Suck it up, Buttercup

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Who loves the idea of self-control? This instantly conjures images of narrow-nosed thin people sanctimoniously forgoing dessert or wide-nosed big-bosomed matrons shaking a finger your direction. On the other hand, the conscious control of impulses signifies maturity, and is the foundation of civilization.

Self-control exists in other species. It is a wonderful and slightly-disturbing thing to watch a well-trained dog sit quivering, waiting for the command that allows it to eat the treat. I relate so deeply to the agony in those ebony eyes, and when faced with certain temptations, do not often do as well as the dog. Think caramels in dark chocolate.

Food is one thing. Sex is another. When it comes to sex, contrary to what Hollywood might portray, humans have generally agreed that sexual interaction involving two or more people should be consensual. The myth that a weaker sexual partner finds it pleasurable to be overcome and “taken” has little basis in reality. However, we must admit that we’ve built a powerful storyline about the sexiness of pursuing, or being pursued. I grew up in a hunting culture. A successful pursuit meant killing the pursued and eating it. This is definitely not sexy.

But how many Disney movies insinuate the reward for the smart pursuer is the breathless acquiescence of the pursued? And how many ways do we tell physically-weaker potential sexual partners to be coy and play hard-to-get, yet to also present themselves in ways that are alluring as possible? This whole notion of conquest as an acceptable sexual practice has got to go. Men and women who know what they want, politely inquire about the possibilities, and then respect the answer must be elevated to heroic status, not decried as easy or weak.

It isn’t necessary to ditch the thrill of the chase, or the fun of seduction. But it is necessary to define some limits and redefine success. Just because you are rich and powerful, and can use that to attract all sorts of admirers, you cannot cross the line and force yourself on anyone who doesn’t explicitly indicate he/she welcomes your advances. This is uncivilized, uncouth, shameful, and often, illegal.

Which brings to mind this whole notion of “exposing” oneself. I had a friend who was a carhop (I realize this is a prehistoric occupation). She delivered a Coke and a hotdog to a guy who’d unzipped his pants and had his penis out, all big and pink. She backed away, shaken, but told only me. In retrospect, I so wish we’d had the wherewithal to gather a few carhops and a manager to peer in the open window, evaluate his “manhood” and give him a score. Comments like “not pretty” or “sort of small” may have curbed this behavior. Informing the community might have done so as well.

I doubt the impulse to show one’s stuff is limited to those with penises, large or small. Apparently, it’s erotic to be seen naked, or nearly naked. Maybe the fantasy is that showing one’s stuff will cause instant desire in the viewer. I don’t know. I’m a psychologist, but I’m not a Kinsey. My point is that there are vast differences in levels in aggression, inappropriateness, and ways to inquire about sexual interest. The hanging-out of one’s usually-covered parts is just a sad bid for cheap thrills.

We must teach ourselves and our children to be less squeamish, more honest, less selfish, more tolerant, less judgmental, and more centered. We need to tell ourselves and our children, “Hey, if someone shows you their privates, or tries to grope or kiss you, glare at them, back away, say no, tell someone, and if possible, throw up on them.” And of course, we have to continue to work on making these responses safe.

We’ve got to promote, honor, (and insist upon) self-control, civility, and assertiveness. In the grand scheme of what it means to be human, all adults must be free to define their sexual preferences, and seek partners and fulfillment within their values, using their own internal barometers. But that freedom stops—and I mean FULL STOP—if it ever encroaches on or overrides the preferences of the other partner(s). So, how’s a person to know if he/she has encroached? Dr. Bossypants has a few guidelines.

