I write out of quiet desperation. I write out of self-preoccupation. Out of wonder, out of frustration. I write for the same reason that so many of us are compelled to have children, so that some part of my conscious self might live on after my body wastes away. I write secretly to the one I love, hiding the words in the deep depths of my computer’s memory. I write in the hopes that some of my words may impact others, may change minds, change perceptions, change the world—so to speak.
Words are power: the ability to influence, to sway and convince—or to outrage, to intrigue, or to inspire. I use the written word to do these things because I can not do so effectively with my voice, it is not my skill. I write to whine, to complain if only to myself about the intricacies of fate and luck. I write down thoughts to prevent me from jinxing them (I know, how odd of me, with a scientific background, to worry about such nonsense). Writing keeps me sane, keeps an audit trail of my thoughts that otherwise get tangled and fade away. Sometimes I write out of procrastination, to avoid my work, but I always cherish these pieces more than anything. I write because I don’t know what else to do. I should write more; sometimes I wait and wait for inspiration and it doesn’t come—I don’t know where to look. Other times it gushes profusely, raw, and confused, for pages and pages.
Writing is at times a crutch for me, an outlet distinct from social interaction, and yet a sort of interaction in its own sense, more solid and lasting than the ephemeral conversation. It is a record. It is a testament to one particular moment in time that will never be recreated in just the same way, those exact shades of emotion. I write to bleed my pain more often than to express joy. I write so that my abstract thoughts have a place to call home, where they may only be judged through the eyes that understand them, until they have been chiseled and polished. I like to think that writing is my “calling”, but really I don’t know this. There are a million better writers, poets, than I. I write so that I may have a purpose, or create one in the empty space that is each of our lives, and so hope to fill that space with tangible meaning for myself and those who share it with me.
This was an exercise I took upon myself as a way to document the swirl of thoughts in my brain related to my desire/struggle to write. A number of important people in my life have recently reiterated a similar piece of wisdom that I’m now trying to follow more regularly: Just keep writing! Write a few pages each morning, just to yourself. Get out your thoughts, your emotions, your dreams, your goals. Over time you will start to notice patterns, and maybe, just maybe recognizing this will help you manifest what you really want (or need) out of life. At the very least it will help you cultivate gratitude, mindfulness, and creativity. Happy writing everyone!
In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.
Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.
The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).
“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”
Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.
We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.
I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.
I Imagine, therefore I Am
One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.
As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.
Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.
These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.
Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.
It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.