3 Tips for Reducing Feelings of Worry and Fear

It’s surprising how many hours we spend in a day worrying about concerns trivial in nature. These concerns range from getting to work on time when the roads are under construction, to failing to choose between soup and salad, to dying cold and alone, with no one around to hold your hand as you depart from this earth. If you’re anyone like me, your worries are of existential proportions: what if I’m still living with my parents when I’m forty years old? What if I never find true love? What if I’m diagnosed with a terminal disease tomorrow, and how will I cope with it? While such worries may or may not come true, ruminating on them certainly doesn’t help. Therefore, I have devised three tips in order of their importance that I believe are instrumental in reducing feelings of worry and fear, especially for those of us who are constantly apprehensive about an uncertain future.

Tip #1: Refrain from thinking in the subjunctive too much.

The subjunctive is a mood tense we use in language to describe doubts, demands, wishes, uncertainties, and desires. Two examples of subjunctive thoughts are “I don’t think I will ever be happy” and “I doubt that I will do well on this exam“. The first tip I would offer for reducing worry is to omit these types of thoughts from your mind by a considerable degree, as they are neither an accurate depiction nor reflection of reality and, like the fears and worries they precipitate, can be quite insidious if left unchecked. If you happen to notice a subjunctive thought passing through your mind, try to convert it into something more objective and less emotional. For example, you might be tempted to convert the thought, “I don’t think I will ever be happy” into “Everyone is equally capable of achieving happiness, and I am by no means an exception to this rule.”

Tip #2: Convince yourself that you have nothing to lose.

A couple of months ago, I conducted a little thought experiment by applying to Disc Replay and seeing if I would get called in for an interview. I had no intention of leaving my current job to work at a place where I would get paid $4 fewer, but I wanted to see if my 5+ years of experience in working retail and one-year-long experience of running a personal blog would increase my chances of landing a job interview, regardless of the institution I applied to. Not surprisingly, Disc Replay called and asked if I could come in to answer a few questions. There were nine candidates up for a position—only one would get the job.

Once there, I was instructed to fill out a form while waiting my turn to be interviewed. On the form was a series of questions testing my proficiency in alphabetization and solving basic math problems. One question in particular asked me to calculate the difference left over from a transaction with a customer and add to it a 20 percent sales tax. Under normal circumstances, this question would have thrown me completely off guard, but in that moment I couldn’t care less about getting the answer right because I wasn’t going to accept the job anyway. I therefore guessed incorrectly on the question, turned in the form, and stepped up to the interview with total confidence. By virtue of that, it went smoothly.

The point I’m trying to make here is that you can function a lot more effectively in life when the stakes in the game aren’t just lowered, but nonexistent. If I had any semblance of emotional investment in landing the job, I would have worried about answering that math question incorrectly so much that I compromised the interview process, and projected auroras of inadequacy and ineptitude to the manager and guaranteed that he wouldn’t hire me. Think of this tip along the lines of approaching an attractive girl at a bar with hopes of getting rejected by her to win a bet that you made with your best friend: if she says no, you just won $100. If she says yes, you walk away with a phone number. It’s a win-win.

It turns out that faking it until you make it works.

Tip #3: Live by the mantra, “You are not your thoughts. Only your actions.”

Part of why people see suicide as a viable option is because they’ve listened to that little voice inside their heads that constantly tells them they’re no good, and heeded its criticisms. Understand that all that voice consists of is transient and relatively insignificant thoughts—some conducive to survival and others not so much—and that the only way those thoughts will ever have any basis in reality is by acting upon them. Of course, you can tell yourself that you’re no good all you want, but so long as you strive to be any good, those thoughts of worthlessness, dejection, and self-hate will remain but a fictional story you tell yourself congruent with negative past experiences and attuned to your biases.

And there you have it—three tips for reducing fear and worry. Do you think any of them will prove useful in cleaning up the anxious mess that you are?

Are You the Master of Your Fate?

“And this is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it. We fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense. It is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely… out of control.”

