Woman looking into the camera smiling on a beautiful autumn day, with a slight sense of hesitation.
Communication

No One Has Ever Loved Anyone

I love potent little phrases (it’s why I run a quotation-browsing website), and I recently came across a great one. It seems that Mignon McLaughlin once quipped:

No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.

It bowled me over. Because it immediately struck me as both true and useful.

First, lets play with its truthiness. If we were to make the quotation into some sort of logical proof, that proof would postulate, first, that there is a “way everyone wants to be loved.” And then it says that no one has ever loved another in that way.

It feels reasonable to sign up to the postulate that there is a way that everyone wants to be loved. What kind of love is that? Well, it’s fond and appreciative and fun, of course, but it’s also unconditional. I don’t think anyone wants to believe that whatever fondness and mutual support and whatever else they think comes with love is accompanied by any sort of precondition.

And this is the rub of the whole line: humans are, generally, unable to love in a precondition-less way. We’ll love our romantic partner, but only if they’re able to continue to provide for the family, or to be attractive to us physically, or to be available to us emotionally. Whichever of those or some other is the real friction point in the relationship, there almost certainly is one.

And there are good reasons for this: our survival is helped by mutually beneficial relationships. Unconditionality requires that we stop assuring that we get some benefit from a relationship. To move in relationship without precondition means that we can only score whether or not we’re having a positive impact on the partner to that relationship. Watching and counting what they do (or do not) for us would be a part of the calculus of rationally justifiable conditionality.

Almost all relationships between humans contain at least one regular point of friction. Even if it is as small as sometimes quibbling about what seasoning is best for the Sunday sauce, there is always some part of a relationship that doesn’t work seamlessly. Somewhere where there’s anger, or fear, or just plain old apathy to be found.

And that’s why “no one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.” Now, why did I say it’s instructive? Because it points our way to a better love. We can love people intensely, but we probably aren’t giving them as perfect a love as they’d like. But so frequently, because we’re lazy or blind, we deny that. We don’t accept that we may own some part of the strain that we’re both subconsciously aware has started to show in our relationship.

If we’re able to take it as a starting point that “no one has ever loved anyone” so well that there was no friction, no conditionality, no difficulty, we can use it as a place to begin to work to make our loves and relationships stronger. It can be hard to accept, especially if you’re blinded by either your romanticism or your rational self-defense. But you can love better, in a way more like the target of your love would like. And if you work on it with seriousness, you will.

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Woman manuevering though a huge tower of shoes
Communication

“We All Make Choices”

I’ve caught myself saying something more and more. Though most of the  things we say are pretty dumb and banal — this is very much included — the increased frequency is notable and thus must have some meaning. So what, then, leads me to say “We all make choices…” so much?

For one, the phrase has a nice self-evident quality. It can’t be disputed with much seriousness. In this way it’s inert and vacuous.

But I typically find that I’m using the phrase specifically in cases where someone else has made a choice I disagree with. An ostentatious hairstyle that I don’t think works for them. Or going into a business that I’d personally never want to be in. Driving in a manner that I find thoughtless and unsafe. I rarely find I’m using the phrase when I feel someone has chosen something positive.

Tying back to its vacuousness, when I pass my judgement by saying “we all make choices” rather than “that’s a stupid/dangerous thing that person is doing,” I don’t own the judgement. The audience for my observation isn’t necessarily aware of what my thought on the choice this third party has made is. Perhaps they can take it as the empty, valueless phrase it is.

In this way, there’s something kind of nice about only letting judgments about other people pass with a relatively neutral phrase. “We all make choices” is a low-quality Rorschach test I pass onto the interlocutors of my inner dialog, rather than something that’s either forcing or encouraging them to join me in my strange little hovel of beliefs I’ve accumulated with varying degrees of care over the course of my life.

But I can’t get past the fact that I’m basically using the phrase as simply a less negative way to say “I don’t like that.” It feels cheap and easy rather than something I’m doing with conviction. It’s a place and time that I can and do say something somewhat mindless rather than something that’s specific and thoughtful.

We don’t all always have time to be specific and thoughtful. We make choices about when our energy will be well spent on a careful explication and when filler can suffice. If someone takes me up on “We all make choices…” then we can have a real conversation. Until then, it’s a choice I’ll probably continue to make, perhaps with a bit more thoughtfulness.

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Cat licking another
Communication

The Two Currencies of Relationships

Every good relationship contains two things: intimacy and mutual service. I don’t just mean romantic relationships; whenever you find a relationship valuable, it is because you’re getting at least one of those two needs met by that relationship. When you find a relationship hard to sustain, or damaging, it’s because it fails to provide (or provides negative and damaging forms of) these two qualities.

