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Category Archives: mental-health

The Overnight Walk to Prevent Suicide 2019

I’ve attempted suicide twice — once a short time after I was disowned by my mother for being gay, and again after a bad break-up with my first real boyfriend. Both times, I felt completely unmoored after severing fundamental relationships that also disconnected the fragile support networks that came with them. There was no one I could tell about the persistent, gnawing pain that hollowed me out until there was only numbness, which felt even worse.

It got to the point where I didn’t just want to feel nothing; I didn’t even want to be aware of feeling. There was no way to step outside of myself, no way to know that I could eventually feel different. There was only the awful, disintegrating pain and the cold fog beyond it. Oblivion had to be better.

It took a long time to put my life back together again. While I still have a brain that I struggle against constantly, I also have a loving husband, an incredible community of friends, and the great fortune of health insurance that covers mental health services. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful every day for these blessings and the sense of perspective they’ve given me.

But there are so many people like me who aren’t as lucky. People of color have to navigate a hostile country that looks at them with disdain and suspicion. People with mental illnesses have to bear the torture of misfiring synapses with no idea what’s happening — much less how to manage it. LGQBT people of color not only have to deal with the isolation that comes with their race; they also have to face isolation from their communities because of their sexual preference or gender presentation.

Every year over 45,000 Americans commit suicide. Most of them are men, and LGQBT youth are at a much heightened risk. Without access to mental health services or an understanding support network, they’re as disconnected as I felt at my lowest points. Even though I’m doing so much better than I was, I can’t forget about the people who are trapped in cities like Baltimore or small towns like Fayetteville, AR without any tools to cope with their situations. There are so many people out there who wrestle with the idea that oblivion might be better.

That’s why I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk to Stop Suicide in San Francisco on June 8th, 2019. Hundreds of us will be walking across San Francisco that night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization that educates the public and medical professionals about mood disorders and suicide prevention. Their work is extremely important, offering a way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues and showing both therapists and patients how to connect in ways that help those suffering feel less alone.

I know there are a lot of causes passing the hat around these days, for issues as huge as climate change or as personal as helping someone pay for their medical costs. But if you have any funds to spare for a worthy endeavor, please consider this one. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an 89% rating from Charity Navigator, so this isn’t an outfit that squanders the good will of the people who donate. If you would like to give what you can, please visit my walker’s page here:

https://www.theovernight.org/participant/David-Cowan

Thank you all so much for helping out and spreading the word. I appreciate all of you!

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2019 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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What I Learned This Month (January 2019)

Self Improvement 150January is usually dominated by two things for me: stress-testing the routines I’ve developed to fall into better habits, and Further Confusion 2019. The convention this year was actually pretty fun: I enjoyed myself at my panels, met a lot of really awesome people, and rediscovered my love of selling books (I was a relief volunteer at the FurPlanet table). As I get older, I become more aware of the ways in which I can stretch myself and which avenues for experimentation are just not going to work out for me. Parties and dances are for younger, more extroverted animals: give me a few quiet gathering amongst good friends and I’m much happier. The routines I wanted to build for the first month of the year didn’t quite fare as well, and that’s mostly because of the depression that blindsided me early and lingered on until…well, a few days ago.

I’ve talked a bit about it in a previous post from the month, but living with chronic depression is a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you build coping mechanisms and treatments that make the depressive spells less frequent and less severe, to the point that you start to let your guard down. And on the other hand, there’s a small part of you that knows a depression could happen at any time, triggered by anything — an off-hand comment from a friend, or a particularly bad day at work, or a string of unsatisfying evenings at home.

Not that the triggers are ever really the things that, well, trigger it. The chemical networks inside the brain are so complex and mutable it feels like a global weather pattern inside my head, one that’s prone to fronts that will stall and dump a ton of rain where it’s least needed. Sometimes, conditions become just right for a storm. You get better at watching out for the signs, and the lead time you have to prepare increases, but nothing changes the fact that these storms are a fact of life and when they come there’s nothing you can do but hunker down and wait it out.

