that I wouldn’t have enough money to my name to pay for the basic automatic withdrawals that come from my account each month.

But I’ve also begun to see a glimmer of hope.

I wrote my first paid, front page feature for a website. I have a meeting with business folk this week that could result in me being paid to run a D&D game live on-stage. I started recording and editing videos for YouTube again.

So with the possibility of success in mind, I wanted to write something of a letter to my future self.

Dear Future Vince,

Books are crammed with stories of successful folk who were once hard on their luck, and only too eager to tell you that your misfortune is only a result of your own shortcomings and flaws. That if you could JUST work that extra hour, JUST hustle a little more, then Ayn Rand herself would reach one of her gnarled harpy claws down from whatever plane of existence she currently resides in to bestow her bounty on you.

Right now, I know how bullshit that story is: I just want to make sure that you still do. If at this point, you are making money doing what you love, having endured the hardships I’m currently in the middle of, I want you to know that I’m proud of you. You DID work hard. You DID persevere.

So have I. But I’m still poor.

In enjoying your success, don’t forget to be compassionate to those who aren’t where you are. Who don’t have what you have. Because (and I know this is gonna be hard to swallow, because it’s hard to type even now) the fact you’re successful and they’re not does not mean that you worked harder than them. It doesn’t mean you earned your spot, and they didn’t.

Knowing pain made you kind. Knowing isolation made you want to make sure no one felt like they were alone. Desperately trying to breathe life into the embers of distant, impossible dreams taught you the immeasurable power of small kindnesses and gentle words. Don’t let success take those lessons from you. They are, indeed, some of the most valuable ones you’ll ever learn.

Listen. Teach. Encourage. Lift up. Give others what you didn’t have. The dark moments you brighten will be worth more in the end than any paycheque you’ll ever earn.

– Vince

PS. Call your mom more. She misses you.

Cult of Positivity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of positive thinking. Particularly because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It seems like a fairly reasonable idea at first glance (“If you’re sad, why not think happier thoughts?”), but I think at the end of the day the problem with it isn’t that it’s WRONG rather than oversimplified. At my work (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) there’s a lot of lip-flapping about “creating a positive atmosphere for customers/members/workplace, etc”, but the practice of this version of positivity usually involves the punishment of those who speak of anything negative or critical of the company or its management to anyone other than the management in a one-on-one basis. It’s this sort of thing that led to my realization that a lack of negativity and the presence of positivity are not the same thing. All it resulted in was this latent tension as everyone is aware of things that are wrong but are too afraid to say anything (or are cynical because they’ve followed the prescribed procedure and nothing was done to improve it). It’s almost more stressful than an outright negative environment because of the amount of fakeness and performance involved.

But aside from the specifics, I think the cardinal sin of those in the cult of positivity is failing to understand the factors that lead to a positive mindset. And I think that’s it: having a positive (or Challenge, credit to Jane McGonigal and her book SuperBetter for teaching me that word) mindset is different, more complex, and more difficult, than the kind of fast-food drive-thru advice that people give when they say, “Just think positive!”

Essentially, it’s a means, not an end. It’s a result of a hundred different little skills that all take effort, to overcome a hundred little nightmares that haunt the people who struggle with them. The steps also vary from person to person along with how their struggles manifest, and I feel like that’s what not a lot of people understand. That even though one person may not find X problem a struggle, that does not make it less real or difficult for person Y. Especially with mental and emotional health, I think one step we can take towards better understanding is getting rid of the illusion that all pain is measured on a singular scale, rather than branching out like the subway from hell.

I get the distinct feeling whenever I hear that bullshit prescription, the only good it’s doing is helping the person who is saying it to think that they’re elevated in some way above the person asking for help. And it’s the perpetuation of that illusion that makes me pity them the most.

 

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think a lot about the number of people I’ve heard, whether on podcasts or in real life how they’re afraid to get medication to help with their anxiety, depression, etc, because they’re afraid without it, they’ll lose the “true” emotional core of who they are that allows them to express themselves creatively. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the capacity, the mind set for creativity that predisposes people to be vulnerable to certain emotional struggles?

A number of different studies have drawn links between the two, but I always wondered that the nature of the relationship was. In particular, when I took a couple of Theatre courses in the past year, I had an interesting talk with one of my professors that led me to think it’s something like this:

If I had to define creativity, I would think of it in basic terms as an ability to take two previously disparate topics, two things you wouldn’t normally connect with one another (be they material things or abstract concepts), and associating/combining them in a way that most people wouldn’t consider. Now, apply that notion to a chronically anxious individual, say someone who’s nervous for their next job interview. They feel like if they can’t get this job, then it’s their last hope, then no one will hire them, then they’ll lose their apartment, end up on the street and live a lonely, forgotten existence. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of catastrophizing myself and many people I know do in their heads.

When you then talk to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Just because X happens doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead RIGHT to catastrophic conclusion Y!”

Exactly. That’s exactly it. That capacity, that propensity to link two or more only tangentially related things into a cohesive whole is analogous to the kind of thinking that leads us to think that “shitty but manageable thing A will inevitably lead to B, C, D… all the way to life-ruining outcome Z.”

One way of thinking of it is the old “it’s a blessing and a curse” addage, but I think maybe a better way of considering it is like a really awesome, but really specialized piece of software. You have this awesome program for making breathtaking art, revolutionary inventions, and solving dastardly problems, and it does a fantastic job at that. But you feed this machine a question about the true nature of, say, Existential Ethics, and it might just fizz out and explode, setting things ablaze and taking out the printer two rooms over.

That doesn’t necessarily make it defective (though you should probably call someone to see if you can fix the whole exploding thing). It just means that you need to be aware when you’re using a certain tool to try and solve a problem that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve. I’m not a big fan of the whole right-brained/left-brained thing (largely because it’s been shown to be vastly oversimplified), but there IS value in thinking of your mental skills as modules in some way.

So next time you find yourself enveloping mentally into “my life is DOOMED” or something like it, maybe consider the possibility that you’ve got the wrong disc in. Take a moment, take a breath, and do your best to engage the linear, procedural reasoning part of your brain, or at least be aware of the possibility that some of the catastrophic thoughts you’re thinking are NOT, in fact, products of the situation, but of your own fears. That way, you can attempt to switch the focus from your perceived “DOOOOOOOOOOM!! (yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing it) and onto the reasoning that fuels that fear. There’s a good chance that digging at that root of the problem will get you a lot further than thinking up new and complex ways of torturing yourself emotionally.

And as always, don’t worry, I know. I should follow my own advice.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.