– The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

My History and Systems of Psychology professor posed an interesting question to my class the other week: you arrive home and surprise your girlfriend with a large and expensive bouquet of flowers, but how does she react? Does she run up to you with tears of joy in her eyes, and hug you with all the love in the world? Rather, does she react with scorn, convinced that you’re fruitlessly trying to repair your damaged relationship through presenting something as meaningless as a bouquet of flowers whose colors she finds ugly?

Context could help with predicting her reaction. If the relationship was healthy, then she would be more likely to give you all the love she has to offer. Alternatively, if the relationship was on the verge of its imminent dissolution, then she would be more likely to kick you out of the bedroom and force you to sleep on the couch for the night! Even if there is no context to clarify her reaction, no matter what, she is going to react one way or another.

The flower bouquet scenario was brought up in regards to a class discussion on explanatory reductionism, a set of philosophical ideas that states all universal phenomena, from the stars in the sky to the deep blue seas, can be explained by breaking them down into readily understandable terms. According to this paradigm, elements are broken down into molecules, which are broken down into atoms, which are further broken down into protons, neutrons, electrons, and a nucleus. Reductionists argue that by reducing complexity down to its simplest form, we can understand virtually everything in the universe, including free will.

At the same time, there is something deeply unsettling about explanatory reductionism. If we were to assume that, for instance, free will could be broken down and summed up as nothing more than an illusion the brain constructs for itself to reconcile a startling lack of control, then what does that say about us as a species? If we could use explanatory reductionism as an avenue toward perfectly predicting how our girlfriends would react upon the presentation of an expensive bouquet of flowers, then one might argue that it would take away a lot of the luster—the charm and the mystery—that make life worth living in the first place.

Consider the difficulty of describing a long walk on the beach with a beautiful woman you are maddeningly attracted to, sipping on an apple martini and sinking your toes into the sand as a gust of refreshing cool air brushes your face and the sun sets in the distance. As uniquely placid such an experience of consciousness may be, it therefore cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs in a science textbook that you would read once and take a test on the following week. But if a reductionist’s approach can be taken to the stars in the sky, the deep blue sea, and the molecules that constitute an element, what is to stop us from taking it to the mechanisms behind human consciousness and for the purposes of this article, free will?

Free will has always been a sensitive religious and spiritual subject because people despise being told that they do not have it, and they will go to great lengths to convince themselves that they are somehow special for having it. “Well, of course I have free will. After all, I chose what I wanted to eat for breakfast this morning, and I chose what I wanted to wear to work.” But rarely do they ever stop to consider where their choices come from, and how they are made.

The issue of free will became apparent to me after watching HBO’s critically acclaimed Westworld (2016). In Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind), one of the hosts, or synthetic humans, discovers that what she interpreted as an awakening of self-awareness was yet another behavior that somebody had preprogrammed into her. Despite having thought she was in control the whole time, it turned out that control was simply a string of computer code. Aptly, the host snatched the tablet out of the programmer’s hands, and broke it, content with perpetuating the lie that her choices belonged to her and nobody else. Maybe the lead writers of Westworld were trying to communicate something about humanity’s own understanding of power, control, and freedom. If we discovered that our choices were under the control of something more powerful than ourselves, we, too, might react in the same way.  As the Architect puts it in The Matrix Reloaded, a movie that’s received heavy scrutiny for preaching determinism every five minutes, “Denial is the most predictable of all human responses.”

Whatever the case may be, I do not argue for free will because if there is no such thing as a “higher” or “lower” species, then there is very little to separate us from a spider, dog, chimpanzee, or rhinovirus. And yet, we never say that spiders, dogs, chimpanzees, or rhinoviruses possess free will—only that there is something special about the human being that endows him or her with the fantastic ability to choose. Why, then, must we always assume that our choices have any more weight to them than those of other species on the planet?

If you look at the animal kingdom, a lion’s life is essentially on rails from birth until death. The lion will hunt, look for food, and procreate, but nothing that the lion ever does will deviate it much from evolution’s prescription of its behavior. And if we happen to intervene on a lion’s hunt for its prey, we’ll take a step back and affirm that “it’s just nature. Let the lion do its thing,” as if to say that humankind should refrain from obstructing an animal’s lifestyle because unlike animals, humans benefit from being able to choose everything.

