4. The Progress Paradox

Note: This is is part of a book release! See the whole book here as it releases.

One reason so many billionaires are planning their underground bunkers and trips to Mars – is because they can so clearly see the following paradox that renders them pessimistic at best, or hopeless at worst.  Many of them actually became wealthy believing they were bringing hopeful solutions to the world, until their solutions turned into monsters.

It goes like this:

Progress: In 1900, the average farmer could grow 25 bushels of corn per acre.[1]  Now, she can grow 175 bushels.[2]

Paradox: The average American now consumes 7 lbs of actual corn[3] and 42 lbs of corn syrup each year.[4] 

Progress:  In 1900, diabetes meant a 10-year old child could expect to live one more year.  Now, a 10-year old with diabetes can expect to live over 60 more years. 

Paradox: The diabetes rate soars tenfold[5], largely because of poor diet.   Now, 30 million Americans are spending $322 billion a year to manage a disease that still cuts 8 years off their life.[6]

Progress:  In 1900, 1.6 billion people didn’t own a car.[7]  But humans went to work and created billions of them so people could have a ride.

Paradox: Now, about 6 billion people do not own a car, while a mere fraction of us are pumping record greenhouse gases into their atmosphere.  If I were them, I’d be pissed.

Progress: Even though we couldn’t get everybody a car, we have gotten almost all of them cell phones.  As of 2019, over 5 billion humans owned one.

Paradox:  95% of parents in developing countries are worried about the ill effects cell phones are having on their children, who are fast becoming addicted to gaming and social media.[8]

Progress: The health care community has recently mapped the human genome, created the first catheter-based artificial heart valve, developed a vaccine for the Ebola virus, pioneered robotic surgery and 3D-printed custom artificial limbs.  

Paradox: Half of American bankruptcies are caused directly or indirectly by medical bills. 

It is the same tired story.  We produce awesomeness and then turn and stab our eyes out with it.

We discover nuclear energy and instead of creating enough electricity to power the world, we build enough bombs to destroy the world. We create plastic, and it ends up as garbage in the oceans.[9]

Google “Pacific Garbage Patch” if you dare.

We design life-saving epi-pens, and then begin price-gouging.  We lower violent crime, but suicides are at an all-time high.  We finally are getting others to stop killing us, but can’t stop us from killing ourselves.[10]

Now, we are more safe than ever, but less secure.

We are more educated than ever, but less certain.

We are more networked than ever, but less connected.

We have more cures, but are less healthy.

Each time we create new technology, we look like Clark Griswold so proud of his giant Christmas tree, only to realize it won’t fit in his living room, has a squirrel in it, and almost burns the entire house down.

Solutions that have created problems that beckon more solutions that empower us to create more problems.

It’s not that technology isn’t awesome.  It’s not that we’re not awesome.  Face it:  You’re awesome. It’s that have believed the wrong Story.

It wasn’t our fault.  The wrong story has worked for thousands of years. It’s the only story we were given.   But it never fails to spawn this predictable pattern:

…which scales into this predictable pattern:

Over time, that story has led the Human Collective to become slightly more powerful than good, a slightly that adds up to major disasters like climate change and mass starvation when you multiply it by billions of people for thousands of years.

I don’t know if a 500-pound man will die of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or something else.  But I do know that if he does not change, he will die faster than he should.  And I don’t know if a 500-pound world will die of climate change or mass extinctions or A.I. or nuclear war, but I do know that it will die if it continues this narrative. 

This cannot and will not be the way our story ends.  

It’s as if the Human Collective is being driven by a force that wishes us to live as long as possible, produce as much as possible, consume as much as possible, and yet have as little of joy, freedom, and quality of life as possible. 

Because it is. This is going to take a while, so take a deep breath, relax and let’s go all the way back to the beginning.


[1] http://www.lhf.org/en/teachers/learning_fields/crops__corn/#History

[2] http://www.cornandsoybeandigest.com/blog/usda-projects-record-corn-and-soybean-crop-2016

[3] http://extension.psu.edu/business/ag-alternatives/horticulture/vegetables/sweet-corn-production

[4] I’m being generous here.  http://www.worldofcorn.com/#cereal-and-food

[5] https://www.defeatdiabetes.org/diabetes-history/.  The

[6] See http://main.diabetes.org/dorg/images/infographics/adv-cost-of-diabetes.gif and http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20101201/diabetes-cuts-years-off-life-span-of-americans#1

[7] Yes, in 1900, that was pretty much everybody.  I get it.  I hope you see the irony. Probably not a good idea for everybody to have one anyways, seeings how the global concentration of atmospheric CO2 has skyrocketed to over 430 ppm.

[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/03/07/mobile-connectivity-in-emerging-economies/

[9] By 2030, there will be more pounds of plastic in the oceans than pounds of fish.

