Letter to Art #2 - Egos, Deadlines, The Twisties, and Sandwiches
This letter is part of an ongoing series of public exchanges between me and Artemio.
Thanks so much for your letter last time. It has so many resonances that I think are weaving their way into my life as well, that I've been arriving at independently but converging towards similar conclusions.
I can't speak to what your words mean to you, which I think is very personal in your worldview, but I believe they are shaping your life in meaningful ways and perspectives. That being said, what resonates with me about them is the idea of seeing oneself as part of a greater whole, which can be divided by time and place, through ancestry, through place in the world. In contrast, the conventional inclination to identify with that larger whole is something that settles us, more than living in fear of our own individual existence, which is all too fragile and easy to obsess over.
Often we associate the concept of "ego" with being self-obsessed in a self-important "I'm so big" kind of way. However, in other senses of the word, it can refer to being self-obsessed in a shrinking violet kind of way. Like this old Charlie Brown comic where he worries about why people keep talking about him behind his back, but really no one cares enough to talk about him to begin with! To which he has a hilarious reply...
Many of us have an aspect of ourselves, or know someone who has an aspect, that says, "Everyone must hate me" in the face of zero evidence. However, in light of this, we are also making the assumption that people even care about them enough to be constantly making fun of them, when in fact, most of the time people are generally worried about their own lives, like what they're going to eat, and their own insecurities. This is an important thing to overcome as a creative person who's duty is to put one's work out there. (In my experience, oftentimes creative people have a call to share their work, and if that call is unanswered, bad things can happen.)
This is also true if you think about it on a larger level than people, like if you think the world is being mean to you specifically, you are also assuming that the world cares enough about you to torture you!
So, next I'm going to zoom out once again, because why not? We're in times that are making us see the consequences of humanity's actions over and over again, while we are often sitting at home alone with our thoughts to contemplate these circumstances.
So, to zoom out once again, it seems like we're being tested as a species. We're collectively being tasked with finding solutions to the challenges of the 21st century and finding our place in them, climate change, pandemic, discrimination, and so on. There's not a spot on this planet that is not affected by our connection to each other, both through the literal wires and waves of the internet, the atmosphere that we breathe, and the other things that make us all part of one tribe of being human beings.
And there's a literal clock on how we need to figure out solutions to these problems.
On one hand, this is obviously terrible. We have to grieve. We have to mourn.
But also, can be caught in a state of being unable to mourn, what humans are not able to comprehend without imagery which can communicates to us the issue. yet also impossible to wrap our human minds around. The timescale is so un-immediate, and the scope of the problem so vast, on the scale of the whole planet, that our primitive human brains, which evolved to think in terms of a small tribe of humans, are not used to fathoming. And maybe many problems in our world now are rooted in our lack of ability to collectively fathom long term issues, because there are so many of us that are focused on problems with vivid imagery, like the perception of the increase in violent crime, even though statistics have shown violent crime has dropped over the last several decades.
Anyway, beyond the problems of our world being terrible, when you think about it, these circumstances can also can be seen as liberating.
It's kinda like being in school again, and the teacher tells everyone to work on a big final but doesn't give a deadline or say how it'll affect your grades. What happens, as we know, is that the class doesn't bother starting it, except for maybe the few kids who feel way too invested in this class compared to the rest of us who have other things to focus on.
But then! The teacher says if we don't do the assignment, you'll fail the class! And on top of that, there's a hard deadline that if you don't get everything in by then, there's no makeups! We're mad for a little bit, but after we see they mean business, it's off to the races. Of course, the whole class scrambles to get things done, set up group meetings, meet up after class, etc etc. (And of course, we go to the kids who started way earlier to give us a leg up on things, ha.)
It's unfortunate, but it's also human nature, that we have to figure out all this stuff. And the thing is, sometimes if we don't give ourselves a deadline, however arbitrary or external, we'll never get anything done. And ultimately, even without a world crisis to deal with, each individual has a final deadline to get all the things done in one lifetime, which we can often forget.
Maybe this is just from the perspective of someone who tends to overthink things and get a lot of analysis paralysis.
I think there's a good comparison to be made between this analysis paralysis of a grand scale to the analysis paralysis of athletes. I think almost everyone has heard of Simone Biles's struggles at the Tokyo Olympics games this year.
Wikipedia notes of Simone Biles, aged 24, with her being "the gymnast with the most World medals (25) and most World gold medals (19)." This year in Tokyo, she was heavily promoted as going to lead the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team to Gold. I had personally seen several promotional ads encouraging viewers to tune into NBC or NBC owned streaming platform Peacock specifically to witness her success, so you can see there was a lot of pressure mounting on her.
With all these expectations, it was a bit of a disappointment, but maybe not a shock, that she withdrew from her participation this year. She specifically cited as having a case of the "twisties". I would learn that "the twisties" are a phenomena that gymnasts cite as when the muscle memory that would be responsible for keeping an athlete in alignment while spinning in the air becomes out of sync, leading to disorienting and potentially life endangering falls. During practice, she said she was trying to do a two-and-a-half twisting vault, but ended up doing a one-and-a-half. In an interview with the Washington Post, they reported her saying "I had no idea where I was in the air... I could have hurt myself."
