Three Greek words for a fresh start.

As my pastor recently observed, it’s the new year. Sort of. At least it is the sense that kids are going back to school and the blazing hot summer is starting to break. There’s an opportunity for a fresh start–which is to say, even though a fresh start is always available, right now it might feel a little more possible than it often does in the middle of things.

A few days ago, I was introduced to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, which is a program to help with procrastination and follow-through depending on one’s type of accountability. Are you accountable to your own expectations, or other people’s expectations of you, or both, or neither? You can take her quiz here if you’re curious.

But the quiz didn’t really illuminate anything for me, because I’m so inconsistent and ambivalent. I’m accountable to others–and I’m not. I’m accountable to myself–and I’m not. I’m often saying yes to invitations and requests when I’d rather say no. This builds resentment on my part. It also may cause resentment on the part of those who kindly asked me to participate but who wouldn’t have asked if they’d known I would be sullen and difficult, or half-present.

And when it comes to commitments to myself, I’m the same way: I over-commit, always making ten plans when one would do, and then when I only end up completing one, I irritate myself. Or I burn the candle at both ends striving to get all ten done just to say I did. Plus, the weight of the ten expectations I set makes me want to rebel by procrastinating like a toddler striking from naptime, with more or less the same predictable results.

Still, for an optimistic committer such as myself, the lure of the new plan is often irresistible. I use Google Keep to store my dozens of to-do lists, containing everything from the grocery list to the daily to-do list to the weekly to-do list to the prioritized list of movies I want to watch soon (I know) and, of course, the long-term to-do list that is the only barrier between me and fatal inertia. A lot of this in Enneagram terms is down to my type’s tendency to struggle with priorities: all priorities seem equally urgent, so I put them all off equally, which causes total chaos. My two most productive times are the panicked hour before I must leave work, and the panicked hour that straddles my planned bedtime.

As an experiment, I’m taking a break from the to-do lists. We’re going to see what happens. May need to schedule a wellness check just in case this experiment results in me starving to death because the list didn’t tell me to shop for groceries.

But contrast this list-making, task-obsessed, rebellion-inducing behavior with the following:

Right around the new calendar year, I printed out a page with three Greek words on it, that I hoped would set the tone for my year. It hangs on my fridge thusly:




Eudaimonia: literally, “well-daemoned,” “well-spirited.” Happy, virtuous, excellent, living well. For me, this meant to aim for the things that create that sense of joyful ease, creative flow, peaceful purpose.

Eucharistia: gratitude.

Metanoia: transformation.

These words are a guidepost, not a to-do list. This means they don’t provide the tremendous satisfaction I associate with the conquered to-do item (seriously, nothing like hitting that check box on Google Keep; how I miss it…) But I see them every day, and every day I’m a little more likely to think about what I have to be grateful for, or how to lean further into the things that give me joy, away from the things that don’t. Or to reflect on the ways transformation is always possible.

I think it’s helping, even if it’s hard to know without being able to cross it off as complete. I still have a long way to go with the transformation part. But for today, I’m sitting outside with the birds and the breeze, and that is hard to beat.

Moral Tastebuds

Perhaps as is evident from my current fixation on the Enneagram, I’m drawn to personality metrics, and all kinds of explanatory models for why people act so damn different from each other (which is to say, from me) all the time.

One fascinating one is the “moral foundations” quiz (link below), which is based on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt is a psychologist who studies the psychology of morality, and if that seems a little odd to you, then I’d highly recommend his book The Righteous Mind. It is completely fascinating.

When I read it in 2017, it blew my mind–essentially because I had become so unaccustomed to hearing the word “morality” used in a secular context. I think many of us have a strong distaste for that word, preferring a term like “ethics,” which seems a little more civilized and rational, a little less feral, than “morality.” But the book forces you to look right at that word, and to examine what your own morality might be. “Haven’t got one,” I thought, slightly tongue-in-cheek, for the first hundred pages or so. But I was wrong.

