Thursday, October 30, 2014

The cure for high blood pressure

I hear a lot about entitlements these days. It may be because I'm (by some definitions) a millennial. It may be because I have friends on both extremes of the political spectrum – one side generally uses the word to describe things as what people are owed and the other uses the word to accuse people of being spoiled.

Politics aside, I think that the idea of a sense of entitlement is very interesting. When I say that a person has a sense of entitlement, I mean that that person feels that he or she is owed something. The obligation may be a societal one; that is, it may be that society owes a person something. It may be religious or cosmic: a person can believe that the universe or God may owe him or her. It can be personal, as well.

What interests me particularly is that these beliefs seem to have become expectations. We're genuinely upset when someone treats us unfairly. We may not be surprised but we are indignant about it. We've gone beyond thinking that there's an ideal that describes how we hope things would be to thinking that things will actually conform to our expectations.

This kind of thinking is evident in the way that people drive. We all have slightly different understandings of the rules of the road. Most of us drive in a way that's consistent with our rules. Some of us drive defensively; that is, we refrain from assuming that other drivers will operate in a way that makes sense to us. But many of us don't: we assume that other drivers will operate based on our rules. When another driver fails to do so, it startles us. We realize that we and others around us are in danger of injury and death. And because we expect that others will drive according to our conception of what's reasonable, we blame our fear on the other driver.

This line of thought is evident throughout life and not just on the road. We expect that people will live according to laws, even when they disagree with them and even when they're poorly enforced. We expect society to enable us to live a good life. We expect God to heal us or our loved ones. If we stop to think for a moment, we'll realize that we expect quite a bit.

The clearest demonstration of the flaws in this line of thinking is the fact that it boils down to metaphysical solipsism, or the belief that only the self exists and that all other people are figments of the imagination. Believing that outcomes depend only on our behaviors is believing that only we can make decisions of import. It denies the humanity of every person who has ever lived.

The alternative, harsh as it may seem, is that we can do good things and still suffer. Other people can choose to mistreat us or others. They can be irresponsible – and, as far as we can observe, they may never have to deal with the repercussions of their actions. Hoping is harder than expecting; it allows us to feel disappointed instead of angry. And since disappointment is painful, we naturally (if unwisely) prefer the euphorically terrible emotion of anger.

Life isn't fair. You can hope for fairness, but stop expecting it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Petey's dating manual: Why men hide in basements

Just yesterday, I was told that if I (and others like me) would just put a little effort into dating, I'd find someone. Earlier today, a friend asked me if I had any ideas that might help her son to go on dates. After all, he's not going to find a wife playing video games in the basement. These conversations are depressingly frequent, and for good reason; lots of guys do just that. It's unfortunate, of course, that video games are so stigmatized when other, equally innocuous, pursuits are ignored or praised.

The rarity of dates, the prevalence of casual relationships, and the increasing number of older singles are often blamed on young men. They're the ones playing video games (or playing sports or focusing on school or any number of other things). Older people and younger women ask why dates aren't occurring in tones of concern and exasperation – but, in every case, the question is not, "What is causing this societal phenomenon?" but, "What will make men ask women on dates?"

It's certain that men bear some of the blame for these phenomena. It's just as clear to me (but apparently not to others) that there is plenty of blame to spread around. I write this not with a desire to point fingers at people but to point out toxic patterns of behavior that permeate our society completely enough that although many individuals think and act differently, the trends still affect us all.

There are some women today who are perfectly comfortable asking men out. Many other women, however, seem to have moved in the other direction. They've taken the idea that it's a man's prerogative to express interest and abstracted the idea. In their minds, it's the man's job to take every step along the way. In these extreme cases, gender roles appear to be a shield behind which women can hide: if they never cross the line of plausible deniability, they don't have to be emotionally vulnerable. Some of the women I know have said that it's their role to drop hints. Hints are, of course, fine – but it's never appropriate to expect that the other party will understand them. This is especially true today; our culture is far more diverse than it was and what used to be clear throughout society is no longer obvious. The only way to be clear is to be vulnerable.

In this climate, asking a woman out is already an uphill battle. But it gets worse. It gets much, much worse.

It's time for an Alice and Bob scenario. Bob asks Alice on a date. Up to this point, Alice has done nothing that is clearly expressive of interest or clearly expressive of a lack of interest. Several things she's said might indicate interest; on the other hand, just as many things might have meant that she wasn't interested. As such, he has no way of knowing that she's not interested; she didn't know herself until recently. Surprised, Alice is somewhat unsettled at the unrequited interest. She says something noncommittal and leaves.

When Bob calls a couple of days later, Alice knows she needs to do something but doesn't want to hurt Bob; he's a nice enough guy and Alice is a kind person. She doesn't answer because she doesn't want to have to answer a direct question. She thinks occasionally about calling him back but doesn't know what to say and procrastinates. She's already feeling quite uncomfortable and that discomfort is compounded when she gets a text message from Bob. Her roommate Carol notices the look on Alice's face and asks what the matter is. "Oh, it's Bob," Alice replies. "He called me again this week and I didn't answer. I wish he'd take the hint!"