I’m not saying that humans are by and large incapable of choice because that’s a tough pill to swallow. To a certain degree, denial of the relative impossibility of free will is necessary toward maintaining sanity. What I am saying is that the decisions we make but that we think aren’t automatic are automatic, and the work of Ivan Pavlov would concur.

Ivan Pavlov was the first physiologist to systemically uncover the origins of learning. He discovered dogs that had been conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with the presentation of a bowl of food would produce significantly more saliva than dogs that had not made the association, and thus even when the bells were rung but the food was withheld, the conditioned dogs would salivate anyway. This was considered a landmark study because it demonstrated that learned behavior can occur involuntarily when the subject is conditioned into pairing a stimulus with a physiological response to that stimulus.

I remember learning about classical conditioning in high school and thinking about how cool it was to catch myself in the middle of an automatic behavior. For example, I clean my retainer every morning by placing it into a glass cup, filling the cup to the brim with hot water, and letting a dissolvable antibacterial tablet eradicate all of the plaque while I take a shower. One day, I happened to leave my retainer in the cup without cleaning it, so I never stowed it away into its respective plastic case. Before going to sleep, I then reached for the case and opened it, and curiously, it was empty! “Oh… That’s right,” I reminded myself. “I forgot to clean it today.”

A second example of behavioral automaticity from my experience comes from routinely charging my smart phone, as its battery power does not last long. I spend a large portion of the day sitting at my desk writing articles, completing homework, and editing YouTube videos, and thus I look behind me quite often to see if my phone has received any text messages or Facebook notifications. However, when I unplug my smartphone to listen to Pandora and type a paper, I still check behind me to see if I have received any notifications, even when my phone is sitting on my lap. I’m sure you’ve experienced a similar phenomenon: you experience a mini heart attack when you can’t find your car keys, only to discover that they were in the palm of your hand the whole time. How silly of you!

Above were two rather mundane representations of what a lack of free will might look like, but they get you to contemplate the extent to which behavior is rhythmic, especially since most of our days consist of a pattern in that we wake up, attend to school and work responsibilities, and go to sleep. Everything in between—brushing teeth, eating breakfast, and watching Netflix—is on autopilot. If we make even the slightest alteration to our schedules, like going to the bar instead of watching a television show on Netflix, we exhaust many cognitive resources adjusting to it. After a while, however, it just becomes another box that we check off before the next day kicks in, and we don’t waste time on giving it a second thought.

Next, consider the science behind dreaming versus wakefulness as it applies to the debate of free will. We still don’t know how and why we dream, but we can be confident that dreams occur in REM sleep, or deep sleep. Dreams have also been speculated as protective mechanisms against the overwhelming bombardments of stimuli that we take in every day. In other words, the brain staves off information overload by taking these stimuli, including people’s faces, music lyrics, and smells and tastes of Chinese food, and weaves them into cohesive narratives that the hippocampus goes on to convert into memories. If dreams are therefore an unconscious response to the stimuli that the brain has encoded in the past 8 to 10 hours, our behaviors are likewise generated in large part by the unconscious mind, and everything we do, from going on a blind date to eating a slice of pizza at two in the morning, is nothing more than a story that’s been written out well in advance but that the brain has to “act out” by virtue of the vast amount of information that it sorts through for the sake of its ongoing survival. But if wakefulness cannot function without a certain amount of sleep and dreaming, who is to say that we have any more control over our wakeful states than we do over our dreams?

Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) might be able to answer that question. They wanted to test the lag time between when the brain consciously intends to move and when movement is actually carried out, hypothesizing that if the conscious intention to move is what supposedly generates the movement, an action they referred to as “movement genesis,” then the movement should occur after the conscious intention, and not before it.

In Matsuhashi and Hallett’s study, participants were instructed to randomly perform brisk finger movements every time they heard a tone, and refrain from expending mental energy by counting the number of movements already made and planning when to make the following movements. They made sure to only move their fingers whenever a thought of finger movement had precipitated it. On occasion, a specialized stop signal was played that informed the participants of their intentions to move and thus signified to them to immediately cancel finger movements thereafter.