Haidt identifies six moral foundations, which he calls “tastebuds.” Each of us cares more or less about each of the six, resulting in our own individual morality which we use constantly, unconsciously, to evaluate the world. Each of the six is a set of concepts, as follows:

  1. Care/Harm
  2. Fairness/Cheating
  3. Loyalty/Betrayal
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Sanctity/Degradation
  6. Liberty/Oppression

The degree to which each person feels each of those concepts strongly will determine how they evaluate a situation. For example, most of us can readily understand care vs. harm. Just imagine a situation in which someone or something vulnerable–a child or a puppy–is in need of care, or worse, is being mistreated. The feeling that stirs in you or the action it might drive you to, so the theory goes, shows your care/harm tastebud activating. And if the bare mention of the idea that such a thing could happen got you squirming, congratulations: your care/harm tastebud is alive and well.

But what about the others? The one that fascinates me the most is sanctity vs. degradation, also known as “purity.” The most obvious applications of this tastebud are in sexual morality. But it’s also about food, and personal hygiene. Imagine a clean, cool glass of water. Now imagine someone drops a harmless, sterile cockroach in it. Would you drink it? Your rational mind may accept that the cockroach is sterilized, but your sanctity/degradation tastebud will violently protest if you try to drink it. Even though that may not sound like “morality” at first, consider how religions have almost always set standards for cleanliness of body and of food. We must conclude that food and cleanliness can be deeply moral to humans. If Haidt is right, this tastebud demonstrates the influence of purity on your morality, even at an unconscious level, and even when the tastebud reacts to circumstances that don’t appear to have a moral component at all, like the cockroach.

In the last portion of The Righteous Mind, Haidt goes on to apply his findings about the moral tastebuds to the modern* political climate. He found experimentally that American liberals and American conservatives have recognizable patterns that show up in their tastebuds: liberals tend to weigh care/harm and fairness/cheating very highly, and weigh the rest of the tastebuds less strongly. Conservatives weigh all six somewhat evenly, meaning that their care/harm and fairness/cheating tastebuds come out a little lower than liberals’ did, but the others are higher.

You can easily imagine how that would play out in a political argument: person A might be making excellent points about how Policy X will harm someone, while person B is making excellent points about how Policy X diminishes oppression. They may quickly begin talking directly past each other, unable to hear the value in the other’s point, or see the weaknesses in their own.

(You definitely have something in mind for what policy X is, don’t you? You even know what you think about policy X, and I haven’t said what it is.)

Anyway, if you’re interested, take the test and find out where you come out.

*A note on the “modern” political climate: The Righteous Mind was published in the salad days of 2012, back when politics were all about the Obama era and the Tea Party moment. It feels like so long ago. And even way back in 2017, I thought Haidt’s descriptions of what makes someone “liberal” or “conservative” were pretty outdated. Things have changed, folks.

Indecision fatigue.

It’s a time of plenty, friends, by just about any measure (which isn’t to say that this plenty is properly distributed, or that there is no room for improvement, but that’s another matter). And yet I notice quite often that my mind has a habit of seeing scarcity everywhere. See, for example, my almost perilous aversion to wasting food, culminating in narrowly avoided tragedy in the glass-shard soup incident of 2015. My grandparents lived through the Depression, yes, but why is its hold so strong on me still, when I grew up wanting nothing?

Scarcity looms everywhere, though, probably as a form of the common human negativity bias. It tries to keep me alive by telling me to make hay while the sun shines, (seriously, get out there, it’s sunny, what are you doing, the sun will go away and you won’t have enough hay, dummy!) It keeps me alert to potential danger by reminding me that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush (and, hey, you’ve only got one bird in that hand; what are you going to do when you’re next in need of a bird? You think birds grow on trees?)

Pretty obnoxious, really. And one place it comes up in this kind of meta way is when I am working on an idea: some little voice in the back of my head is piping up: “Hey, what about the next idea? Is this the only one you’ve got? You might never have another. Just thought you should know!”

It is, to say the least, hardly helpful. There’s nothing less creativity-inspiring than worrying about the potential future scarcity of creativity, just as there’s nothing less satisfying to the stomach than fretting about where one’s next meal will come from. Yet even as I’m working on picking what I like and seeing how it grows, the little scarcity gremlin looks over my shoulder and warns me that I’m probably going to run out of ideas soon, and probably half of the ones I’ve got are going to fizzle out before I can finish…just trying to be helpful!

