Archive for May 2012

Free Will and Determinism


I don't believe that human beings have control over their destinies. Between free will and determinism, I lean toward determinism. We're products of our environment. We like what we like and enjoy what we enjoy and dream what we dream and do what we do largely because of what we've experienced in the past.

Yet in a world of free will “versus” determinism, I cop out. I believe both play a roll at once. When looking at past and present, it seems impossible to believe in free will, as determinism in the form of human behavior and natural genetics plays such a heavy-handed role in how we behave. But there is a third item to look at.

In the moment is where free will reigns. When I mean “the moment,” I don't mean every moment, but only in those moments that we are fully aware of what we're doing and so are able to make conscious decisions. In this way we can out-dual even our habits. At the ice cream shop we may go in unaware of what we're doing and choose vanilla out of habit (determinism), or we may show patience and see the numerous flavors, and in our awareness, discard our past experiences to choose something not out of habit, but against it.

And so in the moment, with free will, there is no destiny. No one can predict what a conscious being will choose to do, or how he or she will react. We may all be destined for something, greatness or otherwise, but many of us can, with practice, live a life outside of that destiny, even as it unfolds around us.

For some this is a harrowing task, and with so many possibilities, some are unable to choose at all. I am one of those types (I often fall back on habit because choices given to me in life are too daunting, complicated, or confusing). And yet within the moment, out of awareness, free will still reigns. Not directly tied to past or future, choices are made for other reasons than habit and behavior. Choices are made out of awareness.

This post isn't about choosing ice cream flavors, it's about choosing something much more important. In life we face challenges each and every day, and these challenges are toxic, violent, uncomfortable, etc. If we are not aware, we will depend on our past experiences to react to what is happening to us right now. If we were brought up with violence, we may act with violence. If we were brought up with compassion, we may act with compassion. These are generalities, of course. All people are different, and the makeup of one's brain certainly supersedes environment. But it's determinism in the end, and this may lead (even for, or especially for, the compassionate) to a life of frustration, having things happen to us and not understanding why, or why we react the way we do.

But with awareness there is another option. Not to behave as we've always behaved, but to behave in a new way, a way that better suits the situation at hand. To step out of the norm of human behavior and face challenges with a new set of tools, active and purposeful, instead of our former passive habits.

And so I have decided (at least for today) that I have only one real choice in life. I am in control over only one thing. I control how I react—but only if I am consciously aware of the moment.

I must choose anger or acceptance. I must choose fear or joy.

There's not a whole lot else I, as a human being, control. I cannot control what others do or feel. I cannot control the society or culture I am born and raised in. I cannot tell someone “build me an ice cream shop with many flavors” or get ice cream for free (making me a slave in so many ways to so many different things).

But I do control my reaction to the eventful situations life throws my way. This may not be a big deal to others, or for some they may have realized this fact many years ago, but up until this realization I had always struggled to understand a world in which both free will and determinism were possible. How could I fit them together? I have now done that, and it's a breakthrough in many ways.

Past...future...present. One (determinism) controls two of these, and the other (free will) just the one, but all are important in understanding why people do what they do; understanding why I do what I do.

I don't believe in destiny. I do believe in right here and right now. “Destiny” is just another moment in time to me.

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A Rant on Social Anxiety Disorder


Sometimes I read anxiety forums and it makes me sad.

I have social anxiety disorder but I live with “SA” very differently than others live with it. I'm rarely depressed by it. I also have great posture and don't mumble in public places, and am assertive. Atypical for someone with SA. It's been a double-edged sword, making it harder for people to understand what is wrong with me, but at the same time giving me more self-esteem and the compliments of those who do understand what I go through. Their respect, more than anything else. I also never fell into drug or alcohol abuse, another common fault of so many of us who live in a frightening bubble. And yet, like so many, I have no education to speak of and really no prospects, undermining just about every ounce of my intelligence.

But on these anxiety forums I sometimes read things like “I don't like when people tell me to cheer up or 'just do it.'” I can't understand why others, very much like me in what they deal with, say these things. More often than not people aren't even aware that I have a problem being around people, and I get no kind of verbal emotional support. I would love for someone to tell me to cheer up or encourage me to get out. Yet I see others complaining that people support them (or so it seems to me). I guess it could get annoying if I was not ready to change, but that leads me to the next difference.