There are lots of kinds of service. To do something on someone else’s behalf is a service. To show someone how to do something is a service. To help someone to accomplish something they were trying to do but couldn’t complete on their own is a service. Some services are offered in exchange for material benefit (money or other things valued by the servicer) — and so form a direct relationship of mutual service — and some are freely offered with no expectation.

And so it is with intimacy. Simply being in the vicinity as I do a thing is a kind of intimacy I might want to receive from another person. Their being my compatriot in doing a task is a richer version. A friend with whom I feel safe to disclose emotions, hopes, and more is richer still. And finally, there’s the thing most people think of with the word “intimacy,” intimate-partner relationships where you’re more honest, open, and supported than you are anywhere else.

All models are wrong. Some are useful though, and I think this one passes the test. When you’re looking to “debug” a relationship with someone that’s not taking, it’s almost certainly for an imbalance in (or lack of) these two things.

I service the pets in my life when I give them food, water, and shelter. I may receive (given the reality of modern life, nearly useless) mutual service. More likely, I continue to keep them well for the sense of comfort and camaraderie their companionship provides. This is the reason that owner-aggressive pets are rarely tolerated for long.

When a relationship doesn’t ever seem to click and work with someone, it’s probably because one party in that relationship feels they’ve not received either intimacy or service that makes it worth continuing. This is why you’re frequently advised to offer value — usually service, but sometimes the solace of commiseration — to strangers before you ask for something you need from them.

It’s not a revolutionary idea, this intimacy and service thing. But I found it clarifying, useful, and thus worth a note.

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Communication

The Case for “Hashtag Activism”

I’ve never seen myself as an activist.  I was born on third and spent a lot of my life thinking I’d hit a triple. As I’ve started to learn about privilege — all the benefits I receive in the society I live because I’m a white, able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male who learned English as his first language and who has never had any serious bouts of mental illness or hard financial times — I’ve started to think more seriously about why I’ve never been an activist.

The thing about privilege is that by possessing it, you’re blinded to its impact. White people don’t easily see the advantages afforded to them as white people, black and brown people do. Men don’t immediately see the advantages afforded them by their gender, women (and all gender non-conformers) do. Able-bodied people don’t see the advantages afforded to them by their luck, people with handicaps do. I could go on.

The most effective and important place I’ve learned about privilege in all its depth is from people I’ve never met personally, on Twitter. In the context of a casual place I started visiting to see dumb jokes and discussions of techology, I would see glimpses of perspectives different than my own. Sometimes I’d pursue them, sometimes they just appeared for me to notice or ignore.

Twitter in specific — and social media in general — is such an effective space for genuine transformation of opinion and understanding because it is so casual and ambient. Its rare — at least as a quiet and privileged person — that someone is confronting me directly. Instead I see them caring about a topic on which I’m not informed. It’s a safe place for me to ignore them, if I’d rather, or pursue what they’re talking about if I choose.

The activism of marches and sit-ins and strikes is important. Essential even. But it’s not the only way to transform people or situations.

When the only media was mass media, the only way to galvanize attention was to make a scene so big that no one could deny it or ignore it. The only time the civil rights activists of the fifties, sixties, and seventies were able to talk to those whose passive acquiescence to the status quo sustained it was when they made the evening news.

Today, smaller and less-reported demonstrations, events, and opinions can go quite far, among a network of sympathetic ears. And at the edges of a network of sympathy — to the plight of black men in America, to the casual violence so frequently suffered by (trans)women, etc — are interested but ignorant eyes and ears.

The change engendered by “hashtag activism” is much slower than the sort that can be spurred by large demonstrations. It is a slow opening of those people at the edges of a an existing network of concern. But if or when they’re converted, then the network has grown by a small but important amount.

This a slow process, and one largely invisible from the outside. But its significance, power, and importance is easy to miss, deride, and understate. This sort of “activism” won’t change the world in a year, or even a few, but it certainly has value.

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Communication

What It Means to Show Up

It means different things to different people to “show up.” One doesn’t need to look hard to find the disparities. The mother “playing with her kids” while she’s frantically typing out emails on her phone. The father who’s at the soccer game but can’t remove the phone from his ear. The friend who makes it to your dinner party but takes no interest in your other guests. It goes on forever.

So what does it mean to show up? Does it require talking to everyone at every social gathering? That you never ever check your cell phone while your kids entertain themselves with Legos?

Surely, there’s a case to be made that that is what it means. It means being there as well as anyone could imagine. And for some people to not be a bubbly social butterfly who is 100% on just doesn’t cut it.