A graph of tones documents two key test conditions: (1) before participants are made aware by the stop signal of their conscious intentions to move their fingers, and (2) after participants are made aware of their conscious intentions to move their fingers but cannot cancel their movements because the stop signal was played too late. One subject yielded a lag time of about 1 second between his conscious intention to move and movement genesis, that is, he moved his finger 1 second before even thinking about it. As such, Matsuhashi and Hallett concluded that movement genesis occurs on multiple levels of the unconscious mind and is not as simple as thinking about when to move first, and carrying out the movement itself second. The evidence indicates that a movement is carried out well after any thoughts of movement have been created.

Obviously, there is more to be said about the topic of free will—about its philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience—but with what little evidence we have at our disposal thus far, there is a lot going on beneath the surface of every decision we’ve made and are going to make.

Maybe our minds just have minds of their own.

 

Reference

Matsuhashi, M., & Hallett, M. (2008). The timing of the conscious intention to move. European Journal of Neuroscience, 28(11), 2344-2351.

Are You Only 20 Percent Effective?

Self-discrepancy theory states that our selves, or the core understandings of our identities, are split according to three components: the ideal, ought, and actual self. The ideal-self is the person we aspire to be, the ought-self is the person we want others to be and the person others want us to be, and the actual-self is the person we actually are. The theory was developed by Edward Tory Higgins in 1987, and since then much research has been aimed at identifying the three selves’ existence relative to one another and which of them is the most predominate. Not surprisingly, the actual-self dominates the other two.

Self-discrepancy represents a conflict that wages inside our own heads—and between our partners—every day. My spouse wants me to stop smoking, but cigarettes are the only things that remedy my stress. I know I should lose weight, but food tastes too damn good. My father wants me to become a doctor, but I’d rather be a pilot. I want to do well on that exam, but I’m too lazy to study for it. The list goes on. Do any of these conflicts sound familiar to you?

I am a classic example of a self-discrepant person. Need proof? I know that I should completely cut alcohol out of my life because it’s hazardous to my organs, but I still enjoy the occasional drink after a long day at work, or with a good friend. I know that I should revamp my diet because I consume too much grease and am probably clogging my arteries, but I can’t stop eating hamburgers, pizza, and pasta. I know that I should stop playing video games so often and start devoting more time to pursuing a career in psychology and expanding my reservoir of knowledge for the sake of it, but I love grinding my character in Destiny. And finally, I know that I should advertise my YouTube videos to stimulate viewership and conduct research on the stock market to make informed decisions on my investments, but I don’t care enough to do either of those things, so why even bother?

And yet, by sitting around and waiting to take initiative, I am actually doing more harm than good to myself. By continuing to drink alcohol, I am further eroding my organs. By continuing to consume greasy foods, I am routinely putting myself at risk for heart disease. By continuing to play too many video games and not pursuing a career and expanding my base of knowledge, I am setting myself up to live with my parents until I’m 40 and making myself stupider. And by not advertising my YouTube videos and investing in the stock market, I am wasting my time producing the videos in the first place and losing money.

If I was a truly self-sufficient person, I would write 5 of these articles a week instead of just 1 every other week. I would market my YouTube channel 8 hours a day to maximize audience retention and engagement, and I would release at least two, high-quality, 30-minute long video essays a month. I would quit my weekend job at the local supermarket and find a better one. I would practice meditation to more effectively manage my emotions. I would go to the bar to talk to women and get out of my shell. I would address every single criticism that I’ve ever had, or currently have, of myself—and then some.

The fact remains that I’m not 100% self-sufficient. Most of the time, I’m 10-15% self-sufficient, and 20% self-sufficient on a good day. That’s not very… sufficient of myself.

