Friday, June 28, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Roll with the punches

"Ask a simple question, get a simple answer"

I've already written about asking clear questions and giving honest answers. This series would be incomplete without a discussion of how to deal with the truth; after all, reality doesn't always square with our hopes. Fortunately, there are positive ways to deal with unpleasant truths. I'll write specifically about dating and breakups, but these ideas are all applicable in a wide variety of contexts.

I find it useful to understand the nature of my feelings as I process them. In some cases, I've missed having someone more than I missed the individual I was dating. Sometimes my discomfort has to do with the unpleasant task of adjusting to life without my former partner. And, of course, I've missed people – both people I've dated and people I knew through them.

Identifying the things I feel badly about allows me to determine what I can do something about and what I can't. If I miss having someone, I can meet new people and deepen friendships I already enjoy. I can plan to make the necessary adjustments. In the case of missing people, I can easily see some of them. As for the rest, I can live with the pain and let it abate with time.

Even the worst sorrows are resolved by faith. Faith doesn't remove all pain immediately; faith adds hope in a future day when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain" (Rev. 21:4). I believe that this is true for all of us, although we will not see this prophecy fulfilled in this life.

There is the matter of how to react in the moment to unpleasant news. Obviously, it's inappropriate to try to use pain to coerce or punish someone. It is also unwise to hide all emotion. Such concealment is dishonest and can be hurtful, even if its' motivated by a desire to spare someone else pain. Instead of these destructive techniques, I try to understand my feelings and to express them simply. There is always something to appreciate about a person and even about the way that person goes about breaking up. An expression of all of these feelings – positive and negative – shows respect and encourages continued friendship. It also helps the healing process to happen quickly and completely, which opens the door to future happiness and friendships.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On PRISM, surveillance, and terrorism

I've been asked to write about PRISM, the recently rumored government surveillance program. Details are scarce, especially once the hype has been filtered out. I don't know much about PRISM or Snowden in particular, so I'll discuss the topic generally.

One of the principal benefits of a government is that a government provides peace and security for its citizens. A government provides peace by preventing people from causing harm. In modern governments, this is usually done by establishing punishments for bad behavior; for example, imprisonment for theft and fines for minor infractions.

A government must have more power than any of its individual citizens in order to effectively enforce its own laws. After all, laws can only be enforced against people who are willing to break them. As such, the government must have the power to coerce people in order to punish them.

Many modern governments also recognize that it is beneficial to limit the power of the government. This is the motivation behind the checks and balances in the Constitution of the United States of America: each branch of the government can prevent the other branches from overreaching its bounds. There are also specific limitations placed on what the government can do to individuals. These limitations, such as due process, are designed to prevent governments from oppressing individuals, as many governments have done throughout history.

We have seen significant changes in the government of the United States since their inception. There are many more laws and the laws are much more complex. And the ways that information is generated, stored, and obtained are completely different.

These days, we're increasingly aware of people who are unaffected by our legal deterrents; for example, terrorists who aren't bothered by the prospect of dying aren't discouraged by the fact that officers of the law who figure out what they're up to will probably shoot them. It may be that there are more of these people; it's certain that we hear more about them. And technology marches on, ever enabling offense far more than it does defense.

The result is that we have a government that gets increasing demands from its citizens to protect them against some really scary people. In order to be more effective, it does what organizations naturally do: it expands its power.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on pre-emptive law enforcement requires secrecy, as people can change or cancel their plans if they know that they've been found out. And secrecy prevents anyone from watching the watchers.

One of the most frightening implications of our current political and legal climate is that it is impractical for any individual to know whether he or she is breaking some law. What's more, citizens have no idea whether or not their governments are investigating their actions. In a society where people regularly break laws, possibly because there is no course of action that is not against some law, and in which the laws are not all enforced, it is possible for individuals and groups to be targeted by government officials – and that targeting has the appearance of being the rule of law.

Government has always sounded a bit paradoxical; it protects liberties by restricting them. A government designed to promote freedom is necessarily a balancing act. Absolute freedom means that no laws are enforced and people are allowed to kill as they please. Absolute security means that no one has any freedom or privacy.

Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence to suggest that our government is encroaching more and more on its citizens' liberties and privacy. To make matters worse, many experts believe that the denial of these liberties does not provide additional security but merely the appearance of security.

I'm reminded of an occasion when a friend of mine called another friend. She had a virus on her computer and she called a computer expert. After some time talking about it, he offered to visit her apartment in the following couple of days to clean up her computer. She explained that she'd talked about it and felt better and that he needn't bother.

