Reality as construct

My first wife was batshit crazy. I did not pick up on this until it was far too late. I probably should have though, the clues were there. Both her mother and her were residents of reality that was occasionally not overlapping at all with the reality the rest of us were living in. When they weren’t rationalizing away their behavior, they were just lying outright. They would take a piece of truth and spin it into an outrageous warping of reality that one could almost believe – as long as you stopped thinking critically. They never let physics or workings of the universe get in the way of their version of reality.

It was all quite horrible after the honeymoon. She would do things that made no sense and come up with justifications that would make sense, if they were based on truth. She’d start with truth, but if the first rationalization didn’t succeed, she would lie and try again. Until you believed or gave up arguing. Or just gave up. Which I did too often.

Years later as Melinda and I were dealing with my schizophrenic son, James, that came out of that first marriage (that diagnosis did not come until after he was an adult), I often reflected on my first marriage, her and her family, and what I had noticed elsewhere about rationalization. I came to this conclusion. The habit of over-rationalization causes mental illness. Of course, this was prior to understanding that mental illness is a physical illness, and when I later learned that, I modified my conclusion to: Over-rationalization deepens mental illness. (My opinion only, I don’t know what practitioners think of this.)

I saw over-rationalization a lot while we were married (and afterwards, from a more comfortable distance). Much of it was to make herself the victim or the center of attention, or both. It got to the point where there were times I could not understand what she was talking about because her world did not correspond to mine. When she had a psychotic break during our time in Alaska, I was finally able to try and get some help. Not that the Army had all that much in support available, but we did get her seen by psychiatrists and tested. I was tested too, both as a control and to determine if I was a/the problem. The results were not good. Her, histrionic with borderline personality disorder; me, normal (whew),but passive.

[It makes me physically ill to revisit these memories. Writing about James, as Zach has asked, will be worse.]

A couple years earlier, while at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I had the opportunity to go to the Marksmanship Training Unit for eight weeks to become a sniper. It was like learning how to shoot all over again. It was fun. It was cool. More important than learn to “shoot well and true” as Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead might say, I learned about self-honesty.

There were two instructors at the MTU. Both retired soldiers with experience in Viet Nam. Joe White had retired as a sergeant-major and basically seemed to view the MTU as part of his personal ministry.

When we went to the firing range, Joe would sit along side us with a big-ass spotting scope and watch each round go downrange observing it  impact on the half-inch thick mild steel targets. With each shot we made, he would say two words, “Call it.” Our responsibility was to then sound off with direction that the front sight of the rifle jumped upon firing.

Ideally, the we should have been calling “12 o’clock” meaning that the sight went straight up and straight back down. That indicated that our bodies were in the proper natural alignment with the target and that our breath control and trigger squeeze were properly timed. If we were to call “12 o’clock” when in fact the bullet’s flight path was to two o’clock, Joe would yell out. “Someone’s lying to themselves. Am I right? You’re Goddamn right I am.” Over and over again.

And again.

And again.

Retired Sergeant-major Joe White was a no-nonsense kind of guy. About half the class failed to qualify in the end. (Note for clarification: I qualified.] Everyone of those soldiers made excuses and rationalized why they couldn’t sit cross-legged or get quite right in the prone position. It was clear to me that this kind of ruthless self-honesty was at least a partial key to success. It wouldn’t overcome laziness or stupidity, but it would help ensure you recognize when those terms apply to you. It took time to really begin to integrate these principles in my life, but it was an experience I don’t expect to forget.

So, I carry these experiences with me and they define a lot of what I do, for good and ill. For the latter, the efforts toward brutal self-honesty have lead to an overabundance of self-criticism and worse. Yes, I have tendency to take things too far.

For the good, these experiences have defined my understanding and appreciation of the limits of data and data systems. You see, it would be nice to believe that data and their accompanying systems are always objective and free from bias, but they are not. Instead, they are almost always biased toward the majority or toward a specific agenda.

