Archive for the ‘Self-Examination’ Category

First, some definitions for the context of this post:

  • An Active Personality is one who has a clear idea of how they want the world to be and does not easily tolerate deviations from this ideal. When deviations occur, the active personality aggressively acts to remedy the situation.
  • A Passive Personality is one who is flexible in their concept of how the world should be. They adapt rapidly to changing circumstance and are not stressed when things do not go according to plan.

These two personalities sit at opposite ends of a spectrum, the primary measure of which is stress. Now, so far as I can tell, stress exists to prompt us to change our lives. Like the pain that tells you, please, to move your hand off that hot iron, stress tells you that something in your life is out of whack and needs to be corrected.

The two personalities I defined are extremes when it comes to stress. The active personality feels stress acutely. Everything is a big deal, and as such they are aggressive about changing things. The passive personality has a far below normal level of stress. Bad situations don’t stress them enough to prompt action.

Which is better off? Thats a tough question, and one that I wonder about a lot. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. The active personality is burdened by too much stress; quite possibly nothing will ever be good enough. However, they will, probably, effect substantial and largely positive change on their life. The passive personality is free of the burden of all that stress, but they are also lacking motivation to improve their life.

Probably, as if often the case, the best option falls somewhere in the middle. Allowing the imperfections of life to affect you two deeply is a path to depression and frustration. Some things, frankly, are not worth worrying about. But some things are worth getting upset over, so long as you channel that anger towards improving the situation. The key is to recognize what situations merit getting stressed and which can be allowed to slip under the radar.

Of course, everyone’s priority will be different. I can’t tell you where to draw the line. However, you can take a closer look at where you fall on the spectrum and decide whether or not it’s working for you.


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I’m at a point where I’m about ready to surrender to the circumstances that be and leave my growing menagerie of houseplants to their fate (which is to say, to an aggressive white mold, swarming fungus gnats, and possibly some type of mite). If it were up to me, I might just scrap it, toss everything and maybe eventually think about getting something new. Of course, it really isn’t up to me, because they aren’t solely my plants, and people who care about me have been generous to support my habit to its current point. Which leaves me with the option of dealing with it.

I first decided I wanted a plant in my dorm room (or I think this is why I wanted the first one) because I had enjoyed growing things in an outdoor garden, I had heard that certain types of plants could purify the air, and I liked the idea of adding some life to my dorm room (beside my roommate).

While I was at school, I’d say this remained the general idea, and it was relatively healthy. When I came home for the summer, though, the space available to me exploded, and my mom provided just enough tentative encouragement to push me to doing it more.

Buying plants, though, has become a replacement for buying stuff, which is not such a healthy habit. I’ve been doing my best to ignore the occasional bouts of gadget envy in the hope of saving money. However, because I had a plausible excuse – plants are beneficial, after all, right? – I was okay with buying more plants. If there’s any doubt that I’ve switched into a consuming mode, I needed only stop and actually listen to my thoughts. “If I could just have this plant and this one, I’ll be happy with my little collection.” And after I bought those plants, “If I could just get that new plant, then I will be happy.”

I recognize this line of thinking; it’s the reason I have an iPod I don’t use.

Now, the problem has been compounded (since otherwise, I could simply reign in my new habit and do my best to enjoy the plants I have) by the health problems of the plants themselves. The mold is, I’m fairly sure, not healthy for us to be around any more then it can be healthy for the plants. But there it is, on the surface of all the soil and now even on the terracotta pots after every watering.

So, fungicides are used, and I try to get the plants on some sort of watering schedule that lets them dry out more between waterings.

The fungus gnats, wherever they came from, buzz around our house, never in a swarm, but gnats will be gnats, and they are annoying as hell. Not to mention the list of potential damage they (or their larva) can do to the plants themselves (including, but not limited to, eating new roots or delaying the creation of roots in young plants).

Pesticide naturally follows, in increasing doses that correlate to just how frustrated I am feeling (and how many gnats I saw) the day I apply it.

Which leaves me, where, exactly? With a number of moldy, bug infested, and now also highly toxic plants (did I mention one of our oldest plants is a trusty basil plant, now soundly rendered inedible) and still the nagging feeling that a Fisiulera would make it all better.