And that’s what January felt like, mostly — losing half the month to a storm that developed quickly but lingered once it arrived. I fell into a lot of bad habits during that depressive spell. I woke up and checked the Twitter outrage machine instead of meditating. I kept emotions bottled up thinking that I could deal with them, until I really couldn’t. I didn’t even try to do things that would make the depression less severe; I simply indulged a lot of my worst impulses. I could only tell how bad the depression was once I was out of it, and could actually hold a perspective that included other people. It’s not exactly fun to come back to yourself and find out that you weren’t holding things together nearly as well as you thought.

This month I learned that it’s important to carve out more time and space for self-care even when things are going well. A lot of issues that came up during my depression were lingering for a while, but I set them aside because I thought I could handle them — and I could, as long as the weather held. As soon as it broke, though, my ability to deal with things went straight to hell. So did, unfortunately, my ability to handle disagreements in a measured way. I’ve learned that while there’s value in not sweating the small stuff, for folks like me it’s also important to know there’s no such thing when you’re stuck in a depression.

I’ve also learned that my skewed perspective in depression can make it very easy for me to catastrophize criticism, which makes me hyper-defensive. So much of my anxiety is wrapped up in how I’m perceived by the people whose opinions matter to me — managers at work, friends and colleagues I admire, even you, dear reader. I want to present an image of this deep thinker who is earnest and strives to live his life according to Buddhist principles, but in reality I’m…just as selfish and prone to cognitive biases as the next person. I’ve had this deep and abiding fear since childhood that if anyone ever got to know “the real me” they would hate it and leave, and I suppose that never went away. In a depression, if someone criticizes me, even gently, I hear “I’ve learned something about you that I don’t like so you’d better change it or I’m out.”

This is not, I know, what my friends are saying. I can even understand that to a degree in the throes of depression, but it’s impossible to check that first panicked reaction. The instinct to PRESERVE MY IMAGE overrides any better, rational response. I know that I should care less about what people think, that I should be true to myself, and that part of the Buddhist practice means being as clear and honest as possible. I’m working to dismantle the thought patterns that were built to survive my childhood, and making progress. But when I’m unable to cope, they’re still there, deep down. There’s more work to do.

Through it all, I’ve also thought a lot about writing and what kind of stories I want to put out there. Thinking a lot about Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, and what makes them so good. How I can incorporate the things I love most about them (his characterization! His world-building! His crackling dialogue!) into my own writing. And also, realizing that it’s kind of essential for me to get ahead of my Patreon serial so I can actually put in some editing work as well.

All of this prepares me for a February of deeper engagement and self-reflection. I think next month I might go a little slower, but work harder to make the things I do that little bit better. I will also need to think about the things I really need to have in order to do the things that matter to me. Mostly, this will involve identifying my favorite means of self-sabotage and working against them whenever possible.

I hope all of you had a great month that taught you a lot about yourselves and the world! What was the best thing you learned since 2019? Let me know!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Depressional Confessional

Myth 150I like to think I’m a pro at being depressed. Some of my earliest memories as a kid, looking back, suggest to me that I’ve had severe depressive episodes all the way back to elementary school. One particular experience I had in middle school, now that I think about it, had to have been an emotional breakdown. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to recognize the shifting weather in my brain much the same way a village elder can sense a storm coming in their bones. It’s not any one thing — it’s a bunch of small things that point to a vague, indescribable feeling that my brain is fixing to turn sour.

There was an inkling last Tuesday that my mind was curdling. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll try anyway. My depressions typically start with an increased paranoia and some obsessing — it’s like my brain is catching on a thought that it keeps circling back to. The thought itself can be anything from “I’m fat and broken” to “All of your friends think you’re lame.” but the effect is the same. It’s a whisper underneath the usual chatter that I can’t help but listen to. It starts to color my interactions with other people. I start to get really…nervous.

My experience with long-term depression is that this voice never really goes away, but you learn to accept it and move on with your day. There are some times, though, where the coping mechanisms you’ve built begin to fail and your ability to accept this voice becomes more difficult, requires more concentration. Over the course of hours and days, the constant refrain saps your energy and other things begin to slip. You’re a bit less patient with the people you meet. You don’t have enough willpower to make good choices. You begin to beat yourself up about the things you do to perpetuate the spiral. Your perspective gets skewed; the voice is joined by other voices, happy to remind you about every failing you have or every big mistake you’ve made. Eventually, you just collapse. You can’t fight your own brain any more, and you’re back in the pit.