While everyone would point fingers to blame her for "being a quitter", I don't think we can blame her.
"The twisties" are not unique to gymnastics. There are parallels in other sports as well. The "yips" happen to pro level golfers who report basically suddenly forgetting how to putt, sometimes even ending their whole golfing careers. In darts, there's dartitis. Archers get "target panic". In baseball, players lose their ability to throw a ball. Losing the ability to throw specifically to the first baseman is known as "Steve Blass disease".
Beyond all sports, in wikipedia, related to the twisties, is simply the expression of "analysis paralysis". It's a wikipedia entry that does not seem to have a formal definition but still has merit as a concept that's resulted in citations across history. From Aesop's Fable of The Fox and the Cat ("Better one safe way [to escape], than a hundred on which you cannot reckon"), to Shakespeare's Hamlet who thinks too much ("sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought"), to Voltaire popularizing an old Italian proverb (the English variant being "Perfect is the enemy of the good").
The time honored tradition of "overthinking" things, is virtually timeless.
The twisties, the yips, analysis paralysis, a culture of anxiety, I think these are all on the uptick, and I think we have to deal with that as a society.
It might, in fact, already be happening. This past week, my dad went to see the doctor after having sudden sensations of the room spinning after getting up from bed. I looked up the symptoms and it sounded like he was getting a case of vertigo. The doctor would tell him that it was an inner ear issue, and my dad would later look up doing exercises to ease his vertigo symptoms.
Earlier in the week, I was talking to my brother about my dad's habits and it sounded like he had mostly given up a lot of his vices.
I asked when did that start.
"Around when he started gardening."
When did he start gardening anyway? He seemed to really like gardening these past few months after having shown little interest before. He worked in the garden each day, getting soil and fertilizer, pulling weeds, watering tomatoes and string beans, capturing squash and bittermelon, picking leaves from sweet potato plants (which I learned would serve as a delicious substitute for spinach with garlic and oil, yum!).
When did he start gardening?
"He started gardening last year..."
"Right around when the pandemic started."
Twitch personality Dr. Alok Kanojia, or he is known on Twitch as Dr. K, is a Harvard medical school educator, therapist, and student of Eastern Philosophy who recently released a series of modules on mental health. In one module, he breaks down anxiety as a cognitive phenomena and a physiologic response, which evolved to anticipate danger in the future in order for us to respond to it. For example, if we have a job interview coming soon, then we can become anxious about doing well on it.
Long term anxieties, like eco-anxiety, from my understanding, do not seem like something humans can respond to easily. If we are unable to resolve that fear meaningfully, I would posit that we can internalize all kinds of bad effects and then that can result in emotions, attitudes, and behaviors, which we don't even realize are related.
I don't feel comfortable saying exactly how to deal with these things because I'm not a doctor.
What I do feel comfortable saying is this:
One day recently, I was browsing social media. And I realized, I couldn't stand watching it anymore. I couldn't stand seeing more and more suffering and future suffering in the world. I realized I had too much empathy for people and felt too much of their fear and sorrow that I couldn't bother anymore. It all just felt like the negative emotions of it were welling up inside me like a dam that was bursting. I simply closed my phone and wept for a bit in my room. And after that I felt a little better.
A wise man once said:
“You know everyone has lots of ways of feeling, and all those ways of feeling are fine. It’s what we do with our feelings that matter in this life. I trust that you’re growing in ways that will help you with whatever feelings you may have. When you’re a child and when you’re a grown up. I hope you’re able to grow to respect whoever you are inside.”
- Fred Rogers
I hope a lot of us are able to find not only healthy ways to express these negative feelings, but also find sources of strength and identity with others as well. Like with the previous points about how we need to remove our singular selves from the equation, hopefully, we are able to think about things beyond the scope of external deadlines, our individual selves, or our individual species in a larger ecosystem.
I've had to turn this quote by Maya Angelou in my mind for maybe the better part of two years, but it's starting to resonate more now.
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”
- Maya Angelou
In terms of what is bigger than us, I've been hovering a lot over what we owe to future generations now, what with the world crises we see. They say adults are caught in the "sandwich years" when we are sandwiched between caring for our parents and our children. Now as a generation, we are sandwiched between the prospect of unlearning the generational trauma instilled in us from the past, and the opportunity and demand to create a better future for our descendants and our planet this coming century.
The deadline's coming and our final grade depends on it...
Anyway, I think I'm writing too much now, and I've actually had a draft that I've completely second guessed and re-written at this point, so speaking of overthinking, I should wrap up trying to write this post and just post it. Let's continue this conversation about saving the world at a lunch meeting, preferably with a Reuben sandwich. I'm in the mood for sandwiches now.