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Mental Prisons, The Madness of Being Normal, The Broken Widow Fallacy, & Why Curiosity Makes the Best Curriculum

Sean Stephenson on psychological power, the danger of self-pity, and how to break through the invisible fence of self-defeating thoughts

The prison of your mind | Sean Stephenson | TEDxIronwoodStatePrison

I was born to rid this word of insecurity. When a human being is insecure, they do stupid stuff. When we feel like we’re not enough, we chase external validation and external objects to tell us we’re enough.

Sean Stephenson is a therapist and motivational speaker. According to Wikipedia, “because he was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Stephenson stands just three feet tall, has fragile bones, and must use a wheelchair.” Sean’s life is a living embodiment of Albert Camus’s observation that ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’ For Stephenson, freedom begins by liberating ourselves from faith in the necessity of disempowering beliefs:

Lesson # 1: Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you. When I was born, the doctors told my parents that I would be dead within the first twenty four hours of my life. Thirty five years later, all those doctors are dead and I am the only doctor that remains. Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you. How many predictions have been thrown at you your whole life? If you believe predictions that do not empower you, you will wither away and day; either physically die your spirit will die as you just walk around the world like a carcass that is just following the masses. You will be given a lot of titles in your life. You will be told so many different things. You must only listen to that which empowers you.

This advice is a reminder that facts, while in and of themselves, are unavoidable, we are free to decide for ourselves how such facts are to be interpreted. The fact that one is sick or poor, for instance, is typically regarded as an intrinsically negative fact. Testimonies like Stephenson’s provide evidence to the contrary. In the spirit of Hamlet’s “for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so,” Stephenson presents a compelling example of the mind’s autonomous capacity to determine what it shall make of the facts. While reality make be unforgiving and unbending at times, experience belongs to the realm of the subjective and, as such, is the product of not only of reality, but also of the attitude we choose to adopt.

The real enemy that prevents us from accessing and appropriating our psychological power, is that socially acceptable and socially rewarding demon called “pity.” In exchange for the easy attention we receive from advertising our difficulties, we compromise our ability to see the possibilities that promise a higher quality of life:

You know what the worst drug that ever hit the human race is? Pity! The moment you feel sorry for another person or the moment you feel sorry for yourself, you are hosed. You are totally completely frozen in potential. We cannot pity ourselves. We cannot pity you.

The second lesson today is you are not your condition. I am not disabled. Sure, I’ll take the handicap parking privileges, but that does not define me as a man. Not able? I’ve been looked at and treated my whole life as if I am not able. I have had to rise above and show people that the only disability is one’s refusal to adapt. You have to adapt to whatever environment you’re in even if it’s prison. What does adaption look like? I think it looks like celebration. Because when you meet people that are celebrating their life, you want to be around them, you want to learn from them, you want to do business with them, you want to hire them. If you do not want to be seen as a prisoner or a convict when you get out of this, or even while you’re in this, then it’s an attitude, it’s a belief in yourself that you bring value to the human race no matter what your current condition, title, or stature is.

Stephenson challenges his listeners to be better than the good opinion of others by not limiting their options to what other people are merely okay with:

If I believe that I’m disabled, I would wither up, I would be shy, I would be insecure, I would be afraid, I would act like I need your help and the rest of humanity would be okay with that.

Stephenson concludes his inspiring and highly quotable talk by identifying the true nature of the prison that keeps us from living free and showing us how self-love is the way out:

I’m going to teach you what the real prison is. It’s not surrounded by barbed wire and electrical fences. The real prisons do not have guards. The real prison is up here (pointing to his head) and we all got it. We all have a mind that chatters and so often won’t stop chattering. Do you know where your salvation is? It’s not outside these walls. I’ve met so many people that are so extremely successful and famous and are in prison because they’re stuck in their minds bullying themselves and pitying themselves.

When you love yourself, whether you’re sleeping on a prison cot or in a mansion; whether you have food in your belly or you don’t know when your next meal is coming; when you love yourself, when you learn to master your emotions, then and only then are you free.