The worst part about the whole process is that I’ve been through it often enough to recognize it, to know that this is the manifestation of a chemical imbalance in my brain. The knowledge doesn’t stop it from happening, and that’s its own kind of frustration. You see people with better coping mechanisms, or no inkling of the problem, and it makes me wish that I didn’t have this broken brain that required me to put so much energy into just managing to be a functioning adult. You try to eat right, you try to get enough sleep, you exercise, you take your pills — and sometimes, that’s still not enough. There are still days, weeks, months that disappear into a black void.

When I’m in the worst of it, it feels like there’s no possible way for other people to understand what this feels like. A lot of folks see depression as having no energy, or being unable to feel happy, or being a lump on the couch. What isn’t seen is all the mental work that goes into trying to get off the couch, or scrounging for enough energy to get things done, or maybe to keep from crying at work for no reason. The shut down isn’t necessarily from a lack of spoons; the spoons are being eaten up to put on clothes, have a conversation with someone else, to smile. The energy we have is being depleted by an internal process that most never see or experience. Depression isn’t laziness or lethargy: it’s exhaustion.

Thankfully, mindfulness training and therapy has taught me to recognize these stretches for what they are, and experience has given me a toolset to use so I can mitigate the “damage”. It’s easier for me to push through when I get depressed, so I can go to work and take care of chores and even try to keep up meditation and exercise. The pit isn’t as deep as it used to be, and I can find my way out of it a bit more quickly. I’m grateful for that, even when I wish I didn’t have to fall into it at all.

But that’s not something within my control. Depression is a disease. For some of us, it only happens once or twice after a big change. For some, the cycle can give us years where we never have to think about it. For me, it’s a constant factor in my everyday life. Every thought — especially any negative one — has to be tested. Is this depression? Is this legitimate? Do I feel as bad as I do because I should, or because of this illness?

It’s a hard thing to accept, but I’m working on it. Even though I feel as if I’m clambering up out of the pit now, I know that it’s possible for me to slide back into it again. When I get out, I know that there’s another pit up ahead waiting for me. Despite my best efforts, I will fall again and again and again. But I have trained myself to see them, to navigate around them, to climb out as best I can when I fall in. And I have a support network of friends and professionals that I can trust to have my back. That’s something a lot of us don’t have, and words can’t describe how grateful and lucky I feel when I think about it.

If you’re dealing with depression, please know that you are not alone. Please know that you won’t feel this way forever. Please know that with patient persistence, you can build coping mechanisms that will make the depressions shallower and less frequent. Maybe they can’t go away completely, but at least you can weather them. Your strength and resilience is better than you know. It helps me when I’ve fallen in and can’t see a way out. After all this time, I have faith that there is.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2019 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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I Resolve to Suck This Year

Writing 150Being a writer with an anxiety disorder is a hell of a thing. Writing is already a really difficult endeavor; those of us who can’t imagine doing anything else with our lives likely have a pantheon of influences and beloved authors that have shown us just how powerful the written word can be. But our own works frequently fall short of that brilliance. It can be almost impossible to get the words out the way they appear in our heads. Add to that the process of editing your own work for flaws, accepting critiques at every stage of the process, and submitting your work for judgement by editors and audiences, and…it’s a minor miracle most writers ever leave the bed in the mornings.

But when your brain is wired for MAXIMUM SENSITIVITY TO DANGER, coping with the worries that come with being a writer can feel literally impossible. I’ve struggled with this all my life, and it’s the biggest reason I’m so bad at finishing stories and pushing them out there. If I’m completely honest with myself, I have to realize just how much it matters what other people think of the words I write. There’s the garden-variety vanity, sure, but there’s also a sense of responsibility to deliver on the promise of my intentions. If I want my writing to be a comfort to others who feel alone and invisible, then I have to work extra hard to make sure they feel seen and understood. That can’t happen with my current level of craft, and I know it. So I noodle around with ideas, realize that I don’t have the chops to execute them, panic about my own suckiness, and shut down.

Of course, I already know the answer to this dilemma. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a bad one first. You have to let yourself be derivative and hackneyed; you have to populate non-sensical worlds with flat characters. By doing your best and still falling short of the mark, you learn perspective on how to shape things a little better the next time; most importantly, you train yourself to let a story go out into the world even though you’ll never feel it’s ready.