3. A 500-lb World

Note: This is the next post in a book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents.

 

I have to tell you a bunch of depressing stuff, and then it gets even worse.  I already warned you.

 

A century aboard this runaway train of consumption, we, the Human Collective, are now a 500-pound society.

7.8 Billion People probably actually weigh more than 500-lbs.

That’s us.

Imagine you are 500 pounds, 50 years old, and you are taking twelve different medications.  One is for cholesterol, one for blood pressure, one for depression, one for diabetes, and a handful to offset side effects of the others.  All your major vital signs are in check, and your symptoms are controlled.  

Healthy?

You get older, turn 50, and you keep developing new symptoms — high triglycerides, low thyroid, and on. For each one, the doc just hands you new prescriptions. 

This guy knows something is off.

Each time, you take your prescription home, jump online and read articles and comment threads about your medication options. The debates on these threads can get intense.  PEOPLE YELL AT EACH OTHER IN CAPS. 

You make the best choice possible, because either option seems better than high triglycerides.   


The Human Collective has its fair share of symptoms. 

Climate change.  School shootings.  Political polarization.  Systemic racism.    

For each one, a lot of great people work hard to soothe the issues, and come up with some great solutions. But their medication still can’t fix the entire organism.  We whip out our Twitter and get caught in debates about synthetic solutions.

School shooting fix A or B?  

Debate, polarize.

Racist policing?  Debate, polarize.

Opiod epidemic? Debate, polarize.

It’s easy to forget about the elephant-in-the-room Big Problem because we gave up hope long ago. It just seems too difficult to expect humans to love each other, listen to each other, and get along. But the universe is tapping us on the shoulder.

Homeostasis is the key marker of health.   We all need it, right down to our hormonal glands and temperature regulators.  It’s the total balance of all systems working together in order, and it scales far beyond our individual physicality.  A human only has true health if the human system he is connected to is also in balance. 

Homeostasis for the Human Collective looks like peace, justice, balance, and stability

From 40,000 feet, we may appear controlled to some.  But in case you need them, or are sadistic, here are the really depressing vital signs of the collective.

Vital Signs

Exhibit A:  The United States, the wealthiest nation on earth, where I live. 

Murica.

 

Let’s just posit that there’s a bit of dissonance between Ground Level and 40,000 feet.  It’s the wealthiest nation on earth, except for this:

So, a bit of an asterisk.  Maybe we should expect this; after all, we have the best university system in the world, matched by the highest student loan debt ratios. We have tons of total cash, but very little homeostasis. 

A deeper look at our Collective health:[1] 

Physical Health:

40,000 feet: Life expectancy is up 8 years since 1960. Tobacco use is down.  More people are exercising.

Ground Level:

  • Life expectancy hit a ceiling in 2015, dropping each year since, the first drops since the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak.[1]
  • Health care now costs us over $3 trillion, approaching 20% of GDP. 
  • Two-thirds of adults are overweight.  One-third are obese.  We spent $32 billion on sweets in 2018, and $60 billion on dieting programs. 

Financial Health:

40,000 feet: The stock market is near an all-time high, total wealth is busting records, even after the initial COVID outbreak of 2020.  Before COVID, unemployment was down to its lowest in 50 years, and America remained perched atop the global economy.

Ground level: 

  • 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth and is raking in.
  • Each passing year lately, if you are in the bottom 90%, then roughly $17,000 of your money ultimately transfers to people who are already worth over $8.5 million.[2]
  • For the rest of us, forty percent of us have zero savings and revolving credit card debt averaging $16,000.  
  • One out of five of our children live in poverty.

Psychosocial Health:

40,000 feet:  Well, looked and I can’t find any cheery stats on relational or mental health.  Just keep flying.

Ground Level:

  • Even before COVID, 42% of us reported chronic loneliness- an all-time high.[3] 
  • Marriage rates are at an all-time low in the modern era. Three of my 21 students live with both of their biological parents.
  • One-fifth of us (29% of women) are on psychotropic medications. 
  • One-tenth of us are alcoholics who drink an average of 50-70 drinks per week.[4]
  • Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death in teens.   Over 1 million of us self-harmed last year.

 

It’s not that everything is wrong. Some humans are doing better than ever, and they are so fun to follow on Instagram. Other people are overcoming incredible odds with joy despite being dealt a bad hand. If you’re reading this, you and your friends[5] may be doing fine for yourselves.  After all, you:

  • Are literate.[6]
  • Are presumably in a safe place.
  • Are nerdy enough that you read in your spare time, which you have.

 

But the Collective body is suffering.

A lot of us are hurting, or just bored. On ground level, we’re trying to live up to the shiny exterior.  Occasionally, we get a strange spark of life when a natural disaster like a hurricane breaks out.  Amid the devastation, survivors bond together to find all this meaning and purpose schmazz, helping each other through the chaos. 

