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.

Depression Is Your Friend

It’s crazy, right? How can something as unpleasant as depression, the leading precursor to suicide, actually be thought of as a good buddy?

First off, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way praising deep, debilitating depression. Instead, this article is aimed at discussing depression as a form of motivation, not a psychological disorder.

When you think of a friend, what is the first thing that comes to mind? A friend might be someone who you watch a ballgame with. They might even be someone who drives you home when you’re too drunk to drive yourself. For me, a friend is someone so much more than that; someone much different than a family member or spouse.

For me, a friend is someone who attends that ballgame not because they want to get out of the house for a few hours, but because they genuinely enjoy your company. A friend is someone who drives you home when you’re drunk not out of obligation, but out of concern for your safety. Really, a friend is someone who accepts you without question, sees the value that you bring to the world, and looks out for you during hard times.

So how does depression look out for you? Well, for starters I’m writing this post with my fingers. I have a brain that thinks and reasons in order to produce the language that is responsible for the post in the first place. I have a stomach to digest the food I ate two hours ago and a heart that pumps blood to keep me alive. The truth is, depression wouldn’t exist if, along with every organ in my body, it didn’t serve some kind of a survival function. The theory of evolution suggests that our predecessors who did not experience depression were selected against and died off, while those who experienced depression lived on to spread their genes and ultimately create you and me. With that said, depression is as much a part of us as our fingers, stomachs, brains, and hearts are. It is an instrument of survival.

Then again, depression doesn’t get enough credit. We condemn it, scrutinize it, and in many cases medicate it when it doesn’t need medicating. How do you even define depression in a positive light when it is this widely stigmatized and condemnable “sickness of the mind” or worse, character flaw? Well, it’s not an impossible task.

Normal depression, and by extension grief, can be defined as a self-regulatory mechanism in which a problem is continually reflected on and analyzed with the intent of preventing it from reoccurring. It’s almost like trying to solve a math equation that you’ve been stuck on for hours in that you’ll rework the problem over and over until a correct solution becomes evident. The only time the mind-boggling math equation that is depression becomes debilitating is when episodes are prolonged, lasting for weeks and months at a time, and disrupt personal and professional relationships. At that point, you never solve the problem, you just keep staring at it and expecting something to change.

I can tell you with certainty that for every mistake I’ve made and problem that I’ve created, I never would have improved as a human being if I didn’t feel depressed afterward. There were times when I failed a test or said something extremely hurtful to another person, and afterward that was all I thought about for the rest of the day and even the rest of the week. I’d think to myself, “How could I let this happen?” and “What went wrong, and what can I do to fix this mess?”

Don’t get me wrong, depressive rumination isn’t fun. Some of the worst moments in my life were where I would become so emotionally drained, so dispirited, and so, well… depressed, that I couldn’t even move. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t play video games, and I generally couldn’t function normally. Why would anybody want to suffer through such an experience? The answer is that it can be used as motivational fuel when it is channeled into something more meaningful. I look at it this way: you could achieve every major success in the book, but by the time that one failure comes around it’s suddenly the worst thing in the world because you haven’t acquainted yourself with what it’s like to truly lose. To truly face defeat. In this manner, the low points in life help us appreciate the high points and remind us of the progress (or lack thereof) we’re making.

Occasional, not chronic, depression is your friend because it’s got your back. It PUSHES you toward improvement by notifying you that you need to make some much needed corrections in your life. And trust me, you’re better off with than without it.

“Positive Intelligence” (Review)

Last summer, I listened to “Positive Intelligence” (2012), an audiobook by Shirzad Chamine that my father introduced me to. You can also find a paper version of the text available for purchase at PositiveIntelligence.com. In it, Chamine explains how our minds are controlled by 10 entities, or “Saboteurs,” each with their own intents and motivations.

The 10 rather arbitrary Saboteurs, as their name suggests, sabotage our emotional health by corrupting our thinking, and thus account for much of the pain and anguish we feel in life. For example, the Judge is the primary Saboteur which all other Saboteurs stand in service to. Its job is to relentlessly heckle and scrutinize you for your every little mistake as a way of pushing you toward some much needed improvement. Sound familiar?

Chamine tells you to give your Judge a name as a way of identifying it so that when it appears to hijack and “sabotage” your thought process, you can strip it of its credibility. He talked about the creative names people gave their Judges; the Destroyer and the Executioner are two examples. I call my Judge the Chief Executive Cognitive Mediator, or CECM for short, because it mediates many of the higher-level cognitive processes that constitute rational decision making and emotional regulation. I also call it the Chief Executive Cerebral Mediator.

Other Saboteurs include the Avoider, the Controller, the Pleaser, and the Hyper-Achiever. They are malicious by their nature, but they served an important survival function in early childhood by steering us away from particularly dangerous threats, such as a hot stove, busy traffic, or a tiger. The main premise of Chamine’s book is that while the Saboteurs continue to remain useful, they are not needed as much in adulthood, mainly due to how our brains have developed enough for us to flee danger through the use of basic intuition and common sense.

Chamine believes that the greatest enemy we face in life is not the government, our parents, spouse, coworkers, or managers, but rather our very own internal mental conflicts—our Judge. And to a certain extent, he’s right. There were moments where an annoying customer would make me feel terrible at work only to find myself feeling even worse upon ruminating on it at home. It’s always been my reaction to the event and not the event itself that’s caused the majority of my depression. Unfortunately, Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” lacks in soundness for the simple fact that many if not all of his techniques for conquering the Saboteurs are just plain impractical, and also that his definitions of what Saboteurs even are prove to be very nebulous.

Regarding the impracticality of his techniques for conquering what he calls Saboteurs, Chamine has made me question his credentials on one too many occasions. He explains that the Sage is what’s used to overpower the Saboteurs, and that at a biological level, the Saboteurs dwell in the limbic system while the Sage dwells in the prefrontal cortex. If you activate your Sage, you can tone down your Saboteurs, and in order for your Sage to gain greater control over your Saboteurs, you have to “build up your PQ brain muscles.” This can be accomplished by fully immersing yourself in any activity that stimulates the senses, such as going to the bathroom, driving to work, and eating lunch. While I do agree with Chamine that distracting yourself from distressful feelings is a good way to work through them, it is not as simple as just doing a few “PQ reps” every day. Rubbing your fingers together (yes, that is a technique he proposes) is not going to allow you to recover from the deficits in your mental health.

The other issue I had with “Positive Intelligence” is Chamine’s ineffective attempts at precisely defining the Saboteurs. It was a relief to attach some words to the negative thoughts that constantly plague my mind, but I also found myself struggling to identify the Saboteurs based on the terminology that Chamine used. Extending from this issue is how he never quite specified where the Saboteurs activate in the brain, apart from the Saboteur-rich limbic system and the Sage-rich prefrontal cortex. Emotions are much more complex than Chamine leads his audience to believe. It would have been nice if he were to at the very least show brain scans of patients in “Sage mode” and “Saboteur mode,” differentiating between the emotional signals that fire in response to a problem and the rational thought that is required to solve the problem.

For the reasons discussed above, I cannot recommend Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” for readers who are oriented toward more scientific literature. His evidence for the Saboteurs is barebones and simply insufficient. It’s nonetheless a great self-help read.

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.