Tell that to my anxiety-riddled brain, though. Every story must be perfect in its first draft or it’s worthless. Rough drafts are simply failed stories. Published work is a desperate cry for approval, not anything to be proud of. Putting out work now will destroy any audience I might have who were somehow duped into thinking I could string sentences together. I’ll never be published. I’ll never get better. I don’t have whatever it is that makes a great writer. I’ll never be able to do what I want with my work.

All of this, in my head, crowding out my thoughts whenever I sit down.

While it would be really nice to just not care what other people think and fall into the writing, I’m not sure my brain works that way. Still, if I’m going to be a writer I have to find a way to make peace with the part of myself that screams “DANGER!” whenever I sit down at my desk. I’m hoping that by standing up and making a formal declaration about my intention to be a bad writer, I can deal with that fear.

So here goes: 2019 is the year where I will be a terrible writer. I’m going to write bad stories with disappointingly written characters, and I’m going to publish them here and elsewhere. But you know what? I’ll learn from each failure and, hopefully, by the end of the year, I’ll have a few stories that aren’t so bad.

Writing is a profession where there’s no way around it; you learn by doing. This year I’ll focus on the action and try not to worry so much about the results. There will be a lot this year that I’ll be embarrassed by later, and that’s fine. Even folks like Vonnegut, Bradbury and Due have works they’d rather not talk about floating out there. What makes me think I’m any better than that?

I know I’m not, and there’s a freedom in allowing yourself to think small. 2019 is the year of the small victory; consistent days of writing, constant output, incremental improvement. Eventually, I truly hope, through the work I’ll figure out how to beat my anxiety around it. Wish me luck.

 

A Letter Of Intent

Self Improvement 1502018 was a challenging year for a whole lot of different reasons. The biggest, of course, is the challenge of watching our society continue to fracture and become more acidic under the “guiding hand” of the Trump Administration. The frequent attacks — from all quarters — against people of color, QUILTBAG individuals and allies, religious and cultural minorities has been exhausting. Over the past two years, the persistent stress of making it through America today has made me angry, colder, more withdrawn. It’s been difficult watching myself let fear and anger take over my actions, and I don’t like the person I’ve become. That’s why this year I want to renew my focus here and elsewhere. I want to use stories to spread peace and compassion through this blog by sharing my experiences coping with mental health, writing, and social justice; sharing thoughts and lessons about being a better writer and reader; and deconstructing the stories I read and watch to discuss their impact on me and the wider world.

It is not easy dealing with mental health issues under our current political environment, and I hope being more open about my particular struggles will encourage more of us to discuss them openly and without judgement. My depression, anxiety, and ADHD all combine to express in fairly specific ways through my experience, but one aspect of this expression I share with many others is the feeling of isolation, of being invisible. We see this all the time on social media; those of us in bad spaces crying out to the dark and hoping that someone understands what we need. What makes these times so hard is not having a clear idea of what it is we actually do need; sometimes it takes sitting down and examining our thoughts to figure that out. I hope that being open about my process will help someone else as they untangle theirs.

This is especially true when it comes to my writing. The anxiety that’s been bundled up in my craft has prevented me from being productive for far too long, and I want to devote a huge chunk of my focus this year to learning how to deal with that. I realize I’m still in that space where I’ve thought a lot about stories and I know what well-told ones look and sound like; but I haven’t practiced nearly enough to polish them to the point they shine. Learning to let go of my perfectionism and anxiety is as necessary as it is hard. Learning to become a better writer means working harder but caring less about the result. Figuring out how to do that will be a big topic for me this year.

Of course, my writing has been and will continue to be political — social justice will be at the top of my mind because how could it not be? I’ll be writing a lot about that here, too; putting down my thoughts about the state of the union helps me not only figure out what I think and why, but it provides an underserved perspective that needs more light on it. I’m under no illusions that what I think is correct or even that interesting. But I’m in a unique place not only in the furry and sci-fi/fantasy communities, but also the Afro-Futurist and African diaspora. I know I have angles on things that most of us might not see. I hope that by talking about things as I see them, I can encourage others to pay more attention to different perspectives.

