Best of 2020

I watched 68 movies in 2020. The best ones were:
Jojo Rabbit
The Last Dance
Feels Good Man

I read 39 books in 2020. Here are my favorites:
Civilized to Death – Christopher Ryan
State of Affairs – Ester Perel
Being Wrong – Kathryn Schultz
Denial of Death – Ernest Becker
Children of Ruin – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Best Purchases
Above-ground pool

Best Personal Accomplishment
Published Book – ExMormon’s Search For Meaning: On Life After Faith Crisis

Best New Habit
Stretching every morning (Now I can almost put my hands flat on the ground without bending my knees) – my chronic sore back is almost alleviated
Runner up: Playing guitar
2nd Runner up: Walking daily

Dumbest Moment
Putting the shopping cart away in the parking lot while forgetting the 12 pack stored on the bottom rack

Lowest Point
When smoke from the forest fires made it unhealthy to leave the house it made the already suffocating quarantine/political news/civil unrest nearly intolerable

Most Pleasurable
Riding motorcycle on warm summer night below harvest moon

New Skill
Crash course in keeping above-ground pool water clear

Best Trip
Park City skiing in February

Best DIY
Fixed gate on fence

Most Stressful
Being uninsured/under-insured during a pandemic

Most Painful
Swollen face from what I think was a spider attack while I slept

Most Prescient:
Remodeled Garage into living space/home office a month before being forced to work at home for nine months

Religion’s Next Disruptive Innovation

The conclusion of researchers analyzing data on religious trends in 49 countries have found that from about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries have become less religious. Why? Has demand for the services that religions provide decreased? Demand for things like being part of a community, a sense of meaning and ways to overcome hardship? No, demand hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s likely that demand for these things are higher now than they have ever been. So why aren’t religions booming?

The researchers claim that it is a demand problem. “As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives, and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions.” As existential security increases, demand for religion goes down.

I can see how this explanation makes sense in the case of countries that go from the brink of war to being war-free. If chance is all that stands between a bomb falling on your house or a neighbor’s house, relying on God for existential security seems very reasonable. But the most dramatic shift away from religion hasn’t taken place in countries recovering from war; it’s taken place in America.

“From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little. Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data. Near the end of the initial period studied, Americans’ mean rating of the importance of God in their lives was 8.2 on a ten-point scale. In the most recent U.S. survey, from 2017, the figure had dropped to 4.6, an astonishingly sharp decline.”

My take on why belief in religion is decreasing is that it’s suffering from what business consultant Clay Christensen called “disruptive innovation.”

Religions with followers are at risk from the same threats as businesses with customers. Take Blockbuster video, for example. The movie and video game rental company went from an unchallenged empire in 2000 to bankruptcy in 2010. Was it a decrease in demand for movies and video games that killed Blockbuster? No. Just like religions, the demand for what Blockbuster was offering had never been higher. What killed Blockbuster was it’s inability to adapt its business models to incorporate the disruptive innovation of on-demand streaming.

As defined by the Christensen Institute: “Disruptive Innovation describes a process by which a product or service initially takes root in simple applications at the bottom of a market—typically by being less expensive and more accessible—and then relentlessly moves upmarket, eventually displacing established competitors.” I think the experience of renting a movie at Blockbuster was arguably better than streaming one on Netflix. Perusing the shelves of movies with a group of friends on a Friday night was fun—a lot more fun than the semi-hypnotic state of Netflix analysis paralysis. But Netflix didn’t win because it was better; it won because it was so easy and so inexpensive. As the Christensen Institute explains: “Disruptive Innovations are NOT breakthrough technologies that make good products better; rather they are innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a larger population.”

Religions, likewise, are good at what they do. A couple thousand years ago in the marketplace of religions, Christianity was the disruptive innovation. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Bart D. Ehrman lays out the innovations that allowed Christianity to out-compete the competition of the time—paganism: Christianity wasn’t closed to women, it embedded social welfare into its doctrines, it claimed ultimate truth that foreclosed devotion to all other deities and also included proselytizing in it’s doctrine. The product on offer was that worldview we all privately crave—one of order and simplicity where you can be in possession of absolute truth and have a final side to stand on. Christianity sold this binary thinking and maintained their customers by positioning themselves as the definitive arbiters of “us versus them.” Religion use to be the source of constant anxiety by inculcating its followers with an ever-growing list of sins. Religion encouraged constant distraction in the form of prayer, scripture reading, required clothing, purity of thought and self-righteous signaling. But despite Christianity’s legacy of disruptive innovation, it’s now clear that it has given up on innovating, leaving the field ripe for the taking.