Can you imagine where humanity would be today if it utilized 100% of its potential? We probably would have cured every known disease, colonized the galaxy, and transcended space and time itself. But we know that human beings are not THAT perfect. How could they be? They’re notoriously flawed creatures. We’ve accomplished many great things, but only to a certain degree. We still quibble amongst, and go to war with, each other, we still haven’t cured some of the most deadly diseases, and we still haven’t traversed and uncovered the secrets of the far reaches of the galaxy. At least we invented the fidget spinner and sliced bread.

Perhaps our aggressive laziness could result from our propensity to favor pleasure over self-improvement. The human brain is largely rewarded through instant gratification, and not through evaluation of long-term consequences. Given the proper time and training, it can learn to delay gratification in the interest of its longer-term goals, but for the most part, it demands to be rewarded instantaneously and without obstructions. It explains why there are alcoholics, pornography addicts, and obese people—if they really wanted to improve themselves, they would’ve done so a while ago.

Self-discrepancy seems to be a conflict that arises from incessant instant gratification. In essence, we weigh the amount of pleasure we can derive from any given activity (i.e.: playing a video game, partying, or reading a text book) relative to whether or not such activity is befit to our well-being, and almost always, our hedonistic instincts kick into overdrive.

So what can YOU do to reach your potential? Close the gaps between your ideal, ought, and actual selves as much as you can. I’m not saying that I’ve done it already because it’s a conflict I struggle with every day, but I have become more aware of it.

It’s true that while you’ll never reach your full potential, you can come as close to your full potential as absolutely possible. And that’s about the best you can do for your short (and sometimes miserable) time on this God-forsaken floating rock.

When to Know You Have Redeemed Yourself

I work at the local grocery store, and one time, I was facing the shelves in Aisle 15. While I was minding my own business and organizing items, a customer approached me and kindly asked where the prunes were. Prunes, I thought, were located in the produce section—they’re a fruit after all. It turned out that at my store, prunes are only sold in the form of a can, and that they were actually located in Aisle 9, the baking aisle. Of course, I erroneously instructed the customer to search for them in the produce department, but to my dismay, the hostess was working next to me and therefore overheard my misleading feedback.

In case you’re wondering, the hostess’s job is direct customers to the items that they cannot find, so you can probably imagine how frustrated she was with this pathetic cashier’s uninformed, uneducated guidance on the whereabouts of prunes. She corrected my mistake by ushering the customer to Aisle 9, and then returned to Aisle 15 to scold me.

“These people pay our salaries,” the hostess angrily exclaimed. “If you constantly direct them to the wrong locations, they’ll get fed up and WE’LL lose business.”

Little did she realize that at the end of the day, I am just a cashier and thus not expected by my managers to know the locations of every conceivable item in the store. But I’m a man of principle in that when I’m asked a question—any question—I try to give the best answer possible to it, regardless if I’m right or wrong. That was how I was taught. I protested to the hostess that if I relinquish my competence by constantly relying on others to answer questions that were originally asked TO me, then I’ll be perceived as weak. When she continued to poke that bee hive, I naturally reacted with agitation.

“Okay, SORRY” I said with a snide tone, turning my head away and continuing to organize the items. For the next ten seconds, neither of us would say a thing. The hostess, dumbfounded by my defiance, asked what my name was in order to report me to a manager, but before she could leave the aisle, I promptly apologized to her. “I apologize for my tone-of-voice. I’ve had a long day and took my frustration out on you. I didn’t mean to.”

That was over a year ago, but I’ve routinely thought about the ways in which I could’ve better handled the encounter. Perhaps I should’ve set aside my pride, and allowed the hostess to answer the customer’s question all along. Maybe I should’ve been a little sterner when she scolded me, or maybe I should’ve just known where the damned prunes were.

Interestingly, five days ago, I’m working the register and a different customer approaches me to ask about where to find the prunes. “Aisle 9,” I told him.

I told this story because it is a glimpse into what self-redemption could look like. We’ve all made thousands of mistakes that we wish we could take back. Due to the nature of time and how it works, we can’t undo or rescind them, but we can register and put them to work.