But even at my best I’m not able to be a bubbly social butterfly half as well as some are without any visible show of effort. Maybe for you, giving anything your undivided attention just doesn’t feel possible. So I think there’s something to be said for realism.

Whether or not you’ve “shown up” adequately is always a judgment call. You’ve got to make it for yourself, and others will also make it about you. The times when you think you’re being there for your daughter and she feels different are where the rubber of this whole thing meets the metaphorical road.

For me, showing up means making the best effort I know how, and hopefully to the satisfaction of the person or people I feel I’m showing up for. If I don’t feel I’m really making a strong effort but they feel I have, that’s nice but not sufficient. And if my best is not good enough to people in my life, I pray for their patience. And I’m open to making changes based on their advice.

What it comes to is that what it means to show up isn’t one thing. And this leads to a lot of heartache. But the solution to that heartache isn’t to define it down into some Platonic ideal. It’s to be honest, forthright, and ready to listen if someone asks to reconcile a disparity. And it means being willing to start that conversation, too.

What we need are frank discussions about what showing up means to everyone involved. To be honest and thorough and empathetic as we work through the difference of opinion. And showing up for that conversation is the most important thing in the world.

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Communication

Why You Must Show Up

One of the most banal but undeniable statements is that you can’t contribute if you aren’t there. That “80% of success is showing up.” It’s one of these stupid truths we think we understand until the days we just want to crawl back into bed and not get out.

But you simply must show up. I’ve spent long periods of my life opting out. When given a choice, I’d choose staying away. “Hey you should really come to this party, I’d love to see you.” “Thanks, but I’m washing my hair.”

There are people who will keep trying with you for a long time. They’ll encourage you to try to show up for your relationship with them. David Cain, over at Raptitude recently wrote about this issue, saying:

Whatever our reasons, I suspect most of us don’t pull our weight socially, and we depend, possibly without realizing, on that wonderful minority of people who are tirelessly connecting us freeloaders and cowards.

I think some of his language is drastic, but I can’t disagree with the core idea of social freeloading. I spent most of my life as a freeloader, and I can’t say I recommend it as a long-term life strategy. When you rely on other people to coax and coerce you into showing up for a relationship, you’re quite likely to wake up at some point to realize that they’ve given up on you and the relationship entirely.

Even the most saintly and generous people in the world get tired of showing up and doing their best when they’re not met with the same. It’s a real testimony to their generosity that they keep trying at all, at least for the most selfish and frustrating among us.

But you’ve got to show up for people. You’ve got to go to your son’s piano recital. Show up for your daughter’s soccer game. Be there for your wife at that doctor’s appointment she’s been nervous about. Help that friend move when you’ve got an idle weekend. Support a colleague’s adventurous idea publicly when she seems to be out on a hard-but-worthwhile limb.

This is how you help people: you show up, even when you don’t quite feel like it. Often you’ll find that in doing so you get over that not-quite-feeling-like-it if you’re sincere in your commitment to being there. And it feels good, being there. Showing up for people. Pulling your weight.

The world works best when people support each other. It’s really nice to have people show up for you. And so it follows that you’d probably do well to show up for others. To be there for them when it’s hard, and when it’s easy. To help them along, and to let them help you along. To do that, you’ve got to show up. No way around it.

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Communication

The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.

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Communication

“I’m Not Afraid of the Dark”

Dark has an interesting place in human experience. Many children’s first and most enduring fear is of darkness. I, to this day, get a little spooked in completely or unexpectedly dark places.

Mythically and metaphorically, though, darkness is a lot more than just the absence of light. Darkness is a synonym for the unknown. For the things that we’d rather hide away in places where no one can see them. For the things we’re ashamed of and scared of and feel bad for and wish were different.

In Josh Ritter’s song “Long Shadows”, you’ll find the lyrics:

Every time that they start
I’ll be right here with you
I’m not afraid of the dark

One of the big blockers in communication and understanding is that we are scared to talk honestly and openly. We’re scared that other people in our life will be scared off by our darkness — be it a past action we regret, a thought we have a lot but never act upon, whatever — that we close down and cut off the conversation and journey of mutual understanding.

Unconditional love is not easy, but when really achieved I think it contains one really important trait that most lesser kinds of love do not: a cofindence in the loved person that the lover will “be right here with you, … not afraid of the dark.”

Communicating that kind of love is not something you can do in sentence, or a day, or even probably a year. It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of time. People are aware of the gaps between what people say and what they really mean. And so we have to, to communicate something as big and monumental as a fearless steadfastness in our love, demonstrate it regularly and repeatedly. Then, and only then, is the receiver likely to slowly warm to its truth. That “I’ll be right here with you, I’m not afraid of the dark.”

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Communication

Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”

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Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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