If what we're after is feeling better about it, we're doing fine. But if we actually want to solve these problems, we're going to have to look them square in the eye.

It seems clear that we can't prevent all terrorism. So we must decide what we will and will not do in our attempt to increase our security. At what point have we ceded enough liberties that the lives we save aren't worth living? What risks are we willing to take in order to live free? This debate is certain to be sticky, as these decisions must be made in aggregate and not everyone will see eye to eye.

There's plenty of room for dissent, but my opinion is that we ought to be expanding, not limiting our freedoms. We ought to expand the legal notion of search and seizure to include data, even if those data are stored in servers outside of an individual's direct control. We ought to ensure that people know when a subpoena has been served to collect their data. We ought to actually stick to our current legal doctrines, like habeas corpus. We ought to take our chances that someone will get past ordinary law enforcement and be willing to stand up ourselves to protect others.

One last change we ought to make for our security is that we ought to become the kind of nation that no one wants to attack. This is not a governmental change. It is a cultural change. Most of the important needs we have today are not needs that can be met by any government. They must be met by ordinary people, one at a time.

Am I scared by news like the PRISM story? Absolutely. I think I'm scared most of all that we have politicians and ordinary citizens that have not only allowed this sort of thing to happen, but have made it inevitable.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Tell it like it is

"I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve."

My last post was about asking direct questions for the sake of clear communication. Direct questions aren't much use unless the answers to them are given honestly and openly. The reasoning for honesty and openness is largely the same as the reasoning for direct questions – and the reasons we shy away from honesty and openness are also mostly the same.

There are many reasons to be honest (and, as I discussed in this post, honesty includes openness). In fact, there are many reasons for honesty that are independently sufficient to make it a moral imperative for all of us. In this post, I will discuss only one of them: honesty respects the autonomy of other people.

Although our lives interconnect, every person makes decisions independently of all other people; in other words, my decisions are my own just as your decisions are your own. But my decisions and yours cannot be wiser than the information we have to guide them. When we give people incomplete, insufficient, or inaccurate information, we do so in an attempt to influence their actions. Moral obligations aside, any relationship that relies on such manipulation is inherently flimsy. The truth always comes out eventually and our lies (or our omissions) have a strong tendency to make things worse than they would have been had we been honest.

So show your confidence in and respect for others. Be honest. Be clear. Be tactful. Trust people to respond maturely when you tell them the truth.

I've written about related topics before. For another discussion on clarity, see this post. For a discussion of communication generally, see this post.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Petey's dating manual: If you want to know, ask

"Do you like me? Check yes or no"

Have you ever thought to yourself as you watched a movie that it would be really boring if the characters communicated well? The plot twists and challenges that make a movie interesting usually come from the fact that they don't listen to each other.

Despite the fact that we recognize the problems in these relationships, we emulate them in our own lives. We guard our feelings and rarely say the things we actually think or feel. We wait for others to act, especially when action means vulnerability. And we assume based on insufficient data instead of asking clear questions.

To make things worse, our mass media tell us that it's more romantic if we don't talk about things. When the right moment comes along, we'll both just know. In my experience, waiting for the fireworks to go off on their own is a good way to ensure that nothing ever happens.

It's understandable that we resist direct communication; it can startle people – and startling someone in an arena such as love, where emotion is such a powerful force, is extremely risky. But you can't play it safe in love and have any hope of success.

We ought to be more concerned with what is true than we are with anything else – including what is comfortable. Even if the truth is unpleasant, it'll come out eventually – and uncertainty is almost as painful as (and hurts much longer than) unpleasant certainty.

We should recognize what we do and don't know to avoid unwarranted conclusions. Allow me to list a few common assumptions that are sometimes, but not always, right. These aren't terribly gender-specific, so feel free to adapt as you see fit.

  • It's been 24 hours since I left a message and she hasn't called back. She must be avoiding me.
  • It's been 24 hours since I left a message and she hasn't called back. This is inexcusably rude.
  • He didn't hold my hand. He must not be interested.
  • He didn't open my door. He must not be considerate.
  • She seems withdrawn tonight. I bet she's changed her mind.
  • He did this thing that I really don't like. He must have a serious character deficiency.

Instead of assuming or speculating, ask a question. I think all of the following questions are fair game, as are the responses.