  • No one whose consciousness is impaired can give an honest, thoughtful “yes” to any sexual activity. An impaired “yes” is not to be trusted.
  • Though it varies state to state, generally no one under the age of 16 is thought to be able to give legal consent. I know a lot of 15-year-olds who would disagree. Be that as it may, the fallback is the law. If your desired partner is 16 or younger, and you are four years older, this is not going to fly legally. Don’t mess with it.
  • No one is giving unfettered consent when in fact, if they say no, they lose a job, status, or other opportunities the asker may hold. Power differentials are sticky wickets and need extra caution, even if the less-powerful one says yes. For instance, we would have far less concern if Trump made a pass at Angela Merkel than if he copped a feel from an 18-year-old admirer.
  • A sexy, reluctant, alluring “No” is still a “No.” Back away. It isn’t worth it to test the hypothesis that the potential partner is using “no” seductively. (BTW, potential partners, let’s give this Disney-driven conquest notion a rest, okay? Learn to say what you want, for real. It’s okay to change your mind, but you have to make that verbally clear.)

For many, sex is better than chocolate. Harder to resist. More rewarding. In fact, few things even approach the gratification of an orgasm. But bottom line is this: We will be a far better, safer, happier, healthier civilization when every sexual act is fully consensual and enjoyed by all involved. And here’s a bonus: By observing the Bossypants guidelines, you may get to stay in office, or keep your job. Look, if a dog can develop the internal maturity to forgo a tasty treat, so can you.

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Fake News: Cancer

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Fake news is a primary food source for societal cancer. Cancer is not like an injury or a nasty bacterial invasion. Cancer cells are our own cells, gone rogue. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Cancer cells engage in two eerily familiar and maladaptive behaviors:

1) They replicate themselves over and over, failing to diversify.

2) They’re “immortal.”  They don’t a natural lifecycle and die when they should.

This is quite reminiscent of humankind—not at its finest, but at its most common, fearful, lazy, and arrogant. First, let’s consider diversity. Failure to appreciate and welcome diversity is deadly. If we could interview cancer cells and ask why they clone themselves rather than allowing the natural variations of creation to define the body, their noses would elevate and they would assure us they are superior.

When diversity is obviously nature’s way to a healthy, robust planet, why are humans so resistant?

Some argue it’s in our genes to prefer and protect those we’re related to, or those who look (and think) like us. Maybe, but ultimately, at the global level, this is not adaptive. Too much inbreeding isn’t good. Nonetheless, humans tend to divide into groups of us and them. The inner circle, the outer darkness, the ones who get it and the ones who don’t. The familiar and the foreign. The Self and the Other. It’s a pain to tolerate difference, and it’s comforting to have someone or something to blame for almost everything. Fake news helps us latch onto “the other” and have someone to hate.

And why are humans hateful, greedy, and aggressive? For most of us, way down deep, it is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of being cheated, fear of humiliation, fear of being alone. Many things in life frighten us, but ultimately, most fears can be traced to fear of death, the final unknown. Humans are notoriously unwilling to welcome aging and death thoughtfully and graciously.

Here’s where cancer’s other maladaptive attribute comes into play. Cancer cells don’t die a natural death. Of course, things come to an end when they’ve killed their host.

How is this related to Fake News? Denial of our ultimate fate (the decline and death of our bodies) makes us nervous and gullible. We want to distract ourselves, find a phony savior, and project our difficult emotions out on trumped up “enemies.” When we are busy fervently hating someone, we don’t have time to face or deal with life’s ultimate truths. Fake News is hateful, cathartic, simplistic, and seductive. The same hateful falsehoods stay alive indefinitely because we won’t examine them and let them go.

Humans would be far less susceptible to the cancer of fake news if we welcomed diversity and recognized that our hatred and greed is driven by fear. We’d be less willing to lie, or be lied to, if we nurtured our natural curiosity and life-affirming compassion instead of hunkering down over whatever possessions or hollow self-worth we’ve managed to hoard in this short but wonderful life.

Here’s Dr. Bossypants’s gentle advice.  Let go, you tight-fisted, gullible, lying scaredy-cats. Love a stranger. Hell, love an enemy. Go for broke. Be fantastically mortal… Or stay hateful, small, and frightened. Your choice.