The phrase “master your emotions” is one that contains great power. Unfortunately, that power is often overlooked because of the conflation of two distinct responses to emotional life: that of suppressing or repressing one’s emotions and that of managing or mastering one’s emotions. The former is an act of denial and dishonesty which only leads to self-delusion and self-destruction. The latter is the graceful art of acknowledging and owning one’s feelings while creatively channeling emotional energy along constructive lines. Anger, sadness, jealousy, and all of the other so-called emotional states do not need to be pushed away, but rather redirected and put to good use. The antidote to suppressing one’s feelings isn’t to be driven by them in an unbridled manner, but to be proactive and self-determined about the process of collaborating with our emotions towards the end of creating a life that reflects our highest principles and priorities.

Jules Evans on the Madness Underlying our Efforts to Fit in

Coming to terms with the unruly gods of our inner jungle

Jules Evans recounts the recent experience of going out for pizza with a close lifelong friend. The only problem was that this friend was known for suffering from regular episodes of paranoid schizophrenic behavior resulting from an experiment with LSD that led to a psychotic breakdown at the age of 17. Describing the unpredictable nature of his friend’s state of mind, Evans writes, “Sometimes he is lost to this reality, too deep in the ocean of his own delusion and imagination. Sometimes he surfaces, and you can have a conversation with him, and your old friend is back from the depths.” Evan’s concern about going out for pizza with his friend was that his decision might be too big of a risk to handle. What if his friend says of does something embarrassing? What if his friend misses out on all those important social cues we need to recognize in order to fit in as a “normal” or unobtrusive member of society. Ironically, it was Evan, whose self-consciousness and insecurity led to some rather awkward behavior, that served as the source of discomfort, not his friend. The remorse he felt from the situation inspired him to think deeply about the everyday plight of trying to fit in and the creative challenges it poses to our need to be true to who we really are. Evans observes that so much of our energy is devoted to managing our brands, protecting our public personas, and making sure we’re behaving in a way that supports our social ambitions that we easily overlook the necessity of embracing our demons, owning our madness, harmonizing with our shadows, and loving our weirdness:

Being an adult in a highly civilised society like ours is hard. It takes a lot of self-control, emotional inhibition and social tact. We have to learn, from the age of six or so, to read social situations – which can often be bewilderingly complex and nuanced – and out of the million possible ways of responding to ambiguous social cues, we have to select a good response. Civilization is one long improv competition, on a stage watched by millions. To the best performers go wealth, status, power and sex. But those who miss their cues or disrupt the play end up isolated, unloved, ridiculed or ostracized.

We have to learn to play a role, to ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. And this takes a lot of effort, because it means controlling and hiding any aspects of our psyche which might be deemed primitive, uncouth, or shameful. Behind our masks there is in fact a whole jungle of psychic energy, and we have to police that jungle and make sure no wild beasts stray into view.

People with mental illness, Evans observes, have such a difficult time being meet with acceptance because they not only disrupt our expectations, but because they present us with a more overt illustration our own inner battles, the inner tension we feel between the seemingly opposing forces at play in the construction and maintenance of our sense of self:

One of the reasons mental illness is still stigmatized is that it is embarrassing. People with mental illness don’t always behave according to the unspoken rules of politeness. Indeed, often they crash right through those rules. This causes shame and anxiety in the people around them, because we have put enormous psychic energy into learning and obeying the rules. The mad upset the consensual fiction of social reality (unless they happen to be powerful, in which case everyone must go along with their fiction).

That’s why sometimes families in which someone is mentally ill would in the past (and sometimes still in the present) hide them away in the countryside, or in an attic, or in an asylum. To save face. To preserve the front of politeness and self-control that enables them to fulfill their social ambitions. They put the approval of strangers before compassion for their family member.

Drawing on insights aquired from his own personal bouts with post traumatic stress disorder, Evan makes note of how his inner “earthquakes” paradoxically became more manageable only when he stopped fearing their capacity to ruin his social ambitions.

I recovered from my panic attacks when I stopped freaking out over what other people might think, and said to Pan, in effect, ‘OK, maybe some people will think I’m weird, so what?’ I had to learn to accept myself and put moral integrity before the false morality of social ambition. Only then, when I sat surrounded by the rubble of my social ambition, did Pan stop sending the earthquakes. I achieved a fragile truce between my social self and the unruly gods of my inner jungle.