So what has co-opted these strategies to prey upon our psychological vulnerabilities, weaponizing them to a degree that has left religion in the dust? What is this new disruptive innovation that has stolen religion’s playbook, taken distraction and anxiety to new levels and stolen the hearts and minds away from religious believers? It’s politics.

It’s politicians who have increased the accessibility and affordability of religion’s “simplicity worldview.” Now it’s politics, not religion, that creates the unrest, resentment, and anger as a means to create a population constantly at war with itself, each side deeply believing that the other is not just wrong, but also a sincere threat to their very way of life and survival. It’s now politics that keeps people held down and mesmerized by a persistent parade of seemingly life-or-death debates, each one worth all of our emotional energy in a way religion only wishes it could. Religion invented the conditions for oppression, politics has perfected them.

Is participating in politics on social media better than participating in religion? Hardly. With religion at least you got beautiful architecture and nice music. Politics is simply less expensive and more accessible — no need to go to a church, no tithing payments and no prerequisite to believe in supernatural phenomena. Religion’s adherence to Satan as being the source of evil is laughably passé. Who needs a demonic supernatural being when you’ve got republicans and democrats?

While politicians are eating religion’s lunch, the managers (AKA clergy) of religions insist on playing the game the way it’s “supposed to be played.” The very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of religions are the very processes that reject politicized social media: Religions don’t take input from their customers; their adherence to being in possession of “truth” makes the idea of listening to the needs of customers pointless. Truth comes from God, after all, not followers. Meanwhile, politicians constantly mine the data provided to them by social media to understand the fears and concerns of their constituents. With their fingers on the pulse of their opposing political party’s every move, politicians can constantly update their approach while religions refer to an “unchanging” and sketchy two-thousand year old book. While religions continue to feel the need to disparage Satan, politicians invent new sources of evil whenever they need to: immigration, China, gun control, abortion, rioters, whatever.

But, religion isn’t out of the game just yet. It still has a chance to make a comeback. The key to avoid being disrupted is understanding your customers and their needs and adjusting your business model as needed. In short, to not be disrupted you must become the disruptor.

First, religion needs to drop the supernatural stuff. Let go of virgin births, miracles, eternal damnation and an old man in the sky. It makes your offering too inaccessible to too many people. That stuff served its purpose when Religion’s main objective was to get people to collaborate by requiring that everyone prove their allegiance to the tribe by stating that they believed something preposterous (AKA faith).

Next, emphasize that which politics has totally given up on: charity, service, patience, virtue, honesty, integrity, and love. Religions already have a known track record with all of this. Politics is so heads-down on pumping fear and hate into their existing customers that they’ve left the huge under-served markets of compassion, empathy and understanding that are poised to have explosive growth.

The truth is, we need you religion. I need you. I don’t need some guy telling me he speaks for God while citing hermetic texts. I need a community of people coming together to practice kindness to each other fueled by the latest findings in psychology. I need something like those ancient philosophical schools of Greece and Rome, where teachers educated their students on how to live. What do I do about grief, guilt and disappointment? Nobody’s teaching it in schools. How do I cultivate humility, patience and understanding? It’s nowhere to be found on social media.

Religion, you might just be our last hope. Politics is going to ruin us. You got our species pretty far before. Now we need you to get us back on track using the ultimate unstoppable disruptive technology: love.

How To Overcome The Top Regrets Of Dying

During her time as a palliative carer, Bronnie Ware identified what she called the top regrets of dying, which are:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

In a Ted Talk describing these regrets she says, “Time is a gift. How we choose to use that gift will determine whether we are creating a life of regret or a life of joy, and the choice is ours.” She further states that all of these regrets stem from an individual’s “lack of courage.” For those who want to die regret free, her advice is individual accountability. If one dies with regret, that is one’s own fault.