They weather the storm together hand in hand. Its like those first three weeks of January when we’re crushing it at the gym and life feels good. Later, many of us are inwardly weirdly jealous of those days where life was an adventure and people cared.[7]

The storm subsides, we rebuild and go back to our old lives of unhealthy routines and the extra pounds start creeping back.

Chaos makes us better people. It’s a paradox.  

 


 

 

 

 

[1] Sure, these are handpicked, and yes, I could have handpicked different stats to show off a good side.   But it would have been a bit like telling you all the good things about a 1972 Ford Pinto.  Yes, the top 10% of parts on a Ford Pinto are running great, but that’s about it.  The real point is –let them sink in, and they should blow your mind.  As if you woke up in the middle of some bad nightmare where Biff Tanner was president.  Oh wait. 

[2] Also sounds unrealistic, I get.  https://www.salon.com/2017/03/08/how-90-percent-of-american-households-lost-an-average-of-17000-in-wealth-to-the-plutocrats-in-2016_partner/

[3] http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/

[4] https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/the-top-10-percent-drink-way-more-than-you-think.html; this one survey projected 73 drinks per week from the top decile (10%) of Americans.   I did some extra research and math, because honestly, that sounded like shady clickbait.  From the best I could find – too extensive and boring to list out – I was surprised to realize that it is probably accurate – and definitely at least 50 drinks.  Per week. 

[5] Check out cool maps of the interactions between different groups within a city.  https://www.ted.com/talks/dave_troy_social_maps_that_reveal_a_city_s_intersections_and_separations?language=en .  It happens online, too.  Social media algorithms have shoved us into filter bubbles. See https://www.rstreet.org/2018/07/17/everything-thats-wrong-with-social-media-companies-and-big-tech-platforms-part-3/  

[6] Around 60% of prisoners here are functionally illiterate.  So you’re probably not in prison. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2016/04/01/literacy/

[7] In my wife’s home state of Alabama, it was the 2011 tornadoes.  In our home state, it was Hurricane Harvey in 2017.  Houstonians bonded together like never before.  Everyone was magically nice and helpful all of a sudden.  My friends testified of how awesome neighbors were to one another.  Then, when life got back to normal.  Researchers have shown that crime trends downward after natural disasters due to altruism: https://www.chron.com/news/article/Crime-plummeted-during-Harvey-other-floods-So-12309705.php

2. Up Against Limits

Note: This is the next post in a series/book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents

“Never marry a prostitute.”  – Jay Leno

In our misguided quest, our world has become obese.  Sickly obese. I don’t mean individuals. 

I mean the world.  Us.  Humanity.

The Human Collective is sickly out of balance from overconsuming.  

And inversely, we are starving, deficient from certain nutrients that feed human health.  Overconsumption is, ironically, an indicator of scarcity. 

Development itself has addicted us to a lifestyle of production and consumption that is unsustainable for the planet and is ultimately killing us from the inside out.  We are approaching 8 billion of us, all wanting Ferraris and iPhones, along with free time and healthy relationships.  The earth can’t foot the bill anymore. 

There is only one way home, and that path is found in seeing our true selves from the inside out, under the premise of a different Narrative.

Consider This

An adult human only needs a constant average of 100 watts of energy to survive.[1]

A typical hunter-gather was estimated to consume 250 watts of (100% renewable, organic, clean) energy while hunting.  By 1800, the average American was consuming a constant 3,000, mostly from burning wood.  Today, we consume over 11,000 watts of energy per person around the clock.[2] 

…which became an even bigger problem when the human population did this–

…and our curve of energy consumption exponentially ramped up in the middle of last century: 

At this pace, it would only take a couple of centuries before we’d need to cover entire surface of earth with solar panels just to keep up with the demand.  

One possible solution.

This is the reason why the richest man on earth is currently spending billions to get us to Mars[3], insisting that a cold, dark, lifeless netherworld is the only way out of this conundrum.

So disappointed that this is a billionaire’s idea of a getaway spot.

Unfortunately, energy consumption is only one dimension in which our narrative is up against limits.  Another is material consumption.  The 7.8 billion of us now devour 1.7 times the amount of total natural resources the earth can produce in one year.[4]

If everyone lived like Americans, we would need 4 to 5 earths to satisfy our lifestyle:[5]

COVID-19 was the first reprieve in the last century that Mother Nature has gotten from our incessant consumption.[6]  While many of us lamented that 2020 was the worst year ever, She was taking a deep breath of less polluted air.