Evans avoids the trap of presenting his thoughts as if they were the final word on the complex psychological phenomenon of making peace with oneself, but his article offers much food for thought for a social-media immersed world where the power to create, reinvent, manage, and destroy our publicly visible personas lies at our fingertips on a daily basis. At the very least, it’s an invitation to turn off auto-pilot and become conscious of the assumptions we allow to govern our lives when we suppress or express our ideas, impulses, and instincts for the sake of making sure we don’t lose our cherished positions of normalcy in society.

A Surprising Fact about Happiness

Albert Camus on Happiness, Unhappiness, and Our Self-Imposed Prisons

Camus on how we sabotage our happiness by insisting on our right to be right, prepared, and in control:

It is not true that the heart wears out — but the body creates this illusion.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.

Maria Popova adds:

“All true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, and yet, as Camus so stirringly reminds us, order itself, when worshiped too blindly and rigidly, can consume our fragile chance of happiness.

Being agitated is a part of life. In spite of its inevitability and unpleasantness, however, we can significantly improve our lot for inner peace by resolving to not be agitated about the fact of being agitated. When we do so, we discover a surprising fact: there is a kind of happiness that can exist alongside unhappiness. But as with all the richest, deepest, and most enduring forms of happiness, we stand our greatest chance of tasting them if we entertain Camus’s invitation to be open to the unplanned and uncontrollable. When we force happiness to fit into our schedules, we find the time for it to be immensely more scarce.

Curiosity is the only Curriculum

Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg (Pgs 11-25)

When a group of twelve boys and girls, aged nine to twelve, approached Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, and requested that he teach them how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and all the other important principles of mathematics, he responded with skepticism. Suspicious that they were being driven by pressure from adults, he encouraged them to pursue subject matters they were genuinely interested in. After the children’s persistent refusal to withdraw their request, he laid down some basic ground rules, procured a good textbook that focused on practical application, and developed a lesson plan. Although he was committed to giving his best effort as a teacher, he still believed, in the back of his mind, that this little experiment wouldn’t last very long.

I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was concerned. I was surprised.

What unfolded over the next six months left Greenberg completely stunned. Not only had the children managed to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but they went on to learn more advanced areas like long division, percentages, fractions, square roots, and decimals in only a fraction of the time it takes most students to learn such materials. But the surprises weren’t over at that point. Greenberg’s next big lesson came when he reported the children’s astounding rate of progress to math specialist.

A week after it was all over, I talked to Alan White, who had been an elementary math specialist for years in the public schools and knew all the latest and best pedagogical methods. I told him the story of my class. He was not surprised.

“Why not?” I asked, amazed at his response. I was still reeling from the pace and thoroughness with which my “dirty dozen” had learned.

“Because everyone knows,” he answered, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff — well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

I guess it does. It’s never taken much more than that ever since.

This story, and so many others like it, provide a living example of the power that lies in adopting a pedagogy that encourages learners to follow Richard Feynmen’s advice to “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” In education, discipline must be the servant, not the master, of genuine interest and curiosity. When the goal of learning isn’t to please adults, pass tests, and avoid punishment, but is instead to seek out the knowledge and experiences that satisfy and ignite a student’s sense of wonder, the usual complications that arise from trying to coax people into being attentive and diligent are bound to fall away. The greater danger in education is not to underestimate how easy it is to learn, but to overestimate how important and effective it is to impose authoritarian agendas, however sincere they may be, on the learner’s organic process of exploration.

Greenberg claims that teaching is difficult at Sudbury Valley schools. This isn’t because of the hours spent developing lesson plans, disciplining the class, or grading papers though. It’s difficult because the teacher has to be willing to set aside their own sense of self-importance by demonstrating a willingness to get out of the student’s way whenever their involvement is not requested.

We get a lot of people writing the school asking to be hired as teachers. Many of them tell us at length how much they have to “give” to children. People like that don’t do too well at the school. What’s important to us is what the students want to take, not what the teachers want to give. That’s hard for a lot of professional teachers to grasp.

Classes end when either side has had enough of the deal. If the teachers find out they can’t deliver, they can back out — and the students have to find a new teacher if they still want a class. If the students discover they don’t want to go on, the teachers have to find some other way to occupy themselves at the appointed hour.

The most meaningful, enduring, and practical forms of learning happens when the learner learns what the learner wants to learn, when the learner wants to learn it, in a manner that’s consistent with how the learner wants to learn, and with whom the learner wants to learn. And as a corollary, the most meaningful, enduring, and practical forms of teaching are those which honor this form of learning.