I think this is the wrong approach.

While we should try to be as purposeful with our lives as we can be, it is not our choices that will save us from regret, but the stories we invent to describe those choices that will make the difference. What makes a decision noble or an experience fulfilling or an event memorable is up for interpretation. Individuals, and more importantly the cultures in which those individuals reside, are what’s responsible for those interpretations. An increase in people dying with regret should be looked at as a failure of creating meaning rather than a failure of individual achievement. 

The ability to decode choices and experiences and place them in the most fulfilling narrative as possible is a skill one must learn. Before learning this skill, we’re subjected to using the narrative we inherit from our culture, and our American culture does not provide realistically attainable values conducive to dying without regret, placing an even higher priority on the skill of meaning-making.

In American culture, success–one of the utmost prized American values–lies squarely on the individual’s shoulders. Meritocracy turns failure from a misfortune to an unquestioning verdict of one’s moral fiber. It’s “fair,” after all, that people get what they “deserve”. So, those who are unhappy must have been lazy or did something wrong; those who are happy must have worked hard and were good. Within this construct one may still be able to derive success on their own terms–individualism being a beneficial American value in this case–but it is an uphill battle against the inexorable drumbeat of America’s version of success which beats into the heads of its citizens that unlimited wealth and infinite physical beauty, both of which are decidedly impossible to acquire, are the foremost measures.  “Live without regrets,” is just one more unobtainable value piled on top of the already anxiety-inducing list.

Rather than encouraging people to “live without regret” based on criteria wholly outside of their control, we should encourage people to incorporate whatever experiences they have had into the most fulfilling narrative possible. This is not unlike the Philosophy of Stoicism’s observation that if you expect the universe to deliver what you want, you are going to be disappointed, but if you embrace whatever the universe gives, then life will be a whole lot more fulfilling.

Rather than allow our culture to decide if our life choices warrant regret by asking, What do I need to do to live without regret; instead ask the question Ernest Becker asked in The Denial of Death: “What is the best illusion under which to live? Or what is the most legitimate foolishness?…the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity and hope a given illusion provides.”

Bronnie Ware said that time was a gift. I agree, however, it’s our ability to create meaning that is the ultimate gift. It is that gift, not time, that will determine whether we are creating a life of regret or a life of joy, and that choice is truly ours.

What Do I Seek From Watching Reactions?

I saw: “I am a 38-year-old man who had never watched a minute of Star Wars — until I binged all of them on Disney+ over quarantine
I clicked.
I read.
It was as forgettable and unreveletory as I should have expected.

Afterwards I asked myself, Why did this click bait work on me? After the innumerous opinions of Star Wars I have read, watched and expressed myself, what benefit could one more review, written by someone who has never seen the movies, possibly hold?

What was (am) I seeking?

First, this article belongs in the “reaction” genre made popular on youtube. The typical reaction video includes watching someone watch something, that is hilarious or surprising, usually for the first time. This genre is not without its merits. Try not to smile while watching this reaction video of two teens listening to Jolene by Dolly Parton for the first time:

As for finding a reason for my interest in the opinion of someone binge-watching Star Wars for the first time: Is it because I’m longing for an experience to confront my creeping unease of not feeling “normal”? As a male/white/heterosexual, I’ve benefited from the perception that my version of “normal” matches what my culture sees as “normal.” At a time of increasing cultural difference, what is “normal” is under threat — and thank goodness it is. “Normal” is worthy of whatever resentment it gets. So perhaps my interest in having a Star Wars first-timer conclude what I have long concluded about Star Wars stood to offer a bit of comfort by reaffirming the universality of human nature. At least everybody likes Star Wars, right?

Or: In my mid-thirties, father of four children, sheltered deep within suburbia, I’ve made my bed, and must resign myself to lie in it — therefore, I’m yearning for feelings associated with “first times.” At this stage in my life I have done all the heroic work of acquiring and choosing and now am in the unsexy and relentless era of maintaining all those choices. Apparently, I’ve got another 10 years of this increasing life dissatisfaction until I’m 47.2 years old, at which point my discontent with life finally hits a tipping point and I’m able enjoy myself. Ten years feels pretty heavy, so if I can get a moment’s respite by vicariously recapturing what it was like to experience Star Wars for the first time I’ll take it, goddammit.