Fake News: Moral Incontinence

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As a psychologist interested in ethics, Dr. Bossypants spends many hours contemplating the human condition. Lately, she’s been fascinated with the facile ascent of fake news and the apparent gullibility and complicity of humans in this phenomenon. Here is the first of perhaps many speculations.

From time immemorial, humans have needed each other to survive. Even rugged individualists and extreme preppers benefit from the collective creativity of the human species. And generally, we don’t want to hang out with just any old Jane Doe or Joe Blow. We seek people who more or less value and agree with us. Usually, outliers start suspecting there’s something wrong with them, and soon enough, there will be. Completely isolated people suffer, and most break down over time.

Within the context of community, humans have a lot of other needs. For example, there are needs for power and control, prestige, order, safety, excitement, love, nourishment, offspring, humor, and attention. There are needs to contribute positively to society, and needs to protect yourself and those you love. This is not an exhaustive list. Some argue that these needs can all be traced back to the urge nature imbedded in us to propagate our genes. Maybe. But like many of our basic animal urges, we must refine, redirect, balance, and sometimes overcome these urges with consciousness, compassion, courage, reason, and love. Nature has no problem with animals dropping their pants and pooping wherever and whenever this natural and necessary need strikes, but I’m a big fan of outhouses and collective expressions of self-control in this domain. The taming of fire as an evolutionary step forward is rivaled in importance by the invention of the diaper. Indoor plumbing came much later, but again, an impressive leap for humankind.

Fake news is tempting for many reasons. As we’ve noted, humans like to feel like they belong. They hang with their homies, even in the face of evidence that their homies might be bad dudes. And humans greatly enjoy being right. Most parents have noticed that the shorter, less mature among us will argue well past the point of absurdity to hold on to a false belief that benefits them. For instance, the possibility of global warming is quite inconvenient. Therefore, the easy route is to simply deny it.

Fake news is generated for financial and political reasons. Fake news is certainly not our best attempt to explain the world or keep ourselves informed. Mature, moral humans can distinguish between fact and propaganda, between rumors and explanations. We have the means and the abilities, but we often lack the will.

So here’s one possible conclusion Dr. Bossypants endorses: Fake news is successful because of moral incontinence. Yes–giving into the temptation to cut corners and indulge in what Freud might have called leakage of the Id.

Aristotle believed humans were prone to moral incontinence when it came to money or self-aggrandizing. And of course, anger. Think about it: When you let yourself get crazy angry, you might say or do things you aren’t proud of later. Similarly, when we let ourselves want to be right at all costs, we gobble up bot-driven absurdities to bolster our beliefs. Sadly, the more frequently and loudly lies are repeated, the more likely they are to be believed. It’s Groupthink on steroids. Generating, promoting, and sharing highly suspicious “facts” in order to reassure our inward little self, be popular, or sell ads is the equivalent of taking a moral dump in a crowded room.

Diaper-up, people. These compelling human needs (to belong, be right, be rich, etc.) set us up for trouble when paired with immaturity and laziness. Sure, it’s thrilling to contribute to massive conspiracy theories. It’s easier to believe than check the facts. It’s also easier to fear, cheer, and jeer than reason, research, and admit being wrong. But easier isn’t better. In fact, sometimes it’s a public health hazard, and pretty much always, it stinks. Of course, there will be people willing to tell you it doesn’t, but trust me on this one folks, it reeks.

 

Ego and other possibilities

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The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

Trauma–Not good.

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Another fascinating mini-series by Dr. Bossypants is about to begin. Que: Dancing in the streets.

In upcoming blogs, we’ll examine an important and ubiquitous part of being human—stress and trauma. Dr. Bossypants believes that we are in a most precarious position in human history. Sure, we’ve always had wars, violence, sexual abuse, psychopaths, and natural disasters to deal with. Some of our fellow humans have these things for breakfast every day. This does not mean we should normalize suffering, nor any of these precipitators of suffering. In fact, it is time we get serious about eliminating sources of suffering and trauma.