I’m hoping that my perspective will be challenged, and that I can use those challenges to temper my beliefs or discard them if they don’t hold up to scrutiny. I’m also hoping that these discussions will help me figure out my own writing process. I’m still figuring out the best way to actually produce stories that I’m proud of, and in order for me to do that I’ll need to write about experiments and insights that have worked (or not worked) well. Since writing is such a subjective and personal practice, what works for me might not work for others; what hasn’t worked for other people might be just the thing I need. I want The Writing Desk to be a place where we can compare notes and encouragement, to share ideas that might leads us all a little further down the path.

The most important way to improve writing, besides talking about it at length, is reading a LOT. One of my major goals for 2019 is to read at least 25 books; I’ve spent far too long away from being an avid reader, and I think that’s seriously hurt my ability to write but also be engaged in the world around me. It’s way too easy to become insular and inert as we age, and reading the perspectives and stories of other people is an excellent way to remind ourselves to be a bit more mentally spry. I sincerely believe that art is dialogue, a continuing conversations artists have with society, other works, and their own audience. Being a part of that dialogue is necessary in order to be a well-rounded artist.

So I’ll be doing my best to write specific reviews more often here — not just of books and short stories, but of movies, seasons of TV shows, comic books and the like. Making these reviews a more regular practice helps to train me towards thinking critically about stories as well as thinking more clearly about what sorts of impact I want a story to have. If I know what I find most important in the stories I fall into, then I have a stronger guiding principle towards my own writing. Reviewing reveals as much about the reviewer as it does the work, as often as not, and I’m curious about what my reviews would reveal about me.

Eventually, I want to start talking about popular culture in general — the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and what can be gleaned about our society by looking deeply into that. If art is a conversation, then it pays to look at what our conversations tend to be about. What does it mean if, say, fantasies have fallen out of fashion, or if werewolves are the hot new monster? How does our celebration of the latest “It Person” reflect on us? How does the tone and content of our condemnation reveal our collective values? To be honest, overthinking pop culture is one of my favorite things, and I’m hoping that by putting a personal focus on how I relate to it I can begin developing the vocabulary to really dive into that.

This year, I want The Writing Desk to be a place where people go to find perspectives they haven’t encountered before. I want this to be a community of good friends having interesting conversations about what we love and what it means to love the things we do. I want to frame genre fiction and pop culture through a Buddhist lens to show how universal it is to center compassion and mindfulness. I want this to be a mechanism through which I know myself, and come to be known by others. If you’re along for the ride, welcome. I’m really looking forward to our conversations, all year long.

 

(Personal) Tharn

Myth 150It’s been a rough summer for me, anxiety-wise. The news is full of terrible stories from the current president’s administration in the United States, and it’s coming so fast the scandals just bleed together. Saying the President or his Cabinet has done something awful that threatens the fabric of democracy is like saying water is wet at this point — it’s hard to keep up the outrage and drive to do something when you feel like anyone in power won’t do anything to resolve the mess we’re in. Honestly, the best I can do is hang on for the 2018 midterm elections in the hope that the Blue Wave manifests and Democrats take the House and/or Senate. For now, it’s hard to know how we stop anything — even the atrocious Supreme Court nominees.

If political news isn’t bad enough, environmental news fills me with an existential dread. This summer has already been extraordinarily hot, with a number of records broken all over the world. Hurricane season has started, and there are so many people in island nations who have yet to recover from the last round of devastation. We’re seeing the first obvious effects of climate change right now, and these effects will only become more pronounced over the years. Here in the US, our government’s response is to remove all references to the phenomenon from all departmental documents.

Despite the fact that police officers are still killing unarmed people of color, we’re still at the part of the conversation where we need to convince people it’s a problem. People of color are being harassed in the street, reported to the police for anything from doing their jobs to using the community pool, beaten and killed through racist criminal actions; but we can’t seem to convince people that the racist rhetoric of the President and others associated with him are responsible for the rise in white supremacist terrorist activity. Newspapers would rather legitimize ignorant, irresponsible, bigoted thinking in editorials and human interest articles than hold the administration accountable for what it has enabled. Trump voters, the people responsible for this state of affairs, are still having their feelings centered while the poor and disadvantaged suffer horribly.