Let’s say, for example, that I was never approached by that fateful customer. Big deal. I could’ve done my job in peace and circumvented an uncomfortable conversation with a pesky coworker. Five days ago, however, the outcome would’ve been the same as the incident that occurred over a year ago, but with one key difference: I would’ve erroneously directed the customer to the produce department, and never learned about the location of prunes, thereby setting myself up to repeat the same mistake as before.

In a world outside a grocery store, we might fail at relationships, fail at new jobs, and fail exams, but that doesn’t always mean that we’ve failed as people. Through applying this knowledge to navigating interpersonal relationships, learning a novel career position, and taking an important exam, we begin to realize that each of our mistakes, lamentable as they may be, are stepping stones toward achieving a more favorable outcome the next time an opportunity presents itself. That is the precise definition of self-redemption, because to achieve it, you must endure profound failures and hardships but take away from them the wisdom to know that you’ve done a poor job, and that you hope to do better the next time.

Now go and find those prunes.

How to Take Advantage of Any Disadvantage

I have a genetic skin disease called rosacea. My grandmother passed it down to my father, who then passed it down to my brother and me. Rosacea is characterized by episodic, superficial dilation of blood vessels beneath the face. This usually occurs on or around the nose and cheeks, and just below the mouth. It can be quite irritating when, upon extended exposure to heat, my skin itches and flushes so much that I look as red as an apple.

Of course, I could lament and complain about my rosacea all I want, but that won’t change the fact that I will always be stuck with it—at least until they are able to come up with some long-awaited cure for it. The best thing I can do for now is attempt to manage the condition every day by applying skin cream that reduces flushing and inflammation. “Treatable, not curable” is my motto.

Using my skin rosacea as an example of how we can adapt to the circumstances that we are involuntarily thrust into, let’s put things into perspective. While I could let my rosacea get the best of me and never go outside again because I just cannot tolerate episodes of flushing and inflammation, I would miss out on so much in life if I stayed home all the time. In the same vein, the mere management of our physical and mental disabilities is infinitely preferable to giving up and admitting defeat by virtue of their unwanted existence.

Allow me to share with you a story that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.

Last week, I attended Michigan’s Adventure (an amusement park) with my father and brother. I was initially apprehensive about tagging along because I didn’t want to have to fight the 4th of July crowds. I tagged along anyway because my dad insisted that it would be the last time we’d ever go there. While I had a fair amount of fun, that old and familiar childlike excitement eluded me and was instead replaced by an almost melancholic desire to return to a simpler time.

In many respects, the trip didn’t go as planned: my dad rear-ended the driver in front of us, and wasted over $100 on fast passes that we barely used. What’s worse is that I arrived home with sunburn that itches at this very moment. Maybe I should’ve trusted my apprehension and persuaded my dad to stay home after all—I could’ve circumvented a damaged vehicle and saved $100. But I figured that if I hadn’t gone, then I wouldn’t have acquired the material to write this article.

The highlight of the trip was easily seeing a man with his girlfriend, who unfortunately couldn’t walk due to an unknown disability and thus needed to be pushed around in a wheelchair. We first encountered the couple at a water ride, and it was there the man picked up his girlfriend and carefully helped her into the canoe, leaving the wheelchair behind until they returned. We encountered the couple a second time at The Wolverine, and once again, the man picked up his girlfriend and helped her into the coaster. Most attendants felt inconvenienced from having to wait their turns for longer than usual, but I stood there in awe of this man’s enormous determination to show his girlfriend a good time.

Let’s face it, how many disabled people have you seen ride a roller coaster? Not very many I’d assume. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to tell that this was a man of initiative. He could’ve easily told his girlfriend, “Sorry honey, but I don’t want to risk aggravating your disability just so that you can ride a few roller coasters. It’s too dangerous.” The fact remains that her disability wasn’t a factor in her enjoyment. And so, whereas most men wouldn’t let their disabled girlfriends see the light of day because it’s “too risky,” this man took charge. It spoke volumes of his character and was a testament to how far he is willing to go to express the love he feels for his girlfriend.

More people need to be like this man. Stop making excuses already and take charge of your fate, or else let it get the best of you and spend the rest of your life feeling like a victim.