Efficiency can’t seem to keep up with our appetite.  And it isn’t just for energy or resources.  The pinnacle of consumption is information, and our appetite for it is voracious.[7]  We are now inching ever closer to spending all of our time consuming it:

Source: loopventures.com

Not only do we eat it more often, but the information itself we now consume is super-ultra-duper condensed and thick, because we’ve compressed it and filtered it with computers and networks and compounding systems of people working around the clock. 

In concert with that, 20th century breakthroughs in computing capacity has done, roughly, this:

Computing capacity increased a trillion-fold from 1956 to 2015.[8] The only things limiting our information consumption now are the number of hours in a day, and our own biology. As Elon Musk said, the primary bottleneck of information traffic is now our thumbs and their ability to keep up as fast as our brain needs them to click.[9] 

A painful century for large-thumbers.

To offset these pathetically slow appendages, we just kept ramping up computing power.

Now, Artificial Intelligence is quickly becoming more intelligent than us and most of the educated people on the planet indicate that we honestly don’t know what will happen.  The late genius Stephen Hawking said that A.I. will be “either the best thing, or the worst thing, to ever happen to humanity.”[10] 

Comforting.

So Elon, in a desperation attempt, built Neuralink, a company working to bypass our thumbs by merging our brains with A.I. via a brain implant. Their motto is, “if you can’t beat em, join em.”

We find ourselves in a strange conundrum of liking-but-hating the situation, and definitely not feeling like we can do much about it.  No one likes trashing the planet or feeling exhausted from the rat race. 

No one person caused this. It’s no one’s fault. But we are in it together, stuck in cages on spinning wheels doing it just to survive.  Some are tired of hearing about it, so they pretend everything is great because of iPhones and Doordash. 

Meanwhile, the Human Collective gasps for breath.

Overconsumption is not an innocent little isolated issue, nor is it even the problem itself.  It is but the visible outgrowth of it.  It has roots, and it has spiraling effects.  It is connected to global wars, bioterror, nuclear bombs, systemic racism, and people flying planes into buildings.  The symptoms are too many to list because it is a whole-body problem.

The poor are stuck in spirals of poverty, and the rich are stuck in spirals of wealth.  Most people think it’s easy being rich, because most people aren’t rich.  But the wealthiest people are the most concerned, as they plan out their New Zealand bunkers and trips to Mars.[11]  They know that we are on this path, they can’t out-tech it, and there seems to be no answer other than to run and hide.

The first step back to health is to look in the mirror.


[1] Pretty amazing.  You burn as much energy as an old incandescent light bulb. Your brain is 25 watts of that.  One-fourth of all your calories are burned in that little 3-lb bowl of mush in your skull! 

[2]Geoffrey West and colleagues did some great work on this.  Start here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/magazine/19Urban_West-t.html For 1800 data – see https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=10 and do some math.

[3] Start here: https://qz.com/1615871/jeff-bezos-says-blue-origin-will-go-to-the-moon-to-save-the-earth/

[4] Lots of stats on this. Start here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/08/03/humanity-officially-consumed-more-earth-produce-year/#69f73c2759a4

[5] http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/us-environmental-footprint-factsheet

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/21/human-consumption-of-the-earths-resources-declined-in-2020

[7] https://loupventures.com/defining-the-future-of-human-information-consumption/

[8] So many different ways to show this, but you already know we are on this steep, steep, exponential curve. One cool fact:  https://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-trillion-fold-increase-computing-power/   

[9] Start here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musk-launches-neuralink-to-connect-brains-with-computers-1490642652

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/oct/19/stephen-hawking-ai-best-or-worst-thing-for-humanity-cambridge#:~:text=Professor%20Stephen%20Hawking%20has%20warned,future%20of%20our%20civilisation%20and

[11] Douglas Rushkoff, “How to be Team Human in the Digital future.” TED Salon: Samsung, September 2018.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is1YUQVYkvY

1. Within

Note: This is the next post in a series/book release called “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Newbies, you can start here or see the whole book in the Table of Contents


So, the world is pretty wack. But that’s not a news flash, is it?  Regardless, I’m here to insist that its more messed up than you think, to tell you how it got that way, and that it isn’t going to end this way.  

But we should start here: The world is also awesome.

On one hand, what humanity has accomplished the past century is mind-numbing.  Sometimes I feel like we should just give the human race a giant trophy.

We made a world where you can sit on your couch and say “Alexa, order me a bag of Unicorn Farts” and they will magically show up at your door.

One of the most hopeful signs of life on earth.

It’s a world where you can go 500 mph in comfy chairs in giant metal tubes 40,000 feet in the sky, while people deliver you pretzels and ginger ale.

We have the best teachers, doctors, engineers, singers, sports teams, carpenters, and programmers, ever.  For God’s sake, my eyelid surgeon goes to eyelid surgery conventions and drinks cocktails with other eyelid surgeons. We, this bunch of overgrown apes, just put a space probe on a comet. 