I'm assertive. It seems that most people with anxiety disorders are anything but assertive, and this is a huge problem for them, which leads to a lot of depression and to many of their panic attacks. I never let anyone walk over me, and will let anyone know what my limitations are, and when I'm ready to try for something. This at least gives me a sense of control over my situation, which a lot of others don't have.

Reading forums I get a sense that many with SA are angry, don't know why, and have no idea how to fix it or even that they can. They think they suffer alone, that others cannot understand them. I call this “Kurt Cobain Syndrome.” In my opinion it's one of the most destructive behaviors we with anxiety and depression and other mental disorders can exhibit. It's assuming that “normal” people don't have bad days, don't know what it's like to suffer internally, or have never experienced long bouts of severe depression or fear.

Most people have not done something they wanted to because they were afraid to try. I think most people can get a feel for what having anxiety every single day is like.

Another difference is that I never feel “regret” and definitely not “guilt” for having anxiety. It has been years since I have internalized my fears as those emotions, and as an adult I have taken a rather clinical outlook on my issues. I am the way I am because of my life experiences and genetics. It's not my fault, and even though I may never be cured, that doesn't mean that I cannot live with this, or even that I am sick in the medical sense of the word, as someone with a severe mental illness would be sick. I can still function, I just have to find my own way.

I've spent my adult life figuring out my own way in the world. It's my personality. Even before I ever showed symptoms of social anxiety disorder, as a child I was acutely introverted and did my own thing as often as I could do it. I was not a “team player” but I was not anti-social. I was just me, and I continue to be me.

I do not get the sense that many with anxiety feel this way. They're bombarded by guilt and regret. Things they've missed out on, their faults. It is what most often drives depression related to anxiety.

This depression is possibly the worst part of social anxiety disorder. Panic attacks are awful, but I've felt the most freedom in my life when in the middle of a severe panic attack when I could smile and know I'd be all right. There is never that feeling of being okay when I'm in a bout of depression.

It's a terrible ordeal to go through: this mixture of anxiety and depression. To me it's obvious that, though the anxiety may be natural and unavoidable, many suffering SA bring the depression onto themselves by the way they view the world. It's obvious by the things they say. I know, because I had to learn to view the world the way I do now. I was once like them. It's a place I'll never willingly and consciously go back to.

And yet I feel deeply for their plight, because though I have found something that works for me, there's no guarantee that it would work for them, and I have no right to push it onto them even if it would help. That's one of the key problems with having SA. We have to figure things out on our own time, in our own way, and we have to come to solutions willingly, or risk making our anxiety worse.

There's a fine line there. It takes courage to tread it, and no one else can tread it for us. If it's not our own autonomous decision, it can destroy us. It can destroy us even if it is our decision.

And yet I know that complaining about our position in the world is self-destructive. It's a poison. The most depressing and annoying people I've ever been around are those depressed and anxious individuals who are, with loose lips, eager to bitch about their lot in life, and yet unwilling to do anything to feel better.

I so know how my family and friends feel. Especially my wonderful girlfriend. Compassion gives way to frustration so easily. There comes a time when the reaction is “put up or shut up.” And I'm not always the most willing participant in change.

But I don't want to feel that way, especially about people I know suffer, and at the same time few people have a good enough excuse to suffer. Everything we need to be happy, despite our fears, is right before us, inside of us. Friends and family if we're willing to open up to them, to let them into our world. All of the resources the internet has to offer. Proven techniques in meditation, diet, and exercise. Cognitive behavioral therapy (exposure therapy is about the best). On and on. Maybe the only thing missing is a willingness to be happy? Some people feel they deserve to be miserable. Some people probably do deserve it. But I'm not one of them, and neither are you, whoever is reading this.

I write this in the hope that someone who I describe will read it (or anyone else) and realize that though it may not be up to them to cure their anxiety, it is their choice to be happy or miserable. We have full control over the way we view the world. It can be viewed as a rotten place, or one that is joyous. Despite our panic, despite our fear, we can be happy. No matter what we go through, we can at least have that.

We don't have to own our anxiety (or our depression). We are so much more than a few panic attacks and an aversion to crowds.

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Writer's Block Mindset


I've been struggling with writer's block. Not a bad case, but enough to knock my motivation out. I'd rather be running, jamming on my guitar, or reading. The page looks intimidating and I'm unsure about my ability to tackle it.

I'm okay with mild cases of writer's block; for unlike the more severe, debilitating cases, I can handle these little munchkins.