Or: Do I really like Star Wars or some warped perception of Star Wars that only exists in my head because of my years of being immersed in it? When I watched the latest train-wreck, The Rise of Skywalker, was I watching it or a story of it my brain generated? Between the stimulus of the movie reaching my brain and my response to it, how much of my reaction was unconsciously bent to meet my desires or expectations? Perhaps the review could reveal the latticework of preconceived notions and stories that I brought to my viewing. Of course the article wouldn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know about Star Wars–what it could do was serve as a reminder of the legion of biases that I see the world through. Recognizing yet another unknown bias could provide a dose of humility that could serve me in my attempts to come to terms with more pressing issues than the watchability of a billion dollar conglomerate’s intellectual property.

Or: I’m living amidst a global pandemic/economic depression/threatened democracy/warming planet and I just need some diversion.

Your Spacesuit | Excerpt From ExMormon’s Search For Meaning

The below is a chapter from ExMormon’s Search For Meaning, available to purchase on Amazon.

The day you’re born the lights get flipped on and the awareness begins. One of the reasons kids are wonderful to be around is because of how transparent they are as they attempt to mimic the adults. Kids don’t know what race, ethnicity or gender means but it doesn’t stop them from picking sides even when they don’t know what sides are. Tarzan thought he was an ape, Mowgli thought he was a wolf and most kids grow up to think they are people. Over time our kids catch onto the game and start to get good at developing their very own sense of self and the accompanying stories about who that self is—what it wants, what it likes and all the other opinions that go along with it. The problem kids eventually face as they get older, and that we all have to confront ourselves, is that we mistake that invented self as who we really are. A too-tight hold on that self is responsible for much of the stress, anxiety and suffering that we feel. 

Ram Dass, the American spiritual teacher, calls growing up “somebody training.” You go about repeating to yourself, “this is who I am,” “this is who I am,” “this is who I am,” while everybody else is also reinforcing their own structure of themselves. Then when two people meet they enter into a kind of conspiracy: “I’ll make believe you are who you think you are if you make believe I am who I think I am.”

Ram Dass continues with an analogy that this invented self is like being born with a spacesuit. Over time you get so good at doing things in your spacesuit that you eventually can’t differentiate between yourself and your suit. People are always coming up to give you compliments: That’s a beautiful suit you’ve got there. But you can’t help but feel, in your quieter moments, that those compliments are misguided. What you know but they don’t is that no matter how much you try to adjust the suit it never gets totally comfortable. But despite the suit not fitting, everybody keeps saying, beautiful suit, you must be happy.

After being told by others that your suit is beautiful, but not feeling it yourself, you may eventually talk to an “expert” who says they can help. What a relief. Someone can finally help me get this suit to fit right! But what the expert ends up doing is not teaching you how to wear your suit, but instead teaching you to wear their suit.  

Former Mormon President Thomas Monson said: “We are sons and daughters of a living God…We cannot sincerely hold this conviction without experiencing a profound new sense of strength and power.” (“Canaries with Gray on Their Wings,” Ensign, June 2010). Monson correctly recognizes the problem of becoming too closely identified with our looks, bank account size, righteousness or reputation. But his prescription for the problem comes up just short of being a real solution. He’s merely suggesting a different suit—the “offspring of a literal deity in heaven” suit. There are worse suits that you could wear, and for many people it fits well enough. But if you put on that suit it’s likely that the only long term change you’ll experience is the people who come up to you saying beautiful suit are the people who go to church with you. Discouragingly for many, this “child of God” suit starts to feel just as uncomfortable. The problem isn’t finding the right suit, it’s thinking that any suit will solve your problem. It’s only after taking off the suit that you can feel good, at peace and content. 

“We do not “come into” this world,” says Alan Watts, “we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.” This is in direct opposition to the admonition to be in the world, but not of the world. No, you are of the world and the feeling of being of the world feels great.