So there I am, clinging white-knuckled to the little list of ideas I’ve got, squeezing the life out of the poor things. But in Big Magic, which I read recently (and you should too, if you want to live a more creative life and could use a little boost), Elizabeth Gilbert has an interesting idea that turns my scarcity gremlin on his head: she pictures inspiration as a sentient force, a personified entity, that goes where it likes, and stays if you entertain it generously. With a straight face, she tells the story of the time that the idea for a novel visited her for a while, then once she’d demonstrated that she didn’t have the space in her life to tend to it fully, entered the body of Ann Patchett the day that they met. Ann Patchett ended up writing this book that so badly wanted to be written. Which is not to say “cling harder and panic when you have an idea, lest it enter the body of a more talented nearby artist.” (That would be our neighborhood scarcity gremlin talking again). I suppose it’s just to say: be grateful when it’s there. Welcome it. Don’t squeeze the life out of it.

Now I’m doing better, taking some deep cleansing breaths and welcoming the friendly inspiration spirit in. I’m living in abundance mode, not scarcity mode. I’m countering that negativity bias. Noticing the plenty, not the lack.

But then–oh no–such plenty. Ideas coming so hot and heavy that I have several different digital to-do lists, like so many crumpled purse-bottom post-it notes, cluttering up the joint. Ideas coming so fast and incomplete that they talk over each other and my mind starts to feel all jerky and fuzzy like it does when I’ve been visiting the portal too much. Each one is a welcomed guest but, “well,” I begin to say to the throng of them in my living room, “I do visit the portal a fair amount, and I have my day job to consider, and my social life, and I’ve got to stay showered and need to shop for groceries now and then, and as it is I’m already halfway through two of you, so I might not get to you” (pointing to one of them in the back, a new arrival staring at me slackjawed) “until halfway through next year, at the earliest, I’m sorry to say.”

How do I pick what I like and see how it grows when I struggle to follow a thread long enough to plant it, and when I like quite a lot of things?

Don’t be fooled. This is scarcity talking. Scarcity of time. Like any other scarcity fear, there’s a grain of truth within it, but it’s hardly helpful to let it run the show.

So you have to conquer the first scarcity, the fear that ideas will come at all; perhaps you do this by trusting that the idea has its own will, and will find you if and when it pleases, no matter how tightly you squeeze or how much you suffer in the meantime, so you may as well relax. Then, when you’ve caught one, you have to conquer the second scarcity fear: the fear of scarcity of ability, the fear that you won’t do the idea justice and shouldn’t even try. You do this by learning to entertain it gently, and just follow it where it leads.

But how do you conquer the third scarcity, of time to follow the many possible leads you’ve got? You’re indecisive. You don’t know which one is top priority. (After all, if everything is top priority, nothing is, and there we are in the bowels of the couch playing Flash games until long after our bedtime). Okay, so just do something. Do literally anything. Print out a list and throw a dart at it, see which one it lands nearest. Use a random number generator. Just start. Just for ten minutes. Just mess around with it on your phone while you wait in line at the pharmacy.

But the fear is still there. The gremlin hasn’t left. It says: “okay, you’ve got a lot for now, that’s great. But what will you do in five years? You haven’t really got five years’ worth on that list, do you? Aren’t you worried that you’re going to to flame out in a while, even if you do find the time to do any of them?”

That’s when I look that gremlin in the eye and go, “listen, buddy, I know this game.” I know all about trying to pin my future down and buy it an insurance policy. It’s a fool’s errand. I look back to what I was dead certain I wanted my long-term future to look like when I was 15, 18, 20, 22, 25, 28…every single time, if I could have locked it in, of course I would have. But every single time, I either didn’t get it, or I got some very different version of it, and thank God for that, because I can’t imagine much worse than being trapped in a life younger-me chose. She doesn’t know anything about me.

So ideas will come. And I’ll entertain them as best I’m able. And I’ll get new ones, or I won’t, because maybe me in several years won’t even want them, and that’s totally fine. And I’ll find the time, here and there, or maybe future me will. She can figure it out.

The upside of conflict

I hate conflict.