Somebody raise a glass to humans.

There.

Statistics prove we are globally safer, healthier, longer living, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, and more tolerant than ever.[1] 

But statistics also say we are more lonely, more depressed, more anxious, and more suicidal than ever.

One columnist wrote, this “offers much evidence that the world, our feelings notwithstanding, is definitely getting better.”[2] 

Record scratch.  Pregnant pause.

Our feelings notwithstanding?  

So, apparently, everything is awesome, until you factor in those damn humans and their pathetic feelings.  The world’s a giant party for humans, except, deep down, most humans feel like this party sucks. 

Last century alone, we killed over 108 million of each other, just in wars.  Now, our mental health is at an all-time low, and collectively, we’re one big red nuke button away from ending it all.

Of course, some of the most educated and successful men on earth are brandishing their statistics, telling us we should just all calm down and quit being so damn spoiled.  After all, look at the wonderful innovation and safety that they have provided for us, with all our shiny screens and 5G and airplanes and whatnot.

It’s only from 40,000 feet up that the stats look great.  Not so much here at ground zero where my 17 little humans grind it out.       

Here – school – is where our society peels back the surface and listens to people in their purest: kids.  And their damn emotions. 

And here, at ground level, we find out that what humans wanted was never just better stats.   It was never just less violence, more education, longer life expectancy, better health care, or fancier iPhones.  It was never just to be more powerful, to consume more, or to be more comfy. 

Kids are but little humans who haven’t forgotten who they are.

Something within the human spirit, untethered from the necessity of consumer culture, gives us joy, the energy and drive to make our mark on the world.  Carl Rogers described it as an actualizing tendency, innate within us.  A kapok tree joyfully grows into what it is destined to become without ever taking a master class on how to be a good kapok tree. 

And so do we.

I recently traveled to Haiti multiple times to do some aid work. Despite their being in absolute poverty, I was weirdly jealous of their joy.  There they were, starving in the most undeveloped nation in the western hemisphere, holding a treasure in their spirits that I have not witnessed at scale in America since my childhood. 

A school in Thomazeau, Haiti

Each time our group left, we all climbed back into our posh metal tube, opened our bag of pretzels, and hung our heads in sadness that we were leaving such joy-filled friends behind, headed back to the rat trap.

Our collective societal joy is withering, and it cannot be replaced by fancy gadgets, better education, or even good counselors.  Joy comes from within.

And within is where we are suffering.

Proof in the pudding:  Adult white males are the most prosperous, powerful, and protected group in the United States — and they are 70% of our suicides.[3]  Turns out, there’s more to being human.   


[1] Harvard Professor Steven Pinker outlines each one of these categories very comprehensively in two recent books.  Too many stats to list.  If you want some compelling, well-crafted optimism, go for Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) or Enlightenment Now (2018).  He has mounds of stats that are true and real. I don’t debate them.

[2] Sub-Headline from Sarah Blakewell, Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full, New York Times, March 2, 2018.

[3] https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

Introduction: A Better Story

Note: This is part of a chapter-by-chapter book release of “Pyramids and Trees: Attachment, Addiction, Empires, and a Nation Bursting Forth. Follow the entire book as it unveils at pyramidsandtrees.com.

I am standing in my 4th grade classroom, watching 17 tweens sit in silence, scratching graphite bubbles on an answer sheet, careful to make their marks dark and neat.  A student from the Congo silently struggles to translate the English.  One girl squirms in her desk, trying to rid her mind of her fighting parents and her brother, who left for the Marines this week.  A boy quells the gamut of emotions welling up within him; it’s his birthday, and for the first time in his 10 years, mom won’t be there.  She left, because she couldn’t take care of him anymore. 

One girl needs to pass this test in hopes of breaking the cycle of alcoholism and gambling addictions that have hijacked her family.  Another boy wonders if his mom will beat him again because he failed yet another big test. Still one other writes with scars covering both arms from the abuse of her older brothers.  I reported it to Child Protective Services, but they did nothing.  They are overwhelmed like I am. 

I teach in a school of society’s leftovers, scraps tossed aside and left to rot while the powerful in the world get on with their life.

These are my kids.  And I am despondent as I grapple with the gap between what they have and what they will need for the life ahead.

An iPhone could easily do this math, but the state needs results from them, numbers on a spreadsheet to appease the demands of a system that has abandoned them and reduced them to conformity.  Their future bosses and landlords are 10 miles north of here, up by the lake in their flex-seated digital classrooms doing lego robotics. 

But here, we grind, in a grid of desks, always demanding an inch or an ounce more than these kids can give, day after day.  Our own jobs depend on it because the system which owns us needs them.  My family has to eat, and so does my principal’s.  Her job depends on us, and on up the chain.  