You can see why I am frustrated.

However, as I said, surrender is no option. So what is? Well, for the time being, more fungicide and pesticide, plus any and all other semi-mythical cures we can concoct. Also, accepting the abandonment of any side projects (like our silent avocado pits), and the salvage of any of those project’s materials as possible (meaning, if the pots, but probably not the soil, can be considered anything but hazardous waste), all on the premise that less dirt should mean less problems.

I think the plants can probably pull through. I hope they can, because I am starting to get back to my original mindset, plants as pets, and (when I’m done feeling bad for myself) I feel awful for what I’ve let happen to them. Make no mistake, there is a decent chance still that we’ll lose more plants. I’ll have to hope thats not the case and look forward to the day (say in about three or four months) when the various toxic chemicals have been sufficiently flushed from the soil that I can once again play in the dirt, which was the whole point in the first place.

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There’s been a lot of talk about water boarding, and I haven’t really brought it up. I’m not certain how pertinent an issue it still is. That said, for anyone on the fence about the “Is it torture or not?” issue, I recommend the following experiment. It’s really easy to do and I think rather effective, despite actually being a rather poor analogy for the actual interrogation technique.

The next time you take a shower, bring a washcloth with you. Make sure it’s really good and wet. Then lean your head back a little, as if you were looking up at the stars. Inhale. Lay the washcloth over your face, and exhale slowly. Feel the warm cloth billow out a little, filled with your breath. It probably feel pretty nice.

Exhale all the way, and then inhale deeply.

Then, draw your own conclusion: is it torture? Please comment.

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Hello again! It’s been a bit longer then the two weeks, which I suppose is your answer (if you’ve been sitting at the edge of your seat) about Step Lightly’s future. It’s not that i don’t like happiness or the pursuit thereof, but that I really just can’t keep up with new things to say about it. At least not without delving into minutia that I don’t feel is helpful to anyone but me.

I’m not sure what comes next, exactly. I’ve been feeling more and more a need to talk about things. (A lot of it pretty silly or pointless, but some more general, informative, or important.) I’m not sure if this is the right venue (this blog specifically and blogging in general), but I have some things I need to say somewhere.

So keep your eyes peeled. I might throw up more content here. And if not here, then I will let you know where.


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I started this blog about six weeks ago with the intent of making a go at being a professional blogger. That is to say, I wanted to pick a single topic to write about, to delivery quality material reliably, and to eventually attract enough readers to make money from this project.

As time has gone on, I’ve found the writing increasingly difficult. More and more, I’ve been drifting from general to the specific, noodling over little personal interests instead of broader topics that can apply to my audience. The gulf between the subjects I’ve been covering and the subject of “happiness in the 21st century” has gotten larger and larger. The things I find myself wanting to write about are not the things I said I was going to write about.

I’m rambling, a little.

The next two weeks are big for me, finishing off the semester’s projects and taking finals. So I’m taking a hiatus. In two weeks I’ll come back and let you know if I’m going to continue Step Lightly.

Thanks for understanding.

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Yesterday, I spoke about the importance of getting started when you want change. However, another common problem is establishing new habits. I’ve always been told it takes three weeks to transition from an old habit to a new one. Once established, it’s easy to keep going, but first you have to make it through three weeks, during which your natural behaviors will still be wrong. If you’re going to succeed, odds are you need something to keep you in line.

Of course, there is positive reinforcement. It’s probably worth it’s own post eventually. I’m suspicious of it, though. Too often, I’ve tried to use positive reinforcement and ended up failing at my goal, but still finding an excuse to reward myself. No, for stubborn people me, it has to be negative reinforcement.

There are a few things to keep in mind about negative reinforcement for it to be effective.