This is one of those things that comes with being a 9, and in my case it goes so deep that I wasn’t even conscious of it until shockingly recently. All I knew is that I basically wanted to wither and vanish when anyone was angry or oppositional. I couldn’t imagine why anyone else felt differently. Facing down someone who was saying or even declaring what they felt was utterly incomprehensible, just as it would be incomprehensible to see someone burn all the cash in their wallet or something. Why on earth would you do such a thing? Why would you want to ruin everyone’s day like that?

(You see, if I were to do the same, it would ruin everyone’s day. No question.)

But part of learning about myself has been learning that not everyone is wired the same way. Most people are far more comfortable with conflict than I am. What’s more, there is so much to be gained from conflict deployed well. You can ask for what you want. You can confront an important issue. You can highlight what’s not working, and have a chance to change it. Amazing. (Am I there yet? No. But closer than before.) And best of all, it’s generally not a day-ruining kind of situation.

Copyright 2019

Thinking a lot about conflict in my own life has gotten me to think more about conflict in the political news. Specifically, how it’s basically a win-win for those who engage in it. This has been blowing my mind to realize, having thought for so long that conflict was basically a glitch in the Matrix.

Let’s first consider the case of Nancy and the Squad. It’s from a few weeks ago, which is basically decades in 2019 time, so I’ll recap: Nancy Pelosi, often a subject of critique from the left wing of her party, made some dismissive comments about four progressive Congresswomen, suggesting that they should be more pragmatic. Those Congresswomen’s supporters got fired up against the moderate part of the party, represented by Pelosi. (I assume the moderates also got fired up at some point, but that wasn’t evident from my Twitter feed at the time. [I disclaim, now and forever, any claims of responsible research on this site.])

Then, Trump started tweeting racistly about the Congresswomen, saying they should go back to their countries (even though they’re all American citizens, and three of four were born here.) Pelosi and all the Democrats came to their defense. Pelosi and Rep. Omar are good now.

On a large scale, what happened? Everyone benefited. “The Squad’s” stars rose. Pelosi maintained her credibility with the older and more moderate Democrats. Trump made racists happy, which is his thing. Pelosi came in to defend the congresswomen against the racist attacks. If you were conspiracy-minded, you might even say that that was her plan all along.

But the point here is: through this conflict, everyone made happy those they sought to make happy, and isn’t that sort of what politics is, as distinguished from actual policy- and law-making? You’d have to call it a success, start to finish.

This is what blows my mind. But I’m seeing it all over the place now. Adam Scott vs. Mitch-McConnell-being-Darth-Vader (which, I surmise, is what Republicans like about him: at least he’s their Darth Vader?). Democratic candidates for President strategically seeking conflict to stay in the race longer. Trump “feuding” with Rep. Elijah Cummings (again: making racists happy is his jam. They find it hilarious when he’s monstrous. Meanwhile, everyone else can rally around an embattled Democrat.) These are win-win situations for the parties. There’s no evident downside to participating, even if you didn’t “start it” in Kindergarten terms.

This may all seem obvious to people with less broken relationships to conflict in their own lives, but it’s all new to me.

And I’m left wondering if this conflict is a win-win all around, including for those of us on the outside. It does help clarify and crystallize our positions. It can show people’s true colors, even if we’ve already seen them many times too many. It can bring issues to the fore that would otherwise fester unspoken.

But in the long run, I’m worried that we’re stuck. The incentives all point toward increasing conflict in an increasingly politically polarized (or ideological) environment. The more polarized the public is, the more it benefits the parties to a conflict to engage in it, and to even prolong or heighten it. The further apart one is from one’s enemy, the more upside and less downside there is to opposing the enemy publicly. After all, everyone loves seeing the other guy get owned, even if no one is ever quite as owned as the owner expects. So there is no end in sight, and I’m not sure that the outcomes of clarified positions and increased transparency are worth it.

Basically, the incentives for public figures are to engage in conflict to satisfy the people who agree with them already. Everyone enjoys the spectacle. No one’s mind is changed. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a “let’s understand Rust Belt America” essay. This is not centrist sighing. I’m not even much of a centrist. I’m trying to get more comfortable with healthy conflict, but all of this just makes me sleepy.

Pick what you like, see how it grows.

Recently, at the recommendation of a dear friend with whom I go way back (way back), I read Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing.

