Practical Philosophy

The Hourglass Neck of Now

Time expands out away from us in either direction. In the present moment, right now, there aren’t all that many possibilities you need to consider and worry about; there isn’t really much to do. Now is simple because it’s so close. As we get further away — in either the past or future direction — we get the option to entertain all kinds of possibilities like “What if…?” and “It would be nice if…”.

Time, in this way, works a bit like an hourglass. And the present is the small narrow neck of the hourglass through which everything that was the future travels on its way to becoming the past. But when you really sit and stay and live in that hourglass neck, you realize you don’t have much to worry about or stress. After all, grains of sand will keep coming down the hourglass until they don’t. You just need to rest in that present moment and the sand will go about its business. Where each grain ends up? No need to worry. Where exactly this one came from? Not something you have to know.

The power of “now” is that you really can, if you open fully and accept it, rest comfortably in it forever. We find this very hard to do because we get distracted. We find it hard to stay because all these curious grains of sand are floating by. If we want, we can follow and chain out into an imagined future forever. If we want, we can follow those grains back into their past forever, or in any of a million directions of fantasy.

A common objection we raise to the idea of hanging out in the “now” is that we can’t  strategize there. That it blocks us from learning from the past or projecting and planning about the future. And there is wisdom in the complaint. But it is worth recognizing how little actual time we spend doing those things — learning from the past and planning for the future — and how much time we instead spend idly speculating and entertaining ourselves (or worse yet, getting ourselves worked up and worried) instead of wisely using the past and future for places we journey to for guidance from time to time.

The neck of the hourglass is narrow. But it’s got a beautiful and reassuring simplicity in its narrowness. It can be a great source of confidence and comfort. We can rest there and be safe and secure, knowing that trouble is busy elsewhere. It’s not easy, but when you really are able to stay, many other things become quite clear.


The Need To Be Seen

I’ve written before about how narcissistic it is to communicate. I don’t really believe that anymore (to the extent I ever did), but I think it’s interesting. What’s interesting about it is that there’s a tiny sliver of truth behind it. That sliver is this: all humans have an intense need to be seen and understood by each other.

This is one of those truths that psychologists seem to know and understand deeply but which did not come naturally to me. For me, the conflicting desire to be allowed to pass by unremarked upon was always stronger. I’m sure some psychologists would love to psychoanalyze that, but for now let’s let it lie.

I’m told from respected sources that the child’s need to be seen by their parents is one of the most fundamental. This is the theory behind the classic dysfunction of the child ignored by a parent — think the classic distant father and eager son — who spends their whole life desperately trying to impress that parent.

Where the most interesting learning has occurred for me is in the fact that simply being seen can cure most of our psychological neuroses. When someone is just feeling sad or overwhelmed or angry, a person coming along and acknowledging and accepting that they are feeling those feelings is one of the quickest ways that those feelings can dissipate. There is no need to for the other person to change the situation (in fact in most cases that’s not wanted), they just need to really understand it. It can feel like such a relief to finally have someone understand and acknowledge that you feel the way you feel.

It turns out, as I’ve been slowly learning, you can do this for yourself. You can see yourself feeling your feelings, you can acknowledge that you are feeling your feelings, and your feelings can then naturally dissipate as they do when recognized by someone else. This is magical mental jujitsu that I would never have believed if I hadn’t caught glimpses of it in myself. But back on track.

Whether or not you have any desire to be able to soothe yourself by seeing, simply knowing the need and value to others of being seen and understood is a great way to become better as a communicator. You’re more empathic, patient, and easy to be around if you know how to see without jumping to change. To the action-oriented person it feels like you’ll go crazy when you just see the situation and don’t try to change it, but for most people, with most modern problems, most of the time, it is the single best thing you can offer.

Practical Philosophy

Simply Here. Simply Now.

We make life so complicated. We’re always ready to tell — to ourself or to others — our horror story. You know the one: where you explain why things aren’t as you really want them to be. Maybe you’re not rich yet, but need to be to be happy. Maybe you’ve been so slighted by the world that you’re owed a great debt. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But none of those ideas can really change the simplicity of what it happening right now. Continue reading


Presence not Presents

My war on gift-giving earns just about as much criticism as it does confusion, so I think it makes sense to lay the argument out here. To start: there is a strong economic case against gift giving. It’s based on things like gift-givers routinely paying more for their present than the receiver values it at, that a large percentage of gift cards–the latest way out of the gift giving puzzle–go unredeemed and are inherently inefficient even when they are, that we (in the rich world) frequently want for nothing and so are given things we definitionally do not want, and the fact that people get little enjoyment or economic benefit out of either giving or recieving gifts and yet spend a great deal of time and money doing it. All those arguments are valid, rational, and widely greeted with a “yeah, well, but economics sucks.” So I’ll set that whole area aside, if you’re interested I’d recommend the reasonably short, accessible, and available Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays.

To start, I think it’s worth considering the practical symbolism of gift-giving. Like the pre-Medieval tribute, gift-giving is essentially an economic way by which we demonstrate if not good will, then at least a promise not to harm. That description is obviously somewhat inflammatory, but I find it undeniable that there’s a thread of commonality between this archaic demonstration of commitment and this rarely-questioned tradition we still practice today.

Practically speaking, the positive case for gift giving is usually that we’re showing our care for each other by buying the other things they certainly want but wouldn’t indulge so much as to purchase. Setting aside the reality that this is rarely how gift-exchanges shake out, even this idealization seems odd. It posits that the strongest needs that we can satisfy for each other are urges for physical objects that others must help us to realize. Again, accepting that to be true is, to my mind, rather depressing.

We humans have many needs. We need things like shelter, food, water, sanitation, and comfort. We also have deep and seldom-explored psychological needs for belonging, purpose, love, success, acceptance, etc. Gifts almost never satisfy the first set of needs–we’re buying chocolates for each other not because we think the other hungry, but because we figure at least they can eat it–and rarely offer more than a momentary relief from our psychological longings.

When we spend time on other people with the goal of securing a secret physical object to later hand them, we’re excluding them from our time as though the physical object we find will somehow make that time directed toward them (yet without them) worthwhile. Maybe we think that we’re not excluding them from our time, but rather borrowing time from elsewhere to devote to gift giving. Again, even if that were true, it would be a strange and irrationally indirect way to show we care.

There are few greater gifts we can give to one another than our genuine and complete presence with them. This is not an easy gift to give–we have minds built for avoiding being hunted down by predators, not for focused caring attention for another person–but it is the gift that best fulfills our so-frequently-missed psychological needs. Giving someone your genuine presence almost inherently gives them a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance. Those things give them easier access to a sense of purpose and success. Even if you’re not good at demonstrating presence to others, there’s no way for you to get better than spending your time doing it intentionally with a willingness to improve.

It’s time, not money (even proxied through physical goods), that we need to give each other. No gift means as much as a few hours spent genuinely encountering each other with acceptance and care. We can’t give presence without taking the time out of our lives to give to others; the same can not be said for physical presents. Money is unevenly distributed and so a problematic medium through which to demonstrate our caring. But there is nothing more even than time. The fifteen minutes we promise to regularly spend really present with each other represents an equal loss and possibility of gain for both of us, and that seems like the best possible kind of gift-exchange to me.