Bob does take the hint, sort of. He doesn't call or text again. But he sees Alice once in a while, always harboring a hope that something besides the obvious explanation has gone on. Or that she'll change her mind. He takes the opportunities he sees to talk with her and she's always a little uncomfortable. After all, his brother Dave got Erin's attention that way – and they're now happily married. In fact, he never would have dated his last girlfriend if he hadn't shown similar persistence; she was curious but juggling some complications from a previous relationship. In fact, she'd expressed her gratitude to him several times for not giving up.

Every time Alice and Bob talk, she gets a little more uncomfortable. Eventually, she comes to associate her feelings of discomfort with Bob. Since his presence leads her to feel that way, she comes to think of the two as associated. Eventually, she says something to Carol about how creepy Bob is. What she really means is that she's been dropping hints but he doesn't seem to catch them. She's tired of it but feels like she can't do anything more. Carol doesn't know Bob but trusts Alice. So when Carol's friend Francesca asks about him, she says that he seems nice at first but that he's a little creepy.

Bob has done nothing wrong. He's making the best of a confusing situation. What's more, he's shown unusual courage for asking Alice out without specific encouragement – and since most men don't get any encouragement most of the time, this is a prerequisite for almost any date.

It's impossible to know whether or not Alice is interested in him except by expressing some interest of his own. But by expressing interest that Alice doesn't want, he's done something that led her to feel badly. Such feelings are to be expected in romantic pursuits. But because all initiative is placed on men and because Alice gossiped to her friends to dissipate her feelings instead of treating Bob with the respect he deserves, she has not only hurt his feelings but made dating harder for him. Were this an isolated series of events, it wouldn't be a big deal. The fact of the matter is that this is totally normal. It's reasonable for a man to expect this sort of thing every time he asks a woman on a date.

Is it any wonder that some men choose the minefields in Call of Duty over the minefield of dating?

It's long past time that we stop blaming only men for our disappointments regarding dating. Far too many of us are contributing to the problem – and far too few of us realize it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The rock in the darkness

My brother and I went rock climbing a few days ago. I enjoy rock climbing and he's an avid climber. I brought my harness and climbing shoes; he brought his cams and nuts and rope and everything else.

It was fun to just spend time with him and fun to challenge myself. Climbing real rock is much harder than climbing in a gym. The discrete (and few) possibilities in a gym make it easy to decide how to climb. But on a rock, anything is possible. I found myself smearing but hadn't yet learned to trust my feet. There were several positive holds but they were hardly everywhere. I think most disconcerting to me was the fact that I rarely had a spot to rest where I truly felt that I had secure footing.

It turns out that we started at not quite the right place. My brother lead but was out of sight and more than halfway through the rope when he reached the chains at the top (it was only later we found out that he'd reached the chains for the second throw). More crucially, it got dark much faster than we anticipated. We found ourselves on an unfamiliar rock, wondering how we'd get down safely in the dark without leaving any equipment behind.

The scariest moment for me whenever I climb is at the beginning of a descent. I put my feet against the rock and lean back, trusting in the equipment and in my belayer. Leaning back like that without equipment would result in a free fall and a sudden stop at the bottom. It was much worse when I could only see the bits of the rock that my little head lamp illuminated.

At several points during the climb, I started to feel fear. But I reminded myself that my brother is very competent and that I trust him completely. As soon as I thought about my brother, the fear abated. It didn't fade entirely, but I had the courage to face it. And I did. We arrived safely at home not long afterwards.

It occurred to me as I thought about trusting my brother that I'm experiencing something very similar in my life. I want nothing more than a family of my own. I don't have a family but know that it will be my responsibility to provide for one as best I can. My schooling and career, as fulfilling as they may be in other ways, are primarily a means to an end: the optimal career allows me to give my family health and a feeling of security and allows me to have the time and emotional energy to be a good husband and father. Since having a happy, healthy family is paramount, my schooling and work weigh very heavily in my sense of self-worth.

This responsibility has been on my mind for a very long time. Also on my mind has been the fact that I've tried several different fields and jobs. And I've failed every time. I tried seminary teaching and learned a lot but didn't get very far. I interned at Amazon and, despite having a really cool project, won't ever hear from the company again. I interned at Google and did poorly. In both of my corporate experiences, I've found that I'm too quixotic (but justifiably so) for them – and, probably, for any publicly traded company. Since the day I started grad school, I've struggled to really immerse myself in research.

I've tried one thing after another. I've had moments of hope but they have been brief and surrounded by long periods of despair. I frequently wonder if I'll ever finish school and if I'll ever find a career that won't drive me batty. I wonder if my continued singlehood is due in part to the fact that I'm still in school and have less to offer at the moment.

To top things off, I found out this weekend that a paper I submitted to an academic conference was rejected. It wasn't the rejection; papers get rejected all the time. It was the fact that it was my last hope of having a paper to put on my CV to apply for the job I went to grad school to get. Not having any first-author publications to my name, I can't even justify applying for the job. And I can't predict how many years it will be until the next job opening appears there. I'd held onto the hope that I'd somehow squeeze through until I got the email this weekend. That hope is now gone.

Metaphorically, I'm on a rock. It's dark. I can't see the bottom but I need to get down there. I don't know how long it will take and I know I can't make it without help. But I have a Brother whom I trust and who knows the way. He knows better than I. Trusting in Him hasn't taken the disappointment away. It hasn't dispelled my feelings of uncertainty about the future. But that confidence gives me the strength to take one step after another. It hurts, but I know I'll be okay eventually.