For example, when I got to Virginia, I found that our collection standards prohibited institutions providing data to us from reporting gender as unknown/unreported and race/ethnicity unknown/unreported. Institutions were required to default such values to match the majority of students at the institution. This creates bias in the data. Any reporting done from these data creates an illusion of objective fact that is simply that: illusion. Fortunately, the bias created from these numbers is likely small as eliminating those reporting rules and allowing for unknowns resulted in trivial changes.

The rationale for these rules was ultimately this. IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Ed, did not allow for reporting unknown/unreported in either element. The agency at that time was creating and submitting the annual IPEDS survey data on behalf of the institutions. Thus it made sense to collect the data in a way that maximizes alignment with federal reporting. Sort of. Reporting is just that, reporting, and reporting is a series of decisions about collation, grouping, and aggregation. There is no reason to collect data inaccurately to make it easy to report. Inaccurate collection of data damages its usability for a wide variety of purposes, especially for such things as studying student success.

So, how do these tie together?

It’s about my bias towards clarity of fact and knowing. With my ex-wife, it got to the point that the only things I knew were true were those things I observed myself or that had a verifiable paper trail. In sniper school I learned to know myself better through self-honesty and awareness of when I was not being honest with myself. The story about our data system is about how inaccuracy and, to my mind rationalization (of collection standards), leads to biased systems…and biased thinking. I think while these have been important lessons and structural points in my development, as usual I’ve taken them a bit too far, as I said earlier, I have tendency to do that.

I’ve become far too critical of just about everything, anyone. I find it difficult to trust. This includes trusting basic statements. It becomes too easy, too natural, to start parsing everything someone says. This is especially true in a digital context, like email or messaging. While I am generally comfortable with unknowns, I get very discomforted when things seem to be left out. Or worse, when I can’t reconcile other data directly related to communication, such as digital footprints and timestamps. And then there is the whole self-criticism thing. Not only do I beat myself up for making mistakes, or for lying to myself “Goddammit Tod, stop lying to yourself,” I hear myself say, it’s often followed by the self-critical shouting, “Well, you should have known! You should have seen it coming! Idiot.”

Idiot indeed for treating myself this way. Time to stop. I think now though I have a better understanding of why I do it, which should make it easier to stop. I hope. This self-criticism has (had) just gotten to be far too much and unnecessary. So also has this constant parsing of things said and unsaid. Political speech is one thing that needs to be parsed, but not every other conversation. It is painful and unhelpful and leads to more criticism generally. It needs to stop.

I also hope this makes sense to anyone who has lasted this far, if not, let me know in the comments.



Letting go of Invulnerability

I’m still struggling with vulnerability not equating to weakness. Intellectually, I can say, “Okay, fine. I get this.” But accepting it, internalizing it, is a whole other matter. I’m trying to understand why I have equated the two words and not thought about them critically. I think I am going to start by blaming Star Trek (The Original Series, ST:TOS).

From ST:TOS “The Enemy Within” airing October 6, 1966.  (Okay, so I would have been a few months short of five, so I might not have seen or understood the original broadcast. But, I have seen it multiple times since, of course.)

KIRK: Yes, I’ll make an announcement to the entire crew, tell them what happened. It’s a good crew. They deserve to know.
SPOCK: Captain, no disrespect intended, but you must surely realise you can’t announce the full truth to the crew. You’re the Captain of this ship. You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.
KIRK: Yes, I do know that, Mister Spock. What I don’t know is why I forgot that just now. Mister Spock, if you see me slipping again, your orders, your orders are to tell me.
SPOCK: Understood, Captain.