Monson uses a “profound new sense of strength and power” as the incentive to wear the “child of God suit” along with all the other dangling carrots of “thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths” (D&C 132:19) that one stands to inherit if obedient. Now consider what you stand to obtain right now from being of the world and one with the universe: you are all of space and time, including planets, nebulae, stars, supernovas and galaxies. You are currently estimated to be 93 billion light-years in diameter and 13 billion years old. Your expansion is accelerating and in all likelihood you will continue to expand forever. And on top of that you have the profound ability to observe yourself.

Now this is a conviction that we cannot sincerely hold without experiencing a profound new sense of strength and power.

The Idea Of Religion | Excerpt From ExMormon’s Search For Meaning

The below is a chapter from ExMormon’s Search For Meaning, available to purchase on Amazon.

If you asked my wife, she would say I am a Star Wars fan but she would also tell you it’s very confusing as to why I say I’m a Star Wars fan. You see, all I can do is complain about it: George Lucas constantly tinkering with the original movies, Mark Hamill’s whiny acting, storm-troopers that can’t shoot worth a damn, not to mention the embarrassing prequels and the letdown of the modern sequels. 

If you’ve ever hung out with someone who loves Star Wars, or if you are a Star Wars fan yourself, it’s likely you also have come across this seeming paradox: Star Wars fans love to hate Star Wars. In this sense, “Star Wars fans” are quite similar to “Mormon fans.” If you talk to Mormons who are honest with themselves, they’ll say they believe the church is true but there is plenty about it they hate, and not just the euphemisms (“oh my heck!”) and the clichés (“I’d like to bear my testimony…”). Mormons love to speculate every six months about what announcements might be made during General Conference in hopes that some point of doctrine will mercifully be changed. Does anyone really like fast and testimony meetings, Sunday school or the endless meetings during the week? The Church is often treated like the bad tasting medicine that you take, not because you want to, but because it’s supposedly good for you.   

Over several arguments about what exactly makes Star Wars so important to me, where I find it more and more difficult to argue my case, I have figured out why I keep showing up for each new movie. I hate a lot of things about Star Wars, but the idea of Star Wars…the idea I love. When I watched Star Wars as a child I remember having the sense that I was seeing just the tip of the iceberg. There was an entire universe going on behind the scenes full of fascinating creatures and curious worlds where anything could happen. By the same logic, it was the idea of Mormonism that I had such a hard time leaving rather than Mormonism itself. 

The idea of Mormonism is that God loves us, wants us to be happy and return to him after we die. So throughout time he has revealed his plan of happiness to us through prophets. Members of the church personify God’s plan by encouraging, helping and loving each other on the way to eternal life. What a nice idea! 

The downfall of the Star Wars prequels (among many) was that they over-explained: learning just how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side sounds like a compelling idea for a film. But it’s the mystery of how Darth Vader turned to the Dark Side, not to mention all those one-off characters and subtle references to other adventures that get the imagination revving that makes Star Wars so great.

The idea of Mormonism by itself also sounds great, but many can’t help but feel compelled to go deeper than the superficial narrative. What is unique to Mormonism, rather than other Christian religions, is that many questions about it can be answered. It’s a relatively new religion with ample records and testimonies of people who were there when it happened. I thought I was supposed to find the answers to my questions about the nature of God, the restoration of the Gospel and Joseph Smith to increase my faith. Once I realized there was information out there that I previously didn’t know existed that held the possibility of providing additional answers, I couldn’t not read it. 

In the end that’s what I did. And I found answers. And the answers made me disbelieve. Eric Hoffer’s quote from his book True Believer brought on a new level of understanding: “We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.”

Desire is fueled by the unknown. Mormonism is like the magician who has revealed the trick behind their “magic.” Once the gimmick is laid bare, the magic dispels and you lose interest. Maybe if Mormonism came out with some new revelations about the nature of God or new ways that God wants us to behave, it would respark some of that desire. In that regard, Star Wars will continue to pull me into the theater every once in a while as long as it keeps attempting to come up with something new. But as for church, it’s just the idea of a unified belief system that I miss—something that never really existed in the first place—instead of the religion itself.

Ancient Wisdom | Excerpt From ExMormon’s Search For Meaning

The below is a chapter from ExMormon’s Search For Meaning, available to purchase on Amazon.