Breaking Windows, Making Money, & Balancing the Books: Henry Hazlitt on Why Acts of Destruction Don’t Create Wealth

Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt (Pgs 20-30)

Henry Hazlitt begins the second chapter of Economics in One Lesson by paying homage to Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. The Broken Window Fallacy refers to the error in logic that takes place when a person assumes that new forms of wealth or opportunity have been created as a result of acts of destruction. The slightly modified example given by Hazlitt — the original provided by Bastiat can be found in What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen — is that of a shopkeeper whose window is broken by an act of violence. The onlooker’s in this example, while they may condemn the act of violence, praise the outcome because of the newfound opportunity that’s been created for the person who makes their living repairing broken windows. The misfortune of the shopkeeper becomes the good fortune of the glassmaker. “Surely, this is a good thing,” some would reason. The problem with this kind of logic is that it only focuses on the benefits procured by the glassmaker. That is, it focuses on the seen while neglecting the unseen. What is the unseen? The unseen fact is that although the glassmaker has found fortune, his fortune must come at the expense of someone else who would have benefited from the shopkeeper’s demands. Say, for instance, that the shopkeeper want to buy a new suit. Let’s suppose that new suit costs $250. Further suppose that the cost to repair his broken window is also $250. That means his demand for a new suit must take a backseat to his necessity for a new window. So not only is the shopkeeper deprived of valuable resources — instead of having a window and a suit (or the money with which to buy a new suit), he now has only a window and nothing else — but the tailor who would have profited from the sale of a new suit is also deprived of an opportunity. As we can see from this example, acts of destruction do not create wealth, but they only reallocate the use of resources from the category of demands to the category of needs.

Seeing through such a fallacy is easy enough when it comes to small everyday maters like broken windows, but this line of thinking becomes far more pervasive and pernicious when politicians and economists assess the pros and cons of large scales events. In chapter three, The Blessings of Destruction, Hazlitt identifies the broken window fallacy as the culprit in a slew of macroeconomic missteps:

So we have finished with the broken window. An elementary fallacy. Anybody, one would think, would be able to avoid it after a few moments’ thought. Yet the broken-window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics. It is more rampant now than at any time in the past. It is solemnly reaffirmed every day by great captains of industry, by chambers of commerce, by labor union leaders, by editorial writers and newspaper columnists and radio commentators, by learned statisticians using the most refined techniques, by professors of economics in our best universities. In their various ways they all dilate upon the advantages of destruction. Though some of them would disdain to say that there are net benefits in small acts of destruction, they see almost endless benefits in enormous acts of destruction. They tell us how much better off economically we all are in war than in peace. They see “miracles of production”
which it requires a war to achieve. And they see a postwar world made certainly prosperous by an enormous “accumulated” or “backed-up” demand.

In Europe they joyously count the houses, the whole cities that have been leveled to the ground and that “will have to be replaced.” In America they count the houses that could not be built during the war, the nylon stockings that could not be supplied, the worn-out automobiles and tires, the obsolescent radios and refrigerators. They bring together formidable totals. It is merely our old friend, the broken-window fallacy, in new clothing, and grown fat beyond recognition.

Hazlitt spends the remainder of the chapter pointing out key economic distinctions like demands versus needs; explaining how supply and demand are really two sides of the same coin; and demonstrating how an increase in the money supply results in a decrease of purchasing power. The most pivotal point of the chapter, however, is his insight regarding how macroeconomic confusion is rooted in microeconomic confusion. We fail to recognize our fallacies with large matters because we carelessly slip into vague abstractions about collectives, hence losing sight of the fact that all economic realities begin with the individual:

No man would want to have his own property destroyed either in war or in peace. What is harmful or disastrous to an individual must be equally harmful or disastrous to the collection of individuals that make up a nation.

Many of the most frequent fallacies in economic reasoning come from the propensity, especially marked today, to think in terms of an abstraction—the collectivity, the “nation”—and to forget or ignore the individuals who make it up and give it meaning. No one could think that the destruction of war was an economic advantage who began by thinking first of all of the people whose property was destroyed.

The above reflections and notes are part of my personal development project for 2015. This post is my entry for (What I’m Learning: Day 22/365). To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I complete every week, click here.

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