What I usually find has happened to me when I'm like this is that I've fallen apart mentally. I've lost my perspective on things, on myself, on my art. There's nothing influencing me, no life changing factors, just my emotional landscape has become loose, like a wheel on a wagon after many miles of hard travel.

Writing is no longer fun because I'm no longer looking at it as fun. I don't come to it seeking enjoyment, but treat it as duty.

Writing seems too big, too much to handle, because I've lost sight of the moment. “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves,” Joe Paterno often said. I'm trying to write entire stories in one sitting instead of peeling off a chapter, a page, or a paragraph at a time.

The passion for writing has waned because I'm no longer cultivating my passion for storytelling. I'm focused on other things (on playing my guitar, running, and reading other peoples' stories), and so I'm not laying the necessary groundwork needed to sit down and write my own. I have no fuel to burn.

These problems are fixable. The solutions are straight forward for me, painless really, for some of them apply to life outside of writing as well and even as I work them into my art I shall inevitably work them into my life.

The first solution is to let go; to simply “quit” trying to be perfect. It's my need to do things right that makes me want to do the whole story at once, and if I can't do that, then to not do it at all. Or write it perfectly, and if I cannot, to not write it at all. You can see how this “perfectionist” mindset may zap the fun out of something. Quitting and daring to make a mistake is cathartic.

Another way to combat mild writer's block is to give myself time, instead of a word count. If I can just sit down for X amount of minutes or hours, instead of trying to hit Y word count or Y pages or Y chapters, then much of the pressure to get something done evaporates. I'm no longer considering the end result, but am focused on the moment, on the time I have. I may not get anything done, but I won't beat myself up for it. And if I do get something done, it's a cherry.

Making time for writing is important, but it doesn't have to be a long time. When I'm in a funk like this it's probably better that it's not very long. Half an hour or an hour can be enough. Once I start I sometimes don't feel like stopping and I take advantage of that mood. It's less pressure on me.

The best thing I can do for myself when I can't write is to break the writing down into the smallest practical steps. Taking a story one paragraph at a time, a few hundred words at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time, is essential to overcoming my current writer's block. This “staying in the moment” enables me to focus, not on the end product, but on what I'm writing. I don't have to pressure myself to be perfect, but dare to make mistakes, knowing that I can always rewrite chapters later. I often surprise myself, for when I relax enough to write, I relax enough to write well.

In the end the cause behind a mild case of writer's block like the one I am going through now is tension. I'm “pushing” when I don't have to. I don't feel like I'm doing enough so I try to do more, end up trying too hard, and don't do anything. Coming to the blank page feels like coming to a great battle, and without the courage to battle it out, I simply retreat.

It's easier to change my view on the blank page than it is to find the courage to win a war. The blank page is not my enemy, but my friend. It's not my destiny, but my joy. It's not my duty, but an hour to kill.

I write not because I have to, but because I want to.

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Story Excerpt-Original Sin


Today I'm going to let you into my world, into my story. I'm currently rewriting a short story I wrote a few years ago, one I really enjoyed but did not feel I had done justice to. The concept still amazes me, and here I am years later tinkering with it, lifting more of its secrets from inside my head. 

It is called Original Sin.

The story is about an old man, an ex-priest who has since moved back to his parents' farm. His parents are dead and he farms the land himself. One day he finds a vampire—a child—and discovers something about her and himself. As this happens the villagers nearby are asking for help against a creature that has been ravishing their flock for some time, and finally a young priest from a secret order appears to carry out the slaying of the vampire. The two men meet and in the middle of them is this child. One believes she is evil, and the other doesn't know what to believe anymore, but will not let the young man destroy her.

I'm open to critiques if anyone wants to do that, but mostly I'm just hoping to share. This is a rough draft and so will likely be rewriting once more and then edited profusely.

I'm really enjoying what I'm writing this time around, and I enjoyed what I had written before, but this is an idea that I doubt will stay static in my mind. I believe it will continue to evolve, and years from now I may find myself rewriting it again, perhaps even making a novel out of it. It deserves it—I'm fascinatingly in love with these characters.

Chapter 1 (759 words):

Jorge Alvarez awoke in the middle of the night. At first he thought it was the dream that had woken him, but as it faintly lingered in his mind, he knew that he had not dreamed of evil, but of sweetness. Of his mother, dead for fifty years.

There was a sudden noise from outside, across the yard near the barn. A loud bleating from the sheep locked in the pen. Jorge rose to his feet and quickly dressed, wondering what had spooked the animals in the night. He caught a quick glimpse of his clock as he left his room, his shirt on backwards.