Most days, it’s more than I can take. I can’t look at the news because there’s nothing I can do about the knot it generates in my stomach. I can’t look at Twitter because my timeline is full of anger about the terrible things that people in the various communities I belong to are saying, or what the social media platforms are letting others get away with. It’s difficult to talk about something I love or promote what I’m writing when I see retweets for someone’s GoFundMe to pay for medical expenses, or the latest in jaw-dropping evil from the people in power. The idea of engaging in a world that feels so cruel, so aggressively and stubbornly ignorant, so inhumane — it fills me with dread.

I don’t want to be the person who looks away from the pain in the world and chases what fleeting, shallow pleasure he can manage while everything burns down around him. But it feels like this is what I have to do in order to stay sane these days. What good does it do to spread awareness about problems I could never hope to fix? What’s the point of arguing with someone who isn’t interested in understanding your experience, only shutting you up so they don’t have to feel bad about what they do? Why contribute to all the noise when no one’s listening anyway? Why try to save the planet when those with the actual means to do so would rather figure out how to build bunkers to survive the apocalypse?

It’s been so hard to see a way out of this predicament. Even if our current President is impeached and removed from office, the Vice-President is still a religious zealot who would do many of the same things but with far more socially-acceptable language. We still have an entire political party that enabled this disaster for the sole purpose of hanging on to power. We still have at least a quarter to a third of Americans who support what’s happening, who will refuse any attempts we make to fix this. We’re still just one bad election from having all of this happen all over again.

I don’t know what to do with that. I truly wish I had more faith in us as a species. I wish that I could be more hopeful about our ingenuity, our ability to come together, our resilience. I wish I could see us becoming a society that prizes intelligence and expertise again, that honors the sacrifice of personal comforts so that we can actually take care of the people in our community. But I just can’t from where I’m sitting. There’s always going to be a sizable chunk of people out there who only care about devoting themselves to their worst impulses, and those people will likely have the money and power needed to keep the rest of us from doing anything about that.

I’m tired, and I know that there’s a very long way to go before anything will be OK. I don’t know how to change the minds that need to be changed at this point — certainly not in time to prevent the death of our civilization at our own hand. It feels inevitable, and the only thing to do is decide what kind of people we will be when it happens.

I know how this sounds, and I want to be clear that I’m not giving up. I still write, I still try to be the change I want to see, I still help where and when I can. But the fatalism is something I’ve had to push through in order to motivate myself, and that kind of sustained effort takes a lot out of you after a while.

What’s strange is that this doesn’t feel like depression, though I’m fairly sure it is. It just doesn’t feel irrational to think this way; things are terrible, and those in power are pretending they aren’t, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. Still, there’s nothing for it but to keep trying to make the world around us better. We can’t do nothing, even when it feels like anything we could do won’t matter.

That’s where my head’s at right now, and I know it’s not the best place. Still, I thought I’d write about it here just to put it out there.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Self-Improvement) In Praise of Mistakes

Self Improvement 150Mistakes are a fundamental part of the human condition — almost as much as our fear of making them. Because of the way we’re designed and the reality we live in, we’re imperfect creatures limited by our experience, perspective and the momentum of habit. It’s natural that these things would push us to do something we regret from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as we learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to what we do moving forward, they act as a valuable tool for self-improvement. So why are we so often paralyzed by the mere possibility of screwing up, and why do we find it so hard to own up or forgive others for what they’ve done? I think it’s because we’re socially conditioned to think of mistakes as an aberration that we somehow have the power to avoid, and until we recognize that and reckon with it our relationship with our mistakes will be unbalanced.

It’s simply impossible to avoid making any mistakes at any point in our lives, but we all live with the unspoken narrative that we must aim for perfection and nothing less than success will do. As we move through school, we’re conditioned to learn that mistakes lead to lower grades and failed classes, parental disapproval, disappointment from your teachers, the limiting of future opportunities. We’re constantly under the threat of dire consequences resulting from our mistakes, to the point that it’s more important to study for the test than it is to actually absorb information. Even when we leave the gauntlet of testing, that template for life informs everything we do. Through a crucial 12-year period of our lives, a deeply seeded fear of being wrong is cultivated within us.

We walk through our lives terrified of being wrong or worse, being seen as ignorant. One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as a tech professional is how much energy is spent at work covering our own mistakes and deficiencies; instead of admitting when we’ve messed up or that we don’t know something (even when maybe we should), we forge ahead without stopping to take the opportunity to better ourselves. Maybe this inclination isn’t entirely down to our history. Maybe our managers or colleagues foster an environment where asking questions or addressing mistakes are an annoyance at best and career-ending at worst. Because no one makes room for our imperfection, we never think to give that space to ourselves.