As a believer I enjoyed seeing the church announce its membership statistics at each general conference. Every year the numbers went up, so, the church was true. One of my first points of interest after becoming a non-believer was to understand how to refute the claim that Christianity’s unlikely triumph is proof of divine favor. Searching for books on Amazon revealed one that was asking my exact question: The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart D. Ehrman.

While Ehrman’s answer was in itself interesting (Christianty simply out-competed paganism: it wasn’t closed to women, it embedded social welfare into its doctrines, it claimed ultimate truth that foreclosed devotion to all other deities and also included proselytizing in it’s doctrine so that while the growth looks incredible, in fact it’s simply the result of an exponential curve) that wasn’t what caught my eye.

My indoctrination had always included viewing people who were not religious as also not being very moral – how could they be? They don’t believe in God! I was dumbfounded when I learned that the Romans prior to Christianity had morals. God and acting morally were not one in the same? Pagans had no concept of a God that required worshipers to acknowledge the validity of certain truths or live a life that the Gods would deem acceptable. Pagan religions were all about cultic acts: a ritualized practice like animal sacrifice that was done out of reverence to the gods. Ehrman explains, “It is not that ancient people were less ethical than people today; it is that ethics had little to do with religion. Where ethics played a role was in philosophy. Philosophers talked a lot about how people should act toward one another; as members of a family, in relationships, with friends and neighbors, as citizens of a city. Good behavior was part of being a worthwhile human being and a responsible citizen. But it was generally not a part of religious activities.”

To learn morals one need not defer to supernatural deities. Instead, philosophy! Philosophies have two components: they tell us what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having. The result of a particular philosophy is found between your philosophy—how you interpret things, what you think is important—and the quality of your mental and physical health. 

I’d always thought philosophers were just people in universities with patches on their elbows who came up with obscure thought experiments. I’m not alone in this judgment. Donald Robertson in his book The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy relates that in ancient times the ideal philosopher was a veritable warrior of the mind, but in modern times, “the philosopher has become something more bookish, not a warrior, but a mere librarian of the mind.”  Philosophy has always been about transforming the life of the philosopher, in a manner that resembles modern psychotherapy or self-help. As far back as Socrates, philosophy has been compared to the art of medicine for the mind or soul, what we now call psychotherapy. Philosophy isn’t some esoteric thought exercise that you need a degree to understand, it speaks to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

I may have lost interest in the demands made by supernatural beings, but I haven’t lost an interest in self-improvement. I am very comfortable acknowledging that I am selfish, prone to overindulge, quick to judge, fixated on possessions and status, and hesitant to help other people. Given my faults, repetition of simple, even childlike lessons that I used to get at church on how to conduct myself are not only warranted but welcome. I don’t consider myself above the lessons and reminders that religion pushed, I’m just over the need to be threatened with hell or bribed by the Celestial Kingdom to comport myself in a way that is best for me. My forgetful self needs a constant diet of lessons on how to live well, no matter how many times I’ve heard them before. Philosophy provides the means to that end, no superstitions required. 

I decided to become a philosopher in the ancient sense of the word. I would develop a path to morals, and potentially meaning, that didn’t rely on God, that was practical and based on my own empirical evidence. Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Seneca, Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius would be my new teachers.

Explaining Gatekeeping

Ernest Becker’s Denial Of Death provides the best explanation for the phenomenon of “gatekeeping” that I know of. Gatekeeping, as defined by Reddit, “is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”

A good example of gatekeeping can be found on Reddit in the many iterations of defining a “real man”:

To start, it’s crucial to first accept that we humans are animals who, over the course of millennia and as a means for self-preservation, have evolved the ability to know that we exist. This ability has treated our species well, evidenced by our ability to subjugate all other species. But it is also the universal human problem. It’s a problem because knowing that we exist also means knowing we will someday cease to exist. The realizations that death can occur at any time for reasons that we could never anticipate or control along with the point of view that we’re insignificant and no more enduring than an insect or a tree would understandably render our ancestors totally demoralized and paralyzed with overwhelming dread. But we managed to mitigate that overwhelming dread by constructing culture. Culture is the humanly constructed beliefs about reality that we share with people in groups to minimize anxiety by giving us a sense that we are persons of value living in a world of meaning.