3:02.

He pulled his rifle from the closet in the foyer and checked it, taking a breath before opening his door. When he was a child he remembered his father fighting off a pack of stray dogs. He had shot them, a bullet for each, and though Jorge did not know what to expect this night, the memory was deep and powerful within him. He had always loved dogs, but sometimes evil things had to be done for the greater good.

It was the same message he had learned in seminary.

Outside he could hear the sheep moving in the darkness, some ramming against the pen, and as he walked across the yard, his pace slowed by age, he heard the fencing give way. The wooden planks collapsed, and as if caught off their guard under the moonlight, the sheep paused before fleeing.

There was nothing he could do as they ran free, but he did not let his guard down. He trusted that they would be safer from anything that was after them on the run, rather than trapped inside the pen. But he was a man approaching eighty years, and he could not move as quickly as he could when he was young. If this was a stray dog, or some other creature coming down from the mountains, he had to see it before it saw him.

Under the moonlight he could not see anything that moved, and then he noticed that the barn door was ajar. It was not a large bay door used for machinery, but a small square door just wide enough for a horse to enter.

There was a gust of wind and the door was blown closed, the latch locking in place as if by some magic. The sound drifted past him and died as quickly as it came and he recognized the sound that woke him. It had not been the sheep but the banging of the open door—now closed for good.

Jorge let his gun down to his side. Was whatever had spooked the sheep inside the barn? He wiped sweat from his brow, not from fear but from the still-warm night. The sun had been hot during the day and the heat had been trapped upon the warm breeze. He walked closer to the door, raising his rifle again, placing his hand upon the latch.

The door creaked slowly open and Jorge was faced with an impenetrable darkness. Inside nothing stirred.

“Chico?”

He kept his gun raise just before him, chest level. He moved into the darkness and reached his hand out to his left, searching for the lamp that lay on the shelf against the wall, but it was no use trying to light the lamp and hold the gun at the same time, let alone search for danger. Then he heard the burro in the corner snort and sniff the air. Alive and well.

Jorge backed out of the darkness and quickly shut the door. He did not know what had spooked the sheep, but he was certain he would find out in the morning after gathering them all. If there were rustlers he would not be able to stop them. Maybe he'd wake and each animal would be gone. Maybe not.

He did not worry and returned to the house, replacing the gun to his closet and kicking off his shoes in the dim bedroom light.

Then he noticed something upon the sole, which he had tracked through the house. Blood. Bright red yet and still wet, in small, faint streaks.

He put his clothes by the side of the bed and extinguished the light. Laying down, he closed his eyes, but dreams did not return to Jorge Alvarez. Not dreams of his mother or his father, not dreams of the seminary. He did not sleep the rest of the night but waited up, listening for the lost sheep.

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The Game: Motivation vs. Slothfulness


I started a sort of “game” when I was a teenager that I've always gone back to whenever I find myself adrift in slothfulness—if I need extra motivation.

I have always been a sports fan, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories was of a baseball, though it was just a random object then. I was at one time (though not anymore) a statistics junkie. I wasn't satisfied reading the stats in the paper. I watched the games and kept track of the stats for my then favorite player, Andruw Jones.

I was also an avid goal setter and it did not take much thought to connect the two together—goals and stats. I devised a points system. I would get so many points for doing something, and lose so many points for not doing something, and at the end of each day I would write down whether or not I “won” the day according to the difference in points. This is probably not an original idea, as ideas go, but for me it was groundbreaking.

What this did for me, other than to please my perfectionist tendencies, was to give myself an idea of what I was getting done. I could judge whether a certain week was good or bad based on my record. 7-0 was a great week. 0-7 wasn't.

It's been a few years since I've used this method, but I'm now putting it back into service. I've been in a funk lately, ever since I published “Rising”. That was over a month ago, but in the last week since I've begun my method, I've noticed very positive improvements. I've only had one day, and really only a single night, in which I wasn't directing my attention toward one of the goals on my list, motivated by having a positive score.

This is arbitrary, and I don't win anything other than personal pride. I'm not even promising myself incentives (I'll buy myself X if I complete Y for a month). But using this method has a positive effect on my mood. Not only does it keep me motivated, but it gives me a record by which I can remind myself how well I've been doing.