The Dangers of Seeing Black & White

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the narco world, it’s that life is more complicated than you think. Good and bad, they’re relative concepts.”

Narcos (Season 1, Episode 1), Steve Murphy

I used to think colorblind patients literally saw the world in black and white, like their lives were an unending 1940s noir film that lacked in depth and quality. Later, I realized that colorblindness is actually a deficiency of the retina’s cone cells to properly differentiate between colors. It is, of course, still possible to see in black and white, but not in the way that you would expect.

Disclaimer: I take no credit for what I’m about to say here. The purpose of this article is to put my own spin on what’s been known for the entire course of human existence.

You do not need eyes to see. I was introduced to this concept when I attended therapy last year, as I wanted to get a better feel for how the process worked. I only went a couple of times because I didn’t see the value in talking about my problems to a stranger whose job was to more or less regurgitate much of what I already knew. My therapist, by her grace, brought up an interesting point that I will never forget.

She told me, “Well Marc, you seem like an all-or-nothing kind of guy.”

Her statement struck a chord with me because it identified a personality trait that I wasn’t previously aware of. It appeared that my understanding of the problems I was discussing ad nauseum was the real problem, and not external forces. Perhaps if I viewed them as opportunities and not impossibly unreachable obstacles, they wouldn’t be so problematic anymore.

I felt transformed and revitalized, but as time had come to pass, I reverted back to my age-old ways of interpreting reality. Nonetheless, my understanding of what my therapist told me that day became further solidified upon listening to the audiobook Positive Intelligence (2012) by Shirzad Chamine. There was a particular chapter in that book where Chamine referenced an ancient Taoist parable that is also my now-favorite philosophy.

The parable chronicles 5 days in a Chinese province. On the first day, a horse jumps a poor farmer and his teenage son’s fence, causing major property damage. However, by the terms of the local law, the boy and his father are allowed to keep the horse, meaning they will become wealthy and prominent. On the second day, the horse gallops back to the mountains and leaves the farm behind, yet returns on the third day with a dozen more wild horses. On each of these three days, the father dispassionately asked his son, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

On the fourth day, the boy gets violently knocked off one of the horses and breaks his leg. His father, noticing that his son is in tremendous pain, asks him once again with his usual indifferent tone, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” Finally, on the fifth day, the province goes to war, and Army recruiters arrive at the town where the poor farmer and his son live and begin drafting able-bodied young men to go off and fight. Every young man in the town is sent away to certain death except for the farmer’s son, and all because of his broken leg from the day before.

This old but gold parable led to the creation of an idea I call Noir Syndrome, with noir being a reference to the film genre that was traditionally shot in black and white. Noir Syndrome proposes that all of our anxieties originate from our tendency to view life as falling on one extreme or another without taking into account deeper meaning, contrary evidence, and alternative perspectives. All or nothing.

We’ve been conditioned to view life in this way because it is effortless and requires very little additional thought. However, this manner of thinking is dangerous in that it harbors the delusion that everything is always operating on a good-bad dichotomy, when it is anything but. Chamine talks about the same thing in his book. Again, I am not the first person to think of this, and neither was he.

How do you even define what is good and what is bad, or what should fall on one extreme end of the spectrum and the other? The poor farmer could only ever ask this question because he was wise enough to know that it didn’t warrant an answer. Technically, every “bad” thing in life is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience, while the extent of this inconvenience is the primary determinant for how “bad” it really is by our standards. Life is a double helix of sorts, and not a straight line; all good eventually leads in to bad and all bad eventually leads in to good, creating a self-contradiction of sorts since the two cannot be categorized independently from each other. They are two sides of the same coin.

You have to search for some shred of good in every tragedy or setback you experience. In fact, you don’t even have a choice in the matter. This is because if you constantly view things as the best or worst, good or bad, all or nothing, you’re setting yourself for unimaginable heartbreak if they fall somewhere in the middle. By that logic, you determine your reality by setting the parameters for how it’s supposed to look in your eyes.

Start seeing grey, and the world becomes a whole lot more colorful.