Culture gives meaning by providing us with an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions of appropriate conduct and some hope of immortality either literally in the form of heavens, after-lives and reincarnations or symbolically through having children, amassing great wealth or producing art or scientific discoveries. While we may not be here forever we are comforted by the possibility that a tangible manifestation of our existence will persist over time nonetheless. As Becker explains,

“This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of status and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

If a fully accepted culture provides something as important as the ability to ignore our insignificance and avoid being paralyzed with overwhelming dread, then it stands to reason that we would avoid situations or information that could cast doubt on it at all costs. But in the 21st century we are unavoidably bombarded by alternate world-views on a daily basis. As a result, we are inclined to constantly define and defend our cultural worldview that provides us meaning, A.K.A. gatekeeping.

Being exposed to information that does not fit with our beliefs about the nature of reality or meeting other people that do not subscribe to the same symbolic vehicle we use to maintain our self-esteem are fundamentally threatening because when we admit to the legitimacy of another’s alternative conception of reality we necessarily undermine the confidence with which we subscribe to our own views. When we do that we expose ourselves to the very anxiety that those beliefs were erected to mitigate in the first place.

Someone who has embraced a “manly” cultural worldview gleans their self-esteem from meeting or exceeding the standards associated with “manliness”–owning a tightly scripted wardrobe, using a charcoal grill, driving a stick-shift, owning a gun–which helps them keep mortal terror at bay. The first line of psychological defense employed when these “manly” worldview holders run into others who are different is to denigrate or disparage them by continually pointing out the cultural rules that they play by so as to firmly plant themselves as winners of their invented game.

While it is exhausting to be a gatekeeper, the alternative of becoming aware of the lie gatekeepers are living is worse. As Becker says,

“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.”

Painful, but also necessary. If one isn’t aware of the cultural rules that they are in servitude of as an attempt to earn the ability to ignore their insignificance then it results in making them ripe for manipulation. Take the below advertisement:

This company knows that if their ad works they stand to make a lot of money, not by successfully providing a solution to a real need, which is much harder in the 21st century, but by placing themselves within the cultural conception of what is considered “manly”. If they can convince those who derive their self-esteem through the management of what is and isn’t “manly,” then their product will succeed by being a solution to a cultural perception without having to actually solve anything at all.

This realization shouldn’t be taken as something to shove in the face of all gatekeepers, but should cause us to shudder at the thought of what inventions we believe in that make us susceptible to manipulation. What gatekeeping do we participate in to keep the terror of reality at bay? Gatekeeping is like propaganda: the only propaganda you can identify is the propaganda that isn’t working, when it’s working you don’t call it propaganda; you call it the truth. Ask yourself what Becker calls the most liberating question of all:

“How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?”

What Does It Mean To Be Present?

There is a natural tendency to see your life as an ongoing narrative. You are the protagonist in your life story. Other people are extras and supporting characters as you fulfill your heroic role in discovering and then achieving your life’s purpose.

The more you accept this idea of your life as a narrative–that life is an unbroken line constantly moving either up or down through time–the more you feel invested in controlling that line’s trajectory. Taken to the extreme, random disappointments can be interpreted as evil forces conspiring against you, chance opportunities are high-stake auditions for the future, simple mistakes are failed trials. How exhausting!

If you were able to zoom in close enough to that “narrative line of life”, like zooming in on a printed piece of paper, you would realize that the line isn’t solid at all; it’s made of tiny dots. Those tiny dots are like life–not a narrative at all; but millions of events unfolding one after the other.

After a trying day made up of frustrations, disappointments and mistakes it feels good to say, “Tomorrow is another day.” The idea being that in the morning you get to push the reset button and let the obnoxious memory of the previous day go and start fresh. But what makes a time-span of twenty-four hours so special? Why does it take twenty-four hours to let things go so a fresh start can begin? If we have a rough morning why can’t we cut that twenty-four hours in half and say, “This afternoon is another day?” And if twelve hours seems just as arbitrary as twenty-four hours, then what is the necessary span of time needed to hit the restart button? There isn’t one. If we had the ability, every single moment “is another day.” Letting the negative emotions of one moment bleed into the next is not inevitable or impossible to avoid. It is a failure of our ability to be present.