Education is now a government-subsidized training for the corporate world, a world that needs these 17 kids to scratch the correct bubble and has slowly suffocated any other possibility.  

There are no other choices. 

“Be a good little boy and mark the answer you’re supposed to so you can make a lot of money one day,” we say, carrot dangling.  The Accountability Economy is desperate for the correct combination of bubbles so their future employers won’t be sued. 

Wrong combination?  Dopamine access: denied.

Keep trying, little one.  Work will set you free.

We have evolved to cleverly disguise learning as fun, but every teacher knows the reality of the Bubbles, and works day and night to strategically maximize correct answers with minimal damage to our kids.  But despite their best efforts, they can’t hide the game.  

Robots are looking a lot more like humans, and these 17 humans are looking like tattered, tired robots.  Even though we all know better, we can’t seem to not keep recreating the same hauntingly familiar scenarios.

Arbeit Macht Frei.

One more grade.  Just a bit higher.  Another rung.  Climb, little one.  Now college.  Then grad school.  Good boy.  Study harder.  Higher scores for that fellowship.  A little more work.  Those quotas.  Keep going.  Your retirement account is almost there. 

One day, little one. 

One day.

This room is eerily void of the free, confident, brave homo sapiens.  They have been suffocated.   Where grows organic life, creativity, gratitude and adventure?  It is not here, not today. 

I question whether it will grow in any container where graphite letter combinations are the highest good.

Our gut knows this is not the path to human thriving.   James Cameron never made a blockbuster megahit about students sitting in desks bubbling correct answers, or about white guys getting promoted to a bigger cubicle. 

Something is off.   Innovation and greatness are not cultured in the confines of conformity.  They are bred and birthed in open space and opportunity.  

Something is missing.   Risk defines every great human story, and yet my classroom, your workplace, and my child’s playground are all carefully engineered to mitigate as much of it as possible.

Something is wrong.   Even when the bubbles are right.

Educators know this.  Parents know this.   Voters know this.  Mother Nature knows this. 

I don’t just mean something is wrong with schools.  Or something is wrong with families.  Or something is wrong with politics.  Or something is wrong with health care, or the environment.  

Something is wrong.

The fact that I know phrases like “Suicide ideations” and “school-to-prison pipeline” confirms it.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.   Life wasn’t.  Maybe it had no choice.   Maybe it did.   Maybe we’ll never know.   But we can know what is thriving, and we can know what is adventure.   We can know what is joy, and we can know what is justice.

And it is not here, not today. 

Our programs are better than ever, but the 17 lonely children in front of me testify of a different story.  One that has, for too long, dominated the narrative of the human race.  

A story of more loss than wins.  A story of more defeat than victories.   A story of inequality and oppression and injustice and loneliness and addiction and disconnection.  It is the story of power.

A Better Story awaits.   

The next great move of history won’t be decided by inevitable fate, but by the narrative we choose to live by.   And there remains a nation of people who insist in this Story:

Another world is possible.  Another world is necessary.   And another world is already here.[1]

It’s a new Story, yet ancient, whispering to us through the ages.  It is a song quietly sung, bearing life out of lifeless places, and even when drowned out by the noise of our machines, continues still.  A gentle hum offering life to those brave to hear it.

It is a story of pyramids and trees and the death march between for those who dare to be free.  It’s a story where grace conquers power and peace wins the day.  It’s a story of justice and freedom and rhythm and life and love for everyone.   

The greatest stories can’t be written in bubbles or binary code.

They are born in the wilderness.     


[1] –Shoutout to my friend Shane.

One Year Later…

A full year after I gave you the teaser,  I guess I’ll go ahead and start posting my project.  It took me a while to wrap things up when trying to push out this 23- pound baby.

See that weird looking upside down Tree-Thingy logo on the website header?

This

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has been a long, long time in the making.  All my life, really.  I began writing it 4 years ago, one day while I was standing in my classroom administering a benchmark test and thinking about how to solve the problems of the world.  If you’ve followed my blog, you probably know I later walked out on teaching.  This is the back story as to why, except that its more like the whole back story on the Whole Big Story.  Not the little bitty seth/teaching story.  The Human Story.

I’ve been stuffing away thoughts and drawings and drafts and writing and rewriting and scheming and whiteboarding on and off  for 4 years.  Sort of like I’ve been pregnant with this idea-baby that won’t stop growing, and its 23-pounds now.  Getting my brain around this and putting it into words has been, by far, the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.  So I might as well get started pushing.

Tomorrow.

A Theory* of Autism

What if autistic kids were actually among the most socially aware of all of us?

Last night, we played Apples to Apples with my family.  Later, when I tucked my 7 year old son into bed, I knew something was wrong.  He didn’t want me to leave.  After 5 minutes of haggling through his embarrassment and fear, he confessed his trauma:

unnamed

Little man had no idea what computer hackers are, but he intuitively gleaned this: there are some scary guys out there, and they might get you if you aren’t careful on your computer.   And we have computers all over the house.