My friend recommended this book a few months ago, after I’d been making a little quiet fuss for a while about not being sure about my long-term plans. The book sat on my total chaos bookshelf (the one where new arrivals languish horizontally, their spines not even showing, no doubt shortening my librarian boyfriend’s lifespan every time he glances at the horror) for a month or two.

I picked it up just in time for reading it to coincide with a Big Freakout. Isn’t it funny how that often happens? The universe senses a freakout coming and throws a tiny life preserver out into it. Or maybe I was providing for myself, sensing the brewing eruption. Either way, I was tearing through it on the metro on my way to and from work, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for Emily to tell me what to do with my life.

Spoiler: the book doesn’t do that. If you ever find one that does, please send it to me immediately.

And don’t we all think we want that book? A recent poll I saw on Amy Young’s Instagram story had 95% of responders feeling stuck. So there’s nearly all of us in our own private occasional freakouts, wanting someone to come give us a little pull or shove, get us un-stuck.

In parachutes Emily, like a firefighter into the wildfire of my panic, bearing short chapters, each of which is a little inspiration, a little way in to the unknown. She dropped a few buckets of calm water onto me with each chapter.

One, in particular, has stuck with me. Remembering a time she was trying to zhuzh up her garden, Emily tells us her strategy: “Pick what you like, and see how it grows.” You don’t have to have the whole vision for the garden. You don’t have to have all the research done about how each plant will fare in each corner. You don’t have to know how it will work over the winter. You just have to pick what you like, and see how it grows.

Reader, that little line is part of why I’m writing this now. I’d been unsure of how to go forward in my life, how to find my vocation, as though it were some kind of prize hidden under some disguise in some unknown spot, and if I only knew how to find it it would be waiting for me. But it’s not like that. It’s all right in front of me, right in my hands and my head and my heart, because in every moment I can pick what I like and see how it grows. So in this blog, I’m picking what I like and writing about it, and we’ll see where we get.

Even at risk of beating this poor metaphor to death, I’m starting to think of everything in my life as a little seed being scattered. Every conversation, email, interaction with a stranger, passing thought, scrolled-by post, is a seed being scattered across my mind. Some seeds grow. These I chase down, researching further or noting down for future reference, or I get them stuck in my mind and can’t stop thinking or talking about them. Some don’t. These I immediately forget, even if I’d rather not, and I might require reminding. When I notice that something didn’t stick, maybe instead of worrying I’ve done something wrong, or telling myself I should buckle down and force myself to be more interested–maybe I can shift this. Maybe the seed fell on the wrong soil, or it was the wrong seed for the soil, or something. Maybe I can let it go.

And maybe I should save my attention for the seeds that did take root. Sr. Joan Chittister, who has literally written the book on vocation (well, a book on vocation), reminds us of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.” Not to light a fire under planting that garden, but it’s worth considering. You may as well do the things you like. Not doing so can have disastrous results.

I’m also going to be gentle with myself about what doesn’t grow, and about what I don’t pick in the first place. For example, here I am writing about The Next Right Thing, rather than Autumn. I liked Autumn, perhaps a little less than I liked another of Ali Smith’s books, How to be Both, but I did like it. Yet as I was reading it, and especially as I thought about writing about it, there was this nagging suspicion that I was being dense, not understanding it on some level that would be obvious to most. So how do I pick what I like and see how it grows? For one thing, by not forcing myself to write about Autumn if I don’t want to. (As it happens, I’ve read more about it now and I think I do “get” it; I just don’t have anything in particular to say about it, and that’s fine.) (Another side note: is this not a terribly Enneagram-9 problem to have, worried that my very thoughts and preferences are wrong?)

Now, when you find what you like, is it guaranteed to grow? Absolutely not. Nor are my tastes guaranteed to stay the same. But just as Emily parachuted into my life with little morsels of wisdom, I’m realizing that there’s no mega-parachuter coming with All The Answers. Or, at least, it’s highly unlikely. So instead I’ll just be down here in my garden, picking what I like each day, and watering it, and seeing how it grows.

A note on the book: Emily comes from what I would call an evangelical Christian background, and the book is pretty religious in its orientation. It might not be for everyone (especially those who don’t particularly want to hear about Jesus or read gospel quotations.)