An example of what I'm talking about:

If my goals are “Play guitar. Write. Read.” I will give myself a point for accomplishing each for the day, and if I fail to spend any time on these activities I'll write down a -3.

So it's +1 or -3. If there are 10 things on my list, and if I do most of them, I can get away with not doing two of them, and still let myself write down that I won. My score will have been 8-6. I write down a W and turn my focus to tomorrow.

~*~

This is really nothing more than a game I play with myself, pinning motivation against sloth. Sometimes sloth wins, tallying more points than motivation did, but usually I'm eager enough to win that motivation will go the extra mile. I don't cheat, but I don't enjoy giving myself a Loss, and so I will often do whatever is necessary to put myself over the top.

The biggest advantage I gain is in consistency. I've been trying to learn Spanish for years, and though I can read it okay (so long as I have a dictionary ready), I cannot understand or speak it. My main problem is consistency, as it is with most of the things I try to accomplish. I'll study one day, then I won't study again for two weeks.

By breaking things down into statistics, I'm now sufficiently motivated to study every day. This goes for writing, reading, playing guitar, working out, meditating, etc.

You may ask “if you enjoy doing these things, why do you give yourself points?” Or even “if you're a Taoist and your ideal is to live spontaneously, why do you give yourself points?” The simple answer to both questions is that I enjoy watching TV as much as I enjoy doing anything else, let's say writing stories. Sometimes writing stories becomes a bit like a chore, and I need some way to sit down and do it anyway. This is a method that works.

It may not in and of itself be spontaneous, but I find the direction it gives me to be spontaneous. I'm not glued to schedules and I “flow” through my day knowing that I can do what I want, when I want to do it, so long as I am more motivated than I am lazy.

It's a bit of pressure off my shoulders.

And it's fun kicking sloth around!

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The Million Dollar Author


It feels like forever since my last post but I don't want to simply do a stop-gap until I can write something better, so I'm going to write the best thing I can at this point in time.

Here it goes!

“I don't want to get rich writing, but make a living. To make a living I must work like I want to get rich.”

I feel like that is a powerful statement. I don't like when people act like writers shouldn't get paid. That is discouraging and illogical. A writer has the same right to payment as does a plumber, a doctor, and a teacher. And yet I'm equally put off by fortune and fame. I have absolutely no desire to be well-known, and certainly not rich.

Perhaps this is a contradiction, and perhaps not. “You mean to say you want to write books for a living, in obscurity?”

Yes. I would love to make a living doing what I love, be able to communicate and interact with peers, readers, and friends, and avoid the pitfalls that so often come with fortune and fame. It may be too much to ask, and it may even be unreasonable, but If in years to come I've only accomplished enough to pay my bills, buy a few nice guitars, take my woman to Europe, and keep my children reasonably fed, I'd be over the moon.

What am I asking for? $20,000 a year writing down things that come to my mind (not a lot, but hey, the woman is college educated, she'll always out-earn me!). I don't want the millions of dollars authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, and J. K. Rowling have made. I don't want to change the world. I don't want to have my face on every news channel if I'm ever struck by a van. I certainly don't want people talking about my religious views.

But there is a problem. If I want to make even a few thousand dollars a year as a professional author, I have to work as if I want the whole damn pie. That's right, I'll have to work like I want to make millions, just to get by.

Shooting for goals is a lot like shooting for guns. If a target is far off in the distance, you must take gravity into account and aim higher than your target. In writing this means that even if I'll be satisfied making only a little more than I would working a full-time, minimum wage job, I must act as though I want to make millions of dollars, win awards, and as Mayor Vaughn once said, “Love to prove that, wouldn't ya? Get your name into the National Geographic.”

In way just saying it takes a bit of weight off of my shoulders. A million dollars a year is absurd. Only a few authors ever reach that pinnacle, and from my point of view, something like that can be filed under “It happens to other people, not to me.”

It also puts my real goal into perspective. It's nothing compared to what is over the rainbow, on the far side of success. So in reality it's not really that much to wrap my head around. Right now the number is about at 50, but 20,000 is closer to 50 than it is to 1,000,000!

I'm asking for a lot more than I'm worth, right?

Yes, and that's not a bad thing. Setting the price high and working down shows intelligence. If I act like I want a million bucks, even if I never get it, I'll still get a lot more than if I acted like I am content with a little; if I had started the bidding off where I hoped to be.

The question then becomes “What does a writer who thinks he's worth a million bucks act like?”

Let me think about it and I'll get back to you...

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