So, all of us growing up holding Captain James T. Kirk as our masculine model got kind of screwed. Of course, this is not news. Kirk was hardly the best role model. He played fast and loose with the rules, he was cute too often where seriousness was expected, and was always putting himself and the ship at risk by being part of the landing party. WTF? When do ship captains do the dirty work? Why are all the senior officers leaving the damn ship all the time? One of the Jesuits I worked with Saint Louis University would rant about these issues whenever you gave him opening. He had a point. He also had the same gripes about Star Trek: The Next Generation but was generally most irate about ST:TOS. (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 he was happy with.) While there is an argument that a leader should be out in front, setting the example, if you study American military leadership, only the lowest level leaders, Infantry team leaders and occasionally squad leaders are in the lead. Personally, I like the idea of the leader being hands-on and first to danger, but that doesn’t make it the most rational choice.

Anyhow. Some might notice some similarities in behaviour between me and Kirk. All I can say is that it wasn’t intentional. Consider also this from Casablanca:

Rick: I don’t want to shoot you…but I will if you take one more step.
Renault: Under the circumstances, I will sit down.
Rick:  Keep your hands on the table.
Renault:I wonder if you realize what this means.
Rick: I do. We’ve got time to discuss that later.
Renault:Call off your watchdogs, you said.
Rick: Just the same, call the airport and let me hear you tell them.
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

In both places, “vulnerable” really does seem to mean weakness. One might argue that Captain Renault is saying his heart is not “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm” (see this definition, which lists “weak” as a synonym) but at pointblank range with no body armor, that is demonstrably false. Of course, he’s really saying he is not emotionally vulnerable and therefore not physically vulnerable if his heart is the target. He is quite capable heartlessness as is demonstrated earlier in the movie as he preys on young women in search of exit visas to leave Casablanca. It’s a nice, casual throw-away line to reinforce an image of invulnerability.

But Shakespeare is more clear in  “Macbeth”:

“Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.”

I get this. To be vulnerable is to be unprotected. And therein lies the rub, to be unprotected just seems, well, weak. Isn’t that the mythos of the American West and modern open-carry laws? “God didn’t make men equal, Colonel Colt did.” To be armed is to be strong, to be invulnerable, not weak, to replace weakness with a weapon.

Springsteen creates the image of youthful invulnerability in “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel it’s heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said “Don’t that man look pretty”
The cripple on the corner cried out “Nickels for your pity”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city

The hell of it is that at I times I still feel this way. I’m too old and ungainly, but I feel it. There are times I am just walking and I feel it. I feel strong, upright and unbent by life, feeling the movement of my body and relishing in its ease and comfort. Especially now as I am lighter and growing more fit again. It’s a powerful feeling. I feel good and these lyrics are too often there I as I walk. I feel good. Strong. Invulnerable.

The exact opposite of what I am trying to accomplish. Sigh.

I keep trying to find a mindset that encompasses vulnerability that also allows me to feel good. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this is a bit of a challenge for me. I don’t particularly like even the idea of feeling vulnerable, let alone being vulnerable.

I found this blog post that is based on the TED talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability that I have referenced before.  The author has extracted five points from Brown’s talk that make sense: be real; act with no guarantees; ask for help;  get rejected; and embrace negative emotions. I’m not very good with any of these. Depending on the context, being real is not always a problem, but in many circumstances, I’m too often playing a role and withholding some part of myself. For work, this is probably generally appropriate. At home and in the community, probably not. Asking for help is not particularly easy, especially since I enjoy problem-solving, but mostly I don’t like admitting I can’t do something, that I don’t know something and can’t find it, or that, worst of all, I actually need help (shudder).

The good thing is that I have found that when I actually ask for help, and then accept it, things actually get better. A big thank you to Laura Gogia who pushed me on this regarding an upcoming chapter being published this spring where she became my incredibly talented co-author. While I have noted improvement and it has gotten easier to ask for help, it is a challenge to change years of behavior. It is also uncomfortable to move away from the comfort of the illusion of invulnerability.

Embracing negative emotions is also a bloody challenge. Actually, embracing emotions at all is my challenge. Ignoring them, granting them  only passing acknowledgement, or processing them as anger, has been too much of my life. It’s hard, but I am trying to open myself to the moment and the emotions that are part of each moment.  Each day I  am trying a little more to let go of invulnerability.