My son is not autistic.  But as the old saying goes, “we are all somewhere on the spectrum.” And my son has enough of the characteristics that they haven’t passed me by unnoticed:  avoidance of eye contact, poor listening skills, hates varying his routine, constant squirming, fidgeting, quirky ideas, and a slight loner tendency at recess.  He isn’t the only one in the family.  In fact, he got most of these behaviors from me.

I am not a doctor, nor even an autism specialist.  I am an ex-teacher and counselor-in-training who has done my fair share of hanging out with kids with autism, filling out diagnostic observation forms, helping parents communicate with their child, and helping them adapt to the stressful world of school.  In my 10 years of public schools, I was on the front lines, and enjoyed a special kinship with these kids.  I usually feel like I “get” them, and we have often made great progress.   I noticed that over and over, the same theme kept coming back: the need for felt safety.

Over and over, the same theme kept coming back:  the need for felt safety.  

To be sure, autism is born from a combination of multiple sources built on a hereditary predisposition.   Despite conspiracy theories abounding, there is no one “smoking gun.”  I wish it were so.  That would constitute an easy fix, which is a understandably a hopeful pipe dream many parents to cling to.  Instead, we have found that a myriad of factors co-conspire to exacerbate autism’s symptoms.  Food intolerances, exposure to environmental chemicals, psychosocial stress, immune dysfunction, and even hormones all contribute to what I call “a full nervous system assault.”

causes

Suruchi Chandra, MD.  Autism Research Institute © 2013

If the 21st century has taught psychologists and neuroscientists anything, it may be the fallacy of the old “mind vs body” dichotomy.  Mind is body.  There is no obvious reason to suppose that the brain treats one of these types of stress separately.  This is where most of us get off.  We must stop thinking of the mind and consciousness as separate from our physicality.

But brains just see it like this:
brain

When a brain is free and calm, it marches forward.  We are built to be doers and risk takers who go out and face life with courage.  We tackle challenges and overcome adversity to make a mark on the world.

When the brain is under assault from stress, we retreat inward to find safety.  We ball up like a roly poly. 

roly polyNow is not the time to chance making a new friend.

Children with autism seem to be in a near-constant state of facing inward.  From what we can tell, each small assault coming at the child exacerbates an already-stressed brain, eventually threatening the safety of the entire system.  The brain’s systemic answer to collective assaults is to socially, mentally, and physically retreat into places of comfort: routines, stimulating relaxants, safe people, quiet rooms.

If only it were one switch we could flip.  But the evidence keeps telling us:  this is a whole-brain retreat.  Think of your computer running Windows on “safe mode.” This, I believe, is the function of the brain of a child with autism.

Factors

While my son isn’t on the autism spectrum, he has absence seizures.  And he is often a walking ball of fear.  At the age of 6, he would not go to a room alone, even his bedroom or the bathroom in our own house.  His toy of choice is not a race car or light saber, but a stuffed animal.  He demands his daily snuggles.  He climbs in our lap, begging for squeezes.

Seizures, like autism, seem to be caused by an abundance of factors bearing down to assault the nervous system.  One of his was an unexplained physical stress from contortion on his skull and upper vertebrae.  We took him for several rounds of manipulative treatment through an osteopathic doctor.  Each time the doctor did adjustments, his body visibly relaxed right in front of my eyes… and then his demeanor would change.

He would often go from spasmodic, goofy, joking, and squirmy to fully relaxed and yawning in a matter of a couple of minutes.  The doctor said yawning was common during adjustments, because the body was finally relaxing a bit.   One day, to my surprise, he walked straight out of the adjustment room and into the bathroom.  When I told him to hang on, he just calmly said, “its okay, dad.  I’ll go alone.”  As if this were normal.  It was like some alien had kidnapped my little spas-ball or nerves and replaced him with a chilled out little boy.  You could have picked my jaw up off the floor.

I was finding out that physical body stress had the same impact as emotional and mental stress.  Physical adjustments were actually reducing his fears. 

If that sounds completely crazy, good, because that means that I’m not alone.  But its only crazy if the mind and body are separate.  And they’re not.

Let me stress that osteopathic adjustments will not cure seizures or autism.   Despite promises of some shaman-doctors, neither will your favorite vitamin, oil, detox plan, smoothie, or air purifier.  But there are far too many indicators that multiple interventions in concert can move the needle, even if a little.

In short, when you have 20 different assaults from all angles, removing 2 of them (or slathering on lavender) probably isn’t going to do much.  But removing 10 or 12 might, even if only a bit.