It’s not the present moment’s fault you’re anxious. You brought that anxious mood with you. Often the first step of letting a bad mood go is acknowledging your complicity in bringing that mood with you to the present, and if you’re capable of bringing it with you, you’re capable of letting it go.

To be more present try to zoom in on that line that you call your life narrative, see all the little dots that it’s comprised of and then choose to live in the microsecond of time that is right now without letting the uncomfortable previous dot or the lust for the future dot get in the way. Much relief can be found by breaking the novel of your life into novellas. Break the novellas into short stories. Break the short stories into scenes. Break the scenes into beats until you zoom in close enough to get to the peaceful moment by moment experience of the present.

Why Does Pessimism Feel Good?

Jenny Odell, in her book How To Do Nothing, tells the story of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer, philosopher and inventor of “do-nothing” farming. Fukuoka’s method of farming consisted of imitating nature: scattering seeds on the ground in the fall and then paying extremely close attention and doing everything at the right time. As it turns out, his methods produced more productive and sustainable crops than neighboring farms. Fukuoka sums up his insight that nature needs no interference by saying:

‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’

I laughed out loud when I read such a blunt and pessimistic statement. It also made me feel good.

I’ve alway been a fan of angry and depressing music. I like movies where the ending isn’t all buttoned-up and happy. Seemingly paradoxical sayings like, “Cheer up, there’s no hope,” are those that I feel do the most good to remind myself of. Whatever the form it comes in, why does pessimism feel good?
Some answers to that question may be that:

  1. Hearing other people be pessimistic reminds you you’re not alone in your sadness. Suffering is compounded with the belief that everyone else is doing fine. Pessimism reveals that this concern is gloriously unfounded. Your sadness isn’t a departure from the norm, but actually the basic default mode of human beings.
  2. Pessimism makes us feel small in a way which alleviates us from that agonizing sense of self-importance and egoism which is otherwise clinging to us. An unruly ego turns the smallest inconveniences into assaults on one’s pride that must be thwarted at all costs. How exhausting!
  3. A culture of optimism says, Anything is possible! Here are ten steps to success! Anyone can win if they try hard enough! When we believe that we are in 100% control of our destinies then what we swiftly develop are problems of self-esteem. If everybody expects to achieve everything, then an awful lot of people end up feeling that something’s gone dramatically wrong with their lives when their dreams don’t materialize. Rather than encouraging blame, pessimism can relieve it.

Maybe there are some deeper reasons for pessimism.
I like Jordan Peterson’s idea of revering the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true. The story of Adam and Eve is one such helpful story in understanding the tradeoffs we get with gaining self-consciousness. We, like Adam and Eve, are cursed and blessed by eating the forbidden fruit, i.e., consuming information. By learning about the real nature of life we became as the Gods, discovering the most pessimistic idea — that we will die — but also gaining wisdom on how to live.

After obtaining self-consciousness, the threat of pessimism is that it is a slippery-slope; that if we let ourselves be pessimistic we’ll end up thinking that life is meaningless suffering, utterly futile, to which the only rational response is nihilism. So to combat this impulse, we pursue the fabled state of removing suffering altogether — the objective of our culture’s obsession with optimism — that would have us believe that removing suffering is possible with enough effort, possessions, money or adherence to supernatural superstitions.

But there is a third way. Not avoidance, not denial; but transcending suffering. Pessimism need not be a slippery slope. What looks like pessimism can also be a mature state of accepting that life is suffering, we’re all doomed, and yet, recognize that there are some things in life still worth fighting for. Our job as mature adults is not to let the information of good and evil, that everything that lives must die, make us bitter and resentful or cover it up with vain pursuits. To ‘get back to the garden,’ in other words, is to become a fully conscious human adult. Pessimism feels good because it reminds us of that fundamental job. It reminds us that all of our efforts to distract ourselves enough to avoid suffering are futile so we can go back to the hard work of acceptance of what is. For the adult, pessimism doesn’t make you think that life is meaningless, it simply acts as a reminder to readjust your priorities. Most of the things that make us upset, consume our minds, cause stress and drain us of energy are inconsequential trivialities.

Give up, or don’t, we die either way!