True, we’ve always had war, and killing. But we haven’t always had nuclear weapons, nor have we had the glorious but potentially deadly Internet, nor the other technologies and forms of travel now readily available. Methinks we had better grow up fast here people. Fast indeed. The devastating degradation or complete annihilation of the planet and humans dwelling upon it is in play.

So we begin by examining responses to trauma:

Psychologists have a checkered history when it comes to assessing and addressing the effects of stress and trauma on human functioning. Dr. Bossypants has had significant professional exposure to these issues and, to no one’s surprise, strong beliefs as well.

Defining trauma is difficult and fraught with political and financial motivations that, when examined, are sickening. We, people and governments alike, want to pretend that trauma doesn’t exist, or that inflicting it has no cost.

The word itself comes from a Greek word that means “wound.” To be human is to wound and be wounded. But to be human is to also have choices, and assess consequences. We want what we want, and, tragically, we don’t want to be told that what we want might hurt others, or even cause long-term devastation.

For instance, though some of us may be loathe to bring him up, we must note that Sigmund Freud initially recognized and wrote about the tremendous wounds inflicted on women who were sexually abused. The (white, male, privileged) scorn heaped upon him for these astute observations precipitated a breakdown of sorts, and a recanting of his findings. For this, and many other wrong-headed actions and notions, Dr. Bossypants is not a big fan of Freud.

We will discuss the ubiquitous occurrences of sexual assault in later posts. We only note it here to say that humans are quite resistant to admitting the costs of trauma. Dr. Bossypants hopes to hammer this home in upcoming blogs. But for now, let’s move to the cheery subject of war and related forms of domination.

War is a common preoccupation of those who’ve ascended to power in human communities. It has, until recently, required boots on the ground. Boots with real human feet in them, and real deadly weapons strapped across their real, human hearts. The act of killing a fellow human being, or having a fellow human being try to kill you is traumatic. Period. It is not a sign of weakness or inadequacy to be traumatized by killing. In fact, if killing another human being is not traumatic for the one who kills, then something is wrong. We do not want to pathologize tender, caring, emotionally-mature human beings. Those who kill without pain and remorse are the aberrations of our species, and they need help and/or containment.

Dr. Bossypants isn’t being clear, here’s a summary. For the psychologically healthy soldier, war (of all sorts) is traumatic. This does not mean that that all soldiers will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, but many will. Rightly so. It is a terrible thing to kill other human beings and not feel a thing, even though we have many movies and television shows that would have us believe otherwise. For the general health and evolutionary development of our species, war is to be avoided. We need to go upstream.

In the USA, we are wildly privileged, wealthy, well-fed, lovely people. We need to win hearts and minds by being wise, generous, involved, honest, and fair. We need to embrace liberty and compassion for all, knowing we will get hatred in return for some time to come—there are many, many toxins that stay in the psyche for generations after war, violence, starvation, rape, theft, and brutality have been visited upon a community. But here’s the truth: Violence begets violence. Harsh judgment begets harsh judgment. Selfishness and greed beget selfishness and greed. We will harvest (or be harvested) by what we sow. Without significant healing and maturity, this is a psychological truth.

Therefore, we have to get smarter, kinder, and more generous. This is difficult, because we, too, have been traumatized. We are frightened and have become selfish—even greedy. But this is what Dr. Bossypants believes: We can acknowledge our pain, our own failings, and our woundedness. We can find the moral fiber to choose something besides endless repetitions of human mistakes. We need to open our borders intelligently, feed hungry people creatively, honor other people’s needs and beliefs, and do our best to contain the violence that is simmering near the boiling point on this beautiful planet. Otherwise, I think it will not be long before the planet will be rid of us, and get to heal itself without the pesky human beings now dwelling here.