 

Back to last night.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me.  After counseling him through his fear of computer hackers, I thought, “Good Lord, Computer hackers??  Seriously?  A person can’t even mention anything remotely scary-sounding without tripping this kid off.”

Ambient fear clings to my son like a dust-bunny on an ionized Swiffer.  If someone in the room is afraid, he adopts the fear immediately, and I am stuck trying to un-convince him.  Loud noise? Explanation demanded.  Tornado warning?  Forget it.  Today its computer hackers.  Tomorrow it will be rabid squirrels or bioterrorism.

I went off to bed last night with an even fuller appreciation of his fear-dust-bunny-clinging-Swiffer of a brain.

The light began to come on.

A brain under assault becomes a brain heightened to risks all around it.  It desperately needs to know if there is anything in the room it should be further protecting itself from.

I believe that an autistic child is a fear magnet. 

His (or her) brain is constantly scanning the room for threats to protect itself from.    If a single person in a crowded room mentions or even sounds as if they are afraid, my son’s radar is triggered.  An unfamiliar noise pops up?  He is on it.  New, unfamiliar environment?  He feels like this guy:

My boy may not know what a computer hacker is, but he has enough context clues to know — it ain’t good.  He may not even realize he is afraid, because this is his default state. 

He isn’t a good listener because he is actually a great listener.  He often missed our actual words because his brain is too busy deciphering the more basic features of tone, emotion, and other signs of threat.  In the brain’s economy, these are far more important indicators of safety than how to carry the remainder on a long division problem.  I’ve noticed that my son, like my students with autism, are always tuned in, even when they are missing large chunks of instruction.

Well meaning adults get frustrated because he isn’t listening, only to turn up the negative emotion and compound the problem.

For the longest time, we have thought that autistic children are the most socially unaware among us.  I posit that they are the most aware of all. 

After settling my boy in, I happened upon this article referencing this study:

selflessness

It immediately caught my eye.  The amygdala?  Altruism?  Seriously?  (If you are unfamiliar, the amygdala draws its notoriety and infamy for being the “fight-flight-or-freeze part of our brain,” lighting up when danger shows up).  The study indicated that extreme altruists seem to have an amygdala that is 8-10% bigger.  How could that be?

And then it hit me.

Fear is largely a social construct.  Aside from a few basic primal fears, almost all fears are taught.  If, then, my son is a fear-magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.

The researchers mentioned call the amygdala the “seat of empathy and emotions.”  

“If my son is a fear magnet, it isn’t because he is anti-social.  It is because he is hyper-social.”

Think about it:

Bigger amygdala = more empathy = more adoption of other’s negative emotions

When you fight, flee, or freeze, you are usually doing so based on social cues you are gleaning from those around you.  To contrast – psychopaths, criminals, and those with antisocial disorders have been shown to have less volume and lower activity in the amygdala.

No wonder he wouldn’t be running out to play with everybody at recess.  Its not because he doesn’t like people.  It’s because, for him, that is like running through a mine field of new possible fears to assault him.

A kickback might be, “Wouldn’t it be also true that a child with a heightened emotional sensitivity would glean positive emotions as well?”

Yes, but there is a caveat.   Unfortunately, brains care way less about positivity.  With all humans, positive emotions have been shown to “slide off like Teflon”, while negative emotions “stick like Velcro.”  This keeps us safe.  It is why we all remember where we were on 9-11-2001.

Over time, each and every negative memory becomes encoded with experiences.  The unknown world out there becomes a frightening maze of Velcro walls, with danger lurking at every turn.  Most every experience out there being connected to a negative memory our kids find it difficult to get past.  Their brains retreat inward to find homeostasis.

For kids barely on the spectrum, this appears as non-social or anti-social behavior.

As soon as I read the article, my brain jumped up and immediately began to wonder– If my theory of autism were true, then kids with autism should have a larger amygdala.

Turns out, they do. 

Researchers have long tended to believe that the amygdala is connected to anxiety, and that anxiety can be connected with autism, as if mysteriously.  Up to 40% of kids with autism have diagnosable anxiety.

But my theory is that all kids with autism have anxious brains, whether it expresses itself socially or not.

I’d like to hear your feedback on this.  Take a look at the research and see if I’m off.  Hit me up in the comments.  We’ll be listening.

 

 

*more of a hypothesis; not the same ring to it. 

So there’s that.

Hey blog/podcast world!  I’m still here.  The reason why you haven’t heard from me in a long time is, well, I’m busy.  But you knew that.  But what you didn’t know is what I’ve been busy doing.   I’ve been untangling this:

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This was my brain.

Turned out to be a lot of work.

Its been this way for my entire life and I figured I had better get started.  So, in all the time you’ve been at your real job, Ive been doing a lot of this:

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and this…

Rings Baby

and a crapton of this…

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Its been my biggest project yet, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And its on its way.