  • We've been on a few dates, but you're physically distant. Where do you see this going?
    • I don't know but I know I want to keep going on dates to find out.
    • To be honest, I don't actually see this going anywhere.
    • Really? I just didn't want to rush you.
  • What do you mean to communicate by holding hands? Kissing?
  • Are you saying no because you're busy or because you don't want to go out?
    • I want to go on dates but I'm really busy. How about we talk in a few weeks?
    • I have something going on with someone else but I'm otherwise interested. May I call when I figure things out?
    • Honestly, I don't want to go on any more dates. I was just trying to be gentle.
  • What can I do to improve?
  • You said these words. What I understood was this, but that doesn't seem right. What did you mean?
  • You seem distant/distracted/peeved today. Are you okay? Did I do something?
    • I'm just tired (not feeling well) today. It's not you and I'll be fine tomorrow.
    • I do have something on my mind. It doesn't have to do with you but I would love to talk about it.
    • Actually, there is something.

It is crucial to phrase questions well. Identify what you actually want to know and ask that. To stick to the facts and not your interpretation when describing another person's behavior. Ask questions that show both your interest in the truth and your interest in the other person. Make sure there's room for the other person to be genuine. In short, love first, understand next, and act last.

I'm frequently surprised by how natural the conversations are that start with these questions. In many cases, both of us want to talk about the topic in question but have been dancing around it for some time. It's not only natural; it's a relief to finally get it out in the open.

The idea of asking difficult questions is uncomfortable for many people and can be especially uncomfortable for those who feel that their gender role makes it unnatural to do so. But I cannot overstate the importance of each person asking hard questions: the fact that something confuses one party often comes as a surprise to the other and few people bring things up when they think they've already been clear. If you wait for the other person to bring something up, you could be waiting a really long time.

So if you want to know, ask.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Petey's dating manual: Take a look in the mirror

"Know thyself"

Dating is about two people learning to fit together. We can't date well if we don't understand what we think and feel – and why. From there, we can start figuring out what kind of person we want to be with, as we actually understand our thoughts and feelings.

It pays to ask some obvious questions ourselves, such as what things we like and what our pet peeves are. It pays much more to dig deeper. Even for something as simple as really liking ice cream, there's much more to discover. Do I like it for its texture? Its flavor? Is it that I associate ice cream with celebrations or with good friends or family members? Which brands and flavors do I most enjoy? Why?

This kind of questioning allows us not only to choose better when and how to enjoy ice cream, but also may allow us to better identify other things that we would enjoy that we might not have tried otherwise. It also allows us to articulate ourselves (as an aside, articulateness is more about understanding than it is about expression).

Take another question that goes (perhaps) closer to the heart. I love books. It's fairly normal to have a discussion about which books I've enjoyed reading – and this is a good discussion. But it can be much more interesting for both parties if we go deeper. What makes these books stand out? How did the author create the experience that I so enjoyed? What do I like about these characters? What about this book that seems similar? Why did I enjoy this book but not that one? What are my favorite passages in the book? Plot elements? Ideas?

The more we know about ourselves, the better able we are to express ourselves and find common ground. For illustration, let's imagine that I'm on a date and that she and I are discussing which books we enjoy. If I say that I enjoy one genre (say, science fiction) and my date says that she typically reads a different genre (say, history), we may conclude that we don't have much in common in this area. On the other hand, if I can name a few favorite works (such as Asimov's Foundation and Dune) and my date names a few favorite historical works (including Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), we may find that we have a great deal in common. After all, Foundation is essentially an exploration of history in a futuristic setting. In one sense, it is simply a recounting of the end of the Roman empire adapted to space. It is also a supposition about how a person or a small group of people might profoundly influence the future. It might be that my appreciation for Foundation would be greatly enhanced by reading Gibbon and my date might love Asimov after having been introduced to his work in that light. If we didn't know our tastes well, we would be very unlikely to stumble across this deep, interesting commonality.

Many of us are in the habit of compromising when it's possible for both parties to get everything they want. For example, when I marry, I may discover that I prefer sleeping with the window open but my wife prefers to have it closed. If we dig deeper, I'm after fresh air and she's after quiet. It may be that a bit of white noise from a fan would help both of us. Or it may be that I could spend a weekend improving the house's ventilation system to allow for fresh air with a closed window. If we argued about the window instead of understanding and expressing ourselves, we'd never find that common ground.

Another reason to look in the mirror is that it solves the (seemingly opposed) problems of insecurity and overconfidence. Knowing ourselves allows us to love ourselves as we are, as we cannot love what we do not know. And loving ourselves resolves our insecurities, freeing us to focus outward and love others. It also helps us to see how we can improve. By improving ourselves, we can become our best selves – and nothing we can do will do more to make our loved ones happier.