  • Immediacy. If you’ve ever tried to train an animal (and behavior modification of yourself is no different) you know that delivering a punishment late is worse then not doing it at all. You need a way to punish yourself (a metaphorical rolled up news paper) that is quick and easy.
  • Pain. No two ways about this, it needs to hurt. The entire point of negative reinforcement is to alter your life’s reward system; continue your bad behavior (which probably feels good) and get a dose of pain, or make change (which also probably feels good) and avoid the punishment. I prefer actual physical pain (a rubber band snap to the wrist, in fact, which hurts a lot after a while), but it could be psychological pain as well. Think curse jar (bad language).
  • Novelty. If you have plans to change a behavior, then you probably already feel bad about it. Maybe you already punish yourself in little ways. Whatever method of negative reinforcement you choose though, it needs to be new and unusual, or else it will just blend in. If you want yourself to behave differently, you need to drastically alter the rules you play by. Your punishment should be something new, and should be used only for this behavior.
  • Consistency. A system like this doesn’t work if it isn’t applied all the time. Shock a rat if he touches a wall, and he will learn to not touch the wall. Shock him only occasionally, or with a different wall each time, and he will go insane. You probably wont go insane, but you certainly wont make much progress either.
  • Exposure. This is largely optional, but I think it can help if your method for punishing yourself is a little public. Not only will a desire not to explain (why you’re thwacking yourself with a rubber band) make you more diligent, but it’s likely to get people asking about (and then helping police you on) your goal.
  • Goal. The most important thing is not to lose sight of your goal. While you are punishing yourself for backsliding, your reward is progress. Don’t let yourself get accustomed to the punishment. Not only should you use the pain of punishment as a deterrent, but use it as a way to track your progress.

Keeping these things in mind, it’s pretty easy to create a system that will help you learn your new habit. Whether it’s a curse jar, a rubber band around the wrist, or some other way to punish yourself, negative reinforcement can be a valuable tool for creating real change in your life.

(As an aside, psychologists make a distinction between “negative reinforcement” and “punishment”. The latter is administered in response to a bad behavior to cause discomfort; the former is a negative condition created before a behavior occurs to encourage avoiding that behavior. Technically, the methods I mentioned are punishments. The rat’s electrocuted wall, however, is negative reinforcement [it’s a continuing condition which encourages the rat to learn a new behavior, ie. not touching the wall]. Consider true negative reinforcement an option as well. Want to make yourself watch less TV? Odds are you can’t electrify your couch, but you could force yourself to ride an exercise bike while you watch TV. That way, you win either way.)

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On March 24th, I started a project to attempt to be completely honest and to avoid gossiping. The gossiping aspect has been slow going. It’s insidious, and it’s hard to even realize that I’m doing it. The honesty aspect, though, has been a lot more interesting for me.

It turns out, it’s typically fairly easy not to lie. Really important, difficult subjects just don’t come up very often, exactly because they are difficult. When most people ask you about is how your day is going, or if you’ve signed up for classes, there isn’t much incentive to lie.

One situation that hasn’t come up for me, but which I’ve worried about, is what to do if I get in trouble. Quite often, a small lie can cover a small mistake and save you a lot of trouble. However, in such a situation, I would have to be honest, and take the consequences that come with it. The closest I have come to that has been in photo, where I have had to answer for my artistic decisions (and, in one case, inability to complete a project) honestly. It turns out, at least so far and with this professor, that honesty is productive. Nothing bad has come of it, but I’ve learned a few things and made better work.

Another situation, though, that continues to bother me is the relationship between silence and lying. I decided at the beginning of the project that omission was only lying if it was meant to deceive. The alternative, put forward by Radical Honesty, is that you should always speak your mind, even if your opinion isn’t asked for. I still feel like they are a bit too extreme, but that perhaps my definition is too loose. So many big subjects go undiscussed, it really is easy to skate by for the whole project (perhaps most of your life) without having to be honest when it is hard, so long as you keep your mouth shut. A.J. Jacobs noticed it too, in his book The Year of Living Biblically, which inspired this project. He spoke to an Amish man who was, apparently, good, honest, compassionate, but also very quiet. Jacobs wondered if speaking less was simply the best way to avoid speaking poorly.

What to do about this?

I’m not sure. My gut is telling me there’s an element of social subterfuge going on here, that there is something to be said for “being honest with yourself.” Even if I’m silent, maybe I can still lie. And maybe I need to grow a pair and speak up.

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