So our mistakes and ignorance become a source of shame, something we have to hide. And when there’s a risk of exposure, we panic — the subconscious memory of bad grades, parent-teacher conferences, ostracization and ridicule seizes our lizard brain and short-circuits our ability to cope. There’s this implication of a “set mindset”, that we as adults should be fully-formed and know about anything we come across. If we don’t, then we’re failures; everyone can see the “F” branded on our foreheads. Because the state of our knowledge is frozen, we freeze when we learn our knowledge is incomplete.

We internalize the idea that no one will forgive us for the mistakes we make, or the things we do not know. We learn that we can’t forgive ourselves for them. And if we can’t forgive ourselves, we sure as hell can’t forgive other people. If we’re expected to know everything and get it right the first time, how can we expect anything less from other people?

So when the mistakes and imperfections of others are exposed, we try to make it as visible as possible so the offense can never be hidden or denied. We demand that they look at what their ignorance has led them to and apologize for it. We demand the most severe consequences — expulsion from our communities, the end of their careers, exile into the social and professional desert. We demand the performance of remorse, the acceptance of their punishment, the enforcement of their disappearance. But what if one of our mistakes was exposed in all of its ugliness? How hard would it be to reckon with it, all laid bare for everyone to see? How impossible would it be to deal with the personal shame and self-doubt while the harshest criticisms rain down from the people in your community? Could you have the presence of mind to construct the perfect apology, accept the hyperbolic disparagement of your character, submit to the exile demanded of you? Could you resist the urge to push back or deflect blame, even a little?

I’m not saying that we should simply brush off mistakes or ignorance — when spotted, they should be exposed. We have to look our flaws honestly, but we have to know that we’re trying to do so in order to learn the lessons we need from them. If we’re too paralyzed by fear of exposure and deep shame, there’s just not enough room for us to grow.

I should also be clear that not every transgression is a “mistake” or the result of ignorance. Some actions are the result of willful malice, and some people use ignorance as cover for the consequences of that. It’s a bad-faith tactic that must also be exposed for what it is. Acceptance of mistakes and tolerance of ignorance can be tempered with with the expectation that all of us be accountable for our actions and their consequences.

But we don’t have to make those consequences so drastic that honest mistakes upend the lives of the people who make them. We can allow for our imperfection while still working to make sure we learn how to be mindful of it. Accepting our own ignorance and capacity to really fuck up every once in a while softens the tension we have with our own flaws. We can learn to embrace the messiness of our condition gently, with compassion. We can extend that compassion from ourselves to others. We can forgive ourselves and other people, and in the space that creates we can develop into braver, kinder people.

I think it has to start with us, so I’d like to recommend an exercise that consists of three basic steps. One, think about the last mistake you made or the last time you tried to cover up your own ignorance. Two, accept the mistake or ignorance by stating aloud (or as publicly as you’re comfortable with) what it was honestly. Three, forgive yourself by saying “I forgive myself for my mistake (or ignorance). I accept my imperfection with compassion.” and then state what you’ve learned from it.

I’ll start. I often make commitments — explicit or implicit — to help people or collaborate but then end up being very inconsistent or late with my end of things. I can think of so many people who’ve been disappointed by this, and whose work has been affected by my shortcoming. I sincerely apologize for not delivering the things I’ve promised in a timely or consistent manner.

I also forgive myself for this mistake. I accept my imperfection with compassion. I’ve learned to be more careful about my commitments, and to work harder to do the things I say I do when they’re expected of me. I’ll do my best to be better in the future.

We all make mistakes, and we’re all wrong at some point. Demanding perfection from ourselves and others, or demanding severe punishments for mistakes or ignorance, only deepens the training we’ve received to think of our natural imperfections as something unacceptable. It’s an unhealthy mindset that leads to unhealthy actions and a bad relationship with our own selves. In order to be kinder, more fearless, and happier, we have to examine our ingrained response to mistakes and give ourselves (and others) the room to grow and change.

And there’s no time like the present to start doing this. What mistake or bit of ignorance would you like to forgive within yourself?

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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